Spec’s is a North Beach bar filled with salty old-timers. The walls are filled with odd curiosities and ancient faces, and you would do best not to order a fancy cocktail or sit at a regular’s stool. Hidden behind the old Pearl’s (RIP) in a half-assed indent masquerading as an alleyway, this bar is one of my favorite in the City because I love old men who tell tales in dim light. Sadly, it’s being overrun by the Marina set these days, and this is partially due its growing reputation as a destination spot for out-of-town musicians. This is where (caution: name drop approaching) I drunkenly shared a booth with some of the gents from Franz Ferdinand, and it’s also where the good folks at La Blogotheque filmed Stars a few years back.
Stars of Canada have seen some travels as a band, and their album Set Yourself on Fire is so good, ’till the last drop, that it’s been in my rotation repeatedly since 2004. The featured video shows a roaming performance of “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” an absolute beauty that gives you chills when seen live. This is a known truth; I’ve had the good fortune of finding myself in the crowd at a handful of Stars shows in San Francisco. One such night, at The Independent in June of 2010, I was even handed a white rose by their keyboardist. Charming.
These fine people return to San Francisco tomorrow night, September 17th, at Great American Music Hall with a follow-up show at Slim’s on September 18th. They are captivating performers that should not be missed. Maybe you’ll even walk away with a rose.
I am not proud of the incident that first turned me onto Ray LaMontagne. It was my birthday, a handful of years now behind me, at Spec’s bar in North Beach. I was well on my way to an alternate reality when two little Yippies approached my Fella in a sort of coy, sidestep motion. They giggled, stared at one another, looked into their beers and then one of them asked, “Is your name Ray?” It isn’t, but this truth would never be sufficiently communicated to two youngsters psyched to see a celebrity. The bolder one took another stab at it: “Are you sure?”
At this point I assured them his name was not Ray. Could this have been done more gently? Probably. Did I immediately go home and Google “Ray LaMontagne”? You bet I did. Turns out, the Dude I Date bears a slight resemblance to Mr. LaMontagne, particularly in a dimly lit bar. This realization cheapened the satisfaction of my birthday snub, since what I thought was a crude ploy to undermine me was, in actuality, just two young girls genuinely excited to meet a musician.
While I’m not proud of the way he entered my life, I am quite content with his current role within it. Lately, his role is prominent for the minstrel has a song to fit any mood. His catalog features no miss: Till The Sun Turns Black, Trouble, Gossip In The Grain and my current obsession, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, are all thoughtfully developed and satiating. Listening to the title track from that album you can almost hear the Appalachian soil give beneath his feet as they pivot and strain from the force of performance. Which is to say this music is the perfect synthesis of the American myth; it’s small town chatter and howling at the moon. This realm of limitless possibility under an endless western sky, however, is tempered by LaMontagne’s visceral sadness. He is a pessimist who speaks of loss with a husky sincerity in “Empty”, and of love with an other-era soul in “You Are The Best Thing.” This is the broad spectrum of human emotion flowing effortlessly from one man.
Honestly, what else does one need?