Concertsdebby -- Sunday, June 08, 2003 -- 03:27:16 PM
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Lucero: Minglewood Hall, Memphis, TN 23 December 2010
Day two of my Lucero Holiday started with a trip to the Clinton Library in Little Rock and then a Greyhound to Memphis. That La Quinta free shuttle came in very handy. The bus trip was uneventful – a lot of trucks on the road and not much scenery from the highway. As I crossed the Mississippi I realized that I’ve now seen the river from Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. The lovely Memphis Rodeway Inn is inexpensive and clean – with a loveseat, coffee table, breakfast table with chairs, microwave, and refrigerator in addition to the bed, TV, and desk – and within walking distance of the club. However it is in a deserted area of town and this time there was no shuttle. So I put on my best NYC-don’t-fuck-with-me walk and headed out.
Minglewood Hall is a big space and just that – a big space that you fill up however you want. I also noted that there was a free after-party at the 1884 Lounge next to the club. The sound was good (I don’t think I mentioned that the sound was good the night before). It’s amazing what they can do with big spaces nowadays. The stage was up high, which bode well for me. I found a spot in front of pole next to the sound board and settled in for the night. While there I asked a guy next to me for a bbq recommendation, which I got and took advantage of the next day after I went to Graceland (Thanks! Randy) It turns out we’re the same age and he is also a big Old 97’s fan. He asked me if I was familiar with them. Am I familiar with the Old 97’s? You have no idea.
Cory Branan came out a bit more subdued than the night before. He had tweeted about the amount of alcohol he had consumed the night before and he talked about it from the stage.He said that during “Tears Don’t Matter Much” he was directing the band with a call for James Brown horns, pedal steel, and for them to break it out. But that didn’t diminish the power of his guitar playing. His voice sounded a little tired and cracked once or twice but I love how he plays with the dynamics by stepping away from the mic. He joked with a guy singing a line from “Tall Green Grass” back to him. And Rick Steff came out to play keys for “Excitable Boy” as planned and stayed for the next song – not planned. When Cory told us what his “Born to Run” ballad was about I couldn’t hear him because of all the people TALKING around me. There were plenty of places to hang out and talk without having to shout at one another. Why not have your conversation there so the performer doesn’t bother you?
Set List (Again not sure of all the song titles, so wrote a lyric in place. And my notes aren’t legible so I may have missed something.)
They say I’m a bad man
Song about meaningless sex
Tall Green Grass
Homage to John Mellencamp and about shitty childhoods
Excitable Boy (Warren Zevon)
Devil on my back
Song about sour mash
His “Born to Run” ballad
Song about an ex
Thirteen (Big Star)
A Girl Named Go
You could feel the vibe in the room because this was Lucero’s family holiday party so up on stage and in the crowd were family and friends. And again they rocked – Ben Nichols (vocal, guitar), Brian Venable (guitar), John C. Stubblefield (bass), Roy Berry (drums), Rick Steff (keys), Todd Beene (pedal steel), and the horn section. There were only two at the start but Jim Spake showed up from another gig just in time for his solo on “Tears Don’t Matter Much.”
During my conversation with Randy we talked about how Ben’s songs speak to our hearts – this boy in his 30s writes songs that these two 53-year-olds can easily relate to. The songs are very personal and that makes them universal. The best songwriting is the truth. Ben introduced “Raising Hell” by telling us that he was flying to Austin early in the morning to be with his brother. And Ben rolled his eyes when he missed notes – I love live performances. Brian came back on stage wearing a Santa hat after Ben’s solo set. Family and friends were dancing on stage during some of the set. Cory didn't come up for "Sweet Little Thing" but he did come back for "Tears Don't Matter Much." And John gave a shout-out to his fellow hill country people.
The after-party was Cody Dickinson DJing layering different versions of “Jingle Bells” over each other and then he played some guitar. At one point John joined him on bass. Ben walked in and watched for a bit – it looked like no one noticed him. As he walked by me I tried to step up to say hello but as usual I froze. One of the things I admire about the band is how gracious they are with their fans. I wish I had more nerve and could tell him just how much good his music brings to my life.
The night before they opened with “No Roses, No More” and I hadn’t realized they haven’t played the song live for some time but it sounded like they play it every night. Lucero’s combination of alt-country, heartland rock, and southern rock is joyous and satisfying and I never get tired of hearing it. All the boys look like they’re having so much fun up there and it’s infectious. I wish my job was just following them around from town to town. Along with the crowd I was singing along with every song and jumping up and down and dancing. This was billed as their first holiday party and maybe I can make this my Christmas tradition.
Set list (again some of my notes are illegible so there may some errors)
The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo
That Much Further West
Nights Like These
Kiss the Bottle (Jawbreakers)
No Roses, No More
Sounds of the City
Can’t Feel a Thing
Sweet Little Thing
I’ll Just Fall
Joining the Army
Last Night in Town
Sixes and Sevens
It Ain’t Gonna Be Good
Here at the Starlite
Last Pale Light in the West
I Can Get Us Out of Here
Chain Link Fence
The Last Song
Tears Don’t Matter Much
New song – “on my own, all alone”
Drink ‘Til We’re Gone
All Sewn Up
I've been taking an extended break and so I'm quite behind. I did keep writing up reviews, though, so I guess I will just dump all the ones I never posted at once. It's mostly out of date and stuff that Carene already covered, so everyone can just scroll past, but the last one I'm posting is relatively recent and exciting.
All the time I hear about how the best restaurants, the best art collections, the best clubs, the best theater experiences, the best anything-anyone-cool-might-want-to-do are in private homes in the city. It's annoying, to say the least. How much more exclusive can you get than some random Joe's apartment in Williamsburg or on the Upper East Side, with no hope of you ever getting on their mailing list? And yet, if you are lucky enough to have an in with someone who quietly but brilliantly patronizes and celebrates the arts, how much better can it get? No huge crowds, no people who don't really want to be there (or at least fewer people who don't really want to be there), no constant clinking and clanking noises from the bar, all ages allowed. I had no expectations of ever seeing a musical performance in this sort of setting, but thanks to a friend I got the opportunity to do just that last night.
This friend and her husband were the ones who introduced us to Malcolm Holcombe a year or two ago. That alone was a huge gift. We went to see him at a small bar/venue in the Lower East Side called The Living Room and were thrilled at the chance to be able to sit a few rows away from such a staggeringly talented musician. But even better, through his fan email list they got word that Holcombe was playing a gig in some average NYC woman's actual living room, and we all managed to contact her in time to get spots. I was excited and nervous, never having been to the 21st Century equivalent of a salon; it was BYOB, $15 all for the artist, snax provided, but did I need to bring something for the hostess? On my way over I figured I'd bring a sixpack of nice beer and put it out like I would for any old house party, and anything left she could keep.
When I got to her building on a quiet side street off Tompkins Square Park in Alphabet City there was a small crowd of people trying to get buzzed in. It really was a standard residential building, nicer than a tenement but no palace. I saw a couple of other buttons on the intercom had artsy-sounding semi-public-space names attached, so either the building self-selects for the type of tenants who do this sort of thing, or maybe it was even a squat or something back in the 70s and 80s and naturally filled up with artistic, quirky people.
When I opened the door I saw glimpses of several rooms in a surprisingly large and sharply-renovated space. Our hostess was behind a small table taking money and crossing names off the list. There's an odd subset of people in NYC, and I'd guess any really big city, people who are simultaneously hippie/artsy and sophisticated/urbane, and she seemed to be one of those. People were mingling about in the main space, where about 30 chairs were arranged around a chair and a microphone and small soundboard. There were several huge windows, one filled with plants and strings of fairy lights, the others covered with gorgeous silk fabric. There were artworks on all the walls, including the exposed brick one behind the grand piano, and in a shocking development most of the pieces were actually beautiful. There was an oriental rug covered with pillows on one part of the wood floor and a few sofa/loveseat/armchair options behind the folding seats. In an adjacent room was a dining room table spread with all kinds of food including homemade chili. Pretty much everyone there was white and dressed casually, most looking like they had some, if not a ton of, money and they'd be more inclined to spend it on the arts than on their clothes or haircuts. Even the younger people weren't too aggressively hip or hipstery. There was an adorable baby of maybe 5 months who cooed and giggled throughout the night at just the right moments.
I ended up in a great spot in the second row. I got to be close enough to watch Holcombe's fingers on the guitar strings all night but not so close as to be right up in his face (he's a bit unpredictable and while that makes his music and performances all the more impressive it also makes me more nervous to have nothing between he and I). He played two sets with a substantial intermission. He seemed very comfortable in the setting and did lots of patter between songs, occasionally yelling out things in his slightly unhinged way. He was also stomping his feet on the floor in time; his chair was on a shaggy flokatiesque rug but I still wondered how the neighbors in the apartment below were liking it. Holcombe's voice sounded great. I recognized a few of his songs, including Dressed in White, Baby Likes a Love Song and Kiss Me While I'm Sleeping. By the end of the night his jokes and asides had me almost crying I was laughing so hard. Early on he'd made reference to an early job he had working at a fast food fish place and the problems that arose when a frozen fish square fell onto the floor; late in the evening he mentioned he was a decent cook, "I can boil a hot dog, drop a fish," and I nearly died. He also introduced the song "Going to Hell in a Greyhound" by advising us to sit right behind the bus driver, if we wanted conversation, but not to cut his throat, not for safety or moral reasons but because "it's been done before." Every time the baby made a noise while he was talking he'd respond to the baby. Before and after the music he mingled with the audience and except for when he was posing for pictures with people acted like he was just another guest. It was so relaxed and warm and homey an experience, but it came with a musical accompaniment so wonderful I found myself wishing I could just hire Holcombe to come to my place every evening and play continuously until I was ready for bed.
In conclusion, private house concerts? I vote YES. Based on the vibe I got from our hostess, her taste in music and art and home decor and everything, I'd go to pretty much any show she put on. I'm looking forward to getting introduced to a whole lot of artists I'd never otherwise hear of and to having many more exceptional nights like this one.
Last night Carene very generously treated violaleeblue and me to excellent seats to ]The Scottsboro Boys. Her boss, an investor in the musical, had gotten them for us and so they were excellent. Sixth row, and in this intimate theater (the Lyceum) where the first row nearly has to lean back to keep from bumping their faces on the stage lip, that meant right up close to the action. I don't remember ever going to a show at the Lyceum before. It's a lovely jewel box of a theater, cozy and cute, good sound.
The show itself is an oddity, and as such is sometimes hard to watch, and afterwards hard to review. The subject is the story of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930s Alabama. Their first trials were such lynch-hungry shams they caught national attention and the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party, took over their appeals. Their lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, who had almost never lost a case in his life, spent years fighting in appeal after appeal. Eventually he was forced to make a deal to get the four youngest out (when first convicted some of the younger boys were only 13) by more or less condemning the elder ones. Some died in jail. The ones that got out didn't fare much better. The case reached the US Supreme Court and led to significant changes in the legal system, including the process of jury selection. It was a major inspiration for Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." That is all backstory I didn't have before the show. I had a vague idea that the name referred to a case of racial injustice, and then I read some reviews and knew it was about some black boys and young men accused of raping white women, but that was it.
On top of the heavy subject matter is the fact that the writers/composers (Kander and Ebb) and the director (Susan Stroman) decided to set the play as a minstrel show. I guess if you're going to turn something this tragic into a musical, of all things, it makes sense to offset the lightness in that way and really bring home the horror of the situation, but as the reviewer in New York Magazine put it, you find yourself in the decidedly awkward position of suddenly looking down at your hands and thinking "did I just clap for a shuck-and-jive???" over and over as the night goes on. There is blackface. The white guilt was hovering like a giant cloud over the room (which was nearly full, and almost all white people as far as I could tell). I realize that music taps into and augments all emotions equally, and that musical theater has a long tradition of serious topics, but this reallllllllllllly stretched my ability to accept that and go beyond my usual bias against musicals as cheesy lightweight fare.
Another obvious stumbling block for anyone trying to condense the story of nine + people talking place over almost a decade, is that you lose so much. Without much knowledge of the true story I kept feeling like things didn't make sense. Then, as anyone else who can recite the entire movie of The Sound of Music by heart knows, when you have 90 minutes and a lot of characters, beyond the eldest and the youngest you're not going to be able to pick out many individuals. There's always someone about whom even the writers will throw up their hands and say, "I don't know anything about Louisa, but someone's got to," and "god bless what's his name." And so here we get to know big, strong, principled, angry Haywood Patterson, played by Joshua Henry, and tiny, confused Eugene Williams, played by Jeremy Gumbs, and the rest are all either entirely interchangeable or signified by one tiny thing. One boy's glasses were broken so he can't see, another's a pickpocket, two are brothers. Not exactly three dimensional characters. Then there's the Lady, a Rosa Parks lookalike whose role was never explained to my satisfaction, and when we compared notes afterwards vlb and Carene had come to different conclusions about who or what she was meant to be (although nice to have a Rosa Parks shoutout in the show we saw on the 55th anniversary of her bus ride). Maybe some of this can be put on the decision to do a minstrel show, but I think to do the story justice you'd need a lot more time. I also can't imagine what it would be like to see as a Southerner; there's lots of fun at the expense of New York carpetbagger types but they really go for the South's jugular.
Those were the bad parts, but luckily they are overridden by the good parts. So the show can't do justice to the serious subject matter; without it I wouldn't be thinking of the subject matter at all. So the minstrel show is an uneasy-making choice; it means that we get to see some extraordinarily talented performers doing amazing things with their bodies and their voices. Most of the cast members play multiple roles, and some of the boys who don't get to stand out in their primary roles get chances to shine in other bits. Christian Dante White and James T. Lane also play the two white women who accused the boys and get star-making turns out of those roles. Both are great comic actors and White has a song where he belts out a note for a few solid minutes. Kendrick Jones has a part (in a tap routine about the youngest boy's nightmares about the electric chair--how is that for unlikeliest Broadway bit ever?) where he blows the audience away with his dancing. In addition to the boys there are other players. The Lady, as I mentioned, and then the three men who take on the traditional minstrel show roles of Interlocuter, Mr. Bones, and Mr. Tambo. They are John Cullem (50 years on Broadway!), Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon. Cullem is excellent in his various White Man parts but Domingo and McClendon would totally steal the show if Henry and Gumbs weren't so outstanding. Domingo and McClendon play a variety of versions of The Man, in the most broadly caricatured cartoonish ways, using their rubbery faces, voices and bodies to hilarious effect.
Respect also due to the magnificent orchestra shoved under the stage, the choreography and the set design, where every possible scene is set using only stacking chairs, wooden planks and tambourines. The lighting design is effective and haunting too. The songs are all good but I didn't walk away humming any of them.
So, I was glad to be made more aware of this horrific chapter in history, and thrilled by the actual performances and the bravery of the performers. It's definitely worth seeing, just not always easy to wrap your head around and in no way a purely unadulterated happy pleasure.
The first of three nights in a row with the Old 97s!!!!
I was too busy rocking out to take any notes or many pictures. And, due to my inability to stop rocking out most of the pictures I did take look like this:
(note that the band was not staying still either)
So I really don't have much to add to Carene's review. It's funny she said Hayes Carll had her from the first few notes, because it was the same for me, the first couple of notes in that space felt so right and I was thinking I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment. His sound did push a bit too far over Southern singer/songwriter into Country for my tastes. I don't think he'll ever become a favorite of mine, for that reason, but I am glad to get to see him again tonight. He's a seasoned pro up on that stage, he knows how to work a crowd and set a scene and he is quite funny. The band was hot too, and the lead guitar/lap steel player had a telecaster just like Ken's which was a great teaser for the main attraction.
When the Old 97s came on I felt strangely detached from the proceedings. Maybe it was just weird for me to be looking down at them. But we had primo placement, thanks to mine and Carene's Primo Placement Acquisition System, honed through years of practice at Bowery. It wasn't too crowded, for whatever reason, so while we did have one of the handful of tables there we could also get up and dance, which I did the minute the guys came out. At the very beginning the mic on Murry's vocals was way too low. It took until he had one of his songs in the set list for the engineer to bring them up high enough. (This wasn't Kenny, the Bowery engineer, who would never make such an error; it was the 97s' sound guy). Once things leveled out properly they sounded as wonderful as always, despite their current schedule of doing morning tv and radio at 7 or 8 and then headlining from about 10 to 12 at night.
When the tech brought out a sheet of paper late in the night I got excited because I figured it had to be a lyric sheet and that meant they had to be doing a Lennon song. And they did, and it was awesome, and as a bonus I didn't recognize it! I know the Beatles have a huge catalog but I thought I was pretty well-versed in it. Also, I love how the 97s covers sound like 97s songs. They know their sound so damn well.
The Murry song with surf guitar is Smokers, off the CD Drag It Up. It never really grabbed me on the CD but it always gets a huge response at concerts, and hearing it live is a whole other thing.
They played nearly two hours but it went by so quickly that I was shocked when they played Doreen and walked off, and again when the encore ended and I saw 12:00 on my phone. I was ready to go another couple of hours.
Waiting for the doors to open I recognized a few regulars. When Rhett asked for a show of hands on who was coming back the next night it seemed like maybe a quarter of us shot our arms up, so I expect to see them again tonight. The guys got two hours of sleep last night according to Twitter, so it will be interesting to see how much energy they have tonight.
Night two! I wastotally being lame with reviewing these shows, so thank you to Carene for hitting all the important points!
You guys, honestly, the best 97s show is the best show in the world. I loved Bruce and Pearl Jam, those were both concert-life-changing experiences, but seeing the 97s on a day like they were having yesterday, in a room like the Bowery, I'll take it over Bruce or Pearl Jam any day. (Now, if I can get Bruce or Pearl Jam at the Bowery I reserve the right to change my mind.) Right after they left the stage, at about quarter past midnight, violaleeblue blurted out "the Old 97s are THE BEST BAND IN THE WORLD!!!!" and I couldn't have expressed it better myself.
They were just so happy last night, and also so "happy" (Murry's excuse for his completely blanking his lines, so uncharacteristic), I'm not sure if it was only alcohol... but whatever, they hit the perfect balanced of being straight enough to be professional and loosened up enough to go wild with it. Ken and Murry were teasing each other, mostly via their playing, all night long. Ken was totally interacting with the crowd; a couple of times I was afraid he was going to fall over onto them. On their way out both he and Rhett shook a bunch of front row regulars' hands. The dedication of Question to Mario, and how it clearly made Rhett so delighted to have the song to sing, made that the best version of it I've ever heard live.
Ken gets friendly with the front rows:
and goes over to mess with Murry:
The excellence of the crowd has to be emphasized, too. The reason the whole sing-along thing started was because we were all so loud on Barrier Reef (I think last night was my favorite Barrier Reef ever, and that's one you hear a lot) he took a chance on not singing a line and we stepped up. So then he knew he could work it, and he did--not only did he have us take the reins for lots of Niteclub, he pushed his luck by kind of jokingly challenging us to Our Love (which has a ten dollar vocabulary, about twice the words you'd normally fit over those notes, and moves at warp speed), and I think we acquitted ourselves admirably. He kept shaking his head in amazement and yelling out "You guys ROCK!" all night long. It always feels so great to give back to a performer who gives so much. Here he is telling us how much he loves New York City during his solo encore:
Fun celebrity sighting as we were in line for the coat check afterwards: Jack McBrayer (Kenneth on 30 Rock)! He looks much more normal in person.
And if there were a world populated only by mensches Kenny would be the uberest ubermensch in the land.
Okay, too little and too late, my thoughts on the final Old 97s show:
The shorthand version is that there was a moment when everything sort of came together and I felt all warm and fuzzy and looking at them up there playing their hearts out and feeling all the love shooting back at them from the crowd, and I thought something like, this is It. Joy or bliss or love or whatever you want to call it. A medium-small club in NYC with this band playing = welcome to my happy place.
The long version is that I was pleased that Hayes Carll could keep us entertained with different banter over the 3 night stretch. He's very, very funny, but in such a sad way. He strikes me as being a deeply sad man, spiritually weary. And Bonnie Whitmore needs some styling help--she gets these great big-impact pieces and then wears them together so it's too much. But this dress was so fantastic:
Oh, my boys:
They definitely ended their stay in NYC with a bang. Music Hall of Williamsburg has these wonderful old wood floors that have a bit of spring to them; just enough that when the guys left the stage for the first encore break the audience was able to get a booming effect from stomping on the floorboards. THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! When Rhett came back out (which he did almost immediately, as if he was so excited by our response that he couldn't play cool and pretend like he was done) he was positively glowing. The set was fantastic, once again we sang along and got to take a line or two, once again Rhett barely made it through with voice enough to sing Timebomb, and once again they all played with maximum heart at a punishing pace and only seemed to get more energetic, rather than exhausted.
There was plenty of humor too. At one point Rhett said something, I forget what, that people jokingly booed, and he yelled "Don't you boo, motherfuckers!" I guess you have to be familiar with Rhett's stage persona to get why that would be so funny, but it was. Then there was the part where Rhett and Ken poked fun at the surroundings, Hipster Central, and to mess with Ken Rhett told us "he may be thought of as a caveman, but he's a genius when it comes to playing big stupid guitar notes" and Ken plucked a chord and as it hung there in the air getting bigger and stupider he gave us a 'that's right, I'm bad' look and said "Yeah, sounds good, doesn't it, hipsters?" They also joked that because there are more bands in Williamsburg than any other city "you understand when we fuck up." Which they did a fair amount, having to restart songs and forgetting lines, but it's part of their charm. There was physical humor too: at one point when he was over between Murry and Rhett Ken's string broke and I guess his cord was in front of Rhett instead of behind, so he got down on his knees and crawled under Rhett as he was singing to get the new guitar.
We all, on both sides of that stage lip, left the place buzzing on a high.
Also December 14:
And onto Teddy Thompson and friends!
I don't know why they told us the show would start at 8pm and they brought the openers out at 7:15. Kind of dickish on the part of the venue, it strikes me. But the opening band had quite a few friends in the sparse crowd already there, and they made a few new fans along the way. End of America--to me they looked super prep school, not what most people with a Preppy Guide idea of prep school would think, but there was something about them. And then they told us their name is a Kerouac reference and that totally sealed it in my mind.
Their sound was, to me, a mix of Crosby Stills & Nash with the new type of rock Broadway musical, a la Rent or Spring Awakening. Maybe, in their folkier moments, a touch of Great Big Sea. They were mostly on banjo + electric guitar + acoustic guitar and that plus the fact that none had a particularly low voice made me miss the bottom, and I am normally the last person to say a band needs more bottom. I kept longing for the guy nearest us, on acoustic, to at least thump the guitar between strums. I couldn't help thinking of how many more layers of sound and rhythm a truly great guitarist like M. Ward or JTE could be getting out of the instrument, and I thought the songs could really have used it.
Carene hadn't ever seen Teddy Thompson before, so she wasn't as taken by surprise as I was by the sunny, happy golden boy who came out on stage grinning and who, even with his dry, self-deprecating, dark British humor, seemed genuinely glad to be on stage and to be alive (although still at heart probably a glass half empty kind of guy). My impression of Thompson before that had been that he was a deeply bitter and miserable man. I would not have been shocked to hear he'd overdosed or attempted suicide, even. But not this guy! I guess he's getting laid at the moment or something. He hardly even forgot any chords or lyrics; the last time he'd screwed up song after song.
He opened with "Things I Do" and closed the encore with "In My Arms" and other than those two I didn't recognize a single song but it didn't matter because Teddy Thompson could sing me my blood test results and I'd be over the moon even as he sang that my Vitamin D was too low. His voice is so jaw-droppingly beautiful. I want him to come home with me and tell me all about his day as he brushes his teeth and I'm in the shower, and then we can get into bed and he can sing me to sleep.
The one small caveat I'd have is that I'd like him to do lots of covers. He's one of the most gifted cover-singers I'd guess there's ever been. So it was a let down for me that he only sang his own stuff. Musically it's quite catchy, he's got folky chops with a keen sense of how to write a pop hook, but lyrically it's pretty unexciting. The good moments, as in both Things and Arms, are when he really taps in to his well of despair, and judging by his upbeat manner I'm thinking this last CD was not written with enough despair.
The band was good. I wasn't sure what was up with the stunningly beautiful woman on violin/guitar/background vocals. She reminded me of my cousin's band, where let's just say the looks of the members are of a higher caliber than the musicality, at least in some instances. But the drummer was fantastic; not just a solid drummer but also a very funny guy, and his banter with Thompson was classic. City Winery has its artists do limited edition wines and puts their face on the bottle and Thompson was making fun of it, and himself, and the drummer was totally playing along. Thompson was joking about how from now on he will only dine in establishments where his face is on the wine, and the drummer suggested that he bring a first date there, and casually order the Teddy Thompson. Then later Thompson told us "I just found out that if you buy the wine with me on it I get money!" and the drummer wouldn't let him forget it for the rest of the evening, razzing him for his horrible salesman pitch skills. The running commentary while Thompson was troubleshooting tech problems was genius.
Like Carene said, we were hoping by "friends" they meant Rosanne Cash, but it was still nice to see Jenni Maurer (whom I'd seen with him at the last gig) and Martha Wainwright, who OMG is she ever her father's daughter! The stopping mid-song to explain the whole thing was hysterical.
I was so pleased to get this revised version of Teddy Thompson to take with me; it's always so much more fun to see a performer who is having fun himself, and I'm happy for him. I also took note that he is often at Rockwood. It's close enough to my apartment that it could almost feel like having him singing to me while I'm in the shower.
And finally, written on January 3:
Either last year or the year before I remember posting about how the concert-going year was ending with a bang. I'm not saying that year didn't end wonderfully--we saw several of "our boys" and discovered the Low Anthem, if I'm not mistaken. But that ain't a bang.
A bang, in case you're wondering, is Prince at Madison Square Garden with Janelle Monae opening. That, kids, is how you light the tail on fire and blow the sucker up.
I had bought the tickets as my sister's birthday present. She's been dancing on tables to Prince since she was barely out of junior high and had never seen him live. As for me, I'd always liked his songs and all, but I'd never bought anything by him. There were also a few things I found intensely irritating about him. First, the obsession not just with sex but with what struck me as the sleazier aspects of it. He's the kind of guy who would have a song called I Will Cum For You. Then there's the aggressive bastardization of the English language with the stupid texting speak decades before texts even existed. Change that hypothetical title to I Will Cum 4 U. Third, the stupid name changes, above all that ridiculous symbol. To sum up, I find him kind of tacky. So while I can't even imagine my youth without his music, I wasn't a raving fan. Even so, now that I'm going to all these live concerts I am growing more interested in what makes a great concert and there's more to it than the performer's tendency to wear assless chaps and try in all seriousness to get the world to refer to him by the signs on the unisex bathroom doors on the planet of his origin. Ask anyone who's seen Prince live and they'll say he's one of the absolute best. So, a genius at pop songwriting, performing, and playing both guitar and piano? I can live with some questionable personal taste. Factor in how pumped my sister was and I was very excited about the night.
One thing that did worry me was the fact that it was in Madison Square Garden, site of this year's epic failure, the Arcade Fire concert. I'd managed to get seats in the 200s (our seats for AF were in the 400s, for comparison), and in an "A" row, but they were at the very farthest point from the stage based on the other show setups I've seen there.
That ended up not being a problem at all, because Prince is such a master showman he designs the layout so the stage is set smack in the middle of the floor, not to one end, and fans out to each side so he can get close to everyone. Yes, all right, the stage is in the shape of the dumbass symbol, but when that means I'll get a good view I am suddenly way more supportive of that dumbass symbol. There were also 360 degrees of video screens up top so everyone could watch there, and by golly, those screens actually showed footage of the concert! including lots of close ups of his hands playing the guitar and his face as he played piano! not artsy-fartsy movies of nothing much at all! (hey, Arcade Fire and Radiohead, take notes). The signs said NO PHOTOGRAPHS and I didn't know how strict they would be with that so I took a picture of the stage before the show in case that would be all I could get. I specifically zoomed the amount to get it to look just as close as it was for us seeing it, since taking a non-zoomed picture always makes things look so much further away:
The crowd was a real departure from what I usually see at all the indie rock/Americana shows. Big majority African-American. Lots of older people. A surprising number of Russians. Not bridge and tunnel exactly, but definitely not the downtown/Williamsburg/Park Slope crowd, and a fair amount of people who seemed genuinely blue collar and not putting on some ironic act. A lot of large people, too, I mean large enough that fitting into the seats looked like a problem. In the row in front of us there were two guys who seemed to be security detail (they had little earpieces) who were dead ringers for Grizz and Dot Com on 30 Rock.
The first opening band was an R&B/hip hop band from Prince's hometown of Minneapolis, called Mint Condition. I'd never heard of them but they had some very excited fans in our section. At one point the woman next to my sister squealed out "MY BOOOOOOYYYYY!!!!" as if she were Carene at a Lucero concert. Their songs weren't really to my taste but they were up to the challenge of opening an MSG show, for sure (although while their dancing was good the lead singer's only hand/arm movement was the universal sign for jacking-off, used to accompany all manner of lyrics including ones not remotely jacking-off-related as far as I could gather). They "sampled" a few better-known artists now and then, including Snoop Dogg, which I thought was good business for a gig where you'll be introducing yourself to a sizable number of strangers. The group is Stokley Williams on lead vocals (he is also the official drummer but someone else was on drums for most of the set, unless maybe there was a drum track or something), Ricky Kinchen who was an enjoyably theatrical bass player, Homer O'Dell on guitar, Larry Waddell on piano and Jeffrey Allen on keys and sax.
Right after Mint Condition left the stage there were screams from the section directly below ours. We all looked over and holy crap, there was Prince! In the audience! Taking pictures with people! It was insane. He walked up into our area, one section over, and we joined the stampede running over to try to see him up close, but hesitated and just got jammed in a crowd of screaming fans. After the show my sister read on a fan site that it wasn't actually Prince, it was some jerk named Marcus who shows up to all Prince's gigs dressed as Prince. From the little we could see he's almost a dead ringer for him, and all the people right next to him seemed to think it was the actual Prince. He's the guy in white in the lower center of the shot:
The second opener was Janelle Monae, who has exploded fully-formed on the scene this year and whom I was very excited to see. This was one of five or six Prince concerts in New York and New Jersey this month and each one would have a different special guest, and the second I saw the list I hoped the day I picked would be Janelle Monae day, so I was thrilled when my wish came true.
Unfortunately her set was all too short, only about five songs. She's a hellaciously talented singer and performer and a perfect fit for Prince; she's got a strong personal style (hair in a pompadour, very high waisted black pants, white shirt, spectator shoes) and a strong theatrical bent. A man in a cape and a giant top hat came out to introduce her, then a short film introducing the central conceit of the show, that she is an alien or an android or something, played on the screens. Under cover of darkness and smoke the band came out, including three horn players, two backup singers, and three Grim Reapers. Monae's glorious voice belted out but I couldn't figure out where she was, until about halfway through the first song when she flung off one of the grim reaper robes and revealed herself. And then there's the dancing. She's been on most of the late night shows with her hit Tightrope, including either The Daily Show or Colbert, so you might have seen her distinctive moonwalk-meets-twist steps. She moonwalk-twisted all over that stage, too. It was particularly genius staging that the remaining Grim Reapers were about as amateurish as the rest of her show was polished. They sort of moped around and "melted" to the floor at some point. As I said they did about five songs, including Tightrope, yay!, and a cover of Smile (Though Your Heart is Breaking) that was relatively stripped of gimmicks and orchestration so we could all get the full effect of her vocal gifts. I was disappointed when it ended (and bitter that the android movie took up time that might have been used to squeeze in one more song). But it's so much better to leave 'em wanting more than to outstay your welcome.
Prince came on at 9:00, in a purple ruffly shirt and tight pants, just like you'd want him to be. The first song was a dramatic The Beautiful Ones, with just him on piano and some woman in a long ruffly white dress dancing seductively around the stage and onto the piano and back around the stage.
After that, he left the stage, only to emerge momentarily on a little elevator thingie in the middle of the symbol, armed with a guitar and... KAPOW! a medley (but not so truncated you felt cheated on hearing the whole songs): Let's Get Crazy, Delirious, and 1999. The satisfaction factor cannot be overstated. He could so easily say he's retiring the older stuff but he has utter respect for the fans. And the fans were LOVING it. I will say that I did find it strange how many people (by which I mean the two people on the end of almost every row in our immediate section) weren't up and dancing by that point (naturally my sister and I were on our feet and screaming from the instant he appeared on stage--even if you have a beef with the guy his charisma is so off the charts). I get Grizz and Dot Com, they're too cool for dancing and maybe even being considerate of the people behind them who are statistically all but guaranteed to be shorter than them by a head, but everyone else? Unspeakably lame. How you can be listening to Prince and not be on your feet shaking what your momma gave you I just don't know. There was also a massive four-pronged blast of purple confetti from cannons on either end of the stage. And then after that, when we were reeling with the awesomeness? Little Red Corvette!
The set list was so perfectly constructed it belongs in a museum somewhere. Here it is (although he didn't do Controversy at the end, but more about that later):
Raspberry Beret! Cream! Purple Rain! Kiss! The only one off the list of my hope-to-hears that didn't make it was When Doves Cry. The first set was a booty-blasting dance party until he slowed it down and did this version of The ? Of U (gah with the bad English!!!) that had all these lyrics about not being able to catch the Gingerbread Man, and a lyric that went something like "you're standing over a puddle/Jump on my hips and help me play guitar" that got the entire room gasping, even puritanical prudish little me. It was mindblowingly good. He brought up a woman from the audience who danced around the stage with him, always a good thing, and this one could dance and had the attitude to play to an arena crowd. Then into Purple Rain to end it off.
(Right after I took that photo some guy came by and tapped me and told me to stop. He then took some other woman's card or whatever it's called from her phone?camera? But meanwhile all around us people were taping and taking flash photos all night. I held off for a while and then took a few more at the end.)
After a short break, he rose up again in a red sequined top and red pants that, while not assless, left very little to the imagination. The top was cropped and so everything was on display. Quite a daring move for a man who was born when Eisenhower was president. And even though I don't find him physically attractive I can't deny that for a man who is in his 50s he's in remarkable shape. That goes for it all: the body, the playing, the voice. I couldn't get enough of watching the close-ups of him shredding the procession of guitars (including a golden one). His hands danced up and down the strings. And the singing! At any age to have the range he showed would be remarkable, but to still have all the low notes and be able to sing beautifully for an entire song in falsetto at his age is practically a miracle. He dances like a twenty year old, too. He's a showman and he's got charisma but in no way is that substituting for any deficiencies of actual talent. He's a freak of nature and more than any performer I've ever seen seems born to be on a big stage. He didn't do much patter, but did make jokes about the just-ended blizzard -- "We're from Minnesota, we're not afraid of a little snow!" -- and made lots of shout outs to NYC.
The first encore started with a Blazing version of Kiss, easily a highlight of the night, which was part of another medley. Instead of "Dynasty" he subbed in "You don't have to watch The L Word." Then Janelle Monae came up for the final song of the medley, which pleased me. It was so much fun to see the two of them playing off each other onstage. After that he slowed things down again for another round of piano songs, including a devastating version of I Wanna Be Your Lover. The audience was singing along at the tops of our lungs and in every close up of his face he was beaming like it was the first time that had ever happened to him. At the end of that, with Sometimes It Snows In April, there was a confetti shower.
The final encore wasn't Controversy, it was Jungle Love (by The Time), for which he brought up a whole stage full of people, including Monae and the woman from before, and also a very patrician looking woman with white hair, a goofy guy who looked like he'd come from a plumbing gig, several more expected types (young women out of a Benetton ad). Prince even asked some to come up and take a turn on the chorus's "oh ee oh ee oh"s. First there was one he introduced but I didn't recognize, who sounded professional. From googling I guess it was Egypt Sherrod? Then he said what sounded like "We even got moms up here!" and another woman with crazy strawberry blond hair took the mic and it was like the heavens opened and we could hear the angels BELTING their lungs out. Something about her was oddly familiar. Then he said "ladies and gentleman, Cyndi Lauper!" and it made perfect sense. When she wasn't singing she was dancing, and good lord was that woman possessed by the spirit of the music! She was rocking her ass off up there. Prince was begging other people to come up but only one did and she was just a regular audience member and understandably kind of crumpled with stage fright or being overwhelmed. Prince thanked her but then not taking any more chances he said, in a sweet little voice, "I really liked Cyndi! Can we get Cyndi back?" so she came back up to the mic and belted out the most gorgeous scatting kind of riffs and it was glorious. That's pretty much how it ended, nearly two hours after it began, with Prince's Big Dance Party Featuring Cyndi Lauper.
What more can I say? If you get a chance to see this guy, no matter what he asks you to call him, do it. I have now seen him live, and I say he's one of the absolute bests. End of the year with a BANG, bitches!
Whoa. That is awesome and fantastic. I am green with envy. (Also, great to see you here!)
Tee hee hee.
Your reference to Great Big Sea in one of the reviews made me realize I never posted about seeing them way back in September! I've seen GBS a bunch of times because they play Buffalo and Rochester pretty regularly. I am a huge fan of the Newfoundland/Nova Scotia Celtic-y sound and GBS are one of my favorites. The previous few times I'd seen them, it had been outside, on the river in Buffalo, and while the sound was decent at these shows, there were so many people that it was hard to really connect with the band. So I was pleased that they came to Rochester and played the German House, which is the same place I saw Diana Jones, Rhett Miller and Bottle Rockets in June. The guys all seemed to be in great moods that night, and Alan Doyle especially was quite chatty and silly. He said they knew they'd been away from Rochester for awhile and they were going to repay us with a great show and long sets (no opener, either, which I have to say is nice for a weeknight show). Also, I so love the way "Rochester" sounds when Alan says it. That Maritime/Newfoundland accent is so divine. I can hear it in my head right now as I type this. Sean McCann was sporting a short haircut and wearing an argyle-type sweater, which I thought was so funny. He looks GREAT with the short hair, though.
Since it's been so long, I couldn't really give an accurate list of what they played, but I know for sure "Sea of No Cares," "Ordinary Day," "Concerning Charlie Horse," and "The Mermaid" were in there. I love how they stay so connected to the roots both by playing traditional tunes and by writing their own songs in those traditional styles. They can go from something like "River Driver" to "Consequence Free" to "Helmet Head" and it all works together. And I love that when they play "Helmet Head" (which is a hockey song) in Buffalo, Alan always gives some kind of shoutout to Sabres fans, and here in Rochester he gives a shoutout to our local AHL team (one step below NHL), the Amerks. That song cracks me up as well. I took a video of it at this show, but when I played it later, realized that I could hear myself singing. DELETE.
In other news, Old 97s are coming to Rochester in April and I'm so, so excited!! Finally, my chance to see the whole band! Justin Townes Earle is in Buffalo in February and I'm hoping to go to that one, but it's a Monday night, so it will really depend on the weather. I'm crossing my fingers that he'll add a Rochester show the day before the Buffalo show, but looking at the tour schedule, I'm not that hopeful.
Old 97s AND JTE, wooooooo! I hope GBS come to NYC someday. I don't know much of their oeuvre but the couple of songs I've listened to obviously stayed with me, since I use them for reference. I'd very much like to see them live.
Speaking of JTE, I hope y'all watched Letterman last night! If not:
I'm kvelling so hard I think I sprained something.
Thanks for the awesome write up of the Prince concert, rtb. He toured Australia in 1992 and I saw him 2 nights in a row, they are still some of the best concerts I have ever seen.
Last Friday I took advantage of the American Folk Art Museum's Free Music Friday program. The two acts playing in the museum's ground floor space were Joe Whyte and The Loom. The main current exhibition, part of which was on the walls of that space, was The Year of the Quilt.
Folk music in the folk art museum is a genius idea, even though as I mentioned in the arts thread I end up paying less attention to both the music and the art than I would if they were separate.
Joe Whyte is a folk singer-songwriter who accompanied himself on guitar and harmonica. He's a dead ringer for the actor who plays Morgan on the tv show Chuck:
His musicianship was good and his songs had a nice, rootsy, sitting-on-the-porch-of-a-small-town feel. A review of him that I read compared him to Justin Townes Earle and I would not go that far. He doesn't have nearly the star quality, and his voice has less character. None of his melodies or lyrics stuck with me, beyond a vague memory that one or more were about going to war in a way that could have made them about any conflict going back to the civil war. But if you don't compare him to one of the best live performers I'll probably ever see, he wasn't bad. Even so I couldn't sit still because I wanted to see more of the art and so I only heard half of his set as it echoed up the stair well while I looked at quilts.
I went back down to give The Loom a try. By then the crowd had increased exponentially. They took a long time setting up (four guys, two women, between them all a full drum kit, banjo, a couple guitars, bass guitar, ukulele, keyboards, mandolin, other percussion, trumpet and French horn, possibly harmonica too but I forget--it's a lot to coordinate in a small museum lobby). I hadn't ever heard of them but the post advertising this gig was illustrated in a manner I recognized immediately as the work of Daytrotter. Daytrotter records (and provides downloads of) pretty much all the B-list (and sometimes A- and C-) indie rock and Americana acts you could hope for, so that was a promising sign.
The members are John Fanning, Lis Rubard, Sarah Renfro, Alex Greiner, Jon Alvarez, and Dan Desloover, and they're not exactly breaking new ground in terms of the look of a Brooklyn indie folk rock outfit. Lackadaisical grooming on the part of the men; small dark-framed glasses; plaid flannel; nerds who respect lumberjacks although they probably couldn't lift an axe themselves. On the one hand I felt comfortable and as though I knew I would like what would happen, on the other I thought, jesus, not this again.
It turns out that once the music starts the band is able to differentiate themselves somewhat, although they did have echoes of Okkervil River and the Low Anthem. The songs also had that same reworked-Appalachian-classics feel of Among the Oak and Ash. They don't have the energy and exuberance of either AtOaA or OR, and no one in the group has the grab-you-and-hook-you-in charisma of Will Sheff, but instead they've got an eerie restraint that is quite effective. In addition they bring in a much jazzier vibe through the trumpet and French horn (both played by Lis Rubard) than Okkervil's Scotty Brackett brings with the cornet or the Low Anthem gets from any of the types of horns they work with. While I was glad there was this jazz element to set the Loom's music apart, when it comes down to it I prefer the bands that are less jazzy, but that's just me. The lead male singer has a vocal style that's not unlike the National's Matt Berninger, but he doesn't have as deep a voice and so they aren't as compelling on that level either. Nor did any of their songs stick with me for half a week, but I do remember being drawn into a few of them while I was there. Then I was distracted about being very tired and hungry and wanting to go home so I bailed before they finished their set.
Overall it was an intriguing concert and I'd be happy to see either act again. I wouldn't go to a show where they were headlining, but I can easily see them opening for many of my favorite bands and I'd be glad to see them in that context and hopefully have a chance to give their work my full attention.
A little over two years ago, Carene and I were seeing a band in a tiny basement bar without a real stage for about $5. The teenagers who were there to see another group in the lineup talked over the band's quiet, tentative performance. We had only learned of them maybe a week before when they opened for the singer the two of us and violaleeblue had gone to the Bowery to see. A real stage and more respectful audience, but they still were shaky and uncharismatic and got talked over there too, but the three of us heard something amazing (and their CDs showed just how magical the music could be), and ever since we've made sure to catch them wherever they've gone, from Joe's Pub to the Bell House back to the Bowery (this time headlining) and Prospect Park's outdoor concert series. Little by little they've relaxed into their high-speed ascent and they've really grown into their chops. It has been so much fun to watch.
And so last night the three of us went to the Jazz @ Lincoln Center complex in the Time Warner Center to see the little ol' Low Anthem play in The Allen Room, where they completely owned a large room with a multi-story glass window giving them the most spectacular backdrop imaginable, and one that was a thrilling contrast to their rootsy sound: New York City at night. We weren't allowed to take photographs so I'm going to poach some of the ones on Brooklyn Vegan, because to do this concert justice requires visuals. The Allen Room is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
It's also jaw-droppingly great in terms of the sound, thanks in no small part to a former boss of Carene's, so vlb and I got some nifty backstory and backstage dirt in addition to the show. When the band came out Ben, who has finally developed into a charismatic frontman--so nice to see it can be a learned skill--told us the Lincoln Center people had worked all day with the band to get the sound just right and by god, the work paid off. Every little quirk of every one of their quirky instruments rose and fell in the flow of the sound. The balance, the depth, the texture, the tone; it all came together in a perfect picture, just like their amazing CDs. As mismatched as the slick urban setting was to their look, that's how perfectly matched the sound of the room was to their arrangements.
They opened with To the Ghosts Who Write History Books, and afterwards Ben explained that they were going to be taking the chance to play every single track off their upcoming CD, many for the first time ever. Not only did they look stronger and more charismatic up there than they ever have before, their previous timidity and nervousness was gone and they were, simply, happy. Full-on joy from each one. Jeff has always been an ear-to-ear grinner in their shows but Ben and Jocie were always so serious and even anxious. Not last night, particularly not Ben, who couldn't keep the smile off his face. More and more I'm so thrilled they added Mat, whose vocals fill out their harmonies so well and who plays all the instruments they already had in rotation and brought in the saw, a great addition.
The new stuff sounded wonderful. I, and the rest of the crowd by the sound of it, particularly loved a 60s protest kind of rowdy rocker called "Hey, All You Hippies!" After the raucous applause for that one died down Ben made his only allusion to the considerably-older-than-usual audience, saying, "Some of you remember the sixties!" One gentleman answered "Vaguely!" and got a few laughs. Some of the new songs have been in their live rotation a while. I'm still not a big fan of "I'll Take Out Your Ashes" but this was the most I've ever liked it. Apothecary Love has always worked well and like everything else worked even better this time around. I didn't take notes on the set list but we were given a song list afterwards. Not everything on there was played and I don't know the names of all the new songs so I can't make a completely accurate list but I am pretty sure this would be close (just not in order).
Ghost Woman Blues
Love and Altar
Matter of Time
Hey, All You Hippies!
I'll Take Out Your Ashes
Home I'll Never Be
To the Ghosts Who Write History Books
Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From
This God Damn House
This God Damn House was the encore and Ben had us do the cell phone trick. It sounded soooooo great in that space and when it was just the bizarre keening and chirping and we were all looking out at the city, man was it incredible.
One of the new songs, I don't know which, was an instrumental for three clarinets. Everyone else got off stage except for Jocie and two scruffy guys with clarinets joined her. It was haunting and I could see Ben sitting cross legged on the floor beaming with delight. When the song was over and he came back onstage he couldn't contain himself and gave her a huge bear hug, then explained to us that they'd never heard it live before.
Other than those two guys (whom Jocie forgot to introduce/thank until a few songs later) the band was augmented by two horn players and their "best friend" who played occasional percussion and shakers. Then there was Steve, Ben's little brother, who was drafted into grinding their second pump organ. They normally play with a very small one, and apparently an organ repairman saw them and offered, as a gift, a larger pump organ he'd been given by a church. Obviously they can't tour with a giant pump organ so this was the first (and, Ben suspected, probably the last) time they would be playing a show with it. Mat and Jocie both played it, together and separately, on a couple of songs. Jocie would swing her legs like a little girl when she was sitting at it. The sound was fantastic. After Steve left the stage Ben said "thank you for doing that demeaning task."
I don't think I could remember all the instruments they switched up among themselves, but I can try: guitar (acoustic and electric), bass guitar, upright bass, drums, shakers, jew's harp, violin, harmonica, french or flugel-horn, trumpets, clarinets, crotales, saw, small pump organ, large pump organ, hammer dulcimer, and cell phones.
From $5 in the basement at Fontana's to $45 at Lincoln Center in just two years (and we were in the cheap seats!)! Ben apologized about the expense but then swept his arm across, gesturing at the stage, and said "We're going to give you your organ's worth." That they did. I'm sure they will have many more "special" concerts, and I hope to get to as many as possible, but I'm sure that no matter what they go on to do this will still go down as one of the coolest shows of the band's career and I feel so lucky to have been there for it.
The Low Anthem: Allen Room in J@LC 13 January 2011
This was my first time at any of the rooms at Jazz at Lincoln Center and The Allen Room lives up to the hype. It’s a beautiful room with a glass wall behind the stage looking out over 59th Street and Central Park. The sound is gorgeous. violaleeblue, rtb, and I could hear every sung whisper, the highest notes on the saw, and the lowest notes on the upright bass. The sightlines are good – it’s set up like an amphitheater and we were sitting on the upper sides above the stage in the second of two rows. The chairs on our row were higher than the chairs in front of us but nothing helps when you’re short. Luckily there was no one behind us so I could stand and get a very good view of the stage. My only complaint would be the CNN date/temperature sign. It’s so bright that you can’t help but keeping looking up at it. Maybe if it was still the MONY sign I’d be less bothered – after all that sign inspired a song.
Before the show we had dinner at Kashkaval, a nice tapas Mediterranean restaurant. But better than the food was the conversation. The three of us see each other a lot and we email each other every day. But we hadn’t seen each other since December and, unbelievably, we had plenty to talk about – life, love, politics, and music. I think one of the best things about my late 40s and early 50s is that I’ve forged female friendships as strong as, if not stronger, than the ones I made in my teens and 20s.
But we’re here to discuss The Low Anthem, who was at the Allen Room as part of the American Songbook series. rtb mentioned the other day that one of her ‘I knew them when’ concerts would be when we saw The Low Anthem just a little over a year ago in a Lower East Side basement for $5. And it was so much fun to see the joy and smiles on Ben Knox Miller’s and Jeff Prystowsky’s faces – you knew that they were thinking about how far they’d come. This was a real concert room with over 400 people. Along with Jocie Adams and new member Mat Davidson, the band did what it always does - switching instruments for every song. While watching them do this round robin on stage you can also see the conversation as they decide what song they’re playing next. The instruments they play include acoustic and electric guitars, acoustic and electric basses, crotales, saw, pump organs, banjo, drums, clarinet, fiddle, horns, harmonium, harmonica, and hammered dulcimer. The only instrument not used last night was the harmonium and they had help from others – two horn players came on stage for two songs and for “Ghost Woman Blues” one of the horns played from the audience for a lovely eerie affect. The song was a capella except for the breaks with Jocie on clarinet and the horn from afar.
Another new song was an instrumental – two men joined Jocie with their clarinets and while everyone else left the stage (Ben sat on the floor in rapture) the trio played. When Ben returned to the stage he gave Jocie a big hug and told us he’d never heard the song played live for an audience. Jocie never introduced the song and was embarrassed to remember to name the men later in the set. Her shyness is adorable and it’s all the more amazing when you hear her belt out her part in “Home I’ll Never Be.”
One of the things that always shone through about The Low Anthem is the etherealness of their music – no matter how crowded or noisy the venue or how rocking the song there was always this lightness and joy that washes over you. This venue gave them the opportunity to shine in a way that’s never happened before. Since their new album is coming out next month most of the show was devoted to the new songs but they opened with a familiar one – “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books” – and when you heard Jocie’s and Jeff’s whispered harmonies under Ben’s vocals you knew that this was going to be a special night.
Another interesting instrument was the big pump organ. They had their regular smaller pump organ but Lincoln Center paid to move a larger church pump organ that had been given to them as a gift. Ben’s brother came on stage to do the pumping.
Everyone was dressed as you’d imagine – Jocie had on a pretty dress and boots and the guys were dressed down in work shirts and beaten up hats. Their outfits match the songs, which are real traditional, modern American roots, blues, and gospel.
Other new songs included “Apothecary Love,” “Hey, All You Hippies,” and “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes.” Familiar songs included “Ticket Taker,” “Cigarettes and Whiskey,” and “Sally Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?” They closed the set with “Charlie Darwin” and encored with “This God Damn House.” Before the show there was the usual announcement about cell phones but we were told to keep them close and all would be explained. When Ben told people what to do there was a lot of laughter. This made me happy because we had an audience who may have been familiar with their cds but was unfamiliar with their live act. The night ended with the feedback ringing of over a hundred phones.
The first time we saw them - before the start of "This God Damn House" Ben asked an audience member for his phone. He called one phone with other and had both on speaker. This causes feedback. Then he whistled into the phones and made more enchanting sounds.
I don't know if return audience members started doing it on their own or if Ben later started instructed people so that they wouldn't do it until the end of the song. rtb and I have done it at two of their concerts (I didn't have my phone with me last night). In the audience you pair up, one dials the other, both phones are on speaker, and you 'play' your phones. As you bring them closer and further back they trill and squeak and feedback.
Try it with a friend.