Category Archives: music

My nine favorite shows of 2017

In a pretty lousy year, music was my most reliable refuge. I’ve written before about how live music saves me – and that was true in 2017 more than ever before.

I’m grateful to have seen some exceptional shows this past year. I can’t pick out just one as the “best” – how do you compare a teensy venue in Grand Rapids, the elegant restorations of the Chicago Theatre and the Louisville Palace, giant stadiums like Soldier Field and Lucas Oil Stadium, and the intimate Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway? Very different experiences. So I’ll just list a few of my favorites with a quick note about why they were special. (I’m leaving out some great ones, too! Musically, if in no other significant way, it was a terrific year. Also, these are in chronological order.)

April 27, Garry Tallent (with Shun Ng), Acorn Theater, Grand Rapids, MI. 

Unexpected fun. I enjoyed Garry Tallent’s first-ever solo album, Break Time, but didn’t really know what to expect from his show. Since Grand Rapids is not too far from my mom’s, it was convenient for me to catch him there, and boy am I glad I did. His brand of roots-rockabilly translated very well to the live stage, and Tallent proved to be an eminently likeable, grin-inducing frontman. Great band, too. Bonus: guitarist Shun Ng’s opening set was unique and terrific, and the Acorn was just a great little venue, cozy and friendly. (I reviewed this show for Blogness on the Edge of Town.)

June 4 and September 10, U2, Soldier Field (Chicago) & Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis).

Big big shows. I can’t decide which of these two shows on the Joshua Tree 30 tour I enjoyed more, so I’m lumping them together. In Chicago, I splurged on a Red Zone ticket and was right up at the smaller “tree” stage – a fun vantage point, though I wished the band had spent a little more time playing to the back of that stage where the Red Zone folks were (for that kind of money, much of which went to the band’s anti-AIDS charity, you’d think they would have given us a little more face time – the Edge came around a couple of times, and Adam Clayton strolled around and posed for us a bit). It was a great spot for the amazing big screen, though, and the moment during “Streets” when the red screen goes white and gives way to the desert road was roller-coaster perfection. In Indianapolis, I had a very good seat, and I think musically the band was a little better that night – plus we got the tour premiere of “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which was fun. I’m not a fan of stadium shows generally, but U2 knows how to put on a show big enough to fill that space.

June 11, Four Voices, Chicago Theatre

Elegant, gorgeous, stunning. I had high hopes for this collaboration among the Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Joan Baez, and those hopes were exceeded. I haven’t found myself that speechless at the end of a show since maybe the Springsteen show in St. Louis (August 2008). The respect and admiration (as well as the sense of just having fun!) among the musicians was clearly evident, the song choices were generally great, and those voices – those voices! Even though we were up in the balcony, I was utterly transported. After the show I said it might have been the best concert I’ve ever seen; looking back on it now, I’d still peg it as top-ten at the very least. I wish I could bottle up that night’s rendition of “The Water Is Wide” and carry it with me forever.

July 1 & December 14-15, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, PNC Pavilion at Riverbend (Cincinnati, OH) & Louisville Theatre

At the peak of their powers. Touring in support of his latest & best album, The Nashville Sound, Isbell’s shows are so damn consistent that I just can’t choose a favorite among the three I saw. I loved the Cincinnati show because the band is always best when Amanda Shires is on board, because the new songs were completely fresh (the album had just come out), and because they did a cover of “Whipping Post” that melted my face. I loved the Louisville shows because the Palace (a new-to-me venue) turned out to be a TERRIFIC place to see a show, because a two-night stand meant lots of different songs got played (19 songs each night, 10 were repeats), because I fell head over heels in love with night 2 opener Ruston Kelly’s music, and because of the sheer joy that exploded from the audience when the band kicked into “American Girl” to close out the stand. (If Isbell doesn’t put out a Record Store Day EP of Tom Petty covers, he’s missing a big opportunity – the 400 Unit absolutely nails ’em.) I’m seeing Isbell & Co. again in January, and I am so looking forward to it.

October 8, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, House of Blues, Chicago.

Unmitigated rock & soul joy. If anyone in this world is as committed to spreading the gospel of rock & roll as Steven Van Zandt is, I’d sure like to know about it. This was a big show in a small room, and it was probably the most flat-out fun I had at any show this year. Van Zandt is one of rock & roll’s best songwriters, and with his album Soulfire and the accompanying tour he made the case for his body of work over the past few decades – along with a few well-chosen covers (opening with Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers” was brilliant). Can’t say enough about the band, too; this year’s version of the Disciples of Soul provided just the right kind of big sound to showcase the songs perfectly. Little Steven believes that good music can save the world, or at least your soul, and a show like this makes me think he might be right.  (Pete Chianca reviewed the Boston stop for Blogness on the Edge of Town.)

October 24, Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC. 

Genius. What can I say about this show that hasn’t already been said? It’s a thoughtful, carefully-crafted, very personal piece of work that is entirely different from anything Springsteen has done previously in his long career. I felt so, so fortunate to be there to witness it. Plus, thanks to my good friend Deb who not only managed to score tickets but also offered crash space at her parents’ house and drove me all the hell over New Jersey and NYC, I finally made it to the Jersey shore for the requisite Springsteen pilgrimage – Asbury Park, Freehold, Colts Neck, Belmar. (Having just seen where Springsteen grew up made the stories he told on Broadway even more vivid for me.) And even though there were only 900-some people at the show, I had enough friends in the house to have a rollicking pre-show meetup (special shout out to Sue McD, who I hadn’t seen in way too long, and Dennis C, who I somehow hadn’t managed to meet in person before) as well as a pre-pre-show visit with the indefatigable Holly – making friends online and then meeting them in person is pretty much my favorite thing about the Springsteen community. Anyway, this show was a once-in-a-lifetime for me, and gave me a lot to think about – as evidenced in my review of the show on Blogness (it’s full of spoilers, so consider yourself warned).

Like I said, I’ve left out a lot of really excellent shows here. I saw 27 shows in 2017 and every one had at least a little something to love – some far more than a little. (Shout out in particular to Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, both technically opening acts but the main reason I went to both of those shows.) Here’s the full list:

  1. Maceo Parker, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  2. Joshua Bell with student orchestra, Musical Arts Center, Indiana University, Bloomington IN
  3. Joey Alexander Trio, Tarkington Theatre, The Performing Arts Center, Carmel IN
  4. Stevie Nicks (with The Pretenders), Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN
  5. Wu Man (pipa) with the Vera Quartet and the Indiana University New Music Ensemble, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  6. Garry Tallent (with Shun Ng), Acorn Theater, Grand Rapids, MI
  7. Indigo Girls (with Dom Kelly), Egyptian Room, Old National Centre, Indianapolis IN
  8. Buddy Guy (with Gordon Bonham Blues Band), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
  9. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (with Joe Walsh), Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO
  10. Kris Kristofferson, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  11. U2 (with The Lumineers), Soldier Field, Chicago IL
  12. Four Voices, Chicago Theatre, Chicago IL
  13. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Mountain Goats), PNC Pavilion at Riverbend, Cincinnati OH
  14. James Taylor & His All-Star Band (with Bonnie Raitt), KFC Yum! Center, Louisville KY
  15. Earth, Wind & Fire (with Nile Rodgers & Chic), Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN
  16. Robert Cray Band (with Jennie DeVoe), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  17. Rory Block (with Austin Lucas), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  18. U2 (with Beck), Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis IN
  19. The Elaine Dame Trio, Merrimans’ Playhouse, South Bend IN
  20. Rhiannon Giddens, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  21. Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, House of Blues, Chicago IL
  22. Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY
  23. Bob Dylan (with Mavis Staples), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
  24. Ray Lamontagne (with Ethan Gruska), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
  25. Born to Run in the USA (Eric Brown & the L Street Band), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  26. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Chris Knight), Louisville Palace, Louisville KY
  27. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Ruston Kelly), Louisville Palace, Louisville KY

 

Related content: My Six Top Musical Moments of 2014 

 

 

 

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Random Thoughts on U2’s “Songs of Experience”

Now that I’ve had a chance to listen to U2’s new album, Songs of Experience, a few times I’ve started to formulate a few thoughts about it. I’m not going to edit this much, just going to blurt out some thoughts and ideas. It’s my blog, I can publish something unpublishable if I want to! 🙂 I am also FULLY aware that I am committing the sin of reading altogether too much autobiography into some of these songs. Read it like this: when I say “Bono” or “Bono’s wife” or whatever, I really mean “the projected character that is the persona depicted in these songs and may or may not precisely map to the life and loves of the actual human being who wrote the words.” There. Also, pretty much every U2 album can be interpreted through political, religious, or personal lenses. I tend towards the personal because I don’t do religion really and if I look too closely at U2’s politics I start to nitpick. So forgive me if I don’t dive into those aspects of this album.

I’ve seen a lot of hype around this album – initial reviews ranged from “U2 is rejuvenated” to “their best album since Achtung Baby.” I can’t quite jump on board the “best since Achtung Baby” train, as I’m the weirdo who actually likes a fair amount of U2’s 21st-century output, but I will say up front that I think SoE is a very good album overall, if a bit sonically disjointed and all over the place. (So. Many. Producers.)

In interviews, various members of U2 have talked a bit about the backstory of this album, including:

  • The album was pretty much finished, and then the political situation in the US (and by extension in the world) went all to hell, and they pulled it back feeling the need to address that in some way. (To me, some of the political stuff feels grafted on. But U2 gonna be U2.)
  • Bono apparently had a serious medical crisis around the end of 2016, on top of the still-relatively-recent bicycle accident that messed him up pretty good. He hasn’t shared the details of this event publicly, but has alluded to the fact that it was indeed serious and caused him to do some looking-into-the-void.
  • Bono has described this album as a series of letters to the people in his life: his wife, his children, U2 fans, himself, etc. I haven’t quite identified who’s being addressed in each letter/song, but I don’t think it’s always necessary to know.

Cover image of "Songs of Experience" album

I haven’t been reading fan forums for the most part, and haven’t read that many of the reviews, so if there are insights here, I’m pretty sure someone else probably had them first. 🙂 So. Some things I’ve noticed, then:

There’s a recurrent mention of “the world” that seems to relate to opposition within a relationship – a conflict of goals or desires between two people, perhaps, one wanting “the world” and the other not interested in that particular flavor of rockstar success and/or political involvement. (We’ve seen this before – “you say you want your story to remain untold” from “All I Want Is You.”)

  • “I wanted the world but you knew better” (Love Is All We Have Left)
  • “When the world is ours, but the world is not your kind of thing” (You’re The Best Thing About Me)
  • “You walked out in the world / like you belong there” (The Little Things That Give You Away)
  • “There is a light we can’t always see / And there is a world we can’t always be” (13 [There Is A Light])

I haven’t fully gotten my head around this “world” business, but it seems really key to the album.

I think many, but not all, of the songs on this album have direct analogues on the earlier Songs of Innocence and I think the cinematic, atmospheric opener “Love Is All We Have Left” is the analogue to “Iris,” which is addressed to the mother Bono lost when he was young. “Iris” starts with “The star that gives us light / has been gone a while” and muses, “Something in your eyes / took a thousand years to get here.” And “Love Is All…” includes the line “Now you’re at the other end of the telescope / Seven billion stars in her eyes.” So is this letter-in-song addressed to Iris? Yes, but I think it’s also addressed to Bono himself, who has said that when his mother died he wanted to throw himself into her grave, go where she’d gone (“if you walk away, walk away, I will follow”) and who, as mentioned earlier, had that recent medical crisis: “Hey, this is no time not to be alive… Don’t close your eyes.”

Speaking of analogue songs, “American Soul” is a pretty direct rewrite of SoI‘s “Volcano” (itself a recycling of “Glastonbury,” which was performed live a few times but never released) – both musically and lyrically. It’s an interesting choice, with the earlier song an exploration of volcanic anger and the newer song a celebration of the defiant American dream. (And can I just say, every time that song gets to the “RefuJesus” part, I think about possible band meetings involving conversation like “look, they’re going to accuse us of being pretentious and too-clever-by-half anyway, we may as well own it” as well as the fact that the fan community is going to include significant factions who roll their eyes in disgust at “RefuJesus” as well as those who are liable to get “RefuJesus” tattooed on their … well, wherever they have space left for it.)

Another SoI/SoE analogue: “Red Flag Day” feels to me (lyrically, if not so much musically, though maybe some music nerd can tell me whether the chord structures bear any relation to one another – I can almost hear a weird mashup of the two in my head, so maybe?) like the resolution of the romantic standoff posed in “Every Breaking Wave.” Both songs use ocean metaphors to describe the fear of taking risks. Where “Every Breaking Wave” has the protagonist chasing the waves but never getting in the water for fear of being “helpless against the tide,” in “Red Flag Day” he invites his beloved with “I, I will meet you where the waves are breaking” and closes with the entreaty “Baby, let’s get in the water.”

The final, and maybe most obvious, analogue song is “13 (There Is A Light)” which is a revision and extension of SoI‘s “Song for Someone.” It’s really lovely, taking the lover’s sentiment from the earlier song and extending it to an idea of love, or compassion, or hope for oneself and for the world. To suggest that this song, in the way it expands upon the simple love song it’s built on, literally poses love as salvation is probably not going too far, given that it’s U2.

Sonically, I think “Lights of Home” is my favorite, with its excellent blues-stompin’ guitar sounds. This one bluntly addresses the medical scare: “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead” as well as “I thought my head was harder than ground” which evokes the bicycle accident for sure. I think this song might be Bono’s letter to God – though of course U2 has always been that band where you never really know if a song is about God, or a woman, or music/the band – near the beginning, he directly questions his relationship to his faith: “Oh Jesus if I’m still your friend / What the hell / What the hell you got for me?” In this song, “the lights of home” seem to be both the first light you see when you’re born (“I can see the lights in front of me / One more push and I’ll be born again”) and the light you supposedly go into as you die. Death as rebirth, and wrestling with whether he’s supposed to – forgive me – go towards the light right now. The “Free yourself to be yourself” ending seems a little tacked-on to me, though I do think it fits here a little better than it did at the end of “Iris” where Bono tried to get it to stick before.

My other favorite is “Summer of Love.” Edge’s guitar here is simple, elegant, and evocative; the vocals, with Lady Gaga doing some background work, are unforced and airy. Images like “The winter doesn’t want you / it haunts you” (Bono’s crisis happened in the winter, remember) and “We’ve one more chance / before the light goes” touch on what it’s like to face mortality. And “I’ve been thinking about the west coast / Not the one that everyone knows” at first seems to evoke the idea of death happening in the west, where the sun sets – but then the mention of “the rubble of Aleppo,” which is near the west coast of Syria, gives the song a whole double meaning. To me, the song seems to talk about how facing one’s own mortality gives one compassion for those facing mortality elsewhere, even as far away as Syria. Since U2 has talked about the refugee crisis (particularly in Syria) a lot over the past few years, it seems natural for them to set this song there. This album does overall have an interesting balance (maybe at times a little forced) of the super-personal and the global-political. I think someone other than me is going to have to untangle those particular threads, though. U2 is always so metaphorical and indirect, plus there’s all the Biblical references that I always miss, so sometimes I kind of give up on interpreting and just sing along. Anyway, this is a gorgeous song. I’d listen to it over and over just for that guitar line.

I do love the vocal on “The Showman (Little More Better)” – you can almost hear Bono trying not to laugh, bouncing and grinning around the room, reveling in his own position as the entertainer who “prays his heartache will chart.” I love the gleefulness in his voice here, and the idea that although the showman is basically a liar and a fraud, he’s redeemed by the audience: “I lie for a living / I love to let on / But you make it true when you sing along.” It’s a sly, though not altogether uncomplicated, little love letter to U2’s audience.

I also love, though I’m not completely sure why, “The Little Things That Give You Away.” The lyrics are at once terribly vague and highly evocative, and it seems to be about a crisis of some sort (life or death, et cetera) and a conflict, perhaps internal, that isn’t resolving – until the end of the song: “Sometimes / the end isn’t coming / it’s not coming / the end is here / sometimes.” Is this about how, when death seems imminent, you know there’s just not time to resolve all the conflicts and you just have to accept them as you accept the oncoming end? I’m not sure. I’m still untangling this one, but it makes me want to keep thinking about it, so I guess that’s success for a song. Interestingly, when this song was performed early in the 2017 Joshua Tree tour, Bono introduced it as the last song on the new album – but it ended up being about 2/3 of the way into the album, nowhere near the last. Maybe because closing a show with it made it clear that it wasn’t emotionally resolved as we’re conditioned to want an album-closer to be? Maybe because the end wasn’t the end after all? Dunno.

“Landlady” is such a lovely, straightforward love letter from Bono to his wife. If you like love songs, you’ll love this one. I would love it more, I think, if I weren’t so fascinated by the inherent power dynamic in the concept of one’s wife being one’s landlady. Power dynamic? The more I think about it the more I’m not sure that’s quite right; before I bought a house I always felt like my landlords had the upper hand, because they could change the rules and decide that next year tenants weren’t allowed to have more than two cats and those of us with three would just have to find somewhere else to live, or they could arbitrarily raise the rent, or whatever. But I can also see how a touring musician would have an … interesting … relationship with the concept of home. Whose home is it really if one of you is gone for months at a stretch? I bet sometimes it feels to him like “she lives here and I just borrow the space sometimes.” Anyway. I get hung up on that silly stuff when I should focus on what a lovely song this is. Next listen I’ll try to remember that!

I have mixed feelings about “The Blackout.” The line “is this an extinction event?” pops into my head every time I read the news lately, though. Did Bono really stick “Jack” and “Zac” at the end of those two lines so he wouldn’t get caught rhyming “back” with “back”? Lazy. But the band sounds great here and it is going to be a fun song to hear live.

“Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – Bono’s letter to his younger self. Experience looking back at innocence with compassion. This one feels timeless. Has the potential to be a real show-stopper live, if Bono is in good voice.

“13 (There Is A Light)” feels, musically, like a bookend to the opening song (for we dinosaurs who still listen to albums straight through), and perhaps a bit of an answer to the questions posed in “Love Is All We Have Left.” I imagine this song closing the main portion of the live show, perhaps with a re-lighting of the giant lightbulb that hung over the stage – and was shattered when innocence was shattered – on the 2015 tour. That would be a nice full-circle moment, because I think with this song, innocence kind of gets reclaimed from the ravages of experience: “I’ve got a question for the child in you / before it leaves.” (And then of course the band would come back and do a few of the big hits in the encore, similar to the format of the last couple of tours.)

The production on many of the songs goes in a slick, contemporary-pop direction. There’s even some Auto-Tune, for crying out loud, something most producers wouldn’t even dream of plastering on top of one of rock’s best vocalists. I’ve seen a couple of reviews that suggest the sound leans a little too far towards Coldplay (trying to sound like the band who grew up trying to sound like you? really, U2?) and there are moments where I can’t disagree. At times the production tries so hard to sound super-contemporary (trying, I suppose, to position U2 as “relevant! not just old people music! honest!”) and this will inevitably leave the album sounding super-dated in a few years. They do know how to create a catchy hook, though. That definitely hasn’t changed.

Anyway, those are some disjointed thoughts and things I noticed about the album. I am looking forward to hearing some of these songs live, and wishing I could manage more than one show – but between the giant kerfuffle of the ticket sales for this tour, and the hike in prices over the last couple tours, I’m afraid one might be my limit. I’m going to St. Louis, and should serendipity strike with an opportunity for the right ticket, I’m not ruling out one of the Chicago shows (inconveniently mid-week as they are).

 

 

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Always Go to the Show: Bruce Springsteen in Pittsburgh, 9-11-2016

So, I’m a little late with this. But more than six months later, this show – and my experiences surrounding it – still resonates with me, and I’ve been meaning to write about it, so.

Those of you who know me in real life probably know that I’m not the most spontaneous person on the planet. When it comes to travel, especially, I plan ahead. I’m usually the person with two browsers and a smartphone churning away at the moment tickets for a big show go on sale, and by the end of the day I’ve got a hotel room booked, my route google-mapped, and probably some idea of which friends I might meet up with while I’m there.

Well.

After seeing what I thought would be my last Springsteen show of the River 2016 tour, August 28th in Chicago, I realized I really, truly hadn’t had enough. I needed just … one … more … fix. I looked at the few remaining dates on the itinerary, and realized that Pittsburgh was driveable. It wasn’t CLOSE, it was about 400 miles from home, but doable in a day. The hotels near the arena were all either booked or expensive – but I looked on the outskirts of town and found a decent deal on a Hampton Inn in Bridgeville, just west of Pittsburgh proper. It’d mean I wouldn’t have to negotiate a strange city after 400 miles of driving, and I could get back on the road that much faster the day after the show; driving a half hour to and from the venue seemed reasonable to me. I triple checked the hotel’s cancellation policy and booked the room.

But then there was the small matter of a ticket. They’d gone on sale months ago. I didn’t want to drive 400 miles each way only to sit up in the rafters, I wasn’t about to pay hugely inflated scalper prices, and although I am well aware that one can usually nab something at the last minute for most big shows, I am too chickenshit to drive that far without a ticket in hand. (I am too good at “but what if??” for my own good.)

I had never bought a ticket on the secondary market before. I have ethical issues with scalpers who use high-end technology to buy up seats when they go on sale and then resell them, at a significant markup, to people who were trying to get them but got shut out by aforementioned scalpers. It ain’t right. At the same time, there are occasionally legit reasons for regular fans to resell tickets – case in point, when my cat Bear was terminally ill and had just taken a turn for the worse, I was stuck with an expensive ticket to see Bonnie Raitt in Louisville, and it would have been nice to have been able to recoup some of the money I’d spent on that. Sometimes, especially shortly before the date of the show, you can even score tickets for less than face value from people – or scalpers – who just want to recoup something.

Anyway, my point is, I wanted a Pittsburgh ticket, and I wanted it bad – and after clicking around for a while, I found one I could live with. It was in the 5th row, behind the stage, pretty much smack behind Max Weinberg’s drum kit. I’d always wanted to sit behind the stage for a Bruce show; I’d heard you could see a lot of the interactions among band members, and I knew from experience that Bruce always goes around to the back and plays directly to those folks some. This ticket had a couple more things to recommend it: it was marked up a bit from face value, but not too badly; and the person selling it was willing to break up their pair and sell it as a single. (That is usually not the case, even when buying directly from Ticketmaster/LiveNation/whoever. I’ve been denied some great seats because it won’t let you leave a “stranded” single. Grrr. I mean, I get it, but… grrr.)

This all went down less than a week before the show. For me, that is SUPER spontaneous. I bought the ticket on Tuesday. The show was on Sunday. On Saturday morning, I hit the road for my first-ever trip to Pittsburgh.

Turns out, as 400-mile drives go, it’s a pretty easy one. Interstate all the way. Plenty of rest stops. And on that Saturday, some fairly gnarly weather. You know you’re having second thoughts about driving when you pass the storm chaser parked on the shoulder taking photos of the wall cloud just north of you. Um, yikes. Lucky for me, I have radar apps and I know how to use them; I’d been planning an extended picnic-lunch stop along the way, but I was staying just ahead of the storm front, so I kept the pedal to the metal. The now-weakened storms rolled through Pittsburgh about an hour after I got to the Hampton. Good job, me!

I spent the morning of the show relaxing at the hotel. Obsessive that I am, I kept checking Ticketmaster just … in … case. (5th row behind the stage was going to be lovely. I was fine with it. But if I could get something better….) Around noon or so, I just missed out on a seat in the front row behind the stage. And then a little while later, there went another. Dang! But about 2 pm, a minor miracle occurred – a single, front row behind the stage, practically dead center. It seemed Ticketmaster was releasing that row of seats in ones and twos, possibly to keep scalpers from buying up the whole row. It was pretty much the exact seat I’d dreamed of getting. I bought it, and put my 5th-row seat up for sale on the same secondary site from whence it came. A few short hours later, while I was having a nice pre-show dinner with friends, I got the notification that it had sold. I took a small loss on it, but I was fine with that. I had my dream ticket in my hands.

Bruce Springsteen in Pittsburgh from behind the stage

What. A. View.

Like all the shows on that last U.S. leg of the River 2016 tour, this one kicked off with “New York City Serenade” with a string section – something that had utterly blown me away in Chicago, from way back by the soundboard; seeing it up close in Pittsburgh was heaven. One of Springsteen’s prettiest songs, and I don’t mean that as weak praise; it truly is a thing of beauty. And then – well, I knew Bruce would pay tribute to 9/11, since this was the first time he’d performed on that actual date since “The Rising” came out. I’d figured he’d play a particularly heartfelt version of the title track from that album (a concert staple for him) and one or two other “Rising” songs. I wasn’t expecting him to go from “Serenade” right into “Into the Fire,” which literally made me gasp and drop into my seat with the emotional force of it. Then after maybe the best performance of “Lonesome Day” I’ve seen, “You’re Missing” was another stunning, gorgeous gut-punch, replacing the late Danny Federici’s iconic organ solo with a lonesome harmonica wail. Then “Mary’s Place,” and an absolutely ferocious “Darkness on the Edge of Town” served as an outro to the 9/11 tribute.

Knowing I was going to be close to the stage, I’d brought a sign – something I hadn’t done in years! – which said “After all these years we are still just kids wasted on SOMETHING IN THE NIGHT.” I would’ve loved to have heard that song, but more than that, it was a tribute to my very first Springsteen show back in 1978, when I saw some folks up in the nosebleeds with a giant bedsheet reading “just kids wasted on something in the night” (back then it was more of a statement than a song request). Some nights, Bruce takes sign requests. Some nights, he’s on a mission to tell a specific story, and he doesn’t pay any attention to signs. I love those nights most of all, so I wasn’t sorry that he ignored my request. (Since I was in the front row of the section, I figured out a few songs in that I could hang the sign on the railing in front of me, so I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view with it, thank you very much! You can spot it in some of the videos out there on YouTube, though late in the show when I knew it was past time for any possibility of requests, I took it down.)

My sign:

After the 9/11 tribute section, it was on to the oldies. Inspired I guess by Bruce’s soon-to-be-published memoir, this leg of the tour had been featuring some really fun performances of early E Street songs, and Pittsburgh delivered on that promise – including a gleefully fierce Stevie/Bruce guitar duel on “Saint in the City” and a searing “Lost in the Flood.” The band was firing on all cylinders and then some. And then – he’d done it a couple times since Chicago, but dare I hope? – “Incident on 57th Street” drew to a close and Bruce grinned, teased us all by drawing out the ending, and… YES! Right into “Rosalita” just like on the record, something that doesn’t happen often in concert because “Rosie” usually ends up in the encore. (I’m looking at the setlist again as I write this and am kind of stunned all over again to think I heard all these songs in one night – and all played with total relish, gusto, and ferocity!)

There were a couple more surprises yet in store for that show. After “Because the Night” (which never, ever gets old for me) Bruce took us back to the 9/11 theme with a beautiful “My City of Ruins.” As the song rose up, audience members started holding up their glowing cellphones until the whole arena was a glittering night sky. Absolutely spontaneous, absolutely heartfelt, and one of those moments you want never to end. “The Rising” came right after, and though that song had gotten stale for me over the years of hearing it at every single show, on this night it reclaimed its original power and resolve.

To open the encores, Bruce says, “Somebody gave me a copy of the Constitution of the United States.” The audience cheers. “Well… it does say ‘Fuck Trump’ on the front of it.” Even louder cheers. “And this was his request. We haven’t played this song in a long time…” This led into an absolutely gorgeous solo acoustic version of “Long Walk Home,” which for the pre-election political climate was beyond perfect. Bruce must have thought so too, as the song became a regular for the last few shows of the year.

Sitting behind the stage, by the way, was an amazing experience – especially being so close. I got more Bruce “face time” than I usually do even when I’m in a very good side-stage seat, Stevie Van Zandt turned around frequently to play to us, and Jake Clemons prowled around the back of the stage a lot too. It was great seeing a bit of what goes on behind the scenes as well, seeing band members getting ready for the next song, seeing the wardrobe person prepping things (bringing out the “Boss” cape for the “The Boss has left the building” shtick late in the encores, setting out a couple fresh pairs of shoes for band members to change into upon leaving the stage) and the guitar tech putting away instruments after their last use of the night. The crew is incredibly efficient. I probably wouldn’t recommend the behind-stage seat for someone’s very first Springsteen show, but for someone like me who’s quite familiar with the show, it was SO cool to see someone bring out a big shopping bag and take it underneath the stage and realize “oh, that’s the Boss cape in there.”

Bruce Springsteen & Max Weinberg on stage, with me right behind them

There I am. (I didn’t take this one, obviously)

And the giant shiny red cherry on top of the ridiculous sundae of that night (this is my favorite part and I saved it just for you few hardy souls who’ve made it to the end of this unforgivably lengthy post). Several years back, I wrote a poem about my first Springsteen show in 1978, which will probably always stand as the greatest concert I have ever witnessed, and about the second-greatest concert I have ever witnessed – which was most of the same guys, thirty years later, in St. Louis in 2008. From 2009 to 2016, I carried a copy of that poem with me every time I went to a Springsteen show, on the off chance that somehow I would find a way to get it into his hands.

In Pittsburgh, I initially thought to tape the poem onto the back of my “Something in the Night” sign, in case I was able to pass that to him on the stage. When it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, I stuck the poem in my back pocket. Late in the show, I realized that he was going to exit the stage right in front of me (there’s a trap-door sort of deal towards the rear of the stage, with stairs going down that lead to a whole hive of activity underneath the stage; the band enters and exits here). I watched as various band members departed following the final encore, cheering and applauding; some of them looked up to acknowledge the crowd, some were just focused on getting the heck out of there (after a nearly four-hour show you can not blame them). Max Weinberg – for whom the show is an incredible physical effort; the guy is a beast! – took a while to leave and made his exit in an immaculate white bathrobe.

It was a few more minutes before Bruce emerged, sweaty and spent. He looked up to acknowledge the cheering, and when he was looking in my general direction I gently floated the folded poem down to him, like a paper airplane or a falling blossom. I held my breath, knowing that many many rock stars would just ignore something tossed down to them like that, knowing he had just run a rock & roll marathon and probably could barely see straight, thinking that at best an assistant would come along to clean up various detritus a little later and might pick it up then. But. He. Picked. It. Up. And he looked right at me, and I called out, “Thank you!” (it may have come out as a squeak…) and he walked away with that poem in his hand.

Friends, I was over the moon. I stopped at the merch table and bought a t-shirt because I didn’t want to leave the building just yet, that site where so much magic had just happened. And I’m not quite sure how I managed to drive myself back to the hotel, or how I managed to sleep that night.

I will probably never know if he read the thing (I’m pretty sure he just wants to collapse after an intense marathon of a show like that, not sit around reading poems, and it would be awfully easy for it to have just gone missing in the process of packing up to leave) or, if he did, whether he liked it. (Yes, I did put contact information on it; I’m not one to squander even the slimmest chance. But I had no expectation that anything would come of that.) And that’s okay, actually. But I do like to imagine that maybe he read and appreciated it. And if for some reason I never get to another Springsteen show again, I will always remember that in the last moment I saw him, he was walking away with my poem in his hand. (Holy shit, y’all.)

Worth the 830 miles I put on my car that weekend? Worth the ticket drama, the money, the shaking myself out of my fondness for overplanning? Um, YES. Hell, this Pittsburgh show was worth it all from the first notes of “New York City Serenade.”

I once said, “Always go to the show!” and certain of my friends quote me on that a lot. But it’s true.  You never know when you might get to spend a few minutes at a pre-show meet & greet with Little Steven… oh yeah, THAT happened in Pittsburgh, too! It is always a big treat to be in that guy’s presence, however momentarily – he is amazing. And as I write this, it’s the eve of the 9th anniversary of the last time I saw the late and much-missed Danny Federici on the E Street stage. You never know when it might be your last dance.

And you never know when you might finally get your chance to make a tiny paper-airplane dream come true.

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Personal Notes on Springsteen’s “River” Show

You can find my more formal review/recap of the show over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. But while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down a few more personal notes about my experience of Bruce Springsteen’s Jan. 19 show at the United Center in Chicago, featuring a beginning-to-end performance of “The River” album.

Full album shows fascinate me. On the one hand, I miss the insights I sometimes get from the mixture of old and new material – how newer material can reach back to converse with the old, shedding new light on both. And it’s a different experience knowing, for at least a good part of the show, what song is going to come next. On the other hand, if an album is carefully constructed, it tells a story that is more than the sum of its parts (songs). There’s a cohesiveness to the performance that can be revealing and informative. And, well, even I don’t spend as much time as I once did just putting on an album and listening carefully to it from beginning to end. I listen to playlists, I put stuff on shuffle… it’s different.

And “The River” is for sure an album I’ve spent a lot of time with as an album. When it came out, I was in college, living in the dorm, prone to a bit of drama (as most 19-year-olds can be). When I had a solitary evening, I’d often dim the lights in my dorm room, maybe light a candle or some incense (both, as I recall, forbidden in the dorm… such a little baby rebel I was), put on an album I loved, and just immerse myself in it. Oftentimes, “The River” was that album. I was especially obsessed with the song “Point Blank,” lifting the needle at the end of the song and moving the arm back to listen again. (Which was so much more deliberate an act than clicking a “repeat” button.)

My least favorite song on the album was “Wreck on the Highway.” Just morbid and depressing, I thought, set to an inexplicable tune – not exactly bouncy, but melodic and pretty, and a little singsongy. Certainly not as mournful as lines like

There was blood and glass all over / And there was nobody there but me / As the rain tumbled down hard and cold / I seen a young man lying by the side of the road / He cried “Mister, won’t you help me please”

oughta be. I mean, singing merrily away about “blood and glass all over”? Shouldn’t the music be darker, gloomier? Maybe some good angry punk stuff? And why end the album on something so damn gloomy anyway? And then the narrator just goes home and looks at his girlfriend and thinks about this stupid wreck that he’s obsessed with for some reason. What the hell, Bruce.

Well. I was nineteen. And I thought I knew a lot, but as anyone who’s been nineteen and gotten over it knows, I didn’t know much.

The concert was on January 19th, 2016. The 20th was the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death – some 14 years after “The River” came out. I remember watching my mother that week, realizing for the first time that signing up for a lifetime commitment with another human being meant committing to seeing them through the whole dying business too, if they got around to dying before you did. And realizing what that meant – the pain and difficulty of it, yes, but also the pure privilege and honor of bearing the weight of that journey. So this was on my mind a bit at the concert. Yeah, time tends to fold in on itself a bit when you get to be middle-aged. I’m learning that.

“Wreck on the Highway” comes right after “Drive All Night” on the River album. A lot of people love “Drive” as a hopelessly-romantic love song. “I swear I’d drive all night again, just to buy you some shoes.” But the song opens:

When I lost you, honey, sometimes I think I lost my guts too. / And I wish God would send me a word / Send me something I’m afraid to lose.

One, he’s not just singing to a woman; he’s singing to someone he has ALREADY LOST. Maybe he lost her and got her back again, but maybe not. “I swear I’d drive all night again… I just wanna sleep tonight again in your arms.” Is he singing to someone he’s lost to something more than infidelity? Is this a grief song?

In Chicago Tuesday night, Springsteen introduced “I Wanna Marry You” as being a song about the fantasy of what marriage might be like, not the real thing. (It was never one of my favorites on the album, either. Funny that.) But wishing for “something I’m afraid to lose” comes, I think, much closer to a real understanding of commitment. Who knows whether Bruce understood that when he wrote the song – he’s certainly said in many interviews that he didn’t understand love and commitment until some years later. When you commit to someone for life (whether that’s marriage, or any other form of deep lifelong emotional commitment with a peer [as opposed to, say, your children – who you expect will outlive you anyway]), you’re saying: Losing this person is my deepest fear. And I’m committing to staying with them until that fear becomes reality. I’m willingly accepting the near-certainty of my greatest fear coming true.

That’s pretty weighty. And that’s the understanding of marriage that Springsteen arrives at in “Wreck.” It’s not the fun-and-games part of love, it’s not the unrealistic interpretation of marriage we see in “Marry You,” it’s not even latching on to someone just because, well, two hearts are better than one. It’s something a whole lot scarier and harder and truer than that. It’s something that acknowledges mortality as fully part of the deal – and mortality, man, that’s hard to take.

Springsteen closed out the River album portion of the show, as the last notes of “Wreck on the Highway” played, he talked about how he’d realized the album was also about time:

“One of the things I was writing about on The River was time,” he said. “A friend of mine [who] was around last night said that time catches up to us all. You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, try and do something good.” (from Rolling Stone’s review of Pittsburgh show)

For sure, talking about time and mortality is not new for Springsteen – that’s what the “Wrecking Ball” album is all about, after all, and plenty of his other songs from the past couple decades. And anyone in the demographic he and I share (roughly 50-70) has seen some of their heroes and some of their loved ones die, knows that there’s more of that inevitably coming, and is probably grappling with how best to deal with that part of life. It’s sadly fitting that the first two shows of this tour included songs played in tribute to fellow musicians who’d recently died (David Bowie and Glenn Frey).

Mortality, man. We don’t sign up for that willingly. But when we love someone, the kind of love that means we plan to stick together, we are willingly taking on not only our own mortality but theirs. That’s crazy (says the longtime spinster who’s perfectly happy about that situation). But it’s also pretty damned profound.

And that’s the long story of why the song I least liked on “The River” when I was nineteen or twenty is probably the most important song on the album, and why the damned thing ends with such a melodic bit of gloom. Because that’s life, you know? Life.

Which is what rock & roll is all about.

_______________

A couple of other takeaways from Tuesday night’s show:

  • Whether I’m elbows on the stage or battling altitude sickness up in the rafters, an E Street Band show gives me something no other concert does. It feels like home. Sometimes the furniture gets rearranged while I’m away, but it feels like a place where I just belong. I sink into the show, settle into it, like the most comfortable pair of shoes that make my feet happy. Which is not to say that I just sit there. They’re dancing shoes. They’re rock & roll shoes!
  • As for the people NOT on stage: Hanging out with the friends I’ve met through Springsteen’s music is maybe the best part of these shows. I knew this already, of course, but it’s good to be reminded. I don’t think I would have met any of these people without this connection, although we have so much more in common than just the music and the concert experience. They are creative, compassionate, interesting people and they make me laugh like nobody’s business. Love y’all – you know who you are!

Here’s “Wreck on the Highway” from Pittsburgh. Yes, the people chattering should be smacked upside the head immediately.

 

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In the wake of Bataclan: For my people

I’ve written before about why live music is so important to me. While terrorism anywhere in the world appalls me, the recent attack at the Parisian music club Bataclan strikes close to home. It’s like what a religious person might feel if terrorists opened fire on a church. Perhaps even something like what a parent feels if it happens in a school. Music venues are my holy ground, my home away from home. Yes, bad things have happened at concerts before – going back to Altamont, and farther – and in the world today it does occur to one to be aware of one’s surroundings when in a crowd of people, and annoying as it is to be wanded or have your bag searched going into an arena, you realize that we live in a time when there have to be precautions.

But even so, even so. You just don’t expect this. And I feel like music people are my people – like music fans are fellow citizens of a (large and very diverse, but still real and precious) sort of country of the heart. The people who died and were injured at Bataclan, those were my people. Bono talked about this in an interview he gave hours after the attacks; U2 was in fact scheduled to perform in Paris – at a much, much larger venue of course – the next night and the night after, and of course those concerts have been cancelled. I would have spent this afternoon listening to someone’s stream of the show on Mixlr, most likely, and in fact I’d just downloaded the HBO Now app so I could watch the near-live broadcast of the show tonight. I was looking forward to that. My disappointment in not getting to hear and see the show is a tiny, tiny thing compared to the pain and suffering experienced by those who came under attack and by their loved ones. But it brings it that much closer to home for me. Those were my people.

So, to the musicians – and also the crew, staff, merch managers, promoters, bus drivers, instrument techs, sound and lighting folks, even the spouses and families who share their loved ones with us when they go out on tour – thank you. We follow you because what you do helps us navigate a world in which awful things happen, and it helps us celebrate a world in which beauty exists and needs to be noticed every day of our lives. We know touring is often hard, and after Bataclan it may be even harder in some ways. What you do matters deeply. Please know that.

To the music fans – let’s don’t let this stop us from getting out there and going to the show. Yes, look around you as you go into any venue and be aware of where the exits are. Maybe stay sober enough to make rational decisions should an emergency arise. But then let go of the awful world and dance, dance, dance in the beautiful world. Let’s don’t let anything keep us from that.

peace sign with eiffel tower

image by jean jullien

 

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If the Sky Can Crack: On losing your chops

So, I wrote about why listening to live music is so important to me. But, asks the astute reader, what about playing music yourself? You have a guitar, right? Doesn’t that give you some of the same stuff?

It does, when it goes well. But of course my own history with playing music is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. Of course it is.

I first started playing guitar in high school, back when I was first discovering my own taste in music and finding that everything from Jackson Browne to Patti Smith, from Segovia to Springsteen, all kinds of music floated my boat. In fact, it was at a classical guitar recital my parents took me to (it might have been Christopher Parkening, although to this day I don’t remember for sure) that I decided I wanted to play guitar. I remember vividly that there was a piece which involved a lot of harmonics, these gorgeous pure chiming notes, and all I wanted to do in the world was to make a sound like that.

Eventually my parents got me a little Yamaha classical guitar (which, yes, I still have and treasure) and set me up with lessons. Before long I’m angling my way through Bach etudes, arpeggios, the occasional soft-rock song. I’m hardly ever more content than when I’m playing. This is around 1976, 1977.

Me at 17, playing guitar.

True story.

Fast forward a year or two. I’m checking out folk and rock songbooks from the public library, figuring out chords to songs I like. (I’m also using the library to read Billboard and Variety and Rolling Stone, when other kids my age are reading Tiger Beat. I am nothing if not Serious About Myself.) I’m using my savings to buy a steel-string guitar because the little classical just doesn’t really sound like rock & roll. (It’s an Ovation Balladeer, the round-back guitar like what Nancy Wilson of Heart played on stage at the time – I still have it, with its bright brassy tone and its propensity for volume.) I’m hanging out with my friend Sally, who also had a guitar; we both want to be Jimi Hendrix and we daydream about white Stratocasters.

A bit later, I bought an electric guitar: not a Strat, but a red Gibson Melody Maker. I kept that for about a year, never quite figuring out how to make it sound like anything, then sold it when I was getting ready to go to college and needed the money. If only I could go back in time and not do that… that was a sweet little guitar. But the electric guitar is a very different animal from the classical. It was a language I could hear and understand, but couldn’t speak it myself yet.

Anyway, college meant the end of classical guitar lessons, though I did manage a semester of beginning piano which taught me a lot about music theory. I kept playing, though I wasn’t practicing as seriously as I had in high school (arpeggios and finger exercises and so forth); I enjoyed strumming Fleetwood Mac and Heart songs in the courtyard of my dorm, singing with friends. After college, I even performed onstage a few times; I belonged to a writers’ group that gave readings a couple times a year locally, and every now and then along with my poems I put an original song into our “setlist.”

That? That was terrifying. Not the part where I was performing something I’d created myself – reading poems onstage never bothered me much. But singing in public felt more vulnerable and scary than pretty much anything I’d ever done. And I didn’t do it much before I stopped.

I’ve often said that if I could have one superpower, I would choose singing. Not playing guitar, funny enough; that has always seemed like something I could get good at if I just worked my ass off for years. I could understand how to get from here to there, whether or not I actually put in the practice time to do it. Singing? That was something other people were somehow good at.

The funny thing is: I have always LOVED singing. When nobody’s listening – in an empty house, in the shower, driving on the highway – I sing. I add harmonies to my favorite albums. At concerts, when they’re the singing-along kind of concerts like Springsteen or the Indigo Girls, I’m right there because nobody (I imagine) can hear me in the crowd.

But not where people can hear me. Which sort of always did put a crimp in my youthful fantasies of being a rock star. That, and the fact that I was too socially awkward to start a band so that I could just be the guitarist and let somebody else sing.

Stratocaster guitarAnyway. Adulthood being what it is, what with full-time jobs and bills to pay and everything, I stopped playing guitar very much. I’ve had brief flings with resuming it – most notably in 2008 when, after an epic road trip (well, it FELT epic anyway) for three Springsteen shows, I felt thoroughly inspired and went out & bought myself an electric guitar. (“So you wanna be a rock & roll star…“)  It wasn’t the white Strat I’d daydreamed of at seventeen, but it was a Strat, by golly. And it felt good to play it. I still didn’t quite understand its grammar and its syntax, but I wasn’t trying to play it like a classical guitar anymore, so I was able to get as far as making noises that were pleasing to my ear, if not my neighbors’ ears.

But that didn’t last. Because here’s the thing. When you don’t play, you forget how to play. You lose your chops, as musicians say. Your fingers feel fat and uncontrollable. Your hands cramp. You can figure out that you should play a B chord right there, but you can’t get your left hand gracefully from one chord to the next. And if you’re still fluent in listening to music, if you have a pretty good ear, you know exactly how crappy you sound. It is really hard to accept “well, I sound a little better than I did last week” when you know you also sound a whole lot worse than you did twenty years ago. When you can hear your own mistakes so very clearly.

This is how guitars end up getting dusty under the bed.

You’re in my mind all the time – I know that’s not enough…

Fast-forward to two or three years ago. I got an iPad, and I promptly downloaded the GarageBand app. Boy, is that a fun little toy. You don’t have to have any talent or musical skill, really. You can set it so that everything comes out in the right key. You don’t have to tune anything. I started noodling around and found myself composing little snippets. Nothing serious, but maybe the sort of thing you’d hear over the local forecast on the Weather Channel. It was stuff that sounded like music, and I was creating it, and holy moly, it was fun. I popped a few of my tracks up on Soundcloud, just for grins.

But it’s the paint-by-numbers version of making music. It’s fun, and maybe it takes a small amount of skill, but it completely lacks the physical aspect of playing an instrument. There’s more than just being able to choose the right notes at the right time – you also have to coordinate your muscles and your breath. Which is why it takes so much practice and also why it’s so absorbing, so immersive, and ultimately so healing.

All my GarageBand noodling was starting to remind me of how much I used to love sitting in my bedroom, working out chords and fingerings, trying to transpose songs into a key I could come anywhere close to singing. But my body resisted the act of going to the guitar case, taking out the instrument, tuning it up. I knew I would sound like crap. Playing badly makes me feel like I am disrespecting the guitar. (I know that is not logical.)

I’m in my fifties now, and I have a full-time job I like a great deal, which does not involve being a musician. It’s no longer even remotely realistic (as it is for every 17-year-old in the world) to daydream about being in a band, traveling around the world, making people swoon with my music. Anything I do now, musically, is going to be just for me. It feels different now than it did back then … but it still feels necessary.

So how to get from disrespecting a perfectly good guitar to doing something that would at least feel like fun and not an exercise in pure frustration?

I think I can blame Eddie Vedder for the ukulele. Or maybe Amanda Shires, who also plays one occasionally. I had a little string of realizations:

  • Buying a new instrument usually motivates me to play, at least for a while.
  • Ukuleles are a whole hell of a lot cheaper than guitars. You can get a decent one, not a professional-quality one but something that is a real instrument and not just a jangly toy, for maybe a little over 100 bucks on eBay.
  • You can’t take a uke too seriously. You just can’t. And maybe, just maybe, if I picked up something that wasn’t a guitar, that I didn’t have to worry about disrespecting, I wouldn’t have the undercurrent of expectation that I would somehow magically sound like I did thirty years ago when I was seriously practicing and playing every day.

ukuleleAnd you know what … it worked. This past June I got a little Lanikai uke on eBay, a pretty thing made of curly koa. I had to look up how it was supposed to be tuned. (Then I ordered a tuner online, which helps tremendously.) I looked up some chord charts, and I started noodling. Pretty soon I was making noises that sounded sort of like music.

And then I figured out a few actual songs. First, “Angel From Montgomery” – a song I have always loved singing. Then U2’s “Every Breaking Wave.” I even recorded that one onto GarageBand and put some reverb and some strings on it. I was up till 4 am a couple of nights figuring out string arrangements. IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! (And weirdly, once everything was pulled together, I could even sort of stand the sound of my own singing voice. Crazy. A little reverb helps, of course.)

And then, just a couple weeks ago, I got out my nearly-forty-year-old Yamaha classical guitar. I tuned it up and I started to play. My fingers hurt like hell after about fifteen minutes, but thanks to the uke-playing I at least had a bit of a start on regaining the calluses on my left fingertips. Then, the other night, I got out my little blue Strat and made some noise. It sounded like crap, I’m quite certain. But it felt so, so good just to strap it on and stand there.

If the sky can crack, there must be some way back…

For the past few days I’ve been working on an acoustic version of U2’s song “Electrical Storm.” It’s a gorgeous song about a couple at an impasse in their relationship, mired in stasis, desperately looking for a way to get back to the love they feel sure must still be there somewhere. It’s not a crazy difficult song to play, really, but it does have some rhythmic quirks and a bunch of barre chords that make my left hand cramp after three or four times through. It is juuuuuust beyond the boundary of what I can currently manage comfortably, and so it’s a perfect song for me to work on.

And the song itself is a good metaphor for the struggle of regaining your chops. You remember how good it feels when you can just sit for hours with the guitar, your fingers in conversation with the strings, fluent. You remember coaxing notes out of it, each note pure and ringing or staccato as the song requires, the notes and measures a language you speak well enough to write poetry in it. You remember not even having to think about where your hands should go, the guitar practically an extension of your body.

And now your hands feel like you’re wearing heavy gloves, the guitar slips out of position at odd moments, the strings muffle when they should ring and blare out sound when they should be quiet. The notes are like tired, angry children who refuse to get in line. You make yourself work through the song just one more time, you practice that tricky chord change over and over and over. You’re glad you live alone because only the saintliest of neighbors would put up with the endless repetition. Your fingertips burn. You soldier through because you remember what it used to feel like, and you want that. You don’t know if you’ll ever have it. But you want it.

coffee’s cold, but it’ll get you through
compromise, that’s nothing new to you

It’s harder, in a lot of ways, than learning the instrument the first time around. You know that musical fluency is water, not stone: unreplenished, it drains away. Every song you learn, or relearn, is a conversation you’re in danger of forgetting – not a jewel tucked away in a box for safekeeping. You realize that you can’t take anything for granted: memory, muscle, breath. You have less of a margin: when you’re fluent, you can go a few days without playing and you’re still good. But when you’re trying to get your chops back, there’s no room for laziness. If I don’t play for a week, I’ll have lost everything I’ve gotten back in the past month. My muscle memory is still shallow – the playing hasn’t sunk in to become a part of me yet.

“Electrical Storm” ends without emotional resolution. The chorus, “Electrical storm, electrical storm…” suggests that the singer wants some external force to come along and crack open the impasse like lightning cracks through the sky – but it’s unclear whether the invocation of the image is wishful thinking, or whether the storm is actually brewing. The coda goes to a couple of chords that haven’t appeared earlier in the song, which suggests some sort of movement out of the lovers’ stasis, but neither the lyrics nor the chords tell you what resolution they might be moving towards. The song ends with the repeated plea, “Baby, don’t cry,” which tells you that both partners feel the pain of whatever’s going on but doesn’t tell you whether the storm (wished for or actual) is breaking them apart or healing them. And yet, by the time you get to the end of the song, you do feel like you have moved through something.

On rainy days we go swimming out
On rainy days, swimming in the sound

It’s kind of like that with getting your chops back. It’s a struggle to regain fluency, to swim comfortably in the sound. Every night you put away your guitar and you don’t know, really, if you’re ever going to get back to where you were – or if getting back to where you were is really, anymore, the goal.

You’re in my mind all the time – I know it’s not enough
If the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love…
Electrical storm
Electrical storm
Baby, don’t cry… 

“Electrical Storm” lyrics ©U2

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Music Is My Strawberry: How concert-going saves me

It’s true: I go to a lot of concerts. I go to shows, small and large, in my own town; I drive up to Indianapolis (50-60 miles or so each way, depending on which side of the city) several times a year; I’ll happily hit the road for a greater distance if the timing is riight and the show is promising. I’ve driven to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, even Kansas City (480 miles each way) on multiple occasions. I’ve gotten on planes just to see a Springsteen show. I’ve imposed on family and friends and spent money on hotels when a rational person would have saved it for retirement or a rainy day. Some shows have been better than others, but I don’t regret a single dollar or a single mile. (3,420 of those miles in 2014, according to my calculations. I try not to add up the dollars.)

If you’re not this kind of crazy, you probably wonder: what’s the deal? Some friends accuse me, good-naturedly, of having too much fun. And it is fun, of course it is; I love the highway driving, I love meeting up with far-flung friends in the GA line, I love the music itself and most of the musicians. But this thing goes a whole lot deeper than “fun.”

Buddha told a parable in sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!  (http://deoxy.org/koan/18)

tiger

photo: catlovers (flickr)

We are all, every day, being chased by tigers. My own are no more ferocious than anyone else’s; they are middle-aged tigers, fur glistening with typical middle-aged fears. Money, loved ones’ health, my own health, work, love, mortality. Like anyone in her mid-fifties, I’ve noticed that a few of these have reared up lately and bared their fangs at me. A few months ago I experienced a minor eye problem which is not in itself sight-threatening, but it left me with a good-sized floater that sometimes makes me think a speck of a small flying thing is hovering near my face – could be a gnat, could be a tiny angel, in which case I hope I don’t slap it by mistake – and it reminded me of how some of my older friends say they no longer like to drive at night. I’ve noticed that myself; driving at night isn’t really a problem for me, but it takes a little more conscious alertness than it used to. It’s altogether possible that, some years down the road, I won’t be physically able to strap myself into a husk of silver metal and send myself hurtling down the highway at 65mph in search of music.

Those tigers will eventually – at least that one named Mortality – get me. I’ll be ripped to bits. There’s no way out of that.

Music is made of time. It has a great beat and you can dance to it. The right music throbs you to your bones and blood. Once I sat down at a rock show where everyone was standing, just so I could feel the bass line rumbling through more of my actual skin: my seat was literally shaking with it. Music also takes place in time. One moment the lights are up, the audience is talking and laughing and drinking; the next moment darkness falls and the band slips onto the stage and the tiny lights of amps and transmitters glow across the darkness like nighttime tigers, and the stage lights rise and the audience rises and the great roar rises and whatever room I’m in, a tiny club or a big arena, becomes limitless in space – but still firmly grasped, suspended, held by time. Music has a time signature. Time has signed its contract, time owns it, and me.

When I’m at a concert, I am made of time. I am also living completely in the moment. Music immerses me like nothing else. It captures my senses, my muscles, the beating of my heart. It’s really hard for me to hold still when the music is great. At the very least, I nod my head or sway a bit. At a rock show I’m liable to be the one standing, bobbing, dancing like a giddy maniac. I am listening to music with bone and breath and muscle. If it’s good, I am immersed. I have learned that even singing along can be a kind of listening.

Most days, I worry a lot. And I plan a lot. I love planning for a music-related road trip – charting the route, choosing the hotel, making lists of what to take! But as mindfulness experts and Zen masters point out all the time, living in the present is important. When I’m immersed in music, nothing exists but the moment. Sometimes, it takes that level of immersion to help me let go of the everpresent shadows of my personal tigers. It’s like a long hot shower for the soul. I come out clean.

That strawberry is not just the idea of sweetness. The physicality of music is important. It is muscular, embodied. When you panic, what do you do first? You suck in your breath and then you hold it there, tight as you can. But if I am singing, I am breathing. If I am dancing, even if my actual muscles are relatively still because it is a quiet seated show, my heart is beating. Music involves me intellectually (how does the Edge make his guitar do that??), emotionally (cue up any sad song), and unlike many of my other pursuits (hello poetry), physically. It gets me the hell out of my own head better than anything else I know.

And yes, a lot of my concert-going travels, near and far, are done alone. I have nothing against going to concerts with other people – I do that sometimes too. I enjoy sharing great music with people who appreciate it. It’s fun to hang out in line beforehand, lovely to have someone to save my spot if I duck out for a pre-show pit stop, great to swap opinions over a beer or two afterward. But sometimes, in the middle of a show, I’ll be vaguely aware that someone is leaning over to say something to me, only to find that I’m … not really there. I mean, I’m there, in or near my seat. And I’m there, in my body, in the moment of the music. But I’m not paying attention to my companion. I’m so focused on the music itself, immersed in it, unable/unwilling to surface. I’ve never felt lonely in the middle of a show, even if I’m in an arena with 20,000 strangers. Because I am there with the music. It’s like the actual music is my date. That’s so weird when you put it into words like that, but that is how I feel, when it’s good.

Like a good date, a good concert leaves me little love notes. Sometimes for years afterwards. When I think about my first Bruce Springsteen show, back in September of 1978, all I have to do is remember standing atop a couple of folding chairs on the floor, dancing and singing while the band rocked “Twist & Shout,” and my face breaks into a silly grin no matter what. I remember sitting close to the stage when Joshua Bell was performing, noticing how the violin’s tone sounded ever so slightly different depending on whether the face of the instrument was tipped slightly towards or away from me, and it changed how I understood mathematics, how I perceived the measurement of space and time.

"Little Steven" guitar pick

I remember waking up in a hotel room in Chicago one morning and finding out that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. In the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night before was a guitar pick handed to me by Little Steven at the end of that night’s show. I carried that guitar pick with me, a tiny reminder that joy continues to exist in the world and that it is always waiting for me on an arena floor or in a seat somewhere. (My mother is fine, by the way. But the reminder persists, and persists in being necessary.) I even love the painful little love notes, like the purple toenail I still have two months after two great U2 concerts because I kept stubbing my toe on the tiny step up into the bathroom of my hotel room. Even that reminds me how much I loved those nights, how much I was willing to put up with in order to find what I was looking for.

Not every show is that life-saving, of course. Most of them are good, now and then I hit a dud, a few of them are truly great. I’m always chasing those moments, barreling down highways in search of them, city to city, chasing those flighty little angels.

I don’t just sit there at a show, consuming it. I let it consume me. (If they are angels, let them be ablaze with falling and with glory.) That’s why I like to be close to the stage when I can – I love not just to be immersed but to be an actual part of it. A good concert leaves me tired, maybe even bruised. I don’t just pay my money and passively take something that I’m given. I let the music give to me but I give back to it as well. There’s a definite exchange of energy: love put out there, love returned.

The vine I’m clinging to is fraying, and it’s burning my hands. Those two mice are gnawing busily away. I can smell the tigers’ breath, pungent with blood. But that strawberry: that single, perfect strawberry is so very, very sweet.

one single strawberry

photo: WIlliam Warby (flickr)

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