Detroit Breakdown [J. Geils live]

J. Geils Band, Atlantic City, 7-11-09


It was pretty much how I remembered it being.

That’s about the highest praise you can hope for in a reunion, when you’re assembling bits and pieces of memory and recollection and trying to fit them back together.

When I go to these kinds of things, mostly I care about what it feels like. What it sounded like will always change and what they looked like will also change. What I want is what it feels like. Does it come close? Is it enough to remind me of what it was like? Do the puzzle pieces slide back together?

J. Geils broke up not long after I was free and clear to go to whatever concerts I wanted to go to, whenever I wanted to go to them. When I was younger, I had to pick and choose. I couldn’t go see everything even if I wanted to, even though I tried, lines were drawn somewhere and promises made to myself, that I’d make up for lost time later. Those at least were my excuses for not having seen J. Geils more than I could have back in the day.

It is not often when I go to a show these days and feel like one of the youngest people there, but that’s what happened Saturday night. It was like being 14 again and going to shows. Getting these sideways looks from people that alternately were some flavor of “what the hell YOU doing here?” None of it mattered once the band got on the stage. It felt dark and smokey and soggy with booze, even though the air was clear and I, at least, was stone cold sober.

When the band came out and launched into “First I Look At The Purse” I gotta admit there was a little bit of holding my breath. I wasn’t sure they could do it. I wasn’t sure they could do it well. I didn’t want it to be disappointing or a caricature or less than it should have been. This was one of the best live bands, ever. With that title as your hard-earned, well-deserved rep, it’s a mighty scary thing to go back out after 20 years, graying temples and receding hairlines and aching bones.

So it was a little shaky there at first, just a little, waiting for them to find that muscle memory that every working live band has and slip back into lockstep, but it happened, and two songs later the thought going through my head was, Jesus, this is why I don’t go see new bands play any more. “This” being the kind of flow that can only happen from night after night after night of playing live music as a band. New bands don’t have to do that any more, and this is probably why I go to their show and feel disconnected or uninspired. There’s no effort to put on a show or perform, and doing so will get you derided; playing your biggest hits will get you labeled a sell out.

Steve Van Zandt just gave an interview in Dublin where he talked about that the thing in his opinion is killing music is that bands go from the garage to the internet and then start playing a few dates. You don’t have to be in a cover band for a couple of years where you play five sets of someone else’s music every night or at least every weekend, you don’t have to go on the road and build an audience (you probably can’t survive that way, but that’s another story). The point is that doing that isn’t good just because that’s the way it used to be or because people like Steve say it is, it’s because doing that night after night after night is practice, it’s building chops, it’s experience that can’t be gathered in any other way. You have to play live. You have to play in front of people. You have to play in front of good audiences and bad audiences and other people’s audiences.

I mention all of this because it is relevant, because you could have gone to this show not being completely familiar with every song in the J. Geils catalog and still enjoyed yourself and had a good time because this band knows how to PUT ON A SHOW. Wolf was shucking and jiving and could not stop moving, could not shut up, just like always. Key moment was when he pulled a shirt up from the front row that read “I WAS CONCEIVED DURING A J. GEILS SONG”. “What song?” he asked, and then nodded approval at it (but he never told us!) Second key moment was the machine-gun, scattershot classic intro to “Must’ve Got Lost,” where he never missed a beat, which flowed like he had been doing it every night for the last 20 years.

And probably should have been.

No one plays shows like that any more. I mean, sure, the E Street Band is still doing it, and the Asbury Jukes are still doing it, but after that, there aren’t a lot of other people. Any bands I do like seeing live are because there is that element of performance and showmanship, and that’s usually tied to a love of soul and r’n’b, not coincidentally. (Paging Greg Dulli.) I have gotten over beating myself up for not getting out as much as I used to or for not buying as many new records as I used to. This sounds like the rant of an old lady but I am not sitting here saying “new music sucks” – new music is just fine. I just don’t fit into it. This is the kind of stuff I love. This is the kind of stuff I care about. This is the kind of show I want to see, this is the kind of music I want to hear. Yeah, I had to suffer through “Freezeframe” and “Centerfold” but there were likely people in that audience who had paid their $65 precisely to hear those two songs and they were gonna play them. To which I say, good for them.

J. Geils could likely go to Europe and make more money than they ever could touring the states, just like Bruce and Marah and Paul Westerberg and Jesse Malin and anyone else who has soul and heart and authenticity to them. This show wasn’t promoted – I have been avidly watching for another reunion show, after having conflicts for Boston and Detroit – and it wasn’t sold out, and very few people paid attention to it. It’s fucking heartbreaking, but not entirely surprising.

This entire review has turned into OLD WOMAN RANTS AT CLOUD, so I’ll stop now.