When the moment arrived, I actually got a bit of a lump in my throat, surprised at the small surge of emotion.
Martha, Ben, and I drove north to Cincinnati last Friday to see Al Stewart in concert. The show had originally been scheduled for May 20, but a bout of covid Al had caught about ten days beforehand had knocked him off the circuit temporarily. I was fortunate that when the make-up date was announced, it was still on the weekend since my fall semester would already have begun.
We left home several hours before showtime because, well, you never know how bad traffic might be crossing the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. Our early dinner, on the Kentucky side, was calzones at LaRosa’s, a well-known and well-regarded local pizza/Italian chain. The I-75 North gods were smiling on us that day, and we weaved our way into the Clifton area of town, not far from the University of Cincinnati, with relative ease. We had time enough before the doors opened to scope out Torn Light Records, an interesting place selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs, as well as to grab some Graeter’s ice cream (another local fave).
Our ultimate destination was the Ludlow Garage, an L-shaped room in the basement of a former automobile shop. Not surprisingly, the stage resides in the corner of the L; our seats were about two-thirds of the way back in the less deep bank of seats (the “horizontal” part of the L). Total capacity is about 500. It’s plenty intimate, but we discovered that the sightlines aren’t entirely great–there’s not enough slope up away from the stage, so heads in the row or two in front of you are capable of blocking your view.
We enjoyed the music, though, even if it could have benefited from being just a tad less loud. Stewart is using The Empty Pockets, an indie quartet out of Chicago, as his backing band, and they also serve as opening act. They played five tunes from their just-released album Outside Spectrum, along with a cover of Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge.” The performance was fine, but I’m having a hard time classifying their sound; it’s part bluesy-bar band, part pop-rock, with elements of torch singing and maybe a tiny bit of goth tossed in as well. They feature a twin vocal attack, with appealing harmonies from keyboard player Erika Brett and guitarist Josh Solomon. I think overall Ben liked them more than I did, but there were a couple of tunes, including the title track of the new record, to which I can see myself circling back.
After a half-hour break, the band came back out with Stewart in tow, and over the next hour-plus, the five of them, plus flutist/saxophonist/percussionist Marc Macisso, rolled through about a dozen tunes from Al’s storied collection. I counted five songs from Year of the Cat and two from Time Passages. Because he was in Ohio, Al felt compelled to pay homage to one of its native sons who became President, playing the jaunty “Warren Harding.” While I really like that cut from Past, Present and Future, I fear it took the place of long-time favorite “Flying Sorcery” based on my perusal of setlists from recent shows.
Stewart has a breezy, charming presence on stage and is a natural storyteller (one tale was about taking guitar lessons from fellow Dorset native Robert Fripp when Al was a youngster). Overall, the Empty Pockets did his work justice, perhaps primarily through Solomon’s guitar support. Macisso was excellent, nailing the flute on “Antarctica” and sax solos on “Time Passages.” It was fine that Al had to drop an octave on the occasional phrase.
The last tune of the set was the one for which I’d been waiting. I didn’t know how it would feel to hear “Year of the Cat,” which I’ve been calling my favorite song of all-time since I was 13 years old, performed live. As I noted at the top, things came closer than expected to getting the better of me. I concentrated on being present in the moment, stopping briefly to take a couple of photos toward the end. So what if it wasn’t as polished as the studio version I’ve loved since the winter of 1977? It was still a bucket list slice of time.
The encore was a cover of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero,” Stewart paying tribute to the man who showed him a musical path forward. One by one, the Pockets left the stage, finally leaving just Stewart and Macisso (now playing harmonica). I wished it would have gone on longer, but Al turns 77 in less than two weeks–it was plenty enough.
Immediately prior to “Year of the Cat,” they played this introspective, meta piece about the art and act of musical performance. No, I won’t ever meet you, Al, but I do indeed feel I know some portion of you through your work. Thank you kindly for what you’ve given to the world, and to me.
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.
One night after seeing Pat Benatar and Rick Springfield, Greg and I journeyed into DC, this time along with Katie. The objects of our attention this time were two bands with considerably less US chart success, Violent Femmes and Echo & the Bunnymen.
The venue was The Anthem, a club on the Southwest Waterfront, not all that far from the Jefferson Memorial. It opened just over nine months ago. There’s very limited seating: a few banked rows in the very rear, and then two balcony levels along three walls. The open floor is very large, easily big enough for a few thousand. We were among the first to arrive, close to ninety minutes before showtime, so we planted ourselves at the very front of the room. By show time, the place was fairly packed. No complaints about acoustics—it’s a very nice place to see a show.
First up were the Femmes. My main previous experience with them came while I was in college, probably junior and/or senior years—friends of mine across the hall blasting the eponymous debut album with decent frequency. I never bought Violent Femmes, though maybe James did eventually? I totally get that it’s a classic of its genre, though—many bands never come remotely close to recording anything so fresh and vital. It’s remarkable to me that Gordon Gano, the vocalist and songwriter, is less than a year older than I.
VF put on a fab show. Great energy, playing with flair, goofy guest backup singers/musicians (they call their instrumental support The Horns of Dilemma)—they came out ready to entertain, and succeeded. It’s almost certainly true a good percentage of the enjoyment came from being so close to the action.
Since they’re not a band I sought out back in the day, I recognized maybe a third of the songs they played (set list), maybe all but one of those from the first record; the one I wished they’d done was their cover of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.” That quibble aside, it was pretty much all you could ask. A solid 9/10.
I knew even less about the E&tB going in—most of my exposure has come via 1st Wave on SiriusXM the last three or so years—so my comments will be much more limited. I will say that they were much more serious and business-like about the enterprise. That’s cool—every act has to do it their way. Lead singer Ian McCulloch was clearly the main focus on stage. They did the four or so numbers with which I had a passing familiarity; they’re not completely my style but it was all done with care and reasonable precision.
I couldn’t get a picture with all six members of the band—there’s another guitarist off the right edge of the frame.
It’s pretty obvious (IMO) that their best song is “The Killing Moon,” and that was a high point. McCulloch’s voice wasn’t in the best of shape—this was the last show on the tour—and the crowd really came to his rescue on the final go-round of the chorus of “Moon,” singing in unison, loudly, for an extended period when it looked like he might not be able to hit some of the higher notes. Greg and I—both around six feet tall—made the day for a few rather short women who were clearly Echo fans (they seemed to be roughly our age), letting them slide in front of us for the last few songs of the set. I give it 7.5/10.
It’s hard to compare the two concerts—both had great moments. It was super fun to see them with friends and share reactions. I’ll be on the lookout for shows that might get Greg out to KY sometime.
Yes, the Femmes had a xylophone on stage just for this song, and yes, bassist Brian Ritchie played it:
Two weeks ago I was in NoVa visiting my friends Greg and Katie. It’d been a few years since we’d gotten together; the nominal reason for my trip was to go to a couple of concerts, but really, I mainly wanted to spend time with them and their boys (plus, the timing was excellent on my end). Both shows featured two 80s acts, and even though I’m not overly good at the critiquing thing, I’m filing reports on them. Today, it’s Pat Benatar/Rick Springfield up for examination.
We’ll start with the good half. I’ve not written much at all about Benatar in this space to date, but it might well be the case that from 80 to 82 she was my overall favorite rock act. So many of the singles from her first three albums struck me just the right way during my late high school years, and I just plain adore the chorus of “Shadows of the Night.” My interest in her tailed off a bit during college, but I generally remained a fan.
I’d not seen her live before, and she did a more than creditable job. Obviously her voice doesn’t have the range it did and isn’t as supple as it was during her commercial peak, but it’s clear that she’s taken care of it. I was impressed that she nailed all the high notes in the chorus to “We Live for Love,” but later in the show she did take some things down an octave. As one would expect, she largely focused on big hits. At one point, she made reference to “the holy fourteen,” a/k/a the songs that fans expect to hear at a PB show. I’d venture to say she sang 9 or 10 of them—definitely missing were “Fire and Ice,” “Shadows of the Night,” and “Treat Me Right,” and I would have loved also to have heard “Little Too Late” and “Le Bel Age.” Husband Neil Giraldo—who received dual billing with Benatar—was masterful (it was cute to hear her call him “Spyder,” and him call her “Patty Mae”), the bass player totally nailed it, and while the drummer is no Myron Grombacher, he was mighty fine. The set was maybe just a tiny bit on the short side, but the mashup of other songs with “Heartbreaker” in the encore was good fun. For the curious, here’s the set list. My insta-score of the performance was 8.5/10, which after further reflection is fair.
Rick Springfield’s opening set, on the other hand, left much to be desired. Greg and I both had the feeling that he mailed several songs in; oddly, he regularly pulled away from the mic mid-phrase (the worst of this sort of thing occurred on the second song, “I’ve Done Everything for You”—I just don’t think he interested in doing it). He’s recorded a couple of albums in the last two years, and understandably he wanted to feature some tracks from them, but he (jokingly?) badgered fans when they appeared to be hitting the restroom when a newer song was starting. Springfield’s birthday comes up in a few weeks, and he had the crowd sing to him for it. About mid-show he did a medley of mostly minor 80s hits. This was overall a good choice, as songs like “Bop ‘Til You Drop” and “Don’t Walk Away” feel pretty slight now. I’ll give him credit for going out into the crowd a couple of times, though, when it was time for “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “Human Touch.” On the former, he passed a second mic around and members of the audience sang the title phrase (usually pretty badly) over and again for maybe close to five minutes. The backup band was solid, also covering on vocals when RS took a line or phrase off. Songs I wish he’d played: “Celebrate Youth” and “Love Somebody”—either would have been preferable to “Affair of the Heart” or a cover of “Wild Thing” (Troggs, not Tone Loc). Set list here. I’ll stick with the initial score of 4.5/10—amusing and crowd-pleasing in certain respects but disappointing in plenty of others.
The venue was the theater at the MGM National Harbor, a casino complex on the Maryland side of the Potomac. It’s a multipurpose room, not overly intimate. We sat in the front row of the balcony, which was farther away than I might have expected, though screens on either side of the stage helped. The acoustics were okay but nothing special.
As critical as I’m being, I’m definitely glad I went. The following night, we went to another show, in a different spot—expect a review on Thursday!
We’ll wrap up today with a song from each from Benatar and Springfield, tunes I was very glad to hear live.
A week ago Monday, my family and I went to see “Weird Al” Yankovic at the Opera House in Lexington. It was our first time to see him. When we bought the tickets in the fall, we were warned that Al would be concentrating on the non-parody part of his oeuvre. While that was a little disappointing, we figured the opportunity to see him was too good to pass up. It wasn’t the best show evah, but we’re glad we went.
My familiarity with Al goes back to high school, when “My Bologna” got a touch of airplay in Cincinnati. The next year, Q102 played “Another One Rides the Bus” a lot, but they altered the name of the artist in an all-too-predictably-juvenile way, christening him Ivan Yankinoff. “Bus” is quite the low-fi gig, but the immense promise shows through. I was dimly aware of “I Love Rocky Road” and “Ricky” early on in college, and in the spring of my sophomore year, Al blew the lid off with “Eat It.” James bought In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid, so those got play in the dorm and on WTLX. The parodies of the early 90s such as “Smells Like Nirvana,” “Bedrock Anthem,” and “Headline News” were epic, but I guess I thought things started slipping a bit around the time of “The Saga Begins.” It wasn’t until Mandatory Fun was released almost four years ago that I really gave Al renewed attention—it’s not a coincidence that Ben was then old enough to be interested himself. He bought that album and we listened to it quite a bit that summer. It’s got some great stuff on it; “Word Crimes” is my favorite.
On to the concert, though. Emo Philips was the opener. He did a 30-minute set. I laughed some and I cringed some. He certainly structures a number of jokes well. After a short break, Al and his band came out. They played about 15 songs from across his career, with Al occasionally interjected a bit of commentary/humor. Because I don’t have experience with a lot of album cuts, many were new to me. Most of the pastiches I found thoroughly enjoyable: Don Henley (“When I Was Your Age”), Rage Against the Machine (“I’ll Sue Ya”), and especially Talking Heads (“Dog Eat Dog”) were definite highlights. The other thing that really stood out was the reinvention of some better-known pieces. After saying they would be playing the Devo-inspired “Dare To Be Stupid,” the band performed it with a completely differently arrangement. At the time I would have called it blues bar band. The morning after the show I perused set lists from other stops on the tour and saw it referenced as Grateful Dead style, which on further reflection sounds right—think of a kinda-sorta “Truckin’” version. Total genius. They closed with a medley of parodies, but performed almost none as originally conceived; the best one was doing “Eat It” to the setting of the unplugged “Layla” (come on, you know you can totally hear that in your head now).
On this tour they’ve been starting the encore with a different classic (non-Al) hit in each city. In Lexington, he came out and asked the audience for a request, allowing each of us to shout out his/her favorite. He said, “Okay, it’s pretty obvious. We’ll play what you want to hear.” And with that, the keyboardist, followed by the guitarist, put on their best Skynyrd impersonation (we were on the other side of the house from where this was shot). A woman in the row in front of me opened the cigarette lighter app on her phone and waved it around. While I’m glad they didn’t do the whole fourteen minutes, they did play enough for Al to have the chance to shout, “How ‘bout you?” That led directly in to a rousing rendition of “Yoda.” Fantastic ending.
I do have some quibbles, though. The acoustics were lacking—the music regularly overshadowed Al’s voice, which was also somewhat fuzzy. A little less volume would have done wonders (yeah, I’m getting to be an old grumpy man). And while it’s really cool that he’s not doing the same show every time—it looks to me that he’s picking from among forty or so songs, with little overlap from night to night—the selection of tracks at our venue reminds one that Al tends to go to some wells lots of times (but I knew that from watching his videos over the years). Three of the first five songs referenced internal or vital organs. And it wasn’t really necessary to play two songs (“Why Does This Always Happen to Me” and “Good Old Days”) that feature Al the Psychopath.
Nonetheless, well worth it. One of my colleagues is a veteran Al concert attender, and he thought it was the best one he’d seen. It really is amazing that Al’s outlasted just about everyone he’s taken on; I’m curious to see if any new material is in the offing.
Al has been an inspiration to aspiring parodists and satirists for over thirty-five years, including yours truly—I’ve got a couple of pieces I wrote in college that I no doubt will share at some point. But here’s a video from a wannabe Al, for one of the songs I heard last week. It’s a worthy homage to a master, particularly the last 20 seconds.