Saturday, July 21, 2018

Green River Festival 2018, Sunday!

We were exhausted at bedtime on Saturday and woke up Sunday feeling pretty rejuvenated.  Good night's sleep but we knew we were in for another day of heat.  Went down to the above-average hotel breakfast at the Hampton Inn Brattleboro and mingled with the expected softball players and friends.  Djokovic was in the midst of decimating Kevin Anderson for the Wimbledon men's title.

The others were going to gather for the World Cup final, but we were bound to do the old thing of getting a top spot in line, waiting it out, and then setting up our chairs in our normal spot, halfway between the soundboard and the stage.  And that's what we did!

Packed up all our stuff (with the great help of the hotel luggage dolly), checked one last time in the microwave, and hit the road for Massachusetts by about 9:30 and were pulling into College Road by 10:00 or so.  We felt we were sufficiently early, and it was creepy how we were able to pull right up to the circle at the start of the parking lots without being challenged.  Turns out the staff and Greenfield cops were surprised that anybody besides vendors and volunteers would show up that early!  We were smart and let Dave out to wander in as soon as possible, though we didn't have time to get him out a chair before: a) they realized we weren't vendors or volunteers and b) the cop started waving angrily at us and being as firm as possible.

He told us with a little edge in his voice, "Only vendors and volunteers are allowed in before 11!"  We started to tell him that yes we understood that, we just needed to pull over for a second to get out a chair for our son who was going to wait in line.  Dave smartly started walking towards the line at that point so he was not in the "conversation."  The cop replied by saying a little more slowly and with a little less edge in his voice, like we were simple and just hadn't understood, "Only vendors and volunteers are allowed in before 11."  We shrugged and drove around the circle and then pulled over where there was no question that we were out of the way and I got out so I could open the back and get out a chair for Dave.  The cop ran after us, waving, and shouted, "Only vendors and volunteers are allowed in before 11!!"  I walked up to him calmly and said, "I'm sorry, I'm only trying to get out a chair for my son who's in line already."  He said, "Only vendors and volunteers are allowed in before 11!!!"  I wanted to say, "Just turn around and look 100 feet behind you and you'll see a line to get in, those people are not vendors or volunteers," but I decided I shouldn't burst his bubble.  This guy knew how to say only one thing apparently.  I tried one last time, "But my son is in line already."  He actually went off script and said, "Is he a vendor?" I said no.  "Is he a volunteer?"  I said no.  He raised his eyebrows like he had won the debate and almost shouted, "Only vendors and volunteers are allowed in before 11!!!!"

Anyway, maybe it was I was the dumb one after all.  Probably what he was trying to say was that, "My instructions are to only let in vendors and volunteers until 11 but if people walk in and stand in line it's not my issue and I don't know anything about it but I'm not about to let you give them chairs!  I'm just doing my job, sir."  So we pulled down the road just enough so we were out of his line of sight.  Then we pulled over and Sarah got out with two chairs and walked in to join Dave in line.  Jeez, now I just had 50 minutes or so to kill.

That was fine with me and I drove around a bit to check the surrounding area and then tried College Road again.  By that point the volunteers had figured out what they should be doing is to coach the early arrivals into forming a discrete line of cars, and I was about 10th in that line.  I called up the World Cup on my phone and realized it wasn't starting until 11 itself!  Oh well, they finally let us cars in well before 11 and I grabbed our favorite parking space (minus one), checked in with Sarah and Dave in line in the sun, and then went back to the car in the shade to watch the game.

Dave texted me that they were about to move and I joined the line, though this was a false alarm.  The fact was, they were a little more organized than in the last few years, but were just not ready for the crowds or how soon they'd be arriving.  Not like this should have been new to them, but I've never gone to a music festival where they did things perfectly.  But the GRF again is a nice mellow experience, and we were all talking and joking in line.  I shared news of the first half with our line neighbors, including the oddity that France had only one shot on goal but was currently leading 2-1.

OK at last it was time to get in and we had no problem grabbing seats at our favorite spot between the stage and soundboard, in the bright sun.  And P&D joined us soon.  We were in the beautiful GRF for the Sunday set one more time and life was great!  One thing I should mention was that we were really impressed with the lushness and subtle colors of the Greenfield Community College grounds, looking their best in the first month of summer and holding up well to the amazing crowds.  Don't know if Sunday sold out, but it sure seemed as crowded as Saturday.

Checked out a few vendors, talked to some volunteers, looked at merch, and then joined the mellow mash of people in front of the stage at 12:45 for:

Molly Tuttle - Molly is the reigning IBMA Guitarist Of the Year (the first women ever nominated for the award), and there actually was more of a crowd up front to see her than there had been for the first Sunday performer in any other year I could remember.  I guess her reputation preceded her.  And it didn't take long before we were all gobsmacked by her talent, her fingering, and her tone.  There were plenty of bluegrass whoops and hollers even with her first few songs, she was so impressive.  When Dave joined me after one song I gushed to him, "She's playing lead and rhythm and I can't even see her pick the lead she's so fast!"  She did her great cover of John Hartford's Gentle On My Mind, which was just surreal it was so good.  But the most gobsmacking thing for me and Dave was when she closed with the first Grateful Dead song of the day, Cold Rain and Snow.  This is actually a traditional murder ballad, though the murder itself is not talked about, just hinted at.  In her womanly arrangement, she was the one who was walking down the stairs combing back her yellow hair, and it was she who murdered the no good (I presume) man.

Wow, that was a great start!  Got some food and water and watched the late-arriving crowd, they already missed one of the best acts of the weekend.  But it wasn't long before the next main stage act came on:

Ballroom Thieves - Wasn't at all familiar with them but the writeup in the program convinced me that I'd like them and I sure did; this was just the kind of genre-straddling, quirky act I love.  They're a college band themselves (they met at Stonehill College and called themselves "from Boston").  Drummer Devin Mauch kind of sits on the floor with sticks and mallets and plays a djembe and a bass drum, as well as a small kit and assorted percussion.  Martin Earley plays a traditional acoustic guitar and sometimes a shiny electric, but it's Callie Peters who really defines their sound.  She started off on a big red bass more shiny than Earley's but soon switched to an even shinier, spotless gray cello which she struck and sawed on with her bow.  This was an incredible sound!  Her cello seemed to be set so that she could either get a ringing viola sound or a raunchy growl out of each string when she switched a pedal, or maybe it was the strings were rigged alternately through different filters.  As with Tuttle, it was beyond me how she did that and it was enthralling.

Well!  Dave and I were were already pretty toasted and a trip to the car and a sojourn in the shade had mixed effects itself.  We both headed for the porta-potties after that and just as he asked me, "Who is this Chris Smither guy anyway?" and I was about to say, "Who is Chris Smither!?!?!?" ... there he was, doing his small set at the Green House.  We stopped to watch him and suffice to say that Dave immediately made up his mind to catch Chris's full set later that afternoon.

And I want to talk some about my "theme" of the festival.  As loyal readers will recall, I commented that the festival two years ago had the theme of great guitarists (Derek Trucks, David Hidalgo, Sonya Kitchell, David Littleton, etc.) and last year it was great drummers such as Joe Russo and Mike Calabrese.  Took a stupid guy like me a while to figure out the theme of this festival ... it was incredible woman performers!  Just that day we'd seen Molly Tuttle and Callie Peters dominate the show already (see below about I'm With Her).  Saturday it had been Ruth Ungar who dominated my attention with The Mammals, Alicia Aubin with Big Mean Sound Machine, the incredible Allison Russell with Birds Of Chicago, and of course Karina Reykman with Marco Benevento.  On Friday it had been no less than Amy Helm, and the two great singers with Twisted Pine, Rachel Sumner and Katherine Parks.  Geez, though the last couple of bands that afternoon consisted of all guys, the men could have stayed home (or in the audience) that weekend and we'd have all just gone nuts over the talent these women brought.

By that point, as mentioned, the relentless heat and humidity were really affecting me, and I thought I should sit down for the next act with a little food and a lot of water.  Tried this for a while but two things happened: a) I couldn't take the sun and had to move out of the seats as soon as I finished eating and b) the next act cast a spell on me something serious.

I'm With Her - I had caught a bit of them up at the Green House Stage and of course have seen Aoife O'Donovan many times and think she's great.  I'd also seen Sarah Jarosz and she's an incredible talent.  I'd never seen Sara Watkins, and was possibly more impressed with her than the other two.  And I've heard their excellent new record as well as the things they've released on Spotify.  BUT ... I was not prepared for the level of excellent musicianship I saw.  I thought they were another one of those super-groups who get together and have fun but basically take turns playing each other's songs and are not really a band.  I was wrong, they just blew me away with how well they melded not only in their harmonies but also in their ability to accompany the ensemble's vocal sounds on instruments: O'Donovan on guitar (better than I've ever heard her play guitar before), Watkins on incredibly tasteful fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, and multi-instrumentalist Jarosz on fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and whatever else she could lay her hands on.  They had to swap instruments a few times, there was not room enough on stage for all of them.

As I say, the spell had me good and after I couldn't take sitting in the sun any longer I crept up to the stage and got pretty close, though there were hundreds of others up there.  I wondered a couple of times if I was about to fall over, but my legs held up, I concentrated on breathing calmly, and I had what started as a full bottle of water but soon was gone.  Perhaps it was the extreme conditions to some degree, but the emotion of their singing almost had me in tears at various times.

They finally neared the end of their set and Aoife and Sarah turned to Watkins, who picked up her guitar and did her excellent new song, which is just a great road song about wanderlust and how we Americans still can dream, Overland.  And then they were scratching their asses a bit, wondering what song they'd close with.  A woman just to my left was trying to hold it in too, but then dropped her cool and shouted, "Are you *ever* going to cross muddy waters??"  And just as she got out the last syllable of her exhortation, that excellent trio started into their great cover of John Hyatt's Crossing Muddy Waters.  The woman who called it went into paroxysms of ecstasy or something, we were all at least a bit outside our normal selves because of the weather.  Anyway, I'm With Her knocked the place down, all of them smiling beautifully and trying to look cool in the shade up on stage.  Wow, what a set this was!

Yikes, we were all of a sudden getting close to the end of the festival, but I realized I needed some time in the shade immediately if I was going to enjoy it.  I went directly over to the Parlor Room Stage, and hundreds of other people had apparently had the same idea.  Chris Smither had already started his act in the tent, with a lap steel player and also his excellent partner/producer, Goody Goodrich, on guitar.  Dave reported later that he had closed with the second Grateful Dead song of the day, Sitting On Top Of the World.  I'm told that Michelle was in that tent for one of her favorite artists, great that she could get away for her set!

I realized there was no way I could combine "shade" and "Smither," so I went way over to the far side of the hill, sat down in the shade, and concentrated on breathing in time to the wonderful sound of Chris's boot pounding rhythm on the floor.  A few songs (including a great reaction to the topical Nobody Home) and I was as rejuvenated as I figured I was going to get, so I headed back up to the main stage.  There was already a large group of people crowding in front, trying to stay in the shade cast by the lowering sun.  I joined it at the back and was in the sun for a little while, but then a few people shifted so I could move up and the sun set a little bit, and I was soon at least in shade to see...

Robert Earl Keen - I've only been a fan of Robert's for 35 years or so, and most of the others up front with me had probably been fans for a long time too.  As Robert has commented about his shows, the fans seemed to know the words better than he did!  The first part of his set was mainly "the old stuff," and we all bellowed out every syllable to Corpus Christi Bay, I'm Coming Home, Gringo Honeymoon, Feelin' Good Again, Amarillo Highway, If I were King, etc.  Gringo Honeymoon especially resonated so much on that hot day; we were all looking for a cool beer in the shade and Captain Pablo was our guide.  He blew a smoke ring and he smiled at us, "I ain't never going back."

It's kind of amazing how often Robert slurred and/or messed up and/or forgot a line or three but how the crowd kept on singing.  And he had an excellent band that could turn on a dime from a pure bluegrass sound to textbook outlaw country, but mostly stayed in between in Robert's sweet spot.  Again, I wasn't sure how much longer I could take before I fell right over, especially when he went from the great old stuff to his just-good newer stuff that didn't have us rocking in quite the same way.  Anyway, he ended with (surprise) The Road Goes On Forever and how can you help but sing along with that and jump up and down a bit?

Oh no, GRF was almost over!  The balloons were pretty much grounded again, there had been some thunderheads in the vicinity and even a welcome sun shower or two that afternoon.  But the balloons were finishing their tethered rides, the Flying High Dogs were done, and the Arts Tent and Arcade were deserted.  Everything was concentrating on the main stage uphill.  We all congregated at our seats, the sun was approaching the hillside behind the stage, and big chunks of the crowd were peeling off and going home.

Though the weather was challenging, many of the performers commented on what I say above, that Greenfield was looking beautiful that early-summer weekend and it was so much fun to be outside in the real world with the lovely green hills and fields all around us.  We texted our friends where we were and they pretty much all came up for at least part of the Sunday closing act, which was:

Old Crow Medicine Show - This was another act I'd never seen, though I've been listening to and greatly enjoying them for years.  As with many acts at the festival, they've recently released a new record (Volunteer) and I feel it's one of their best.  They did a number of songs from that and a number of their classics, including the third Grateful Dead song of the weekend, CC Rider.  They've got such a large and talented band and were tripping over themselves with their stage changes and instrument changes.  It seemed the techs were bringing out new instruments for everybody between each song ... maybe because they were drenched with sweat!?!

Anyway, I say again, we and many of the people in the crowd were reaching the end.  We had a long drive back ahead of us and our timing was great: we packed our stuff, folded our chairs, made one last porta-potty run, said goodbye to all our friends, and were ready to leave as soon as they started into Wagon Wheel, which we knew would be the denouement.  Excellent song and excellent band and we hated to tear ourselves away but we were ready for some air conditioning.

Got the stuff stowed, got the car started, got the air conditioning blowing cold air in our leathery faces, and made it out of the Greenfield Community College lots just about as Old Crow was singing the closing chorus.  On the highway soon and the ride back actually went incredibly smoothly.  We were home almost exactly two hours after we started packing up to leave.

So how was the 2018 GRF?  I think it'll take me a long, long, long time before my first answer to that question will be about anything but the weather.  Maybe the me of ten (or twenty) years ago would have shrugged it off, but the heat and humidity that weekend just sapped me and made me wonder how much longer it will be that I'll be able to go enjoy music in a setting like that.

But enjoy it I did!  We expected that the 2018 lineup would not knock us over with its excellence, such as with LSD and JRAD last year or Tedeschi Trucks and Los Lobos the year before (or the old Rubblebucket before that).  But we also realized that we needed to concentrate on the acts we knew we would like (see comments about being unsuccessful at this the last few years) and we know the rhythms of the GRF well enough that we were able to do this.  We were in the right place at the right time all weekend and saw some excellent musicianship, as well as having fun with our friends.  What more can you want?

And I have to say that my answer to the question of how was the 2018 GRF, if and when I get beyond how extreme the weather was, was that the women musicians I saw that weekend were extraordinary.  That was the overriding theme of the weekend and the sounds of Katherine Parks singing Heart Of Glass, Ruth Ungar singing Maple Leaf, Molly Tuttle singing Cold Rain and Snow, and many more ... will stay with me for a long time.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Green River Festival 2018, Saturday!

Woke up Saturday at a decent time, but I was exhausted and not feeling good.  We had a nice hotel room (except for Dave’s fold-out bed, which looked like a Medieval torture device), but I had had a horrible night’s sleep after a wearing evening.  I didn’t mention it in Friday night’s blog, and I didn’t pay perhaps as much attention to it as I should have at the time, but the weather was gruesome and the energy was just drained out of us.  I think plenty of other concert-goers felt the same way.

We’ve experienced heat, rain, and more heat … yeah, and more rain … at GRF, but this weekend’s heat and humidity has been from another world.  Neither was the worst, but the two of them together just left you in a brain-dead fog if you weren’t constantly concentrating on how you were feeling and taking care of yourself.  Maybe I’m getting older (no!), but there were times, as I said to Sarah, where I could have been in line at Walmart, just spacing out.  You had to concentrate to feel the music sometimes instead of just letting it wash over you.  And a big part of this was that the sun and the mugginess made your body droop and your face melt.

But whatever, it was Saturday morning at the GRF!  I sucked it up, showered, and went downstairs for a nice breakfast with girls in softball uniforms walking around in a heightened state of tension and Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal battling it out in the fifth set at Wimbledon (Djokovic finally won).  Possibly the biggest event of that morning, though was about to start…

It had been an excellent 2018 World Cup and the third place game, England and Belgium, was about to start.  Back up in our room we could not find it on the TV but had brought an HDMI cable and were able to get logged into Fox Sports on my laptop and get it on the TV by the time it started.  We texted the group and they all jammed into our large room, sprawled over the couch, furniture, chairs, and bed, and we had a great time watching the game!  Belgium was the more inventive team that day and after England almost tied it but their best shot was swept off the line, Belgium scored again to seal the victory.

Wait, why the fuck weren’t we in line in the hot sun at the Festival by then?  Well, it was because the Saturday lineup was kind of thin and there was no reason to grab great seats at the Main Stage.  Our strategy was to hang out for the game, leave when it was over around noon, go directly to set up our chairs at the Dean’s Beans Stage instead of uphill, and basically to take a mellow approach (for us) to Saturday.  Which was what we did.

Got packed up soon after the game was over and were on the road for the Massachusetts line by a few minutes after noon.  The cars were backed up on College Road when we got there and the sun was blazing and the humidity was frying our brains.  But Dave got out and headed in; they had smartly made a “bags” line and a “no bags” line and Dave went straight in with no bags and got our seats (alongside P&D) downhill.

In the meantime, Sarah and I waited in that long line of cars, got a parking space far from the entrance, and then waited in line for what seemed like an hour (it was) to just get in through the “bags” line.  But the important thing is that we got in, dumped our stuff at the beachhead downhill, and then I took off for the upper stage.  Though there were few great acts up on the Main Stage that day, one of the acts I most wanted to see had already begun!  Here’s what I saw … I think:

The Mammals – I’ve loved Ruth Ungar’s and Mike Merenda’s band for years and had never seen them (I’ve seen Ruth with Sometymes Why).  I think I have all The Mammals records and they’re *so much* in my personal sweet spot for uplifting humanist string music I can’t describe it.  I tell other people to listen to them and they say huh?  They’ve recently re-formed and put out perhaps their best record.  When we finally got past the bag check, Ruth was singing the beautiful Stayin’ Up Late and I hated to run downhill.  But I was soon back up and they were crooning the title track, Sunshiner.  I hurried up front and their music ran all through me (it was early in the day and the humidity hadn’t worked its evil ways yet), as I swayed to Make It True, Culture War, Fork In the Road, and then they closed with perhaps one of the loveliest songs in recent memory, Maple Leaf.  We all wanted to fly like maple leaves, and the day was just starting!  I was so glad to hear the bulk of their set after waiting forever to get in.

Big Mean Sound Machine - I got some iced(!) coffee and slowly made my way back downhill after that, anticipating a band from Ithaca College (Dave's alma mater).  Dave had seen them often in college and had gotten me psyched, he called them "Ithaca's answer to Rubblebucket ... without vocals."  Dave and I got right in front of the horns and had a great time.  The 8-person band was led by Angelo Peters on funky effects-laden bass and synth, and the funk permeated the two percussionists (one on ethereal congas), keys/synth player, guitarist, and trombonist (Alicia Aubin), trumpeter (Jack Storer), and saxophonist.  They spun wonderful grooves and immediately had us all dancing to their long pieces.  Aubin and Storer were particularly fascinating, playing long inventive, note-perfect brass solos ... didn't hurt that we were right in front of them.

But I tore myself away before the set ended because I could tell I needed water, food, and shade badly already.  I got refreshed and then got some nutrition (beans, rice, and guacamole) from La Veracruzana and headed back down to the Parlor Room Stage (set up pretty much the same as last year) to find a shady spot to eat in.  Caught the last few chords of Jack Broadbent's set but didn't see him.  The tent was packed already and gave you claustrophobia just looking at the sweaty people struggling their way out of it.  OK ... after a bit I was full, hydrated, and refreshed, and so headed on into the tent myself and grabbed an aisle seat for easy escape before it got really packed, and it sure did a few minutes after that.  But I was bound to see a whole set of...

Birds Of Chicago - Though it had flaws, the Parlor Room Stage was exactly the right setting for this band at this moment.  I was sitting down in the shade (though I had to get up like 20 times for people to enter and exit my row, this is not a successful "seating" situation) and I was able to concentrate on the music and on the wonderful vocals, flute, and banjo by Allison Russell, as well as the great musicianship of the rest of the band.  They were playing mellow versions of their best songs, and they were smiling, giving way to each other, and just being brilliant in turn.  Again, they didn't do Roisin Starchild, but they covered Love In Wartime, the really fun Baton Rouge, and the earnest Try from their new record.

Oh boy that was fun.  I somehow made it out of that hot tent as soon as their set was over though, and wandered back to our seats over at the Dean's Beans Stage after running into friends playing soccer and frisbee and admiring the sky.

Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express - They were just starting up when I got over there, and they were ok IMO.  Chuck's got some hot licks and they played some great SanFran and/or classic rock tunes ... and you know that's what I like.  But they were a little cliched and the music often took a back seat to presentation.  Which isn't the SanFran ethic I should say!

Anyway, wandered around at that point and saw a tune and a half from:

Yes Darling - This novelty act is Ryan Montbleau and Hayley Jane and they're really godawful.  OK, there's lots of talent there but they're interested in duo acting rather than playing good music.  They probably improvised a bit but had their pieces all ready to act out and Hayley knew just when to react to Ryan's guitar chords and Ryan knew just when to react to Hayley's innuendos.  Perhaps entertaining, and the Parlor Room Stage was as packed as ever, but not what I was going to stand in the hot sun to watch.

So I went uphill and got more water (must have re-filled my water bottle 50 times over the course of the weekend) and...

Interjection here that they had a new stage at the GRF, alternately called the Green House Stage, the Pop-up Stage, or the Tiny House Stage.  They set up a "tiny house" with a porch over in the shaded area between the porta-potties and the beer wagon and it was just marvelous, a very successful addition.  The acts would rotate over there just before their appearance on the big stages, when they were already all kitted up/made up and looking fresh.  They had several video cameras focussing on them with this "living room" backdrop and I'm sure the idea is to make promotional videos that will appear on YouTube or some other channel.

And the performances there were marvelous!  The acts knew that this was their close-up for Mr. DeMille and they rose to the occasion, staring right into the camera and/or the small audience while doing three (this was apparently the limit) of their best songs.  Sarah has some wonderful pictures of the Birds there and I was fortunate to see a song and a half from Chris Smither and most of I'm With Her's tiny set.

Another piece of the great GRF experience was their vendors and information providers.  Had a wonderful (and persuasive?) talk with a guy from Green Mountain Energy and a fun talk with a woman selling Jay Blakesburg photos, that she'd enhanced and framed.  I was captivated by one of a young looking Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, and realized while talking with her that it was from the first time we'd seen them, at Gathering Of the Vibes in 2011.  She told me about her experience of seeing them there on that hot, hot day.

Chuck Prophet was still pontificating and so I kept wandering and was just in time to catch the Mardi Gras Parade uphill that they do every year but I've never seen up close, where kids get to march with the banners, sculptures, and costumes they've made at the Art Tent.  This year's parade was led by the members of Big Mean Sound Machine in mufti, some with kazoos.  And the stragglers in it were the aliens from Bella's Bartok.  After that interlude, I was just in time to catch a bit of ...

Femi Kuti and the Positive Force - Kuti comes from a line of African leaders, both politically and musically, and he had a full band with him, some of the members in traditional costume.  I only saw a few songs from them and have to say they were kind of boring.  Perhaps if I'd stayed longer I would have been more receptive to their groove, but it was a lot of him yelling political lines at the crowd and smiling that they just didn't get how serious he was, and then him pointing at the horn players to lay down another riff.  He also had backup singers who apparently had been told to shake their booties, and this itself was not politically appropriate.  Whatever.

Timing was good then to cruise back to the Parlor Room Stage, where they'd thankfully folded up all the seats and left plenty of dancing room.  This is how that stage should always be configured!  I caught four or five tunes from...

The Revelers - This is an all-star Cajun/Zydeco band (no black members, so favor the former slash term) that lets it all hang out and is very much in my sweet spot of music.  They had seven or eight or five or who knows guys on stage and they were all swapping instruments and a different guy did the lead on each song.  And they did that great heart of the country thing of being swampy and steaming and tender and vulnerable all at the same time.  None of them took the baton and shone with it, but they all took the baton in turn and let his heart shine.  Loved it, but then it was time to get back for ...

 OK, time to go settle down in our seats at the Dean's Beans Stage and enjoy the last acts of the night (by our schedule).

Bella's Bartok - Was just starting and they were a trip.  They had a couple of horn players (one of whom took his shirt off straight-away), a couple of percussionists, a couple of guitar and bass players, one dynamic lead in Asher Putnam, and a lot of facial hair, most of it expressed in mustaches.  Dave had seen them at GRF a few years back and was more than eager to experience them again, and I have to admit that this was really fun.  They sang in Turkish, sang in unison, sang in nonsense syllables, did some cracker-jack riffs on all the above instruments, and did not faint (accidentally).  The sun was just beginning to mellow out by then, though the humidity did not relent, and perhaps the most amazing thing about these very talented musicians' act was that they breezed on as if heat was the least of their problems.  This was very entertaining stuff and very impressive stagemanship.

All of a sudden, it was again getting late on Saturday night at our favorite music festival and one of our favorite bands was about to come on.  There was apparently some atmospheric je ne sais quoi going on that night, and so the balloons weren't really firing up, though they were desultorily lounging on the lower field while the sun was getting a little lower, then a little lower.

Dave and I were up at the rail immediately as soon as the previous act was done ... we weren't about to miss this opportunity to see Marco Benevento from up close.  Scott also knew that this was one of the acts of the festival, and we were so glad when the whole Taylor entourage showed up at stage-front!  The crowd filled in pretty well while Karina and Dave and Marco were doing their sound check.  And then finally it was time for...

Marco Benevento - We've seen these guys several times, see earlier blog posts.  And of course Marco is an essential part of JRAD.  Dave had seen Marco delivering pizza and hanging out with his daughter during Bella's Bartok and that added a nice touch.  But they were up on stage now and Marco had his super-cool super-funky cyberpunk green piano and Karina Reykman was looking fine and sounding finer and rocking the fuck out of the place with her white get-up and her excellent bass and her waves of sound, and Dave Butler was kicking the shit out of the atmosphere and egging on Marco and Karina.  They played the first part of the Fred Short suite to start and then went on from there to say the least.  They did an excellent cover of Dropkick and that was not all.  They did a mashup of a Butthole Surfers song, a Pink Floyd song, and an Elton John song.  Marco got the whole crowd singing along to Benny and the Jets.

No At the Show, but they couldn't do everything.  Their stagecraft was as impeccable as always.  Karina did her routine of running off stage and then dashing back on just in time to deliver a rip-the-world-apart bass chord.  Marco twirled a bit for the crowd and ended up climbing up on top of his piano and jumping off, a feat more precarious than it sounds.

But the meat of it all was the runs Marco took on that piano.  You'd notice him start to chord with his right hand and then that his left hand was scratching that itch and then pounding down into the nether regions, and then that the right hand was tinkling in ways that had never been tinkled before, and then that the two together were about to explode into the ionosphere.  And then they would and then he'd take it from there, sometimes playing the most Shortnin' Bread kind of Jimmy Rogers riffs that had us all nodding, and then sometimes drawing baroque tapestries and sometimes bursting through gauzy curtains.

Well jeez, I could go on.  The balloons were surging and alight, the crowd was thundering with applause when he stopped, and the stage announcer came out and urged us all on to an encore.  We were certainly using time for fun.

Well it was finally over and we were done.  It had been a long day and though Michael Franti was laying down a heavy (but poppy) beat on the upper field, it was time for us to exit stage left.  Hung out at the seats a bit and did last porta-potty stops (they had turned off the lights and you never know how scary a porta-potty can be until you do it in the total dark).  Then bundled up and found the car in the far reaches of the parking lots and slowly got rolling up to Brattleboro.

As it turned out, we were a little ahead of the others.  We took turns in the shower to wash off dirt and sweat and sunscreen and grime and don't-ask and more sweat and crud.  Finally we were presentable and rendezvoused with our friends downstairs.  The girl's softball team and their hangers-on were rocking the lobby again ... we never found out where they were from or how they did in the tournament, but they were having a good time.  We couldn't take the hip-hop music and we found the "Board Room," where we assembled and had an excellent time, showing PPTs to each other and eating chips late into the night!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Green River Festival 2018, Friday night!

I was a little disappointed this year when the Green River Festival lineup was first announced.  I kept hoping they’d add some acts I was really excited about, but excitement was slow to come.  They announced Josh Ritter, Michael Franti, and Old Crow Medicine Show as the nightly closers early on … one half-exciting act out of three is better than none.  And then they did add acts like Robert Earl Keen, Amy Helm, Chris Smither, I’m With Her … and Marco Benevento!

OK, I was excited though it could have been a lot more exciting.  But how do you follow the great acts of the last few festivals?  I and the others in our group realized that this might be a down year, but that was no reason for us to be down.  We were all psyched for another great GRF and it finally rolled around on the calendar.

There had been some fuckups about accommodations and tickets this year, like our hotel going belly-up on us (the ex-Rodeway Inn in Greenfield, which didn’t even have the courtesy to tell us it had died) and some in our group not getting tickets to all three days.  But we got rooms at the Hampton Inn in Brattleboro, which turned out well, and we had the chance to give endless shit to those who had missed tickets!

Worked Friday morning at our new office in Waltham and then back-tracked to Woburn to pick up Sarah and Dave, who had spent the night.  We threw everything in the car and took off for The West soon after noon on a hot, hot day that presaged a hot, hot weekend.

Got out to Greenfield and cruised into town where we had lunch at a pretty busy People’s Pint.  BBQ chicken wrap for me and a couple of IPAs and similar stuff for S&D.  Then we stopped for beer and supplies (Ginger Libation at Ryan and Casey’s), and drove straight-away over to the Festival.

The crowds had been so intense there the last few years that we figured the only way to get great seats for the great Friday lineup was to get there early, and we were right.  Our timing was great and we were in line behind just a few cars, and then got our good parking space and jumped into line, 20th or so.  The gates opened soon and we were on our way … but wait!

For years the GRF was “no alcohol” and they pretty much turned a blind eye to people slipping in cans or bottles of this or that in their coolers as long as they were discreet.  Then they realized that they had become immensely popular and had to become more of a big league Festival … another case of success ruining things … and they got the super-cool Berkshire Brewing Company a license and had them sell beer.  But people continued to smuggle stuff in and you knew it was going to happen that eventually they’d have to crack down more.  They announced that this year they were really going to inspect bags, and they did a pretty good job of balancing this with letting the long lines of people flow.  There were still a few people who smuggled in (just guessing here actually) mixed drinks in orange juice bottles.  But they were plastic!

And you've gotta understand what time we're living in.  One of the (disappearing?) charms of the GRF is that it's so mellow.  You (and your kids) can walk around barefoot with not a second thought!  The big rule was that you weren't allowed to bring in glass bottles and I'm all in favor of people policing themselves not to do this.  I'm all in favor of parties too, but seeing people smoke pot at their seats with kids (and other non-smokers) around last year was kind of a shock (didn't happen this year, perhaps because the designated pot-smoking area was open again).  I hope GRF stays mellow.

Anyway, got in soon after a bit of delay for inspection and grabbed great seats at our regular position from the stage, but to the right of the electrical conduit.  Yow!  It was the GRF again, people were streaming in, we were getting beer tokens and inspecting the used records.  Friend Steve the security volunteer was there again, and life was just perfect.

The lineup for the Main Stage (rebranded as the “Tea Guys Stage”) was pretty good, as I say, but I planned to head downhill for the Latin Stage (the whilom Three Rivers Stage which is now the Dean’s Beans Stage) at some point.  Here’s what I saw:

Twisted Pine – This band of young Berklee products has come a long way and has re-invented themselves several times since we first saw them.  They had the same lineup as last year (Kathleen Parks with a lot of makeup, Rachel Sumner looking as young-Kathy-Kallick as ever, Dan Bui on mando, and Chris Sartori on bass), but some new songs.  I liked their old lineup and the traditional songs they used to play, but I have to admit that this was fantastic stuff, perhaps the most impressive set I’ve seen from them.  Bui was flawless as ever, Parks was excellent on fiddle, Sumner rocked my head on guitar and smooth as silk woman bluegrass vocals as she always does, and their arrangements are great.

AND ... they were well into their set and then they took a breath, and then sang Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.  This caught me totally unawares, I didn't know they covered this.  "Lucy" means a lot to me: Sergeant Pepper's was the first album I bought, and there have been several situations in my life when I've been watching the plasticine porters and then By Dog there's suddenly somebody there at the turnstile.  'Nuff said.

Their climax was Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, and as weird as this was (no more weird than Emmylou doing a Beatles song in the 70s??), it is an immensely successful earworm and played in my head all night.  But I wish they'd smile a bit more ... maybe it was glare but they all took some serious turns frowning at us all.

Amy Helm – Amy’s changed a bit too over the last few years.  In the past we’ve seen her with musicians who really challenged her and that had a certain tension that we loved.  She’s more in charge of the band now and though these guys may have been able to upstage her themselves (fantastic guitar player, bass player, keyboardist, and drummer), they stayed more in the background and let her vocals shine out.  I think she’s great and was fine with this!  She opened with Didn’t It Rain (we were hoping it wouldn’t and so far so good) and climaxed the set with her new song This Too Shall Light (her second album (with this song) has not yet been released) as the balloons took off in the still-bright evening, and she brought out Allison Russell to help with the encore.

Birds Of Chicago – I missed these guys a couple of years ago at GRF and was kicking myself.  They’ve recently released Love In Wartime and that is an incredible record (though they didn't play my favorite song from it, Roisin Starchild).  So I was psyched and was not at all disappointed by Allison Russell’s crystal-beautiful vocals and JT Nero’s grit.  They were perhaps a little cautious in this Friday-night set, but they let it all hang out the next day.

Before they were done I grabbed some food from La Veracruzana and then ran down to the Latin Stage for…
Orquesta Akokán – Managed to time this perfectly and was front and center on the rail when this huge Cuban band came out.  I was eager to see them but ended up being a bit disappointed.  They played a very formal style and even though there was probably enough talent on the stage to sink a ship, they were content to stay in the background and let the singer/bandleader, Jose Gomez, strut his stuff in his white suit and point to them in turn to take short leads.  As the woman next to me said, “He’s just like a small Ricky Ricardo!”  Anyway, did some dancing and some grooving but soon it was time to leave.
Back at the Main Stage Josh Ritter had started his set but it didn’t hold our attention and we packed up quickly and left, as we had planned to do.  It wasn’t a long drive up to our hotel in Brattleboro but we didn’t want to arrive really late, and our friends were waiting!

We checked in to the Hampton at exit 3, texted with the folks, and then mostly assembled downstairs in the lobby where a girl’s softball team and their parents/hangers-on were already assembled and making more noise than we could.  We tried our best to join in and had a fun time before dragging ourselves away to bed.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Dead & Company Back in the Theatre

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the really important things in life when work gets in the way, like trees, the sky, and another Dead & Company concert.  And sometimes Hartford can seem far away, especially when you’ve gotta get there through mounds of traffic and you realize you have to drive back that night.  So there was some hassle in planning the logistics for going down to Hartford’s Xfinity Theatre on June 13th to see Dead & Company … and there was a possibility of rain, thunder, and lightning, but we knew it would be worth it (unless the show was truncated by weather!) and it really was.

Grabbed iced coffees to go on another beautiful but turning tumultuously overcast late Spring day.  Met Sarah and Dave at the train (Dave and I had the same t-shirt ... very embarrassing) and then we picked up subs/wraps/quesadillas and hit the road for the Southwest.  The traffic through Worcester was as bad as ever and the rain started coming and going.  But we eventually made it to the Pike and down 84 into Connecticut and the clouds started backing off and the showers cut it out.

Pulled onto Market Street in Hartford, eschewed Yard Goat parking, and joined a line of cars wending their way up around the car dealerships and into the free lot (a.k.a. the toxic waste dump) that extends North from the Xfinity Theatre.  We considered going for VIP parking or at least some kind of lot that held out some kind of hope for easy exiting after the concert, but none really did unless you paid them a lot of money.  We figured, how bad can it be?  And we found out … it was even worse than our first time there.

Oh well, grabbed a patch of crumbled asphalt and toxic waste in the lot and settled down to eat our subs and get psyched.  They actually had a few porta-potties there this time but a lot of people used the woods anyway.  And guess who pulled up 50 or so cars behind us and parked right next to us, Dave’s friend whom he runs into at every Dead event!  That was a cosmic coincidence, and later Jimmy and friend showed up too and we all had a good time hiding our beers from the mellow cops cruising the lot and inspecting vendor wares when they came by.

And those mellow vendors were smart to come by because almost half of the long walk into the amphitheater was lined with more serious vendors who had brought booths to set up and spread out in.  Of course there were some with coolers selling beer by the can and probably whatever else you wanted.  This was by far the most extensive Shakedown Street I’d ever seen, though we didn’t slow down to look at it for long … we wanted to get in and get in position for a good spot on the lawn.

Inside at last we found our way up the the lawn entrance, where about 50 people were already waiting for the gates to open.  We joined them and had some nice conversations with people there, then the gates opened and we all ran up the stairs or around the wall onto the lawn and found where we wanted to sit.  We really had a great spot, just high enough up on the lawn to see over the people in the back rows of the seats, even when they stood up and sat on each other’s shoulders at the end of the concert.  And we were just right of center … center was dead on to the “Section 600” marker painted on the overhang, and we figured we were about in section 569.

We had brought in one of our clear plastic Dead Concert bags with some snacks and some empty water bottles, which we’d filled up on the way in, as well as getting a big cup of Sweetwater 420.  We had plenty of time to settle in to our spot on the hardy, long grass (it must take a beating and so they keep it a little long), and to then wander around.  This time when I looked over at the load-in access area, there were 9 tour busses (John must need two, but who else?) and at least 17 huge tractor-trailer trucks.

And the clouds actually started to part … we could see a little bit of gray-blue sky and it sure didn’t feel like there was any lightning approaching the area that night.  We were glad to get in early, because it must have been a madhouse out in the lots as 8:00 approached and the frantic crowds streamed in.  Strange that every other show on the tour started at 7 and this one was at 8, but strange things often happen at Hartford concerts.

Have I set the scene well enough?  The guys came out and launched into the first song.  It wasn’t Stranger but the jam instantly was familiar and it was close.  Here’s the first set:

Hell In a Bucket
Next Time You See Me
Ramble On Rose
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Cumberland Blues
Black Muddy River
Don’t Ease Me In

One of the things to watch about the tour this year has been the instruments.  Bob changes guitars so quickly you wonder how he doesn't get confused [sic].  He has that wonderful green guitar that we love, but also switches between a blonde guitar, a red one, the walnut one we loved last Fall, and one of his old chika-chika guitars ... and at least one acoustic.  John pulls out his acoustic once in a while but mainly stays on a tiger striped one for the rock songs and a gray-blue one for the blues songs.  But he switched his on-stage amps at some point between the first few shows ... going from a custom setup to all Fenders.  Oteil sticks to his great green six-string (Alembic?) and the drummers, as noted, have a more compact setup that still features lots of gadgets.

But the great instrumental twist is Jeff's piano.  He started the tour in Mansfield with a grand, which he's always had with this band before.  But then in the third or fourth show(??) he switched to a studio grand, a kind of snub-nosed baby grand with some chrome detailing.  And it sounds great!  One would have to say that Jeff is the straw that stirs this drink (notwithstanding the excellence of all the other musicians), and the sound from his studio grand is so much him.  There's a little ragtime, a little schmaltz, a lot of old-time rock and roll, a little ethereal omphaloskepsis, and a ton of Jeff's particular style.  The action seems to be perfect for him and he doesn't seem to be working hard on it at all, though you're just gob-smacked when he takes a lead at the sounds that come out of it.  I've thought over and over, "How can you do that without having three hands or 20 fingers?"

So anyway, there was Bobby back at the mike singing about black leather suspenders while the rest of the guys were getting the sound just right.  That sure didn't take long and they started jamming and jamming as soon as they could.  John was leading the pack and this soon became a very deep and long Bucket, which was fantastic.

Dave has some great detail of all the songs they played in his blog.  I'm in agreement with him on all of them, especially how they killed Ramble On Rose in the first set, a song that you wouldn't think is made for them but that they do incredibly well.  Also the Cumberland was excellent and they pulled this off with no mistakes.  I was on a trip up to the bathrooms during that and realized how crowded the place had gotten.

The back of the lawn was way, way away from the stage and people were talking there almost in normal voices, though down in our lawn spot the sound was great.  I couldn't get over the fact that we didn't see that many speakers, a small stack was suspended from the roof a little to our right and there was another small stack over to our left.  But the sound from under the roof seemed to be projecting well besides those, and in particular Oteil and Jeff's bass notes made a perfectly rounded sound.  This was the sound that had first grabbed me about this band at our first concert in Worcester and it was back!

John did another sterling vocal on Black Muddy River, which must be one of his favorite songs.  And then Don't Ease Me In was done with a tempo and verve worthy of a great Garcia song.  I was lost in the dark for these two songs.  I headed back to our seats from the bathroom and though I got pretty close, the lawn was so huge and so dark down by our spot that I would have had to stumble over a lot of people before finding Sarah and Dave, so I just hung back and enjoyed myself.

Break time after that and I quickly found my way back when things thinned out a bit.  I wasn't about to leave and get lost again, that amphitheater is huge and was packed!  And what a great first set that had been.  To rob a phrase from descriptions of the Bobby & Phil shows, they were thrillingly loose.  As I've said, I like it when this band rolls the dice and changes tacks.  I like it when they're tight of course, and this can be thrilling itself.  But they seemed so relaxed that beautiful night in Hartford and willing to walk up to the edge of the cliff and look over it.  The first setlist had been very good and the playing was fantastic, and though the second setlist was weird and they didn't play what we were sure they were going to (like, Dark Star!), the concert as a whole was delightful.

And the night really had turned beautiful.  The clouds continued to recede and the late evening glowed a lovely violet-blue.  And then it got a little darker and Venus popped out over our heads and a little to the left, looking just right in its own spot in the sky.  "It's the spiral light of Venus!" I told a few people, pointing.  They just looked at me like I was a crazy Deadhead.

Well anyway, not a very long set break fortunately (we were worried about curfew with an 8:00 start and maybe they were too).  Here's that second set I was talking about:

Feel Like a Stranger
Viola Lee Blues
China Cat Sunflower
I Know You Rider
Man Smart, Woman Smarter
Viola Lee Blues
Looks Like Rain
Not Fade Away

This may not look like the most dynamic setlist and you'll get no argument.  We were disappointed that they didn't play Dark Star into TOO into Caution into Sing Me Back Home.  But wow, this was great!  Viola Lee is one of the most down and dirty songs you can get and they played it with such an edge (but a loose edge if you know what I mean), after opening with a sudden Stranger that had us all back on our heels.

And then China Cat rushed on us with Bobby slurring the words but John and Jeff winding all around us like a silver kimono.  And I particularly liked this Rider, which went on and on and into folk heaven, except Oteil was booming and the drummers were crunching it.  And then John would roll into another lead and then Jeff would top him.

I speak in riddles perhaps but again, see Dave's blog for more specifics.  I was delighted when they went into Man Smart next, such a great beat and they handle the vocals so well on this.  And then it was fantastic how the beat morphed into a powerful Drums segment, with Billy leading the way but then Mickey taking over.  Then they did another unusual thing, which was to come to a full stop at the end of Drums.  The drummers were done, and then the guys came out and immediately struck up a jam more than a "Space" per se.  Which morphed back into Viola Lee and we were all shaking our heads about our friends getting lifetime here.  Maybe a lifetime on the Hartford grass wouldn't be as bad as being Nashville bound.

Then Bobby really stepped up big-time with LLR.  There sure wasn't much chance of the clouds coming back at that point and I guess we had predicted that he'd sing this in the first set when rain was in the forecast.  But he capped a set of unexpected charms with a beautiful vocal on arguably the most classic of Barlow songs, a song about losing love by someone who hadn't found it yet, but would.  And this was a great substitute for the classic Garcia second set ballad.

I'll have to admit I was a little disappointed by NFA, because I knew it was the set closer and because I knew they'd keep it short (curfew approached) and because it's turned into kind of a gimmick song.  Oh well, the crowd loved it and was clapping along while they ended quickly and waved as they hurried off the stage.  They came back soon though and finished us off with a lovely Brokedown Palace, with a great vocal arrangement.

I immediately said that that was a great concert!  It was weird and loose and there wasn't much that stood out about it, but the sound and the quality were top-notch to my ear.  The long Bucket, the professionally played Ramble On Rose and Cumberland, the second set opener of Stranger on a strange night, the power of Viola Lee, and the beauty of LLR were highlights.  And the entirety of the show was great.

Still not entirely done yet, still a long way to go!  We trucked over that immense and tilting lawn out a fortuitous exit, but then had a long walk back through the dregs of Shakedown Street, back to the deepest part of the toxic waste dump, where our car (and many others) were parked.  There were people who didn't want to be selling t-shirts trying to bully you into buying one, an extensive dentist convention of course that you thought might break out into ugliness at some point, a lost guy mumbling to himself who told me he lived somewhere in Connecticut but he couldn't remember exactly where, and a long, long line of cars trying to get out, let alone all of us who were still parked.

It was a little before midnight by the time we got to the car and cracked another beer while waiting for the line to show any sign of moving.  And it was about 12:30 by the time we got in the car and joined the line.  Once we got on the highway things weren't much calmer, but things finally settled down a bit and we finally got Dave back to Quincy by 2:30 or so, and then got back home.  It was long past bedtime and a last look at the clock showed 3:22 when my head finally hit the pillow.

Oh well ... Hartford sometimes seems close and sometimes seems like another planet.  But we had seen a brilliant concert and this one goes in the memory banks.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Larry and Teresa Back in Shirley

In between the mammoth Dead & Company concerts, we were not about to miss Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams at the Bull Run on Sunday, June 10th.  Dave was over for a birthday weekend of kayaking and other stuff, and then we drove in two cars on out there at the end of the afternoon on Sunday, where we were the only cars in the back parking lot when we arrived.

And even though our table was full (being the front center table of course) and the surrounding tables were all packed with enthusiasts, the back lot never had more than a few cars in it and the Sawtelle Room never was more than a third full!  They also hadn't opened the Sawtelle Room kitchen and we were served from the bar menu.  It was a slow night at the old roadhouse  Oh well, Teresa said they could have been playing in our living room and at times it seemed like that.  And as she also mentioned, we all were very familiar with their act and their songs and not much exposition was needed.

Larry and Teresa were accompanied by the same band we'd seen them with before, Justin Guip on drums and Jesse Murphy on bass, and they played one long set of excellent material.  They did their awesome cover of Running Wild as their second or third song and we could have left satisfied after that.  But they also did Did You Ever Love Me At All, Save Me From Myself, When I Stop Loving You, If I Had My Way, Wishing Well, Surrender To Love, Larry's amazing cover of Duke Ellington's Caravan, Turkey In the Straw, Cry Cry Cry, The Other Side of Pain, It Ain't Gonna Be a Good Night, Everybody Loves You, Lamp Trimmed and Burning, and lots of other great stuff.

Larry picked the mandolin for a few songs but usually played one of two Telecasters or an acoustic.  Teresa was on acoustic for most songs.  The two of them were directly in front of us, so we got to see some amazing fingering from Larry, especially when he stepped up to the front of the stage and seemed to be playing directly at the 8 of us, enthralled at table 63. There were so few people that they really didn't need to be amplified at all, except Justin and Jesse wanted to rock out and play it loud, and of course Larry did not discourage them.  Some of their rocking jams were as good as it gets and they had the back corners of that room full of excellent sound, though only empty chairs and tables were there to enjoy it.

It ended sooner than we wanted, but they came back out for an encore after peeking around the corner of the stairs to see if we were still there.  None of us had left, we were all there for the long run.  One woman was vocal about wanting to hear their cover of Sugaree ... Deadheads are never far from Larry and Teresa.  They complied and this was a great, syncopated bluesy version, that Teresa sang as if to a devil within herself, as perhaps Hunter meant it (the requestor thanked them for playing it, there was absolutely no wall between the performers and the audience).  Then Justin and Jesse hit the showers, Larry and Teresa unplugged and huddled near the front of the stage, and they sang a beautiful, sad, sad version of Your Long Journey.  Kind of a bummer song, but you gotta be ready for some sadness when you go to a folk/blues concert I guess.

That was it, and we split up for a pretty quick drive home.  Great weekend!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dead & Company In Mansfield

Well, it was another case of it being very hard to complain!  After the stellar Dead & Company tour last Fall we've been the recipient of a continuous stream of Dead and Dead-like occurrences, like JRAD live in December, Dead & Co on the Mexican beach in February followed by the 3 makeup shows from the Fall tour, and then Bobby & Phil live in Boston and on the couch tour in March.  And of course DSO came back to town in early May (though we didn't see it), and we'd seen a spectacular Ghost Light show in April.  Where was Golden Gate Wingmen??  Oh well, can't complain, especially when Dead & Co were about to start another massive tour, this time opening on May 30 in Mansfield MA, at the whilom Great Woods, now called the Xfinity Center.

Needless to say, the rush for tickets was as intense as ever.  Our strategy was to go for tickets to the Hartford concert as well (6/13), and we decided we'd be fine with lawn tickets for that since we remembered the lawn there being as good as many of the stadium seats and there was a great difference in price.  Those were easy to snag when they went on sale.  But good tickets for Mansfield were not offered to any of us three when we tried multiple times.  And so Sarah took a shot at the lowest level VIP tickets and immediately got offered great seats, right behind the soundboard as it turned out.  We figured we were getting cheap seats in Hartford and these were only about a third more than we'd been planning to spend on Mansfield, so let's go for it! ... so we did.

Met up at Yard House in Dedham by 3 or so after some massive 128 traffic for me and the wrong train for them.  It was a *beautiful* late Spring day.  We New Englanders are still shaking off the memories of a long, cold Winter that only creakingly and hesitatingly turned into early Spring and then suddenly in May burst into color.  And of course the Eastern Mass May traffic was brutal, both on the way there and and the way down to Mansfield from Dedham after some great beers and great food (that may have given me food poisoning, took a few days after the concert for my stomach and head to stop hurting).

This was our first time at a concert in Mansfield and we'd heard that a) the sight lines were fantastic from almost all seats, especially section 6 where we'd be, and b) that this was one of those parking situations where first in was last out and we should expect a clusterfuck of parking lot traffic.  Sure enough, several local lots outside the gates were selling places at absurd prices, but what we didn't expect was that the absurd prices would continue inside the lots.  I'd thought the parking would be free except for the reserved VIP parking that we didn't go for.  But the side lot I had my eye on as maybe a good place to exit from was charging $50!  Whatever, we paid it and after being denied access to the best part of the lot ("No, that's the $60 section"), we backed into a spot among a village of happy tailgaters and soon joined them.  It was a beautiful May day and we were all going to see the opener of another highly anticipated tour.

Wandered in after a bit and spent some time signing stuff at Participation Row, and getting our pictures taken.  The Xfinity Center is a nice but kind of labyrinthine place with lots of stands to buy good beer and food.  And our seats were very good, pretty much dead center and 40 yards back from the stage.  As I say, we were next to the soundboard but I don't feel the sound was that great in the amphitheater, not top-grade depth or volume even though we were so central, and a little boomy.

We had some great row-mates, on tour themselves up from Pennsylvania.  Our hurried Dead discussion quickly got to the point and we agreed that Jeff Chimenti is the most continuously excellent thing about this band.  We detoured into discussion of side bands and all bemoaned the lack of chances to see more of John Kadlecik and agonized over the demise of Furthur.  We noted that of course they *were* from PA and so had probably had more chances to see JK than we had ... oh well.  We speculated on new songs for Dead & Co and they told us they'd heard Alabama Getaway in sound check and so that was anticipated.

OK, time for the concert to start!  Dave writes an excellent song by song breakdown in his blog, and I won't approach that much detail, but I agree with most everything he says.  Here's the first set:
  • Shakedown Street
  • Alabama Getaway
  • It's All Over Now
  • Brown-Eyed Women
  • Tennessee Jed
  • Bird Song >
  • Loose Lucy >
  • Bird Song
And here are some notes:
  • I was immediately in love with this concert.  Not the best sound but great seats and great sight lines ... we could see everything on stage in detail.  And the vibe was lovely; that could have to do with Oteil being higher in the mix (as Dave says), like at our first Dead & Co show in Worcester.
  • And what a great song to start with, getting right into the groove and showing the band's amazing ability to take a song we've heard a million times and rock the hell out of it.
  • Jeff Chimenti is the Master (in a good way) and had a great concert.  He excelled on all of his keyboards (and he had a lot of them), especially the grand and the B3.  And on Shakedown he latched onto a delightful riff in the last part and dangled us all from a string.
  • A valid criticism has been their slow pace, and that was back.  But they seemed to be more tactical about their pace than on their earlier tours, turning Shakedown into a groove rather than a disco tune, and using a bluesy tempo to great affect in BEW.  This arrangement allowed John to deliver one of the best vocals I've heard to one of my favorite songs.
  • A lack of innovation and envelope-pushing has also plagued these guys in the past.  This tour opener was a case of them playing it safe to some degree, but they also showed that they were determined to roll out new songs and new sounds.  They played two new songs right off the bat: Alabama and the 60's R&B of It's All Over that the Dead had done so excellently, and both showed great practice and great timing.
  • But the most exciting bit of innovation to me was their intro to Bird Song, which included Mickey droning on the beam and them all setting the sonic mood of the song like had never been done, before launching into the repetitive melody.  They didn't take this as far into the stratosphere as Bobby & Phil had at the Wang, but they took it a long way.  And they threw an excellent and (generally) tight Loose Lucy into the middle, though they stumbled in transition back into Bird Song.
Another fantastic first set!  Got out of there pretty well for a bathroom and beer break, but it's such a convoluted place I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find my way back!  I did, and it turned out to be good I was back so soon, because this was a very short break by their standards.

I should mention the triptych of video screens that they had set up behind the stage and were used very dynamically.  Being right in the middle we got a great view of them and the content was great: sometimes a theme related to the song, sometimes abstract artwork, but most often cameras focussed on different angles of the stage and the players.  They were great, and the Xfinity Center had their other screens going too, so there was lots of video.  I kept my eyes on the stage though.

They launched right into the second set and Dave hadn't returned yet, but he got back after a few notes and I was already gushing about the fact that Bobby was on his great green guitar.  And he was playing Scarlet.  Here's the second set:
  • Scarlet Begonias >
  • Fire On the Mountain >
  • Althea
  • Estimated Prophet >
  • The Other One jam >
  • Eyes Of the World >
  • Drums >
  • Space >
  • Stella Blue
  • Touch Of Grey
Again, see Dave's blog for detail on these songs.  I was a bit disappointed that they didn't do any of their monster songs (ok, they hinted at TOO), though many would contend that Scarlet > Fire is one of the most monstrous of all.  And of course, Eyes ... this was a fantastic, long jam featuring a whole bunch of everything: ethereal, persistently excellent chording from Bobby, smoking leads from John and Jeff, and an outro bass solo from Oteil that was just ideal.

Billy and Mickey have significantly reduced the size of their drum setup, perhaps because the road crew offered to work for half the price if they did.  But the array of sounds they produced in the Drums segment was just as fine, especially when Oteil and Jeff joined in with a passel of weird instrumental sounds of their own.  And Mickey benefits from his setup being more compact ... he was able to strum The Beam without getting up from his traps.  No licking though (hey, I've never seen Mickey and Brad Marchand in the same room!).

And then the band returned and they calmed down from another frenetic Space segment, and then they went into the Stella Blue of death.  This is one of the most lovely songs ever and Bobby sang it and John led it with perfection.

Then a strange segue into Touch?!?  I can't say I don't like Touch because it's a fun singalong and has some great history and panache.  But it was kind of a shock right after Stella Blue.  But we realized when they finished it quickly and then gathered on stage for a group bow that their time had run out.  My phone showed it was exactly 11:00 and people were saying that this was the hard curfew at the Xfinity Center.

Oh well, another great concert and we'll see them again in Hartford!  Took some time to get going out of the parking lot, but once we got back onto the highway it was a quick trip up to Quincy to drop off Dave and then back to Woburn with friend Jimmy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Sacred Shakers Bust Out At The Burren

It was kind of hard to believe when we saw that the Sacred Shakers had been booked at The Burren in Somerville.  It's a small room and they're a big band, and they hadn't played together in a while.  But we didn't stop to think and got tickets right away, though only General Admission was available by the time it crossed our radar.  That show soon sold out and they added a second show, which sold out too, and all of this for a Tuesday night in early May (5/1/18)!

We showed up at a little after 5 and got the booth first in the corridor to the Back Room (so we could get our pick of General Admission tables), had a couple of beers and recapped the day.  The crowd was right behind us and the booths to the back soon filled up, and the line extended through most of the club by the time the doors opened at 6:15 or so.

The reason they were late opening the doors was that the "sound check" really had become a rehearsal as the band was panicking about remembering who played what when, and they took turns running out for coffee or snacks.  We could hear and partly see all this confusion going on and found it pretty entertaining itself.

No counter in front of the stage was set up this time, but they had managed to cram as many tables as they could into the room when we finally were let in.  We grabbed a small table near the bathroom side, where we could get a great angle on the stage (we had to kick Daniel Kellar out of it, he was idly thumbing his phone and realized he had to move!).  And we were soon joined at the table by another couple (it was set for 4 close diners) and the room quickly became packed.  Our table-mates said that they'd been there for a couple of Irish events where it was all elbow-to-elbow standing room, but this was as full as I've ever seen it with tables.

The 8-piece band came out soon and lined up with Jerry Miller and Johnny Sciascia over on the far right, Eric Royer, Gregg Glassman, and Eilen Jewell right to left at mikes in the front, Jason Beek on a large kit behind them, and Dan Fram in front of Daniel Kellar over on our side.  They lit into the song they probably know best, I'm Gonna Do My Best, and we were off!

They were just the wrong size for the room and sounded and looked a little awkward through a good deal of the set.  They were as packed in on stage as we were in the audience, and Dan Fram actually stepped off the stage so people could see Daniel Kellar when he took his fiddle leads.  The Back Room really has a good sound system IMO, but Jason Beek was drumming as loud as Jason Beek usually does, and the rest of the band had to match this volume, and it took them a long time to get this sounding good in that small, crowded space.  And they had 5 vocalists, which added to the sonic confusion at times.

But it got very, very good nevertheless.  Here's some of what they played:

I'm Going To Do My Best
Straighten 'Em
Won't You Come and Sing For Me
I'm Tired
I Saw the Light
Before This Time Another Year
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
You Got To Move
Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel
Lord, I Am the True Vine
Gospel Plow

There was a whole lot of talent on the stage, but I first have to mention Eilen Jewell who is in a very upper class of talent.  They weren't doing her songs and she only got to sing a lead when it came around, but she was the focus for most everyone there.  And she was playing and singing as well as I've ever seen her.  In particular, Won't You Come and Sing For Me (one of my all-time favorite songs, written by Hazel Dickens) was just melting and I Saw the Light (Hank Williams of course) was brilliant.

Everyone had to hold back a little since they were playing in such a large ensemble.  Jerry Miller was as great as ever, though they didn't let him have more than a couple of measures here and there and so there was no mind melting going on.  And I was delighted to see Johnny, who used to play in Eilen's band, but he was just holding up the bottom line and didn't solo.

Jason Beek got a good number of vocal leads and was excellent.  One great feature of the night was the baritone harmony, with Jason, Eric Royer, and Dan Fram or Gregg Glassman (depending on who was on lead) combining for a great male chorus (too bad they didn't have a true bass).

Another feature of the night was Royer's excellent banjo work, which managed to be sparse and spacey even in such a large band.  We've seen him several times (and I ran into him in the bathroom and talked about how difficult it can be to get barbecue sauce off your hands) and he's truly a sui generis musician.  Kellar's fiddle work is also distinctive and I loved his fills especially.

Eilen, Fram, and Glassman took most of the leads though and switched a couple of guitars and a couple of gourds between the three of them, like they had a plan.  This actually worked out quite well, if they'd all been playing guitar at once it would have been too much, especially with the fantastic banjo rhythm Royer was providing and Kellar's fills.

I was kind of bothered by the fuss on stage; they had told us, "Welcome to the rehearsal!" and were kind of embarrassed that they were bumping along like a loud jalopy trying to navigate a rutted road for the first few songs.  But for me things started to sound right (to say the least) when they calmed down and got it together to do some excellent ensemble backing work for Eilen's vocal on I Saw the Light.  Then everyone took a deep breath and they played a great second half to the set.

It went pretty long, and then they came out and did two songs for an encore, though they kept both of them short: Twelve Gates To the City and John the Revelator, both real crowd pleasers that had people dancing and singing along.  Lots of fun!

They left the stage and we got out of there, shouldering our way back up the corridor to the Back Room and past the long line waiting for the 9:00 show.  We realized it was 9 already!  Hope the late show went late and that they'll be back again and a little better rehearsed.  And they need to play a larger room, though The Burren really has its charms.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Los Lobos Up Close

Back a few months ago I was kinda busy with a sudden rash of Spring and Summer concerts popping out of the ice like (really) early crocuses.  One of them was Los Lobos at The Cabot in Beverly on April 21 (Record Store Day 2018) and I thought hmmm, that sounds like it really would be fun.  So I got tickets and they were fourth row center in that lovely theater.  We almost had to give up the tickets later but didn't, and so they became a little more valuable perhaps and by the time the day rolled around we were very psyched.

And after a busy Saturday and a quick nap and a fast ride over there we strolled in and took our comfortable seats and realized, Holy Fuck, we were about to see this incredible band from 20-30 feet away!

There were no techs on stage and then they got frantic at the last minute, trying to get things ready, like they were going through a Holy Fuck moment themselves.  The crowd filled in (the seat to my left stayed empty all evening, so I had plenty of room, and a cup-holder!) and then the band came out a little late with their current drummer, Bugs González, and they lit into Will the Wolf Survive ... Holy Fuck!!  One of the best bands in the world was filling our eardrums with incredible sound and moving our limbs with incredible rhythm.  And that was David Hidalgo singing this amazing song right in front of me.

The theater seemed pretty full to me but I couldn't see the balcony of course and you can imagine that I didn't spend a lot of time *not* watching what was going on on the stage.  As seems to happen sometimes, it was an "older" crowd (well, not any older than us) and there were some well-dressed people and lots of perfume!?!  And this at a rock and roll concert??  Luckily, though the audience slanted toward privileged whites, we were all there for a kick-ass night of Los Lobos music and there was lots of dancing, lots of enthusiasm, and lots of singing along.

The first set was plagued by things going wrong, some of which the techs should really have prepared for.  First a string broke on Louie Pérez's acoustic, soon after that Conrad Lozano's strap broke on his bass and Bugs had to wave frantically to the stage manager to come fix it ... which was harder than it at first seemed.  This drama kind of detracted from the songs.  And then they realized that the real problem with Louie's setup was that it wasn't routed right through the PA.  He was kind of annoyed by this, and Cesar Rosas tried to cover for the delays by riling up the crowd.  But David Hidalgo was his usual hippie-in-the-bunch and just laughed at everyone trying to get things just exactly perfect.  Of course, his switchbox soon shorted out and that was pretty much it for his first set.

So the first set was cut short but during the break they replaced Hidalgo's box, hooked up and mixed Pérez's guitars (and electric mandolin) correctly, and everything was just exactly perfect eventually.  David gave the stage manager the thumbs up, but then laughingly tried to alarm him with other stuff later in the show.

And they opened the second set with another of their best songs, One Time One Night!  The audience was not too disturbed by the fuckups in the first set since the playing had been so incredible.  But then the second set came along and any sins were far in the past.  They played a number of their Spanish-language rockers, including one fantastic, crooning song by Rosas.  And to my satisfaction, they got way out there and jammed like crazy.  Not to minimize the contributions of Pérez, Rosas, and Lozano, but David Hidalgo is one of the best guitarists in the world and he was milking some mind-bending sounds out of his custom guitar.  He also picked up the accordion and bent some minds with that.

I think the attention they paid to Pérez's sound played out well; I've always assumed he was integral to their vibe but I'd never seen him that up-close and with that degree of sound clarity, and he was just incredible.  With song after song they'd cycle between each of the guitar players taking a lead and not just taking a lead, but taking the song in a different direction with their wildly varied filters and technique.  And then Conrad would start booming and grinning and he'd take a solo!

And I can't believe it's taken me this long to mention Steve Berlin, who was at his coolest and at the same time his most intense.  He was playing the biggest baritone sax I've ever seen (when he wasn't playing great keyboards) and some of his leads on that were as consciousness-raising as Hidalgo's.  And he was cool ... when he wasn't playing he just strolled around and mumbled to himself like a true hippie.

OK, Latin songs were over, they were returning from deep space and the night was getting on, and they calmed us all down with a slow beat.  And soon we all caught the riff ... they were playing The Neighborhood, which they did as a folky sing-along.  Hidalgo was nice enough to coax us suburbanites into taking a chorus or two, which we all responded to very well I think.

And then it was time for the Buddy Holly/Grateful Dead rocker: Not Fade Away.  Bugs went nuts on this of course, he was a solid performer all night.  And then they ended that, counted a beat, and launched into the Dead's Bertha.  Hidalgo didn't really nail this vocal, but we were all mellowed out, dancing, and enjoying every bit of this.

OK, time to take a "encore" break, and when they came out to the stage David spoke sotto voce into the mike (but with a smile, we all heard him), "Will Barrence Whitfield and Willie Alexander please come to the bandstand?"  Ack, Barrence is the greatest and Willie Alexander has the great Boston pedigree!  If you haven't seen Barrence it's hard to describe him ... he can scream and sing and shout and smile and many other things all at the same time.  And he clowns around while he's doing it.

For their second encore Barrence tried to talk about Hidalgo gearing up for a Pete Townsend rave-up we weren't going to forget.  But then he knocked us over with his Roger Daltrey: "People try to put us d-down!"  All of our generation sang along with the chorus.  We were old ok, but we were rocking in Beverly on a Saturday night.

Wow, that was great!  Soon out the side-door and then an uneventful ride back home.  Experiences like that cannot be duplicated.