Live: Harry Styles Punches Air, Channels Bowie

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Aidin Vaziri | Fire alarms started to blare inside the Masonic shortly before Harry Styles took the stage on Tuesday, Sept. 19, but the die-hard fans who had lined up outside the San Francisco venue as early as 8 a.m. to secure a spot close to the stage didn’t budge. The risk of a little smoke inhalation was no match for a chance to get intimate with a member of the British boy band One Direction.

Styles was in the city to kick off his first solo tour, which will lap the world before returning to the SAP Center in San Jose on July 11.

“Thank you for being here,” he said, greeting the sold-out crowd. “Thank you for popping my cherry.”

As it turns out, there was no fire, but the air was thick with expectation. Out of the square-jawed guys in the multiplatinum-selling One Direction (currently on hiatus), Styles was most likely to get tagged for solo stardom by Las Vegas oddsmakers. He has the voice, moves, tattoos, hair and goofy grin.

Yet Styles seems to have fallen behind his One Direction bandmates in the race for chart dominance.

His self-titled album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 when it was released in May, then quickly plummeted down the chart. Its two singles, “Sign of the Times” and “Sweet Creature,” peaked on the Hot 100 at No. 4 and No. 93, respectively, but were shadowed by big hits by Niall Horan (“Slow Hands”), Liam Payne (“Strip That Down”), Louis Tomlinson (“Back to You”) and Zayn Malik (“I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” with Taylor Swift).

The tour, which marked seven years from Styles’ public debut at age 16 auditioning for the “The X Factor UK,” may turn his fortunes around. But he doesn’t seem particularly concerned.

Now 23, the singer and actor (he appeared in “Dunkirk” this year) is grasping at maturity. Forsaking dance beats and the trite pop formulas, his solo material veers from the sun-dappled ’70s soft-rock jams “Ever Since New York” and “Two Ghosts” (during the concert, he even threw in a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”) to bombastic, Def Leppard-style rockers “Only Angel” and “Kiwi.”

Despite wearing a vintage pompadour and floral suit that looked liked it was made from the remnants of the couch in the old Avalon Ballroom, he threw himself into the louder numbers the most, bouncing on one leg, punching the air and dropping to his knees when the occasion arose.

The screams certainly haven’t subsided for Styles. Every raised eyebrow or wiggled hip earned a fresh round of wails from the audience. Picking up a rainbow flag tossed onto the stage by one of his fans, he twirled it around and draped it over his microphone stand.

“I only have 10 songs to my name, so I’m going to play a couple extras,” he said, rewarding his now-college-age fans with covers of One Direction live staples “Stockholm Syndrome” and “What Makes You Beautiful,” along with his take on Ariana Grande’s “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” (which he co-wrote for her 2014 album “My Everything”).

Styles closed the hour-long set with “Sign of the Times,” the slow-burning ballad that has become his calling card. Channeling David Bowie, it casts the singer as a self-assured, reflective artist who can still set hearts ablaze.

“I was so excited for tonight, and now I know why,” Styles said. “I would like to put it down as the perfect first night of the tour.”

 

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Foo Fighters, ‘Concrete and Gold’

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Aidin Vaziri | You can depend on the Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl’s band has pretty much been there since the dawn of the dinosaurs (or the dissolution of Nirvana), cranking out meat-and-potatoes rock anthems to be played in arenas and stadiums at maximum volume. The group has a way of making peers like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day sound risque, yet there’s nothing inherently wrong with its output — some of its songs you wouldn’t even mind hearing twice. For “Concrete and Gold,” the band recruited producer Greg Kurstin, who produced and co-wrote Adele’s “Hello,” as well as guests as diverse as Justin Timberlake and Paul McCartney. But the net result is the same as always: hammering riffs, crashing rhythms and Grohl howling through tracks like “Run” and “La Dee Da” not so much with angst but an interminable sense of duty.

The National, ‘Sleep Well Beast’

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Aidin Vaziri | The National shakes off its perpetual 3 a.m. slumber on “Sleep Well Beast,” the group’s seventh studio recording and its most animated yet. Fueled by singer Matt Berninger’s recent enthusiasm for California’s lax marijuana laws, his involvement in the slightly funky side project El Vy and the impending doom brought on by the current political climate, the dapper quintet cuts loose and embraces its inner Radiohead. Touches of disco, brass and glitch-laden synths seep into songs like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “I’ll Still Destroy You,” while the title track seems to simultaneously disintegrate as it grows louder. Not everybody will be on board with the band tearing off the cobwebs, but there’s no denying the National sounds reinvigorated.

Todd Rundgren Keeps It Unpredictable

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Aidin Vaziri | Todd Rundgren is spending the summer on the road as part of a package tour with progressive rock heroes Yes and Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

It kind of makes sense, he says.

“You know, I have had a bit of prog-rock experience with Utopia,” Rundgren says, recalling his time as the frontman for the 1970s cosmic-rock outfit that toured arenas wearing capes and battling mechanical dragons. “Of course, this isn’t Utopia.”

The 69-year-old cult hero, who is scheduled to headline a solo concert at the Chapel billed as “An Unpredictable Evening With Todd Rundgren” on Wednesday, Aug. 30, in San Francisco, has hardly stayed on course since he set out with the psychedelic rock group the Nazz in the late 1960s.

A consummate workaholic, Rundgren has dabbled in heavy metal, baroque folk, synthesizer pop, computer funk, the occasional Broadway-style show tune and everything in between.

He once made an album, 1985’s “A Cappella,” using only his voice as an instrument.

“By the time I got to my third record, ‘A Wizard, a True Star’ (in 1973), it got overrefined,” he says, calling from a tour stop in Phoenix. “I could write a song in 20 minutes. It got to be too easy. It didn’t feel like I was expressing much except what everyone else expressed. After that I took a whole different approach.”

Prince and David Bowie were said to be admirers of his adventurous production — and outrageous fashion sensibility.

More recently, indie acts like Daft Punk, Simian Mobile Disco and the Lemon Twigs have taken notes from Rundgren’s playbook. When the British electronic pop group Hot Chip sampled his voice on its song “Shake a Fist,” from its 2008 album “Made in the Dark,” it put Rundgren back on the British charts for the first time since he scored a fluke 1973 hit with “I Saw the Light.”

It would be hard to ignore his influence.

Rundgren, who lives on an estate in Kauai, Hawaii, full time after selling his pied-a-terre in San Francisco’s Mission District two years ago, had a hand in some of the most important albums of the rock era.

In 1977, he produced Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” one of the best-selling albums of all time. While in a relationship with Patti Smith, Rundgren directed the making of her 1979 album “Wave,” a bittersweet project, he says, because they broke up after it was recorded and Smith married someone else.

He also recorded XTC’s breakthrough 1986 album, “Skylarking,” an arduous process that led to an ongoing feud with the singer Andy Partridge. “I can be impatient if I think that time is being wasted in the studio,” Rundgren shrugs.

Most of his own albums during his creative heyday were made under the influence of various substances, from 1971’s marijuana-enhanced “Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” to the Ritalin-induced 1972 double album, “Something/Anything?,” on which he played all the instruments; through “A Wizard, A True Star,” which he made while using mescaline.

How did he not become a drug casualty?

“Drugs like cocaine and all its derivatives never appealed to me — especially heroin, because I hate needles,” he says, emphasizing that he doesn’t have an addictive personality. “But I’ve taken a whole lot of psychedelics in my life. I do it whenever I feel like I’m at some sort of plateau or my progress seems to have slowed and I need to shake myself up or see things in a different way. It was never about how high I could get. It was about getting to a place where I could open my mind.”

He was an early adapter to the music industry’s shift to technology: In 1993, he changed his name to TR-i, as in Todd Rundgren interactive, and released No World Order as a CD-ROM (back when that meant something); he was one of the first to give his songs away on the Internet, predating today’s streaming services; and Rundgren was also an advocate for mobile recording.

“As much as I hated school, I’ve never been shy of technology,” he says. “My dad was an engineer. I felt like I was always ahead of the public at large. I realized that once something becomes possible, then it’s likely probable.”

Rundgren has spent the past few years touring as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and has fronted a reunited version of the Cars called the New Cars. But he continues to look for inspiration, obsessively mining YouTube for clips that will help him keep pushing his music forward, as he plans to demonstrate at the Chapel.

“We have this list of about 50 songs — maybe half of them are mine and half are songs that the audience may have never heard before,” Rundgren says. “I pick the first song in the set and after that I start playing different songs on the list. It’s not like our usual shows. It’s a lot more fun.”

Kacey Musgraves on Hanging With Willie Nelson, Touring With Harry Styles

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Aidin Vaziri | Kacey Musgraves hasn’t finished recording her new album yet, but she’s taking the summer off to tour with her old friend Willie Nelson. It’s becoming an annual tradition for the 28-year-old singer-songwriter from Texas whose most recent studio album, 2015’s “Pageant Material,” earned her a nomination for best country album at the 58th Grammy Awards. Musgraves earned a legion of fans after supporting Katy Perry in 2014 on the pop star’s “Prismatic” tour. Next year, she will open several dates for One Direction’s Harry Styles on his 2018 tour of the U.S. and Canada. She spoke to us from her home in Nashville.

Q: Are you home because you’re working on a new album?

A: I’ve been taking this year to get to the creative side of things, and also plan a wedding — and I’ve been renovating a house. So I’ve had a lot of reasons to stay put.

Q: Well, I’m glad Willie convinced you to leave the house. You can’t really say no to him, can you?

A: Hell no! Anytime Willie asks it’s always a yes.

Q: Your career is really going on these divergent paths where you’re courting the country audience and the pop audience. Which direction would you like to see it go?

A: Well, all I know what to do is continue to make music that makes me feel good — you know, whatever category that lands in is fine.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with Willie Nelson?

A: Oh man, he’s the best. He’s an interstellar human being. I love his crowds. People aren’t there to see a ton of fireworks, they’re just there to see a legend and hear some really incredible songs.

Q: You guys ended up singing a duet on “Are You Sure.” How did that happen?

A: I heard that song one night on YouTube. I was like, “Why doesn’t he ever do this damn song?” We were up on the bus, and I asked him. He’s like, “Would you want to sing it with me?” He pulled a guitar out of a cloud of smoke and started playing it. I was trying not to lose my mind.

Q: Has he corrupted you?

A: I don’t want to do anything after I hang out with Willie but sit there and stare and listen to music. Man, it’s just cool to see somebody who’s been doing it that long to still love it every night. He’s 84, and you can just tell he loves it so much.

Q: You’re part of the family now.

A: It is crazy. I grew up in Texas where I don’t think there’s anybody bigger than Jesus Christ except for Willie.

Q: You’re sending him a wedding invite, right?

A: He should officiate!

Q: Are you ready to switch gears for your tour with Harry Styles?

A: Yeah, it’s going to be a wall of screaming adolescent girls just wanting my set to be over.

Q: Which isn’t a bad thing.

A: I was very excited when Harry asked me to support him. It’s one of those combos like Katy Perry that at first glance doesn’t make a lot of sense to people, but it does. Ultimately, I just want people to come enjoy songs. You can have the flashiest, most expensive production, but if at the end of the day you don’t have good songs then it’s not going to mean anything.

Q: So how’s the new album coming along?

A: I’m so pumped. All I can say is it’s the most excited I’ve ever been about music that I’ve made.

 

Diana Krall Turns Up the Quiet

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Aidin Vaziri | Diana Krall returns to the classics on her latest album, “Turn Up the Quiet,” covering standards by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Nat King Cole. It’s the Canadian jazz singer’s last recording with producer Tommy LiPuma, who died at 80 in March after having worked on 11 of her releases, starting with 1995’s “Only Trust Your Heart.” Now 52, Krall is finding joy on the road, accompanied by her twin 10-year old sons, Dexter and Frank (her husband is the musician Elvis Costello). She spoke to us from a tour stop in Park City, Utah, ahead of her four dates in Northern California.

Q: I really appreciate this album. It’s almost like you knew we needed a balm for these turbulent times.

A: Well, I’m intuitive, I guess. The direction of the songs went to a positive place. The live show has become all about love. I’m singing “Blue Skies” and other hopeful things. That’s the point, for people to escape from things for an hour and a half or two hours. A lot of the songs I’m doing were written in turbulent times. You can interpret them in different ways.

Q: You didn’t pick overtly political songs or anything you could frame in 2017. But the songs you did pick and the way you perform them feels so right, right now.

A: I’m glad to hear you say that. I mean, I’m playing with so many incredible musicians right now. When we’re playing together, it’s so emotionally relaxed and direct and swinging. We’re having such a positive, beautiful, fun time. That’s what you want people to feel. We’re out there to create a feeling. I had the whole audience in Grand Rapids singing “L-O-V-E.”

Q: You spent 20 years working in hotels and bars before you broke through. Did your low-key stage show grow out of that experience?

A: I’m better just being the same person that sits across the dinner table from you. It’s different because I play the piano. I’m not standing out front in a sparkly dress. I have a sparkly skirt. Standing in front of a microphone isn’t what I’m comfortable doing. I just kind of play the piano and sing and create an intimate space.

Q: You had a difficult time before making this album. Where’s your head at now?

A: You know, I had some really personal issues in the last few years. My father died. I got really sick with pneumonia at the same time, in 2014. I feel like it’s taken me three years to get my strength back from that. So now I’m feeling stronger, physically and mentally. I’m not the only one. There’s so much sadness. But there’s somebody falling in love somewhere. People are still celebrating graduations or small big things. People are being born and dying. This is life.

Q: Your producer Tommy LiPuma died shortly after you completed the record. Is it difficult going out and promoting it without him?

A: That was so traumatic and upsetting. Now I’m moving through joyfully. We had such a ball making this record, and I hope it shows. It’s a really, really fun show. The musicians blow me away. Sometimes I forget to come in. I’m listening to them so intently that I forget my cues. I forget I’m in the band and think I’m in the audience.

Third Eye Blind’s Second Act

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Aidin Vaziri | Stephan Jenkins spent years railing against everything that came his way: the music industry, the media, other bands, his own band, you name it. But as Third Eye Blind prepares to wind down a huge summer tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of its breakthrough self-titled debut album, the San Francisco outfit’s 52-year-old frontman seems to be approaching something resembling contentment.

“I don’t give a damn anymore,” he says, tearing into a breakfast sandwich at a bustling Sunset District coffee shop after a foggy morning surf session at Ocean Beach.

He’s wearing a loose black hoodie and pants that sag off his tall, sturdy frame, with a tight knit cap stretched over his sand-flecked hair. He talks just a little bit louder than everyone else in the room.

“I’m not done,” he continues, between mouthfuls of food. “I feel like I’m just beginning. But I have zero f— to give. It’s a very liberating feeling.”

And it was a long time coming.

Third Eye Blind is in the midst of the great rarity in the world of rock ’n’ roll — a verified comeback after a prolonged, perilous period when it felt like the group — one of the last major pop acts to break out of San Francisco — could easily go the way of Chumbawamba.

When “Third Eye Blind” came out in 1997, it turned the cagey Bay Area group into MTV superstars.

The album sold more than 6 million copies and spent 106 weeks on the Billboard chart. It spawned five hit singles with “Semi-Charmed Life” (possibly the catchiest song about casual sex and meth addiction ever), “Graduate,” “How’s It Going to Be,” “Jumper” (a song about suicide) and “Losing a Whole Year.”

Third Eye Blind opened shows for U2 and the Rolling Stones. Jenkins dated the actress Charlize Theron, befriended Winona Ryder; feuded with members of Green Day, Pearl Jam and Matchbox 20; and rode around town with his dog on a Triumph motorcycle. He was livin’ the life.

He was unapologetically cocky, with people in San Francisco’s cloistered ’90s music scene in particular bristling at his take-no-prisoners level of ambition — a byproduct, he says, of growing up in a broken home, being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome just before the band took off and watching other local bands lap Third Eye Blind early on.

“I had been working my whole life to get out of institutions and not ask people for permission,” he says. “I’ve always been a punk, and I felt like I was being put in somebody else’s fractal and that pissed me … off. I think I was just overwhelmed by that. It was hard for me to have good manners.”

The quick fame, combined with Jenkins’ alpha male posturing, splintered the band, and by the time it put out its second album, 1999’s “Blue,” the insults and lawsuits were flying. On its current tour, only drummer Brad Hargreaves remains from the original lineup.

The intervening years have been marked by a series of hiatuses and intermittent releases — 2003’s “Out of the Vein,” 2009’s “Ursa Major” and 2015’s “Dopamine.” The latter two were released on the group’s own Mega Collider label.

When one iteration of Third Eye Blind performed a free show in the middle of San Francisco’s Union Square in 2010, there were more pigeons than people watching the band at the lunchtime concert.

But at some point a new legion of fans discovered the band. They didn’t know much about the backstory and heard the music on its own merits, embracing the big hooks, frantic riffs and Jenkins’ delightfully detailed wordplay.

“If you come to our show, you’re going to see kids who were not born when the first record came out,” says Jenkins.

“There’s this whole generation of kids who weren’t there for any of the processing, marketing — the videos I would look at and say, ‘Pull the plug, I never need to see it again,’” he says. “They weren’t there for any of it. They just heard a catchy tune and it resonates with them. They feel it.”

Last year, the group played on the main stage of Bonnaroo in Tennessee and the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in Golden Gate Park. Now it’s headlining amphitheaters across the country.

“I knew from the first time I saw Third Eye Blind play at the now-defunct Paradise Lounge in SoMa back in like 1996 that Stephan Jenkins possessed all the inherent and vitally intrinsic characteristics of a budding rock star,” says Aaron Axelsen, music director of San Francisco’s alternative rock radio station Live 105 (KITS). “And it’s this swagger and charisma, coupled with a vast library of timeless alt-pop tunes, that’s helped him and his band remain relevant to an active fan base for 20-plus years now.”

On Sunday, July 23, it will play a homecoming concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley — performing the 1997 album in its entirety for what Jenkins says will be the last time.

“One thing I like about Third Eye Blind is that when we go out onstage, we are a brand-new band gunning for the gig,” he says. “We intend to go out there and do it full body.”

Jenkins credits the group’s resurgence on the fall of the old gatekeepers — major labels and monolithic publications — and the rise of social media and streaming services. But a bigger part of it, he adds, has to do with changing his own attitude.

“There’s probably some level of wholeness that I have achieved within myself — in poise and groundedness and self-love,” he says.

Jenkins, who grew up in Palo Alto and graduated at the top of his class at UC Berkeley before forming the band in 1994, says surfing played a big part in getting him to this state.

“So much about surfing, besides being one of the most physically involved and difficult sports ever created, is chucking yourself head first off a building into a rolling avalanche that can drown you,” Jenkins says. “And to do that is not courage, which is what I always thought it was. It’s calm.

“When you have courage, it means you’re doing something in spite of fear. When you’re dealing with fear, your body is stiff. The movement and action of surfing is a fluid, kinesthetic movement that has to be instantly in your mind, your body. It’s all happening at once, which is the definition of nirvana. That’s why I love it so much.”

Jenkins, who has always worked with causes close to his heart, is currently involved with the Jimmy Miller Foundation, an organization that teaches surfing to active-service Marines and vets who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m not a therapist,” he says. “I don’t have any training in that whatsoever. But I have an intuitive understanding of what it is to not be here, as in, ‘I’m not with you right now — I’m with my troubles someplace else.’ A lot of these guys are just not home. But when a wave comes at you — you’re not thinking about anything else. You accept that moment and get into a flow state with it. You are present.”

When Third Eye Blind finishes its tour, the band will return to the studio to continue working on what will become its next release, the “Summer Gods” EP (the band is done with full-length albums for the time being).

“There’s an authenticity to him that’s rare,” says Max Glynn, a longtime friend. “He’s fiercely loyal. I met him right before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he became so protective of me. He was like my brother. He just wanted to help me, and I had nothing to give him in return.”

Jenkins already feels compelled to put his time in other areas and in the last few months has pulled the band into a more overtly political direction, as evidenced by his personal Twitter feed.

Last July, when Third Eye Blind performed at a party for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the singer used the opportunity to lecture the crowd on gay rights and taunted the Trump supporters by urging, “Raise your hand if you believe in science!”

A week later, the band released “Cop vs. Phone Girl,” a song about police brutality, which he wrote to show his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“A lot of radio stations wouldn’t play it,” Jenkins says. “They would say, ‘We like the song, we just can’t play it on the radio.’”

Last month, a rumor started circulating that the singer had been handpicked by two Silicon Valley billionaires, Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, to run against longtime California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, on the ticket of the new Win the Future (WTF, for short) Democratic Party platform.

But he’s not ready to discuss his ambitions outside of music just yet.

“I’m not a politician,” Jenkins says. “I love Dianne. I think she’s a treasure. But I also believe our democracy is unraveling and we have to shore it up. I think by challenging her, we can push some of the issues that I think are vital — life or death — into the conversation.”

In the meantime, he’s relishing the band’s second shot in the limelight.

“Third Eye Blind has withstood the test of time by making fun music that people still love,” says Alicia Tyler, music director at KFOG, San Francisco’s adult alternative station. “Their lyrics may have seemed too real back then, but that’s why the kids loved it and continue to.”

“We’re actually larger than we were the first time around,” Jenkins says. “It’s an incredible feeling to be in a good rock band. The gift that’s been given to me is that people view my music as enlivening them.

“For years, I fell into a very un-rock state of mind where I was second-guessing myself. It’s like, come from a fierce and wholesome place, and huck it out there. That’s why Jackson Pollock can splatter paint. It’s coming from that place. Anything else is a mess. I think I fell into that mode and now I’m not, so I view it as a gift. I feel real gratitude for that.”