Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Green River Festival 2017 - Saturday

Not that bad a sleep on the small beds at the Rose, and a beautiful morning greeted us.  Soon enough we were out on the front stoop, eating peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, drinking iced tea, drying stuff on car hoods, discussing whom we'd seen the night before, and talking about strategy for the day.

In the past we'd tried to fit in breakfast before the Festival, but we realized that it would be better to eschew that in favor of an early start, and hence the PB&B.  We planned to leave at 10.  In the meantime, Paul wanted to talk jobs, Sarah wanted to talk house, Tristan wanted to talk smack, and the kids are getting a little closer to listening to their parents and weird friends like normal people.  Is it strange to be so motivated by seeing great music acts?  Sure, but there are a lot of stranger things around.  Anyway, they all got down to the pool by around 10 and we got packed and on the road,  P&D were not going to be far behind us.

Took the Old Greenfield Road route again.  It had been a very rainy and temperate Spring and early Summer, and the greenery everywhere was wonderful, especially in the woods over the ridge West of Greenfield.  Twisting streams delineated the sides of the roads, gorges filled with ferns tailed off to our left and right as we twisted uphill, and the lilies were a delight, springing up in patches ranging from 10 to 100 in patches of light over the hills.  We headed down into town and finally under the highway and into suburbia.  Colrain Road appeared in front of us, and we took a left and were soon in a line of cars approaching the circle at the entrance to the Greenfield Community College.

OK, this was a bit of a traffic clusterfuck, and the Greenfield cops soon realized their traffic control techniques were just making things worse.  It was around 10:30 and when we got up to the circle we were told (as all of the other non-vendor cars had been) that the gates weren't opening until 11 and we should go away.  We let Sarah out at that point of course, and she walked into the college to get in line.  I turned around and then parked on the shoulder behind several other cars, patiently waiting our turn (Dave got out and walked at that point too).

But soon the cops tried to wave us on, telling us that we were blocking emergency access.  It wasn't *us* on the shoulder blocking access, it was all the cars on the road waiting to be told to go away!  I tried to explain this to the cop who was waving us on, and what could he say but, "I don't know what to tell you sir."  As I say, they realized they were participating in a clusterfuck and soon just gave up and let us in (after I'd pulled onto the shoulder on the other side of the circle).  Oh well, everyone involved kept their sense of humor and soon we were in in a reasonable simulacrum of the order in which we arrived.

Parked in the same good spot as the night before and soon joined Sarah and Dave in the rapidly growing line and slathered on the sunscreen.  Saturday was long sold-out (not sure if Friday and Sunday ever reached sellout numbers) and the place was swarming with people by noon.  LSD's bus pulled in around then, and they let us in soon after that.  We hurried up to the same old spot and managed to plant our chairs just in time, though one guy we'd met before had the chair closest to the conduit in our row.  P&D showed up soon afterwards and we were able to squeeze them in too.

OK, time for beer wristbands (and a beer) and to check out the setting-up-in-a-frenzy food vendors.  I resumed my seat and was watching people, wearing my Dead & Company Fenway 2016 t-shirt and wishing I had a lighter color on ... the day showed promise of getting blisteringly hot and the fringes of the field in the shade were already packed.  Everywhere was filling up, and the organizers asked us over the PA to be considerate and not take up any more room than we needed.

Then a volunteer security guy started staring at me, and came a little closer, and stared some more, then moved in to say something.  I wondered what I was doing wrong!  He leaned in and said, "Saturday or Sunday?" and I told him, "Both!"  I realized instantly that this was a fellow Deadhead and we gushed about the Saturday and Sunday shows at Fenway the month before (though I was wearing a 2016 t-shirt).  In true Deadicated fashion he rhapsodized about what a special moment it was for him when they played Ripple on the acoustics.  It's wonderful how music can be so meaningful to people if you just listen.  This was Steve and he was around the next day too ... we told him to feel free to use our seats when we weren't there and he did, and joined us in some crazy dancing to JRAD the next night.

Yeeha, time for the show to start!  First up was Dan Bern (with a fiddler and drummer), who tempered our enthusiasm a bit.  He seemed to think that caricature was the important thing to his act, specifically seeming like a cross between Woody Guthrie, Dylan, and a few other folk singers.  Wasn't this why people listened to folk music?  Anyway, I'm sure he was a hit later at the kids' tent.

I was off to the Four Rivers Stage soon anyway, bound to hear Hammydown, who'd impressed me some with her videos.  Abbie Morin was holding forth on a borrowed guitar and had a bass player and drummer and they played some angry-young-woman indie stuff, that was pretty good.  Someone finally fixed Abbie's guitar and she wailed some great stuff on it when she got it in her hands.  All in all this was fun, but the really good stuff was still to come.

I left soon before Hammydown's set was over and caught a bit of Dietrich Strausse & Blue Ribbons over in the Parlor Room tent.  I'd seen him before, opening for Lorrie McKenna, and was totally unimpressed.  But the Blue Ribbons seems to be a good, traditional blues outfit and his turns on piano were very nice.  Might have liked to see more of them.

Back up on the Main Stage and realized I'd better eat something before the really good stuff started.  Crammed down a bean burrito from the excellent La Veracruzana people and enjoyed a few songs from The Suitcase Junket while doing so.  I'd been in the merch tent when Matt Lorenz had arrived with his crew, one of them proffering a large valise.  He was met with blank stares except by me, who said, "That's the biggest SUITCASE I've ever seen."  He slapped me five and said to the tent in general, "See, THIS guy got it at least!"  Matt's put out a new record recently and if I hadn't seen him before and knew what to expect, I would have been riveted by his set.  He's the real thing and definitely plays the good stuff ... by himself.

But I had a mission.  Up soon on the Parlor Room stage was going to be Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams and I, everyone in our group, and maybe hordes of the other Deadheads at the GRF, were determined to see their whole set.  Of course, we've seen Larry with Levon Helm, Phil Lesh, David Bromberg, Richard Shindell, et al.  And Teresa is not lacking in talent either to put it mildly.

So after listening to a few tunes from the hill, I insinuated myself into the back of the crowd clustered around the end of the center aisle during The Sweetback Sisters' set and slowly moved closer and closer as people bailed.  The Sweetbacks were as great as Friday night of course (mostly a repeat set), but people were milling and before I knew it I was in position to grab a seat, then row-hop up to the front as seats became vacant.  At the end of the set I moved up to the second row on the aisle, where I was soon joined by Sarah, Dave, and P&D.

I've got to say some negative things about the Parlor Room stage setup they had.  This stage has changed a lot over the years from a small kids tent to the great open setup they had the last few years, though that left the performers and the audience mostly exposed to the weather.  The beast setup for this stage would be to take advantage of the slope between it and the Main Stage area and make it into a quasi-amphitheater (though there's a muddy area they'd have to worry about).

They certainly had the speakers to do that this year, those were some big stacks and I was drooling over them.  But for people sitting on the hill the sound was loud but muffled, and sightlines were terrible.  They'd put a low, rectangular tent over the stage area and crowded it with uncomfortable plastic seats.  For the people inside the tent (if you could ignore the cramps in your ass and legs), the sound was fantastic, but unless you were in there or crowded close enough around the edges, this was a bad setup.  I say open it up again and go back to taking advantage of the topography to make a nice experience for everyone.  Maybe they will, they seem to put a lot of thought into things like this and happened to get it wrong this year, can't be right every time.

And part of it was that the whole GRF was a throbbing mass of people by that point.  The weather was beautiful, the show was sold out, and the Festival was going at full tilt.  No balloons yet actually (possibility of thunderstorms?), but they came later.

And the Deadheads were there, as predicted!  I saw an incredible variety of Grateful Dead/spinoff t-shirts, even more than you see at GD shows themselves.  I didn't see anyone else with the Fenway 2016 shirt that day, but the next day I wore my Golden Gate Wingmen shirt (Jeff Chimenti was playing!) and I saw two other people with that rare shirt.

Another thing about the Parlor Room stage was that over the last few years, it's been at the entrance to the designated pot smoking area (as we call it).  This year that field was roped off and guarded (by volunteers), possibly to discourage people from going over there to smoke, or possibly to discourage locals sneaking in that way.  But pot is now legal in Massachusetts and people sure took advantage of that fact.  There was the smell of weed everywhere throughout the grounds, and several over-enthusiastic smokers at the Main Stage offered to share their pipes, though we sometimes had kids with us.  Oh well, you have to experience the world sometime.  And it was nice of them to share.

Where was I?  Oh yeah, Larry came on in his usual denim shirt and jeans, though he must have been a little warm.  Teresa had a sensible loose top and jeans herself.  They were accompanied by a bass player (who looked familiar) and a drummer, lit into their first tune, and immediately brought the level of music at the Festival right up to the top, they were fantastic.

Larry switched between guitar, mandolin, and fiddle of course, while Teresa strummed the rhythm and the bassist and drummer grinned and grinned.  Their second song was one of the best covers of the Louvin's You're Running Wild that I've ever heard live, they later did a sparkling version of Larry's Midnight Highway, and they did almost as good a cover of Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning as when we saw them with Phil in Port Chester.  Here's Teresa gathering herself to kill the last few verses:

And of course they upped the ante laid down by the Sweetbacks with their "Cry Cry" song by singing "Cry, Cry, Cry!"  Though that stage area was hot and cramped and uncomfortable, the sound and playing was amazing and the tunes were rocking.  I was transported and could have watched them play for a long, long time.  They didn't do some tunes I'd hoped for (Did You Love Me At All, When I Go Away), but what they did play was so stellar that my whole consciousness was centered on them.  This was great stuff!

OMG, they ended too soon (Larry pointed to my shirt and gave me the thumbs up) and we all turned and gawked at each other ... how lucky were we to be in the front rows for a set like that in the middle of such a fantastic Festival?  And the best was yet to come.  But fuck sitting around, time to run up to the Main Stage for ...

San Fermin (named after the running of the bulls tradition in Spain??)!  I'd seen them on YouTube and loved them, they're kind of jazzy, kind of soulful, kind of avant garde, and entirely entertaining.  This was a real change of pace and perhaps their thoughtful, you-have-to-stick-with-it vibe was not the best for the cusp of the Saturday show, but they're really good and I loved what I heard.

BUT (I say again), after some listening and some hydration it was time to run back to the Four Rivers Stage for one of the bands I most wanted to see, Tank and the Bangas!  I had heard the name but hadn't heard the band until I did my YouTube research, and they blew me away.  They won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest unanimously (quite an achievement), and they spin a mix of NOLA funk-soul, hip-hop, R&B, pop, rock, whatever, that is really intoxicating.

Tarriona Ball (Tank) has an amazing voice and amazing control of it, she can go from baby talk to soul screeching to R&B honesty and right back in half a second and does that over and over until your mouth is hanging open.  And the rest of the band is made up of incredibly versatile and talented musicians as well, such as her backup singer Anjelika Joseph and drummer and Joshua Johnson on drums

Perhaps the live venue was not as ambient an atmosphere as is needed for them to really weave their spell, but they sure had us and the biggest crowd at the Four Rivers Stage that I've ever seen rocking and jiving and just hanging on Tank's every word, and she sure had a lot of them, piled on top of each other.

Another note on the crowd: as I say it was jammed at the bottom of the fields, as it was up on the main field.  You could tell that people had come in through the gate, had literally nowhere to set up, and so had migrated downhill.  Many people were camped out there for the duration with their blankets and coolers ... they'd given up on the uphill areas ... and this meant that the downhill area was overtaxed.  The lines for the porta-potties and beer were incredibly long, stretching to the horizon, and at one point I went back uphill to take a piss and then returned, and made out better than the people who were still in line downhill.

Ack!  So much to do!!  Tank went into her tour de force, Rollercoasters, and I knew that would be the last song of their set, so screwed for our seats uphill, where I re-hydrated, gobbled down some more fine food from La Veracruzana, and caught a tune of Amadou & Mariam, a Malian group.  And then it was right back down to the Four Rivers Stage for one of the headliners in my mind, Pokey LaFarge.

Pokey's got a new record out and they played a bunch of tunes from that (opening with Riot In the Streets of course).  He's a bit more concerned with instrumentation over the past few records, and I prefer the more raw sounds of a few years ago, but he's still just a dynamic singer and performer, and he plays one of those smooth rhythm guitars that make your whole body move in mysterious ways.

He had a lot of people on stage, seemingly, but I was right in front of Ryan Koenig and he was rocking the harmonica and backup vocals.  I was lucky to have timed it right to get up front for them, which had been impossible for Tank and the Bangas.  That was another measure of how crowded it was that day and how crowded the Festival has gotten: you used to be able to sneak up front for the act(s) you really wanted to see, but now there are people packed in everywhere and you've got to really time things exactly to make it to the front.

Geez, the day was getting on and after Pokey I dragged up back to the seats and settled in for the rest of the evening.  Nothing was going to make me move, especially when Houndmouth (another band I was looking forward to) came on and did a long set of excellent indie rock, heavy on the guitars, the horns, and the drums, just the way I like it.

Time for the last set, and though I never left my seat, I stood up and looked around at the subtle colors in the late evening sky, the amazing rainbow of the crowd, and the balloon illuminations going on down below.  Up on the stage the boffins were scurrying around, getting things ready for ... oh yeah, Lake Street Dive!

Even if you've been under a rock for the last few years you must have heard of these guys and if you haven't, just a little taste will have you begging for more.  They play some of the catchiest songs I've ever heard, mostly originals, and have a style that exposes every note they play and harmony they pile on top.  Mike Olson's trumpet playing can be criticized, but besides that they are over-the-top excellent in all aspects of what they do.  And they're Boston products!  They met at the New England Conservatory (we'd seen them perform there this past winter), and spent more than 10 years slaving away in Boston bars before making it big.

They came out like the huge band they are, spread out to all corners of the stage and backlit by spotlights, with Rachael Price wearing her most shimmery dress.

They opened with the incredible Bad Self Portraits, and had the GRF crowd in the palms of their hands.  Here's some other songs they played:  Spectacular Failure, How Good It Feels, Mistakes, Seventeen, Side Pony, Call Off Your Dogs, etc.  They did George Michael's Faith early in the set and Paul McCartney's Let Me Roll It for an encore, but besides that stuck to originals.  They didn't do any of the new originals I've heard online ... can't wait for them to release those, or Prince's When You Were Mine, that had knocked me out at NEC.

In the latter part of the set they clustered around the mike (no pun intended) for some slower songs, and then opened it up again for the last few and the encore.  What showmen and what a band!

Well, that was some fun!  We were feeling fine and had just had a long, long day of music.  We took our time getting out of there but even so, and even though we had a great parking space, we would have had to tag along with a long, slow line of cars to get out of the lots.  So we set up the chairs again and had another beer and chilled some more.  Several people honked at us, like hey, they're just sitting there having a good time, that could be us!

Finally saddled up and were lucky to be going right out to the West while everybody else was going left to the highway.  Made it back to the Red Rose with no trouble at all and this time we had a long session out at the picnic tables in the cool Western Massachusetts night.  There was a lot to talk about!

So that was at least a bit of 12 bands for me, basically running around (and sitting) from 12:45 to 10:45.  Sunday looked like it would be a less frantic day, but I was beat, as were we all.  Soon to bed and to sleep.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Green River Festival 2017 - Friday

Michelle had apparently decided back in November that we would *not* get shut out of the Red Rose this year, and we all signed up for rooms there back in November!?!  This turned out to be a great thing because it afforded us even more time for the anticipation of Green River Festival 2017 to build.

We traded several off-the-wall theories about what bands they’d feature this year.  And when they announced the first ones back in December we almost fainted.  Not only was Lake Street Dive going to return for a headlining performance, JRAD (by Dog!) was going to be the other headliner!!  We got early-early-bird tickets as soon as they were available of course (@$80 for three nights as opposed to Saturday at the gate for $70) and watched the lineup fill out over the next couple of months: The Mavericks, Larry & Teresa, Pokey LaFarge, The Infamous Stringdusters, etc.  And the crowning touch was when they announced that not only would Lake Street be performing as a band as the last main-stage act on Saturday, but on Sunday the individual members would be performing with their side projects.

Many excited emails shot back and forth between our group, and when they announced the daily schedule, much angst over how to fit in all the bands we wanted to see ensued.  A little research into bands I hadn’t heard of made this even worse, I wanted to see everybody (well, almost everybody).
Oh well, mid-July finally arrived and we gave it our best shot.  In the meantime our house had been torn apart (massive renovation) but we sucked it up, dragged our coolers and lawn chairs from under mountains of debris, made a stack of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, a jug of iced tea, stocked up on ice and beer and cider, and hit the road on Friday the 14th while the painters were going at it on our walls.

First stop was Quincy.  We picked up Dave around 10:30, hit the Pike Westbound, 128 North for a few exits, and were soon out Route 2 past the prison, on our way to Greenfield.  We pulled into that estimable city through the back door on Route 2A, found a parking space, and meandered over to The People's Pint for a great, leisurely, relaxing lunch.  It was a surprisingly cool day after some early summer scorchers and we all had our sweatshirts on.  Their lunch special was barbecued chicken tacos, and that's what I got, along with a couple of excellent beers including a wonderfully flavorful variant of their herb gruit.

Sarah and Dave were looking for Ginger Libation, which has been featured at the Festival in the past few years and they are loyal followers.  The bartender at The Pint told us where we could pick up a few bottles and we stopped at Ryan & Casey Liquors on our way out Main Street to do just that!  Loaded up, we continued to head West, this time over the ridge beyond Greenfield and out the Mohawk Trail, to the welcoming Red Rose, where we met the crew and settled into room 9.

The Red Rose doesn't really have a lot of room for people to spread out in, but we were ready for that and had our food stuff in their frig soon enough (after plugging it in and getting some duct tape from the car to make sure it closed), got the air conditioner pumping to dispel a little must, and got our act together in short shrift.  We were out of there soon and on our way back up the Trail and over Old Greenfield Road toward the Festival by 3:30 or so!

Geez, there we were, back in line for the GRF ... deja vu all over again.  They were letting the cars into the lot just as we arrived and we got what we've decided is the best parking place for ingress and egress.  We queued up with our chairs and stuff, recognizing some of the people (who were as excited as we were, we were all veterans) and of course some of the vendors frantically setting up beside the line.  They wrist-banded us and let us in by a bit after 4:30 and we quickly set up our chairs on our customary patch of grass to the left of the conduit to the soundboard, a few rows back from the line demarcating seating area from standing area.  They had smartly expanded the standing area this year, so this sweet spot in front of the soundboard was only 15 rows or so, as opposed to the 20-30 we'd seen in past years.

Woohoo!  First up was Western Centuries, who came on right after 5 while people were still frantically arriving after a long work day, and were rapidly filling in the beautiful GRF fields.  The most prominent name in this band is Cahalen Morrison, who has had a hand in several excellent roots records over the past few years (Morrison & West), Jim Miller (from Donna the Buffalo), et al.

Friend Suze was there taking pictures from the get go ... she'd been in line in front of us and recommended the new Twisted Pine.

Some settling in and fetching food caused us to not pay a whole lot of attention to their act, but up next was The Sweetback Sisters, who've just released a new record (King Of Killing Time) and had some excellent songs in store for us, such as the title track, Cindy Walker's It's All Your Fault, If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me Her Memory Will, and their incredibly rocking (in a Sweetback way) I'm Gonna Cry (written by band member Jesse Milnes).  Of course they mixed in a few hits, such as Chicken Ain't Chicken.

OK, up next on the Main Stage was Big Al Anderson (of NRBQ fame) and so we figured it was a good time for diversity.  We went our separate ways and I stopped by the Parlor Room stage, which had been turned into the "Next Wave Stage" that evening to showcase a bevy of young local bands.  I caught a couple of song snippets from Court Etiquette which were very good, but then proceeded down to the Four Rivers Stage, which on Fridays is the de facto Latin stage.

Dave and Sarah ended up down there too (as did Michelle and others, can't believe we were all down there at the same time and I only ran into Dave), and we all agreed that Fulaso (short for Funky Latin Soul) was fantastic.  They were the band that most exceeded my expectations that night, by far.  I can still see them playing: an incredible percussion core of traps, congas, and a third member on bongos, güiro, and other percussion, and a quartet of horn players who produced a wonderful sound.  They had an alto and baritone sax and a trumpet and trombone, and their groove was deep and throbbing and relentless.  Added to this was an excellent bassist, the bandleader on keys, plus the dynamic Erica Ramos on vocals, who shimmied us into Latin heaven (she also took her turn on the güiro, a very democratic band).

Wow, I meant to not stay there too long, but Fulaso was just riveting.  It was one of those moments when you thought, "Why leave, what could be better than this?"  But Dave and I finally tore ourselves away and hastened back to the Parlor Room stage to see Nomads vs. Settlers, the young band that had most caught my ear during my YouTube research.  Only caught one song of their's before the set ended, but it was a good one.  They've got a great mixture of a loose, slacker kind of vibe and some make-you-take-notice talent in their solos.  Would have liked to have heard more of them.  Sarah luckily was there too!

Back up the hill for the close of Big Al Anderson's set after that, and some more jockeying between water station, porta-potties, beer tent, food lines, etc.  Ultimately we all made our way back to our seats, the sun set, and by Dog, The Mavericks came on!  What a great cap for a rockabilly/Latin/indie night.

This was the first time I'd ever seen Raul Malo live, and he nailed me to my seat.  As with most great vocalists he was just testing the pipes for the first few songs, and then he started to let it rip and didn't stop until the whole ecosystem was reverberating with his voice.

Let me take a sidebar here and say that the GRF sound technicians did it for us all once again.  The sound was just fantastic throughout the whole weekend (though the Parlor Room stage setup had acoustic problems, see below), and challenges like a Raul Malo (or a Rachael Price the next night) blasting the Main Stage PA were handled with absolutely no hiccups.  Sarah complimented the soundboard guys after it was all done and they were surprised that anyone had noticed them.  They were the stars of the Festival as much as anyone.

Of course, abetting Raul was Eddie Perez on guitar and jerky dance moves, as well as the entire crackerjack Mavericks band.  I was beyond counting how many people they had on stage, but the sound, the lights, the snapping leads from Perez, and above all the wailing but soothing voice of Malo were rocking our world, and then Big Al joined them for a balls-out encore.  If you've never heard Raul Malo, you need to!

Yeeha!  What a start to a great weekend ... saw at least some of seven bands that night.  As I say, it had been a little chilly earlier in the afternoon and it was kind of raining/drizzling through the whole evening.  I was telling the folks back at the Red Rose that I felt like I was a pampered plant and God kept misting me with his spray bottle all night.  So my glasses got a little obscured but it was all good, not like it had been last year!

The whole gang was there at the Rose (except for P&D, who arrived late) when we got back, and we eventually retreated to the picnic area for a quick beer.  They'd caught some of the show but had to get back in time to get to bed.  We were all really tired for some reason (maybe the sudden cool temperature), but agreed that Saturday would be another hot day and that we'd better get ready for that!

Figured out where to lay all our wet stuff and soon to bed.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dead & Co "Summer 2017," Fenway part 2

We woke up really earlier than we should after staying up late for Dead & Company’s first Fenway show in their “Summer 2017” tour, but that’s what older people do I guess.  It turned out to be good, because we had a full morning of getting ready for a planned short vacation and for the second show, as well as the housework that had to be done.  In any event, we were ready to get going by mid-afternoon and this time drove into the city and parked at the Dalton Street garage so we wouldn’t have as far to walk after the show.  Smart!

Met Dave at Bukowski’s for a beer and some highly important recapping of last night and predictions for tonight.  Trundled over the [Green] Muddy River and past an urban rabbit over to Yard House and had another excellent late lunch and couple of rounds of beers.  We were psyched, and did the now familiar truck into Fenway and out onto the field(!), this time settling into section B5 in excellent seats on a very humid and very hazy-bright late Spring day.

We’d had an easier time getting good seats for Sunday than we had for Saturday, but by the time the show started we realized it was almost as packed.  I had some nice time to spread out in the seats and enjoy the late afternoon, the funny clouds whipping by (the wind was blowing out to left, promising quite a game), and the arriving crowd.  Many people wore my t-shirt of choice that day, Fare Thee Well; I also saw one woman with my second choice, Golden Gate Wingmen.

The guys came out a bit after 6:30 again that day, and started right off into their classic Sunday song.  But before I get into the first set, let me get a little meta here.

There’s a school of thought, which is a pretty good one, that one of the things that makes “Grateful Dead music” so compelling is the element of risk and unknown possibilities woven into it, and that a band playing that type of music should be pursuing that fine edge of improvisation over rote capability.  One possible criticism of Dead & Company is that they haven’t really been pursuing that edge, though in lieu of that they’ve been pursuing performing excellence IMO, and have been pleasingly successful at that (to put it mildly).  But in their Fenway concert on 6/18 they showed an ability to walk their own edge that made the concert incredibly exciting, though it might also be labeled a bit strange.

Their recently-rolled-out twist of switching to acoustics for the last bit of the first set, their doing songs out of turn such as Dark Star and Let It Grow, their innovative vocals such as Oteil singing FOTM, and their ability to add other beats and textures (à la JRAD) to set-in-stone songs like FOTM, NFA, and Days Between, are all exciting in a new way.  And isn’t that what we want, to be excited in new ways?  Though I’ve criticized some of Dead & Company’s choices, I can’t help but admire their style, and I immensely have enjoyed every second of their performances that I’ve heard.

Well anyway, enough of generalization.  I hope to describe the event, and my point is that this was far from your ordinary “Grateful Dead” concert, if there is such a thing.  John is still new and every measure of his leads has the promise of something new, and Jeff and Oteil have a lot to say.  Bobby lets them say it and Billy and Mickey egg them on; this is quite a band.  Here’s the first set:

Samson and Delilah
Brown-Eyed Women
Big River
Let It Grow
Friend Of the Devil
Dark Star

Samson was as great as can be, with the drummers pounding out a rhythm that echoed through the Fens.  Big River was short, and Candyman was long … the kind of up and down you’d expect in a first set.  They did a great Let It Grow, though this is a song they could really add to (like, maybe do the whole Weather Report Suite!?!).  But then they switched to acoustics so quickly after the end of Let It Grow that you could tell they had lots up their sleeves and were eager to let those ferrets out.

FOTD was fantastic, including an amazing lead from Jeff on piano.  And what was next?  Dark Star on acoustic guitars over the Fenway and into American history.  Geez, you had to be there for this one.  Of course, I don’t think this will become as famous as the 1970 Fillmore East acoustic sets; but this was a rarity, a first.  And it was as successful as a lot of things this band does: John’s leads were firecrackers in the late afternoon, and Bobby’s ability to deploy his great variety of sounds was on full display.  Bobby’s had a lot of time to play this sucker, and he knows where the darkest rooms and the brightest vistas are.

And just as you were wondering if they were going to go into a second 20 minutes of the song or wind up the second verse and move on … they shared one of those “we know what we’re doing” glances and changed down into Ripple.  At the time we were amazed and delighted, but the full impact of what they were doing was a little lost in the gloriousness of the moment.

Wow, I say again!  What a first set!!  The Saturday show had been stellar to me, and I wondered if Sunday’s show would come up to that level.  Damn, it was on a whole different level and was already beyond comparison.  Oh well, time for our pedestrian between-set concerns, such as waiting in bathroom lines and trying to get around the Park without freaking out at the crush of people.  The rain was holding off and the sky was beautiful as the sun set, far behind the left field grandstand.

And then we waited … it was a long set break, seemingly over an hour.  Oh well, the guys came back out and started up into a jam.  Dave called it at the first change and a few minutes later one of the guys in front of us whipped around and said, “Wait a minute, did you call that??”  These guys were Deadicated but big … I spent a lot of the concert trying to see around or through the guy in front of me, who was wearing an Isaiah Thomas jersey (though he was maybe twice his size), and I was unsuccessful at that most of the time.  Anyway, it was Jam > Truckin’ of course … here’s the second set:

Fire On the Mountain
St. Stephen
Dark Star
Days Between
Not Fade Away

Geez, only a 7(ish)-song second set?!?  Don’t worry, we were not ripped off.  This was a feast.  Truckin’ was slow, stately, mellow, and resonant.  FOTM was sung by Oteil, only his second vocal on the tour (twice on China Doll) after many hints that he’d be doing such.  And St. Stephen was sung with reverence by John.

Let me digress a bit here.  One of the best things about the 2016 tour IMO was the tandem backup vocals by John and Oteil.  This layer is almost totally lacking in their current tour and the result can leave lots of holes and raggedness, as in the Here Comes Sunshine in Atlanta.  They really haven’t replaced this part of their sound, but the lead vocals so far have been so excellent it’s not missed as much as it could be.

Ok, what next?  How about a great Drums/Space segment with Mickey tooting those clown horns again and cranking up The Beam in the sudden Fenway night?  And then, one of the most magical stretches of the night: a reprise of Dark Star on electrics (including the last verse), and then a beautiful, beautiful deconstruction of the sound into a Jeff Chimenti piano solo that has to go down in history … slowly leading us by the hands and minds into Days Between.

As mentioned, Bobby has done a few fine things on vocals, and he was sure up to this one, singing one of the ultimate Dead anthems (maybe THE ultimate Dead anthem) into the humid dark in front of tens of thousands of awe-struck pilgrims.  No Sailor/Saint this time, or GDTRFB, or Dew, but this was the touch that we all wanted and needed.

And then they shrugged it off and ended it all with a rocking Not Fade Away with some fantastic, screwy drumming, and a masterful transfer to the crowd of the chorus.  They’ve done this before.

Back out for the encore after just a minute, and they did the Brokedown Palace we’d all been waiting for, most of all us legions with the Fare Thee Well t-shirts.  This was an epic second set, but we turned to each other after it was over and said, “What did we just hear?”  How great was this?  We’ll have to let time tell, but it sure was good.

Damn, the Fenway shows were over, and we had to get out of there through the hordes and hordes of people.  Oh well, we’ve done this before ourselves, and it actually went pretty well.  Shuffled out of the stadium and back over the Fens and finally back to the parking garage, where the attendants showed some unique incompetence of their own.

Out to Boylston at last, down to Berkeley, left Dave at Charles Circle, and then back up to 93 North.  Have to wake up early the next morning to continue the adventure!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Dead & Co "Summer 2017," Fenway part 1

Dead & Company are touring again this year, they're calling it a "summer" tour, though almost all of it is taking place in the Spring.  As you might imagine, we've been filled with anticipation, especially since they've adopted an unheard of innovation, offering the first three songs of each night (the whole show in Atlanta) for free, live streaming and of course on YouTube thereafter.  This allows those among us who follow their every move to obsess even further, and it seems to have worked to bump up interest generally since last night's Saturday show was sold out and Sunday will probably be almost full.

And how have the shows been you may ask?  Well let me give you my Dead-drenched opinion: they've been great, though they could be better.  As mentioned earlier, their schedule of touring once a year and the number of side projects they all have makes one think, is Dead & Company really a working band or are they an oldies act that gets together every once in a while with a minimum of practice and entertains stadiums full of people with the old chestnuts?  The answer is that they're such high-level musicians, their ensemble performances are tight, innovative, and riveting.  They've only added three (well, one and two half) songs to their repertoire with this year's tour, but the ones they do (well over a hundred in fact) are progressing from fantastic into the stratosphere.  I wish they'd practice together more and add more new songs, but they follow their own muse and I can't fault musicians for that.

We parked in Sarah's building and walked uptown on an overcast day with the sun threatening to come out and the temperature threatening to approach 70.  The Tall Ships were returning to Boston that afternoon and the waterfront must have been a madhouse with the millions(!) of people projected to be there, but it was pretty crowded uptown too.  Made a left turn in Kenmore Square and trundled down to Yard House, where Scott and Michelle were waiting, and Dave, Leen, and Andrew showed up soon.  We had some great beer and lot of conversation about our house project and of course music.  Time rolled by and before we knew it it was time to check out Shakedown Street and then head into the Park!

Went in through the main gate and followed the normally shut-off tunnel around to the left to enter the field by the left field wall.  Fenway was as magical as ever and we were on the goddamn field.  Stopped by to have a close-up look at the visitors' dugout and the beyond-perfect infield before finding our seats in section C6 ... more center this year than last, but not close.  Getting turf tickets for Saturday had been hard and I had to make two purchases as they wouldn't sell me 4 together, so Dave and Leen were over in C2.  The rain was definitely going to hold off and the guys came on and lined up soon after 6:30.  And then they started into Music and we were right back there.  Here's the first set:

The Music Never Stopped
Cold Rain and Snow
Me and My Uncle
Big Boss Man
Ramble On Rose

As mentioned, the band was playing as tightly as could be and the sound in Fenway was excellent.  We could hear every note and flourish and every beat of the drums.  Mickey's setup is less wild this year and I think it's added even more to their rhythm section to have him playing with Bill instead of around him.  Oteil seems so comfortable with this music it's incredible and his funk and nimbleness is amazing.

John continues to ascend in the Dead milieu and some of the leads he's been cracking off this tour are phenomenal.  I've gotten beyond being gob-smacked by him, and perhaps am a little less accepting of his small miscues and forgetting exactly when the lead is supposed to come in and end, but when he gets going the world revolves around his guitar and his fingers are a blur on the fretboard.  He kills Cold Rain and Snow and though this was a bit of an up-and-down set, it sure had a lot of highlights, such as his leads on Big Boss Man (on the 45th anniversary of Pigpen's last performance) and Sugaree.

Jeff continues to get better also, contributing great organ runs and sparkling piano to songs like Ramble On Rose (we booed the "just like New York City" line, we *were* at Fenway Park during baseball season after all!).  And Bobby is as good as ever, he's obviously enjoying the heck out of this band.  He closed the set with a powerful Passenger, perhaps to make up for mangling it a bit at Fenway with Donna last summer.

Here's the slightly poofy review from The Globe from the next day.  And here's a link to Sarah's pictures.  And here's a really nice piece about Mayer appearing at his alma mater, Berklee College Of Music, earlier in the day.

Though it was only 7 songs, that was a long first set, but the bathroom lines were not too crazy and we were soon back out on the field, enjoying beautiful Fenway and gabbing about the first set with neighbors and friends.  A bunch of guys in front of us were not the best neighbors; a couple of them were loud and extremely drunk to begin with, before smoking pot throughout the evening.  To their credit though, they made it through the whole thing, though a few of them had to sit down for stretches in the second set.

And speaking of the second set, the guys came back out in the gloaming and ripped off one of the best live sets I've ever seen performed.  It's not a great setlist, but these songs were played exquisitely:

Dancing In the Street
Help On the Way
Estimated Prophet
Eyes Of the World
Eyes Of the World
I Need a Miracle
Standing On the Moon
Franklin's Tower

Oh my Dog, this band just performed those songs so well!  Every one of them showed incredible talent and technique, and as an ensemble they were almost perfect.  I should mention, again, John's leads, Oteil's ability to add funk to anything, and Jeff's presence.  And as has happened before, Bobby raised his vocal game beyond what you might have expected from the first set.  I told Dave later that I couldn't believe I was saying it, but that was the best "I Need a Miracle" I've ever heard (a song I sometimes dismiss as formulaic).  And his emoting on Standing On the Moon brought tears to your eyes, perhaps he was again thinking of Pigpen.

And a note about one the best songs ever, Eyes Of the World.  Oteil makes this so fresh with his runs throughout, and this featured a great solo section by him after the last verse.  They then went into Drums (which Oteil participated in and in which Mickey cranked up The Beam and gleefully shook the bejeezus out of the venerable old ballpark, and then even more gleefully tooted some clown bicycle horns) and a beautiful but short Space and then wham, they were back doing a last chorus of Eyes!!!

And they sandwiched that long, excellent second set with a funky, rocking, rabble-rousing Franklin's that had everyone singing along.  They stretched and stretched the "Roll away the dew" coda and then almost wrapped it up, and then burst right back into another vocal coda with all of Fenway rolling back that dew as hard as we could.  This was beautiful, well-played, and above all cathartic.  Wow!!!

They came back out for an encore pretty quickly and burst right into a small jam which turned into Black Muddy River.  I recognized the song but couldn't believe until John started into the words that they were going to repeat what they'd encored with at their first Fenway show last summer.  But I guess John was reminiscing about his student days, and perhaps back then he spent some time walking beside the Muddy River in the Fens (not too far from Berklee) and dreaming a dream of his own.

And then another encore repeat, but this was expected: closing Saturday night in Summer (actually Spring) with One More Saturday Night.  Short and sweet, and then the guys were gone into the wings.  See you tomorrow!  In fact, I have to get ready to leave for tonight's show.

Sarah and I had a long walk back to Beacon Hill, but we finally made it and were back home by midnight or so.  Will I do this again next year?  Well, of course.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Dave Keyes with Popa Chubby in Beverly

Good friend Dave has been playing great music his whole life, but I don't get much of a chance to see him.  So when I heard he was playing at 9 Allis in Beverly on 5/19 with Popa Chubby, I was very psyched.  His tracks with Popa Chubby are excellent.

W&L were able to get there also, though delayed by life and traffic.  This is one of the worst times of year for traffic around Boston and getting North on 128 can be difficult.  9 Allis is a nice, small room and Dave and Popa were joined by a bassist and drummer.  They played two great sets of electric blues with some great contributions from all the guys.

Dave came by the table when he could, and we had a nice chat with him at the merch table afterwards, then back into the night and home to our mostly demoed house.

Friday, May 19, 2017

DSO Take 5 at Wilbur

Dark Star Orchestra keeps coming around, and we keep going to see them.  As mentioned many times, seeing them is just incredible fun and is nowhere near getting old for me.  They announced another, all-over-the-country, year-long tour for 2017 (they've played more gigs than the original GD did, which is astounding), including of course a date (Thursday, 5/18) at Boston's Wilbur Theater.  We got tickets as soon as they went on sale, Sarah's and my 5th time seeing DSO at the Wilbur, 11th overall.

Traffic was beyond incomprehensibly bad going into the city.  We stopped dead on Soldiers Field in Allston and I could see the Turnpike was not a good option.  Got off at the BU Bridge and tried the Cambridge side, but that was the first in a sequence of bad decisions ... there was no good way to get anywhere in Boston on that suddenly hot, bright day.  I had to do some serious coaching of myself ("You've seen worse," "You might be a little late, but you'll see DSO tonight," "It's graduation season, this is good for Boston") to stay calmed down and finally was able to bust through and crawl over the Longfellow Bridge into Boston and then quickly up to Beacon Hill.  Met Sarah and Dave and we walked over to Jacob Wirths, where we had a rookie waiter with no clue, but we refused to be hassled.  This was quite a challenging day in some ways, but we were going to see DSO at the Wilbur (which was surrounded by construction, we had to cross Tremont multiple times).

Oh well, we got there and ended up entering just in time to get spots belly-up to the stage in the "Skip Zone."  Geez did we breathe sighs of relief.  And the evening was just as much fun as ever!  One great thing was that as we were leaving Wirth's, Tom from HTR Construction was at the next table and stood up to talk with us.  Tom's a great guy and in a different world we'd be working with him now.  Great to talk with him and to meet his friend Louise.

And another fun thing was that when we got up to the rail, naturally we fanatics up there introduced ourselves, and the guy next to me (a famous R&B artist and spectacular dancer in his own right from Southern Vermont) and I recognized each other.  We both stroked our chins trying to remember where we'd met before, and compared all kinds of notes about what concerts we'd been to, what our impressions had been, and where we normally stood.  As it turned out, we couldn't have met at this concert, and were standing in different places at that one, etc.  We were stymied.

Then I mentioned how we liked to go to P&F concerts in Port Chester, we touched on the madness of traffic in the NYC area (traffic!), and I mentioned how you could sneak up to Port Chester by dropping down through CT and staying in Armonk,  "Armonk?" he said, "We stay at the Quality Inn in Armonk."  Lightning hit me, "We stay at the Quality Inn in Armonk too, that's where I recognize you from!"  The lighting spread to him and he concurred, and we cracked up.  We both thought we'd been sly and discovered an unknown spot!  Now hordes of Deadheads will be descending on Armonk.

Anyway, there we were at the front of the stage and we were all (well, those of us who obsess about these things) anticipating an early seventies show from the stage setup.  Someone pointed out that the GD had only played twice on 5/18, and that one of those concerts had been in 1972, on the Europe Tour.  And that's what we got, a stellar re-creation of the Dead's stop at the Kongreßsaal Deutsches Museum in Munich on 5/18/1972,  Here's the setlist:

Set 1:
Mr. Charlie
Jack Straw
Tennessee Jed
Chinatown Shuffle
Black-Throated Wind
China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
El Paso
It Hurts Me Too
You Win Again
Playing In The Band
Good Lovin'
Casey Jones

Set 2:
Sittin' On Top Of The World
Me And My Uncle
Ramble On Rose
Beat It On Down The Line
Dark Star > Morning Dew > Drums > Sugar Magnolia

Sing Me Back Home
One More Saturday Night

The show was sold out, and Dino got the day off, along with it being an easy day for Lisa, just playing harp on It Hurts Me Too and singing harmony on Playing, Sugar Mags, and the encore.

So there we were, in front of Skip with RobB and keyboard on our right, RobE 15 feet or so away in the center of the stage, and Jeff off over on the left.  The under-stage speakers were rippling our pants and we were back with the guys in Europe in 1972 with an amazing first set of adventurous rock and roll that just went on and on and on.

Jeff seemed a bit tired, as he has at times lately, and was perhaps the weakest player that night, though he sure ramped it up for Dew.  But RobK was as spot-on as ever, RobE was brilliant as always, and RobB played beautiful keyboards all night, over and over.  We did not want him to stop.  Always true to the canon however, he did not sing and RobE was as literal as ever, apparently forgetting lyrics in the same spots Bobby had.

And as with the other 10 times we'd seen DSO, this was such fun!  We were rocking like it was 1972 and the music was excellent.  We were dancing at the edge of the stage, and we'd turn around and see a PACKED Wilbur Theater, all full of people writhing and reeling.  Everyone knew all the words, all the phrases, all the emotion, and we were all sharing it together.

As mentioned, Lisa finally made an appearance towards the end of the first set and she looked at me like a stone when I held up 10 fingers to her, quizzically.  She played some rockin' harp on It Hurts Me Too.  Then she moseyed up to her mike next to RobE and this time when I held up 10 fingers to her she grinned at me and nodded.  Time for Playing, and then time for the 1972 Good Lovin' and a perfunctory Casey Jones to close the set.  Yay!!!

Milled around, saved seats (well, places) for each other, grabbed bathroom breaks and another beer, and then it was time for the second set.  Dave wasn't looking at his phone and we were left thinking it was 1972 sometime (I favored pre-Europe), but then they started up again and it was time for more excellence.

A long second set with Dark Star into Dew and an encore of Sing Me Back Home?  Yes please.  Don't blame me for abbreviating the second set, I'd just be repetitive describing how great RobB was, how authentic RobE was, and how much this stuff means to us.  I wasn't yet listening the the Dead in 1972, but they were out there shaping my world.

Finally time to trickle out of the Wilbur, and we got going.  Lots of stuff going on out in the theater district that night, but we got up to the Common, over to Beacon Hill, and back home in short order.  Well perhaps short, but I didn't get to bed until 1:30 or so.  As RobK had said when he talked about the show they were re-creating, it was a long night!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Justin Townes Earle and The Sadies at Sinclair

We're trying to cut down on concerts a bit, but the tracks I've heard from Justin Townes Earle's soon-to-be-released record (Kids In the Street) are just fantastic.  And when I recently saw some things by him on YouTube, including the video of one of the great new tracks (Maybe a Moment), and his recent turn on PBS's Tiny Desk Concert series, I realized that I'd be a fool to miss him at The Sinclair on Saturday, May 13.  So we got tickets,

Had plenty to do at home that Saturday, and after a quick dinner we headed into Cambridge on another cold and rainy evening in a long, cold, and rainy Spring.  We scored a great parking place at the Cambridge Common and got into the club in time to grab spots right in front of the soundboard and hear most of Sammy Brue's opening set.  He's a bit of a bluesy singer-songwriter with powerful guitar technique, good opener.

The the next opener came on, The Sadies, who are also backing up Justin on this tour.  Dallas (guitar, keyboards, and harmonicas) and Travis (guitar, fiddle, and mandolin) Good from Toronto are excellent multi-instrumentalists, and Sean Dean (bass) and Mike Belitsky (drums) are a fine rhythm section.  They've been around for a while and have backed up musicians like Neko Case, John Doe, Neil Young, and many others.  They played a great, rock with a tinge of country, set.  At times they were reminiscent of Los Straitjackets and at times the Bottle Rockets.  Some great guitar runs, some great songs, and one of the spookiest covers of Pretty Polly you'll ever hear.  They also sported some fine duds.

Then another short break and Justin came out, in a stylish sport coat himself, as well as his trademark Coke-bottle glasses.  Justin's long-time accompanist Paul Niehaus joined them on lead guitar, while Dallas moved to piano/organ.  They did not disappoint!  The subtle brilliance that I'd heard on record over the years (also seen him twice before) and recently on YouTube was on display.  If you've never heard Justin's voice, very slightly off-beat style, and Hank Williams-honest guitar, you need to go see him right away.  Or watch this.

Justin had his tenor guitar, and The Sadies and Niehaus were a beat-perfect back-up band.  When we'd seen him before, Justin was all over the place, changing his mind about what song he was going to do in the middle of the intro, etc.  It's amazing Niehaus hasn't walked out on him yet.  But this time he was very much the professional musician and took pains to make sure the band was with him, and they sure were.

They covered a large number of the tracks from the new record (which was at the merch table), but also played some of the incredible opus Justin has already compiled at age 35.  It was another case of him taking the entire audience to a different planet where we all grooved on his every note and swayed to his band.  The Sinclair was sold-out and Sarah reported lots of very disappointed people being turned away at the box office when she stepped out for a smoke.

The middle-aged guys next to us knew Justin's work as well as I did, and though the crowd besides us was predominately young, it was apparently another case of them wanting to hear Justin T.F. Earle rather than just go out for a rock act on a Saturday night.  Very actively listening crowd during the songs and very rowdy crowd between songs, while Justin looked a little embarrassed but devilish ("You liked that? Try this!") in his charming way.

Here's the setlist:
Champagne Corolla
Maybe a Moment
One More Night in Brooklyn
What's She Crying For
Move Over Mama
Black Eyed Suzy
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
They Killed John Henry
Mama's Eyes
Gold Watch and Chain
Christchurch Woman
Trouble Is
Farther From Me
Ain't Waitin'
White Gardenias
What Do You Do When You're Lonesome
Short Hair Woman

Faded Valentine
Harlem River Blues

He opened with two of the most killer tracks from the new record, did some classics, did a mini-solo/acoustic set (John Henry, Mama's Eyes, and the Carter's Gold Watch and Chain), and finished with another string of great new songs mixed with stuff like Ain't Waitin'.

After Mama's Eyes, someone shouted out, "That's great, 'cause tomorrow's Mothers Day you know!"  I think Justin knew that.  And when he hit the first chords of Ain't Waitin', someone else yelled out, "Fried chicken!," which cracked him up so much he almost lost where he was.  And when he introduced White Gardenias with, "This is for Billy Holiday," we and the guys next to us melted.

Fantastic stuff, very short break between the set and the encore, and then he closed it with the singalong Harlem River Blues.  I think Justin had a good, mellow night, and we all did too.  He's really, really, good.

Still spitting a bit when we got out, helped a lost but well-dressed older Chinese couple find their bearings on Cambridge Common, and then a short drive back home.