The Worst Concert Ever

“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)

While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Luck of the Irish…Music?


I realize I’m several days past St Patrick’s day but I really wasn’t inspired to write this post until this past weekend. On Friday evening, my husband and I bought a pizza for our daughter and her babysitter, drove 45 minutes to our state capital and attended a concert given by the Irish Rovers.

Earlier this month I heard on our local NPR station that they’d be stopping in our small New England state during the “farewell to rovin” tour. I decided I would buy tickets for us to attend the show as my husband grew up listening to their music and he has been singing the same songs to our little one since she joined us in this world nearly 2 years ago. Prior to the concert, to fully embrace our first date night in months, we went to a bar that I hadn’t been to since my days in law school. We had a couple beers, smoked some cigarettes (gasp!) and met several people who were also attending the show. (Most of whom were decades older than us.).It was fun to talk to other folks as excited about the show as we were.

The concert was wonderful, the group played for about 2 hours. The band formed in the early 1960s and has changed over the years and replaced members who have moved on to greener pastures or to the great pub in the sky, but the current accordion player is one of the original rovers. They played new songs and old songs, well known hits and less known drogues. People of all ages enjoyed the show, multiple generations were in attendance.

When it was all over, the band sat in the lobby to do a meet and greet. We were lucky to speak to all of the members of the group and we bought a compilation of their greatest hits and they all signed the CD cover. (What’s worth noting here is that neither my husband nor myself could remember the last time we bought an actual CD!!!!) My husband told the lead singer how much it meant to him that he saw them play, as their music had come full circle in his life with his father singing their songs to him and he now sings them to our child. The lead singer seemed very flattered and moved by this comment and took a few minutes to chat with us which really was nice.
It was great to hear some live Irish music again. I have had the opportunity to travel to been to Ireland a couple of times as a good friend of mine from college pursued her PhD in Dublin so I had a free place to stay and an insider to show me the city. On each of my trips we frequented many pubs and I got to hear a lot of real authentic Irish music which was a real treat. So anyway, on our drive home from the Irish Rovers show that evening (around 11pm–the latest we’d been out in years!!!) I got to thinking about bands from Ireland and wanted to write a post about them. Groups like U2 and the Cranberries came to mind (those are the obvious ones), but I did a little bit of research as to other Irish bands. I’ll use the most well known songs of the Irish groups I chose just to make the list more familiar and thus maybe more enjoyable. Let’s get started.

U2: “Where the Streets Have no Name”

So clearly we can’t discuss bands from Ireland without mentioning the powerhouse of U2. The Joshua Tree is in my top 3 favorite albums ever and would be one of the CDs I bring to the desert island should I ever become stranded! This is one of U2’s most famous songs and is the first track on The Joshua Tree. The song was released in 1987 and has been used frequently in sports, including on a commercial for the 2010 World Cup and as the entrance song for the Baltimore Ravens football team and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. I have never been lucky enough to see U2 in concert, but apparently the band still plays this song during nearly every performance.
Snow Patrol: “Chasing Cars”

This song was very popular during my first year of law school. It is on Snow Patrol’s 4th album and to be honest, I never even heard of Snow Patrol until I heard this song. I actually purchased the album, “Eyes Open” but wasn’t too impressed with the rest of the tracks. Other popular songs by Snow Patrol include “Signal Fire” (featured on the Spider-man 3 sound track) and “Run” (from their 3rd album).

The Cranberries: “Linger”

The Cranberries have also been around forever and are one of the better known groups from Ireland. I remember them most well from the early 90s, when their album Everyone Else is Doing It so Why Not me? was released. They reigned the alternative music world for several years and in 2003 decided to separate and pursue individual careers. The band reunited in 2009. I picked “Linger” as the song to feature here because it was one of the first songs released in the United States and it’s the one I like best.
VAN Morrison: “Brown-eyed Girl”

Here’s a really well-known song by an Irishman! Van Morrison wrote this song in 1967 but he started his career in the late 1950s. This song has been covered by countless groups, including the elderJ’s high school band, whose version of course is my all-time favorite. Great fact about Van Morrison: He’s known as “the Belfast Cowboy.”
The Irish Rovers: “Drunken Sailor”

This is an old favorite of mine. My parents also used to sing it often. This song has been performed by several artists in addition to the Irish Rovers, including Pete Seeger. The Rovers play this song as their encore song in their shows and it calls for some pretty fun audience participation. We heard this song at the show last Friday, participated when they asked and sang along with the group. It was a lot of fun and the audience was lively and excited!
Seeing the Irish Rovers was a great experience and I am happy that I felt inspired to write this after thinking about Irish music and artists on our drive home that evening. Brothers, friends and random readers, feel free to add your thoughts or songs to this list!

They Had Me At Bel Biv Devoe (The Redz)

So last week, in a rare moment of spontaneity, my wife and I dialed up the babysitter and went out on the town without a plan. Now, “out on the town” means we went to a hookah bar five miles away from our subdivision and then kept looking at the clock because we were so tired. Yet, we felt way too lame to arrive home at 9:15 (because, you know, we’re afraid of the babysitter judging us) so we stopped at another exotic location–a bar called Sherlock’s, 1.5 miles from home.

golden tee

I convinced my wife to go in for some food. I really wanted to play Golden Tee. See, ironically or not, I hate golf but I absolutely love video game golf. Is this like hating sex but loving pornography? In any case, we were a little taken aback by the fact that the place was packed with birthday parties and the like and there was a band setting up.

We used to go see lives band a lot and my wife really didn’t want to play golden tee (even though she tricked me into going with the siren song of video golf!), so she begged me to have another beer and watch the band set up. As I surveyed the crowd I was skeptical–in the lone star state, you expect Jimmy Buffet wannabes and bad rock music at local bars. The crowd–mostly white and older–made me think that the coming band would be nothing but the same.

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25 Years of Boy Band Love

In the movie Fever Pitch, during an argument following the only Red Sox game he did not attend in 23 years, Jimmy Fallon’s character said to Drew Barrymore’s character: “Do you still care about anything you cared about 23 years ago? How about ten? How about five? Name me a single thing that you’ve cared about for 23 years.”

This quote came to mind after I recently attended my 4th New Kids on the Block concert in 4 years. I never was lucky enough to see them in concert as a child, so the fact that I’ve seen them so much in such a short period of time suggests I’m trying to make up for lost time. Or maybe I’m hanging onto my childhood by a thread—the same way I honestly think the majority of my fellow concertgoers were.

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Cover Songs: Pink Moons and Psycho Killers

In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers.

One thing I have not talked about is the fact that certain songs should never be covered. Now, I know that such wide-open generalizations are inevitably proved false (you know, with all those monkeys working away on all those typewriters….), but I think there are songs that are so indelibly and unalterably bound to their performers that they should never be assayed by someone else.

What got me thinking about this? Last night my children politely requested their nightly dance party (at almost 3 and almost 1.5 years, they actually screamed for it, but I digress). I turned on the television to Music Choice’s (sadly and pathetically) default Adult Alternative station and the following abomination filled the air:

I don’t really know who Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren are and I am so incensed that I will not even bother to check them out Wikipedia. (How’s that for some false indignation?) Here’s the thing: “Pink Moon”, Nick Drake’s brief, ethereal and ephemeral anti-anthem, works because of its (1) simplicity, (2) beauty, and (3) brevity, all of which are made possible by the solo combination of Drake’s eerie/breathy voice and his iconoclastic finger-picking.  When the spare piano notes come in, their vibrattoed-brevity brings that solitary sense into relief like the light of the moon in a darkened sky.

This cover is earnest—the performers obviously love the song, but they just do too much. The two voices deprive the song of its solitary space; the extra instrumentation clutters up the sound; and the repetitions lengthen the time past its key feature: the almost orgasmic (if subdued) brevity that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t that the central story of Nick Drake’s music and his life? The lack—the wanting, and the ultimate space of hope and disappointment left at the end?

The next morning, my good friend and sometime-commenter on this blog (who keeps threatening to write a post…) asked me about a song we used to cover when we were in a band, “Psycho Killer” by the talking heads. See, the band just released an earlier version of this song with a damn cello in it.

This version, I must admit, actually seems to reside somewhere between the 1977 version and the live version–it doesn’t seem to have the same stilted pace of the album version. It also seems to anticipate a little bit of the life of the much later live performance. When it comes down to it, though, the cello isn’t that noticeable or radical.

Now, here’s the problem with “Psycho Killer”. (If it is really a problem at all.) The version I grew up knowing (and ultimately the one our band covered) was actually from the live performance that became the sensation Stop Making Sense. In that live version, David Byrne walks on to the stage and presses play on a sound machine to produce the beat—he performs the song at a pace much faster than the album version for the most part alone.

The band slowly integrates into the music as the concert builds on. By the end of a few songs the stage is filled and the air vibrates with some of the most dynamic and symphonic sound to ever come out of lower Manhattan.  The album version of the song, however, is slower, almost sloppy even though recorded, and ultimately unsatisfying if you heard the concert version first.

Now, in between the original recording and the performance was over half a decade. Anyone who has performed the same song for a year, much less seven, knows that songs develop as if they are in fact alive: they mature and become more complex; sometimes they lose vibrancy and urgency. But what is important is that they, like the performer and the audience, change.

So, perhaps some of my resistance to hearing another version of this song and part of our cultural attachment to individual versions of songs is that they offer us the false promise of sameness—the recorded song stays the same, it doesn’t develop, it is like a photograph or a video: it is a fossilized version of something that once was. The song lives on forever. Psychologically, isn’t this an attractive flouting of the fact that we will not do the same?

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

The trick of this, though, is that the experience of the song has changed because we as listeners are no longer the same and we live with the earlier experiences of hearing the song as part of our memory and our associations with that piece.

Now, “Psycho Killer” is a song whose power rests not in its particular beauty or in the simplicity of its articulation but in its message and structure, does lend itself to different reinterpretations. One of our favorite bands, Bishop Allen, does a fine and light job of it here ( I do appreciate the nearly manic pace of this cover and the humorous intro-patter; the slight change in phrasing isn’t as effective; the overall effect, though, seems to channel more of the punk-era aesthetic that the Talking Heads came out of). And the original version of the song above shows us some of the surprising depth that can be plumbed merely by adding in new instrumentation or varying the pace.

The lyrics of the song also lend themselves to pointed reinterpretation—where one version of the song is plaintive protest, another is mocking jest. What would this song be in the mouth of someone more earnest? What if a Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes performed this song? (There’s my impossible recover request: Bob Dylan, performing “Psycho Killer”,  five years before it was written in Washington, D.C. during the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal. Don’t ask. Just imagine.)

Of course, it is not only a simple song that is hard to perform. At times, the more complex a song gets, the more it depends on a dangerous tension between execution and failure. One of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing But Flowers”, works only when performed with a paradoxical severe levity.

I love this song. And, when I heard it performed live by another one of my favorite bands, Guster, I thought I was going to die of happiness. And, for at least a minute of the song, I was filled with joy. But, slowly, the sound started to wash over me and I realized how it seemed only half-way there, like something essential was missing.

So, the moral of the story? (Wait, there was a story?) Cover songs are hard and delicate work. An artist needs to make the song his or her own without losing whatever is essential to the song’s core.

I think. Maybe. While I figure it out, here’s another cover to mull over:

Fender Precision Bass

I have talked a lot about the band I am in and my recent learning of the bass. It really had to do with the aftermath the untimely passing of my father because it hit me very hard.  My situation was different from my siblings because I lived in the home we all grew up in so I didn’t get to leave the whole scene after the funeral. I was right in the middle of everything that was my Dad and it was not easy.

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Lucky Tubb: Preview

So, as we know from my procrastination post, I slack but this week is even worse. It’s for a good cause though because my band is playing a big show on Friday with everyone we know coming and us making actual money. Good money too. It’s been a crazy week of practice and I sat down to write tonight when a message popped up that none other than Lucky Tubb is in the nearest big town tonight for one night only. This guy is true blue country and I am working on a honky tonk defense playlist right now to explain to all our readers why I love this music so much. I have to go see him now so I am yet again going to slack on my writing. But you can be damn sure you will be getting a review in the am or soon after.  He’s the son of the famous Ernest Tubb by the way so here is one of his famous ones for this quick post. Sorry Brother, I will post something longer as soon as possible.

Leon Russell: Master of Space and Time.

Leon Russell took off his ever-present sunglasses the other night at a very small show in a barn in the woods of Maine and he looked right at me. I felt like something close to God stared directly into my soul. Very few musicians are as important to me personally as well as to popular twentieth music in general. His ideas and style have influenced everybody from George Harrison to Elton John and, at the golden age of 71, he can still melt your face playing piano. His name is Leon Russell and he is the Master of Space and time.

Leon is a piano player from Oklahoma who first captured my attention on a hazy day in the summer in about 2006. I haven’t mentioned him much before, using one of his Bob Dylan covers for a piece a few weeks back. My hippie neighbor Fred, who is about eight feet tall and the subject of an upcoming entry of his own, picked me up in his rusty old Subaru outback with a 12 pack of  Miller High life and a bunch of cds he had found in an old trunk.  I got in the car under the context of going to move some wood from one side of his driveway to the other but ending up driving very slowly in a large field nearby, drinking most of the beer, and listening to tunes. I learned a lot about Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that day, but I want to focus on the major find which was Leon Russell. It was this song that sucked me in.

It didn’t hurt that we were having a few beers and driving in the woods, but this song bowled me over. I must have listened to it twenty times that afternoon/evening,  amongst many of Leon’ s solo songs on a retrospective disc Fred dug up somewhere. I then got the Fred version of the legend of Leon Russell.

The guy is basically a jack of all musical trades, from songwriter to producer to musician to singer and so on. He started playing music as a kid in Tulsa and at some point, moved to Los Angeles and eventually became part of the group known as “The Wrecking Crew”. These “fuckin bad asses” were supposed to be the best studio musicians in town and played on hits from the Beach Boys to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band. Eventually, Leon started writing songs with some pretty good success, such as the following.

Everybody from Christina Aguilara to Ray Charles has covered this song and it’s also where he gets the name “The Master of Space and Time” . The excellent lyric states “I love you in place where there is no space or time” and this is around the same time Leon got perhaps his best known gig, as band leader for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour backing Joe Cocker.  According to the liner notes of that best of disc, this tour was nuts and everybody was on drugs, but watch the video beneath. Leon looks like he is in his prime, the rest of the band is killing it, and Joe Cocker is his typical arm flailing awesomeness. More on that top hat shortly,

As things go, Leon got pretty big on his own right and split from Joe Cocker to start making his own records. His first had the track “A Song for You” which would go on to be a huge hit for so many along with one of my personal favorites, “Shootout on the Plantation”. Take the time to google this  self titled first album and you will be amazed at the line up of players, with Cocker, a few Rolling Stones, and even two Beatles in attendance on the sessions. This guy clearly had come clout back in the day and from this performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, he also had the chops to keep all these famous folks around. Just look at the guy, Fred is right when he says he’s a bad ass.

Unfortunately, his own records never sold like the ones he wrote and played on so sometime in the mid 1980’s, he kind of went obscure. He played gigs to pay the bills and it got pretty destitute to the point where his tour van was almost not functioning. I got all of this post 197o’s info from a great movie called The Union which tells the story of the making of the album with the same name by Leon and Elton John. If your watch these live videos  that I have included, you can see the gigantic influence and Elton does acknowledge it a lot. He does say some things that I think make Leon look a little bad, but all in all it is an immensely powerful movie about a musician  who is absolutely amazing. Here’s a great track which Leon wrote for Elton.

So why do I like Leon Russell so much? There is nobody like him, from his style of playing piano to his lyrics to his distinct singing voice. While he can play in any genre, it’s almost like anything he plays on just becomes it’s own Leon genre. Although I have heard many of his studio parts, as I am sure you have if you ever listened to Oldie’s radio, I prefer his solo work.  Nobody does all the work he does on a track anymore either, like “Out in the Woods” where Leon did everything except play bass. He has a distinctive style that has already stood the test of time.

I think his music also represents a certain time in my life, the college years they’d be called if I were to write a memoir. I listened to his music hard when I lived with my ex-girlfriend in a tiny apartment, one time buying a bunch of his records instead of saving money to cover rent. I never once introduced him to somebody who didn’t become a fan and one friend texted me the night after I saw him at like the crack of dawn. In short, it reminds me of a certain time that I really enjoyed but will never return to. The ex, who once told me listening to Leon Russell made her like me more, is long gone but I hope that she can still enjoy the music. That was the biggest thing we had together and although we ended badly, I look back on most of my time with her fondly. Here’s a good jam.

When I got the chance to see him the other night, still incredibly impressive at age 70, I obviously was thinking of my history of being a Leon fan and how quick things change. Watch that movie with Elton, the same goes for Leon, barely getting by one day and getting Grammys the next. I am very lucky for the show I saw as it was basically in a barn in Maine and I was probably twenty feet from one of my most revered musical idols. Check out the venue, it’s very cool. I also go to attend the show with two old friends whom I introduced Leon to years ago. In fact, the tickets were a wedding present to one of my friends whose wedding I was actually the best man for, so that was a cool experience in itself.

He played every song I’d want to hear except “Shootout on the Plantation” and had an amazing young band backing him. He is moving pretty slow and he has a laptop to remember lyrics, but don’t let this take anything away from him. He is amazing and I would pay a hundred bucks to see him again, Leon Russell is the Master of Space and Time and if you have a chance, discover it yourself.

The Worst Concert Ever

“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)

While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.

Continue reading