Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
August 31, 2006
El Corazon, Seattle
September 1, 2006
Words & Pictures: RON SANCHEZ
A lot has happened since 2002. when Karen and I flew to Australia from Montana and followed Radio Birdman around on their first tour with Jim Dickson in the band. Over the course of those two weeks, the band seemed to go from strength to strength. The final two shows were a stark contrast of total control and then complete abandon. I also got to witness the first tentative steps towards what eventually coalesced into the magnificent "Zeno Beach" album. In the ensuing four years, the band has seen the departure of drummer Ron Keeley and the brief partnership with Nik Rieth. I don't think anyone involved would say they were surprised with those comings and goings.
Of course, I've followed the process that have led to the new album and tour closely. Two years ago, the band went into the studio for a few days to put down all the song ideas everyone brought in for consideration. At the time I can't say I was knocked out. Some of the ideas were incomplete, and the playing was tentative. In the end, Ron Keeley found it easiest to hand in his notice. Deniz played me some further demos he'd recorded at home. This were decidedly more promising, even in this most basic form. With Nik in the band, a few of the new songs were added to the set list.
Somewhere in there, Deniz announced that he and Rob had put their heads together, and banged out eight more new songs. He seemed to think they were finally on track. Rusty Hopkinson was now in the drum seat and all seemed to point to the realization of many years of work towards an album of all new material. I'd heard that Deniz had said "no" to any
further overseas touring until they had a new album to promote. This seemed to be taken to heart by Rob, who back in 2002 had assured me there would never be a new record. "We're just a revival band" are just about the exact words he'd used.
Fast forward to Spring 2006, when a very exhausted and excited Dr Tek arrived on our doorstep in Bozeman, Montana. Even before he could set his bags down, he asked if I wanted to hear the new record! I sat down and fired up the stereo. The first impression was one of total disbelief. Actually it was nearly impossible to digest on the first listen. It was a total sonic assault. Even the second listen was sort of abstract. Checking his e-mail, Deniz had learned that Rob want to remix We've Come So Far, and had revamped the running order. (There was an interesting moment when Deniz next visited, and had the remix Rob had done. It took some convincing him that it was fine and the changes hadn't ruined the song.) We retired to the studio to burn a new cd with this track list and listened again. This time, the whole thing started to come into focus. In fact this is the CD I still listen to. It's appended with the missing track 14, "Rock Bottom". It easily would have fit on the album, had it not been blackballed when the band was polled for song choices. In the end, the original playlist was restored.
Anyway, once Deniz had gone back to Billings, I was able to sit down with the album and let it sink in. Needless to say it is a winner. Some sort of logical step beyond their two original albums. It also clearly shows, as good as everyone in the band is, Radio Birdman is greater than the sum of its parts. That's not to say any of the various records before this were slack, this one just captures everyone at their best, and most focused. If it sounds like the New Christs, it's only because of the modern recording techniques. Deniz and Rob together make for a potent blend. Just look at the criminally overlooked Deep Reduction "2" to see where the sound originates from. The more democratic song writing credits are only a reflection of the high quality of material everyone brought to the table. Rob told me a few great songs ultimately got passed over when they had to narrow the field.
In the spring, it was pretty sure there would be a US leg on the world tour to support the album. At that point the title hadn't be decided. When asked my suggestion was "Are You Nervous, Baby". With the end of August- early September blocked out for the cross country jaunt, we began making plan. Deniz almost had us talked into Detroit and
Cleveland, but I figured San Francisco and Seattle would give us a chance to see friends, and we'd have places to stay. When I took on a new job in July, I asked for the time off the second day in the office. I guess they wanted me to come to work for them, because they said yes without a pause.
We made sure to see Deniz off a couple of nights before he left to head back to Australia. He seemed very excited and nervous too. So when we the band finally arrived at the Great American Music Hall, it was no surprise Deniz was still anxious. A delayed flight from LA threatened to blow out a sound check. The previous nights amp problems also seemed to have followed them Seeing the look in Den's eye and advised my friend, writer Jud Cost, that this wasn't a good time for introductions and chat. I did introduce Jud to Rob, who followed Jim up to the balcony,where we had been passing the time. Jud, being the professional, quickly had Rob in the chair, and seemed to have no trouble getting a tired and hungry to put down a few words. Meanwhile Karen and I greeted the rest of the guys. Rusty looked up from the case he was wheeling in and said "hi Ron". When asked, manager John Needham just said "stressed", which we took as a cue to head back to the hotel, and then find some pre-gig dinner.
The opening bands didn't have much to offer. The first was fourth-string Detroit Rock wannabes. The next band up was obviously a heavy metal hair band that had tried to hide their roots with a new set of clothes. They must have been locals, 'cause they managed to get some of the gathering crowd worked up to a low-grade fever pitch.
By the time Radio Birdman was on stage, the GAMH had filled right up. There was no question which band people were there to see. Then, BAM! - "Burn My Eye" turned the crowd into a huge seething mass of aging moshers.
Yikes. The first four favorites were relentless. The audience knew every word, accent and solo for every one of them. On stage, things weren't with out minor tech dramas. Chris's amp went out in the middle of "Do The Pop". No one gave it a thought and the band soldiered on. They couldn't help feed off the tremendous energy of the crowd. They said as much
early on. The first of the new songs seemed to baffle the punters. "Die Like April" seemed to show up awfully early in the set, and none one was ready to slow down, let alone for a song they didn't know. "where do we punch our fists in the air?" "Just Make It Worse" didn't seem to register either, though they were both played flawlessly. I just figured no one
else had four months to live with the record.
They continued to mix new ones with the old favorites to good effect. "Maelstrom" and "Hand Of Law" bring the excitement level back up. "Hungry Cannibals", by default of its irresistible beat keeps the tattooed masses interested, and "Locked Up" actually gets people moving. When they launch into "Aloha Steve 'n' Danno" the whole building erupts and the frantic tribal actions gets even wilder. Deniz has the roadie tending to multiple amp failures most of the night. He does his best to not let it rattle his concentration, but I can see he's deep in ER mode and refuses to let the patient succumb. He just makes it all work by sheer willpower.
There is no doubt that there will be an encore, and the noise level is deafening when the band leaves the stage. I don't know if "Zeno Beach" is the best one to come back on with. It draws a complete blank. Funny, it seems such an obvious "Birdman-like" tune with a great summer sound. I guess I'm the only Beach Boy fan in the audience. "Search And Destroy" causes another explosion of punk rock frenzy. No surprise there.
The crowd hasn't budged and demand another encore, which they get. There are heartfelt thanks from the band, who are honestly moved by the response. After the jet lagged and technically plagued opening night in Los Angeles, they band is back to full speed and then some. The one-two punch of "More Fun" and "New Race" are played with even more fire,. It's seemingly impossible that the band could find another reserve of energy.
After the show, I spot John Needham, who is grinning from ear to ear. He gathers up a few of us and invites us back to help drink the rider. Roy Loney is beside himself. He just cannot believe what he's just seen. Only two months before he'd been locked in the studio with Deniz and myself, but this is a whole separate gorilla. Roy is greeted with the
proper respect a hometown hero deserves. Rob and Jim are both knocked out to meet Roy. Later I spot Rusty bending Roy's ear, and done some leg work for our deal with Australian distributors Reverberation. Deniz flat out states that this is the best night of the tour so far, no question. It's not too late when we head back to the hotel. We've got to get up and fly on to Seattle.
We will be staying in West Seattle with Jeff Arntsen and Michelle. It's been nearly a year since we'd seen Jeff and are looking forward to catching up. Our friend Mary Ellen is driving up from Portland to join the fun. Deniz has asked for a list of names to put on the door in Seattle, "because we don't know many people there". As it turns out a load of folks are out on tour, and miss the gig. It's ironic that after all these years, Jim Sangster and the Young Fresh Fellows are in Spain
the same weekend.
There are three opening bands on the bill tonight, so no one is really in any big hurry to head across town. When we do arrive at El Corazone, Jim Dickson is holding court in the street in front of the club. When we finally head in, the Cops are still playing, so we linger in the bar. Joey Kline is there as are a load of other friends.
This is a much smaller venue than SF, and the crowd seems a bit more rock and roll than hip. They are all there to see Birdman. We decide to brave the pit, down on Den's side of the stage. Good idea, and from the first note, the sound is spectacular. I love these low ceiling clubs. Much like the old Fillmore West, which I still think was the best sounding gig I've ever been to. El Corazone is long and narrow, with the stage on one of the long walls. There is a dance floor and a raised area behind that. Take your pick.
The crowd isn't any less enthusiastic, and maybe a little more clued in to the new songs. Jeff's been hearing them on KEXP all week. Maybe they are just more willing to accept the new songs. Unlike SF, there is no mad mosh pit, at least at the start, just a few happy pogoers. "Breaks My Heart" and "If You Say Please" are the first two songs in the set we didn't hear the night before. Three of the new songs don't appear in tonight set, which runs two songs shorter, overall.
I'm overwhelmed with the in your face sound tonight. Deniz' guitar is really powerful, maybe at the expense of Chris. Every time Den takes a ride, the punters explode and slap each other on the back. The sound in SF was great, but the bigger hall blended the sound into a a dense and powerful roar. Tonight it's a bit more clubby. I think the band plays
just as well as the night before, maybe even better because there aren't amp snafu's to distract. But the full house is still half of what they saw the night before, and there isn't quite the same vibe.
The set list tonight wisely places "Heyday" dead in the middle. It's the only time they lay back a bit. In a clever move it is played after "Maelstrom" which allows for a break in the action after that stormer. Noticeable absent from the lists are "Hanging On", "Crying Sun", "Love Kills" and "Man With Golden Helmet"; all the mid tempo tunes. The set is
perfectly paced. The crowd's excitement increases as the band barrel through one great performance after another. Eventually critical mass is reached and the dancers break into full-blown mosh. There is one hapless drunk who I'm sure is going to get hurt, but the polite kids even help him find his glasses when he gets knocked down. Civilization.
From mid point on, it is again pedal to the metal. "Hungry Cannibals" looks to be a popular number. The intro is tighter tonight, and then the slam into the tune proper. That beat is a killer. You'd have to be dead to not move your feet. "Locked Up" is another sure fire live favorite. Of course "Steve 'n' Danno" sends the audience into another frenzy. While not as demonstrative as SF, they get the band back for an encore. I think the club is on a tight schedule. The sound man has announced last call in the middle of the band's set, which almost gets a laugh from Deniz, who suggests everyone get up and head to the bar! Anyway, they are back on stage with little hesitation and crash through a perfect three song
blast of "More Fun", "Search and Destroy" and the inevitable "New Race".
It's over all too soon. We hang out and talk to Kev Lee (Bum, Longshots) and Scream (Zumpano) who have come down from Canada. Being huge Birdman fans, I'm curious to know what they think. The jaws on the floor are the
reply. They are speechless, and rightfully so. Security clears everyone else out as soon as the music stops. Our passes ensure we don't get hassled while waiting to be invited upstairs to the worst band room I've seen at a big club. Everyone is relaxed and relieved that the show has passed without incident. John Needham had asked why were weren't at the
sound check, which he assures "was a lot of fun". As it turns out, Deniz had blown up his own Marshall, so I'm sure not all the sparks flying were from the back of his amp.
Everyone seems relaxed and introductions are made. Jim and Jeff light up when they realize that they have split the bass duties on Angie Pepper's album. There is a moment of bassman bonding. Rusty walks past and mutters something about "Donovan's Brain" and "incredible album". Jeff once again is beaming. Rob and Karen manage to have a few moments of
conversation. Rob is much more open then when we saw him in Australia. He tells me he's heard all about Jim's Bozeman adventures and the late night in the record library. He assures me he's planning to come around
and see what records he can find at the local thrift stores. Chris' parents have come down from Canada for the show. The seem like very nice people and want to know who we are.
Before too long, Deniz announces "take everything, leave nothing behind" as all the remaining bottles are stuffed into bags and the band make their way down the steep dark stairwell. We find Pip sitting patiently in the van and thank him once again for the great time. He is taken back and says "your are so nice to thank me, but it's a team effort, you and
us". I head back to W. Seattle stone sober, knowing there are several bottles of good red wait to be drunk. My feeling at this point is that these two shows are light years beyond what the band did just four years ago. And that is not to say those gigs weren't incredible. It's like a new band. Rusty is the drummer this band needed and the new album has
given them a very good reason to circumvent the globe to spread the news.
Miss at your own peril.
Burn My Eye 78
Do The Pop
Murder City Nights
Die Like April
You Just Make It Worse
Smith And Wesson Blues
We've Come So Far (To Be Here Today)
Descent Into The Maelstrom
Hand Of Law
Alone In The Endzone
Anglo Girl Desire
Aloha Steve And Danno
Search And Destroy
Burn My Eyes
Do The Pop
Breaks My Heart
If You Say Please
You Just Make It Worse
Smith and Wesson Blues
We've Come So Far (To Be Here Today)
Descent Into The Maelstrom
Hand Of Law
Alone In The Endzone
Anglo Girl Desire
Aloha Steve and Danno
Search & Destroy
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