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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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Love, Technology, and Rock & Roll: Notes on Two Nights of U2 in Chicago

Chicago skyline

Intro

You will probably be surprised to learn that, at the ripe old age of 54 and having attended rock & roll shows since the mid-1970s, I made it all the way to 2015 without ever seeing a U2 concert. It’s not that I haven’t liked them – I’ve never NOT liked U2. Mostly, for years, they were one of those bands who’d come on the radio and I’d turn it up and think, golly, I do love this song, I should really pick up more of their albums one of these days. (There are a LOT of bands like that, to be honest.) I almost went to the St. Louis show on the 360 Tour, but I had neither a viable car nor anyone to go with at that point, and between overly complicated travel logistics & the whole stadium thing – it was all just so *big* on that tour – I just didn’t do it. (And I’m one of the few people I know who quite likes the “No Line on the Horizon” album.)

Then “Songs of Innocence” came out, and I quite liked that as well. Plus, Mr. Springsteen wasn’t making any kind of noises about touring anytime soon, and I was feeling the need for a big old arena rock show. So when the U2 Innocence+Experience Tour was announced, I was on board for Chicago.

When they first announced the tour the shows were in pairs, and they said nights 1 and 2 would be distinctly different. As it turns out, that ended up not being the case – and then when the stage and big-screen setup was revealed, I realized that my seat for night 1 was right smack facing the edge of the big screen (which I was told was pretty integral to the show) so I wouldn’t be able to see what was on the screen *at all*. And my seat for night 2 was waaaaaaaaay up in the rafters. Terrible seats, both of them, I thought. Plus, three more shows were announced *after* I had bought my tickets for nights 1 and 2, any of which would have been more convenient for travel than the Wednesday/Thursday pair I’d just spent what was for me a lot of money on. So, I was actually feeling a little cranky about the shows, half tempted to scrap it all, try to sell the tickets, and go on with my life.

Good thing I didn’t.

tl;dr

So here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. “I’m not a rabid U2 fan. I like arena rock shows generally. Should I go see U2 on this tour?” My answer is, YES. For sure. That is, unless you can’t stand the new album (because it really does form the centerpiece of the show – as a new album SHOULD, I think), or unless rock shows with a strong, predetermined narrative bother you. (At some point, though not today, I plan to write more about what I see as an essential tension between the scripted/theatrical and the spontaneous/improvised – something that I think is a pretty interesting tension to explore in the context of rock & roll. After all, improv is theater too.)

The technology is great, the songs are great, the show’s narrative works really well and incorporates both new and old songs for the most part seamlessly. The band seems enthusiastic about performing and the audience is also enthusiastic. It’s an immersive experience, emotionally and musically engaging.

Bono in the spotlight

Bono + spotlight: they love each other

Well, if you can’t stand U2 (as several of my friends can’t), you probably shouldn’t go. Bono hasn’t stopped being Bono, you know? Ha! (I actually do like the “little megalomaniac,” as he called himself on stage one night. Would we be best pals if we met in real life and were in a social position to hang out? Doubtful. But I’m not paying my ticket money to have a best pal. I have friends who will hang out with me for nothin’, believe it or not. I’m at a rock show to see a rock star. And Bono’s pretty good at that. But I digress.)

Obviously I can’t compare this show to previous tours. And yes, I envy my friends who saw them in the early years, for sure! But you gotta live in the present, and live music for me is very much about being in the moment, not regretting the past or worrying about the future. And this moment, this tour, this show, is pretty great.

So, on to my more detailed (okay, verbose) thoughts on the shows that I saw.

Arrival

Getting to Chicago is, for some reason, always fraught for me. It’s just a little over 200 miles, not a bad drive at all, but I always end up at my destination frazzled, later than I’d planned, and muttering things under my breath about traffic and not being a city girl and I don’t know why I put myself through this. This trip was no exception. Despite the best efforts of my perfectly good GPS, I took TWO wrong turns in Gary, and of course I managed to roll into town at about 5:30 so I felt like I was rolling into a greatest-hits double-bill show by Chicago and Traffic. I had just enough time to check into my hotel, change clothes, eat a quick snack of cheese and Fig Newtons and a banana, and get over to the arena; the ticketed start time was 7:30 (I knew the show wouldn’t start until eight-ish) and I got to my seat around 7:45 or so. Just enough time to breathe for a minute, and to think about getting an overpriced crappy beer but not to actually do anything about it.

I love, love, love the minutes before a rock show starts. The GA floor was filling up rapidly – I’d thought about trying to pick up a GA ticket, but between getting there so late and the packed-like-sardines appearance of the floor, I was glad I hadn’t; at 5 foot 1, if I’m farther back than three deep or so from the stage, I’m probably not going to see much unless I can get some space between me and the people right in front of me. My seat was, indeed, pretty much smack behind the edge of the big screen, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see that. But I was on the aisle, which is always pleasant, because that way even if there’s a big dude in front of me (which there usually is) I can edge out into the aisle and see. And I was in row 5 behind the smaller stage, which – I suddenly realized – was very, very close. I didn’t know whether I’d see much of U2’s faces, since I was behind the stage, but whatever I saw would be from pretty dang close. And my view of the larger stage, at the other end of the arena, was pretty much unobstructed.

It was going to be OK.

A bit about the stage setup, for those who haven’t been to one of these shows and haven’t been following on social media or whatever. So there’s a big, rectangular, fairly traditional-looking stage at one end of the arena. It’s open on all four sides (U2 is doing interesting things with the sound on this tour, so there are no speaker stacks behind or on the sides of the stage, in fact very little equipment to speak of other than the instruments and mics and a few guitar amps). Then there’s a long runway or bridge spanning the length of the arena, and there’s a big screen hanging from the ceiling that’s the length of this bridge; the screen goes up and down during the show and performs various functions – I saw it described as the Swiss army knife of big screens, and for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a corkscrew in there somewhere.

Then at the other end of the arena is a smaller, round stage with no speakers or equipment on it to start with. The big stage is the “i” stage and the small one is the “e” stage, each stage’s surface painted with its respective letter – fitting the “innocence + experience” theme of the show. The entire floor is general admission standing, with two areas near the “i” stage set aside as the “Red Zone” where people pay exorbitant prices for VIP tickets and the money goes to U2’s global anti-AIDS charity, (RED). Because of the setup, even the people with the worst spots on the floor are less than half the width of the arena away from at least some part of the stage – not that much farther back than the back of the pit at a Springsteen show. And the whole band performs extensively from both stages as well as from the runway and even from inside the big screen, so everybody gets a chance to be close-ish at some point. It’s actually a really good setup.

U2 stage & screen

City of Blinding Lights

Night 1 Notes: Until the End of the World and Then Some

Thanks to social media, I knew that Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” would play over the PA just before the band came onstage. So when that song started up – and the lights dimmed, and the volume rose, making it an actual part of the show – I stood up and got ready. (That’s such a great song, too. Especially LOUD, with people singing along.) What I hadn’t realized was that Bono enters from the “e” stage. People around me got really excited and then whoa! There’s Bono! RIGHT THERE! Ha! Fun moment.

He starts singing the “oh, ohhh, oh” intro to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and acknowledges the crowd, then saunters down the runway and then the band kicks in and holy crap, when you’ve had as many huge hits as U2 it takes a bit of nerve to open with one of your new songs I think, but it works REALLY well as an opener. Is there anything that feels as great as that first big bass drum blast and that first ferocious guitar of a rock show? Some people like fireworks or roller coasters. I’ll take this instead, any day.

I won’t go through the entire setlist song by song, but I’ll hit some of the high points. Mostly, the narrative of the show works really well. A little tribute to the Ramones, who inspired and influenced them to start playing, followed by one of their very early songs (night 1 was “Electric Co.” and night 2 was “Out of Control” – both sounding incredibly fresh and joyful). “Iris,” Bono’s love song to his mother who died when he was young – “She left me, and left me an artist,” he says, talking about how artists create in order to fill the empty places in their own lives and hearts – was heartfelt and quite moving.

“Song for Someone,” another love song (this time thinking back on when he fell in love, still quite young, with the woman who would become his wife) was also lovely although this was where I began to notice that the rumors about Bono being sick were probably true, as his voice did sound a bit ragged around the edges. Didn’t impede my enjoyment of the show, honestly, but I’m not a vocal purist either. Vocals can be a bit off and still be OK for me. But guitars, man – you gotta tune those!

The heart of the show is about the intersection of personal and political pain, loss, and rage – and how coming of age is about love and loss (the innocence/experience thing). The segue from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “Raised By Wolves” to “Until the End of the World” is wholly scripted, with technology and choreography and everything planned down to the second, but it’s completely *present* and some of the most intense moments I’ve witnessed in a rock show. The three songs flow from one to the next; as SBS ends Bono’s singing “I can’t believe the news today” over and over, there’s an audio montage that sounds like going from one radio station to another with snippets of news about a car bomb and other radio snippets from the same moment, and Larry’s standing in the middle of the bridge with a single drum, alone and perfectly still, ringing out single ominous drumbeats.

And then BOOM – the big screen flashes white and there’s an explosion sound that shakes you to your core and ricochets around the arena like a Star Wars explosion in a surround-sound theater. I’ve not heard anything quite like it on this big a scale – it’s just a moment, but it’s quite a feat of audio, really. Made the hairs on my arms stand up. And then “Raised By Wolves” which isn’t my favorite on the album but in this show it is ferocious and sinister and chilling. It ends with Bono on his knees muttering parts of the 23rd Psalm, then muttering “comfort me” and finally screaming, “COMFORT ME” – it’s so intense I get goosebumps just thinking back on it. And then “Until the End of the World” which is whirling and apocalyptic and … just everything, everything. I’m not sure I have ever felt so *immersed* in a rock show before, not even Springsteen at his most emotionally riveting.

There’s a tiny intermission at that point, which I’d heard about and thought it was weird but you know what, after that three-pack I kind of needed to sit down and breathe for a minute! There’s a video on the big screen, animated, Johnny Cash singing “The Wanderer.” It only lasts about four or five minutes, during which time crew members scurry around the smaller stage setting up a drum kit and other equipment. Then the next couple of songs have the band playing actually *inside* the big screen, with animation enhancing them – turns out the screen is actually a cage of sorts, with the lights and animation and whatnot being projected on a closely woven mesh and not a solid “screen” really at all. It’s quite ingenious actually. You kinda have to see it. Then they troop out of the screen, still playing, and all four take up residence on the smaller stage for a few songs.

I’m a big fan of the Edge, and I gotta say, it was incredibly fun to be that close to him to witness firsthand his “Mysterious Ways” dancing/playing. And “Elevation”! That was one of my favorite songs from either night – again, the recorded version is not necessarily one of my favorite U2 songs, but the energy was just off the charts with the audience singing and dancing along. It wasn’t exactly like being in a small sweaty rock club with the band, but it was about as close as you can get in a 20,000 person arena. So, so fun.

The rest of the show was loaded with the big hits, played well, with cool lighting and screen effects. “Pride” sounded amazing, as did “Beautiful Day” and “City of Blinding Lights.” And “Where the Streets Have No Name” basically never fails, does it? So great. I left the arena afterwards feeling washed clean, feeling bigger and bolder and ready to take on the world. If a rock show does that, it is without question a success in my book.

U2 on the

not quite like a sweaty rock club, but I’ll take it

Intermezzo: Doing the Ticket Shuffle

Thursday I enjoyed some downtime walking around the Lincoln Park neighborhood near my hotel. (Did you know there’s a diner in Lincoln Park called “The Edge”? Yup. Right around the corner from my hotel, open 24 hours, and it’s nothing super special but you can get breakfast all day, and at lunchtime on Thursday it was quiet enough that I didn’t feel bad about taking up a table for a couple of hours so I could have a leisurely meal and write in my journal for a while.)

I thought about how close I’d been to the “e” stage the night before, and I thought about my ticket for that night, waaaaaaay up in the rafters. I’ve had this feeling before: after being so close to the band, how can I bear to be so far away? Yes, I’d like to see the big screen, but… ugh. I decided that there were probably some seats in the sections to the left and right of mine that would still be close to the “e” stage but would be at an angle where you could generally see the screen. Oddly, those weren’t tier-1 pricing seats, like my behind-stage seat they were tier-2; for months I’d been looking at available seats and just could never bring myself to buy the most expensive (non-Red Zone) tickets, which were nearly $300. Just couldn’t do that, nor could I bring myself to pay a scalper much above face value. But if one of these would pop up…

I kept poking at Ticketmaster and StubHub all day, just in case. And around 3 pm, lo and behold, there appears a single ticket in the section just to the left of where I’d been. In the third row. I knew there was very little chance I could sell my single seat in the rafters that late in the game, and I decided to splurge anyway. Section 107, row 3, here I come. When I do something crazy like this – like the very expensive last-minute ticket I picked up for Paul McCartney a while back – I can tell if I’ve done the right thing because I kind of start dancing. At least in my head. And that was happening. So.

Got to the arena with a little more time to spare than the first night and found my seat, which was in the middle of the row, next to a rather large man who was eating something quite … er … aromatic. He asked me, a bit crankily, if I was going to be screaming the whole time. “Probably,” I said. Then my neighbor on the other side sat down – a middle-aged woman, with her husband in the aisle seat on her other side – and proceeded to start coughing like she had bronchitis, and asking her husband if he knew whether there was going to be an opening act. I guessed that they might not take too kindly to my “screaming the whole time” either. And directly in front of me, a fairly tall man. Greeeeeat. I was starting to think I was going to regret my last-minute ticket purchase and maybe I should just leave and go up to my original seat in the rafters.

Next to the tall man in front of me was a young mother, in the second-row aisle seat, with her daughter who was probably around six or seven. Super cute kid. And, well. As the lights went down and “People Have the Power” started to play, the young mother realized that the front-row seats in front of her were vacant, and she & her daughter upgraded themselves. I gave it about a half-second’s thought before I slipped down into the second-row aisle seat she’d been in. Tapped her on the shoulder and promised to give her her seat back if she got kicked out of the front row by the rightful ticket holders. And we shared a moment of joy at our suddenly-improved seating luck. I could indeed see the screen, and I was still really close to the “e” stage, and I was behind short people and could see both stages perfectly, and all of a sudden I was very much in my happy place. Yeah!

Night 2 Notes: You Look So Beautiful Tonight

A very similar setlist to night 1 in most respects – the first set featured “Out of Control” in the “Electric Co.” slot, and the second set had a little more variation. Emotionally and musically, still basically the same show. Bono’s voice was decidedly rougher Thursday night – I’ve since heard that the poor guy had bronchitis, which isn’t fun for anyone, much less a singer! By the last song, “One,” he’d pretty much given up singing; he took maybe half a verse and the audience was happy to help out by collectively taking on the rest.

Despite an ailing frontman, I thought the show still had great energy and resonance. The three-pack that closes the first set seemed to have a little less intensity and impact than on night 1, but it’s hard to say, since night 1 also had the “first time I’ve witnessed this” sheen for me. It was really really lovely to get “Bad” towards the end of the second set; despite a rough vocal, it’s one of my absolute favorite U2 songs and I was excited about it.

The middle bit of this show was the highlight for me, most definitely. I was, as I mentioned, in the aisle seat in the second row of one of the sections to the rear of the “e” stage. I was wearing an Amnesty International t-shirt, and that’s one of the band’s pet causes, so I was hoping I might get a nod of approval from someone at some point. (It says “Fighting Bad Guys Since 1961” – which, since I was born in 1961, is so perfect.) I was also directly behind an attractive young woman and her adorable small daughter, as you’ll recall. For at least one of those reasons, and perhaps a combination of all of them (with the added special sauce of me dancing and singing like a giddy maniac), the Edge spotted our little section during “Mysterious Ways” and grinned at us. So that was fun. Then during “Angel of Harlem” he zeroed in on us, stood right in front of us and played directly to us, smiling, for what felt like ages. (I timed it on someone’s YouTube video. It was actually about a minute. Time does funny things sometimes.) “Angel” was never one of my favorite U2 songs, but it’s now taken up residence in my head as this fantastic memory.

For me, there are few nicer moments during a rock show than feeling absolutely joyfully immersed in the music, making eye contact with one of the musicians, knowing that they see how much you’re loving what they are doing, feeling like they’re happy to be there too. In the best of those moments, this exchange of energy happens and it’s a pure and beautiful thing. I can only guess at how it feels for the performer; different, I’m sure, but I bet they love those moments too.

I really loved watching Edge both nights. As a (semi-lapsed, I guess) guitarist, I was fascinated by watching his technique. There were times when he was playing really fast but his hands were so, so quiet – just pure economy of motion that allowed him to play both super fast and super clean. He seems totally centered as he plays, and moves around the stage so gracefully. (Which is why it’s pretty funny that he managed to fall off the stage during one of the early shows on the tour. He wasn’t hurt, but I don’t think Bono is ever going to let him live it down. “Some people have fallen off of this stage, you know,” he said on one of the nights. “But when the Edge falls off stage, it’s like throwing a cat off a wall – he always lands on his feet.”)

Later on during the show, he comes back to the “e” stage for part of “City of Blinding Lights” – the “oh you look so beautiful tonight” part. He’s standing there in the middle of the stage, singing his harmony on that line, and the audience is circled around him, singing it back to him, pointing at him. That was a really shiny, fun moment too. And eye contact, AGAIN. Oh hello there, Mr. The Edge. I feel like we’re almost getting to be friends now. Hee!

The Edge on stage with guitar

Oh, you look…

Oh, the screen! I could see the screen, which I hadn’t been able to the night before. And it is an amazing amazing piece of work. There are times when the band is performing inside the screen and the images on the screen part to reveal them. There’s a moment when the Edge is playing inside the screen and Bono is over on the “e” stage, and Bono reaches out his hand and the giant electronic Bono being broadcast on the screen suddenly has the tiny-by-comparison, real human Edge dancing in the palm of his hand. So many other neat moments on that screen that I won’t spoil for my friends who have yet to see the show. Whoever designed it should get some kind of an award, because it’s very, very well done. I’m usually anti-high-tech for rock shows, you know? I like them gritty, sweaty, human without too much fancy lighting or theatrical effects. But somehow, this band and this show manage to make it work so that it enhances the music and the narrative created by the music. WELL DONE.

“Well done” by the audience too, which sang along with great enthusiasm, especially on the big 1980s hits. My favorite had to be “Pride (In the Name of Love)” which you can just scream along to for days and when the whole arena is doing it, it’s just miraculously loud and joyous. And given recent events in this country, that song was especially resonant for a lot of us, I think. And (I know I’m jumping around a bit here), how about that bass line on “Bullet the Blue Sky”? Freaking incredible at that volume. Both nights, I had to sit down for a moment and just let that tremendous roar rumble through me. I cannot say enough good things about the U2 rhythm section. Adam Clayton – does anyone have more fun playing rockstar while playing propulsive, just-funky-enough bass lines? And Larry Mullen Jr. – for a guy who verges on scrawny, he certainly makes that drum kit thunder. His work on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was a particular joy to behold. What a powerful heartbeat those two create.

Lastly, a word about “Every Breaking Wave.” I fell head over heels in love with this song when I heard bootlegs of early versions of it on the 360 tour. When I first heard the full band version on “Songs of Innocence” I felt like it had lost something, that it was maybe over-arranged, although I’ve grown to love that version too. On the i+e tour, there’s a piano that literally rises out of the “e” stage for just this one song, and the arrangement is simple – just the Edge on piano and Bono singing. It’s really lovely, and yet I feel like this song (which I still adore, in whatever form it takes) hasn’t found its best arrangement yet. To my ear, it’s still missing something. I’ll be interested to see how (if) it evolves over time.

Aftermath: a moment of surrender

The day after my two shows started out bleary and half-awake (because who can go to sleep within a few hours of so much energy?? so I was up late) – and became a flurry of excitement about five minutes after I sat down in the hotel breakfast room only to find out that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of marriage equality. It’s a bit surreal finding out news like that before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee. I spent the day doing a little sightseeing, then decamped to a good friend’s apartment and had dinner with four friends I don’t see nearly often enough. So fun, and so good for my heart and soul.

Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day, lots of sun, low humidity – also a bit surreal after a very rainy stretch. I hit the road for the drive home and managed NOT to take any wrong turns in Gary, for once. At my first rest stop I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the world and found out about Bree Newsome committing a beautiful act of civil disobedience and taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

A bit later, I was blasting a bootleg from an earlier show on this U2 tour (I know I definitely liked a concert if two days later all I want to listen to is that same band, preferably live, preferably recent). Bono’s been singing a bit of “The Hands that Built America” at the beginning of “Pride” on this tour, and it’s (I know I keep using this word) lovely; when the opening notes of “Pride” rang out on the boot I turned it WAY up, blasting down the highway, singing at the top of my lungs. “In the name of love! What more in the name of love?”

And then “Beautiful Day” – at the line “after the flood, all the colors came out” I just started weeping. I was picturing the photos I’d seen of the White House and other landmarks, not to mention the Facebook profile photos of many of my friends, all lit up in rainbow lights to celebrate marriage equality. Who’d have thought I would see this in my lifetime? There is still a lot of work – a LOT of work – left to be done. But what a moment, all the same, you know?

I was picturing Bree Newsome up on that flagpole, taking down that symbol of the past, knowing she would probably be arrested and the flag would probably be put back up – but also knowing that her act would help millions of people take heart and find the courage to take some action of their own. I was thinking about how heroes are just brave, crazy, ordinary humans who are willing to be seen.

And I was thinking about how, at those two rock shows, all the technology was fantastic and yet what was I over the moon about? A minute of joyous eye contact exchanged with the guitarist. The pure ringing sound created by human fingers against steel strings, amplified a millionfold to become a clarion call. I thought about what it means to be human, what it means to put yourself out there, what it means to acknowledge the tension (a tension essential for both activism and rock & roll) between the need for independence and individuality and the longing for community, acceptance, love.

After the flood, all the colors came out. It was a beautiful day.

Driving down the highway, weeping so freely I had to pull over and get myself together before I could go on. Everything was just washing over me in a great flood, and I couldn’t stop it and I didn’t want to stop it. My heart felt open and my eyes felt open and I was holding so much gratitude for everything that is good in this world. And that’s a lot.

Oh! You look SO BEAUTIFUL tonight… you look so beautiful, rock & roll. You look so beautiful, those precious nights when you catch yourself fully living in the moment. You look so beautiful, humans who push themselves to the limit of what they are afraid of doing, what they need to do. Humans who take risks like pulling down symbols that hurt the people they love. Like singing for all you’re worth whether you are a rock star with bronchitis or a middle-aged lady in the middle of a crowd. Like facing headlong the breaking and the broken places in your heart, and making art out of them, and using that to bring people together somehow. You look so beautiful, humans who hurt each other and love each other and fight with and for each other. You look so beautiful tonight.

Thank you, U2. I needed that.

Chicago 1 setlist | Chicago 2 setlist

Crappy cellphone photos by Anne Haines; videos as credited on YouTube

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Pearl Jam, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, 10-03-2014

Yeah, yeah, I know… dormant blog… bla bla bla. I know I’ve promised to revive it before. I think I’ve just been unfocused about why I even have the thing. Let’s try to start back up with a little concert review, shall we?

When you are a serious fan (knows all the words, has lots of bootlegs, travels for shows, compares setlists, would instantly recognize any of the band members on the street, etc.) of one band and then you go to a concert by another band in a similar genre, it’s a little like attending services in a church that’s in your same religion but a rather different denomination. It’s both familiar and a little disorienting. As a pretty serious Springsteen/E Street Band fan, I attended my first Pearl Jam show in St. Louis on October 3, and while it didn’t feel like “home” the way a Bruce show does, it was good. Really, really good.

Pearl Jam St. Louis button

Shout-out to the guy sitting next to me, also a big Bruce fan, who gave me this button at the end of the show. Super nice of you, man!

I have been, for years, a pretty casual Pearl Jam fan. I know the radio hits, of course. I’ve got a few of their albums, though I don’t know those albums backwards and forwards. In the weeks before the show I did make an effort to listen to them more, and I picked up the most recent album (Lightning Bolt) and gave that one particular attention. While I’ve been a casual fan, I guess I have to qualify that a bit, because a lot of casual fans wouldn’t drive 200 miles to catch a show. I’m still not sure what tipped the scales; I’ve heard for years that they put on an excellent show, but it wasn’t until this tour that I decided I needed to see them. The most logical shows for me to catch were either Cincinnati (about a 2.5 hour drive) or St. Louis (about a 4 hour drive). I’d been to Cinci already this year for a Bruce show, and I have a couple of friends in STL that I knew I’d like to see; the fact that when tickets went on sale I wasn’t able to nab anything better than an upper level for Cinci but found a good lower for STL was the clincher. Also, STL has several reasonably priced hotels within walking distance of the arena, so you don’t have to pay “event” rates for parking. (A note for St. Louis traveling show-goers: if you stay at the Pear Tree Inn, just down Market Street from the Scottrade Center arena, the restaurant next door has a shuttle bus that will take you there and bring you back afterwards for two bucks a person each way. It’s walkable, but so nice to have another option that doesn’t involve shelling out money for parking.)

I do love a rock & roll road trip.

I will say this. If you’re a casual, or even relatively casual, fan and you go to a show, plan on being OK with hearing songs you don’t necessarily know, or know well. Don’t plan on talking through them. Plan on listening to them and enjoying them and maybe even falling in love with them (Footsteps, I’m talking to you – what a killer song!). The St. Louis setlist gave us a nicely-balanced mix of big hits (Jeremy, Daughter, Even Flow, etc.), deeper cuts, and a couple of covers. The first set was very solid, the band super tight and the audience extremely responsive. “Even Flow,” “Not For You,” and of course “Jeremy” were highlights of this set. The second set opened with Eddie Vedder seated alone onstage, where he gave us a stunning, utterly heartfelt cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Not a huge surprise to get this, I suppose, since he’s just released this song as a charity single on iTunes – but apparently it had never been performed at a PJ show before, only at Vedder’s solo shows. This was followed by “Just Breathe,” a song I got sick of on the radio but which sounded really lovely tonight. The aforementioned “Footsteps” is, I gather from reading some of the fan boards online, infrequently performed and one some fans have been chasing for a while – it was a highlight for me too, and I’d probably only heard it a couple of times in my life before. After a fun “Last Kiss” performed directly to the audience seated behind the stage (classy move, PJ!), the set returned to the louder material – “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” was outstanding and “Porch” was a major face-melter.

The third set (officially the second encore) blew the roof off the place. “Alive” was a highlight for me, and “Baba O’Riley” was just a lot of fun. I tried hard all night to resist comparing the show to a Springsteen show, wanting to take it entirely on its own merits, but the late-in-the-show, house-lights-up, loudly-singing-audience atmosphere reminded me of, say, “Born to Run” followed by “Rosalita.” You know, the point in the show where it’s no longer even about the song itself but about the energy in the arena, the joy of collective release, and the need to throw yourself into it even though you’ve been rocking for well over two hours – both band and audience giving it everything they’ve got. A glorious feeling.

I was sorry to get neither “Black” (a song I’ve always absolutely loved, and the one that probably came closest to pulling me into PJ fandom way back when) nor “Sirens” (I guess some people think this is a bathroom-break song, but it’s probably my favorite on the new album) – but you can’t have all the songs in every show, and I have no quibbles with the setlist, which was nicely balanced and flowed very well.

The band’s energy seemed excellent; this was the second show on this US leg of the Lightning Bolt tour, and they seemed glad to be there and definitely back into the groove after three months of downtime. Next time I’m definitely aiming to sit on Mike McCready’s side of the stage – he was SO much fun to watch, and an interesting guitarist. I’d been a little concerned about Eddie Vedder, having heard that he did something to his leg in Cincinnati and was seen limping badly at the end of the show – he acknowledged the injury at one point in St. Louis, thanking the doctors who’d fixed him up. He seemed to be moving just fine, spending a lot of time looking intently into the audience and going into the crowd a bit. He also seemed to be in a great mood. At one point Vedder and McCready did this thing where they were leaning on each other’s backs and going lower and lower until they both lost control and crashed down on the stage; I looked up at the video screens then and Vedder was grinning like a fool. I LOVE it when the band members seem like they are having fun on the stage, enjoying the show, enjoying one another’s playing and one another’s company. (One of the reasons I love the E Street Band so much – every show has a lot of that.)

First Pearl Jam show – in the books! And it definitely won’t be my last. And you know, it does say something about a band when, twenty-plus years into their career, they can put on a performance strong enough to continue pulling in new fans, or at least to convert casual fans into the more serious variety. Well done, guys. Well done.

* * * * *
Slideshow: Pearl Jam at Scottrade Arena, from the Riverfront Times

Setlist, review and photos from Speakers in Code

 

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Greetings from the Polar Vortex

photo of icy treesAnd greetings to anyone who might still be following this blog! Yes, it’s true, I’ve been frozen in the polar vortex… we haven’t had it as bad here as folks just a few miles to the north, because when the storm came through on Sunday we skated right on the rain/snow line for quite a few hours. I woke Sunday morning to about two inches of snow, but then it changed over to rain… and sleet… and slush… and snow… and freezing rain… and some big fat white globs that rocketed straight down from the sky and looked for all the world like a giant horde of birds was flying over and pooping on us. Every time I looked out the window, we were getting different precipitation. I fully expected frogs to start falling from the sky at some point.image of radar display showing precipitation

Eventually it started to change back over to snow, and I went outside to clear the 2-3 inches of pure gross slush off my windshield and other parts of the car before it froze solid overnight. That was a very, very smart move on my part. This morning I saw a guy across the street trying to chip about 2-3 inches of pure gross frozen-solid slush off the windshield of a mini-van with what looked like a kitchen spatula. He was also not wearing a hat (the temperature was hovering around 5 below zero at that point), so I’m thinking he might not have been the sharpest snowflake in the tundra. But I felt a little smug as I looked out at the perfectly clear windows of my own car.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late, right?), the temperature dropped below zero shortly after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, and stayed there until around 11 am on Tuesday. We didn’t get the foot of snow that Indianapolis got, but our roads are covered with bumpy frozen slush, which has its own … er … joys? Campus was officially closed both Monday and Tuesday, which was fantastic, as I am relatively sane and didn’t really want to venture outside in the 30-below-zero wind chill. I have been very, very lucky in that my furnace never gave out on me, I never lost power (a lot of people did), and my pipes didn’t freeze. It was on the cool side in the house even so, but I bundled up in fleece and blankets and enjoyed the heated throw I bought on Saturday for the occasion – as did the cats. I have basically spent most of the last three days underneath various combinations of lap cats. It’s been very, very nice.

3 cats on top of electric blanket

note the box in the background, which has not been opened & contains a brand new space heater bought for the occasion. If my furnace had given out during the polar business, I was PREPARED.

 

High Hopes album artSome people bake cookies when they have a snow day… I apparently write album reviews. If you’re interested in knowing what I think of the new Springsteen album, you can read my review over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. It won’t surprise anyone that I mostly like the album; when I write about music I’m actually less interested in the kind of review that pins the album with a certain number of stars or whatever, and more interested in just delving into it and asking “what’s going on here? what does the artist’s intention for this music seem to be, and does he succeed?” Especially with someone like Springsteen, who’s earned my respect and trust as an artist over the years, I make the assumption that he knows what he’s doing; I am more interested in examining the trajectory of the album and poking at it to find out what makes it tick. I’m not articulating this very well, I think. And I’m not really a music reviewer; to the extent that I have a strategy for doing that sort of thing, it comes more from what I’ve learned about workshopping poetry than from anything else. Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about the album that didn’t make it into what I wrote, so stay tuned for more, perhaps.

Stay warm and safe out there, everyone – if you go out, wear your hat and mittens and for goodness’ sake clear the snow off of ALL your car windows before you drive! (I shoulda been a mom, huh?)

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Review: Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

Cover art from Ghost Brothers soundtrack album

Tonight I was fortunate enough to see the tour premiere of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical written by Stephen King and John Mellencamp (with musical direction by T-Bone Burnett). I’m not going to write up a detailed review, but I have some thoughts about it. Since it’s a mystery, I’m going to do my best not to include any spoilers.

I’m not particularly a fan of musicals (it’s just a taste I never really acquired), and I’m not that big on mysteries either. The performance was strong enough to overcome my general lack of interest in those genres, though. There were some really fantastic singers on that stage; I was especially taken with Bruce Greenwood (Joe) – who you may know from his acting career but probably didn’t know that he actually has a killer singing voice – as well as Kylie Brown (Anna) and Eric Moore (Dan Coker) but there were a lot of very strong voices. I was completely captivated by Jake LaBotz (The Shape), who played a slimy, funny, villainous, charming, evil, sexy Satan-esque character like it was what he was born to do. Great voice, great movement, incredible stage presence. The songs were terrific, Mellencamp in absolutely top-notch songwriting form, and the band (Mellencamp’s guys – Andy York, Dane Clark, Troye Kinett, Jon E. Gee) was spot-on perfect.

The staging was minimal, but worked really well for me. The idea was that it would be sort of like an old-time radio drama, and there’s even an old-fashioned microphone that serves as a center stage focal point. The set is extremely minimalistic and the costuming is not elaborate. That could, in some hands, make it feel low-budget and amateurish. But because the lighting was very nicely done and the performance was so very good, the staging served to leave room for the audience’s imagination. It was, in a way, kind of like reading a book – you get a certain amount of description but you have to fill in a lot of it for yourself. I liked that very much.

That said, I’m troubled by some things about the show. First, and just to get this out of the way, the women in the show basically existed to serve as pretty prizes for the men to fight over. It really became quite problematic for me. The actresses were great, and they did what they could with the roles, but make no mistake, they were basically high-class props on the stage. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the show, but it did bug me.

The other troubling thing – and this is troubling in a more interesting way – is that I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take away from the show. It’s going to be hard to explain this very well without including spoilers, so this may be sketchy. It was quite clear to me that this was meant to be more than just a thrilling ghost story – there are themes of family dynamics and how those repeat from one generation to the next, of the relationship between the living and the dead, of sin and forgiveness, of how lies and secrets can poison the soul.

I think my question about the takeaway is really a question about the theology of the show, oddly enough – and I know even less about theology than I do about musicals, so it’s possible that the gap in understanding is all on me. I guess I’m just not sure, in the end, what position the story takes on the possibility of redemption. The musical finale said one thing and I’m not entirely sure the script was saying the same thing. It kind of felt like when I write a poem that has a bang-up final couplet, boom boom perfect ending, but the couple of stanzas before the couplet are a mess and you don’t really feel like the ending was arrived at, more like I got tired of trying to get to the ending I knew I wanted and so I just gave up and stuck the ending on there. But maybe I’m meant to walk out of the theater asking the question about redemption?

I can’t really go farther than that without spoiling it, and I do think it is good enough to be worth seeing, so I don’t want to spoil it. Go for the very strong performances, go for the great music, go so you can explain to me what I’m not quite getting about the theology thing! It’s playing mostly around the Midwest through early November; I wouldn’t be surprised if it – or possibly a slightly revised version of it – ends up touring more widely, so keep an eye out.

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A little Jersey in Cincinnati: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes

Hearts of Stone album coverI’m not sure how a 17-year-old northern Indiana girl in the seventies stumbled across Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, the quintessential New Jersey bar band. I suspect I must have read a review, possibly in Rolling Stone, of their great album Hearts of Stone. The review would surely have mentioned that Bruce Springsteen had written a couple of the songs and that Miami Steve Van Zandt was prominently featured.  I was a big Springsteen fan by then, so that would have been enough to send me to the record store to pick up the album. And I was hooked from the first time I spun that disc. Phenomenal songwriting, impeccable arrangements, passionate performances. I played that sucker over and over, especially “Trapped Again” which was simultaneously propelled and restrained by a super funky bass line, straining against its own architecture.

But the Jukes didn’t get radio play in Indiana, and they didn’t tour here, and I didn’t have any friends who were into them – so I lost  track of them for many years. They never broke as big as they deserved to, and I suppose there are all kinds of reasons for that, few of which have to do with the quality of the actual music they kept making. Personally I think some good rock writer needs to do a biography on Southside Johnny. It would be a fascinating look at the Jersey Shore music scene, and at someone who neither hit it big like his colleagues Springsteen and Bon Jovi nor bombed out completely and quit the business.

Anyway, the rise of social media & my connection with the international network of Springsteen fans put them back on my radar a few years ago. They’ve had a lot of personnel changes over the years, and a lot of cross-pollination with other bands including E Street, Bon Jovi, the Max Weinberg band on Conan O’Brien’s old show, etc. There’s a lot of Jukes and ex-Jukes running around out there, though Southside has always been at the helm. They tour, but hardly ever in my neck of the woods; Chicago now and then, but the dates never quite worked out for me. Plus, to he honest, there are a lot of bands out there touring on their past glory with most of the original members long gone off to greener pastures, and sometimes it is just not a good concert experience. So I was a little nervous about committing a big chunk of time and money to catch a show.

Fast forward to this year. I really, really wanted to make an epic early-autumn road trip out to the Jersey shore. I’ve never been, and so much of the music I love comes from there – plus I just plain haven’t seen the ocean in a few years. I schemed and plotted but between finding a good time to take that much time off & the financial thing, it started to become clear that this wasn’t the year for me and Jersey.

So I started looking around for something I could do on a three- or four-day weekend. Chicago, Louisville, Nashville, Cleveland, St. Louis… Cincinnati. I scoured the tour schedules of every artist I could think of that I liked enough to drive for, knowing that the road trip itself was half the goal. And there it was. Southside & the Jukes, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati on a Saturday night. I dithered and fussed. I tweeted. @msaleski tweeted back that the Jukes were killin’ it on this tour. And whoever runs the Jukes’ Twitter account pointed out:

Which I thought was a very good point.

So yeah. I bought a ticket and booked a hotel room. Decided to stay two nights so I could do a little sightseeing in a city I hadn’t set foot in for many years. I planned my ass off, like I always do, making a Google map and reading endless hotel and restaurant reviews. I spent more time planning than I was actually going to spend in Cincinnati but that is half the fun of it for me.

Bogart's marqueeFinally the weekend came. I enjoyed kicking back in my hotel room Friday night, sleeping in on Saturday (it’s my vacation and I can sleep if I want to), and spending a few hours at the zoo Saturday afternoon. As often happens, serendipity got me to Bogart’s at the perfect time; there were maybe half a dozen people waiting outside about half an hour before the doors were scheduled to open, so I knew I’d be able to snag a great spot on the floor. I chatted with folks as we waited and was pleased to find out I was neither the only one who’d driven in from out of town nor the only longtime fan who’d never managed to catch the band live.

I ended up smack dab in front, leaning on the barrier separating the audience from the stage, not too far off center. Not having people in front of you makes a huge difference when you’re 5 foot 1. I killed time chatting with the folks around me, sharing music recommendations. I love the anticipation before the show almost as much as I love the show itself.

As for the show itself? They flat-out killed it. I was looking forward to the show, but it exceeded my expectations by a fair margin. Very loose, very high-energy. What got played was pretty radically different from the written setlist, with Southside Johnny and former Cincinnati resident Jeff Kazee (who got a lot of the spotlight that night & was clearly relishing his return to his old stomping grounds) kicking into songs and letting the rest of the band catch up. A little ragged at times, but in the best way – and you gotta love an unexpected Elvis medley, not to mention THREE encores.

Southside Johnny and Jeff Kazee onstage

If one were a purist, one could argue about whether the current touring band is really the Asbury Jukes. It’s true that the only guy in this lineup who appeared on Hearts of Stone is Southside Johnny himself. But it’s not like the band was the same core group of guys for decades and now it’s a bunch of ringers; the lineup has always changed frequently. As noted in the Wikipedia article about the band, more than 100 people can claim to have been Jukes. Sure, you can make the case that when they play the older material, the current group is basically a cover band fronted by the original singer. But you know what? These guys sounded GREAT and I pretty much couldn’t stop dancing all night. And to me, that’s what matters. Great music played well, with humor and heart and energy. And you gotta love Southside for putting it all out there on the stage, playing a longer show (I didn’t time it, but definitely over two hours) than lots of guys half his age, leaving the audience sweaty and exhilarated. (One mark of a great rock show, for me: my feet hurt like hell when I got back to my room.)

Horn section

Musical highlights for me: “Till the Good is Gone” (which is just a great great song), “Talk To Me” (featuring a hilarious interlude in which Southside tried to get one of the security dudes at the front of the stage to sing along), and – the third encore, the one song I didn’t dare hope to get that night, one of the cornerstones of 17-year-old Anne’s soundtrack – “Trapped Again.” But really, it wasn’t the individual songs as much as it was the  whole sweaty, exuberant evening, which reaffirmed everything about why I love this music, why I love going to concerts, why it’s worth the 340-mile round trip (would have been less if Einstein here hadn’t booked a hotel way the heck up in Blue Ash, but oh well), and why I need to remember that if there’s ever any doubt I should always, always, always just buy the damn ticket and go to the show.

Southside Johnny and Glenn Alexander onstage

Setlist for October 5, 2013
Bogarts, Cincinnati, OH
(list via Natalie Ellis, as posted on the Asbury Jukes’ Facebook page)

I Only Want to Be With You
Passion Street
Lead Me On
Keep On Moving
I Played the Fool
You’re My Girl
All the Way Home
This Time It’s For Real
Till the Good Is Gone
Help Me
Without Love
Love On the Wrong Side of Town
Walk Away Renee
You Don’t Know Like I Know
Soul Man
Drown in My Own Tears (Jeff Kazee vocal)
Shake ‘Em Down
Don’t Be Cruel
Heartbreak Hotel
Fever
One More Night to Rock
Stand By Me
I Don’t Want to Go Home

First encore:
Talk to Me
Hearts of Stone

Second encore:
Better Way Home

Third encore:
Trapped Again

Band lineup:
Southside Johnny
Jeff Kazee
Glenn Alexander
Tony Tino
Tom Seguso
Neal Pawley
John Isley
Chris Anderson

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