Caryn Rose is a Brooklyn-based music writer, novelist and photographer who documents rock-and-roll, baseball and urban life. She is the author of Raise Your Hand: Adventures of an American Springsteen Fan in Europe and the novels A Whole New Ballgame and B-Sides and Broken Hearts. email
Lisa Simon, age 37, still loves loud punk rock and hates Dave Matthews with an all-consuming passion. April 15, 2001 should have been just another Sunday night. But a news headline landing in Lisa’s email inbox changes everything: “Joey Ramone is dead.” The death of one of her teenage heroes serves as an long-overdue wake-up call causing Lisa to examine her life and how she’s lived it, from her youth as a poet on the streets of the East Village to 10 years later, all grown up with a career and a fiance. Add to the mix Jake McDaniel, lead singer of million-selling, critically-regarded Seattle band Blue Electric, known better to Lisa as the starving renegades who lived next door to her when she first arrived in Seattle. In the midst of an unexpectedly heated argument with the fiance over the historical relevance (or not) of the Ramones – which forces Lisa to face the truth about her relationship – Jake writes and invites Lisa to LA. Throwing what seems like half her cd collection in the car, along with a wardrobe consisting of high heels, jeans and t-shirts, Lisa starts driving from Seattle to LA in the middle of the night, accompanied by music, memories, and the ghosts of the past. Arriving in LA, she finds refuge, but also collides with her past, present and future; decisions need to be made, and this time, Lisa stands her ground.
I remember the night Joey Ramone died. I remember getting the news, I remember the first email hitting my inbox with a ding and then the ding ding ding continuing, building, as I sat there reading that first email with that first news story, not believing what I was reading, and then reading it again and again as though rereading it I would find something different, that he would somehow not be dead. I remember listening to the U2 show from Irving Plaza and thinking that things sounded good, as they covered “I Remember You,” not knowing that they had just seen Joey in his hospital room and things were not good, at all. I remember sitting there feeling alone, 3,000 miles away from New York City, wanting to go into a bodega, buy a 7 day votive candle, walk down Bowery and stand in front of CBGBs and light that candle and stand there and cry for a good long while. But I couldn’t do that, because I wasn’t there.
A few months later, I started a novel about how someone’s life changed the night Joey Ramone died. It was originally titled JOEY RAMONE IS DEAD, and is now called B-SIDES AND BROKEN HEARTS.
The first time I met Nick Hornby, I took a deep breath and blurted out that my goal was to write the woman’s version of High Fidelity. I wanted to read a book where a woman could like music as much as a guy and not be called a groupie or be told that she sure knew a lot about music for a girl.
Let’s get things straight: I am not a fan of Billy Joel. When I was growing up and his songs were everywhere on FM radio, you generally chose sides, and you couldn’t be Team Springsteen and Team Joel, not that I had any affinity towards the latter. The ‘ack-ack-ack’ in “Movin’ Out” was cringe-worthy-embarrassing, “She’s Always A Woman” was the inevitable slow number at the high school dance where I had to deal with probably not being that into the dude and hating the song I was dancing to, “Only The Good Die Young” was the type of thing that would be leered at you from the back row of algebra class by high school Lotharios who thought that this negative reinforcement would somehow convince me to drop my panties. “You know I hate Billy Joel,” I said, slamming a locker door, “So I don’t care much what he’d think of me.”
But I didn’t dislike the guy, you know, and I felt more of a kinship to his music than I did, say, the BostonKansasForeignerStyx lobby. I was further swayed by a editorial Joey Ramone wrote in HIGH TIMES (of all places, and I have no idea how I ever stumbled across this), where his point was that while Billy Joel’s music might be for your parents, he worked hard and wrote his own songs. I would listen to “Songs From An Italian Restaurant” to the point of Mark Rivera’s first sax solo, and would admit to liking some of the earlier material, like “Captain Jack” and “Miami 2017”.
Cut to 40 years later and he’s onstage at 12-12-12, and I know all the songs and sing along quite happily up in the rafters. He’d been off the road for about three years at that point, chasing various demons, and an awful lot of music writers were vocally rooting for him that night. He absolutely has a knack of showing up at these types of big events and embodying New York City in a way that no one else can. And Friday night at Madison Square Garden, a year into his MSG residency, he’s breaking records and creating that feeling of an uniquely New York event.
It’s unusual for me to attend an arena act by someone I only casually care about. It’s equally unusual for me to show up at the Garden in a relaxed mode, with zero obligations or considerations of out of town friends or other time pressures. I would later joke that it was like visiting a foreign country where you speak the language, just not the dialect particular to a certain province. So I could relate to the uberfans playing air piano or the dude jumping up and down behind the stage during the deep cuts, wearing a Jersey license plate reading JOEL FN hung around his neck. (Serendipitously, someone I know on Twitter grew up with that guy, and told me he’s had the same license plate since he was 17.) But I didn’t know the cues or the in-jokes, like the fact that the entire audience would wave goodbye in unison to Brenda and Eddie during the aforementioned “Italian Restaurant,” that the entire Garden would go dark during the ‘turn out the line’ in “You May Be Right,” or that entire rows—seemingly sections—of the place would sway back and forth in unison with zero irony whatsoever during “She’s Only A Woman.” But none of this is said in derision; if you stood next to me during a Springsteen concert and weren’t (as we refer to it) “Church of Bruce,” you would probably feel like you were at a Rocky Horror screening.
I’d pulled seats side-stage, one of my favorite Garden locations, right on the aisle at the price break. The stage is round, and then Billy’s piano is on a revolving platform in the center of the stage. I sat in that exact section when Springsteen played The Wild, The Innocent and the E street Shuffle a few years back, and getting to watch Roy Bittan’s hands on the piano during ‘New York City Serenade” was a little like watching Michaelangelo put the finishing touches on David. And it was similar when platform turned and Billy Joel’s back was to us, on numbers like “New York State of Mind.” I am always a sucker for a big arena anthem, and Joel’s got ‘em in spades.
Everything about this operation runs promptly — there’s more than a little Vegas in the merchandise and the pre-show promo video for the Live in Russia DVD (which, truth be told, I got for free from my last job and is actually incredibly interesting) and the opener (who I characterized “it’s like if Michael Buble played covers on piano”) going on literally the second 8:00pm hit the clock, with the lights dimming a few seconds before 9pm. I was utterly thrilled to hear the opening notes of “Miami 2017,” and was reflecting on it being an incredibly gutsy choice for an opening number—only for my reverie to be interrupted repeatedly as the guy two seats in came running back with cocktails, barging into me, and then repeated a few seconds later when the guy in front of me knocked into me getting out of the way for the drink runners in his row. I moved out of my aisle seat and up and down the stairs to accommodate beer runs so often during the performance I started to feel like I was square dancing. Had this been an artist I cared about, I would have been livid at this scenario. But this is what happens when Brenda and Eddie go out on a Friday night. (The ladies’ room before the show was full of big hair, rhinestones, high heels, hair spray and every Long Island cliche you could possibly imagine.)
But they love their guy, and they sang and they danced and they hugged their kids and each other, and the Garden was alive — even during the slow numbers — in a way that only the greats can pull off. I’ve seen it like this for Bruce, and Pearl Jam, and the Who and the Stones. It’s not easy; it’s not guaranteed; it takes hard work. I am also relieved to report that despite the new renovations, the building still bounces when the moment is right. If you haven’t been in a while, the lobby is unrecognizable, and the concourses are so foreign to me now I am completely disoriented, as though I am in a brand new arena—don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled with the space and the disappearance of those oppressive, prison-like cinderblock walls, and there’s a lot of Garden history along the walls (be sure to look for the ‘every day in Garden history’ timeline that runs along the top of the outer wall) and it still sounds just fine. There are also expanded food and drink choices, including cups of wine and cocktails glasses, all of which come with lids. (I am still sneaking in a bottle of water and snacks and avoiding paying James Dolan for anything if I can get away with it.)
I deliberately did not look at set lists prior to this show, so it was more hit-heavy than I was led to believe it would be. I am sorry to not have heard “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “The Stranger,” or “Captain Jack”; was thrilled with “Miami” and “New York State of Mind,” and can tell you with absolute certainty that “Zanzibar” is as awful as you remember it. But even when I didn’t like the songs, I liked watching him play, I liked his band, which was slick enough to make you feel you got your money’s worth, but not completely soulless. The man himself was humble, repeatedly grateful, self-deprecating. I’m glad I saw him, and am glad for his success at this stage of his career—he’s still one of the good guys, even if he doesn’t play for my particular team.
It seemed like the most improbable New York thing, this 3pm announcement as I come out of a meeting that U2 are performing — with Bruce Springsteen! — in Times Square a few hours from now. I text friends. I make up setlists on Twitter. I go through an executive presentation until 5:40, at which point I say, “Can we wrap this up? Bruce and U2 are playing in Times Square, I need to get a move on.”
I walk out to a chilly rain, which did not figure into my plans. I buy one of those obnoxious saran wrap tourist ponchos at Duane Reade, and get on a subway. I am counting on being smarter and stealthier than your average concert attendee, but by the time I make my way up to 52nd Street and then down Broadway—all the side streets were cut off—I was not entirely sure that I would be able to pull this off. Now that I think about it, there was probably a way to make it up to my friend who was just a few rows from the stage, but I found a good place in the second barrier, just behind a tall dude, but in front of an area that had to be kept clear for the camera crane. I had an unobstructed view of the stage and that was fine with me.
Luckily, with advertisers and a webcast, things need to run on time, and sure enough, we are informed that we are going to start in 15 minutes, then 9 minutes. They announce the list of artists, and we cheer appropriately (or inappropriately, in the case of Chris Martin). We sit through someone from Bank of America and then Bill Clinton (who managed to drop a Hillary reference), and I’m watching the Edge’s guitar tech standing there holding a guitar that looks suspiciously like the Edge’s Explorer, not expecting Larry, Adam and Edge to walk onstage right after that. Unfortunately they are also joined by Chris Martin, who proceeds to butcher “Beautiful Day.” He is wearing a tshirt that reads “SUBSTITU2” which is actually pretty funny, but I still actively despise him. “With Or Without You” is my least favorite U2 song, and I take notes and amuse myself by texting a friend who is uptown at Bob Dylan about how painful this is.
But then there is a moment where the collective noise being made by the three gentlemen in U2 not-so-gently reminds me that they are on that stage, and they are making that noise that only they can make, and I am lucky to be here listening to it.
I have nothing against Carrie Underwood but did not find her songs particularly interesting. The NYU kids behind me, who were super-excited to see Kanye, kept remarking how great her voice was. But then the second-best moment of the evening took place, as Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. came out to introduce Kanye West. Larry’s voice BOOMED, “NEW YORK, GIVE IT UP FOR KANYE WEST!” with a grin so big you could have seen it all the way up to 57th Street.
The crowd absolutely came alive to Kanye more than any other artist during the course of the evening. Hands in the air, dudes jumping up and down…and all of those people made their way out of the front as soon as he was done. Kanye was sharp and I enjoyed his set.
Kevin Buell is checking a mic stand and so I know who is next on that stage, although I guess if I’d looked at a clock or something I would have figured that out, or even simple process of elimination. But I’m kind of glad I had that external cue, because when Edge, Larry and Adam came back out, put on instruments, and Mr David Evans began to strum the unmistakable opening notes of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” the world stood still.
The opening of “Streets” is like that, you know? It’s that gentle arpeggio, that cascade of notes, that deceptively calm moment before the storm. It’s the sparks from the second you light the fuse, the opening hiss as the bubbles begin to escape from a bottle of champagne. Jump Jump Jump, I am surrounded by tourists holding up cell phones and I do not care if they think I am a madwoman, I am going to REPRESENT and they can all go to hell. This is Streets. This is what you do. It is muscle memory. It is involuntary response. It is tribal, it is ritual, it is everything.
Part of the artistry of “Streets” is the way it builds from section to section, and we go from that cascade of notes into second gear where the rhythm section engages and the notes speed up and even though he’s been out there for half a minute, nodding and vibing, the Edge yells, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MR. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN,” as he walks to the front of the stage, mic in hand, and the crowd cheers and Bruce roars those opening lines, absolutely roars. He is singing, he is soul shouting, he is absolutely motherfucking BRINGING IT.
Not that he had any choice, you know? It’s “Streets.” It’s the song where God walks through the room, according to Bono. “It’s the point where craft ends and spirit begins,” he says, and if you don’t like Bono you will find that statement pretentious, but if you have ever stood in a stadium or an arena when this song is played and every single person is on their feet and jumping up and down, you will just nod your head because you know that he is right. And Mr. Bruce Springsteen is standing in the Crossroads of the World, substituting for one of the world’s most infamous frontmen–there was no way he was going to do anything less than give it everything.
“Streets” is being in the middle of a pogoing mass, “Streets” is abandon and freedom and heart, your heart opening up wider than you ever thought it could. “Streets” is knowing those moments when the song changes pace, that section at the end of the first chorus, where the band stutter steps just a second before the last verse, where the rhythm section pivots in razor sharp lock step and Larry executes those almost martial rolls into a more syncopated beat, while Edge is peeling off a wall of shimmering guitar notes that seem to be intertwining with the raindrops, echoing off the skyscrapers, bringing the world’s revolution to a halt for a split second.
And all of this is happening in the middle of Times Square, with the light and the energy and the surge of the city underneath my feet, and my guy is up there singing one of the biggest songs that you can sing onstage with anyone, ever. I turned my face up into the raindrops and let them fall like liquid sunshine, and not like the freezing cold drops of slush that they actually were. It was huge and big and bright and beautiful and felt like you were standing in the middle of a lit firecracker.
I have seen a lot of amazing Bruce Springsteen moments. I have seen a lot of amazing rock and roll moments. This one was absolute magic, pure and simple.
As the song ends, Bruce walks to the edges of the stage, pumping his fist the way he always does when he KNOWS that he’s nailed a particular performance. He is leather jacket clad, looking thin, but that voice is full of so much energy you couldn’t possibly worry. “Thank you New York…I want to send this out to Bono in Ireland,” he says, “Be well, my friend.” It’s the obvious choice for a second number, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” obvious because he’s done it before (twice) and it’s U2’s version of a gospel hymn and Bruce’s heart is so very there there days. The crowd knows this one, even more than “Streets,” and they are more than ready to sing when we get to the chorus and Bruce says, “Take me to church now.” It is sweet and strong, and utterly heartwarming, the singalong echoing through the midtown canyons.
Bruce turns to sings with Edge in the harmony lines, he then turns to sing to Larry and Adam. It is a touching, beautiful thing to watch; there is a big mutual admiration society up there. (I saw when I got home and could watch the video that Larry and Adam applauded Bruce after “Streets.” It’s high praise indeed when Larry Mullen offers you applause.)
We are entranced, until the musicians take off their instruments and Kanye and Carrie and Chris return, and then we remember that this enchanted carriage had to turn back into a pumpkin, and it has been both the quickest 45 minutes of your life, and also the longest. The rain has turned to sleet, and I trudge up Broadway towards the subway. I hit my train and my bus and feel like a goddamn rock and roll Audrey Hepburn, walking home an inch or two taller, vibrating with amazement and wonder. This is why we live here; this is why we put up with the rats and the crazy people on the subway and apartments the size of a kitchen for the price of a mortgage. In a split second, your day can change and you can walk uptown and into a miracle.
Seeing Bob is about so much these days besides *seeing Bob*. It is about showing up, it is about paying tribute, it is about memories and chasing ghosts. I am not proud to say that I insisted on going to this show on the assertion that this might be the last time we see him, so it is time to pick a show and pay the money and go, dammit.
NJPAC is a lovely venue that is a reasonable walk from Newark Penn Station; you can take the light rail one stop if it’s raining, but you’ll likely end up walking back (like we did) because they run every 30 minutes later in the evening. It is new-ish at this point, and surprisingly grand, and feels more like a European opera house than it does a venue in New Jersey. Our seats were right on the price break after the VIP, which meant 12th row stage right. The sound is very, very warm; there is a lot of good resonance in the house. This is important for this kind of show and for this show, especially, it made a big difference.
I was a little concerned when his voice was overly raspy on “Things Have Changed” and sat there thinking that he was sick in this awful changing winter weather, and the road, but he warmed up by “Workingman’s Blues #2″ and then I sat there muttering that he needs to warm up and not use the beginning of the set for that purpose, but by the intermission I realized that at 73, throwing away what’s left of the voice on a warmup is stupid. Once he got to the fourth song, his voice was strong and emotive, and “Pay In Blood” was absolutely riveting. He moves between this mysterious trio of mics at center stage (one standard at the center which he actually sang into, with two vintage on either side, which we originally thought were for use with a harmonica, but weren’t, and remained completely unused the entire evening) and the piano, sometimes (as the case of “Tangled Up In Blue”) within the same song.
“Tangled Up In Blue” was the first cascade of applause at the start of a song. I didn’t know if it was because the performance was particularly powerful or if it was the first song the rank and file recognized. I’m never sure, you know? At least in a theater setting you did not have the additional distraction of the first-timers getting agitated realizing that Bob is not going to sing the songs they know in the way they will recognize them (although the couple to our right did not get up or applaud once the entire evening; I’m still not sure what was up with that).
The guy behind us, who came up from Philly (he told the story six times in the course of the evening) yelled for “Blueberry Hill” throughout the evening. Normally I would be annoyed but given the fact that he did play it a couple of days earlier, I couldn’t really blame him too much for trying. The crowd remained seated, despite a few attempts up front to change the dynamic; security chastened anyone who tried, with the exception of the petite woman front row center, who I decided won some kind of award once I realized that she was wearing a pillbox hat (and house lights at intermission confirmed the obvious second half of that statement.) Really, if you’ve been to the Beacon, the ushers are just as unpleasant and disciplinarian, almost to the point of distraction; there was a woman on the aisle in the fifth row who would leap to her feet to dance in defiance for a few seconds every time an usher was in the rows in front of her waving a flashlight at someone with an iPhone.
But I digress.
The band left the stage after “Love Sick” and came back out 15 minutes or so later to kick off the second set with “High Water (For Charley Patton),” which I was happy to see. The back half of the set was not as focused as it was earlier; the intermission might give Bob a needed voice break but I think it broke focus. The performances were still above-average–this was, hands down, the strongest I have seen Dylan in the last decade–but it did not connect as powerfully for me as the start did.
There is so much to consider and ruminate on. The stage, the very dim lights, except for the few times they are reasonably brighter but still not as intense as a standard rock show. The grand piano, the classical bust of a woman on stage right that remained spotlit the entire time, even when the rest of the stage was dark. Bob’s old timey carnival barker suit. The hat, straight of the Desire era. His onstage demeanor, trying to discern if he was engaging with the crowd or not; I think he did see us and did notice those attempts by the faithful to stand and salute and cheer. There was one trip back from the piano where he almost did a little ‘fuck yeah’ triumphant dance (maybe at the end of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”? I was concentrating so hard for the first few songs I forgot to take notes), which was preceded by a fluid, loud interlude on the keyboard. He would sometimes sashay a little bit over to stage right and pause with his left hand on his hip; that was the most acknowledgement he gave all night.
(Even in 2014 we still parse everything he does for some kind of deeper meaning. Sometimes a walk a few feet away from the mic is just a walk.)
The setlist is frozen because he knows he can sing the songs and these are the songs he wants to sing, and sing them well. He has pulled out a few chestnuts and fashioned new renditions that suit his voice. The backing band is, as usual, unbelievably competent. They play well together and follow Bob like glue, but in a soulful, fluid fashion; they’re not playing like a bunch of session dudes up there. This has been a continual hallmark and delight of the Never Ending Tour.
The SO was pleased to get to hear Bob Dylan sing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which I realize is no small thing, to heard the person who wrote the song actually sing the words live in front of you. My problem is that my list of songs I want to hear Dylan sing were already out of the setlist before I even got a chance; after, say, Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square Club, Otis at Monterey, or the Velvet Underground at Max’s, the Rolling Thunder Revue remains one of the shows I most regret not being old enough to have attended. I tend to be philosophical about this, mostly because there’s nothing I can DO about it. So I don’t even go to Dylan hoping for anything except the experience of being in the same room with Bob, which is a ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances’ kind of proposition these days.
But this time out, everything fell into place and Dylan was masterful, powerful even, exceeding expectations. Which at 73 is more than anyone can hope for, and probably more than we deserve.
The SO’s brother got married in Nashville this past weekend. We’d never been there before, somehow, and were therefore more than willing to trek down to Tennessee. However, this also meant that our sightseeing time was incredibly limited because of family events. I drafted a top-down list of must-sees/must-do’s so that if circumstances dictated we had to cut some things, we’d still have gotten the most important things out of the way.
When I say “most important” I mean “most important personally.” This is where you have to do enough research to be able to know what that is. If you just ask people or rely on lists (even the helpful list supplied by the bride in the welcome bag) you will see someone else’s concept of what is important. Luckily, for Nashville, this was not difficult.
A couple of logistical notes: We didn’t rent a car, because it would have been more expensive / more hassle to have it then to rely on a combination of Lyft / taxis. (So this is why we did not go to Loveless or Pancake Pantry, before you even start.) Also, we stayed in the West End because one of the wedding hotels was there so we could hop the shuttle to and from the wedding, which was out at a plantation about 10 miles away.
After ditching the bags at the hotel, our first order of business was lunch. We walked, because the restaurant was less than a mile away, and we are New Yorkers who just get frustrated at having to drive everywhere, and we also had to pick up passes generously arranged by a friend at the CMA building. A couple of blocks from the hotel, we turned right on Roy Acuff Place and there was Studio B, a very unassuming building just sitting there on the corner that pretty much defined a certain Nashville sound. You can only see the inside if you take a tour as an add-on to the Country Music Hall of Fame. That would have been nice, but required way more time than we had. So we had to make do with a walk-by and a few photos, as well as resting my hand up against the bricks to try to feel some of the vibe.
We then walked over to Arnold’s for lunch. Arnold’s is a “meat-and-three” place, which means you get one meat serving and three sides. Literally, I found this place by poking around on Chowhound, because I was totally overwhelmed by looking at Eater, and in asking around, I got way too much information about places that were too involved to deal with given the limited amount of time we had. It wasn’t until we were standing on line that I saw the TWO James Beard awards on the wall and realized I had inadvertently picked a real gem. The people in front of us said they drove 9 hours to get there and had been doing that for 10 years. It was the best meal we had the entire weekend, hands down; we both had the roast beef, which absolutely was to die for, and fried green tomatoes and mac and cheese and green beans. I wouldn’t have had the green beans, but the people in front of us raved about them nonstop so I felt like I kind of had to try it. We had one piece of chess pie between us because the place was so crowded that the staff got backed up and couldn’t cut up the pies to keep up with demand.
I skipped Third Man Records, which is just a couple of blocks away from Arnold’s, because our entire weekend got rearranged once I arrived and saw the wedding schedule. I will leave out the painful details, but it involved family photos and needing to be at the wedding facility hours earlier than originally expected. To be honest, I don’t even LIKE Jack White, and was going because I kind of admire his enterprise and because I was in Nashville. But family obligations scuttled all but 90 minutes of Saturday for sightseeing so we had to get the essentials in on Friday. Again, this is why the priority list is important.
From Arnold’s, we grabbed a cab to the Ryman. It was a walkable distance, but it was warm, and we were trying to save time. We took a cab and didn’t use Lyft because someone got out of a cab in front of the restaurant just as we were walking out. (The rest of the time we used Lyft. It was great, but I can’t see myself ever doing this in NYC.)
At the Ryman, we opted for the self-guided tour. The big difference is that with a guided tour, you get to see the dressing rooms, so you decide if that’s something you need. Me, I just needed to walk into the place and I instantly teared up and got goosebumps. There’s an intro film that’s worth seeing, but after that, you’re on your own. You can take photos and walk around as long as you want; there are a couple of glass cases and vitrines with artifacts and costumes, and upstairs in one of the hallways is a selection of Hatch Show Prints posters signed by artists who have performed there.
The building is lovely and breathtaking and definitely one of those venues that lives up to all of the hype and then some. I could just imagine the resonance with all that ancient, ancient wood. Once we were done sightseeing, we literally took another 20 minutes to assess seating options for the day we come back here for an actual show we care about. I got a shot glass from the gift shop; there are generic Ryman Hatch posters but I passed those up for the day I get to come back here etc. If you want to get your photo taken onstage at the Ryman, there are various packages you can buy, starting at $18, which I felt was kind of a bargain. But that’s the only way you can make that happen. It was kind of fun to sit up in the balcony and watch various groups–many of whom arrived very dressed up indeed–get their photos taken.
Next, we walked down Broadway to get a sense of the spectacle. It is literally lined with bars that on this gorgeous, sunny, 70-degree day had all of their windows open and every single one had live music going on. I wondered what the most over-performed song would be, and in the time I was there, it was “Jackson,” which I heard three times in less than 40 minutes.
Hatch Show Print was next. It’s now located in the same building as the Country Music Hall of Fame, but you don’t need to have a ticket for the HOF to visit Hatch. It’s now located in what’s essentially the lobby of the HOF, and that big ugly AT&T building looming over downtown displaced its original location. There’s a gallery on the outer edge but the print shop and larger store is located on the other side of the lobby (we originally walked into the gallery and thought “this is it??” before I asked someone). You can take a tour, which allows you the opportunity to print your own poster, or you can stand there watching the print shop operate and listen to the tour before you decide that you do not need to take the tour. There are lots of lovely things available for purchase; I got a mug and some postcards, but there are all sorts of reprints and fun posters and t-shirts and hats and books on letterpress. This was less monumental to me because although they are trying to make it feel authentic, and you can see all that ancient original typeface on the wall, it’s in the corner of a brand new shiny building. But, still, it was well worth the visit.
I then tried to go boot shopping on Broadway. It only took me 10 minutes and 2 stores before I realized that this was like someone shopping for electronics on Fifth Avenue back home. I am sure there is a great place in Nashville to shop for boots, but it is not on Broadway, and I would not have time to figure out where I should go and be able to go there on this trip.
Friday night was the rehearsal dinner, which I only mention because it was at Union Station, which is now a hotel — but they’ve retained all the original features of the old, statuesque train station. It was absolutely gorgeous.
Saturday we were up very, very early so we could get to the HOF when the doors opened. (This will also explain why we didn’t go out to hear any music on Friday night.) As soon as we got off the elevator on the first exhibit floor, we opened up the maps and made very brutal decisions about what we were and weren’t going to see, e.g. we skipped right by the Kenny Rogers and Miranda Lambert exhibits. We still had more than enough time, I thought, for people who are not huge country fans; we went through at a brisk pace, with stops for things like Hank Williams’ suit, Carl Perkins’ shoes (yes, those shoes) and Maybelle Carter’s guitar. On the third floor, we wandered through an exhibit about Bakersfield and its connection to Route 66 and the Dust Bowl, which ended up being more interesting than I would have envisioned (and very relevant due to our travel earlier this year) before turning a corner and seeing a thing in a case that drew me to it like a tractor beam.
My god, Gram Parsons’ Nudie suit! Be still my beating heart.
I did not know this suit was there. I would have paid full admission just to see this one thing alone. I had no idea it even still existed and wasn’t lost with the rest of the Parsons estate in its tangled mess. Every photo I took is out of focus because my hands were shaking with excitement.
This is why these places are important, because everyone who visits it can have a moment like this.
At the end, you walk into a rotunda with the actual Hall of Fame nominees, and here it resembles Cooperstown more than it does Cleveland because it is a room with the plaques which is ringed by ‘WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN’ and if you know even the tiniest bit about the history of this music you will feel reverent and respectful.
As much as I enjoyed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when I visited it, the truth is that you do not get that feeling in Cleveland. I think that is largely a function of how disjointed that building is, and the crazy escalator setup, and the odd spaces in the building. I really loved that you can see the library and archive in the CMHOF, it’s got clear walls facing the main exhibit area, and it gives you a sense of the weight of the collection behind the building, if that makes sense.
We then made a trip back through again, at a slightly slower pace, to revisit some of the exhibits we wanted to spend a little bit more time with. And, yes, I went to visit Gram’s suit one more time.
At 10:30, we grabbed a cab back, I got my hair done, and then met the SO up the street at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which had a location 5 minutes’ walk from the hotel. Hot Chicken is one of those ‘unique to Nashville’ things and although we couldn’t go to any of the original places, Hattie B’s is highly rated enough that I felt like we had an authentic Nashville experience. I could drink sweet tea all day, and the mac and cheese with pimiento was awesome. FWIW, I went for medium, and I could have definitely done hot and still enjoyed it.
This left us enough time to get dressed and head out to the wedding. Not nearly enough time for Nashville, but at least I saw the things I had to see, and saw enough to know we’d genuinely like to come back. But I am glad for the intense planning that I did, so that we got to make the best use of every minute we had, and were fearless in cutting things out when we had to.
The Afghan Whigs arrived in New York City this weekend for two shows ostensibly as part of their Do To The Beast tour, but also in actual effect to celebrate the continued existence of the Greg Dulli Rhythm and Blues Revue as a living, breathing, thriving concern in the year 2014. Both nights were musical and emotional powerhouses, exceptionally performed and executed, with special moments and surprises. That is saying a lot for a band that always came to take prisoners and never phoned it in.
While Dulli and the Whigs have respectively played for larger crowds, at festivals and as openers, Saturday night at the Beacon Theater was the largest venue the band has played as a headlining act in their entire career. Their name was on the marquee, and they were the reason 3,000 people showed up on a Saturday night.
They were also the reason Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires opened the show, going on promptly at 8:00 p.m. sharp. “Are you ready for some good old-fashioned soul music?” asked Bradley’s MC. I’m not sure what you were doing in the building tonight if you weren’t. Bradley was one of the acts curated by Dulli to appear at the 2012 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and for obvious reasons, Bradley’s vintage soul and rhythm and blues remains a favorite, mid-set costume change and all. Bradley got an hour to perform, which was a generous gesture, but would have repercussions later.
The current Whigs setlist is constructed with a pile driver of an opener: “Parked Outside” and “Matamoros” from the current album, into “Fountain and Fairfax” from Gentlemen. Those songs transform the band into a thundering freight train from which there is no escape. I know, hyperbole, but also truth. It was a particularly breathtaking opening performance, and it made it very clear that this was an evening of moment for the people onstage. I literally stood there thinking, “I am not sure I have ever seen them play this well.” This is a band I have seen a lot, so that is not a small thing to think
Tonight was also a moment for the fans. Many of the old-timers dressed up for this. I have showed up for Dulli since Congregation days, and will buy anything his name is on unconditionally. It’s not out of blind obedience but rather that at this point, the dude has earned my trust. Even if I don’t like it (Amber Headlights) or can’t connect to it (still on the fence about some Do To The Beast, to be honest), I show up because I will still, always, get something out of it.
In this particular case, showing up for this tour let me see how the new songs fit well into the old ones and how the band breathes additional life into them onstage. They become more fully imagined, as Dulli and the rest of the crew figure out how to inhabit them. This is where I invoke the “revue” part I mentioned earlier, as there are now three guitars (Jon Skibic and the inimitable Dave Rosser), a keyboard / percussion / string player (Mr. Rick T. Nelson), and at least on certain dates, a emcee / dancer / backup vocalist (the delightful Steve Myers). All that’s missing are horns, and despite knowing well the cost of taking a horn section on the road (and I’ve had this discussion with Dulli more than once over the years), I would have loved to have seen horns at at least one of these shows this weekend. But, this is a minor quibble.
I can’t think of a lull in the evening, a dull moment in the pacing, a second where the audience might have been temporarily unengaged. I’m always down front for Dulli productions so I don’t really know what’s going on behind me, except for the occasional boneheaded moshpit that opens up during “Debonair” or something like that. Saturday, looking around me (I ended up in the third row) I reflected on the old adage that the men who show up for an Afghan Whigs show are generally there either because they want to be Dulli, or they want to be the person they think he is in his songs. (If you’re a single woman and you’ve ever stood in a crowd of guys crowing, “Well I stayed in too long/but she was a perfect fit,” you will know exactly what I am talking about.) Those guys have now all grown up and now stand there holding beers during the songs that aren’t on Gentlemen, except when they start fights while Greg is paying tribute to Bobby Womack by opening “Faded” with the first verse of “Across 110th Street.”
The big, loud, emotional moments kept catching you by surprise: the incendiary maelstrom that rose out of “John the Baptist,” the bit of old, wicked onstage Greg that showed up during the “Now I’ve got time/for you, and you, and you, and me” line in “Gentlemen,” as he went down the front row of ladies, and then gestured at the one dude, saying, “You can watch.” (Then there was the moment during “Neglekted,” when Dulli was working the front of the stage, mic in hand, and stopped in front of the highly excited 8-year old right at the “You can fuck my body/but please don’t fuck my mind.” “Earmuffs!” he yelled (she was wearing proper hearing protection!), waving back at her and cracking up. (And I’m sorry, but you don’t bring your kid to an Afghan Whigs show if you are worried about protecting their delicate sensibilities.)
Dulli is and has always been a showman’s showman, but that tendency has only expanded with his years onstage. And to watch him handle a larger, proper stage instead of a rickety platform at the back of a rock club was something I was looking forward to. Surprisingly he spent less time out front than I thought he would, but I knew something was up when he signaled for a roadie at the end of “My Enemy,” only for the guy to come up behind the amps holding a small digital clock. It was 10:29, and Greg immediately audibled something to the rest of the band. He was cutting something out of the set (which turned out to be “Son Of The South”) and went into “Lost In The Woods” instead. He did that because he wanted to sing that song from the front, sans guitar. He wanted to be able to work the entire crowd, from side to side and top to bottom. It was touching, and telling, and beautiful to see.
(That was also the moment where I said, “Why didn’t he just play the Apollo?” On Sunday I told him that he needed to just get that together for the 20th anniversary of Black Love, so start now. “They fuck you on the money,” he said, which means HE HAS CONSIDERED THIS.)
“Heaven On Their Minds” into “Something Hot” to open the encore wasn’t new, but it was decidedly different–at least to me–watching this Jesus Christ Superstar number being performed on a proper stage in a proper theater whose address happens to be Broadway. (I am not quite sure what I would pay to see Greg play all of JCS from start to finish, but it would be in the three digits, and I am sure I am not alone.) “Going To Town” threatened to shake the plaster off the walls, and then, at the end, bigger and brighter than ever, “Faded,” the quintessential Whigs closer, Greg singing all the way up to the third balcony, where they were on their feet and waving back, singing along. It was all a beautiful, and wonderful jewel of an evening to have been part of.
Sunday night, across the river at the 550 capacity Music Hall of Williamsburg, was set to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Gentlemen album, or as Dulli would put it, “The way most of you found out about this band.” I had been completely detached from fan community chatter, and asked someone on Saturday, “So…are they doing something special for tomorrow? Are they going to play the entire album?” (In my defense, I would like to point out that there is precedent for this, and most people assumed, based on the tone of the email announcing the show, that this was what we were in for.)
“By the way, we’re not playing the whole Gentlemen album,” Dulli said to us as he arrived on Sunday afternoon. “In case that’s the word on the street. Don’t worry, it’s still gonna be a party.”
As if we had any doubt, although I confess I did not expect what we were in for.
The core changes to the set took place after that 1-2-3 killer opener, when the unmistakable rhythmic opening to “Turn On The Water” rumbled out of John Curley’s amp. Having seen the Whigs at the period where they literally could not play that song any longer because they played a 40 minute version during a drunken marathon show in New Orleans (a friend there recalls getting a chair and pulling it to the front of the stage so she could put her feet up on it, the show went on for so long) and Curley later telling a Seattle audience, “I wrote the thing and I can’t play it any more,” it is always lovely for me personally when it shows up in a setlist. This would be followed by “When We Two Parted,” that excruciatingly painful tale that is the flip side to “Gentlemen,” and then “Now You Know,” which to me is the third piece of that particular trilogy of angst. They may not have played the entire album, but my god did he pick the two songs that are right at its very rotten core. It was devastating and breathtaking, and we are only at the sixth song of the set.
It was another piledriver of a performance, intensified by the close quarters of the tiny club. I’d like to find a particularly great moment from each individual in the band but they were pretty much operating on overdrive the entire time. They don’t miss notes. They don’t forget beats. They are locked and loaded and all you can do, really, is hang on and enjoy the ride. The lovely Jeff Buckley cover (“Morning Theft”) is back again tonight, beginning the “Greg At The Piano” interlude. “Son of the South” makes it into the setlist–veering in and out of “Roadhouse Blues,” of all things–and the end of the set is the new cover of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” I will be honest that I am not a huge fan of this cover, at all, but Greg makes it into this moment where it is him and the audience, making his way into the tiny gap between the rail and the stage, before heading out into the crowd proper to sing the end, getting us to sing the “wheeeeyooooo”s at the end, and it was a loud, lovely, happy little mess.
I am never going to be unhappy with anything from Black Love to open the encore, and “Going to Town” is as good a version as you’ll ever hear without horns. “Somethin’ Hot” is always a singalong and the Steve Myers special, and it was no different tonight. But then Rick Nelson starts playing something low and mournful on the cello, and Greg starts talking about last year, and how the Afghan Whigs reunion had toured and kind of run its course. And then he mentions the Fader Fort in Texas, and there’s a falsetto and I’m trying to see if it’s Steve Myers, only for the door to open and someone else to walk out and I am pretty sure I know exactly who this is, but I wait until he walks onto the stage and is standing right in front of us before yelling, OH MY GOD, IT’S USHER.
The place went apeshit, appropriately (except for the dude standing behind my friend who at some point tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Who is that?” I just felt kinda bad for him.) That was also when all of the polite little requests taped all over the venue about not watching the show from behind our cell phones went right out the window. I don’t think anybody didn’t have their phone out. Greg is smiling. John is smiling. Steve is smiling. EVERYONE is smiling their faces off. It was a complete and total surprise. They did not soundcheck it, and I am glad I did not look at the setlist as it was taped down earlier because it was on there. (From what we would deduce–based on his comments about Giants fans, and some internet sleuthing–he showed up tonight and not last night because he came up for the football game.)
Of course, the band waves, and leaves the stage. You can’t possibly follow that up with anything else, right? It’s over. And house lights come on immediately and the crew begins breaking down the stage, turning off amps, picking up guitars, unscrewing microphones. We didn’t move because it was still crowded and there wasn’t really anywhere to move yet.
But then one of the roadies appears at the side door and yells something and the crowd keeps cheering, and he blinks his flashlight at the soundboard, and it becomes very clear that they are coming back for another encore. And once that was clear, the crowd got louder, and louder and louder. The crew are running around and putting equipment back, shaking their heads in either disgust or disbelief.
The band walk onstage and the cheering is echoing off of the walls making the club seem like 10 times bigger than it actually is. Quicker than you think, there’s the riff to “Blame, Etc.” and I wonder how they can just keep doing this. This wasn’t, “We’ll come back and play ‘Debonair’ or something and leave,” this was going from 0 to 60 almost instantly. BOOM.
It was during the last chorus when Greg started veering off of the lyrics, and I am singing along because I know the words to what he’s singing, and then I realize that I am not singing the Afghan Whigs, and I look at my companion and suddenly–OH MY GOD, HE IS SINGING UNSATISFIED. GREG IS SINGING UNSATISFIED BY THE REPLACEMENTS.
Then it’s a quiet thank you, and a lull, and the intro to “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack–if there is a better person to cover this song I do not know who it is–and it is perfect and beautiful, except this is when the fight breaks out, just as he’s about to go into the verse and continue into “Faded.” “Don’t like me any more. Leave,” Greg says, as the offenders are escorted out. Then he admits that he isn’t feeling it any more, and can’t finish the song. So instead, he opts for the perfect equanimity of “Step Into the Light,” delicate and plaintive, to close out the night.
Afterwards, I reflect on the serendipity of still being able to see one of my all time favorite bands still play live and on stage. I talked earlier about how I give Dulli the benefit of the doubt, and always show up. There is a lot to be said about still being able to show up for your favorite band. I say this following a month in which I got to see the Replacements twice in one week, which is clearly not exactly irrelevant in this context, as it’s obviously on Dulli’s mind as well. They are still here; we still get to do this. We still get to buy a ticket and show up and have our ears and our head and our hearts blow up and out and be filled to the brim, and we get to walk out of the theater and down Broadway, or out the door and into the Brooklyn night.
For my second Replacements show in a week, tonight we are in Queens, the borough that gave us the Ramones and Johnny Thunders and countless others (as we were reminded by Craig Finn, in another kick-ass set from the Hold Steady that was even better than Minneapolis). We are also standing on an old tennis court, former home of the US Open, that also once upon a time hosted concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
The lights go down, the crowd roars, and what comes out of the PA? “Jet Song” from West Side Story. “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day…” One can only assume that this was inspired by the fact that the proper name of the venue is the West Side Tennis Club (although there is nothing at all gritty and urban about this particular locale, which hates outsiders so much it privatized its streets, and has imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on concerts held here).
Paul bounds onstage again, dressed in an outfit I can only describe as “renegade elf”. He is wearing a multi-colored jacket over a bowling shirt, atop red corduroys he has cut off just below the knees. This is so we can see his lovely striped socks (prompting a guy behind us to yell, more than once, I WANT YOUR SOCKS). Tommy, on the other hand, has another dapper plaid suit worn over a black shirt and red tie which to me says JOHNNY THUNDERS in capital letters. (I realize I may be projecting.)
They charge into “Favorite Thing” and the energy is immediately, markedly different than Minnesota. “Takin’ A Ride” and “I’m In Trouble” see your bet, and raise it. “It’s an absolute pleasure to be here,” Paul says, glancing up at us. Unlike last week, you can see his eyes, because they are venturing to look out past the edge of the stage.
Last Saturday they felt like a coiled spring, taut, holding back, driving power just on the edge of exploding into chaos; today they are powerful, driving, muscular–it is a looser energy. Freese is on, but the dude is always on, and Minehan is his usual whirling-dervish-Muppet self over on stage left. It feels more relaxed, more open, less contained. Paul is the fulcrum, and he just seems less nervous, and more confident. This bodes well.
Tommy takes one look at Paul during “I’ll Be You,” as he gets to the “dressing sharp” line and starts laughing. “A vocal crowd for that one,” Paul notes afterwards, and he was right–it was very loud all night, and the band seemed visibly moved by this, over and over again. I wasn’t in Boston, and it was hard to tell in St. Paul (although everyone around me was singing), and it’s almost unfair to compare them, because Forest Hills is a concrete bowl and there is amplification and echo involved. (That said, my friends in the stands complained about the nonstop talking up there, and the videos I have seem from up top support this.)
“Valentine” is lush, and gorgeous, and so precise, those beautiful guitar licks. It was the example I gave earlier in the day when I was telling friends that I was not going to arrive with the chickens and was just going to walk into the venue like a normal person at a normal time, but that I was not going to stand at the back where some idiot could talk through “Valentine” and I would have to risk arrest for my reaction to that. It remains amusing to me that the fans are still so split; the tiny girl behind me jumping up and down to “I’m In Trouble” has no use for “Valentine,” and I feel bad for her.
The setlist is largely the same–it is the same songs but it is not the same performance, and it is not just because I don’t have some moron jumping into my back all night long. The band is playing like a well-oiled machine, and watching the show tonight is like watching when your favorite outfielder makes that impossible catch with what seems like zero visible effort. This is the only other headlining show of the reunion, and they are in front of different friends and music biz honchos and every rock writer you know is here. There is still a lot on the line, but in a different way than it was at Midway Stadium last weekend.
Paul steps to the mic and says how glad he was that he managed to learn this guitar lick, and–it’s the Jackson Five. It was another great night for Paul Westerberg as a underrated guitar player and his obvious enjoyment at playing a song that he probably watched during Saturday morning cartoons like the rest of us is great fun to see. “Color Me Impressed” has a loud and piercing whistle, which made me just a little misty.
Then, Tommy tells us the story of the scar on his nose, which I am not sure you could see even if you were standing in front of him. He explains that he was getting his 7am Amtrak down from Hudson and he tripped over the olde fashioned sidewalks they have up there and fell on his nose, bleeding everywhere. The conductor insists that he has to call an ambulance; he tells him that he has a show to get to. The ambulance comes, they say, you’re bleeding and you’re very pale, you broke your nose. Tommy goes and looks in the mirror and says, well, I’m always very pale, and my nose usually looks like this, I’m fine, I’m going to the show. But he had to get the next train, which was why he was late for soundcheck. This is all prelude to something that they rehearsed but never played–Paul kept shaking Tommy off all night with things like, “No, this one’s better.” (I still don’t know what it was, despite seeing someone with a printed setlist at the end of the night.)
“Nowhere Is My Home” is even more powerful than last week, and this goes straight into “If Only You Were Lonely,” during which some drunk bozo has to be escorted out because he chose this moment to try to crowdsurf. This transition was the first moment where I realized that they were acutely aware of the curfew; Paul was trying to grab a smoke and change guitars at the same time.
I was about to write something like, “I get that they don’t want to play a conventional venue,” but then I realized that I absolutely do not get that. There was nothing particularly Replacements about playing this show here. Rock and roll is not improved one iota by being played outside, and playing at a hard-to-get-to venue with no running water, one way in and out, uncomfortable metal benches and questionable acoustics, when you are playing in a locale that had any number of other suitable venues makes zero sense to me. Maybe there was some cool factor that seemed neat to the band because of the artists who played here in the 60s, but that was the 60s when there weren’t dozens of road tested venues with adequate facilities in this particular metropolitan era. This fucking venue is just awful, and I don’t know why you as a musician would want to play a show with such an early curfew on your back all night if you had a choice.
By “Merry-Go-Round” Westerberg is just on total cruise control. He is relaxed, happy, and in total control of his instrument. “Achin’ To Be” just soars into the night sky, and he sings “Androgynous” all the way through because the crowd is eagerly shouting every word along with him.
“That was the best by a country mile,” Paul says. (Two words for you, Boston.)
“Love You Till Friday” has a bit of a syncopation problem with the bass and guitar player. “We got the beat?” Paul asks, looking from side to side. “HE got the beat,” he notes, pointing at Freese. And yes, here is another love letter to Josh Freese, and how he just hits every bit of percussion or syncopation, any Mats purist can play air drums with him all night and never have any point of question or any beat out of order–and yet the man still seems to SWING the entire time, building pockets of air and room. Minehan does the same thing, just with a guitar, whirling and bouncing and swooping in with his guitar to lead or embellish or bolster. It is hard to think of two better foils for Paul and Tommy on this outing.
I had no idea what Paul was going to do when he suddenly lowered the microphone and got down on his knees (thus totally reinforcing the renegade elf classification from earlier) and it was one of those moments where you’re going, “Well, it SOUNDS like ‘All Shook Down’ but I’m pretty sure I am wrong and I am not remembering correctly.” But yes, it was “All Shook Down,” without intro or preface and I wish they would do more of that. There is no end of material in the catalog that would work and that Paul would still feel comfortable singing.
(This is where I will voice my slight disappointment that given the band’s abilities and obvious expertise that there couldn’t be a little more variation in the setlists. I get the construction of a festival setlist for a festival slot, but I was hoping after the expansion of the St. Paul setlist that New York would get a little more variation. Minehan and Freese could learn anything and improvise on the spot, and Tommy could fake it if he didn’t know it [which I would imagine is the prime skill one needs to be a member of Guns N Roses].)
Tommy kept trying to tell us the rest of the story about the train and his nose, but Paul keeps cutting him off.
”So, like I was saying…”
Tommy then advocates for whatever it was that they soundchecked and Paul waves it off again, asking us if we want to hear “Swingin’ Party” or– but NEVER TELLS US WHAT OUR OTHER OPTION IS, knowing full well that the crowd will cheer loudly for “Swingin’ Party.”
A roadie ran out and whispered something into Tommy’s ear and he nods, and mentions that the clock is ticking and they’re going to pull the plug in 10 minutes. The crowd boos loudly. “Hey, I don’t make the rules!” Tommy says. “Neither did Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan!”
So they made the best of their time, Paul thanking the crowd after “Love You In The Fall” like it was the end of the set, but wasting no time of crashing into the parade of hits. The audience was so loud during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” they had to hear us in Brooklyn; it was one of the loudest and most intense singalongs I have ever been part of, and Paul, Tommy and Dave kept stepping to the front of the stage to hear more of it, nodding and smiling and looking proud, and wistful too. It was like the goddamn alternative rock national anthem was being sung at that moment, and it was that reminder of how long you have been singing that song and how great that song is, and how important it was, and is, and will always be.
Everyone had a fist in the air for “Bastards of Young,” even the people up in the stands (who were on their feet for most of the evening, at least from what I could see, even up at the top) and it was triumphant and raucous and full of joy and energy and remembrance. “White and Lazy” kept that going, straight back into “Left of the Dial.” That was the one that got me last week, and Paul Westerberg is a very smart man. I might wish for more variety in the setlist, but he has put together a sequence that is so powerful emotionally I get that he doesn’t want to tinker with it all that much.
“Left of the Dial” channels waves and waves of energy, building and building and building, and Paul feels it too, he rushes back to his amp at the intro to turn it up more, throw some more fuel onto the fire.
Just that moment of standing there at the end, listening or singing or crying (or all of the above):
“And if I don’t see you
For a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial…”
I pound my fist to my heart in tribute and respect and reminiscence.
Everyone knows what has to be next and one more time, “Alex Chilton,” one more time, everyone laughing and crying and cheering and jumping up and down. It has been so long since you heard it live, since you got to sing it next to other people who love this song as much as you do. Even if you never stopped listening to the Replacements, or caring about this music, what was missing was being in the same place with other people who felt the same way about it as you did. The audience tonight was filled with people I know or am on nodding acquaintance with from seeing them at other shows by other bands, and it’s not accidental or surprising that they all converged here tonight.
I was talking to friends and did not notice that he came back with the 12-string electric for “Unsatisfied.” I do not think that I will ever top seeing this one front row center, and it was not in my notes, because there is nothing you can write or say about this one. I am mostly glad that the friends with me, who didn’t get this in Boston, their only other Replacements outing, are getting it tonight. It wasn’t on the setlist, like it wasn’t last week, and it is an obvious reward for a crowd that deserved it.
And then it is over, and they are running off, except Paul comes back, and waves, and starts throwing things into the crowd, wristbands and I think maybe a capo? He didn’t want to leave, and didn’t want to stop. Tonight it seemed like Paul Westerberg was finally ready to accept the musical legacy he has created, and was willing to visibly enjoy it. And all I can say is, about fucking time.
The only question I have is: What’s next, Paul? What’s next?
I stood front row center on the rail for the Replacements in Minnesota, and after last night I am now not quite sure how I can see any other concert ever again.
I bought a ticket. I cashed in airline miles. I flew 1,000 miles. I booked a hotel (for two nights, because I couldn’t possibly chance flying in the morning of the show). I woke up Saturday morning, drove to St. Paul, and walked up to the gates of Midway Stadium at a little before 12 noon.
“The concert isn’t until 7 o’clock,” said some guys working inside the ballpark.
“I know,” I said, sitting down on the sidewalk next to a large concrete pig. “I know.”
I do not do things halfway.
The Replacements onstage last night were utterly brilliant. It was insane, it was fun, it was a little silly, and it was loud. It was present and future and all of those songs you know and you love and have listened to over and over again, played about as well as you are ever likely to hear them performed. I know I am not objective about this band, but last night at Midway was absolutely phenomenal and exceeded every expectation.
I had gotten on the plane from New York with the highest of hopes. “I want horns on ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’! I want special guests! I want Peter Buck to walk out and play the guitar solo on ‘I Will Dare’!” I didn’t actually expect that I would get go-go dancers, a light show and a pantomime horse (although the latter would actually make a lot more sense at a ‘Mats show than the other two), but I knew there was no way Westerberg was going to let us down at home. There were debts to repay, grievances to settle, oaths to uphold. I know I am being dramatic, and that I have spent entirely too much of my life psychoanalyzing Paul Westerberg, but after last night’s show I am pretty sure I am more right than wrong.
The crowd had been squishy but sedate through Lucero and The Hold Steady (both of whom were absolutely fantastic—not to minimize, but I am not here to talk about them, short of Craig Finn’s utterly ecstatic, “The Replacements are next” at the end of “Southtown Girls”) until the first notes of “Favorite Thing” and then the front row turned into every front row ever at a Replacements concert, with that one asshole behind you who refuses just to jump up and down and instead jumps sideways, somehow, right into your back all fucking night. I knew that “Takin’ A Ride” and “I’m In Trouble” wouldn’t improve that condition, but I am tougher than I look and I had not traveled a thousand miles to be pushed out of my spot by some jackass who probably wasn’t born yet when I was getting kicked in the head at Replacements shows up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Fuck you, I am not moving, and I am going to play air guitar along with the guitar solo in “I’m In Trouble” to boot.
They came wearing matching plaid suits, all four of them. Of course they are, said every single person in Midway Stadium, many of whom were wearing some collision of plaid in tribute themselves. (I still evaluate plaids in my head as “‘Mats plaid” or not.) This is the kind of thing that will only make sense to you if you know this band. If you do not know this band, it is not anything I can explain. And that sentence explains Replacements fandom in a nutshell; there are no half-fans of the Replacements. You love them or you hate them; you get them or you don’t. It has always been this way, and I am personally glad that it is still like this. (I’m looking at you, Coachella.)
There was not much missing from this setlist; upon reflection this morning, I decided that the two songs I would have liked to have heard were “Go” and “Johnny’s Gonna Die” (hey, Paul, how about the latter in New York next week, it would only be appropriate in the borough Mr. Genzale was born and is buried in), both of which are likely not realistic but are just personal favorites. “Go” was the first Replacements song I remember hearing, playing late at night on some college station left of the dial, and I waited for the DJ to tell me who it was and when they didn’t I picked up the phone and called. The next day I bought Stink and Sorry Ma and that was it, you know? I was a goner.
And I love the later stuff: I love “Valentine” and “Merry Go Round” just as much as I love “Hospital.” There is not much I do not love in ‘Mats land, although I kind of wince now at “Waitress In The Sky” and kind of wish they could leave that one out. I love the ballads and the pop songs and the thrashers and the anthems, and yes, they are anthems, they were big songs written to fill big spaces, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. “Color Me Impressed” is an anthem, and so are “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Alex Chilton” and “Bastards of Young”. The only thing I was sorry about being so close last night is being able to see the impact of those songs on the entire audience.
Paul came to play last night; they came to do serious business on that stage. And usually the missing piece in that equation of intent is the ability to have fun doing it. Josh Freese and Dave Minehan are fantastic partners in crime that help them do exactly that, because they are so clearly having the time of their lives up there. They love the songs and they care so much about the material, which is what differentiates them from any other players that could have been chosen to join them on this outing. Paul and Tommy can trust them with the material. Freese shares Chris Mars’ solidity and consistency, and Minehan has this voodoo-like thing going with Paul where he can pick up anything Paul drops or throws to him, or throttle it back when Paul decides he wants to play the fucking guitar, like he did last night. My enjoyment at watching Paul take parts I was looking to Minehan to handle knew no bounds last night.
And the acoustic numbers were sheer beauty. “If Only You Were Lonely” was crystal clear. I thought he was going to get through “Androgynous” all the way before throwing it to the crowd, and I love watching Tommy preemptively sing the lines to him. And I am very sure Boston did not sing it better, despite Paul’s teasing assertion.
I did not burst into tears when the band walked onstage because I was fighting for my spot, and still didn’t lose it until later. “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Bastards” were sheer crystallized joy, bright lights and grinning ear to ear; I have never sang along to these songs so loudly or with more enjoyment. I didn’t lose it until the encore, when Paul came out for “Skyway.” When we parked the car Friday night and got into the elevator, I held it up so I could take a photo of the button marked SKYWAY, these exotic things that do not exist in my world and I only know about because of the Replacements. (The first time I came to town and saw one and then the penny dropped: “SKYWAY!” I was so excited.)
But then, “Left of the Dial” and it was full on waterworks. It was because the song is so beautiful, deliberately, and it is more masterful than people probably give it credit for; the music evokes such a feeling of longing, and distance, and I am blubbering because it is so gorgeous and because it is about my world and it is a song that someone like my niece will never be able to understand, driving around late at night in the pre-Clear Channel days in a new town and turning the knob all the way to the left to find the cool radio station. I am crying because I am old, and my world is old, and Paul and Tommy (who I used to refer to as ‘the fluffy little dandelion’ back in the striped overalls days) are old, too.
But then, it is “Alex Chilton” and the children by the millions are singing along at the top of their lungs and I am singing along as if my life depended on it. I am raising my arm in the air at the St. Mark’s Place reference, I am pogoing up and down with my arm straight up in the air: “NEVER TRAVEL FAR / WITHOUT A LITTLE BIG STAR,” I scream, surprised at my own need for that particular level of vehemence tonight.
I was fine when they left the stage at that moment, because it had been so big and glorious and so very much, you know? So much. This is why I was caught completely unaware when Paul returned with a 12-string electric and started playing chords I did not recognize, and when Tommy came back and whispered in his ear I still had no clue. But then he shifted from random into straight ahead fucking focus when he hit the opening chords to “Unsatisfied,” and the world stopped turning, at least for a moment. The stars aligned, the planets paused. It is my song, you know? It is the song I play for people to explain my love of the Replacements to. It is the song for which I put forth my passionate exhortation in “Color Me Obsessed.” There is a reason there is a chapter about the Replacements and this song in my first novel. It is my song, and I am front row center, and they are playing it, and right now I don’t care but they are playing it for me. And they were playing it for them, Paul’s voice edging out on the border of the gravel, he is playing it perfectly, he is playing it straight, he is going to end this show with this performance, and none of this is offhand, or accidental. He was going to get it right, he got it right, and he knew he got it right.
At the end, after he put the guitar down, he headed straight for Tommy and grabbed him into the fiercest bear hug ever. The expressions on their faces were of triumph and relief and satisfaction and happiness. It said, “We did it,” and “We did it right.”
I watched them walk away, and the roadie walk across the stage, switching the amps off, one by one, the red lights turning to black. I am smiling, and do not stop smiling even as I fall asleep hours later, the opening chords of “Unsatisfied” still echoing in my brain.
I never make a big deal about getting set lists these days; it’s less of a badge of honor than it is a mark of someone’s ability to be an obnoxious, greedy pain in the ass yelling at the road crew to hand them something. And I watched as set lists went to various people in the audience. But then, I made eye contact with someone, and waved, and there were nods of specific approval and Paul’s setlist was carefully removed off the stage and handed over to me with specific instructions that it go to me and not to any of the other grabbing hands around me, reaching out for it.
Let’s be honest: I went to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Fenway Park last week because I’ve never seen anyone at Fenway, hadn’t seen Petty in forever, and the Venn diagram between bands that could play Fenway and bands I would schlep to Boston in order to see was rapidly shrinking. (I suppose Springsteen could always do it again in the future—the dates in the past have never worked out for me—but I wasn’t willing to take that chance.) I am glad I had the experience, although I would not go out of my way to see a show at Fenway again. This was because the extreme party atmosphere (which I realize for many is part of the reason they want to see a concert at Fenway) detracted from the show in a major way for me. But what’s significant is that even with all of that, the show ended up being more profound than I had anticipated.
I think the last time I saw Tom Petty was in the 80s (and there is no Tom Petty concert chronology so I cannot look this up anywhere). He was always an artist I liked, respected and paid attention to, but I’m going to guess that his shows always conflicted with someone who simply ranked higher on that list. Even during my punk rock days, it always felt like he was someone who wouldn’t have a problem walking through our neighborhood, even if he lived a couple of blocks in the other direction.
There are lots of reasons people go to see a classic rock artist. People go to hear “the song”—everyone in our immediate vicinity was clearing waiting for “American Girl,” the people behind us insisting he would open with it, the guys in front and to the right telling their friends that he was going to play it next (after every song), the random bozos walking by the beer line and yelling for it in every single pause of the action. People go to sing along, drink beer, and hear the songs they grew up with or grew up listening to their parents play—the multigenerational groups were obvious, and thick on the ground. All of these people are happy to have the concert on the stage in front of them be background music, and they would sing the chorus or the opening line and then go back to carrying on their various conversations.
This, as you can imagine, drove me fucking nuts. I was unwilling to pay the hefty premium for VIP seats, and the Fenway Park ticketing system played its usual magic and lost the front floor section tickets I pulled. We settled for the B section, all the way over to the left, which is about as far back as we would have accepted and still gone to the show. I realize that being in the VIP section on a Saturday night at Fenway would absolutely not been a guarantee I would have been surrounded by diehards who were more interested in the show than making sure their beer supply didn’t run out, but it would have least put me in better proximity of the elements I go to a show like this to enjoy.
When you go to see a veteran band like this—and let’s remember that the ‘new guy,’ as Petty joked during the band intros, is Steve Ferrone, who’s been there for 20 years—you’re not just going to hear the songs. You’re going for the experience of what it’s like to see that particular configuration of humans manifest their unique shared energy. Not to get all new age woo woo on you, but Tom Petty onstage with Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell is a very specific, particular thing and that vibe is so powerful you can feel it all the way over in section B7 (which was approximately in the location that Yoenis Cespedes usually hangs out in). All of this voodoo was so thick out there that it drove me batty that I wasn’t closer to all of this action, but it was also so thick that it transcended all of the bullshit that I was surrounded with.
The camera work wasn’t bad; they knew what we wanted to look at most of the time, and there were ancillary cameras too—Benmont has a couple just dedicated to him. It was enough to let us play “What guitar is THAT?” (although I was sad to find out later that Mike Campbell wasn’t playing a Rickenbacker mandolin, which would have been the most Mike Campbell thing ever, but rather a mandolin designed to look like a RIckenbacker) , and see the smiles and the nods and the smaller moments that were just too far in the distance to see without assistance. There are few things I love more than watching a band leader lead their band, and although the Heartbreakers certainly could motor on just fine—better than fine—without direction, Petty still runs the show and controls the dynamic, and that I could thankfully enjoy without video assistance. (I just cannot spend an entire concert I am at watching a video screen, and it drives me bonkers when people close enough to see without it still stand facing it; it makes me feel like I am looking the wrong way when the opposite is true.)
The Boston audience was in fine voice throughout the night, but resonated with moments I wouldn’t have expected, and completely ignored others—sometimes it felt like they were cheering the volume and the light show more than what was actually happening onstage.They greeted “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” warmly, but seemed nonplussed for “I Won’t Back Down”. There were warm cheers of recognition to the four songs featured from Hypnotic Eye, the new album, but were completely befuddled by an acoustic “Rebels,” which was quite honestly one of my personal highlights; it gave the song extended depth and emotion, which is missing from the original.
Other personal highlights were “Free Fallin’” (where it was observed by the boyfriend that I sing all of Benmont’s vocal harmony lines); I was reminded that imo he still owes Westerberg royalties for that “rebel without a clue” line in “Into The Great White Open.” The intro to “Woman In Love” just walloped me with intense deja vu; I was in my teens and listening to the song on the radio, driving in the dark somewhere. It was crisp, searing and intense. I literally had goosebumps during the bridge on “Refugee,” those soaring organ notes from Benmont strong and unmistakeable as ever. And “Running Down A Dream” was a piledriver, with incredible, deep guitar work from Mike Campbell, ending with him depositing his guitar face up on the stage, still resonating as the Heartbreakers took their bows.
“Don’t Come Around Here” as the encore opener wasn’t strong enough to grab the audience—most of whom were thinking about how they were getting out of here, or where they were going to next—and the loss of energy in the room was vivid. But “You Wreck Me” picked it back up again, surprisingly, even if the jam felt more like the Grateful Dead than the Heartbreakers. And for the last number, Petty came to the mic and told a story about how, in the early days, they put out a record, and no one played it, and no one played it, and no one played it—until one day, someone came running into the room saying, “They’re playing it in Boston!” and the unmistakeable notes of “American Girl” came ringing into the Fenway night.
Speaking of goosebumps, I did arrive in time to catch the last half of Steve Winwood’s opening set (although “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” had begun while we were at a restaurant down the block and was still going by the time we walked up to Yawkey Way, went through the turnstiles, and made our way to our seats), but I legit had goosebumps at the intro to “Gimme Some Lovin’, another number elevated by its organ riff, which was only appropriate tonight.
When I walked out of the front door of CBGB’s on October 15, 2006, I physically didn’t look back. It was a very deliberate choice, a very specific intention, a very definite goodbye. When I walked down Bowery for the first time after the inception of the John Varvatos store in that space, I didn’t realize it was there and I saw it and I reacted instinctively, flashing two middle fingers as the only conceivable reaction. From then on I made sure to walk on the east side of the street and confine my gestures to something that wasn’t quite as confrontational as that first reaction.
I got nothing against the guy, personally; he pays a lot of my favorite artists to appear in his ads and it’s not his fault that Hilly Krystal was an awful businessman. But he’s turned my “sacred ground” (to steal a thought from Jesse Malin) into a store that sells $350 sneakers. I don’t care if he left the walls intact and some stickers in place, it’s a temple to the kind of capitalist fashionista bullshit that we were all fighting against to begin with, and I vowed I would never set foot inside the joint.
This was a promise I was successfully able to keep until last night, when Gaslight Anthem played a ‘secret’ invitation-only album release show in the space, and it was time to put up or shut up. They’re one of my favorites and I wasn’t going to be able to make it to any of the regular tour dates due to schedule conflicts. When the show was first announced there was no immediate way for the great unwashed to get inside, aside from two tickets given away on one of the fan forums. That made me hate everything about it a million times more, and solidified my reserve. But then the fan club sent an email offering tickets, and 15 minutes later I had an email in my inbox telling me I was in.
The Bowery now is completely unrecognizable from the days where I sat on the sidewalk outside CBGB between sets and talked to my friends and smoked cigarettes. Standing out front on that sidewalk again, waiting to get into a show, was somewhat surreal and at the same time, felt completely normal. There were less dudes trying to bum cigarettes off you (they never asked for change because they knew we didn’t have any) and more tourists posing out front and trying to walk inside despite the CLOSED FOR A PRIVATE EVENT sign. I wonder if they are posing for photos because of the clothes or because of the music. I decide I would rather not have the answer to that question.
What wasn’t SOP, however, were the rope lines and the bouncers and women in six-inch-heels holding iPads and handing out wristbands. I am watching the beautiful people being let in ahead of us and calculating the length of the stage, based on my knowledge of the width of the room; I’d never even peeked inside so I had no idea what it looked like. I had the presence of mind to ask a friend to tell me what the room was like now, because at some point in the previous day or two I had realized that every survival strategy I had for that venue was no longer going to be valid.
That was, of course, until the doors opened and I swear to god it was actually not all that different. Instead of weaving my way past the dude trying to talk his way into the show and the idiots hanging out at the bar and the clueless not being able to find their way by the light of the neon signs, I am weaving my way past EXACTLY THE SAME PEOPLE, except they’re all trying to pose nicely for photographers and get free drinks from the sponsored makeshift bar and none of them are standing at the front of the stage, but were instead hovering in the general vicinity, only to suddenly be surrounded by a bunch of punk kids moving forward with military precision. The first five rows were filled before they knew what hit them. Score one for the good guys.
I took a minute to get my bearings. I believe the walls are actually undoctored, but the floor is even (or at least more even) and you know how you always headed RIGHT when you came in so you wouldn’t be in that passageway to the dressing rooms and bathrooms and the continual walkway of people (I still have no idea where these people were ever going)? They set up the stage flush left so now the passageway to the back is on the right. The stage is enormous, lower, and all on one level, there’s no enormous permanent speaker columns to wedge yourself against, but I believe it’s in approximately the same place. There aren’t the weird angles, it’s a clothing store they moved stuff out of to have a show, but it’s still that one big long room that’s not as narrow because everything in it was ripped out and sold or stored or hoarded or in a museum somewhere. “Armagideon Time” comes over the PA just as four women in cocktail dresses and heels try to push their way up to the front and I begin to consider that deciding to come here was, perhaps, a grave error on my part. I am not sure I can get through this, standing here.
Jesse Malin comes on and sings songs about Arturo Vega and covers “Rock and Roll Radio” and reminds us we are standing on holy ground. I am not sure that most of the audience realize this; I am not sure how much I care that they do. The space between the flimsy rope line and the stage is so full of photographers they literally cannot move; someone next to me asks them if they are going to be there for all of Gaslight and are told “yes”. Literally there is such a wall of photographers that the band comment later that they cannot see any actual audience. (Luckily, most of them had to file so they did leave after a few songs; the view then was blocked by special people with special wristbands taking their special photos with their iPhones, comparing the photos THEY JUST TOOK of THE THING RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM with each other, and generally pissing off everyone who spent four hours lined up in front of the club.
This was the actual first live performance of the band this year and the first performance of the new songs, all of which were played, and played well. Brian Fallon has (allegedly) quit smoking, or is trying to; I could hear it in his vocals, which were clear and strong if a bit held back—the tour hasn’t started and this was, after all, a showcase. Unfortunately there was a little bit of that feeling to the entire show; it had less cohesion and flow than a regular concert, which was unfortunate. The new material is well-rehearsed and they are comfortable with it; the only mistake all night was due to technical problems (Benny Horowitz not being able to hear Brian in his in-ear monitors). There’s nothing I hate more than seeing the first show of a tour and the band still learning the material and the flow ruined by mistake after mistake. Alex Rosamilia is (finally!) playing keyboards onstage, which is very necessary for some of the new songs; I didn’t see him sing once, which made me sad because his live harmonies are some of my favorite parts of the show.
The ghosts of the club would manifest themselves when Fallon introduced an “old” song, and the familiar chords of “The 59 Sound” rattled out of the speakers. I was hopeful that the mosh pit might be subdued, but once the band hit the chorus, all bets were off. The rope line became a fire hazard, the moms in the crowd went to the back, and security finally paid attention and waded into the crowd to try to protect the photographers, most of whom gave up and left at the end of the song. This was quite honestly some of the most worthless security I have ever seen; they were watching the band, not watching the crowd, so they didn’t catch the start of the mosh. Their approach to crowd control was to wade into the front and push the front row back, not realizing that 1) we didn’t start it and 2) that won’t help. They were clearly used to working fashion events and not rock and roll ones.
I’ve only heard the new record three times since it doesn’t come out until next week, but my favorites are also likely the ones to not survive on tour: “Red Violins” and “Dark Places” require quiet and attention from the crowd, and also care as to setlist placement in order to flourish. I wasn’t a fan of the single “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” when I first heard it, but like it in the album context just fine and love it live; it is very Gaslight. SImilarly, “Stay Vicious” is less Soundgardian and more Jersey live and sounds bigger, richer. I am strongly pro-Get Hurt so far; I think it’s a stronger and more consistent album than Handwritten although I don’t hear any blockbusters on it. I think it’s a step in the right direction and definitely a positive one for a band who almost broke up a year ago.
At the show’s conclusion—no pretense, even, of an encore—I peeled myself off of the floor and began to wend my way towards the front. Even that had similarities to the past, that long progress towards the door; it was just better lit and less of an obstacle course. But it didn’t feel the same; it wasn’t the same energy, it felt sad and empty and I knew that my initial instinct to avoid the place at all costs was right on. Brian mentioned early on that everyone in the band had played at CBGB, just not together, and that it was neat that they got to do it now and that people who never got to see a show at CBGB’s can come to the room now and see one. Except that it’s not CBGB’s and it’s not anywhere in a million fucking years like seeing a show at CBGB. I am grateful to the fan club for the entrance, but I know I will not be back here again. I guess it’s better that it’s a non-chain store with cool, expensive clothes (I stress ‘expensive’ because expensive is the only way to afford that rising rent) that has rock events than another bank or GNC, but not by all that much.
n.b.: The header of this website is a photo I took the last night of CBGB from pretty much the same place I stood last night, looking back from the stage towards the door.
“I think I saw an otter!” I said, as we crossed over a bridge near Elkhorn Slough, on our way into Monterey. My significant other nodded indulgently. “No, seriously, I’m not making this up,” I insisted. But how would I know? It’s not like I run into otters every day or had ever seen one in the wild. But this is exactly why we were headed to Monterey.
I don’t know how I started watching sea otter videos on YouTube. It was probably just one of those links that someone put on Facebook or Twitter–”Hey, this is cute, check it out.” It definitely wasn’t from my childhood, because I never held an opinion about otters prior to the advent of readily available video on the internet. At this point, though, I’ve watched otters fostered in people’s houses and baby otters being blow dried and otters being rescued and otters doing tricks. I’ve watched people whose only job seems to be snuggling otters, otters in bathtubs, otters floating around in the ocean.
At this point, if someone I know sends me an otter video link, chances are high that I’ve already seen it. It’s relaxing. It’s cute. It’s enjoyable. It is something I am not ever going to see in the course of my day to day life, commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Let’s face it: there are days where I consider myself lucky to encounter a patch of grass. (The W Hotel on Union Square used to have planters outside with small circles of green grass, and I’d detour out of my way just so I could run my hand across it.) I know, I am a tough city lady who eats gravel for breakfast and fights the dragons of the New York City subway daily. But I love these little, fuzzy otters, dammit, and they are the best stress relief ever invented.
Many of those videos originated from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, who has a world-renown sea otter program since 1984. And that’s probably when I discovered that they had a live webcam pointed at their sea otter enclosure. At this point, all I have to do is type “Monterey..” into any web browser on any computer or device that I own and it will take me to the live otter web cam page. I’ve watched them swim and play with ice and dive in and out of the round pool I started calling the ‘hot tub’. I’ve watched the daily otter enrichment activities so often that I can recite the docent’s talk almost by heart. Some people watch cats, some people watch stupid human tricks…I watch sea otters.
So when we were planning a southwestern roadtrip for this spring, and I realized we would be within shouting distance of Monterey, there was no way we weren’t going to visit the otters. I know that Monterey is a beautiful and historical city and luckily, I already visited when I was a teenager and dutifully did my John Steinbeck tourism then. Because we arrived around 11am, dumped our stuff at the hotel next to the aquarium, and went directly there, with enormous excitement and anticipation. I was going to see the otters!
The only day we could fit the aquarium in on this trip was a Saturday. I knew this likely meant we would be sharing it with thousands of people and a gazillion families and small children. So there were a couple of lines of defense: First, I bought tickets in advance on the internet, anticipating a lengthy Saturday morning line (and was 100% correct there). Second, we ate lunch at the sit-down restaurant and not in the self-service cafeteria. Third, I booked a private tour of the aquarium, which navigated us behind-the-scenes and got us around most of the enormous crowds. (It also provided the opportunity to ask as many questions as I wanted about the otters or anything else.)
But first, before I visited the exhibitions or watched a documentary or went to the gift shop to peruse otter merchandise (and there is A LOT of this in Monterey), I had to go say hello to the otters.
The otter enclosure is two floors, enclosed, with the opening on the roof deck which is only open to the trainers and staff. The view from the webcam is from above, but I quickly oriented myself to the fake rocks and the hot tub and the otters–now swimming around on the other side of the glass from me. Abby, Gidget, Rosa, and Kit (all named after Steinbeck characters!) were there, floating on their backs, diving down into the tank, hauling themselves out on the rocks, bumping into each other. I could honestly have stayed at the otter tank all day, and it’s a good thing there isn’t anything to sit on anywhere nearby or I wouldn’t have left. (I am sure this is deliberate, because I am positive I am not the only one who feels this way.)
My first impression was that they were so much bigger than I expected. This is probably because many of the videos online are of the tiny adorably fuzzy baby or younger otters. But grown otters are about 55 pounds, so we’re talking dog-sized. And these things move fast, for a 55 lb mammal with a fur coat on their backs. But they did not disappoint in person.
Then, we headed for the restaurant. I know, there are dozens of great restaurants in Monterey, but heading to one of them would have involved leaving the aquarium (and the otters) and the subsequent loss of time in the aquarium (and the otters). So we opted to eat inside the aquarium, and that ended up being a great decision. We eschewed the self-service cafeteria for the civilized sit-down section, which had less screaming children. The food and service were great, and I didn’t feel like I was paying a lot of money for crappy food just to be able to not have to leave the building.
But the real wonder is that the restaurant overlooks Monterey Bay–the aquarium is housed in an old cannery building–and when you are seated, the hostess notes the binoculars that are helpfully placed on your table. Before you think this is a cute gimmick, I will point out that we saw at least a dozen otters swimming and diving outside while we ate, and the helpful reference card attached to the binoculars noted sea birds and other animals–like whales!–that you could see while dining.
The next stop was the theater for their showing of “Luna, An Otter’s Story.” Before you snicker, the audience was split 60/40 between adults and children. But this isn’t the kind of video presentation you’d expect; instead, it’s presented with the lights on by a live narrator (an aquarium volunteer, all of whom were smart and friendly), who asked questions to engage the younger audience members and provided enough data points to engage those of us over the age of 12. I had seen much of the footage in the documentary “Otter 501,” which shows up on PBS from time to time, and is also available on YouTube. It gives the non-marine biologist a solid grounding on the history of sea otter conservation and the Aquarium’s role in it. (I could write a whole post just about the documentary, so just go watch it if you care about otters at all.)
After the screening, we quickly returned to the otter tank in order to get a good spot for the 1:30 otter enrichment. The best spot is one on the very edge, because the aquarium staffer who narrates the event will ask tall people to allow short people to get in front of them, and if you’re on the edge, you’ll have a good spot but not have to move. It will be mobbed, and there are screens, and honestly, I think the webcam gives you a better view of the feedings. It was a lot more fun to let the crowds die down and then watch the otters get back to being themselves, for lack of a better term.
You know how they say that watching fish is relaxing? Watching otters swim is relaxing times infinity.
Once the otter session was over, we visited the penguins (who mostly seemed annoyed at the enormous crowds gathered around their enclosure) and viewed some other exhibits, before returning to the entrance to meet up with the tour guide for our private tour. Now, private tours are not cheap, but you get your own tour guide and you can bring up to six people. I’ll be totally honest: I booked this because I wanted to be able to get as much otter information as I could, so when called to reserve the tour, I asked for an “otter focus,” understanding from the various documentaries that that didn’t mean I was going to get to play with the otters, as much as I might like to.
I can’t begin to stress enough how this tour was worth every penny. We saw every highlight of the aquarium and then some, both behind the scenes and in front of the tanks. Unintentionally, this was the best possible strategy on a busy summer Saturday, as the tour routed us around the crowds and away from the masses. Joe, our tour guide, was able to answer every single question we had about otters, the aquarium, otter conservation, and was an absolutely endless font of information about marine life and the aquarium and its exhibits for two and a half hours. We saw the kelp forest repeatedly, because of its importance to the aquarium and the otters especially, the deep sea exhibit, the special exhibits, the jellyfish, the octopus, the hands-on exhibits. There was literally no corner of the aquarium that we didn’t visit. I didn’t think I cared about jellyfish, but Joe coaxed me into touching one gently. There was the bucket we walked by that read “TENTACLES”. And, there was a brief, quiet tiptoe past the otter rehabilitation tanks.
By the time we were done, all I wanted to do was get a drink and sit down for a few minutes…before returning to the otter tank one more time. It was the end of the day so it was easy to walk between levels and between windows and get maximum views of the otters as they swam and floated and played and hauled out on the ‘rocks’. I would have stayed there until they kicked me out, except that I needed to get to the gift shop before it closed. There are otter shirts and earrings and pens and mugs and posters and pretty much everything you could possibly need or want from a marine mammal merchandise perspective. (And, if the aquarium doesn’t have anything to your liking, there’s a tourist t-shirt shop just down the street on Cannery Row that has even more items, including a great shirt that said “Hairy Otter” with an otter wearing glasses, as well as one reading “Plays Well With Otters” which, unfortunately, was not available in adult sizes.)
When we finally left the aquarium and returned to our room at the Intercontinental (which is, quite literally, right next door), there was a stuffed otter waiting for us on our pillow, available for purchase, with proceeds going to the aquarium.
The next morning, we woke up ridiculously early on a cold and foggy Sunday morning to head north to Elkhorn Slough in order to go kayaking. There are kayaking opportunities right in Monterey Bay, but Elkhorn Slough is a protected coastal wetland, providing more chances to actually see otters, and also not quite as intimidating a body of water as the bay to non-kayakers. I had kayaked before many times, but a very long time ago, and the SO had zero kayaking experience, and so we joined a tour led by Monterey Bay Kayaks.
There were just four other people in our group, and we were in the water by 9am, dragging our kayaks into the slough under the watchful eye of a giant group of seals. Two minutes later we were floating adjacent to a raft of male otters–our guide called it “a big otter bachelor party,” and we watched them swim and play and one floated right by, cracking open their breakfast on a rock on their chest. We saw three rafts of otters (a group of otters is actually called a raft), two baby otters, and countless seals and sea lions, all right there, in front of us, hanging out and doing their thing. Again, to a city girl, this was like paddling around in a National Geographic special, and when sea water splashed on my face, I didn’t immediately panic or worry about where I could get a tetanus shot, the way I would if East River water came within an inch of my skin.
Given that the slough is an estuarine reserve, there are rules in order to protect the animals that live there. You can’t come too close, you can’t ‘harass’ them, you can’t make them nervous, you can’t encourage them to climb on your boat or feed them. The guide was awesome and an endless font of knowledge on the marine life and ecosystem, and did a solid job in making sure we were close enough to see things but not so close as to make the animals feel threatened. We paddled for three miles and it was worth every second of it, even if the last pass through two boat docks absolutely covered in seals and sea lions barking loudly was a little unnerving, but still all kinds of awesome. I’ll take my chances against the seals vs. a subway rat any day, and despite fog and chilly water and kayaking skill deficiency, I was happier in the kayak than I would have been stuck in a tour group on a larger boat, which is your other option to tour Elkhorn Slough.
Monterey isn’t that far away from points of interest in California, and it’s not like I won’t ever be back, but I’m still glad I planned and went for Maximum Otter in this one trip. The aquarium is amazing and is, as they say, worth a detour if you’re heading for the Pacific Coast Highway or are hanging out in Northern California, even if you’re not an otter groupie like me.