You’ll Know It’s True That You Are Blessed and Lucky

I went to three concerts last week, two in the Philly area and one outside DC, the first I’d attended post-arrival of COVID. It was quite the memorable experience, full of joy and intense sorrow. I’m sure I’m about to blather on at too great a length, but some of the details are worth it to me to record.

The long weekend had its origins over two years ago, in an aborted trip to see 10,000 Maniacs at the Birchmere in northern Virginia with my grad school friend Greg—I was to fly in on a Thursday evening, see the show Friday, and get back to KY in time for my Monday classes (I had scheduled exams for the Friday). Trouble was, the date of the concert was March 20, 2020—I don’t remember now which came first, me cancelling my flight or the venue cancelling the show.

Then in the summer of 2021, Greg and I began planning a make-up show of sorts, settling on seeing Suzanne Vega, who would be playing in NJ near Philadelphia on a Friday night in October. We bought tickets, I booked a flight…and then the show got cancelled about ten days before it was scheduled (oddly, the only show on the tour that got nixed).

Greg got back in touch early this year when he learned that Vega would be touring again and had scheduled what appeared to be a make-up show on April 22. The timing was good, as it was again on a Friday, so I could schedule an exam on that day and arrange for a colleague to proctor it; we were back in business. As the weeks passed, Greg kept making suggestions: 10,000 Maniacs would be back at the Birchmere on April 23—wanna go? And then Aimee Mann announced her tour dates, also playing suburban Philly on April 21—wanna go? I figured out a way to handle my Thursday class and said yes to it all—they’re all acts I’ve loved for years. I wound up flying in on Wednesday evening.

Departure from NoVa was a little before noon on Thursday, after I’d held individual Zoom conferences with my students about final projects. We were getting primed for the Mann show by listening to her latest album, Queens of the Summer Hotel, when Judy called. Now, Judy is a dear friend from college, but hearing from her on an early Thursday afternoon made some alarm bells go off. When I could tell she was upset and asked me if I were sitting down, I knew what was coming next: James, my college roommate of more than 3.5 years, a central star in the constellation of connections from that era, had died that morning. I knew his health hadn’t been all that good recently, but the news was still quite a jolt.

Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent talking and messaging with other friends, sharing the news and commiserating. Greg let me ramble on about James while we completed our journey, giving me space to process and begin grieving. I can imagine writing more about my roomie sometime in the not terribly distant future, but you can learn a lot about James by reading this beautiful, touching tribute that our friend Warren pulled together almost instantaneously. Suffice it to say for now that I’ve been experiencing a pervasive sense of sadness over the last week-plus.

The shows were all very good to great. The venue on Thursday was the Keswick Theatre, tucked away in an interesting stretch of apartment buildings and small shops in Glenside, PA. The layout of the place was nonstandard: after you enter, you walk maybe 50 feet to get to the lobby, which then opens directly on the right into the theater. It’s a little under a century old and has been restored to a reasonable extent over the last 35 years; it appeared as if it once had a balcony. Capacity was, I’d guess, around 900.

We’d grabbed mighty-good-but-too-large cheesesteaks (with provolone, not Whiz—sorry, Philly faithful) on the way and ate them in a small park behind the theater. Our seats were in the middle section, nine rows back from the stage. Mann didn’t play any of my very favorites, but the songs she’d chosen went together well and suited my mood reasonably. She and her band were tight; I have no complaints.

During the encore, Mann addressed the recent dustup that occurred when Steely Dan removed her as opening act for their upcoming tour. Several weeks ago, she’d tweeted, “All is forgiven if Donald just tells me what Brooklyn is about,” and soon after, Fagen sent her a lengthy letter explaining how the song on Can’t Buy a Thrill emerged from watching a certain fellow who lived in Fagen and Becker’s neighborhood in that borough in the early 70s. She then played the song for us.

This was the only one of the three shows to have an opener, Mann’s long-time friend and collaborator Jonathan Coulton. His songs tried to be funny, but Greg and I agreed there was something missing in them, maybe a connection between the humor and anything particularly real-life. Aimee joined Coulton on stage for two of his eight songs, and he returned the favor early in her set.

We moved west on Friday to Phoenixville, where Vega would be performing in the Colonial Theatre, another long-lived structure (almost 120 years old) that’s been restored relatively recently and offers both concerts and movies. It’s perhaps best known for being the site of a famous scene from the 50’s movie The Blob (Blobfest has become an annual summer event there). Greg had scored VIP passes for us along with front-row seats for the show, so at 5:30, we and about twenty other folks got inside and watched Vega and her guitarist Gerry Leonard warm up on three tunes; she also answered a few questions from those gathered, the most interesting of which centered on the Grateful Dead Rainforest Benefit concert to which she contributed in September 1988.

I had a small moment in the sun during the sound check. One of the songs she sang then was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which she’d covered on her most recent album An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. Vega had forgotten the lyric sheet and asked for help from the crowd about the name of the fifth character in Reed’s song. Several of us went a-Googling, and when the time came for that verse to be sung, she cupped her hand to her ear for help, She heard and acknowledged with a nod my shout of “Jackie!”

When it was over, we went across the street to a brewpub; the appetizers we ordered became dinner. Greg’s cousin Kate, who lived in the area, swung by and joined us—it was the first time they’d gotten together in about five years.

As we walked back to the theater, Greg had a mission: find someone on whom to bestow two tickets (he’d bought a second pair next to us, initially with the idea that Kate might use them, but that didn’t pan out). We were just inside the doors where the box office was when a couple walked in, inquiring about availability. Apparently, the show was sold out (capacity was around 650, we were told), but Greg sidled next to them and made an offer too good to refuse. That’s how Francesco and Lauren, our new friends, came to join us for the show.

Vega was fabulous—if forced to choose, hers was the best show of the three. It was just she and Leonard on stage the entire concert. As promised, she told stories (I knew that “Gypsy” was about a man she’d met at a summer camp they both had worked when she was in her late teens, but I learned that “In Liverpool” was a sequel to “Gypsy” and that she’d reconnected with the man years later). She was very comfortable in her own skin, which I think allowed her to be alternately sensual (“Caramel”) and playful (a DNA-ish version of “Tom’s Diner”). There were plenty of highlights, and she played many songs from her catalog that I dearly enjoy. Continuing with what became a theme that lasted the entire trip, she also did a cover during her encore, a wonderful take on Blondie’s “Dreaming.”

Francesco and Lauren invited us to join them for a drink afterward. We learned that she grew up somewhat nearby while he came from northern Italy; they’d met when they worked together on a project for a pharmaceutical company, and now lived on a small farm just outside of town. They were both just very nice, and our lengthy conversation was a lot of fun. Kate also swung by again to follow up with Greg on some of their earlier chat, and we got a great group photo before parting ways. Random acts of kindness do pay off.

We took the scenic route on the way back to VA on Saturday, veering west and bypassing toll roads; lunch was at an awesome creperie in Lancaster. Traffic got worse the closer we got to DC—given it was the weekend, I’m all the more glad I don’t have to deal with it on an ongoing basis. We headed straight to the Birchmere in Alexandria, arriving around 3:30 and lining up alongside the building. Their doors open at 5, but the order in which you show up affects your seating options, as you’re given a numbered ticket when you enter, just like those you’d get to wait in line at a grocery store deli. (There were only three people in front of us.) Between 5 and 6 we all gathered in a large anteroom, visiting the bar and/or gift shop. Greg and I both got Maniacs shirts, and we met up with Gordon, an old friend of Greg’s from his youth in NY who now lives in the area. At 6, ticket numbers were called and the three of us secured a table right in front of the stage, a little right of center. We then ordered dinner, and shortly after 7:30 the lights dimmed, and the six band members (plus a female backup singer) ascended to the stage.

The show largely consisted of well-known songs from the Natalie Merchant era, with a few later tunes and a couple of covers thrown in (their encore included a delightful version of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”). The playing was solid, and the band overall appeared to be having a good time. I went going in wondering how Mary Ramsey would approach singing songs mostly written by Merchant. Ramsey’s voice turns out to be a decent match for her predecessor’s without falling into imitation (it’s not quite as full as Merchant’s, though, and this is where the backup singer helped). The occasional turns Ramsey took on her viola added value to many songs.

About halfway through, bass player Steve Gustafson got hold of one of the band’s 40th anniversary t-shirts available for purchase, reminding the audience they could stop by the gift shop for swag after the show. He then looked around at the audience in front of him and tossed the shirt to Greg. Since this was the same shirt he’d just purchased, he handed it off to me (I’d gotten a different style). Gustafson looked a little surprised/miffed, so Greg showed him it was a duplicate.

After the show ended, several members of the band joined the remaining crowd in the anteroom (a nice touch, for sure). Greg got to tell Gustafson that he’d also been the recipient of the shirt when the Maniacs had been there in the fall (Greg likes to go early in case you can’t tell). That first shirt had been too small, so it’d wound up with Greg’s wife Katie.

My flight home on Sunday didn’t depart until after 9pm (fortunately, a non-stop), so around noon Greg drove me from their home in Vienna to Leesburg, where Tony, the high school classmate I’ve both known the longest and maintained closest ties to over the years, lives with his wife Lisa. It was our first in-person get-together in almost four years, and we had a fabulous afternoon catching up, shooting some pool in their basement, and grabbing some nice pad thai from a nearby restaurant. Tony was gracious enough to drop me off at the airport, and before long I was deep in the process of getting back to wrapping up the semester at the college.

The title of this post comes from the final song in the Maniacs’ encore, “These Are Days.” It’s caused me to meditate a little on the difference between blessing and luck. Not that I have any great insight about the matter, but it seems to me that both come to one regardless of merit, although blessing does imply that there’s a blesser.

The weekend wound up being centered on three of my best friends, from three different phases of my life. Blessing, luck, or both, I realized once again how glad I am that Tony and I both moved to Walton in the summer of 1972, how good it was to spend quality time with Greg when he (okay, we) needed it, and how grateful I am to the powers-that-were at Transy who assigned James and me to adjacent rooms in the fall of 1982, so that it could occur to us both a few months later that we might be a better match than those to whom we were originally assigned.

Here are live versions of three songs I heard on my trip, though in all cases what you hear below is at least a little different from how they were presented last week.

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