Monday, October 28, 2013

JT Earle at "The Sinclair"

Went out to a Cambridge Sunday night and saw the phenomenal Justin Townes Earle at The Sinclair.  Several things bothered me about the venue and the restaurant attached to it, but it shouldn't surprise me when a snooty Cambridge rock club doesn't care much about its clientele or has a snooty name with a capitalized article.

Anyway, we were there when the doors opened and got spots right in front of the stage.  Arc Iris opened and played some very adventurous songs on dual pianos with dual glitter ... an entertaining way to start a musical evening.  Then Justin Townes Earle came on with accompanist Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and electric guitar and blew the place down.

They opened with Who Killed John Henry and did a bunch of other songs, including Close Up the Honky Tonks as the first encore (the only cover I believe).  But the song list doesn't matter.  What matters was that Justin Townes Earle has written, sings, and plays some of the most beautiful (but funky) songs ever.  His songs are centered on every-day observations and structured very traditionally.  He doesn't do anything flashy, doesn't change guitars, doesn't interact comfortably with the audience (or himself, one suspects), doesn't jam with his accompanist (being JT Earle's accompanist must be a lousy job, Earle lost Niehaus a few times and then cackled at him), and ends songs when he's done.  But he shines with the directness, simplicity, and poetry of the finest American musicians.

Justin's a friendly guy, he was not gruff with the audience and seemed to be enjoying himself and his reception.  He reported the World Series score to us after it was whispered to him by Niehaus at a break (4-2 Red Sox in the 8th), kidded people when they shouted out requests, and then responded to one by playing his excellent Slipping and Sliding.  Who am I kidding ... *all* of his songs are top echelon.

Here's Earle and Niehaus (looking a bit stoned) doing one of Justin's folk anthems:

Here's one of his songs about dealing with himself:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Dr. John In Vermont

On Friday the 25th we left work early, met at North Billerica, and then hit the road for Vermont, ending in Burlington down the big hill toward the big lake as the darkness settled.  It was a beautiful drive with many late Fall vistas of New England mountains, rocks, cliffs, and valleys.

Burlington can get crowded and it was hopping on that Friday night, but we parked where Fred told us to and then walked the few blocks over to meet him and Maree at the Pizzeria Verita on St. Paul Street.  After a really good round of assorted appetizers and some gourmet pizza dinner, we sauntered around the corner to the Flynn Center For the Performing Arts ... we were going to see Dr. John!

The band came out and did an intro and then the Doctor himself came out, dressed to the nines of course and leaning on a dazzling cane.  He sat at the biggest of grand pianos and spent most of the night on that, but switched to a funky electric piano for a few songs, shook some voodoo sticks that made excellent jangling sounds on one song, and even strolled over to pick up his stratocaster and wail some blues on that.

The band was led by trombonist Sarah Morrow, who was fantastic.  She did some things to the trombone that I didn't believe even when I saw them, like singing through it.  She also contributed some great backup vocals and tambourine.  Couldn't pick up everybody else's names, but there was Dave on guitar, Ronnie on drums, a bassist, and an organist.  All were fantastic players and one of the best parts of the concert was just that: it was a great *concert* with excellent song after excellent song, led strongly by Morrow, featuring all of the players in ensemble and taking leads, and centered around the incredible keyboards of the Doctor himself.

I'm not deeply into the Dr. John's music and so didn't recognize all the songs, but I was more than psyched to finally see him ... he's been around all my life.  They played one long set, opening with Iko Iko and also covering Let the Good Times Roll, The Monkey Speaks His Mind, Walk On Gilded Splinters, and his recent hit, Big Shot.  They closed the set with a long number in which they introduced the band and everybody took a lead.  The Doctor then grabbed his cane and walked slowly off the stage to much fanfare.  After the band finished and left the stage themselves, he came back out for a long solo on the grand, and then the band came out and launched into the encore, Such a Night.  The crowd had been pretty reserved for much of the evening, but was standing and dancing and singing by that point.

Ran into my old classmate Reed, who lives in Burlington.  We stood around and talked on the sidewalk until they shut the place down, and then drove behind Fred and Maree back to Stowe, where we drank beer and talked late into the night.  Woke up to a late Fall snowstorm, hung out some more, and then made our way back to Massachusetts, after stopping in Montpelier (Three Penny Tap Room) for lunch.

Here's the Doctor doing The Monkey Speaks His Mind with his earlier band ... this was the song of the night for me:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Robert Hunter Back On Tour

As discussed, I'm falling back (deep deep) into Grateful Dead fanaticism.  Which takes strange forms.  But in any case, I probably would have said, "I have to see this" when I heard Robert Hunter was coming to town for his first tour in 10 years on October 7th.

Anyone with a shred of intelligence will agree that Hunter's lyrics in his songwriting partnerships with Garcia and other members of the Dead were at least a giant step beyond the normal rock lyrics, not to mention his work with Dylan, Hornsby, Lauderdale, etc.  I'm a word guy and have been captivated by his lyrics since the second I first heard them.  I really liked his first two records back in the 70s, and I *really* like his collaborations with Lauderdale, his mythic meeting with and inspiration of the great Tom Russell, and most of all his ability to remain relevant as an artist, years past his "time."  As he said when commenting on his famous feat of writing the lyrics for Ripple, Brokedown Palace, and To Lay Me Down in one afternoon, "Ah if only those times would come again ... they will, just not to me."

So we got tickets as soon as available, had dinner at Jacob Wirth's on a busy Monday evening, and then sauntered over to the 5th row of tables at the Wilbur to see the show.  Hunter admitted in last week's Globe that he had had a medical scare recently (a possibly fatal spinal infection), and had re-assessed his goals for the last part of his life and realized he wanted to perform more.  We were very glad he did, especially since this made him possibly more tolerant of a hard-edged Boston audience than he would have been earlier in his career.

Hunter came out picking a solid-body guitar and stuck to that all night, accompanying himself on harmonica for some songs.  Some people seemed taken aback at how old he looked, but got over it quick.  He opened with Box Of Rain and I was immediately thrown back on my figurative heels.

I'd heard this song hundreds of times before and had been captivated with it for years.  But I heard it as if for the first time.  I've certainly heard other versions than the American Beauty track, performed by other bands than the Dead and sung by others than Phil Lesh.  But this guy wrote it and was able to present it as his original work.

Every line had an added quality.  Right off the bat, "Look out of any window" became a suggestion rather than a command.  "What do you want me to do?" became a plaintive moan rather than a petulant complaint.  The dream in the line, "This is all a dream we dreamed" became an ideal state rather than a foggy anomaly.  Well you get the point, I (and probably most of the people in the hall) *knew* these lyrics so well and yet found new meanings in them when hearing them with a confident change of inflection, an extended few measures beyond the familiar chord change, and an alternate emphasis that brought out other meanings in those wonderful words.

After he just blew us all away with Box Of Rain, Hunter proceeded to take us to Fennario, where both Dire Wolf and Peggy-O are set, and to sing both songs at the same time!  Though Garcia had just hinted at it, he showed us the terror behind Dire Wolf, asking whatever God might be anywhere near the neighborhood to keep him from being murdered; and he alternated with the fury shown by the Captain confronting Peggy-O, threatening to kill all the women in the area-o.  Hunter already had at least 10% of the audience (including us) in the palm of his hand at this point, and it was close to 100% by the end of the evening.

Cruel White Water, Ship Of Fools, a wonderfully playful Candyman, the Dylan co-write Silvio, and a folk-anthem-version of New Speedway Boogie followed.  Hunter encouraged us to sing along with the "This darkness has got to give" chorus of Speedway, and we all knew what darkness we were referring to with the current government shutdown, the recent well-publicized incidences of lack of mental care boomeranging on us, the atrocities in Syria and the lack of international outrage, and so on and so on.

Hunter said he'd see us in 20 minutes and he came back out right on time for the second set, and he was right back on top.  He started off with a version of Wharf Rat that had us all melting, like the first time we'd heard it (ok, the first 50 times).  He sang the August West part like it was the dying story of a sad old man ... which I'd always tried to make it in my mind ... rather than the defiant rant that Garcia always sang ("Some other FUCKER'S crime").  And he really left us wondering if the narrator's girl had been true to him or not.

He followed this with Bertha and Jack Straw (in his version, Shannon actually called the other guy, "Jack Straw"), and then he knocked us all into the next world with Reuben and Cérise.  We were all grooving with the beautiful story of true love overcoming fear, and then he changed it!  Reuben ended up cradling the dead Cérise in his arms as he looked back at life on his path down to the underworld, as warned at in the myth behind it all (and in the movie Black Orpheus).  My meager mind was blown by this I can tell you, and I know there were bits of gray matter splattered all over the tired plaster walls of the Wilbur from everyone else's.  But we all rallied and gave Hunter his first hall-wide standing O after this song.  This seemed to waken him up to the fact that all of us were *listening* to his words and waken us up to the fact that this guy had the power.

Oh yeah, next came a stellar Brown-Eyed Women where you got the rogue quality of the narrator in a way Garcia's vocal never elucidated, a mandatory Must Have Been the Roses, a rocking Deal, a beautiful Brokedown Palace, and then his later song The Wind Blows High.  He finished the set with a couple of love songs: the epic Standing On the Moon and the song for his wife (he mentioned that it was written for her), Scarlet Begonias.  We'd been a very well-behaved crowd at suppressing our urges to sing along with those marvelous songs (and thus aggrieve our neighbors), but by the time Scarlet came around we didn't hesitate to join in.

The interplay between Hunter and the crowd was one of the subtlest and most wonderful parts of the night.  There were a couple of instances where an enthusiastic listener shouted something a non-New Englander might perceive as aggressive, there were a few audience members who had a hard time limiting their whoops and hollers to appropriate times, and Hunter showed some temper himself when he trashed a mis-behaving filter switch and ignored some audience entreaties.  BUT, audience members scattered roses on the stage (which delighted Hunter to no end), we wound-tight Bostonians showed no hesitation at rising to and applauding the crescendos in his performance, and most importantly to a performer, we all showed again and again that we were *listening* to what he had to say.  That's why we were there, to hear the magic words re-struck.  Hunter ended the evening with a huge smile on his face and I got the impression that he had gotten as much out of it as I had.  I hope so!

Encore time and he did goddamn Ripple.  We were all as silent as if we were in church, listening to the parable about ... well, that's up for you to decide isn't it?  We exploded in applause when it ended and Hunter made a motion to embrace us all, and then struck up his signature ending, an a capella version of his Boys In the Barroom, which was perfectly fitting for a Boston crowd of course.  That was it and he smiled and smiled as he reluctantly left the stage, with a last promise that he'd be back.  I think he liked playing the Wilbur on a blustery early Fall night, and hopefully he won't forget it.  I certainly won't.