In a perfect world, I would love for my California friends to be able to meet my East Coast friends. And I wish my fellow music fiends back in New Haven and New York could get to see Blake Jones play at least once.
He’s in his late 40s, like me, and has been part of the Fresno music scene since the late ’70s. He was one of the first people I met here — one Saturday morning at Spinners Records in the Tower District in January 2004, while I was out here on my job interview. And he and his wife, Lauri, are two of the nicest and most supportive people in the universe.
A pop composer extraordinaire whose whose earlier work reminded me of Lennon & McCartney meets Brian Wilson meets XTC, with a dash of Zappa and a dollop of theremins, he currently performs in three configurations: with The Trike Shop; his Ill-Advised Solo Shows; and, very infrequently, a Beatle band called Ticket to Ride that plays the obscure stuff (say, “Think for Yourself,” “What You’re Doing” and the German songs).
Well, barring me winning MegaMillions, I don’t think my east and west coasts will ever meet. But those of you shackled by geography can really get to know him and his heart, musically and spiritually, through the Trike Shop’s wonderful new album, “The Underground Garden,” which he’ll unveil Saturday night (April 24) at Audie’s Olympic in Fresno. Maybe his latest bit of musical agriculture will become something else for which the Central San Joaquin Valley can be world-famous.
The album’s title is a metaphor with roots — okay, a root cellar — in Fresno. It needs some explanation for non-Fresnans. The title comes from the Forestiere Underground Gardens, a California landmark. It was a subterranean home begun in 1906 by a Sicilian immigrant named Baldassare Forestiere (1879-1946). A man with no formal education, he moved here to build a citrus empire, was stuck with a plot of useless land in northwest Fresno, and made the most of it.
Understand that most contemporary, cookie-cutter homes in prefab, suburban-sprawl Fresno are built on concrete slabs, cutting corners to avoid having to hack through the hardpan soil. (It’s fine to do it for swimming pools, apparently, but cellars, where people could really stay cool in the summer, are another story.) Some of the older and tonier homes in town (such as the one I live in, built in 1917) have cellars, but the cost of cutting through the hardpan is expensive, and there’s always the threat of flooding in the winter (though flood control has improved vastly over the decades).
Forestiere said screw that; out in what was very remote farmland at the time, he broke through the hardpan and carved out 10 acres of tunnels and rooms, based on the ancient catacombs. And in the brutal heat of the central San Joaquin Valley summer, he had the coolest house in town, in more ways than one. Some of the tunnels were destroyed in the ’50s to make way for the Highway 99 freeway to the west, but most of them survive as a tourist attraction run by his family.
Jones used Forestiere’s garden as a springboard — both to a series of underground music history programs at the Rogue Performance Festival (the largest fringe fest in the U.S. west of the Mississippi) in early March, and now this album.
He’s a world-class talent as a songwriter and performer; The Trike Shop (Jones on vocals, guitar and theremin, Mike Scott on guitar, Leland Vander Poel on keys, Martin Hansen on bass, John Shafer on drums), not only regularly performs at the Los Angeles portion of the International Pop Overthrow festival, they played Liverpool’s Cavern Club in July 2007.
Conventional wisdom says he should be living in a bigger and better place, where more people can know about him and revel in his work. But no, the Central Valley is home. This is where he and Lauri grew up, hammered down a stake and raised a family. He planted his underground garden in a big corner house in the center of Kingsburg, a small city 20 miles from here, best known for Sun-Maid Raisins’ world headquarters and an inordinate number of Swedes. And from there — actually, in the garage out back — he plants the seeds of some wonderful tunes.
And in the process, like Forestiere did with his farmland, Jones has said screw it to musical convention in what is generally a barren cultural outpost, a region of strip malls, chain restaurants and chronic intellectual incuriosity.
His heart might beat strongly for the Fab Four — but for The Beatles who defied convention in their time as well, in both musical styles and fashion. That’s what he’s taken away from his lifelong fandom — and in that regard, he’s as spiritually attuned and subversively rebellious as Lennon and McCartney. He’s spent his musical life “Fighting the Big Dumb Noise” — as he so puts it on one song on this album, a tune that combines XTC’s off-kilter cadence with a hint of “Magical Mystery Tour” and late-’60s Beach Boys vocal accents. Big dumb noise is all we hear any time we turn on a commercial radio station; it’s also the celebrity culture we’re bombarded with at a time when we really need substance. And this is his rejoinder. At this point, Jones may be tilting at windmills, but he’s having fun doing it. And it shows.
This fourth Trike Shop album since 1997 and first in five years (he also recorded last year’s “Theremins of Mystery”) is his tightest work to date. Some of these seeds, such as the aforementioned “Big Dumb Noise,” have been germinating for three years in one form or another, and it’s wonderful to hear these tunes tightly crafted and produced.
The opening song, a flat-out infectiously bouncy and full-throated “Forestiere Gardens,” encapsulates the tone of the album and the spirit of the artist all at once. What Jones writes about Forestiere also applies to himself, though he’d be too humble to admit it: “People loved the place but talk about it rarely/Cuz no one wants to live their life beyond the ordinary” and “Forestiere Gardens so cool down below/We’re hanging out in the underground/I wish these tunnels ran all over town/We’d fill them up with a local sound/Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.”
“Sun Up,” which shamelessly takes its intro hook from “Magical Mystery Tour” before noodling off in other directions (i.e. a halting rhythm break that conjures XTC’s “Life Begins at the Hop” and a lite version of Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”) probably would’ve been a hit in the ’60s and deserves to be one now. Another catchy selection, “Send the Band to Liverpool,” an oldie from when they were raising money to get there, melds early-’80s new wave rhythms with Raspberries harmonic breeziness, a faint echo of George Harrison and a “Peggy Sue” drumroll. And the artist satisfies his theremin (ahem) jones on the faux-sci-fi lounge number “The 5 Deadly Fingers of Dr. Theremin.”
You might question the wisdom of a Christmas song in late April, but as social commentary, the jaunty and just-as-catchy strummer “Christmas Sale” works just fine. Inspired by the right-wing Christians down South a few years back who objected to Target calling their year-end sale a “holiday sale” instead of a “Christmas sale,” Jones lets go with both barrels, kindly in delivery but barbed with sarcasm: “How can God survive without us?/Without us worried about him and solving his problems/Without us passing his laws and fighting his battles,” and “How did God survive before us?/Without General Washington securing the manger?/Without Irving Berlin orchestrating the angels?”
For all the heart Jones wears on his baggy sleeve on this album, though, he saves the biggest pieces of it for near the end — the tag team of “Out & Free & Faraway” and “Everybody’s Got an Andy Story.”
The former, a spread-your-wings pop tune with a healthy dose of late-period Beatles, is a so-sweet tribute to his late brother Bryan, an FM alt-rock jock in San Diego and Fresno who died in 2006 at an all-too-young 49. Kid brother really did him justice — capped by a mournful snare rat-a-tatting over a snippet of an aircheck of Joe Strummer hanging out with Bryan at an early-’80s Clash show in Fresno.
The latter is a solo acoustic tribute (with a “Love Will Tear Us Apart” feel) to an old-school local punk who was slowed by brain damage from a car accident a few years ago, and it’s linked to that same Clash show (“And we were all very jealous I must confessa/Cuz you were sitting with Joe Strummer on my brother’s Vespa”). Every punk/alt-rock scene has its tales of one or more people who died young (or, in this case, were incapaciated) and left a lot of tales in their wake, recalled over beers or coffee years later by their friends with a mix of knowingly sad smiles and occasional tears. Jones captures the essence of his friend in a way any scenester can understand completely.
It doesn’t matter whether a plant grows underground or on the surface, as long as it gets enough light and water and TLC. Jones continues to grow his subterranean musical garden, a lush landscape of sound and words, away from the prying eyes of the mainstream musical public walking so tantalizingly close by. But enough with the underground already — it’s time to bring him and The Trike Shop out into the light.
Blake Jones & the Trike Shop will hold their CD release show for “The Underground Garden” starting at 9 p.m. Saturday (April 24) at Audie’s Olympic, 1426 N. Van Ness Ave., Fresno.
The show will be a huge multimedia celebration. Among the musicians appearing will be Andrew Bunnell (PinkEye), Lisa Kao (Lisa’s Big Night Out), Tom Magill (Poplord), Mallory Moad (Scats on the Sly), Joy Mohler (Suicide Lounge), Ron “Doc” Morse (Docabilly), Peter Mordyk (and his ukelele), Glen Parish (Let’s Go Bowling), George Rotalo, Stan Schaffer (Poplord), Josh Tehee (It’ll Grow Back) and Dylan Tidyman-Jones (Wheels of Fortune).
In addition, an “Underground Garden” art piece — a collaborative effort by a dozen local artists — will be unveiled. Artist/craftsman Adam Wall created the wooden tiles used by the artists and the frame that joins them together. The other artists involved include Teresa Flores, Shannon Johnson, Aileen Imperatrice, Ross Garcia, MyCow, Monica Geigle, David Gomez, Grayson Soenke, Abolino Bautista, Donnalee Dunn, Jamie Meadows, Ole Scovill, Ramiro Martinez and Ed Stewart.
Admission is $3; for more on the show on how to buy the CD, go to www.blakejonesmusic.com for more details.
(If you have an album to be reviewed, or know of an album I should be aware of — and it has to be available in CD form — email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For disclosure’s sake: I was given an advance copy of this CD.)