Category Archives: music

Ghosts and glory

Well, I’m hardly writing poems at all these days, but I did turn out a little bit of writing Tuesday night that I’m pretty happy with. I was thinking about why Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour has resonated with me (and with a lot of other folks, particularly those in my age group) so strongly, and as I wrote, I came to some realizations. Of course, we all love the musicianship, the incredible energy on stage, and so on. But the material that Bruce is working with on this tour hits so close to home for a lot of us – the whole idea of dealing with loss & mortality, of (as he terms it) walking with ghosts – it’s what we, or at least I, need to hear right now. It’s just as relevant to me now as “it’s a town full of losers and we’re pullin’ out of here to win” was when I was fifteen. And I am amazed, as always, at the longevity of Springsteen’s art and at how an E Street show still moves me so profoundly – their best shows still knock my socks off just as much as the first one I saw, back in 1978 when we were all a heck of a lot younger.

Anyway, I wrote about it over at Blogness, and you can go read it there if you’d like. It was great fun to write.

I’ve got two more Springsteen/E Street shows on my calendar, both in November – Louisville and Kansas City – and I’m so curious to see how the last leg of this 2012 tour shapes up. I feel very fortunate to have been able to plan on seeing five shows this year; serious fans on the East Coast have mostly seen more than that, but when you live elsewhere you have to kind of work at it to see multiple shows. I’ll drive as far as Indianapolis for quite a few artists, have made it as far as Louisville for a couple of different bands, and would consider a trip to Chicago for something pretty good – but only for Bruce Springsteen would I get in a car and drive all the way to Kansas City just for a concert. I might be crazy, but you know, I’m okay with that – these little trips make me really happy. And hell, it’s cheaper than psychotherapy and probably works better too!

And something about Bruce Springsteen shows makes me want to WRITE ALL THE WORDS. Since I’ve been writing so little lately, I’m just very happy to have shaken something loose, even if it isn’t poems. Poems will come eventually, I think. I hope. I’m pretty sure.



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My Lotus Festival

Picture of tent venue at the Lotus Festival

Lotus Tent (exterior view)

I love Bloomington’s annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. More than just a music festival, it’s a celebration of the common ground to which music can bring us – across languages, cultures, all manner of divides both geographical and sociological. One of the things I love most about it is that you can have pretty much whatever sort of musical experience you want to have. If you feel like dancing your butt off in a tightly packed crowd (or to stand in back where there’s plenty of elbow room and enjoy watching said tightly packed crowd), you can usually find that in one of the outdoor tents. If you feel like sitting quietly and contemplating something softly acoustic, head for one of the churches. If you want a formal stage and a comfortable seat, go to the Buskirk-Chumley. If you’re in one venue and you find it’s not entirely your cup of tea, or if you’re enjoying it just fine but there’s also another performer you were curious about, it’s perfectly OK to duck out between songs and move from venue to venue. And on Saturday afternoon, you can spread out your blanket in the park and enjoy several different performers along with families, kids, dogs, picnics, and tents housing all kinds of fun crafts activities for the families and kids (not so much for the dogs).

So I don’t think it’s possible to “review the Lotus Festival” – everyone who attends has a slightly different experience with this kaleidoscope of music and culture. This year was apparently my year to enjoy the crowded tents and the loudly rocking music, as all of my highlights fall into that category. Here’s a bit about the performers I especially enjoyed – and I know I missed some other great ones (Fishtank Ensemble, Movits!, Fatoumata Diawara, and Vida are all performers I wanted to see but didn’t get to).

Taj Weekes & Adowa – Hailing from St. Lucia, Weekes brought the sound of the islands to a Lotus tent as Friday evening began. I sometimes forget how much I enjoy reggae, and really enjoyed the band’s mellow groove.

Hanggai performing at the Lotus Festival


Hanggai – I saw these guys the last time they played Lotus and enjoyed them, so made a point of catching their set on Friday night. This Beijing-based group combines Western rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and energy with traditional Mongolian instruments and throat-singing, sometimes using Mongolian folk songs. The lead singer definitely has a rock-singer attitude, and although I don’t understand a word of Mongolian, I can understand Hanggai’s music just fine. The music is multi-textured, with drums and electric guitars creating a base for the traditional Mongolian stringed instruments, and the use of throat-singing (you know, that guttural drone you associate with monks or something) adds a really cool dimension. The set picked up intensity as it went on, and when a storm started to roll in and lightning began to flash through the translucent roof panels of the tent, it was pretty much the most heavy-metal moment I’ve experienced at a show in recent years. Utterly exhilarating.

MC Rai – A native of Tunisia, this San Francisco resident blends Algerian Rai music with a Western hip-hop groove to create a blend that is upbeat, socially conscious, and very, very danceable. The foundation of his band rests on a drummer and bass player who both look like refugees from a Led Zeppelin tribute band but played with funk and verve, the bass player bouncing and pogoing with joyful abandon much of the time. MC Rai himself is a superb frontman, reaching out and making a strong connection with the audience. I saw everyone from teenage kids to middle-aged Hoosiers dancing, rocking out, and having a great time. I caught this charismatic performer when he was last at Lotus in 2007 and bought his CD “Raivolution” at that time – it’s pretty great.

Delhi 2 Dublin – This was a wild-card choice for me. I kind of wanted to see Movits!, but I saw them last year and while I knew they were a lot of fun, I was curious about the Indian-Irish mashup of this Vancouver-based band. Plus, they were performing in the tent nearest the parking garage where I’d left the car, and I was feeling a little tired and thought I might leave early and would appreciate the proximity. Well, no, I did not leave early, not at all. Delhi 2 Dublin knocked my socks off! Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been rocked by a fiery duel between a kilt-wearing Korean dude playing the electric sitar and a phenomenally energetic blonde Irishwoman playing the fiddle, supported by Bhangra percussion and a dynamic lead vocalist named Sanjay. The Celtic-Indian mashup sounds like it would be awkward, but trust me, it’s fantastic – and just goes to show you that music really is a common language, wherever it originates. Plus, I’m partial to musicians who look like they’re having a great time, and these guys were absolutely radiant as they performed, like they almost couldn’t stand how much fun they were having. Maybe they were having as much fun as the audience was – I know we were having a blast and dancing our butts off! This band was definitely my “Lotus discovery” this year and I hope I get another chance to hear them sometime. Their performance was transcendent and honestly, there is no reason why they couldn’t make it as big as, say, Arcade Fire (whose energy they reminded me of, for no reason I can put my finger on) – their music and performance has a wide appeal and I can’t imagine going to one of their shows and not falling in love with them.

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Richard Thompson in Bloomington

photo of Richard Thompson

photo by Paul Sandy, from Richard Thompson – RT (Facebook)

Bloomington, Indiana isn’t a big city. It isn’t Chicago, or New York, or even St. Louis. So often, when a major musical act announces tourdates, I look at them and sigh because there isn’t even one within 200 miles of me. But … we do get some great stuff nonetheless. And in some ways, we’re even luckier than those big-city folks. Because we don’t have the huge variety to choose from, those of us who have broad taste in music often find ourselves going to concerts by people we might have passed up if we’d had other choices or if we’d been jaded about how many shows were available to us – and those shows are often phenomenally good. (I’m thinking of performers like Janelle Monae, whose show I bought a ticket for in an “aw what the heck why not” moment and who blew my socks off.) And there’s something – there’s a whole lot of something – to be said for seeing a world-class artist in a relatively intimate venue with great sound, with free parking within two blocks of the venue, and a ten-minute drive (if all the stoplights are red and you have to pull over for an ambulance along the way) from home. And that was the kind of show I had tonight.

Richard Thompson has performed in Bloomington many times, going back some thirty years when he played at Second Story (a great, though hardly luxurious, live music venue & bar so named because it was on the second floor of the old Moose Lodge; the first floor was taken up by Bullwinkle’s, a gay bar whose disco music would come thumping through the floor during set breaks and sometimes during quiet songs) very early in his first American tour. I didn’t go to that now-legendary show – in fact I don’t think I was twenty-one yet, so I wouldn’t have been able to get in (you will say that shouldn’t have stopped me, and I will point out that I have always been perhaps too much of a law-abiding citizen for my own good)  – and for whatever reason, though I’ve long been aware of Richard Thompson as one of the great guitarists & songwriters of our time, I’ve just never made it to any of his Bloomington shows.

One thing about having incredibly broad taste in music is that there are a lot – a LOT – of artists I’m somewhat familiar with, and appreciate, but have never taken the time to dive in and become a serious fan of. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that there is so freaking much great music out there that it is just impossible to listen to it all. (Well, not and keep my day job.) Sometimes I get the opportunity to catch one of these folks when they come through town, and I actually kind of enjoy being the casual (but appreciative!) fan in the midst of the serious followers, especially since I know what it’s like to be one of the serious followers. I had that experience at a John Prine show a couple of years ago – I had a really good seat and think most of the people around me had travelled to see the show – and that was the case again tonight when I saw Richard Thompson at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington.

I know a few of Thompson’s songs, and I knew to expect some crazy amazing guitar virtuosity. It was billed as a solo acoustic show, which indeed it was – in fact, he didn’t even swap out guitars, just tuned and retuned the same one for every song. (He did have a few effects boxes though he didn’t seem to fiddle with them much.) One guy and one guitar, creating a wall of sound to rival most bands.

Guitar virtuosity, oh yeah, the guy has got it. But for the most part he doesn’t play just to show off. Like all the greatest musicians (and Jimi Hendrix comes to mind here, since we’re talking guitarists), he gives each song what it needs, whether that means laying back and allowing silence to surround each note, or just playing simple chords while letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting, or playing something so complex, so blindingly fast, and so utterly clean that I can’t quite figure out what hit me.

He’s also funny (early in the show he said something like “This song is from my next album, and so were the first two that I played. The rest of the album is crap.”) and did I mention the brilliant songwriting? What struck me, even though I’m a word person (and his lyrics are great), was the musical brilliance – really cool chords and complex musical structures that went to unexpected places, didn’t always resolve in predictable ways, but were so evocative and fresh. (I have friends – hi, Dave – that are musically far geekier than I and could explain what that’s all about in very technical terms. But this is my review, so you’re stuck with things like “cool chords.” Deal with it.)

I think “Valerie” was the first song that made me feel like I might get blisters on my fingers just from watching him play. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was also a real showcase for him and perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser. “Wall of Death” might have been my favorite; I’ve always loved that song and recall hearing Shawn Colvin do a very good cover of it way back when. But in some ways the emotional heart of the show rested in a lovely and loving rendition of the Fairport Convention classic (named by the BBC as the best folk song ever) “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s one of those songs that, after so many years, has gathered layers of memory and meaning around it – and yet it still sounds fresh. Really a beautiful moment in the concert. And it reminded me that, like Springsteen, Thompson is one of those rare artists who can put together a setlist drawn from three or four decades of music – all of it very much alive and relevant, including the very old and the very new.

Thompson took two encores, buoyed by a very enthusiastic audience (Bloomington has a lot of RT fans!) – and closed the show by playing “The Weight” as a celebratory singalong, dedicating it afterwards to Levon. I was reminded that about a year ago, in the same theater, I heard Mavis Staples and her band performing the heck out of that same song – an equally great, though very different, performance. I walked out of the theater feeling lucky, lucky, lucky to live in a town where we get enough great musical performances to keep us happy, but not so many that we forget to appreciate the magic when it happens.

And now I clearly have got to listen to some more Richard Thompson. So I will happily accept album recommendations in the comments – his catalog is a little overwhelming, to say the least!


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Wrigley aftermath

A full week later, my knees still hurt (note to self: investigate whether Springsteen has stock in ibuprofen manufacturing) and my voice is still hoarse enough to notice. (“No, I don’t have the nasty cold going around the library… just screamed my lungs out at a concert.” Sometimes this is met with the “you are crazy” look I’m quite familiar with, and that’s fine.) A full week later, I also still feel a silly grin spreading across my face when I think about those two concerts at Wrigley Field. My shoes have finally dried out, too. [in case you missed it… here’s my write-up of the weekend.]

There were so many great things about last weekend, both the shows themselves and the friends & events surrounding them. I keep forgetting that we got “Trapped” on the first night! My friend JD had asked what obscure songs we thought might show up at Wrigley, and “Trapped” was my first thought, so I had that “Yes! I called it!” moment which is always fun – and more than any other song, I think, that song benefited from the huge stadium and the open sky. It’s such a dynamic song, with brooding quiet verses busting wide open into the full-throated, soaring chorus (and the extra singers & horn section make that even bigger than it’s been in the past). It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that song live, but it might have been my favorite time.

Saturday afternoon was spent with friends; it was a gorgeous, warm, sunny day and after eating some lunch (mmmm, Chicago pizza) we headed over to Wrigleyville to hang out. After sitting on the sidewalk in front of the stadium for a while the sun got to be a little much for us, so we wandered around the stadium in search of a shadier spot to hang out and listen to the soundcheck, if there was one. (There hadn’t been much of one the first night, probably due to getting stuck in rush hour traffic which Bruce mentioned during the show.) We ended up on a street corner on the backside of the stadium, and realized that this was where the vehicles carrying the band would be arriving at some point. Hmmmm, we thought. Why not? So we hung out for a while and, sure enough, we eventually had the opportunity to greet most of the band as they arrived in various vehicles and went into the stadium. Their entrance was about a block away from us; some of them waved, some of them didn’t. Bruce gave us a friendly wave but seemed to be a Man On A Mission and headed right into Wrigley instead of coming over to sign autographs (which he has been known to do).

This is just between me and you – you won’t tell anyone what a nerdy fangirl I am, will you? – but whenever I go to a Springsteen show, I carry with me (just in case) a copy of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s about a show I saw in 1978, and another show I saw in 2008, and about the pact between the band and the audience, and how magical it is that we are all still keeping our promises to one another after all these years. Someday, somehow, I would like to give a copy of that poem to Bruce. For just a moment on Saturday afternoon, I thought I might get my chance, and I tried to figure out what in the hell I would possibly say to him if that happened. It would probably have sounded like “ba-duh ba-duh um um um Bruce poem ummmmmmm” followed by me running away as fast as possible and hiding, so it may be just as well that it didn’t happen, heh.

Anyway, as we stood around listening to the sounds coming from the stadium, we realized that Bruce had indeed been focused on getting in there for a necessary soundcheck, as they began to rehearse “This Depression” – a song that had been played only a couple of times before. It sounded phenomenal, and we were pretty hopeful that Tom Morello would join in for that song (he appears on the recorded version of it). Later on, as Dave & Leann & I waited (somewhat) patiently in Section A for the show to begin, we caught sight of someone carrying a familiar ice-blue guitar across the field, so we knew for sure Morello was in the house, and we were pretty excited about that.

I’d never lurked around a stadium to listen to a soundcheck before, and I’d never hung around to see the band arrive before; it may have been a step over the line from reasonable fandom to obsessive fandom, but it was a fun afternoon with friends all the same. Also fun: at the end of night 1 I’d noticed that Bruce didn’t disappear directly backstage but took the long way to his exit, greeting fans on that side of the field as he left. For night 2, we were way over on the edge of that side of the field, so we waited a few minutes and sure enough, despite the fact that it was still pouring rain, here comes Bruce, laughing and dancing and calling out “Fuck yeah!” and waving to us. Pretty cool really.

If I have one regret about the weekend, it’s that I didn’t pace myself. I went completely crazy the first night with the screaming and dancing and jumping up and down, which is probably why my knee did a popping sort of trick as I walked onto Wrigley Field on Saturday and has been bothering me ever since. I had to sit down several times during the show on Saturday, which is really unlike me at a Springsteen show – sometimes I’ll sit during a very quiet song and close my eyes and just soak it in, but usually I am up and dancing or at least physically paying attention with every muscle in my body. That, as well as the fact that for much of the night (until the rain thinned out the crowd!) I could see only glimpses of the stage (ah, the life of a 5 foot 1 person), left me feeling just a tiny bit disconnected from the music – at least as compared to the first night, when I was completely immersed in it and overtaken by it. The second night was still really great, but it’s more fun when you can dance without pain and when you can mostly see. (Thank goodness for the giant video screens; I could see one of those, only slightly blocked by a lighting tower, and the videographers on the tour are very good – but it’s still more fun when you get to decide for yourself which band member has got your attention at any given moment.)

Apparently my friends and I weren’t the only ones having fun that weekend. Check out this installment of “The Nightwatchman Speaks,” in which Tom Morello geeks out about how great it was:

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Quick link

The iconic Wrigley Field sign with Springsteen show announcement on it

Yeah, so things got hectic all of a sudden… I swear I’m going to keep this blog up better than I did the old one.

I’m out of town for a bit, so will probably have a longer post in the next few days. Meanwhile, I wanted to share a link. I went to two Springsteen shows at Wrigley Field over the weekend, and had the BEST time – and wrote a post for Blogness on the Edge of Town about my experience. It goes way beyond just a concert, way beyond entertainment. I think I have even more to say about it, actually – Springsteen shows apparently make me HAVE ALL THE FEELINGS and want to WRITE ALL THE WORDS – but since it’s late and I have to get up in the morning, you can go read my review on Blogness. (Feel free to comment there, or here.)

I guess it’s not even so much a review as an appreciation. Which is good, because Tom Morello himself tweeted a link to it and called it “lovely” – serious critics shouldn’t care what the subject of their review might think, and I have to say it completely, totally made my day to get a compliment from Tom Morello. (He was one of the guest performers at the Springsteen shows, Eddie Vedder being the other. Read the review, appreciation, thinger, whatever if you want the details.) And to anyone who wonders why I love Twitter, that right there would be one of the reasons – something like that would NEVER have happened without that particular tool.

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