Saturday, June 1, 2013
Tom Brosseau & Sean Watkins with Z Berg - North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe, May 31, 2013
Visited the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe for the first time Friday night to see contemporary folk musicians Tom Brosseau and Sean Watkins perform, with singer-songwriter Z Berg opening, plus special guest appearances by Sara Watkins and Brad Carter.
Given that I've already written about Z Berg's band JJAMZ twice on this blog, I suppose it should be obvious that I went primarily because of her. It was only because I follow her on Twitter that I was aware of the show at all. I fear at this point I'm beginning to sound like a stalker, but there's nothing wrong with an artist cultivating an audience of loyal locals in every city. Indeed, it seemed everyone but me was not only there specifically to see Tom Brosseau but was even possibly a personal friend of his.
The exceedingly small venue consisted of a tiny stage in a roughly 30-seat theater (most often hosting plays, according to the proprietor), a very small lobby/candy shop in front, and the dressing room in back (which is also where the bathroom is). It has apparently been in that spot for years (a Yelp review from 2007 mentions a Tom Brosseau CD release party), but it's pretty low-profile. I was a little disappointed at the candy selection, much-vaunted on Yelp, but which was actually fairly pedestrian ("fun size" Snickers, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers; individual Starburst; licorice, of course) but for the candy cigarettes. Clearly, no one would ever walk in just to buy candy; the theater is the operation. It got pretty hot and cramped, and the stage was barely elevated off the ground (so I imagine it would be hard to watch a play from anywhere other than the front row), but it's about as intimate a setting as you'll find for a show (outside of a private performance at someone's home)—a different experience, certainly. And the owners, an older married couple, were warm and proud of their establishment and their little community, although I felt a tad the "suspicious Oriental" in that crowd.
On with the show, Z Berg was, I gathered, a friend of Sean Watkins, who was, in turn, brought along by Tom Brosseau. She began with a cover of Hank Cochran and Patsy Cline's "She's Got You." She mentioned that it used to be her go-to for karaoke, until it got to the point that, every time she would sing it at a karaoke bar in LA, some guy would offer to take her to Vegas and make her a star. She followed that up with a series of, as far as I know, originals. She didn't discuss the music itself much, but it was quite a departure from what I'd heard from JJAMZ and The Like—still pop, but with a folk twist, and more stripped-down, of course, since she was performing alone. Compared to her strutting self from the JJAMZ shows, she definitely seemed more nervous on the small stage. As she performed, there were no winks at the audience; she kept her eyes focused on somewhere beyond the audience, as she likewise sang songs addressed to someone unspoken. My favorite was a wistful, slower-paced, more contemplative number going through the reasons why she could never come to love a nice guy who was, to her, "just a holiday" (somewhat like a gloomier inversion of "Never Enough," with the same result). Simultaneously deeply personal and universal, and carried all the way by Z Berg's soulful low tones, the mood of the song was as taking a quiet stroll about the town with the artist, only we would each also be walking alone. It was like walking alone together, if that makes sense. Check out a recording from a previous performance, uploaded to YouTube by Raymond Lew.
Paying more attention to the lyrics on some of those JJAMZ songs, I find her to be actually quite transparent and sentimental in many of them. "Suicide Pact" is about the deepest of friendships. "Poolside" and "You Were My Home" tell stories of young love and young ambition, seen looking back from a perspective of regret. Her solo songs were not, in that respect, altogether a departure. Similar in content—songs about failed relationships, described by the artist as her own "self-loathing"—they were more lyrically dense. If she was any more vulnerable here than with her band, it would not have been because she was revealing any more about her life, but because she was standing alone now, with only her guitar and her lyrics, understandably more exposed as an artist.
Addressing her nervousness, she mentioned that this was her first time performing by herself outside LA. She also mentioned that, every time she has done a solo set in LA, her parents have been in the audience. Her father is former Geffen exec Tony Berg, which leads one to wonder what kind of life she had growing up, all the talent and industry people that must have passed through that house. In any case, it was a sweet detail. It's interesting to see these different sides to her: the hungry singer-songwriter, who grew up immersed in the scene, and formed a band at 15 with other industry daughters; the frontwoman of a band of best friends, who can sizzle on the stage with that distinctly smoky voice, then step out for a cigarette and share laughs with random strangers; the still-hungry but also vulnerable 26-year-old artist, having lived through enough now well-aged romantic tragedies to fill an album or two; and the girl from a loving family, with parents with the love and the means to gift her with a life in and of art, however her career unfolds.
Family became kind of a theme for the night, carrying on through as Tom Brosseau and Sean Watkins took over for the main event. In some ways, it was a bit odd that these two were paired together as an act. They didn't actually perform much together, but rather traded off doing solo songs. They were even both promoting separate upcoming solo records. Sean had helped put together Tom's and provided some guitar and backing vocals. Meanwhile, Tom was mostly silent during Sean's songs, only chipping in the occasional vocal harmony.
Sean Watkins is perhaps best known as a member of Nickel Creek, which, despite their being from San Diego County, I knew only from a single appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien some years ago. I remember Conan mentioning that Nickel Creek would be performing, emphasizing to Andy that it was Nickel Creek, not Nickelback, at which Andy feigned disappointment that it was not going to be the oft-derided-as-derivative Canadian pop rock band. Or maybe it was Jay Leno and Kevin Eubanks. I don't really remember that well. (As an aside, I'm willing to admit that I've liked the occasional Nickelback song. I remember, when I was a freshman living in the dorms at UCSD, one of the students in the room across would constantly play "How You Remind Me" (2001), to which I took a liking. Yes, it was that and Afroman's "Because I Got High" that formed the soundtrack to that year of my life. Dreadful year. But I digress.)
Tom mentioned that, the first time he saw Sean play in LA, one song that stuck out was "Hello... Goodbye," from Sean's 2006 album Blinders On. Suggesting the unrehearsed nature of their set, Sean said he hadn't played the song in years and wasn't sure if he could remember the lyrics. Nevertheless, once Tom brought it up, there was no way he couldn't play it, and so he did. The song, barely a minute long as written, was my favorite of the night—a silly yet true slice of anyone's life that leaves you both laughing and heartbroken at the same time.
Tom related a number of stories, and yet I wasn't entirely clear on what his story was. Originally from North Dakota, he is now based in LA. Along that journey, he has apparently played at the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe several times over the years. He claimed that the tiny San Diego venue was his favorite anywhere, and, although the cynic might imagine that he says the same of Largo when playing in Largo, this was one case where the claim struck me as sincere.
The guy resembles one of those aged photographs of male celebrities from the 1960s or earlier—one of those Clark Gable or JFK types, handsome with the sort of chiseled features that don't seem to exist on men anymore, as though the genes for those features have been bred out of existence. But Tom Brosseau has those genes, I guess, because he looks like one of those old photos brought to life. To go along with that, he had a surprisingly soft, youthful voice, and perhaps an even sweeter personality. He seemed to know almost everyone in the audience (besides me, of course)—an audience that included Sean's sister Sara (also of Nickel Creek), whom Tom summoned up to sing a song with him. The Watkins' father was also apparently in attendance. Another special guest was actor and musician Brad Carter, fresh off brain surgery to treat a progressive neurological disorder that was causing tremors in his hands—obviously an inconvenience for a guitarist. Carter's surgery, during which he played guitar, was documented on Twitter and Vine and made headlines. Tom invited him to join them on stage for one song.
Perhaps the most special guest, however, was the last of the night. The North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe is proud to run the STARS "theater arts program for mentally challenged individuals." To close out the night, Tom invited one such individual in the audience to join him on stage for a performance of the folk standard "Goodnight, Irene." At this point, as impressed as I was with his songs (which were pleasant), I was even more impressed with Tom Brosseau as a human being—one of the classiest gentlemen I've ever encountered. As almost everyone in attendance sang along with the chorus as well, one got the impression that they had done this many times together over the years. On the whole, it felt like I was sitting in on a family reunion, and it was an honor to be able to share in that experience.