Sonny & the Sunsets
Dick Stusso, The Gonks
628 Divisadero St
San Francisco, CA, 94117
Doors 8:30 PM / Show 9:00 PM
This event is 21 and over
Sonny & the Sunsets
The modern age sends love letters on yellowed, empty pages. It’s got telepathic advice gurus in its timeline and deep sea creatures washing up on its shores. It’s got plugs, buttons, and illusions, and a grocery store whose aisles correspond to Dante’s infernal circles, plus a nebulous sense of ephemeral weirdness. It’s got Moods Baby Moods and the existential angst it yields has Sonny Smith in a funk, but he’s turned it into funk.
On previous records, the Sunsets have plundered a wide spectrum of musical appropriation (garage-rock, forgotten AM radio fodder, Modern Lovers, late-era Clash, Doo-Wop, and the Velvet Underground, to name a few.) Mood Baby Moods follows suit, and on this outing we find the Sunsets, along with producer Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, repurposing early ‘80s funk and new wave with rap beats and collages from both sides of the ocean (be it Niles Rogers, Jah Wobble, The Gap Band, Orange Juice, Trans-era Neil Young or The Tom Tom Club.) These are songs that juxtapose the haze of today with a vibrant and colorful explosion of sounds and 180 degree turns.
Sonny’s gift for vivid storytelling is no secret. His last album with the Sunsets, Talent Night at the Ashram, was peopled by characters he’d created for scripts that never saw the light of day. He greeted 2016 with a solo LP (Sees All Knows All) that involved no singing at all — a winding tale of one musician’s quest to find himself set to music. Moods Baby Moods is no less inventive and arguably more musically sophisticated than Smith’s previous records.
“Death Cream Part 2” picks up a comic book tale started on 2009’s Tomorrow Is Alright, tracing that titular tube of heinous goop back to a grocery store/hell. “Modern Age” transfers from a party to a string quartet, with elements of dub, while the narrator comes to grips with meaninglessness – ‘modern age/nothing to say.’ “Well but Strangely Hung Men” bridges a gap between Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Richard Brautigan over a driving post disco beat.
The real life cast supporting Moods Baby Moods is fittingly rife with outsider talent. Garbus’ voice can be heard throughout. Shayde Sartin’s bass, Edmund Xavier’s drum machine beats and Smith’s guitar form the foundations, and regular Tahlia Harbour continues her back and forth banter with Smith. Cold Beat’s Hannah Lew brings a Kleenex/Young Marble Giants flavor to the songs. Shannon Shaw and Jibz Cameron drop by for a skit, and Kaznary Mutoh of Tokyo’s Boys Age lends guitars and garbles the outro of “Modern Age.”
Lyrically, Smith is playing with the grand themes of today. In his search for purpose in the cruel realities of the modern age, he’s trying to make sense out of chaos and suffering, and to find a way to live and be real. This is not an easy task in a time of synthetic feelings (“Moods”), computer created confusion (“Modern Age”), climate change (“Dead Meat on the Beach”), civil rights abuse (“White Cops on Trial”), and the uneasy feeling of numbness in our chaotic world (“Check Out”).
But in the final moments of Moods Baby Moods, Sonny delivers a line that not only speaks truth to his philosophy as played out across his career, but to what it means to be human in any era, regardless of our relationships with technology, spirituality, authority, or art: “I’m full of love, and shit, all the time.”
That old blues hound dog Bonnie Raitt probably sang it best and most lucid in her timeless, pedestrian hit “Nick of Time”: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” And so now, her wise lyrical turn seems to be ringing true for Oakland muso Dick Stusso. When we last caught up with this Bay Area BBQ gaucho on his debut, Nashville Dreams, he’d hit that special zen layer of loserdom. He’d thrown up his hands into the folly of failure. He was the affable, bumbling red-cheeked drunk lurking around the edges of the cookout — bumming smokes, putting down all the white wine and cocktail shrimp he could get away with. But now, a couple years on, that early-30s existential dread has crept its way into Dick’s purview. With his sophomore long-player In Heaven, Stusso’s numbered human days are on his mind. Without stumbling into pomposity, Dick has taken back the wheel on his life and is doing a bit of hotdogging.
The album sounds so assured, you’d never guess the whole endeavor was almost completely down the tubes. “I was about 75% done with the album and then my apartment got burgled,” Stusso said of In Heaven’s bummer origins. “They took it all.” Having laid it almost exclusively to tape, there weren’t even files to pull from. But what seemed like another sour turn for Dick actually ended up being a little lemon zest in his G&T. He ended up teaming with psych visionary producer Greg Ashley in a defunct old church, making for a leap in fidelity on In Heaven.
The new peacock strut to Dick’s vague longing and malaise suits his countrified T. Rex sound quite well. Exhibit A: album standout “Modern Music,” a sort of State of the Union and State of the Soul all set over a warm, gauzy glam bass line. “Nobody wants to look at the dark heart, I don’t blame you/Nobody wants to look at the dark heart, myself included,” he sings a low-register Orbison sneer. “I’m just looking for a good time and a little cash-uh.” Employing deft songcraft, which includes a wide open ambient midsection to really get you thinking about The Void, Dick manages to take down both capitalism and the bullshit conditions of human mortality without sounding all that put out by either.
The son of a sax player who gigged with Tower of Power, The Doobie Brothers and Huey Lewis, Dick was warned early on to stay clear of the musician life by his old man. But after a youth spent clerking in indie records stores and learning about country music through YouTube deep dives, Dick got the bug. Towards the end of In Heaven, Stusso gives us the gorgeous, loping ballad, “Terror Management.” The song stands as his salute to scholar Sheldon Solomon, whose Terror Management Theory essentially states that all human activity and culture are based in a fear of death. “On an unknown trajectory,” Dick croons, seemingly half-drugged, half-consumed with death anxiety. “I wish I had a better handle on things.” And as the song wraps with a lovely upright piano arrangement, you hear someone, probably Dick, tell the engineer to cut the tape. “That might be good enough,” he says, seemingly all too aware of the forward march of time and eager to get started on his next timeless jam.
The Gonks eat dust lick boots suck balls and feature members of the She’s, Cool Ghouls and Sonny and the Sunsets.
$16 ADV - $18 DOOR
Tickets Available at the Door