Saturday, March 31, 2018

Maura Kennedy (and Pete!)

We were really looking forward to seeing The Kennedys at The Burren in Somerville on March 30th, after the show had been postponed back in January in the middle of a snowstorm.  We've seen The Kennedys many times, but rarely in the last few years, and we like The Burren Back Room, so this promised to be a lot of fun.  We met at Redbones for a nice beer or two and then moseyed across the street to eat before the show.

Reminder that the main reason for this blog is to document and then remind myself (years) later what the evening was like, and what my subjective opinions of the experience were.  So please don't misconstrue my subjective remarks as criticisms of Pete or Maura Kennedy, who are both marvelous musicians and we've loved over the years.  They're a power pop duo of unequalled brilliance whose music has always had a shortcut to my soul.  But I was very disappointed by this evening.

The Back Room surprisingly only barely got half full ... maybe because this was a rescheduled show and so wasn't promoted as a normal show would be.  The opener was Tory Silver, who strummed a Stratocaster and had a cute little amp.  Good blues rock with some promise.

Pete was puttering around the stage doing setup while we ate and then very nicely came by the tables and asked us what we'd like to hear.  I told him River of Fallen Stars, and reminisced about hearing them do Orange Blossom Special into Purple Haze into Eight Miles High back at the Boston Folk Festival (at least 15 years ago, admittedly).  He said, "So a space jam then?"  I said yes, but that he and Maura should play whatever they wanted to play.

Pete shrugged and in that conversation and for the rest of the night seemed to me to be very subdued.  He's at least 50% of The Kennedys, and I've seen him do some things on guitar, ukelele, bass, sitar, etc. that have been beyond captivating.  And as great as Maura's voice is, his harmonies are essential to their sound.  But this show could have been billed, "Maura Kennedy (and Pete)."  Perhaps he was sick or preoccupied that night and again, I don't mean to criticize him, but he just didn't bring it.  And they didn't play a space jam, every song they did was quick and to the point as opposed to being an exciting excursion.  It was the shortest River Of Fallen Stars I've ever heard.

But Maura was in fine voice and they did an excellent cover of Dave Carter's When I Go, as well as an excellent version of one of their new songs, Cayenne In My Coffee.  And Maura's blue "gumbo" guitar just makes some excellent sounds, it's so deep and rich.  Pete was on a white Gretsch with a rose on the soundboard, and I wished he'd rock it a bit more.  They closed with one of their anthems, Stand, which is always empowering.

I spoke to Pete when he was cleaning up the stage and Maura was working the merch table, and told him how much I enjoyed his "30 Seconds At the Coffeeshop" columns.  And that I'd really enjoyed the one he did a few years ago about seeing the reflection of the Empire State Building from their apartment in New York.  He wasn't much in the mood for chatting.  It's very possible that part of his brain was wondering why they'd driven all the way to Boston and the next day had to drive all the way to Ohio(?) to do a perfunctory show for a handful of people.  It must be tough to be a travelling musician.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Cowboy Way At City Winery

We've been listening to Riders In the Sky for years and years.  And several of their nuggets of wisdom are engrained in our lives.  Never drink downstream from the herd, never squat with your spurs on, and always prefer The Cowboy Way to the easy way.  On top of that, I consider Ranger Doug, the Idol of American Youth, to be the best yodeler who has ever existed.

So we were very glad to finally get a chance to see them when they appeared on the roster at the new City Winery, Boston.  City Winery is apparently a chain in several big cities and has been very hesitant about opening their Boston location.  They've got wine ... which doesn't excite me, but they've also featured a great succession of music acts, though several had to be shunted off to other venues because they weren't "ready" over the Fall and part of the Winter.

They were ready for the Riders on the night of March 22nd, though the best I can give them is a C+ at this point.  They have a nice location near North Station, they have a really nice interior with lots of wood and some artfully placed exposed brick, and they have a really nice room for music, with speakers that could probably make the place shake a little if they wanted to.  But they've got this weird concentration on wine and even after the long build-up were still short on even that score, their local wine not being ready and having to fill in with stuff imported from (gasp!) New York.  And they had no beer on tap, though they'd advertised some, and their food was overpriced and really nothing to write home about, even if you ignored the high price.  Next time we go there we're eating and drinking somewhere else and then showing up.

Anyway, we were there to see the Riders and they did not disappoint!  The room was only a third full but we were all fanatics and followed their every lead.  They lined up with Joey the Cow Polka King with his large accordion on the left, Woody Paul (a Ph.D. in theoretical plasma physics from MIT) with his disapproving looks and his fiddle next to him, Ranger Doug with his guitar and his yodel at center right, and Too Slim with the doghouse bass on the far right.

It's impossible to say that they played everything, because there just wasn't enough time.  But they gave it a shot.  Ranger Doug and all of them yodeled in turn, Sidemeat came stumbling out for a few jokes, and they lit the campfire at the front of the stage and warmed us all up.

I feel bad about saying that they all were older than they had been in my imagination.  What did I expect, that I'd see the Riders I first thrilled to in the 80s?  This tour is their 40th anniversary and they're getting up there.  But Woody Paul still impressed us with a few of his moves, Too Slim still pounded the old hambone (well, skullbone) as skillfully as he had as a youngster, and Joey Miskulin ripped off some great accordion leads.

But THE guy on the stage as far as I was concerned was Ranger Doug.  He played some of the most wonderful Western rhythms right in front of me, and I was in heaven.  And then he'd open his mouth and what a range, what richness on the low notes, and what a skillful yodeler!  He was the guy I was watching most of the time, even when Woody and Joey got into a slap contest or Woody and Too Slim got into a logic contest (you can guess who won, and it wasn't the MIT guy).

Anyway, though City Winery didn't really do it for me, I liked the room and loved the music and will definitely go back there again.  Maybe they'll have something on draft next time.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Bobby & Phil, Night 2 in Boston

The storm the night before had been more fierce than forecast, and we woke to a vista of deep snow.  Our friends F&P had made it back to Sudbury the night before, but had lost power soon after going to bed.  There were downed branches and trees everywhere, the heavy snow snapping branches already weakened by earlier winter storms.

Dave was at work on time, but they weren't letting any public into his building, so that was a waste!  He eventually was able to leave and go home to nap and recharge.  Sarah and I got in a full day's work at home (interrupted by shoveling), and were more than ready for another go by the end of the afternoon.

Getting into Boston soon after rush hour is usually a challenge, but was a breeze that March 8th as not many people had been in the city for work that day.  We parked at the same garage under the State Transportation Building and met Dave at Wirth's for another fine dinner (I had a hockey puck burger) and a few beers.  We left his bag back at the car and then sauntered over to the Wang.

I should say something about the scene.  It was a GD show you know, and there were several people trying to sell some t-shirts, hand-made stuff, jewelry, etc.  The sidewalks in front of and across from the Wilbur and Wang on Tremont were jammed with the expected assortment of freaks, many of them with their fingers in the air.  But the "dentist convention" scene was a very dominant presence too.  Inflating and selling balloons of nitrous oxide was the overwhelming business taking place on the sidewalks that day, and we'd just read a very uncomplimentary story about it.  I have no problem with people doing things like making a few bucks by selling drugs or having fun getting high ... absolutely nothing wrong with that!  But we'd just read a bit about how the sausage is made and that can give you a different perspective.  In any case, the scene being so dominated by a particular brand of commercialism was a bit strange.

Another thing about that night was, I'm glad to say, the wonderful people we met.  As mentioned yesterday, the Thursday night show seemed to be the more popular one from the start, and there were some *very* excited people there.  We've been fortunate to see Phil and Bob many times in their different ensembles over the past few years.  But a lot of the people there at the Wang had not had that chance and were overwhelmingly excited to see the duo in a beautiful theater.  None of the people we talked to were from Massachusetts!  They'd all driven long distances (sometimes through the storm) from all over to get to Boston.  The guys in front of us had driven up from Philadelphia that afternoon and had to drive back after the concert so they could get to work in the morning.

Also as mentioned, we couldn't get three tickets together for that night and so Sarah and I were in the back-right of the orchestra for the first set, and then I swapped with Dave for the second set.  That single ticket was in the very middle (left to right and front to back) of the balcony and had better sound but was farther away.  And in both locations, we were packed in and had to suffer with loud neighbors.  But luckily the "loud" part was not them talking about whatever assholes jabber on about at concerts, they were freaking out at seeing the GD and they were singing the songs (though not as well as the guys on stage :)).  We couldn't complain.  People had come from all over to see Bob and Phil and experience the magic, and they weren't about to let this experience go quietly.

Well anyway, we settled into our seats and after a while the curtains opened and there were the old guys again with Wally back on percussion.  And they opened with one of their most classic songs, a song that everyone loves singing along to, and the sound and screams of delight filled the theater.  Here's the first set:

Uncle John's Band
Black-Throated Wind
Cosmic Charlie
Lazy River Road
New Minglewood Blues
Girl From the North Country
Box Of Rain

  • They'd opened with UJB on their first night in New York, so I was a little disappointed that we might have another night of repeats, but how can you be disappointed for long at UJB?  And they sure did not stick to a hackneyed blueprint that night!
  • BTW was an unexpected gem.  John Perry Barlow died recently and this was one of his best lyrics, working with Bob.  It's a song that could be interpreted many different ways, but that ultimately speaks to the desperation of being alone in a modern world.  And Bobby and Phil sure jammed the heck out of this one ... they've played it before.
  • Cosmic Charlie was another surprise.  I'd been hoping they'd do a "Furthur song," and this fills the bill as a song Jerry stopped wanting to play but that those two have always killed and did so when they had their great band.
  • Lazy River Road was another repeat.  I thought it was one of Phil's worst vocals of the Radio City shows and his vocal was not much better in Boston.  It's a neat song though and I was glad they gave it a shot.
  • Minglewood is one of the most classic GD songs, what can I say?  Again, Bobby didn't do this with the brio that I've seen him bring to (e.g.) Fare Thee Well.  But this was a more reserved setting and he *did* manage to drool over the Boston phillies (I think it was them he was drooling over).
  • And of course the jams were the cream filling.  As before, the verses and choruses were fun and people sure were singing along.  But the most magic moments were when Bob and Phil turned towards each other, put on their helmets and moon boots, and took us all to outer space.
  • I'd been telling Sarah the song titles so she could tweet them but the next one was a poser.  It finally dawned on me: one of the most beautiful Dylan songs ever!  Apparently, Phil & Friends have covered this but never any other GD band.  It was about time and this was one of the most amazing vocal performances of the stand by both Bob and Phil.
  • And then they hit those chords for the opening of Box Of Rain and time stood still yet again.  They'd encored with this at the first night in NY, but this was another perfect moment for it.  People throughout the theater were transfixed and I'm sure many tears were shed at the sound of this.  When we got to "... and it's *just* a box of rain," we were all just a puddle of emotion.  This was the kind of shared experience that marks the best of seeing live music.

Wow, time to cool down and get ready for one more set.  Met up with Dave and we took a break outside, where the dentist convention was going full tilt.  Talked some deep Dead with the people out there and we all agreed that that was Larry's guitar on stage again.  I don't think any of us were disappointed at the prospect of seeing him and Teresa rock the second set again.

I thought we had plenty of time and was lazily walking up to the balcony after swapping tickets with Dave when the tuning started and soon the curtains opened!  The set break must have been half as long as it had been the night before.  So I missed the first half of the first song as I was squeezing past people into the middle of the row (they were very nice about it).  And I was kicking myself because the first song was fitting to the anniversary of Pigpen's death:

Jack Straw
Mountains Of the Moon
Mountains Of the Moon
Cumberland Blues
Viola Lee Blues
The Wheel
Morning Dew

  • Phil does a great vocal on Alligator and he filled in with the classic "tear down the Fillmore" back choruses.
  • They'd done Cassidy in New York and gotten *way* out there and I was looking forward to them doing it again, but Larry had his fiddle for this one and it didn't really take off.  Whatever, it's a great song and Larry finally stopped sawing and filled with some great guitar.
  • Jack Straw more than made up for any deficiency.  As with other songs, this wasn't done with the over-the-top enthusiasm you sometimes expect from Bobby.  It was mellow and slow-paced and the duo found echoes in it that hadn't yet been surfaced.  They again did this as a "Furthur song" IMO.
  • Mountains Of the Moon sandwiching Rosemary was Phil at his late-career utmost.  He was getting a little tired by then, but that's to be expected of a guy turning 78 next week!  Mountains is a great song, and I was surprised he didn't get Teresa to sing it with him as we'd seen them do before.
  • But again, there was a slow song and then there was Cumberland, another of the most classic GD songs.  Everyone on stage gave this their all, the crowd was jumping and shouting along, and it was another fantastic set of verses and choruses, wrapping such excellent string work that you couldn't believe it.  Larry had his cittern out for this one.
  • More sawing violin on Viola Lee, but the sound fit much better on this blues.  This was another excuse for the three players to join heads in the middle of the stage and funkify the entire area, with Bob on the screaming sunburst Strat.  Teresa did some sweet harmony too.
  • Time to wake up the crowd again, and they did a classic Wheel that had everyone singing.  I remember Furthur doing this in the Wang and this was perhaps not as excellent, but it was the right medicine at the right time.
  • And then they closed the set with Dew!  This sure had everybody sitting up and paying attention.  And the great thing about it was that Larry was back on acoustic and he played one of the most tasteful lead guitar parts to Dew I've ever heard.  He knew it was Bob and Phil's show and he wasn't about to guitar-God-out on us.  He played with an authority and a technical excellence but did not outshine the fantastic chords Bob was laying down or his fantastic vocal, or Phil's crescendos.

Ack!  The people around me were melting away, on their way back to Philadelphia perhaps, and I was left standing there, watching for Phil and thinking I might never see him in Boston again.  He ran around in back of the amps a bit, but then popped out with a spryness belying his age and gave us another rote donor rap, with a Phil grin.

The guys came back out and lit into another Dylan song, that we'd seen RatDog close with in Boston once, It's All Over Now Baby Blue.  They dragged it out a bit ... knowing they had a few minutes to get to midnight.  But then it was over and they all linked arms at the front of the stage and bowed.  I didn't want to see Bob and Phil go, but soon Bob namasted and left stage right, and then Phil ceased puttering with his amps and walked off stage left.  Good bye guys, hope to see you again soon.  In fact, I'll see the Chicago webcasts this weekend!  Wonder what magic they'll make then.

Made my way outside and met up with Sarah and Dave.  Just a few blocks to the garage and then back home and in bed by 1:00.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bobby & Phil, Night 1 in Boston

My latest period of great enjoyment in going to see Grateful Dead music started back in the middle of Furthur's time as a band, and it was so great to see Bob Weir and Phil Lesh together, along with the other members of that fantastic band.  They announced a hiatus from touring in 2014, and then it was announced that Phil was stopping touring for various reasons and soon it was announced that the band had broken up.

We've seen Bob and Phil separately many times since then of course, but the two only played together informally out around their home base of Marin County California (also at the Fare Thee Well concerts in 2015).  Phil has started to make a few exceptions to his "no more touring" edict, though these tours have been very short.  Then they suddenly announced back in December that they'd be playing a short tour as a duo: two nights at Radio City Music Hall, two at the Wang Center in Boston, and then two at the Chicago Theatre.

I think this announcement excited a lot of people besides us.  Many GD fans are past the point of going to see rock concerts (or feel they are!) and so avoid the overhead of (e.g.) a full-blast Dead & Company show with all the craziness of going to an arena, wading through acres of stoned hippies, and then seeing a non-intimate concert with full light show, imagery, and sound.  I can see this, that's the way I felt for years.  But this tour brought the promise of seeing two of the most key original band members in an intimate setting, such as seeing Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady do acoustic sets in small theaters (a setting we've seen them in many times) or perhaps a Simon and Garfunkel, but better!

Anyway, the panic of getting tickets as soon as they went on pre-sale was as intense as you might expect.  Sarah went for Wednesday and was able to get three together way up in the right-hand section of the balcony.  I went for Thursday and that one was probably even more popular.  I tried several times to get three tickets together and was denied, so I ended up getting two together in the back-right of the orchestra and then finally was able to get one more in the center of the balcony.  Friends F&P managed to get tickets to Wednesday also, and we were set!

A long winter ensued ... and then finally Wednesday March 7 rolled around and it was time!  There were problems of course: I was in the midst of recovering from an ear infection and there was a damaging Nor'easter expected on the New England coast that day.  Neither of these dampened our enthusiasm.  I picked up Sarah and Dave after work at their building and we drove over to a garage near the Theater District, and met F&P for dinner at Jacob Wirth's (the second oldest restaurant in Boston, and currently on the block but still serving).

Split up with F&P on the cold, rainy sidewalk (the forecast blizzard had not yet appeared) and found our way into the Wang (the whilom Boston Music Hall on Tremont St.), where we got t-shirts and a poster and then climbed to our seats way upstairs.

We'd seen the opening two shows on webcast from Radio City Music Hall and they'd been more than spectacular.  The duo was accompanied by percussionist Wally Ingram on some songs on the opening night, and they brought out no other "special guests."  They didn't need them!  They stuck to early songs (the latest composition was Sailor/Saint), Phil was in fine voice and their harmonies and jams were like being back home.

The phrase "primal Dead" refers to a particular period in their career, but could also be used to describe what they brought to the stage.  We were seeing two of the originals playing, singing, and re-inventing some of the greatest songs I've ever heard, like they were about to go into the studio and lay down a Workingman's Dead or an American Beauty.  Jesse Jarnow wrote a great review of the Radio City shows in Rolling Stone, and the phrase "Thrillingly Loose" was used in the headline, and it was very much my reaction.

For the second night in NYC, they were accompanied by Ingram as before but were also joined by Trey Anastasio on guitar for the second set.  As great as they'd been with just the duo and percussionist, they were amazing with Trey, especially because he was obviously dedicated to supplementing the pair rather than becoming a full band.

Anyway, he'd been rumored as a special guest in NYC and that had happened.  This same rumor mill had it that John Mayer would be the accompanist they brought out in Boston.  We also speculated about others, like Steve Kimock, John Kadlecik, Larry Campbell, Jorma Kaukonen, etc.  They accentuated this drama by tuning up behind a curtain at the start of each set and then having the curtain pull back to reveal their stage arrangement.

So ... there we were in the balcony staring at the beautiful, lofty Wang Center ceilings and walls.  I also checked out the seat from which I'd seen the GD back in '73 of course, and then hung out with F&P while we waited.  Eventually the theater was packed with excited people, we could hear the pair tuning, and then the curtain opened to show us good ol' Bobby with his walrus hair and acoustic guitar, good ol' Phil back in goddamn Boston(!) with his electric bass, and Wally Ingram back on percussion (he could have ditched the wind chimes but whatever).  They blasted right into the beautiful, intricate blues of ... well, here's the first set:

Loose Lucy
Me and My Uncle
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Deep Elem Blues
Bird Song
He's Gone

It's a little sobering to hear the soundboards from the shows and realize that there were a lot more flubs and awkward moments in them than we heard live.  For one thing, we were mesmerized by actually seeing two of the best musicians in the world playing together like a pair of old socks ... they knew exactly what each other was going to do, most of the time.  And for another thing there were so many great moments that the awkward ones seemed part of the live charm.

There were no renditions of the Yellow Dog story (or the Duck story) that night, but there was some extreme playing.  As mentioned, their harmonizing was exquisite (before Phil's voice got tired) and the verses and choruses were great and had everyone singing along.  But then the magic of that part of the song was over and the *real* magic started when they stepped back from the mikes, started watching each other's hands intently, and played measure after measure of liquid gold, jamming to the farthest reaches of the song (while always letting a little of the melody stick around), and then leading us back to the next verse or the bridge or outro.

Bob made some decisions on guitar which were debatable.  He switched to his sunburst Strat with large white pick-guard more often than he might have.  Perhaps he should have stayed on his beautiful acoustic more often or played the "green guitar" that he had on stage but very rarely picked up.  Althea was done in a different style than normal, with Phil taking the lead for most of the song and Bob playing a very funky, effect-laden sequence of chords on his sunburst.  I thought this was one of the best songs of the set actually, while Dave thought it unsuccessful.

But that was another example of the magic we were seeing and hearing.  They had played these songs many, many times before (in fact they'd played every one of these songs in NYC except for Althea and Masterpiece, an unusual number of repeats for a GD band), but they managed to find a freshness in everything they played.  Sometimes this was represented by a new arrangement or a new verse or a new tempo, but sometimes just by a new run here or accent there.  The spirit of adventure that marks Grateful Dead music was thrillingly present.

OK, they'd loosened up, paid homage to the classic cowboy songs and Dylan, then knocked us over with an excellent bluesy Deep Elem, woke us up with an aggressive sound on Althea, gotten *way* out there on Bird Song, and then wrapped up the set with a sad, pretty, sing-along He's Gone.  Yay!!  Short set but we knew they were going to go late.

The set break took forever.  Somebody near me was timing it and announced at one point that the break had now taken longer than the first set.  But we had all seen that there was a setup for another guitarist to Phil's left (Bobby was on his right), and we were guessing and guessing about what we'd see when they opened the curtain.  Dave guessed that that was Larry Campbell's guitar, and he was right.  Here's a picture of the five of them warming up backstage in Boston, taken by Jay Blakesberg:

The curtain opened and there were Larry and Teresa and we were very happy!  Especially when Larry started into that guitar run that I first heard over and over when Blues For Allah first came out, and have thrilled to ever since.  Here's the second set and some notes:

Crazy Fingers
Friend Of the Devil
Tennessee Jed
The Maker
Cryptical Envelopment
The Other One
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
Black Peter
The Music Never Stopped

  • As good as Larry was he never upstaged Bobby and Phil of course; wonderful player that he is, he knew what he was doing out there, and he allowed Bobby to take over Crazy Fingers between leads.
  • Yeah but ... Larry picked up his mandolin for FOTD and one of the highlights of the night was his sparkling leads on that.  Bobby was hiding out in a cave up in the hills and Phil was singing about the devil offering him $20, but Larry was in the background dropping jaws.
  • And then Larry went back to his dirty electric for Tennessee Jed and tried to take over the song he'd won a Grammy with when working with Levon Helm.  But Bob and Phil know how to react to a musical challenge and soon they were leading him back to Tennessee.
  • Teresa was also a great accompanist, staying still in the background most of the time, and then approaching her mike at the just the right moment, while watching Bob intently.  He wasn't about to shake her, she was right with him.  Their duo vocals on The Maker (the Daniel Lanois song which JGB did) were exquisite.
  • And then they started into a short Cryptical and Dave let out a yelp because we knew what was coming next.  Soon Phil got louder and louder and started booming and then...
  • The Other One!  Bob was a little reserved on vocals compared to some of the times we've seen him recently and didn't nail these verses the way he sometimes has.  But the guitar and bass work was awesome.
  • Their lack of recent practice showed in their inability to segue between some of the songs when they wanted to.  But we were fine with the full stops, especially when followed by a song like Half-Step!
  • And then a song I knew they were going to play.  I've gone on about my opinions of Black Peter (very high) and I knew Bobby was going to sing it to me again (which he can't do well) and it was fun.  But I took a piss break here, though I didn't run into the same guys in the bathroom that I had at this juncture in April 2012
  • And then they capped it off with Music, a surprising but delightful choice!  The whole song was excellent but the enduring moment for me was when Teresa sang meekly behind Bob on the first bridge, and then on the second one he seemed to expect the same and she was having none of it.  She stepped up to the mike and told us all in no uncertain terms at top Teresa volume to keep on dancing until daybreak, and to greet the morning air with song.  Bob looked over at her, startled, and then he just shrugged and let her go!

Woohoo!  It was almost midnight and we started getting our coats on so we could leave quickly and get Dave to a Red Line stop for the last train to Quincy.  Short break here, and then tall, thin, and stooping a bit Phil Lesh came out and the crowd roared.  We were so glad to have him back in Boston in good health, playing his bass like he always had.  He mentioned how glad he was to be back in Boston, and then went into a short and sweet donor rap.

Bobby and the crew came back out and they launched into Touch Of Grey, another repeat from the New York shows.  We stuck around for a little bit and then took off because we didn't want to strand Dave.  And when we got outside the blizzard had started!  Wet and damaging snow was blowing sideways and we had to duck in and out of the shelter of buildings to make it back to the parking garage.

We dropped Dave at Park Street and stuck around long enough for him to text us that he'd made the train.  We circled the Common, got onto Storrow through the thick snow blanketing the city streets, and then made it up to 93 North.  The road surface up there was even worse and we crawled all the way back to Woburn through thick piles of snow.  Whatever, we made it back finally and got to bed sometime around 1:30.  Got to do it again tomorrow!