When the summer solstice stretches its arms, the night moon takes its leave, and the wind stirs from the east in a soft supplication to "Live! Live, I say!"-- this, my friends, can mean only one thing: it's time for the Alameda County Fair. As we speak, deep vats of animal fat are slowly decongealing and bubbling with heat. Carnival barkers awaken from their Kubla Khan slumber and mainline methamfetamine. The Jiggle Foot machines are wiped down, waiting only for a day's worth of cheap thrills.
Sure, there was that shooting a few years back, but now the pleasantly insouciant fair folk funnel you through a metal detector upon entrance, so no worries. (The whole skirmish was apparently caused by some frustrated Don Juan who couldn't win a stuffed animal for his lady. Either that or he was hip to the notion that the only reason for an adult to win a life-size Bugs Bunny stuffed with Styrofoam is to slap some sunglasses on it, prop it up in the back seat, and then sail home in the diamond lane.)
Those with strong stomachs will take in the rides, but certainly the best thing to do at the fair, hands-down, is check out the amateurs. We're talking exhibition halls filled with "outsider" art (ahem), sculpture made from breakfast cereal, dioramas of everything from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Backstreet Boys' tour bus, and don't forget the 4-H cake hut. Best of all, if your talent lives withinyour own larynx, you can display your wares in the gazebo at the Four Seasons Stage. Each year dozens of upstarts sign up for an hour of singing their little uvulas off. It's a Star Search of sorts, although the only "talent scouts" in the crowd are middle-aged heschers on their fourth corndog, eyeballing the fifteen-year-old girls singing "I'm a genie in a bottle, baby, got to rub me the right way."The performers sing over recordings, or, in some cases, the sound guy just lowers the original vocals in the mix, and the kids do their best to sing over it. Kids' living-room shows for Grandma and Grandpa have become (sniff) America's Show.
Last weekend featured the Garcia Sisters, three girls ranging in age from ten to seventeen. Their voices were remarkable, and the littlest one's rendition of "Crazy" caused even the funnelcake pourer to pause. The brother, however, was problematic. Face it, girls, he's holding you back. He sounded like he got his head caught in the cotton candy machine -- all sticky sweet and painful.
These shows are really about more than "talent." When you boil it down, there are two types of talent: the fictional kind where artists interpret someone else's stuff, and nonfiction, where artists create and perform their own work. Both have their place. Most children fall into the former category, since they haven't had time to cultivate much else. Then there's Oakland's Moss Brothers.
If you haven't heard of them yet, the Moss Brothers are Reuben, twelve, and Evan, fifteen. Reuben plays guitar and Evan plays drums, though both are adept at other instruments as well. They have recorded two albums, the last of which included basslines by Metallica's Jason Newsted, who also has been appearing with them at various gigs around the bay. He's not doing it as a gimmick -- the Moss Brothers are making music that's truly catchy, eccentric, and real.
Jason is amazing. He really just loves their music and wanted to help out however he could. He didn't do any of the writing but only played what Reuben suggested to him, says Dad in the Moss' Piedmont kitchen.
When we meet up, the pair is fresh off playing a private party in the City with Spinal Tap the evening before. Pictures show Evan and the sweetly myopic Reuben knee-deep in fans. The younger brother is all smiles, with lipstick traces on his cheek. Reuben is the Little Man Tate of the pair, a polite yet fidgety genius who, toward the end of the interview, periodically lolls his head back and yawns as if bored at church.
"What are some things that people have said about you guys that you hate?"
Reuben sums it up in one word: "Simple."
"They think that just because we are young, our music is simple," adds Evan.
Their songs seem blues-based, though neither really listens to the blues. (Reuben once cited Trent Reznor as his main influence.) The subject matter is seemingly simple, but their approach is not. They write about Grandpa turning eighty, about cleaning their rooms, about "Football All the Way." They are talented in the nonfiction sense -- everything's created and performed by them, and it's good.
"Reuben didn't want to write love songs like everyone else," says their mom.
"And no songs about destruction," adds Reuben.
"No love songs or songs about destruction. What else is there?"
Reuben perks up a bit, and says decidedly, "Fiction."
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