Sunday, December 28, 2014

Googly-Eyed at The Lemonheads

The Lemonheads in Whitespace
Photography by Stephen Lavoie

It’s difficult to comprehend the significance of the Lemonheads show in Manila last December 4 if you’re not a devoted fan, or familiar with their songs at the very least. The band never really achieved the kind of mainstream popularity as their contemporaries during the heyday of alternative pop-rock in the 1990s. But for Filipinos who’ve kept them close to their hearts all these years, who’ve treated their cassette tapes and CDs with their fraying inlays as priceless treasures, and sang along to their songs on road trips, meet-ups and breakdowns, it was a show for the ages.  

The Lemonheads is essentially Evan Dando, he of the patrician nose and dirty blonde hair, who was once included in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. A parade of musicians has kept Dando company since the group’s formation in the late 1980s, but the current lineup includes Chris Brokaw. They have not released new material since 2009’s Varshons (and even that was an album of covers), but nobody seems to mind. Most remember them for their songs in the 90s, particularly from their albums It’s A Shame About Ray, Come On Feel The Lemonheads and Car. Button. Cloth. 

Whitespace in Makati had a decent-sized crowd that turned up for the band’s first-ever show in the Philippines. Three local groups had the honor of opening for The Lemonheads: Ang Bandang Shirley, Ciudad (fronted by Mikey Amistoso, whose solo project called “Hannah+Gabi” is named after a Lemonheads song), and the Itchyworms. At a few minutes past 10 p.m., the band materialized and the crowd had their first glimpse of Dando.

Evan Dando
Photo by Stephen Lavoie

Wearing torn jeans, a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off over a plain t-shirt, and well-worn Vans sneakers, Dando looked like he time traveled from 1995, except for his eyes, which partly lay hidden underneath his wild, unkempt hair. They were glassy and tired, like he had just woken up and was still trying to make sense of the world around him. Dando’s struggles with substance abuse are well-documented, so there were the obvious assumptions, but after mumbling a quick, “Hi,” to the crowd the band launched into the first song, “Hospital.”

I couldn’t help but feel wonder and disbelief in that instant. This was a band that was part of my formative years; Come On Feel The Lemonheads is one of my all-time favorite records, and the songs in it will forever remind me of quiet Saturday nights alone in my bedroom and lazy Sunday afternoons hanging out with my college barkada. And now here they were performing live. It was surreal. When they did “The Great Big No,” the first song from that album,” there were waves of nostalgia as much as it was about savoring that particular moment.

From where I was standing in the front row, I had some trouble hearing Dando’s vocals clearly (but perhaps I was just too close to the speakers). The instruments, though, were loud and clear. The frontman was often hunched over his guitar, hardly paused in between songs and barely conversed with the audience, except to make a quick intro about the next song: “This one is called ‘Down About It.’” The man has been playing in front of crowds for close to 30 years; the set was beginning to feel too rehearsed and mechanical.

But after a few songs, Dando veered away from the setlist (I could read it from the paper taped to the floor) and performed solo, asking the crowd for requests. Standouts were a sweet rendition of “Being Around,” and “Won’t You Sometimes Think Of Me,” and a couple of other songs that showed off unmistakable traces of country.

He brought the band back and performed “It’s About Time,” a personal favorite. They also did a well-applauded, if slightly erratic version of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.” When they launched into “My Drug Buddy,” the feeling was one of communal bliss and satisfaction. It was like everyone was acutely aware that they were in the presence of something truly special. Ultimately it was fleeting (their songs are generally short, even by pop standards), but that only made it even more precious. People had their eyes closed, arms around each other, fists hitting the air, all the while mouthing the words along with Dando. This almost-physical conviviality would be multiplied tenfold with “Into Your Arms,” arguably their most radio-friendly single, and the one song that would likely be familiar even to non-fans.

Evan rocked out despite looking a bit, uh, spaced out
Photo by Stephen Lavoie

It was supposed to be the end of the show, but nobody was making a beeline for the exits. There were persistent screams every time the door beside the stage opened, hoping it was Dando. Just over five minutes later, he did come back onstage, alone, and did two more songs, including “My Favorite T.”

Nobody could have imagined The Lemonheads would ever make it to Manila, especially after they took a break in the late 1990s. After Dando resurrected the band in 2004, much of their fanbase had grown up and moved on, but there were a few that stuck around, still keeping the flames of veneration burning. The show was a reminder that bands like The Lemonheads were never meant to fill arenas and sell a gazillion albums. They’re the ones that appeal to a select few, who we keep close to our hearts, and whose music will mean something in our lives long after they fade into obscurity.  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Different Sunday

NOTE: This is a heavily altered version of a music column I wrote for The Manila Times, the online link of which has disappeared

The best six hours of radio programming in the Philippines happens every Sunday starting at 6 pm. The show is called “A Different Sunday” and it airs on DWJM (or Jam) 88.3. What makes it so special? The concept is actually very simple.

But first, a bit of a backgrounder.

Jam 88.3 is the first radio station on the FM band in Metro Manila. While many of the other stations play the most current Top 40 hits, Jam’s positioning is slightly different: its playlist consists mostly of tracks in the alternative and indie pop-rock genre. “Alternative” in this sense is left-of-the-middle songs from artists that may or may not have made it big in the mainstream. It’s not as high-brow as DZFE (98.7), which plays classical music, nor is it as uptight and sentimental as Crossover (105.1, middle-of-the-road pop jazz). If all the FM radio stations were all part of the same family, Jam would be the hip, tattooed, jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing, slightly off-kilter brother of Wave 89.1, Magic 89.9, and 99.5 Play FM (which, incidentally are all owned and controlled by the same entity).

Once called Citylite 88.3, which played contemporary jazz, Jam is perhaps the closest thing listeners have to an heir to the late, lamented NU107. It does not rely too heavily on American pop charts for its programming and instead looks to other sources. It is sometimes difficult to identify what exactly the station is looking for before it includes the song on its regular playlist: it could just as easily be from someone as popular as John Mayer or Linkin Park, as from some obscure independent artist like Greg Laswell, Chapel Club or A Silent Film. (I use the term “obscure” quite loosely here. I’m sure these artists have devoted fans who will hurl mocking retorts at me for practically calling them unknowns).

I suppose Jam’s edge is that they appeal to a very specific listener, one whose musical diet isn’t dictated by Billboard’s Hot 100. Some might posit that the station possesses a certain “snob” appeal, a sort of hipster-like, nose-up-at-you attitude—no Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande or One Direction songs here—but I think this is more because of specialization and niche targeting rather than arrogance or a better-than-everyone-else mentality. Jam appeals to a specific audience—they are not masa.

And so the music they play is an “alternative” to traditional Top 40 or those loud stations that broadcast in the vernacular. They have “mainstream” artists on rotation, sure, but the vast majority is granted a voice here in this country only through their speakers. For every Fall Out Boy or Avril Lavigne, they have Belle and Sebastian, The Raconteurs, Phoenix, Surfer Blood and many others.

Jam’s biggest contribution to local radio, to me at least, is “A Different Sunday.” First, there are no DJs. For an FM radio station, that’s a pretty big deal. (They tried putting a real live human onboard for a few weeks recently, but quickly scrapped it, ostensibly after receiving negative feedback from fans, including me). There are occasional gaps filled with plugs or commercials (hey, they still have to earn) but otherwise, it’s six hours straight of nonstop music.

And what kind of music do they play exactly? Everything EXCEPT the traditional studio-recorded version of a song. This means covers or a re-interpretation from the same artist of his or her own song, a live or acoustic version from the original artist, or any other incarnation of a song that fits into the Jam 88.3 template.

What’s so special about an all-covers music program? Plenty, as it turns out. Many of these tracks are rare; difficult to find even in this age of YouTube and Spotify. By playing these versions on local radio, fans are given the opportunity to listen to something they would otherwise have never had the chance of hearing anywhere else. Yes, it may be easy to do a Google search on every song or performance by a favorite artist, but like I’ve said countless times before, there is something strangely exciting and comforting about hearing an amazing song at an arbitrary moment. It takes you back to a very specific memory: of a time, a place, a person. And it’s like someone out there extended a hand and grasped yours, making you feel connected, even for just the length of a song.

So, on a quiet Sunday evening, while you’re driving home, staying in your room, or hanging out at a friend’s house, you might hear The Smashing Pumpkin’s version of the Fleetwood Mac classic “Landslide;” Emile Millar’s take on Howard Jones’ “No One Is To Blame,” Keane covering U2’s “With Or Without You,” the Sugababes’ “Push The Button” covered live by Starsailor; a quieter version of Mayer’s “Heartbreak Warfare;” or Jack Johnson tipping a hat off to John Lennon with “Imagine;” and many, many more.

It’s programming that calms as much as it excites, like a soothing and stimulating massage for the ears and heart. I don’t expect everyone to understand my affection for a radio show, especially these days when it’s so easy to just create our own mood-specific playlist in our phones or laptops, but A Different Sunday truly lives up to its name. Yes it’s really just a bunch of songs played during a specific number of hours, but it’s also a fitting farewell to the weekend, and a comforting easing back to the salt mines of another work week.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Killing The Cynic

Written at the top of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
8 November 2014

The sun hangs low at the edge of the horizon.

Below there is nothing but an ocean of clouds.

I’m sitting on top of a mountain, 1067 meters straight up.  

There is another world up here. Bushes with flowers thrive despite powerful winds and an inhospitable climate. I cross my arms and wish I had brought a thicker jacket.

The jagged edges of the cliffs resemble a crude staircase, the steps covered in the green of vegetation, everything else in the reddish-brown of rock and dirt. 

I cannot see land or sea; the cottony clouds obscure all signs of life below, as if I am in a plane and we are hovering above the earth.

Further up the sky is an intense blue; peaceful but insistent, screaming its tranquility.

I can hear my own thoughts but they are coming faster than I can write.

How fortunate the souls who have made the trip up here and have indulged their eyes to such  wonder.

It’s nature at her theatrical best, showing off her majesty as she often does.

It’s sustenance for the spirit, the way prayer can sometimes be.

I take a deep breath, take it all in, and close my eyes.

And gratitude fills my heart.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Tentative Step Forward

A few days ago, I woke up to headlines with the words “Vatican” and “gays,” without “condemn” or a variation thereof snuck in there somewhere. People who bet that hell would freeze over the day the Catholic Church takes a less-than-hostile stance against homosexuality must have had visions of snowflakes landing on the devil’s nose when it was reported that a Vatican document had some surprisingly compassionate things to say about gay people.

"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities?” said the document. “Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

"Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," the document added.

Even if you don’t follow religious news, this is a pretty big deal. It’s like your hopelessly homophobic Tito Boyet Or Lolo Badong—that crusty old relative who warned you that being gay is a sin—suddenly popping into the neighborhood parlor and proclaiming that getting a haircut from Trizsha isn’t so bad.

The faithful hold candles during a vigil to mark the start of the synod
Image from

To put this into perspective, ex-Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) was, in the past, quoted as saying that gay people are “intrinsically disordered.” Then again, Benedict was a hardline conservative, in as much as the Pope we have now is, well, not. Francis was reportedly present at the synod (the bishop’s assembly happening at the Vatican this week) when the document was read.

Of course, it didn’t take long for people to make their feelings about this bit of news known. My social media feed was inundated with virtual “thumbs up” for this groundbreaking pronouncement. That was expected; most people would see this shift on the Church’s policy about homosexuality as nothing less than extraordinarily welcome news. On the other hand, there were also voices of displeasure and dissatisfaction. Ultra-conservatives are naturally bewildered and disappointed, believing there should be no wiggle room when it comes to the issue of same-sex relationships. Liberals (those who identify with the label, at least), say it’s not enough. It’s a weak yelp in what should otherwise be a scream advocating social equality.

I have nothing to say to the conservatives, except perhaps that they make like Oprah and get with the program. This is more for the liberals rolling their eyes and being all unimpressed. Yes, the Church stops short of actually condoning homosexuality, and still see the acts related to it as immoral and unconscionable. Being gay is fine, official Church policy states, as long as you do nothing about it. But lest people forget, we’re talking about a 2000-year old institution, with tenets and traditions that have been so deeply ingrained in the psyche of its most ardent followers they may as well be carved on the actual rock upon which St. Peter’s Basilica supposedly sits on. Some people may find that this pivot on official Church dogma may be slight, but in the context of a major religion that has kept its beliefs virtually intact for two millennia, it’s something of a milestone. The acknowledgment of the reality of same sex relationships, the fact that it was even brought up and seriously discussed in a major Church forum, and, most of all, the possibility of acceptance and recognition of “positive aspects” of said relationships—these are all significant strides in the discourse of our collective humanity. They should be held up as such and not be dismissed or taken lightly.

The question now is, can the Church do more to show sympathy and inclusiveness towards alternative lifestyles and preferences? Of course it can. But will it? Don’t hold your breath. Pope Francis may be worlds different from his predecessor, but he is still leader of an organization with a billion followers, most of whom are not ready for something as radical as gay relationships. (And despite the seemingly open society we currently inhabit, in many parts of the world, the mere concept of anything other than male-female partnerships might as well be alien). We may not see a Church that will embrace gay people as much as we would like it to in this lifetime, but a Church that has proven that it is not  averse to a discussion about it is the next best thing.