Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, March 28, 2016


This was my fourth show on this 2016 outing for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. (As a matter of principle I am not going to call it “The River Tour” because that already happened.) This was the reschedule for the snowed-out show back in January. I was curious how the show would play this far into the tour and if there would be a special treat since it was a makeup gig. I was hard side stage behind Charlie, picked up on the original drop for this show and acquired from someone who could not make the rescheduled date.

Bruce was in an excellent, jovial mood. He played to the back often and even acknowledged the fans up on the Chase Bridge seats in the rafters. The crowd also was engaged and energetic and the overall crowd energy was a million times better than the first Garden gig. They were loud. They sang in all the right places. The joint bounced from “Meet Me In The City.” You remember why you love seeing Springsteen at the Garden on nights like this.

But surprisingly and disappointingly, I can’t say the same about the E Street Band Monday night. The performance was loose in a casual way, not in a relaxed way. They were wound tight as a spring at the beginning of the tour, and with good reason, this was a hard performance to pull off. But there was none of that precision this evening. There were many missed notes, as well as far too much feedback in the goddamned PA for an organization of this caliber. (More on this later.)

Things didn’t pull together until “Point Blank,” probably because they couldn’t have executed the piece otherwise, it demands attention. But that said, it was excellent. Bruce stood facing Max, eyes closed, until Roy reached that last crescendo and then Bruce’s hand came halfway up his chest, he opened his eyes, and conducted the band into the song. It was magnificent. (I had several friends at the show tonight who had never seen Bruce before, and I texted them when the song was done to say, “And that’s my favorite part.”)

I was hoping that the strength of the performance would get things back on track but it did not. There’s always a problem around “I’m A Rocker” for reasons that escape me; I kind of get the beer run during “Fade Away” (I mean I don’t, but I do). Speaking of “Fade Away,” both it and “Stolen Car” (of all things) felt rushed, of all things. There was just no groove, you know? E Street has a groove and they could not find it tonight.

Regarding the sound, I know I wasn’t out front but my ticket cost exactly the same as those that were and the sound was not good tonight. I always figure it’ll get better if it’s rough at the start but it just got worse throughout the night. By the time we were at “I’m A Rocker” I could hear Charlie but only very faint Bruce vocals. Bruce made a joke during “Ramrod” that I could not hear because of the sound. At the start of the tour I was willing to say, “Well, Bruce pulled this together so fast, they didn’t have time to get it together, etc. etc. etc.” But at this point, and at these prices, there is literally zero excuse for poor sound at a venue they have played at countless times.

I am happy to report that after many informed reports from the West Coast of Bruce’s voice not being at its best, it seemed fine tonight, but I did note that there were parts of “Point Blank” that he chose to speak-sing rather than just sing. He had some scarf-like contraption wrapped around his neck and tucked under his shirt but I can’t tell you for sure if that was for his throat or just his often questionable sense of fashion.

There were good things tonight: “Point Blank.” “I Wanna Marry You.” Bruce and Patti shooting each other little smiles all night. “Brilliant Disguise.” “Ramrod,” where he saw his mother dancing in the seats–Adele Springsteen has more energy than I do on a weeknight–and he went over to dance with her, and do the butt shake together. I was a crabby curmudgeon about the people waving their phones during “Drive All Night” but by the second sax solo it became something magical, one of those spontaneous moments that elevated the crowd and the band and the performance.

But the real magic tonight was when Bruce announced, “This is something special for New York” and we heard the chords for “Meeting Across The River.” In that moment something shifted and there was that amazing feeling you get in that particular room, that space where so much history has happened before. Everyone was excited; everyone was at attention. And in that moment I was a 14 year old kid again, listening to that record through my headphones, imagining that some day I’d get to see it happen, and wondering what that would be like. I imagined it for what seemed like so long before I got to see it happen, and when it happened, it just didn’t seem possible that I was witnessing something that I’d dreamed and imagined, something so wonderful, even more wonderful than I had imagined it to be.

And “Jungleland.” “Meeting” finishes and we all know what’s coming next, but the fact that we all know makes that instant of anticipation before the first note that much more intense. Bruce asks, “As we take our stand,” and we answer–we shout–we affirm: “DOWN IN JUNGLELAND.” You pump your fist. You play air piano (no? just me?), you root for Barefoot Girl, you shout about the poets, it becomes a form of incantation, of remembrance, of offering, of prayer.

And at the end, you stand there, fist aloft in tribute matching Bruce holding the guitar in salute, and wonder how you got to be so lucky.


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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA, February 12, 2016


I reviewed this show for Backstreets (look for February 12). These are some additional thoughts (not a review).

There was so much to like about Philly. That said, I thought it lacked the intensity of Pittsburgh or the focus of MSG, and it definitely took a while for the band to get momentum going during the album segment. But it is so great to be in a room with the people of Philadelphia watching Bruce Springsteen. There were a lot of moments tonight where it felt like the Spectrum (without the lack of women’s bathrooms). There were vibes. Philly showed up and was loud and proud. It was nine million trillion (yes, this is a precise measurement) times better than the crowd at the Garden.

I find it curious that there has been no attempt to swap out “Meet Me In The City” as the intro song, as though “Roulette” would be some kind of poor crowd pleaser or would somehow diminish the energy. Or “Loose Ends.” Or “Be True.” I will raise the issue of the lack of outtakes once again, given the recent interview in Rolling Stone with Mr. Van Zandt where he discusses all the outtakes and how he’s looking forward to playing them. (Then again, SVZ also talks about the ‘residency at the Stone Pony’ which is simply a thing that never happened.) 

Steve makes the point, however, that The River got lost between Born To Run and Born In The USA and while there is part of me that cannot wrap my mind around that, I think he has a point. After tonight, I have reached the opinion that the people who go to this show are going to see Bruce Springsteen, who just happens to be performing The River in its entirety. Bruce, and others, assume that people are coming to see the album being performed. They are not.

This is why the crowd’s energy dissipates right around “I’m A Rocker.”  That is the end of the material that they are vaguely familiar enough with. So once again, there was Bruce out on the center platform in the middle of the show, trying to raise the energy, telling the crowd to jump at the end. I know there were some Europeans in the front pit tonight because I could see them pogoing at the requisite moments, but otherwise Philly started hard and went flat in the middle, before perking up again after “Wreck On The Highway.”)

(How on earth does he think he’s going to go to Europe and deal with this in the largest of the European football stadiums, or a muddy field in the Hague? I know the press release hedged on this point particularly–“The River Tour 2016” can end up being whatever he says it is–but I shudder to think about what that will be like. Don’t tell me that the Europeans don’t talk or they’re better–yes in the front pit I won’t have 50 year old men busy reading their email during “The Price You Pay” like tonight but past the pit and in the stands it will be the exact same thing.)

There were so many lovely moments this evening–listening to him talk about “Independence Day” with Bruce’s mother and sister present; the ease and playfulness during the “I Wanna Marry You” introduction (my favorite part was “It’s not the real thing—but I’ve got these maracas, I don’t need the real thing,” at which Patti, sitting on the piano riser, smiled knowingly and raised her eyebrows and shot him that “How did I end up with him again?” look.). Also moving were the various moments of him interacting with his mother, coming over during “Sherry” and then again during “Thunder Road,” to acknowledge the family. Even Steve came over to say hello to that section later in the show. I was hoping Adele would be the lucky lady chosen for “Dancing In The Dark” but she is in her 90’s, not that it stopped her from standing and dancing from time to time, and the smile on her face was a delight to observe.

And once again, that end of side 3/side 4 was quite simply outstanding.  “Stolen Car” was heartbreaking and breathtaking; I was in tears, riveted in the moment. I was not ready for “Ramrod” afterwards, I just wanted to be able to drink it in some more.  “I Wanna Marry You” was gorgeous–“Here She Comes Now” is one of the great gifts of this tour, “The Price You Pay” transcendent, and “Point Blank” continues to amaze in its depth and majesty. Max and Roy on the intro are phenomenal. I mean, we already know that Roy Bittan is the best musician in the band, but during “Point Blank” I am so so glad he took this gig. These are performances I will carry with me as some of the greatest musical performances by the E Street Band, and it is these moments that define the purpose of this tour.

The back half was also a pleasant surprise. At least Bruce is changing it up; at least there is some variety. “Atlantic City” was appropriate, and wistful, the city fading back into where it was when this song was written. “My Love Will Not Let You Down” confounded the audience (who thought it was “Dancing In The Dark” somehow?) but also very very very appropriate for a Philadelphia audience.

“Human Touch” was very adult, for lack of a better word. It felt very Tunnel of Love–yes, I understand that can’t be possible since that record came beforehand. But if you saw Tunnel you know what I mean. It was unabashed, it was very much about Bruce and Patti’s relationship on that stage in front of 18,000 people. Next to “Stolen Car,” and watching Bruce sing “Thunder Road” to his family, it was my favorite part of the night.

I welcomed the appearance of “Jungleland.” It is always good to hear “Jungleland” in Philadelphia. It felt like a reward and an acknowledgement, and it felt like you were standing in the old Spectrum for a second or two, Bruce holding the guitar aloft in tribute, the way he used to hold it up as though he was going into battle. It got a little performative towards the end–I don’t think we need to Brooooce in the middle of “Jungleland”–but it didn’t bother me that much, because the crowd’s energy was very present in the song, it was very much the old timers remembering and the middle generation being glad they have a memory of it, something to compare it to, and the new generation losing their shit that they got to see “Jungleland.”

The epidemic of “Dancing In The Dark” signs is at a point at which all signs need to be banned from the pit. (I wrote about this more here.) I could not see the stage for many moments last night.  And “Shout” remains as lightweight an end to the show as ever. It is really just beneath the abilities of the E Street Band. The Medley can’t come out in Philly, of all places?

P.S. Bruce Springsteen Is Not Your Babysitter, aka Egregious Offenses in Brucebait Part II


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Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, 1/27/16

River MSG

I reviewed this show for the Village Voice. This is the inside baseball edition.

Pure and simple, it was a barnburner tonight. Somehow the band were even tighter than Pittsburgh, for the entire night. It was absolutely insane, in the best way possible.

Two shows have showed them how they need to run this thing, and there is zero lost energy between songs. There is just none. You think that it doesn’t matter, but to me it was such a marked difference. It doesn’t feel rushed and if you aren’t someone who obsessively watches production details you probably won’t even notice. But it kept things moving, kept the energy up, kept the momentum going. Even the difference of a minute can lose the crowd in this song sequence. It was most noticeable in places like “Jackson Cage” into “Two Hearts,” or Bruce starting “Independence Day” before offering the introduction, or going into “Out In The Street” immediately after “Hungry Heart.” There wasn’t the even the tiniest fraction of a second break.

Even with all that, people around me all shifted into reading their email during “Crush On You.” He’s really having fun with that one now, and the crowd down front does too, so I don’t get why that was the moment that everyone stopped trying, screens all white around me.

“Fade Away” was the number where people just gave up, and there was a steady exodus out of GA, and up the stairs in the side sections. But it was a curious crowd tonight; there was almost no reaction during “Meet Me In The City,” I don’t get it, because even if you haven’t heard the song, the chorus is easy to catch onto and the hooks are killer, but it just kind of fell flat. Maybe the problem is the house lights still being up; I don’t know. But this would be a repeated problem during the album set. Bruce kept trying to get people to jump up and down, that foray to the back platform during “I’m A Rocker” because it was just dead, flat out in GA. Then again, when hedge fund dudes are buying 4 GA tickets at $1200 a pop (this is a thing that actually happened; I know someone who knows a hedge fund dude), what do you think the floor is going to be like? I know there are ways of getting around this and you can’t do paperless tickets in New York; at least make the front of floor will call only or enter immediately or something. I am reminded again by the very dude audience last night how much I miss the diversity of the audience in Europe.

I said after Pittsburgh that I had no idea how this show was going to play in the stands. Well, now I know. I was in section 117, row 8, so close to the stage and the floor. The people around me had some connection to acquire their tickets; most had E Street Lounge passes or bitched that they didn’t get them. (If you have never been in the E Street Lounge, it’s not ‘backstage’ but rather a room with a cash bar, and the only advantage really sometimes is that there’s a private bathroom, and sometimes free water.) I offer this caveat as a base line between sitting in a section with fans who had to work for their tickets, and sitting with people who have some kind of connection. Still, they were chatty but I could still focus, but I attribute the latter to what was going on on that stage.

I do not understand why people were not moved by “Stolen Car” or “I Wanna Marry You” or “Fade Away” or “Point Blank” — I was going on about “Side Four” but it really is “the end of side three into side four”. I thought it was amazing in Pittsburgh, it was absolutely STUNNING tonight. It almost feels like Bruce is perversely relishing the challenge of delivering these songs to a chatty crowd, his old bar band instincts kicking in.  That is a great thing to witness, but I wonder about it wearing him down round about show #10, or #20, or even after that. Like, I get that he’s Bruce Springsteen, but having 16000 of 18000 people yakking it up through songs you have gone out of your way to indicate are important to you has to get to you after a while. Even if you are Bruce Springsteen, it is hard to perform those songs. It is hard to run that part of the show. There is a real physical and emotional effort that’s even more than a normal show.

And the talking people are crazy-making. At least during “Crush On You” they weren’t talking, or I couldn’t hear them talking. These tickets were so hard to get, and cost so much money, and the performances were so magnificent, but yet it was like being in the loudest bar you could think of on a weekend.

Jim Rotolo did a live remote for E Street Radio before the show, and I was hanging out in that vicinity because Chris Phillips got shanghaied into going on the air. During his appearance Rotolo mentioned that people are calling and writing the station and saying that gosh, they really weren’t familiar with the River album before the tour, but now they’re “getting into it.” And you would think that can’t possibly be true, but yet, compare the audience’s reaction to the record to the audience’s reaction to “She’s The One” and “Candy’s Room” and it is like night and day. But if you were old enough to be around for ‘78 or ’75 then you were old enough to be around when The River came out, so none of this makes any sense to me.

Also in the “does not make sense to me” is the reaction to “Wrecking Ball.” I realize I have never really been in the camp of liking or understanding why Bruce let this song have a life beyond that last night at Giants Stadium, and I know people are just reacting to melody, but seriously, people who were filing their nails during “Crush On You” or reading email during “Stolen Car” (and making fun of me for being excited during the album performance) were executing choreographed dance moves to “Wrecking Ball.”

The band fucked up a couple of times tonight, minor mishaps I record here but cut out of the review as being less important than the rest of it: two missed cues during the intro to “I Wanna Marry You,” one they missed–”Even the tightest band in the world fucks it up,” Bruce observed, before then missing the cue himself. But he made up for it in spades, that lovely Roy Orbison moment, that “Oh darling,” was heart-stopping. Then, Steve hit a repeated series of wrong chords during the intro to “The River.” There was also something else going on during “She’s The One,” where poor Nils spent a great deal of time running around and looking meaningfully at people, especially Steve. I think the rhythm was just wrong, and he was trying to sync himself with Max before bringing it around the rest of the stage.

I hesitate to ever mention Jake Clemons because the pro-Jake faction gets so defensive if anyone ever criticizes him in the slightest, but I really appreciated Jake’s performance in Pittsburgh and tonight he really brought it home. That “Drive All Night” solo was phenomenal. I think he has really found a good place for himself in the band and in the show and his energy is not as obtrusive to me personally (please note emphasis) as it was on previous tours. I realize he has a thankless job.

On the note of thankless jobs, we come to Charlie Giordano. (I really like Charlie and am happy he got this gig; he played keyboards for one of my favorite local bands in the 80s.) But I mention this because the sound is much improved in my opinion, apparently there is some new sound system, and the separation is fantastic; I can actually hear the organ. I realize he was not hired to offer his interpretations of the material, but rather to play the material as written. I think I just notice the gaping hole left by Danny Federici more when it comes to playing a set of River material. That lightness, that delicate touch, the way he could make a melody just swing. I am missing it, hard.

And while we’re in this neighborhood, there was a moment last night during “Thunder Road” that felt like it was right out of “No Nukes”. I had to cut the line from the review because it was too inside-baseball-ish and would have taken too many words (I had 800, with an option to go to 1,000) but while “Thunder Road” is one of the greatest gifts in the history of rock and roll, it is different now than it was back then; last night it felt like it did back then, and I missed Clarence SO HARD.

I am surprised there was no Bowie tribute offered tonight, to be honest. On the other hand, I do not feel that this needed to be a thing for the entire tour, and maybe Bruce felt that if he did one he had to do the other and then it becomes a thing for the entire tour.

Tonight, all the dead are here, indeed.

I was thinking about going out to Newark if I could find a ticket, but now I have a ticket available to me at the rescheduled MSG show and still have a ticket for Philly, and now of course there is the second leg. I am still curious what this show is going to be like after, say, 12 performances, and then 20 performances, and whether the back half changes.

I am focusing on the back half because after tonight I feel safe in saying, if we didn’t get outtakes at the hometown gig beyond “Meet Me In The City,” we are not ever going to get outtakes, so say goodbye to your hopes of “Stray Bullet” or “Chain Lightning.”

We are also stuck with “Shout” as the last number and that is the one thing in the set that is going to drive me literally insane.  Why not bring out the “Detroit Medley”? Why not any number of other actual Springsteen compositions that people will love just as much. It just feels like a cheap way to end the show because people love “Animal House” and are going to act like idiots. This set deserves so much better than that.

It is honestly a great show, and as a fan it is great to hear the songs that dropped out of the set, and it is great to watch the band execute the River material. But that only has legs for so long. For me, the thing about a Springsteen show is the unknown, the unexpected, and of course, the new material, and the way all of it gets juxtaposed together. When this tour was first announced, all I could think of was all of the possibilities of being able to sequence the material from The River with everything that came after it. And if Bruce wants to take it easy by not having to craft an intense setlist, he gets to do that.  But that means that this is not the kind of tour that is going to breathe or grow much beyond what we have right now. We will have to get used to that.


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Thoughts On Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour 2016 Tour Opener In Pittsburgh

thank you so much danny clinch for blocking my view all night


Also see my tour previews in Salon and the Village Voice (link coming)

I went on record on Twitter during the show stating that Saturday night in Pittsburgh was one of the strongest tour openers in years, and an overall fantastic performance, especially of The River. I stand by that now, even later. I literally do not have enough superlatives to apply to what was a first-night-of-the-tour performance, or in fact any performance. When great bands rehearse, it only helps them, and this was so clearly visible on Saturday. It also takes pressure off of Bruce, because he’s less worried about leading the band, and that lets him apply his energies towards the performance.

I remain utterly blown away at “Point Blank.” If Bruce had said in any pre-tour interviews that they had created some enhancements to the arrangements of some songs, I would have likely blown a gasket. Instead, they just showed up and played it and it was phenomenal. I am conscious of spoilers for those waiting to see shows but these small touches, which are not any different to how things transformed as they were performed over the course of time back in 1980, are valid and will not damage anyone’s memories or expectations. “Stolen Car” was masterful. “Crush On You” was an absolute delight. I even enjoyed “You Can Look” which is honestly not one of my favorite songs on the record. I was thrilled to see something like ‘Here She Comes Now’ added to “I Wanna Marry You” (which was another standout performance)–this is the kind of thing the people who have followed Bruce for a long time will especially appreciate, along the lines of the revival of “Prove It ’78”. NOW GIVE ME ‘ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST’ BEFORE ‘THE RIVER,’ PLEASE. Or even “No Money Down” before “Cadillac Ranch.” I don’t need all of them in the show (but WHY NOT?), but I hope they are rotated in and out.

I am utterly defeated at the lack of outtakes after we were promised outtakes. And I am not looking for a full band “Mr. Outside” (although it would be HILARIOUS), but “Roulette”? “Where The Bands Are”? “Restless Nights?” “Be True?” I realize the Bowie tribute took one slot but we couldn’t have traded DITD for one of those? One outtake to open the show (and it is a barnburner of a moment) does not “the best of our outtakes” make.

I was personally glad to see the album performed again without morons talking nonstop through the performance as they did at MSG in 2009. There were still some egregious offenses, even down on the floor a couple of rows from the second barricade. Let me please shame them publicly:

INDEPENDENCE DAY. Dude #1, loudly: “I NEVER THOUGHT MUCH OF THIS SONG.” Dude #2: “YEAH, ME EITHER.”  Thank you, oh great men, for sharing your weighty opinion with everyone standing near you, some of whom may never have seen the song played live. We are so privileged to hear your thoughts. (I didn’t say it, but I thought it later.)

STOLEN CAR. Props to the guy behind me who yelled, “Play the Tracks version.” Of course, as my associate Mr. Radecki pointed out, the very introduction to the song on Saturday explained why he’ll never play the Tracks version. This song was a definite chat trigger, but at least standing amongst people who cared enough to queue in the cold for hours ensured that a pointed look regained silence.

THE RIVER. Woman behind me screams the lyrics, which usually I give a free pass to–it’s a concert–except that she did not know the words, and kept getting them wrong. It’s “I got a union card and a wedding coat,” not “wedding ring.” This would be forgivable except that she then announced that “Point Blank” was her favorite song of all time. She also did not know the words to that, and had begun a Garth & Kat-like yelled mumble, but was thankfully defeated after the first line.

I don’t know what this will be like in the stands. Pittsburgh, to their credit, really hung in there with Bruce, and there were not endless exoduses up the aisle for beer and similar until “Wreck On The Highway,” by which point it was hard to take much issue. But those of us who were at the Garden in ’09 had a much different experience (and I wasn’t all that far from the stage). It will be interesting to see how Bruce manages crowds that are less interested in paying attention, because he can’t just call an audible and switch to something else.

On that note, I was most struck by how strongly Bruce was able to be emotionally present at the most difficult transitions. There was an emotional modulation in his voice during “Stolen Car” that was utterly breathtaking. But this is, again, where the idea of playing a record back to back is a much different experience than sequencing a show with a majority of the songs alongside existing material. While I felt that he was struggling with finding an emotional center during the first half of “Drive All Night” (it’s why I stopped the Periscope–I wasn’t sure if what I felt missing was me or the performance), he did find it later.

There was a proposal next to me in the pit during “I Wanna Marry You.” I congratulated the happy couple (who stayed for the whole show, more props to them) instead of asking them why they didn’t just pick “The One I Love.” To be fair, the gentleman’s sign asked for Bruce’s help with the proposal, and when they lost the lottery, he obviously  had to scramble for a Plan B. (The lottery was a debacle and a half, which was already covered by my associate.)

As for the rest of the set, it’s so hard to take issue with the back half of the show when everyone around you is losing their minds and acting like this is the best concert ever in the history of the world. I generally get a lot of enjoyment watching the audience during the encores, finding those people who are hearing these songs for the first time in their lives and going bonkers. But the lack of a theme or narrative arc was more disorienting than I had anticipated (because I didn’t really anticipate there not being one, to be fair).

“Sunny Day” has finally left the set, and no children were brought onstage for any reason. The endless reprises and other unnecessary extensions of songs are nowhere to be found. And to the people complaining that no specific mention was made of Danny and Clarence, it’s in every god-dammed note, and when he started those moments, people complained that they went on “too long.” I remain flabbergasted.

I was personally selfishly happy to see the Bowie dedication (although the crowd seemed a little meh on it) but keenly felt the absence of any type of commentary on current events, either specific remarks or the thing Springsteen does best, which is communicate a message through the way he sequences the setlist. I’ve been studying the 1980 tour for another project, and those setlists were stunning–not just for their length, which is not what I’m looking for, but in the way he put points across. “Racing In The Street” into “The River” into “Badlands,” or “The Promised Land” into “This Land Is Your Land” into “The River” into “Badlands.” Don’t try to say, “It was a different time” –have you been watching the news at all? It’s an election year, and Bruce Springsteen is on tour with nothing to say about it. Even in 2009, he made the very specific point at the Garden when he introduced the record:

“It was a record made during a recession, hard times in the States, title song is a song I wrote for my brother and sister, my brother was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late 70s, like so many people are doing today.”

Of course, he could have absolutely zero desire to address any of the current political landscape publicly, and that is his right. But if he thinks he’s unable to do it because of the constraints of the tour, it will make me profoundly sad. The longer he’s focused on older material, the longer we have to wait for new material. I think he knows this–he specifically made a comment on Saturday that I believe was obliquely referencing Bowie’s passing:

A friend of mine was sitting around last night; he said, ‘Time catches up to us all.’ You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, and try to do something good.

My essential objection to the tour remains thus: The longer this goes on, the further out we push a new record, and selfishly I want as much new Bruce Springsteen as I can before we no longer have that option available to us. This past week, which for me personally has felt like sitting shiva, has made that point paramountly clear.

It’s a fun show, and it’s absolutely fine for me to sit this one out. But I fervently hope this wraps up in Los Angeles.

Postscript: I apologize for the delay in publishing a piece, but knew the opener would be amply covered, I had other paid assignments that had to be written and filed and didn’t want to jeopardize them before writing a personal piece. I was also in town with friends and so didn’t want to have to pull my usual stunt of running back to the hotel as quickly as possible in order to write something as quickly as possible.


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Review: Beach Slang, Knitting Factory, 12/17/15

James Alex

I don’t need another band to be the Replacements for me. That’s easy for me to say, I guess, because I had the actual Replacements when I needed that in my life. So people saying a band is just like the ‘Mats is pretty much guaranteed to make me scuttle off in the other direction, because it’s rarely true, and because I am not looking to relive my youth.

This is why I missed out on Beach Slang until earlier this year, because every other word about them was “Replacements” and that will definitely make me exit stage left. But then they opened for Tommy, and People I Know said, “No, really, you should,” and the coup de grace was actually a YouTube video of “Bastards of Young.” That might seem hypocritical, but it was their chops in being able to play it and the heart in being able to sell it that I needed to see. And then I bought all of the records (okay, I downloaded off of Bandcamp) and the guitar shimmer and the ache in the voice and the unintentional anthems and that sold me, hard, fast, it was love.

The band came through the Knitting Factory last week, the day after Sleater-Kinney played that life-altering gig at the Market Hotel. And I was nervous and I got there early and I got angry at dudes thinking they could stand in front of me. Then the band were onstage and it was sloppy and gorgeous, it was James trying to pull a rockstar move only to slip and fall. It was needing to tune between every song because they hit the strings so hard they went out of tune. The songs are better live, because they are rawer, closer to the bone, closer to that moment that created them, closer to feeling that freight train of energy and emotion.

I didn’t even get angry at the stage divers like I usually do (it’s not 1995) because it was mostly girls and then one got onstage and sang and it was mostly all so sweet and earnest and genuine, even the dudes in the center trying to get a pit started couldn’t generate sufficient angst. It’s not that the crowd wasn’t excited or into it, they just weren’t there to be assholes. That won’t last if Beach Slang gets bigger, but it’s certainly a refreshing change right now.

I turned on the camera when they went into “Bastards of Young,” Periscoping it for friends mostly, and then kept it on through “Can’t Hardly Wait.” And, again, I don’t think they’re the Replacements, although I think that wanting to be the Replacements is part of what makes the band great, what makes the songs great, wanting to be something that meant something, wanting to write songs that filled those missing spots in your soul, those gaps in your heart. Because the show was actually better after the ‘Mats tribute section was done.

They did an amazing cover of “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker and the crowd surfers came out in force, but it was “Kids” from the first Beach Slang record that was the best thing all night, that moment where everything slid into place, locked and loaded, the band, the crowd, the energy, the moment. It was anarchy, it was an arena anthem, it was everything, and you wanted it to last forever.

People Magazine and The New York Times are writing about Beach Slang and I retweeted the Times link with, “Sadly ecstatic that the heroes are news,” probably Townshend’s best line ever, because it could not be more true. They are getting the press because everyone feels the potential. This may be the last time I see them in a club this small. Here’s hoping so.


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Review: The Music of David Byrne and Talking Heads, Carnegie Hall, March 23, 2015

Yes, that’s David Byrne and a drumline onstage at Carnegie Hall, playing “Uptown Funk”. From last night’s Michael Dorf tribute, which this year honored “The Music of David Byrne and Talking Heads.” I believe at one point it may have just been Talking Heads and changed to the “The Music of…” which didn’t require enormous amounts of insight to interpret as an attempt to get Byrne’s participation in the evening.

But I get ahead of myself.

This one was sold out, sold out hard, legit fans hitting you for ‘one ticket’ as you came up Seventh Avenue alongside the venue. I was in the front row of the dress circle for this one, prices having gone up with the years, and also a barometer of how much I wanted to see this vs. how close I needed to be. (It was a little vertiginous up there, to be honest, in the front of the dress circle almost all the way up at the stage; I wouldn’t buy seats in that section again.)

As with all the Dorf tribute nights, there are hits and misses, bigger hits and larger, totally-off-the-bullseye misses. That is part of the serendipity of the event, and people who have done this for a while go into it with that attitude, and I think enjoy the show a lot more than the people who are there for either X band or for picture-perfect renditions of Their Favorite Songs. (Example being the row behind me, a dude who had done this before with his friends, who had never been, and were mostly bemused and fidgety all night.)

I liked this evening a lot but I was also far less emotionally invested in this year’s show than I have been at any of the other ones. I am a fan of this music but it was not an obsession. I think I saw Talking Heads two or three times at most, the first time being at Wollman Rink in Central Park right after they got back from Heatwave and had the expanded lineup. I remember sitting online in the Park and hearing the expanded version of “Take Me To The River” and my head just about exploding.

I was also less personally interested in the artists who were in the lineup; that doesn’t mean they weren’t strong or valid, and I was glad to see a diverse lineup that didn’t depend on the usual suspects (although there were plenty of those), but there was no one particular person who I thought “Gosh I can’t wait to see them.” This also meant I was less infuriated by the Carnegie ushers usual stance on allowing dancing. (That said, I really felt for the people who were dancing in their seats or jumping up behind the ushers’ backs to boogie for 10 seconds before sitting down.)

The other trend I noticed this time, larger than usual, is how artists react to being on that stage in that house. Some are reverent, awed, respectful; others are awkward and cannot handle the space and flail around. And then there are those — Alexis Krauss was the first one in the evening — who handle the stage with utter aplomb. I tip my cap to her “Life During Wartime” which was bold and energetic. I remember the days where singing “This ain’t no Mudd Club/or CBGBs” was like the password to the secret society.

[On that note, the trend of going onstage barefoot at Carnegie has got to stop; it is not charming, it is ignorant and disrespectful.]

Antibalas was the house band and they were fantastic. Loose, versatile, and the sax player who was leading the band was fucking awesome. He was on point and he was also hella into it, singing with gusto every time there was a chance. I salute you. They killed with Crosseyed & Painless.

Billy Gibbons was the biggest surprise. I couldn’t have possibly even begun to guess what song he was going to perform and “Houses In Motion” would definitely not have been on the list. He was the most talkative (and seemingly the most comfortable on the stage, although I get the feeling that Billy Gibbons is the type of guy who’s comfortable anywhere he goes, and i mean that in the best way possible). He also tipped the audience off that David Byrne was there.

Other notables:

Cibo Matto were a perfect fit for “I Zimbra” if a little stiff. (That maybe goes to my note above about people’s comfort level on the stage. But I wouldn’t have used the word ‘stiff’ for anyone at the Prince tribute, for example, but would have applied it to multiple performances here).

Glen Hansard has really won me over with the years and I loved what he did with “Girlfriend Is Better,” wild fiddle solo and all. I thought “gosh I do not need that old timey deedle deedle deedle” but it was fresh and energetic and I clapped hard.

I see Joseph Arthur all the time because I am a fan of artists who admire him and give him an opening slot. I have also really warmed up to him, and liked his arrangement of “This Must Be The Place” worked well, he didn’t overdo the loops or effects, and he didn’t make a big fucking paint mess on the stage (yes, he still painted). Hilariously he couldn’t have an easel so someone held the canvas and bobbed it to and fro like a Muppet during the song.

Esperanza Spalding’s “Road To Nowhere” was driving and elegant. My program notes say “Phenomenal”.

Santigold is not my kind of jam but she was fabulous. Her version “Burning Down The House” was absolutely truth in advertising.

The WHOOPS and yelps accompanied the first site of Questlove’s afro walking onto the stage and “Born Under Punches” was crisp and complicated. I hope it sounded better downstairs because upstairs it was a murky mess. this was not their fault; they played it more than just fine. The singer’s name was DonnT (I think?) and she had this Bowie-esque mime thing going that was wonderful.

CeeLo Green did a fine version of “Take Me To The River” BUT THAT SONG WAS NOT WRITTEN BY DAVID BYRNE. I am not thrilled by him, though, to be honest. The crowd loved it, though.

Sharon Jones absolutely brought down the house with “Psychokiller”. It was one of those moments where you don’t know it’s going to be amazing until the artist is there and the energy goes up and before she even opened her mouth to sing the first note you could just TELL it was going to blow the roof off the joint. It was also far enough along in the evening that we could get up out of our seats and tell the ushers to go to hell, but she stalked that stage like a panther and sang the hell out of the song. I wish she had had the closing slot; she certainly deserved to be billed over CeeLo in New York City.

We had about three seconds to breathe before the marching band headed down the aisles, headed by none other than the guest of honor. If he was going to show up, he was going to bring us his latest project, even if every single person in that audience would have rather seen him sing “Take Me To The River” over CeeLo Green. I pondered on the artists who show no interest in the art they created that allow them to explore and be experimental now (looking at you, Robert Plant; Alex Chilton also fell in that category in the 80s). There is a crabby part of me that thinks, Goddamnit, you’re all still alive, suck it up and do one tour so the people who put you where you are right now can hear you sing and play those songs again, I also respect that he doesn’t. But I am glad he graced the evening with his energy and presence, and am glad that the organizers avoided the traditional train wreck of the attempted all-star encore number, where we learn which of the performers participating actually know the honoree’s catalog, to mixed and generally awful effect (read previous years as noted below).

Another tremendously interesting and well-performed evening for Mr. Dorf, and a fine example of why I eagerly look forward to the announcement of these shows every year. (C’mon, Bowie next. Please???)


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Review: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes: Two Nights at the Stone Pony, 2/27-28/2015

Tenth avenue Freeze South heheheh

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes performed two special shows at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park this past weekend. Friday night was billed as “Rare Jukes: All the Non-Hits, All The Time” and night two was the Music of Bruce Springsteen. Both nights were two and a half hours of well-rehearsed, impeccably curated material.

The effort that went into putting these two nights together was obvious from the first note. The musicians had to learn, and rehearse, a lengthy set of material, the majority of which they’ll likely never play again. You can tell when a band has bothered to practice, and when they’ve run through a set of material once or twice.

I enjoyed the musical performances immensely, even if I thought a particular arrangement or rendition or execution was less than successful. I like watching musicians take chances and attempt things they are less than successful at. If that sounds like a diss, it’s not at all. Both nights were utterly fascinating. It’s one thing to watch Southside lead the band on the core material, but watching him pull it together on songs they hadn’t played before was amazing. It was also interesting to watch the songs that he felt more comfortable in, the ones he could wear as well as “Trapped Again” or “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. (Not surprisingly, on night two that was the River material.)

And then on top of all of this was the between songs patter, the stories he chose to tell. I am not anywhere close to a Jukes diehard, but I found myself very moved by Johnny’s narration night one, his stories about why certain songs meant something to him, listening to him talk about Elmore James or how “Fannie Mae” was the first song he learned to play harmonica to, naming the label and the year of release. If I was an enormous, ride-or-die Jukes fan, this would be my idea of heaven on earth.

Night one I was surprised that it was less Jukes deep cuts than a handful of those matched with carefully chosen and curated covers. It’s hard to beat the Jukes on a set going from “Cry To Me,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” into the Mad Dogs & Englishmen arrangement of “The Letter”. There was Elmore and Clarence Carter and Marvin Gaye and all I could think was, my god, this is the Southside Johnny Lyon master class on influences. I was floored. It was amazing to watch and listen and be there for this.

Night two was the Springsteen night, and like with night one, the effort and the enthusiasm was highly evident. But it was definitely not as consistent as the previous night, and overall didn’t work as well as I would have thought it would. That said, there were arrangements that I thought were superior than the E Street Band ones (c.f. “Johnny 99,” which wasn’t that different, but just felt better), and I loved every second of “Sherry Darling”. Just when I was thinking, “I’m surprised there isn’t more keyboard virtuosity,” South and Jeff Kazee duetted on a stripped-down “Fade Away” which was just superb. “Nebraska” and “Jack of All Trades” were the most surprising choices, and executed with aplomb. “Kitty’s Back” was less surprising, but pretty ballsy. That was absolutely a natural for Southside, inhabiting the jazz hipster narrator vibe intuitively.

Bobby Bandiera joined the band in time for “Murder, Inc.” and acquitted himself more than admirably. (And of course the thought pattern in my mind went to, what would our world look like now if Bobby had been the one to join E Street all those years ago). “Sherry Darling” was phenomenal, and I was ready to explode over the fact that the sound system ate the vocals at the start of “Where The Bands Are”. To be honest, as much as I loved that particular choice and rendition, it was a little rough around the edges, but it was also the perfect end to the main set.

Southside and Bobby! Murder Inc!!

Like the night before, I appreciated the song choices. I appreciated the careful curation. I appreciated the three additional horn players and percussionist brought on for the evening. And when Southside started telling stories, I never wanted him to stop: about Bruce and Steve helping him with “Trapped Again” (“If they want to help you with a song, you just say THANK YOU”), imitating Bruce’s Muttley voice intonation in the story about giving him “Fever,” and “Why you want to give that to me, Bruce? That’s a hit!” and most notably, Southside telling his story about the band in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

The encore was, delightfully, “When You Dance,” “This Time It’s For Real,” and “Hearts of Stone,” the perfect cap to the evening, ending with Jukes classics written by Bruce (and Steve), but still, Jukes classics, Southside coming out and saying that they didn’t know any more Bruce songs, cautioning us that if he sang “Hearts of Stone” it would have to be the last song. There was room to dance at this point, and despite aching back and feet (that uneven concrete floor has not gotten better with the years), I was so happy to do it one more time, thinking, not unreasonably, that I don’t know how many more times I’m going to hear Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play those songs at the Stone Pony, how much I love those songs, how happy I am that I am here, that these songs are part of my musical history. Southside would allude to this, that he had been playing in this club since 1971, that when he died, he wanted to be buried right in the middle of the dance floor, where people could dance right on top of him.

So all of this is what was great and good and wonderful about the weekend. That’s because the music and the musicians and the performances were absolutely above reproach. The audience and the venue, however, were the complete opposite.

Admittedly I haven’t been to a busting-at-the-rafters capacity show at the Pony in decades, but I go to A LOT of concerts in a lot of clubs, and cannot remember the last time I was this miserable. I don’t know what the legal capacity of the Pony is, and I am not saying that the venue was above capacity, but ‘capacity’ probably accounts for the cafe around the corner where you can’t actually see the show and maybe the smoking area in the tent out back, and not the entire capacity crammed into the show room in front of the stage. I arrived at 7:45 both nights. Night one it was reasonable; night two it was unbearable. People who arrived later had to go in through the cafe because there was literally no room at the entrance. I tried to head towards the door during the karaoke version of “Tenth Avenue” night one and I literally could not get there. Night two, I was on stage right (again, because literally there was no more room) and just before show time was grateful that I was close to an exit.

And now I come to the crowd. I would like to think that the people who show up to see a show billed as RARITIES actually want to listen to rarities, but this was in New Jersey, which is the worst goddamned audience for the music that comes from this state, whether it’s Bruce or Southside or even Gaslight Anthem. People would not shut the fuck up for one goddamned minute. The level of chatter was unreasonably loud, constant and incessant. I go to club shows multiple times a month. This was not a normal, expected level of club chatter. This was a “I am drunk and I don’t give a fuck and when is Bruce going to show up” level of chatter. Then, there was the asshole factor. I could write an entire post about this and it’s just going to bum me out, so I won’t. Too much alcohol, too few brain cells, zero regard for the fact that the club was packed, the people obviously there with their eyes glued to the stage door who were obviously bored by what was actually happening onstage.

I think that the Jukes underestimated the demand for this weekend. I think they could have easily charged more and played at a theater, which would have been more comfortable for everybody. There would have been more room for the band. No one would have had to line up in the cold to get a decent spot (and it’s not just cold, it was ridiculously cold). The sound would have been better; I was enormously frustrated by the lack of horns in the mix the first night and the second night the mix was just god-awful for most of the evening. From the way Southside continually gestured at the monitor engineer both nights, it wasn’t much better onstage either.

There were cameras in various places and I hope that all of this comes out officially or unofficially, because they were ultimately very special performances that everyone who couldn’t make it would enjoy. These were undeniably interesting, challenging evenings and hats off to the musicians for their work in putting these shows onstage.


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Bob Dylan and His Band, NJPAC, November 26, 2014

Bob Dylan and his Band

Seeing Bob is about so much these days besides *seeing Bob*. It is about showing up, it is about paying tribute, it is about memories and chasing ghosts. I am not proud to say that I insisted on going to this show on the assertion that this might be the last time we see him, so it is time to pick a show and pay the money and go, dammit.

NJPAC is a lovely venue that is a reasonable walk from Newark Penn Station; you can take the light rail one stop if it’s raining, but you’ll likely end up walking back (like we did) because they run every 30 minutes later in the evening. It is new-ish at this point, and surprisingly grand, and feels more like a European opera house than it does a venue in New Jersey. Our seats were right on the price break after the VIP, which meant 12th row stage right. The sound is very, very warm; there is a lot of good resonance in the house. This is important for this kind of show and for this show, especially, it made a big difference.

I was a little concerned when his voice was overly raspy on “Things Have Changed” and sat there thinking that he was sick in this awful changing winter weather, and the road, but he warmed up by “Workingman’s Blues #2″ and then I sat there muttering that he needs to warm up and not use the beginning of the set for that purpose, but by the intermission I realized that at 73, throwing away what’s left of the voice on a warmup is stupid. Once he got to the fourth song, his voice was strong and emotive, and “Pay In Blood” was absolutely riveting. He moves between this mysterious trio of mics at center stage (one standard at the center which he actually sang into, with two vintage on either side, which we originally thought were for use with a harmonica, but weren’t, and remained completely unused the entire evening) and the piano, sometimes (as the case of “Tangled Up In Blue”) within the same song.

“Tangled Up In Blue” was the first cascade of applause at the start of a song. I didn’t know if it was because the performance was particularly powerful or if it was the first song the rank and file recognized. I’m never sure, you know? At least in a theater setting you did not have the additional distraction of the first-timers getting agitated realizing that Bob is not going to sing the songs they know in the way they will recognize them (although the couple to our right did not get up or applaud once the entire evening; I’m still not sure what was up with that).

The guy behind us, who came up from Philly (he told the story six times in the course of the evening) yelled for “Blueberry Hill” throughout the evening. Normally I would be annoyed but given the fact that he did play it a couple of days earlier, I couldn’t really blame him too much for trying. The crowd remained seated, despite a few attempts up front to change the dynamic; security chastened anyone who tried, with the exception of the petite woman front row center, who I decided won some kind of award once I realized that she was wearing a pillbox hat (and house lights at intermission confirmed the obvious second half of that statement.) Really, if you’ve been to the Beacon, the ushers are just as unpleasant and disciplinarian, almost to the point of distraction; there was a woman on the aisle in the fifth row who would leap to her feet to dance in defiance for a few seconds every time an usher was in the rows in front of her waving a flashlight at someone with an iPhone.

But I digress.

The band left the stage after “Love Sick” and came back out 15 minutes or so later to kick off the second set with “High Water (For Charley Patton),” which I was happy to see. The back half of the set was not as focused as it was earlier; the intermission might give Bob a needed voice break but I think it broke focus. The performances were still above-average–this was, hands down, the strongest I have seen Dylan in the last decade–but it did not connect as powerfully for me as the start did.

There is so much to consider and ruminate on. The stage, the very dim lights, except for the few times they are reasonably brighter but still not as intense as a standard rock show. The grand piano, the classical bust of a woman on stage right that remained spotlit the entire time, even when the rest of the stage was dark. Bob’s old timey carnival barker suit. The hat, straight of the Desire era. His onstage demeanor, trying to discern if he was engaging with the crowd or not; I think he did see us and did notice those attempts by the faithful to stand and salute and cheer. There was one trip back from the piano where he almost did a little ‘fuck yeah’ triumphant dance (maybe at the end of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”? I was concentrating so hard for the first few songs I forgot to take notes), which was preceded by a fluid, loud interlude on the keyboard. He would sometimes sashay a little bit over to stage right and pause with his left hand on his hip; that was the most acknowledgement he gave all night.

(Even in 2014 we still parse everything he does for some kind of deeper meaning. Sometimes a walk a few feet away from the mic is just a walk.)

The setlist is frozen because he knows he can sing the songs and these are the songs he wants to sing, and sing them well. He has pulled out a few chestnuts and fashioned new renditions that suit his voice. The backing band is, as usual, unbelievably competent. They play well together and follow Bob like glue, but in a soulful, fluid fashion; they’re not playing like a bunch of session dudes up there. This has been a continual hallmark and delight of the Never Ending Tour.

The SO was pleased to get to hear Bob Dylan sing “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which I realize is no small thing, to heard the person who wrote the song actually sing the words live in front of you. My problem is that my list of songs I want to hear Dylan sing were already out of the setlist before I even got a chance; after, say, Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square Club, Otis at Monterey, or the Velvet Underground at Max’s, the Rolling Thunder Revue remains one of the shows I most regret not being old enough to have attended. I tend to be philosophical about this, mostly because there’s nothing I can DO about it. So I don’t even go to Dylan hoping for anything except the experience of being in the same room with Bob, which is a ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances’ kind of proposition these days.

But this time out, everything fell into place and Dylan was masterful, powerful even, exceeding expectations. Which at 73 is more than anyone can hope for, and probably more than we deserve.


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Concert Review: The Replacements, West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills, Queens, 9-19-14


For my second Replacements show in a week, tonight we are in Queens, the borough that gave us the Ramones and Johnny Thunders and countless others (as we were reminded by Craig Finn, in another kick-ass set from the Hold Steady that was even better than Minneapolis). We are also standing on an old tennis court, former home of the US Open, that also once upon a time hosted concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

The lights go down, the crowd roars, and what comes out of the PA? “Jet Song” from West Side Story. “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day…” One can only assume that this was inspired by the fact that the proper name of the venue is the West Side Tennis Club (although there is nothing at all gritty and urban about this particular locale, which hates outsiders so much it privatized its streets, and has imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on concerts held here).

Paul bounds onstage again, dressed in an outfit I can only describe as “renegade elf”. He is wearing a multi-colored jacket over a bowling shirt, atop red corduroys he has cut off just below the knees. This is so we can see his lovely striped socks (prompting a guy behind us to yell, more than once, I WANT YOUR SOCKS). Tommy, on the other hand, has another dapper plaid suit worn over a black shirt and red tie which to me says JOHNNY THUNDERS in capital letters. (I realize I may be projecting.)

They charge into “Favorite Thing” and the energy is immediately, markedly different than Minnesota. “Takin’ A Ride” and “I’m In Trouble” see your bet, and raise it. “It’s an absolute pleasure to be here,” Paul says, glancing up at us. Unlike last week, you can see his eyes, because they are venturing to look out past the edge of the stage.

Last Saturday they felt like a coiled spring, taut, holding back, driving power just on the edge of exploding into chaos; today they are powerful, driving, muscular–it is a looser energy. Freese is on, but the dude is always on, and Minehan is his usual whirling-dervish-Muppet self over on stage left. It feels more relaxed, more open, less contained. Paul is the fulcrum, and he just seems less nervous, and more confident. This bodes well.

Tommy takes one look at Paul during “I’ll Be You,” as he gets to the “dressing sharp” line and starts laughing. “A vocal crowd for that one,” Paul notes afterwards, and he was right–it was very loud all night, and the band seemed visibly moved by this, over and over again. I wasn’t in Boston, and it was hard to tell in St. Paul (although everyone around me was singing), and it’s almost unfair to compare them, because Forest Hills is a concrete bowl and there is amplification and echo involved. (That said, my friends in the stands complained about the nonstop talking up there, and the videos I have seem from up top support this.)

“Valentine” is lush, and gorgeous, and so precise, those beautiful guitar licks. It was the example I gave earlier in the day when I was telling friends that I was not going to arrive with the chickens and was just going to walk into the venue like a normal person at a normal time, but that I was not going to stand at the back where some idiot could talk through “Valentine” and I would have to risk arrest for my reaction to that. It remains amusing to me that the fans are still so split; the tiny girl behind me jumping up and down to “I’m In Trouble” has no use for “Valentine,” and I feel bad for her.

The setlist is largely the same–it is the same songs but it is not the same performance, and it is not just because I don’t have some moron jumping into my back all night long. The band is playing like a well-oiled machine, and watching the show tonight is like watching when your favorite outfielder makes that impossible catch with what seems like zero visible effort. This is the only other headlining show of the reunion, and they are in front of different friends and music biz honchos and every rock writer you know is here. There is still a lot on the line, but in a different way than it was at Midway Stadium last weekend.

Paul steps to the mic and says how glad he was that he managed to learn this guitar lick, and–it’s the Jackson Five. It was another great night for Paul Westerberg as a underrated guitar player and his obvious enjoyment at playing a song that he probably watched during Saturday morning cartoons like the rest of us is great fun to see. “Color Me Impressed” has a loud and piercing whistle, which made me just a little misty.

Then, Tommy tells us the story of the scar on his nose, which I am not sure you could see even if you were standing in front of him. He explains that he was getting his 7am Amtrak down from Hudson and he tripped over the olde fashioned sidewalks they have up there and fell on his nose, bleeding everywhere. The conductor insists that he has to call an ambulance; he tells him that he has a show to get to. The ambulance comes, they say, you’re bleeding and you’re very pale, you broke your nose. Tommy goes and looks in the mirror and says, well, I’m always very pale, and my nose usually looks like this, I’m fine, I’m going to the show. But he had to get the next train, which was why he was late for soundcheck. This is all prelude to something that they rehearsed but never played–Paul kept shaking Tommy off all night with things like, “No, this one’s better.” (I still don’t know what it was, despite seeing someone with a printed setlist at the end of the night.)

“Nowhere Is My Home” is even more powerful than last week, and this goes straight into “If Only You Were Lonely,” during which some drunk bozo has to be escorted out because he chose this moment to try to crowdsurf. This transition was the first moment where I realized that they were acutely aware of the curfew; Paul was trying to grab a smoke and change guitars at the same time.

I was about to write something like, “I get that they don’t want to play a conventional venue,” but then I realized that I absolutely do not get that. There was nothing particularly Replacements about playing this show here. Rock and roll is not improved one iota by being played outside, and playing at a hard-to-get-to venue with no running water, one way in and out, uncomfortable metal benches and questionable acoustics, when you are playing in a locale that had any number of other suitable venues makes zero sense to me. Maybe there was some cool factor that seemed neat to the band because of the artists who played here in the 60s, but that was the 60s when there weren’t dozens of road tested venues with adequate facilities in this particular metropolitan era. This fucking venue is just awful, and I don’t know why you as a musician would want to play a show with such an early curfew on your back all night if you had a choice.

End rant.

By “Merry-Go-Round” Westerberg is just on total cruise control. He is relaxed, happy, and in total control of his instrument. “Achin’ To Be” just soars into the night sky, and he sings “Androgynous” all the way through because the crowd is eagerly shouting every word along with him.

“That was the best by a country mile,” Paul says. (Two words for you, Boston.)

“Love You Till Friday” has a bit of a syncopation problem with the bass and guitar player. “We got the beat?” Paul asks, looking from side to side. “HE got the beat,” he notes, pointing at Freese. And yes, here is another love letter to Josh Freese, and how he just hits every bit of percussion or syncopation, any Mats purist can play air drums with him all night and never have any point of question or any beat out of order–and yet the man still seems to SWING the entire time, building pockets of air and room. Minehan does the same thing, just with a guitar, whirling and bouncing and swooping in with his guitar to lead or embellish or bolster. It is hard to think of two better foils for Paul and Tommy on this outing.

I had no idea what Paul was going to do when he suddenly lowered the microphone and got down on his knees (thus totally reinforcing the renegade elf classification from earlier) and it was one of those moments where you’re going, “Well, it SOUNDS like ‘All Shook Down’ but I’m pretty sure I am wrong and I am not remembering correctly.” But yes, it was “All Shook Down,” without intro or preface and I wish they would do more of that. There is no end of material in the catalog that would work and that Paul would still feel comfortable singing.


(This is where I will voice my slight disappointment that given the band’s abilities and obvious expertise that there couldn’t be a little more variation in the setlists. I get the construction of a festival setlist for a festival slot, but I was hoping after the expansion of the St. Paul setlist that New York would get a little more variation. Minehan and Freese could learn anything and improvise on the spot, and Tommy could fake it if he didn’t know it [which I would imagine is the prime skill one needs to be a member of Guns N Roses].)

Tommy kept trying to tell us the rest of the story about the train and his nose, but Paul keeps cutting him off.

”So, like I was saying…”
“Okay, okay!”

Tommy then advocates for whatever it was that they soundchecked and Paul waves it off again, asking us if we want to hear “Swingin’ Party” or– but NEVER TELLS US WHAT OUR OTHER OPTION IS, knowing full well that the crowd will cheer loudly for “Swingin’ Party.”

A roadie ran out and whispered something into Tommy’s ear and he nods, and mentions that the clock is ticking and they’re going to pull the plug in 10 minutes. The crowd boos loudly. “Hey, I don’t make the rules!” Tommy says. “Neither did Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan!”

Now, I know that the Replacements back in the day would have dared them to pull the plug, and I was actually kind of interested to see if they would respect the curfew or say fuck it and keep playing. Although I have been at a large concert event when the plug was pulled and know how that turned out, I was willing to respect either decision.

So they made the best of their time, Paul thanking the crowd after “Love You In The Fall” like it was the end of the set, but wasting no time of crashing into the parade of hits. The audience was so loud during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” they had to hear us in Brooklyn; it was one of the loudest and most intense singalongs I have ever been part of, and Paul, Tommy and Dave kept stepping to the front of the stage to hear more of it, nodding and smiling and looking proud, and wistful too. It was like the goddamn alternative rock national anthem was being sung at that moment, and it was that reminder of how long you have been singing that song and how great that song is, and how important it was, and is, and will always be.

Everyone had a fist in the air for “Bastards of Young,” even the people up in the stands (who were on their feet for most of the evening, at least from what I could see, even up at the top) and it was triumphant and raucous and full of joy and energy and remembrance. “White and Lazy” kept that going, straight back into “Left of the Dial.” That was the one that got me last week, and Paul Westerberg is a very smart man. I might wish for more variety in the setlist, but he has put together a sequence that is so powerful emotionally I get that he doesn’t want to tinker with it all that much.

“Left of the Dial” channels waves and waves of energy, building and building and building, and Paul feels it too, he rushes back to his amp at the intro to turn it up more, throw some more fuel onto the fire.

Just that moment of standing there at the end, listening or singing or crying (or all of the above):

“And if I don’t see you
For a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial…”

I pound my fist to my heart in tribute and respect and reminiscence.

Everyone knows what has to be next and one more time, “Alex Chilton,” one more time, everyone laughing and crying and cheering and jumping up and down. It has been so long since you heard it live, since you got to sing it next to other people who love this song as much as you do. Even if you never stopped listening to the Replacements, or caring about this music, what was missing was being in the same place with other people who felt the same way about it as you did. The audience tonight was filled with people I know or am on nodding acquaintance with from seeing them at other shows by other bands, and it’s not accidental or surprising that they all converged here tonight.

I was talking to friends and did not notice that he came back with the 12-string electric for “Unsatisfied.” I do not think that I will ever top seeing this one front row center, and it was not in my notes, because there is nothing you can write or say about this one. I am mostly glad that the friends with me, who didn’t get this in Boston, their only other Replacements outing, are getting it tonight. It wasn’t on the setlist, like it wasn’t last week, and it is an obvious reward for a crowd that deserved it.

And then it is over, and they are running off, except Paul comes back, and waves, and starts throwing things into the crowd, wristbands and I think maybe a capo? He didn’t want to leave, and didn’t want to stop. Tonight it seemed like Paul Westerberg was finally ready to accept the musical legacy he has created, and was willing to visibly enjoy it. And all I can say is, about fucking time.

The only question I have is: What’s next, Paul? What’s next?


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Concert Review: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Fenway Park, August 30, 2014

Let’s be honest: I went to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Fenway Park last week because I’ve never seen anyone at Fenway, hadn’t seen Petty in forever, and the Venn diagram between bands that could play Fenway and bands I would schlep to Boston in order to see was rapidly shrinking. (I suppose Springsteen could always do it again in the future—the dates in the past have never worked out for me—but I wasn’t willing to take that chance.) I am glad I had the experience, although I would not go out of my way to see a show at Fenway again. This was because the extreme party atmosphere (which I realize for many is part of the reason they want to see a concert at Fenway) detracted from the show in a major way for me. But what’s significant is that even with all of that, the show ended up being more profound than I had anticipated.

I think the last time I saw Tom Petty was in the 80s (and there is no Tom Petty concert chronology so I cannot look this up anywhere). He was always an artist I liked, respected and paid attention to, but I’m going to guess that his shows always conflicted with someone who simply ranked higher on that list. Even during my punk rock days, it always felt like he was someone who wouldn’t have a problem walking through our neighborhood, even if he lived a couple of blocks in the other direction.

There are lots of reasons people go to see a classic rock artist. People go to hear “the song”—everyone in our immediate vicinity was clearing waiting for “American Girl,” the people behind us insisting he would open with it, the guys in front and to the right telling their friends that he was going to play it next (after every song), the random bozos walking by the beer line and yelling for it in every single pause of the action. People go to sing along, drink beer, and hear the songs they grew up with or grew up listening to their parents play—the multigenerational groups were obvious, and thick on the ground. All of these people are happy to have the concert on the stage in front of them be background music, and they would sing the chorus or the opening line and then go back to carrying on their various conversations.

This, as you can imagine, drove me fucking nuts. I was unwilling to pay the hefty premium for VIP seats, and the Fenway Park ticketing system played its usual magic and lost the front floor section tickets I pulled. We settled for the B section, all the way over to the left, which is about as far back as we would have accepted and still gone to the show. I realize that being in the VIP section on a Saturday night at Fenway would absolutely not been a guarantee I would have been surrounded by diehards who were more interested in the show than making sure their beer supply didn’t run out, but it would have least put me in better proximity of the elements I go to a show like this to enjoy.

When you go to see a veteran band like this—and let’s remember that the ‘new guy,’ as Petty joked during the band intros, is Steve Ferrone, who’s been there for 20 years—you’re not just going to hear the songs. You’re going for the experience of what it’s like to see that particular configuration of humans manifest their unique shared energy. Not to get all new age woo woo on you, but Tom Petty onstage with Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell is a very specific, particular thing and that vibe is so powerful you can feel it all the way over in section B7 (which was approximately in the location that Yoenis Cespedes usually hangs out in). All of this voodoo was so thick out there that it drove me batty that I wasn’t closer to all of this action, but it was also so thick that it transcended all of the bullshit that I was surrounded with.

The camera work wasn’t bad; they knew what we wanted to look at most of the time, and there were ancillary cameras too—Benmont has a couple just dedicated to him. It was enough to let us play “What guitar is THAT?” (although I was sad to find out later that Mike Campbell wasn’t playing a Rickenbacker mandolin, which would have been the most Mike Campbell thing ever, but rather a mandolin designed to look like a RIckenbacker) , and see the smiles and the nods and the smaller moments that were just too far in the distance to see without assistance. There are few things I love more than watching a band leader lead their band, and although the Heartbreakers certainly could motor on just fine—better than fine—without direction, Petty still runs the show and controls the dynamic, and that I could thankfully enjoy without video assistance. (I just cannot spend an entire concert I am at watching a video screen, and it drives me bonkers when people close enough to see without it still stand facing it; it makes me feel like I am looking the wrong way when the opposite is true.)

The Boston audience was in fine voice throughout the night, but resonated with moments I wouldn’t have expected, and completely ignored others—sometimes it felt like they were cheering the volume and the light show more than what was actually happening onstage.They greeted “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” warmly, but seemed nonplussed for “I Won’t Back Down”. There were warm cheers of recognition to the four songs featured from Hypnotic Eye, the new album, but were completely befuddled by an acoustic “Rebels,” which was quite honestly one of my personal highlights; it gave the song extended depth and emotion, which is missing from the original.

Other personal highlights were “Free Fallin’” (where it was observed by the boyfriend that I sing all of Benmont’s vocal harmony lines); I was reminded that imo he still owes Westerberg royalties for that “rebel without a clue” line in “Into The Great White Open.” The intro to “Woman In Love” just walloped me with intense deja vu; I was in my teens and listening to the song on the radio, driving in the dark somewhere. It was crisp, searing and intense. I literally had goosebumps during the bridge on “Refugee,” those soaring organ notes from Benmont strong and unmistakeable as ever. And “Running Down A Dream” was a piledriver, with incredible, deep guitar work from Mike Campbell, ending with him depositing his guitar face up on the stage, still resonating as the Heartbreakers took their bows.

“Don’t Come Around Here” as the encore opener wasn’t strong enough to grab the audience—most of whom were thinking about how they were getting out of here, or where they were going to next—and the loss of energy in the room was vivid. But “You Wreck Me” picked it back up again, surprisingly, even if the jam felt more like the Grateful Dead than the Heartbreakers. And for the last number, Petty came to the mic and told a story about how, in the early days, they put out a record, and no one played it, and no one played it, and no one played it—until one day, someone came running into the room saying, “They’re playing it in Boston!” and the unmistakeable notes of “American Girl” came ringing into the Fenway night.

Speaking of goosebumps, I did arrive in time to catch the last half of Steve Winwood’s opening set (although “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” had begun while we were at a restaurant down the block and was still going by the time we walked up to Yawkey Way, went through the turnstiles, and made our way to our seats), but I legit had goosebumps at the intro to “Gimme Some Lovin’, another number elevated by its organ riff, which was only appropriate tonight.


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