So much has changed in the last two years, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of every little turn of the screw. In the old days, I used social media, emails to friends and even this column to track the various changes, moods, ideas and events that crossed the boundaries of my orb of conscious being. Music, culture and politics all meshed in this 21st century multimedia diary to form a (semi) coherent perspective of the world at large, both local and global. However, the Setlist is no longer a weekly publication as new variants pop up and the plague continues while the anti-vaxxers enjoy a nice perch in the marketplace of ideas in this, the smartest country in the history of the world. I got rid of most social media after the election, and I barely talk about politics and culture in any forum anymore, since I believe that the time to make things better has passed. What's coming in '22 and '24 is likely horrifying. The jokes that people used to make about Idiocracy being a documentary will likely be retooled soon for The Purge series. And I can think globally and act locally all I want, but when my local liberal government representatives pick up union endorsements and then vote against pro-labor measures for pandemic workers before getting nice promotions themselves, I have to admit defeat and move on with my life. I've got books to read while I still have a warm place in which to read them.
However, here comes the ray of sunshine on the trash heap: There's still really good music being made, right here in our own rapidly gentrifying backyard. Musicians are the best artists in many ways because they can't help themselves. They know intuitively that their music occupies a space usually reserved for incense and excellent food and drink — ephemeral, best when shared, and timeless in the cherished memories of our hearts and minds. Sure, you can buy an album and listen to it for ages. But you can't go to a store and see Miles Davis at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival in person. Those experiences live in the Valhalla of the soul for the lucky few who were there wearing the right ears and eyes. I have a few performances like that in my happy place, stored safely for when I will need to go there permanently like Jonathan Pryce in the end of Brazil. I hope to gather a few more before that happens, too. Why am I sharing all of this? Because I want to be straight with you, dear reader, about where I'm at and what I'm thinking about so that when I tell you that something is worth listening to, you'll know that if nothing else I am being completely honest.
"King Spliff," the new single from local jazz rock outfit Conman Bolo, is worth listening to. I've listened to it probably 30 times; it's been on in the background pretty frequently for the last two weeks. Lyrically, the song is about one of my favorite topics: the hater. In this case, a guy who gets high all day and dedicates his entire creative output to talking shit about other musicians. As a longtime resident of the Arcata music scene, would it surprise you to learn that I have met a few fellas who fit this bill? Anyway, the lyrics are the least interesting thing about this track and I mean that in a complimentary sense because they are good. Bandleader Conner West and company have pulled together something rare: a highly derivative piece of music that's still fresh and a delight to the ears. The biggest influence that these folks cop is Steely Dan, specifically the Katy Lied album, which serves as a creative hingepoint in that band's sublime discography. I've made it no secret that the Dan has been one of my favorite bands for years and there are two live shows of theirs hidden in my private archives of divinity. And although I usually don't like Dan imitators like Mac DeMarco, Conman Bolo pulls it off, largely because the song is just irresistibly sweet. Written by West, "King Spliff" is a wonderful little diversion, the tight vocal harmonies and warmly melted keys and guitar of which sit just right in the crunchy shell of the rhythm section. And the horns, arranged by Allison Muench, are the proper filling to complete this musical taco. I'm using food terms here because it's a stoner song but, as I mentioned, that's just the theme of the lyrics. It's not a stoney song at all, although I'm sure that an imbiber of cannabis would enjoy the journey regardless. West's press release calls it yacht rock but I wish he wouldn't do that. Yacht rock is an ironic elder millennial term for the early '80s musical output of artists like Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross. The bitterness and detachment of my people's imprimatur from yesteryear is all over it. This stuff is newer and younger. If you're smart enough to write a groovy little chiller like this, you're smart enough to come up with a new stupid name for the genre. Or better yet, let a music writer from the younger set do it for you, I am perfectly happy to let the kids have a crack at this weird biz.
Conman Bolo will be playing a mask-and-vax-card show at the Miniplex on Dec. 11 to celebrate the release of this single on Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and most of the other streaming services that same day. Also on the bill is Los Angeles' delightful and peerlessly odd sound artist Jerry Paper and their supporting act Sitcom. So believe me when I tell you that this show is going to be righteous and a potential future memory bank inductee. Presale tickets are $15 and $20 at the door, and the sounds start at 9 p.m. If you feel comfortable risking the second worst disease with Greek lettering (after college fraternities, of course) then you won't want to miss this one.
Collin Yeo (he/him) wonders if there are any historical precedents for a corrupt and ineffectual liberal establishment facing a far-right insurgence during a crisis. Best not to think about it. He lives in Arcata.