Category Archives: reviews

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

3 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under music, reviews

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?)

Leave a comment

Filed under ramblings, reviews, Springsteen

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.

4 Comments

Filed under reviews

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

15 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

Macca’s Magic: Paul McCartney in Indianapolis, parts 2 and 3

Paul McCartney and band onstage

[Read Part 1, in which I experience Concert Ticket Drama and Kerfuffle.]

Part 2: Rock Show

After racing around deciding what to wear (and being thankful that I’d done laundry the night before instead of saving it for Sunday evening as I usually do), printing out my ticket, feeding the cats, getting cash for parking, and gassing up the car, I plugged the Bankers Life Fieldhouse address into my GPS (yes, I’ve lived 50 miles from downtown Indianapolis for many years, but I often get lost enough to make the GPS worthwhile) and was on my way. To my delight, the Indianapolis radio station I listen to most often, WTTS, was playing an hour and a half of Beatles and McCartney music for those of us on our way to the show. I turned it way up. Few things put me in my happy place more than singing along at the top of my lungs while driving to a show, and I was definitely in my very happy place by now.

I arrived at the arena well ahead of showtime, took a few minutes to ogle the shiny shiny tour buses parked outside, went in and found my seat. To my delight, although I was pretty far towards the back of the arena floor, I was dead center and just three rows in front of the soundboard – which guaranteed that I would get the best sound in the place. Sweet! Based on the seating diagram I’d seen on Ticketmaster, the original plan was that Section F on the floor would be split into left and right halves on either side of the soundboard, so my guess is that the board ended up requiring a little less floor space than anticipated and they were able to open up five rows in front of it at the last minute.

I chatted with the folks around me a bit, all of whom had similar last-minute ticket-buying stories. We were all pretty grateful to be there, I think! Finally the lights dimmed, and for the next half-hour we watched a sort of scrolling photo/video collage on the big screens on either side of the stage – beginning with pictures of Paul as a small child and continuing on with photos from the Beatles and Wings days, augmented with painting (if I’m not mistaken, done by McCartney himself). It was really nice, although to be honest I could have lived without most of the DJ’d cover versions of McCartney’s songs that accompanied it…

McCartney and band took the stage about 8:30 to absolutely thunderous applause. Bankers Life (formerly Conseco) Fieldhouse was sold out from the floor all the way up to the rafters, and the audience was into it from the get-go. He opened with “Eight Days a Week” and it could have been the Beatles in Shea Stadium for all the screaming in there. Pure, pure joy.

Musical highlights included:

Paul McCartney playing guitar

“Paperback Writer”

• All of the early Beatles songs – “Eight Days a Week,” “All My Loving,” “Paperback Writer” (using the guitar that was used for the original recording!), “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “We Can Work It Out,” “And I Love Her,” and later on in the encores “Day Tripper,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and of course “Yesterday” (sigh…!). These songs never get old, do they? God, just so brilliant.
• “The Long and Winding Road,” followed by “Maybe I’m Amazed” – two of my favorite McCartney songs, and I will admit that the room got awfully dusty there for a few minutes (sniffle). “Maybe I’m Amazed” seemed a particularly heartfelt performance of the song Paul noted he’d written for Linda.
• “Blackbird.” McCartney introduced this one by saying he’d written it in England with the intention of writing a song for the American civil rights movement. Less than 24 hours after the Zimmerman verdict, still feeling wrenched and heartsick, the song felt especially poignant to me. He played it solo on acoustic guitar, standing on a small platform that rose up as he played until he was standing high above the stage – a neat effect. One of my very favorite Beatles songs, both utterly timely and utterly timeless. I think this was my favorite moment of the show – and one of my favorite concert moments ever.
• That was followed by “Here Today,” which Paul said he’d written in memory of his friend John. “If you need to tell somebody something, do it now, because you never know when it will be too late,” he told us. Such a simple human thing, the sadness of losing a friend before you can say what you need to say – of course when you remember that the friend was John Lennon, and the absolute wrenching heartbreak of his murder and what the world lost, the grief is both personal and public. A lovely tribute to what must have been a complicated friendship.
• After that it was the fun and games section of the set (it really was a very well-constructed setlist overall): “Your Mother Should Know,” “Lady Madonna,” “All Together Now,” and “Lovely Rita.” So lighthearted, so much singing along!
• Another tribute to a lost friend: Paul got out a ukulele, and told us about hanging out with George Harrison and figuring out how to play one of George’s songs on the ukulele. The one he was playing tonight, he told us, had been given him by George himself. He began “Something” solo on said ukulele as images of George played on the giant screen; eventually the band came in for a really, really lovely version of one of my favorite songs of all time. (Sniffle. Again.)
• And there was “Let Me Roll It”! And “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five”! And “Eleanor Rigby” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Band on the Run”! So many highlights. You start to realize after a while just how many incredible songs this guy has written and it blows your mind, it does.
• “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was an absolutely killer performance that had me dancing my butt off. I loved the “FREE PUSSY RIOT” graphic that flashed on the screen for a few moments among all the other Soviet-inspired imagery – and the loud roar of approval it elicited from the audience. Go Paul!
• “Let It Be” was – as always and ever – a religious experience. Something about that song is so completely comforting to me. I know he’s played it a thousand million times, but to hear Paul McCartney singing this song in person is just … it’s something that will stay with me for a long long time.
• And then “Live and Let Die,” a song I’ve always loved, came complete with GIANT JETS OF FIRE and actual FIREWORKS inside the arena! It was just spectacular. You know, I’ve always said that good musical performances don’t need laser shows and pyrotechnics and what-not… but this was SO MUCH FUN. Holy cats, it was fun. Following that up with “Hey Jude,” which gets its own brand of pyrotechnics from the utterly epic audience sing-along… nearly twenty thousand people, every single one of us at the top of our lungs… epic, epic, epic.
• And the encores! Two encores, three songs each – “I Saw Her Standing There” was loose and such a great damn song and SO much fun. The second encore opened with Paul standing alone in the spotlight with an acoustic guitar, singing “Yesterday” – followed by an insanely loud, psychedelic-light-show rendition of “Helter Skelter.” An awkward segue? Maybe, but also brilliant; you realize at that moment that this man has written, not just dozens of the best songs ever written, but both “Yesterday” which is the simplest, purest pop ballad in the world AND “Helter Skelter” which is one of the most furious, manic, heaviest rock songs ever. I loved the contrast.
• And of course, he has to end with “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.” It’s the perfect ending to the show, and as Paul and band leave the stage we are showered with giant cannons full of red, white, and blue confetti. It’s perfect.

Paul McCartney at piano

“Maybe I’m Amazed”

38 songs. Over two and a half hours of music, by my calculation. (Here’s the complete setlist.) Some of the greatest songs ever written, performed very, very, very well by the excellent band that’s been touring with McCartney for many years. Paul himself has lost very little with age; all evening he kept doing little dances in between songs, grinning and pointing at the audience, clearly enjoying himself immensely. His voice is perhaps not as strong as it once was; at times he faltered slightly and at times he seemed to be singing with a certain carefulness. But that didn’t detract from the performance at all and in fact it made the music seem more precious in a way, just enough of a crack in the perfection to remind us all to cherish this experience while we can. Time eventually takes a toll on everyone – but for now, Paul McCartney is definitely still charming (dare I say, even downright adorable), still jaunty, and above all still rocking as hard as anybody out there.

A couple of other notes. I have read some complaints about the sound in the venue, and I would not be surprised if indeed it was bad up in the rafters – it’s almost impossible to get great sound in every part of an arena that size. From where I was sitting, three rows in front of the soundboard and dead center on the floor, the sound was absolutely pristine – resonant, crisp, and clear. I could understand every word spoken and sung, all of the instruments sounded great, and the volume was perfect (LOUD but not distorted).

The lighting and stage design were a wonder to behold. Like I said, I’m normally not one for a big light show or elaborate staging at a concert – the music should hold its own. Obviously, McCartney’s music needs no augmentation. But the way the lighting and staging were done, it was like we got a completely different stage every so often – the big screen behind the band was used in some incredibly creative ways, and the lighting set so many different moods. I felt like I’d been taken on a journey through a bunch of different places and times, and the lighting made the experience utterly immersive. It was incredibly creative and beautifully accomplished. If anybody knows who’s responsible, please do leave that information in the comments!

Finally, McCartney’s longtime band deserves a mention: Abe Laboriel (drums, percussion, vocals), Paul “Wix” Wickens (vocals, keyboards, guitar, percussion), Brian Ray (guitar, bass, vocals), and Rusty Anderson (guitar, vocals). All four of these guys knocked my socks off with their musicianship and versatility.

Part 3: I Have Seen the Future of Rock & Roll…

Lastly, just a little bit about the crowd. Totally sold-out show, so there was a little of everyone there. Lots of people my age (mid-fifties) and up. Lots of Beatles t-shirts. But also… LOTS of young folks, many there with their parents. I love that! To say the audience was enthusiastic would be a pretty humongous understatement. Everyone was on their feet, all the way up into the rafters, for most of the show; during the encore breaks I took a moment to look around me and saw a gorgeous glittering sea of cellphones being waved. Before the show, such a huge sense of anticipation and excitement. After the show, some of the biggest smiles I’ve seen in a very long time. It was a beautiful thing.

Red, white, and blue confetti in the air.

confetti!

The show ended with a giant blast of red, white, and blue confetti into the audience. Some of us (okay, ME) immediately became little kids and started reaching up into the air to catch the stuff, scooping up handfuls of it to save. I realized as I danced around catching confetti that the young lady a few seats down from me was doing the same thing. I’d noticed her before the show – probably about 14 years old, wearing a McCartney t-shirt, shorts, and Beatle boots, carrying a super cool bag designed from an actual record album and painted with Paul’s face on it. We grinned at each other as we scooped up confetti, and started chatting. Her eyes were shining and then she melted into tears, utterly overwhelmed by how much she loved the show. “It’s life-changing,” she said.

And that, friends, THAT made my already full heart just about burst with happiness and joy. To witness somebody her age falling head over heels in love with rock & roll, with the exuberance and celebration of a show like that – it just gave me a pile of hope that I have been needing, you know? I told her “when I was about your age, maybe a little bit older, I went to my first Springsteen show and it changed my life too.” I know she probably feels like a lot of her peers, the ones who listen to Justin Bieber and One Direction and Taylor Swift, don’t understand the diehard Beatles fan in their midst. I know she probably feels like she’s not quite like the other kids, sometimes. I hope that by telling her that I’d had the same experience, she realizes that she’s on a wonderful journey that will carry her through the rest of her life.

Can music change the world? I don’t know (okay, I do know, and the answer is yes, but we’ll accept that there’s room for argument here) – but I do know for sure, for absolute sure, that it can change a person. And that person can then change the world. All you need is love, and all that. It’s hard to hold on to that level of optimism sometimes, in the face of the really hard things that happen. But then you go to a concert, and one guy stands there alone in the spotlight singing a song he wrote more than half a lifetime ago, and everything somehow makes sense – love, and hope, and belief. And you go home and you go back to your regular life but that song stays with you forever, cradled inside where you can reach in when you need it and hold on to it a bit.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night…

Was that concert ticket worth all the drama and the kerfuffle and the number of dollars that no sane person with my salary would think of spending on one rock show?

Yes. Yes, in fact, it was.

Thank you, Paul McCartney. Thank you, young woman in Section F Row 2, whose name I never got. Thank you, rock and roll. Thank you.

Paul McCartney alone in spotlight playing acoustic guitar

“Yesterday”

2 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

Movie reviewish: “Not Fade Away”

Caveat lector: This isn’t really a proper movie review. I don’t know much about movies, and wouldn’t begin to try to critique a film from an artistic standpoint – I think you have to really understand a genre in order to do that. For a good example of a proper film review, I liked Leonard Maltin’s. This is pretty much just my own personal reaction to the movie; very personal, as you will see by the end.

"Not Fade Away" movie posterGiven that David Chase’s coming-of-age film  “Not Fade Away” is basically a love letter to rock & roll, it won’t surprise anyone that I liked it. Okay, I think it had some issues with pacing – there are times when scenes blow by quickly and I wasn’t really sure whether I had maybe missed something. There were some subplots that were interesting but never got fleshed out – the bit about Grace‘s hippie sister, for example. I was disappointed that the female characters were generally pretty two-dimensional, especially Grace herself; she’s just the pretty but slightly confused girlfriend, and though she’s on screen a lot, we never really get to know what makes her tick. And while I loved the last three minutes or so, the final arc towards the ending (the L.A. part) seemed a little muddled and out-of-place to me.

But you know what, I still loved this movie. I loved it a lot. The soundtrack, as one would expect given the involvement of Steven Van Zandt, is absolutely killer. The Van Zandt original featured in the film, “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” is catchy as hell and just a great song. (You can read my review of the soundtrack album over at Blogness.)  The scenes where the band is learning to play are beautiful; the one where they’re working out “Bo Diddley” in particular made me want to run out of the theater and go start a band. There’s a hilarious cameo by Jay Weinberg (son of E Street drummer Max Weinberg, and until recently the drummer for punk band Against Me) as a drummer entirely ill-suited for the band he’s playing with; for the benefit of those who get it I will mutter here “No junior Ginger Bakers.” The acting is generally very good, especially leading man John Magaro, of whom I bet we will be seeing a lot more, as well as Meg Guzulescu who plays his sister – a tiny role, but she really shines. Anyone who grew up in the sixties will appreciate the attention to authenticity and detail throughout the film; it felt absolutely real. And I dare you not to walk out of the theater humming and/or dancing.

But mostly, and this really isn’t that much of a spoiler, I love that “Not Fade Away” isn’t a success story. It would have been easy to make a movie about a band that makes it big, or for that matter about one that crashes & burns dramatically. But as the lead character’s younger sister says at the beginning of the movie, this band is like most bands – you never heard of them. Does this mean this is a film about failure? No. The message of the film, to me, is that following your dream and doing what you love is not wasted time, regardless of whether you find “success” or “failure” or something in between. More specifically, the movie posits rock & roll as something worth pursuing and holding on to and in fact as the greatest thing American culture has produced.*  You can argue about that latter point, but you can’t argue that the movie and its characters come most alive when they are playing or listening to the music they love. And that has nothing to do with recording contracts, commercial success, or anything else.

As the daughter of a musician who made a modest (very modest) living for a while playing in your basic hotel-lounge cover band, and as someone who took guitar lessons for a while and came close enough to not sucking at it to have some pretty daydreams, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of musical “success.” When you spend hours and hours practicing your craft and you never have the kind of success you daydream about, have you wasted all that time and effort?

I think about that a lot, actually. When my dad got a “real job” teaching psychology at a university and moved us to Indiana, he pretty much stopped playing music. He probably could have found some guys to play with on weekends for fun. But having been good enough to play professionally, I think he recognized that no longer practicing regularly meant that his chops deteriorated quickly, and I think it was hard for him to enjoy playing if he didn’t have the facility with it that he used to have. So he stopped. Like him, I have enough of an ear to hear that when I pick up the guitar to bash around on it now, I kind of suck. I was never a professional-level musician but I was coffeehouse-level good once, and now I can’t even play that well. It’s hard for me to do things just for kicks, without wanting to be good at them. And so, mostly, I don’t play.

And what “Not Fade Away” tells me is, fuck that shit, just play. If it makes you feel alive, it doesn’t much matter if you suck or if you’re good enough to get a record contract. Being good enough to get a contract doesn’t mean you’re going to end up famous anyway. Like all those other bands you’ve never heard of, you probably won’t. You may find yourself in a strange city living a life entirely different from the life you were dreaming of, but on some street corner you might hear music and remember what it feels like to be alive again. And that, this movie says, that is what matters.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a guitar that needs my attention now. Rock on.

___________________

*At the very end of the movie Evelyn, younger sister of main character Douglas, turns to the camera and says “I had to write a term paper, and I wrote about how America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock & roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?” The question is left verbally unanswered, but Evelyn begins dancing in the middle of the deserted street, a graceful little go-go sequence that celebrates youth, rock & roll, and life itself. I would argue that her dancing answers the question pretty definitively. Rock & roll wins out – if we let it.

1 Comment

Filed under music, reviews