Say it with Sound: Albert Hammond Jr. kicks off the Year of Living Vaingerously with a rollicking SF show
It begins with the guitar theme in the song that informed the better part of my youth. I feel a bit uncomfortable waxing nostalgic about the Strokes, given the musical limbo they find themselves in currently, because it feels like I’m just lodging the latest exhortation in the Seas of Social Media for them to please please please get back together and tour and like just please do everything a big band does these days so we can go and take pictures and go YAAAAASSSS. Half of every new article about Julian Casablancas’s work with the Voidz is spent on the Strokes. Which, like, enough, y’know.
Enough of me being curmudgeonly. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that anymore. I just don’t want to jinx the creation of any further music from one of my all-time favorite groups, and I don’t want to come across as the not-quite-a-caricature fanboy I just lampooned in large part because I’d actually assume it so easily. Because Hard to Explain sent me spinning toward the TV in a tizzy like Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine, imploring anyone who’d listen that what he was watching on TV, that glam-rock god, That’s ME!!
ME was Albert Hammond Jr.’s guitar theme in Hard to Explain, mixed with Julian Casablancas’s breathless lyrical flourishes in the refrains. Like the best kind of music, the sound and the song say it best. I was too young and they were too old. Oh—and bliss is a zoo.
So, it was with that sense of nostalgia swirling about that I went to see Albert Hammond, Jr. on Tuesday evening at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. It marked the first event in a nine-month project I’ve decided to embark upon that will last until the new year. I’ve decided to call it the Year of Living Vaingerously. Rather than the Year of Living (in) Vain…gerously. I am 29 years old, and something about the 30 milestone called out for me to do something seriously juvenile and irresponsible. I can’t wait for what wonders my mid-life crisis will hold.
I decided to make this endeavor about music. I thought it might be film, or before that, sport. But they fell short. So music it is. I’m not hip to the technical components—yet. I go because of the emotional register my favorite bands put forth. I want to lose myself in their music for the better part of an hour.
On its face, this isn’t a responsible idea, and I am well aware that there is no deeper truth lying at the end of the road. As Jack White once told Conan, you never arrive. Wolf Parade said as much in Shine a Light. These journeys we create for ourselves to cut through the modern world’s banality. But there’s no light at the end. You get somewhere and just keep going. And that’s the point.
So, this will be a high-octane nine months that will give me some measure of a sense of what I’d like to do with my life, going forward. Hopefully, I’ll be short on cents but long on sense. I’m not shying away from writing, right now. And that’s a positive development. Because for the past two years, and the ones before that, I’ve hemmed and hawed through daily existence, ostensibly mining, but mostly drifting without any cause or reason. Pissing in the wind. And as any human being will tell you, that gets old quick.
So, Tuesday night. Like the concerts I’ve been to recently, I come coursing out of the venue flush and sweating. Ohmygod. That was awesome. And yet, as I try and recreate the experience, piece it back together, I find that the memories are already hazy.
And I don’t really drink or do drugs at these things. Like, not at all. But it’s something Britt Daniel of Spoon said that sets me at ease. You shouldn’t have a photographic memory of a concert. Like a breathtaking gallery in a museum, the experience should be so overwhelming that it washes over you. It’s that feeling that remains.
Which is why, if artists do begin going with those Yondr sealed bags, thus eliminating phone use from venues, I won’t be too disappointed. As much fun as it is to document your experience (WITNESS ME!!!), showing friends the bands and the songs that make you you, in the end it’s not important. It just isn’t. At some point, all these things will disappear into the ether, anyway. And a photo never recreates the sound. And don’t get me started on video recordings. Ugh. (Although I’m incredibly guilty of shooting videos at concerts.)
But I didn’t need photos at Hammond’s show. I remember him walking onto the stage and noticing the kid standing against the front row railing, just in front of me. I’d wondered why he had a red strap with a white lightning bolt hung around his neck. Something like a half-finished suspender. Then I see Hammond acknowledge it with a smile and a wave, and I see the same strap on Hammond’s iconic white electric guitar. Aha. The things I’ll be learning this year…
From there, Hammond launches into a tight setlist. He takes up that guitar several times to jam along with his assembled band of two guitarists, bassist, and drummer—most memorably, for me, to Holiday, one of my favorites. But the rest of the performance sees him set it aside to focus upon his singing—and as a performer, Hammond is a bundle of energy.
He zips about the small stage, jumping and clicking heels in punctuation, even climbing atop pillars on either side of the stage to get a better view of the crowd.
When he gets to In Transit, which closes out the primary set, he plants his feet firmly in the center of the stage and lets himself fall backward in ecstasy. I almost lose myself in that moment.
This is why Pink Floyd’s The Wall remains, for me, one of the great meta-meditations in music. Alienation, despair, contempt, everything squirrelly and dead weighing upon you comes crumbling down in the face of the sound. During the best performances, you work through some serious personal shit. This is why concerts have become my addiction. They’re cheaper than a therapy session, and you get to sway and dance as you sweat out your tribulations. When you speak, you twist and shout.
There are little details in my brief awakening that stay with me. I didn’t go to concerts because I knew I’d be going alone, and an existence spent mainly in solitude learns to shy away from collective events. It’s just weird to be there, seul. Before the first concert I attended last October, for Arcade Fire, I was the guy running the Google search: Is it weird to go to a concert alone?
But that doesn’t scare me anymore. I remember Tim Kingsbury of Arcade Fire swaying along to the beat as he strummed along to the Regine Chassagne-centric Sprawl II. Then there was Spencer Krug thanking the Fillmore crowd for coming out to see Wolf Parade on a Tuesday night in January. Britt Daniel the following night spotting dancing revelers in the balcony at the Masonic, pointing and showing his appreciation for their fervor. This is the tide that sweeps you along. Once the lights dim, you’re just another dude swaying along to the beat.
With Albert Hammond, Jr., it was time stopping as he fell backwards with feet firmly planted. As Brad Pitt once said, transcendental change doesn’t really exist: it’s more the world around you that shifts, often subtly. But even as you remain metaphorically stock-still as your body spins through space along with a planet, you can focus upon specific things to attain a better focus. That’s what I’m doing with music. Here’s to the next nine months.