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
Yes, that’s David Byrne and a drumline onstage at Carnegie Hall, playing “Uptown Funk”. From last night’s Michael Dorf tribute, which this year honored “The Music of David Byrne and Talking Heads.” I believe at one point it may have just been Talking Heads and changed to the “The Music of…” which didn’t require enormous amounts of insight to interpret as an attempt to get Byrne’s participation in the evening.
But I get ahead of myself.
This one was sold out, sold out hard, legit fans hitting you for ‘one ticket’ as you came up Seventh Avenue alongside the venue. I was in the front row of the dress circle for this one, prices having gone up with the years, and also a barometer of how much I wanted to see this vs. how close I needed to be. (It was a little vertiginous up there, to be honest, in the front of the dress circle almost all the way up at the stage; I wouldn’t buy seats in that section again.)
As with all the Dorf tribute nights, there are hits and misses, bigger hits and larger, totally-off-the-bullseye misses. That is part of the serendipity of the event, and people who have done this for a while go into it with that attitude, and I think enjoy the show a lot more than the people who are there for either X band or for picture-perfect renditions of Their Favorite Songs. (Example being the row behind me, a dude who had done this before with his friends, who had never been, and were mostly bemused and fidgety all night.)
I liked this evening a lot but I was also far less emotionally invested in this year’s show than I have been at any of the other ones. I am a fan of this music but it was not an obsession. I think I saw Talking Heads two or three times at most, the first time being at Wollman Rink in Central Park right after they got back from Heatwave and had the expanded lineup. I remember sitting online in the Park and hearing the expanded version of “Take Me To The River” and my head just about exploding.
I was also less personally interested in the artists who were in the lineup; that doesn’t mean they weren’t strong or valid, and I was glad to see a diverse lineup that didn’t depend on the usual suspects (although there were plenty of those), but there was no one particular person who I thought “Gosh I can’t wait to see them.” This also meant I was less infuriated by the Carnegie ushers usual stance on allowing dancing. (That said, I really felt for the people who were dancing in their seats or jumping up behind the ushers’ backs to boogie for 10 seconds before sitting down.)
The other trend I noticed this time, larger than usual, is how artists react to being on that stage in that house. Some are reverent, awed, respectful; others are awkward and cannot handle the space and flail around. And then there are those — Alexis Krauss was the first one in the evening — who handle the stage with utter aplomb. I tip my cap to her “Life During Wartime” which was bold and energetic. I remember the days where singing “This ain’t no Mudd Club/or CBGBs” was like the password to the secret society.
[On that note, the trend of going onstage barefoot at Carnegie has got to stop; it is not charming, it is ignorant and disrespectful.]
Antibalas was the house band and they were fantastic. Loose, versatile, and the sax player who was leading the band was fucking awesome. He was on point and he was also hella into it, singing with gusto every time there was a chance. I salute you. They killed with Crosseyed & Painless.
Billy Gibbons was the biggest surprise. I couldn’t have possibly even begun to guess what song he was going to perform and “Houses In Motion” would definitely not have been on the list. He was the most talkative (and seemingly the most comfortable on the stage, although I get the feeling that Billy Gibbons is the type of guy who’s comfortable anywhere he goes, and i mean that in the best way possible). He also tipped the audience off that David Byrne was there.
Cibo Matto were a perfect fit for “I Zimbra” if a little stiff. (That maybe goes to my note above about people’s comfort level on the stage. But I wouldn’t have used the word ‘stiff’ for anyone at the Prince tribute, for example, but would have applied it to multiple performances here).
Glen Hansard has really won me over with the years and I loved what he did with “Girlfriend Is Better,” wild fiddle solo and all. I thought “gosh I do not need that old timey deedle deedle deedle” but it was fresh and energetic and I clapped hard.
I see Joseph Arthur all the time because I am a fan of artists who admire him and give him an opening slot. I have also really warmed up to him, and liked his arrangement of “This Must Be The Place” worked well, he didn’t overdo the loops or effects, and he didn’t make a big fucking paint mess on the stage (yes, he still painted). Hilariously he couldn’t have an easel so someone held the canvas and bobbed it to and fro like a Muppet during the song.
Esperanza Spalding’s “Road To Nowhere” was driving and elegant. My program notes say “Phenomenal”.
Santigold is not my kind of jam but she was fabulous. Her version “Burning Down The House” was absolutely truth in advertising.
The WHOOPS and yelps accompanied the first site of Questlove’s afro walking onto the stage and “Born Under Punches” was crisp and complicated. I hope it sounded better downstairs because upstairs it was a murky mess. this was not their fault; they played it more than just fine. The singer’s name was DonnT (I think?) and she had this Bowie-esque mime thing going that was wonderful.
CeeLo Green did a fine version of “Take Me To The River” BUT THAT SONG WAS NOT WRITTEN BY DAVID BYRNE. I am not thrilled by him, though, to be honest. The crowd loved it, though.
Sharon Jones absolutely brought down the house with “Psychokiller”. It was one of those moments where you don’t know it’s going to be amazing until the artist is there and the energy goes up and before she even opened her mouth to sing the first note you could just TELL it was going to blow the roof off the joint. It was also far enough along in the evening that we could get up out of our seats and tell the ushers to go to hell, but she stalked that stage like a panther and sang the hell out of the song. I wish she had had the closing slot; she certainly deserved to be billed over CeeLo in New York City.
We had about three seconds to breathe before the marching band headed down the aisles, headed by none other than the guest of honor. If he was going to show up, he was going to bring us his latest project, even if every single person in that audience would have rather seen him sing “Take Me To The River” over CeeLo Green. I pondered on the artists who show no interest in the art they created that allow them to explore and be experimental now (looking at you, Robert Plant; Alex Chilton also fell in that category in the 80s). There is a crabby part of me that thinks, Goddamnit, you’re all still alive, suck it up and do one tour so the people who put you where you are right now can hear you sing and play those songs again, I also respect that he doesn’t. But I am glad he graced the evening with his energy and presence, and am glad that the organizers avoided the traditional train wreck of the attempted all-star encore number, where we learn which of the performers participating actually know the honoree’s catalog, to mixed and generally awful effect (read previous years as noted below).
Another tremendously interesting and well-performed evening for Mr. Dorf, and a fine example of why I eagerly look forward to the announcement of these shows every year. (C’mon, Bowie next. Please???)
In 1991, Wim Wenders released the film “Until the End of the World”. I am not a movie person by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a music person, and in 1991, I was a label manager for Warner Bros. Records. Warner Brothers released the soundtrack, and an advance cassette of the soundtrack landed on my desk, introducing me to art that would make an indelible impression on me.
The album’s contributors read like a who’s who of 1990’s rock and roll: Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, U2, R.E.M., Patti Smith. All of the artists contributed original material, but these weren’t cast-offs or random studio outtakes. The album is brilliantly sequenced and perfectly paced. R.E.M.’s achingly vibrating “Fretless” remains one of their best songs ever; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ (I’ll Love You) Till The End of the World” is equal parts hilarious, and epic; Patti and Fred Smith contributed the dirge-like “It Takes Time,” the first new work from her since 1988’s Dream of Life. And, of course, the title track. “Until The End of the World” was a riff on a discarded U2 demo until Wenders met with the band about contributing to the soundtrack. They pulled out the demo and turned it into the title track as well as a pivotal cut on Achtung Baby. There isn’t a dud in the entire collection, from Jane Siberry to T-bone Burnett.
This hugely ambitious project, Wenders’ ‘ultimate road movie,’ filmed in 7 countries with a budget of 23 million dollars (unheard of for a non-mainstream production) was reduced to 2 1/2 hours (158 minutes, to be precise) and released commercially. The soundtrack was tremendously successful; the film was not. But there was something about the film that spoke to me deeply. I was never a fan of science fiction, but the sci fi in this movie felt realistic to me. There was something in the bleak futurism combined with Claire’s chase around the world that matched where I was at the time, living halfway around the world in a country where I bought dollars on the black market, was befuddled by the operation of pay phones (they required a token and I could never ever get one to work for me), and found myself in the improbable position of sleeping in a bomb shelter and carrying a gas mask in a cardboard box slung over my shoulder like a purse as though it was nothing during the first Gulf War. My entire world was turned upside down, so it’s no wonder that I could grok Wenders’ futurist vibe so strongly.
Until The End of the World remained one of my totems; I would make potential boyfriends watch it as a kind of litmus test. In the DVD era, I naturally began looking for a release, only to learn about the film’s trials and tribulations. This was when I became aware of the four and a half hour directors’ cut, which was shown at the University of Washington in 1996. By the time I found out about the screening, tickets were long gone, and it remains one of the few events in my life I could not get myself into, despite waiting outside for hours. I would chase the Directors’ Cut for 25 years, until this past weekend, when it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a Wenders retrospective. I planed my ticket purchasing with the same discipline I apply to get tickets to a highly popular concert, and with good reason; the screening sold out immediately.
On line to get into the theater, I noticed that most people were there alone, or with a friend; most people readily confessed their obsession with the film and how they’d been trying to see this version for decades. Everyone seemed to be a writer or an artist or photographer or film maker or pursued some kind of creativity. We all talked knowingly about the difficulty of finding out about screenings, people who missed the one at the Museum of the Moving Image; me, feeling grateful that 2015 was the year that I decided to pay for a MOMA membership, without which I would not have ever found out about the screening. People spoke knowing about the Italian and the German DVD’s (both of which I never bought because I would have to also get a multi-system DVD player and that seemed somewhat excessive just to watch one movie). When the doors opened, people dashed into the theater with very deliberate purpose; there were those who ran for the front rows, others who took sides, and aisles, and random single handicapped seats. Many confessed that they’d deliberately stalked out the theater at previous screenings to determine the optimal seat in which to sit to watch a 4 1/2 hour screening. (I opted for an aisle seat in the second row that didn’t have another seat in front of it.)
Wenders spoke before the start of the film, confessing to the goal of creating the ultimate road movie, that it was the work he was the most proud of. And then there it was, restored in 2014 from the original negative. It was shocking to me how vividly I still remembered the movie; the last time I saw it was at least 10 years ago, around the time we all stopped using VHS on a day to day basis. Watching the story unfold again was like visiting an old friend; the cinematography did not disappoint, and it was amazing to hear the music in context again, and unlike the shorter version, you got the full songs and not 10 seconds here and there, and there were two additional songs from Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson that were not on the soundtrack. By the time “Until The End of the World” rolled over the end credits, I had tears in my eyes, not just for finally seeing a thing so pivotal to me that I had chased for so very long, but from the very physical act of being so immersed in a piece of art for such an extended period of time. (There was one 10-minute intermission; people ran out to the rest rooms as soon as the word appeared on the screen, and then everyone stood around and snacked surreptitiously until the lights went down again.)
At the end, Wenders spoke again and took questions; before I could raise my hand to ask about the soundtrack someone beat me to it. Wenders explained that he had knew he wanted a big rock and roll soundtrack to go with the movie, but that it was important to him that it sound like 1999, the year the film was set in, and not 1991; so made a list of 20 of his favorite artists, and asked them if they would be willing to provide a song that sounded like the future. 16 said “yes,” which Wenders said, never happens – if you’re lucky you get five. (And this was another reason the director’s cut was so important to him, the ability to hear the songs and not just snippets of them.) What’s most striking about the film’s futurism is how much of it Wenders got right; he equally got a great deal of it wrong, but it remains remarkably and unintentionally prescient, and as impactful as it was 25 years ago.
Last summer, I picked up a car in Los Angeles and drove 4,000 miles in two weeks, an epic loop out Route 66 as far as Texas, and then back up and over through Colorado and Utah and Nevada. I went to the Grand Canyon and the Cadillac Ranch and drove the Loneliest Road In America. I was determined to find out if you could find America, or at least have a great, epic American roadtrip inside of a two-week vacation.
I started writing about it just as an email to friends, then it was a blog post, then it was an essay…and almost 40k words later, I realized it was an book…which is out today!
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes performed two special shows at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park this past weekend. Friday night was billed as “Rare Jukes: All the Non-Hits, All The Time” and night two was the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Both nights were two and a half hours of well-rehearsed, impeccably curated material.
The effort that went into putting these two nights together was obvious from the first note. The musicians had to learn, and rehearse, a lengthy set of material, the majority of which they’ll likely never play again. You can tell when a band has bothered to practice, and when they’ve run through a set of material once or twice.
I enjoyed the musical performances immensely, even if I thought a particular arrangement or rendition or execution was less than successful. I like watching musicians take chances and attempt things they are less than successful at. If that sounds like a diss, it’s not at all. Both nights were utterly fascinating. It’s one thing to watch Southside lead the band on the core material, but watching him pull it together on songs they hadn’t played before was amazing. It was also interesting to watch the songs that he felt more comfortable in, the ones he could wear as well as “Trapped Again” or “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. (Not surprisingly, on night two that was the River material.)
And then on top of all of this was the between songs patter, the stories he chose to tell. I am not anywhere close to a Jukes diehard, but I found myself very moved by Johnny’s narration night one, his stories about why certain songs meant something to him, listening to him talk about Elmore James or how “Fannie Mae” was the first song he learned to play harmonica to, naming the label and the year of release. If I was an enormous, ride-or-die Jukes fan, this would be my idea of heaven on earth.
Night one I was surprised that it was less Jukes deep cuts than a handful of those matched with carefully chosen and curated covers. It’s hard to beat the Jukes on a set going from “Cry To Me,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” into the Mad Dogs & Englishmen arrangement of “The Letter”. There was Elmore and Clarence Carter and Marvin Gaye and all I could think was, my god, this is the Southside Johnny Lyon master class on influences. I was floored. It was amazing to watch and listen and be there for this.
Night two was the Springsteen night, and like with night one, the effort and the enthusiasm was highly evident. But it was definitely not as consistent as the previous night, and overall didn’t work as well as I would have thought it would. That said, there were arrangements that I thought were superior than the E Street Band ones (c.f. “Johnny 99,” which wasn’t that different, but just felt better), and I loved every second of “Sherry Darling”. Just when I was thinking, “I’m surprised there isn’t more keyboard virtuosity,” South and Jeff Kazee duetted on a stripped-down “Fade Away” which was just superb. “Nebraska” and “Jack of All Trades” were the most surprising choices, and executed with aplomb. “Kitty’s Back” was less surprising, but pretty ballsy. That was absolutely a natural for Southside, inhabiting the jazz hipster narrator vibe intuitively.
Bobby Bandiera joined the band in time for “Murder, Inc.” and acquitted himself more than admirably. (And of course the thought pattern in my mind went to, what would our world look like now if Bobby had been the one to join E Street all those years ago). “Sherry Darling” was phenomenal, and I was ready to explode over the fact that the sound system ate the vocals at the start of “Where The Bands Are”. To be honest, as much as I loved that particular choice and rendition, it was a little rough around the edges, but it was also the perfect end to the main set.
Like the night before, I appreciated the song choices. I appreciated the careful curation. I appreciated the three additional horn players and percussionist brought on for the evening. And when Southside started telling stories, I never wanted him to stop: about Bruce and Steve helping him with “Trapped Again” (“If they want to help you with a song, you just say THANK YOU”), imitating Bruce’s Muttley voice intonation in the story about giving him “Fever,” and “Why you want to give that to me, Bruce? That’s a hit!” and most notably, Southside telling his story about the band in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.
The encore was, delightfully, “When You Dance,” “This Time It’s For Real,” and “Hearts of Stone,” the perfect cap to the evening, ending with Jukes classics written by Bruce (and Steve), but still, Jukes classics, Southside coming out and saying that they didn’t know any more Bruce songs, cautioning us that if he sang “Hearts of Stone” it would have to be the last song. There was room to dance at this point, and despite aching back and feet (that uneven concrete floor has not gotten better with the years), I was so happy to do it one more time, thinking, not unreasonably, that I don’t know how many more times I’m going to hear Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play those songs at the Stone Pony, how much I love those songs, how happy I am that I am here, that these songs are part of my musical history. Southside would allude to this, that he had been playing in this club since 1971, that when he died, he wanted to be buried right in the middle of the dance floor, where people could dance right on top of him.
So all of this is what was great and good and wonderful about the weekend. That’s because the music and the musicians and the performances were absolutely above reproach. The audience and the venue, however, were the complete opposite.
Admittedly I haven’t been to a busting-at-the-rafters capacity show at the Pony in decades, but I go to A LOT of concerts in a lot of clubs, and cannot remember the last time I was this miserable. I don’t know what the legal capacity of the Pony is, and I am not saying that the venue was above capacity, but ‘capacity’ probably accounts for the cafe around the corner where you can’t actually see the show and maybe the smoking area in the tent out back, and not the entire capacity crammed into the show room in front of the stage. I arrived at 7:45 both nights. Night one it was reasonable; night two it was unbearable. People who arrived later had to go in through the cafe because there was literally no room at the entrance. I tried to head towards the door during the karaoke version of “Tenth Avenue” night one and I literally could not get there. Night two, I was on stage right (again, because literally there was no more room) and just before show time was grateful that I was close to an exit.
And now I come to the crowd. I would like to think that the people who show up to see a show billed as RARITIES actually want to listen to rarities, but this was in New Jersey, which is the worst goddamned audience for the music that comes from this state, whether it’s Bruce or Southside or even Gaslight Anthem. People would not shut the fuck up for one goddamned minute. The level of chatter was unreasonably loud, constant and incessant. I go to club shows multiple times a month. This was not a normal, expected level of club chatter. This was a “I am drunk and I don’t give a fuck and when is Bruce going to show up” level of chatter. Then, there was the asshole factor. I could write an entire post about this and it’s just going to bum me out, so I won’t. Too much alcohol, too few brain cells, zero regard for the fact that the club was packed, the people obviously there with their eyes glued to the stage door who were obviously bored by what was actually happening onstage.
I think that the Jukes underestimated the demand for this weekend. I think they could have easily charged more and played at a theater, which would have been more comfortable for everybody. There would have been more room for the band. No one would have had to line up in the cold to get a decent spot (and it’s not just cold, it was ridiculously cold). The sound would have been better; I was enormously frustrated by the lack of horns in the mix the first night and the second night the mix was just god-awful for most of the evening. From the way Southside continually gestured at the monitor engineer both nights, it wasn’t much better onstage either.
There were cameras in various places and I hope that all of this comes out officially or unofficially, because they were ultimately very special performances that everyone who couldn’t make it would enjoy. These were undeniably interesting, challenging evenings and hats off to the musicians for their work in putting these shows onstage.
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.
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.