Patti Smith’s Journey to “Horses”

Rounding out the Patti Smith 2015 beat, I wrote this piece for Vulture on Patti’s road to rock and roll.

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Patti Smith’s Most Memorable NYC Gigs

My latest for the Village Voice: PATTI SMITH’S MOST NOTABLE NEW YORK CITY GIGS. This was quite the research project / rabbit hole, but a very enjoyable one.

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Patti Smith & Horses Turns 40

I went to Paris for the opening show of the tour, on Arthur Rimbaud’s birthday. I will write a longer more personal piece on it soon (like tomorrow) but here’s my report for the Village Voice. Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.09.47 PM

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New Writing In The Village Voice

Two pieces in the Voice today: a review of the Television show in Brooklyn last night, and the one I’m particularly proud of, a guide to the (mostly vanished) landmarks mentioned in Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

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Two Nights With U2 In Berlin, 9-24 & 9-25-15

Everything you know is wrong, auf deutsch #u2ietour #u2berlin

Wanting to see U2 in an arena in Europe managed to connect nicely with wanting to spend time in Berlin, so we traveled to see two of the four shows at the Mercedes-Benz Arena at the end of September. The queue outside was very international, with Poles, Finns and Russians (and their vodka bottles) heavily dominating the line.

The first night’s queue was a hot mess, with security deciding to hand out wristbands by standing outside the queue pen and yelling at people in German that they needed to come have their tickets scanned. Despite our tickets designating us for the South Side, we were placed North Side. The Red Zone got let in ahead of general GA; we arrived around 4pm so weren’t expecting much but happily grabbed our favored spots with the Red Zone to our back.

Ticket time said 7:30, which I thought would be 8:10-8:15, but it wasn’t until 8:35 that we heard “People Have the Power” and a newly-coiffed Bono strutted down the catwalk to the I stage. (Newly-coiffed to me, but the pompadour was definitely tighter and higher than it was in NYC.) I expected a lot from a Berlin audience, and they were definitely with the band from the first note, even if the crowd sat down for the first part of the show.

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Bono was definitely operating on high gear for the initial part of the show. I’ve been listening to the shows via Mixlr each night, so it’s tough for me to call out any differences in approach, energy or performance; but they’ve definitely reached that part of the tour where they are just cruising, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a high-powered energy vehicle that they can tweak one way or the other depending on the night.

I really wanted to head back to the E stage when the time came, but then realized that I didn’t want to bolt at the end of “Until The End of The World” because if there was ever a place where I wanted to soak that song in, it would be the first time hearing it in Berlin, and also because I wanted to be able to take in the audience’s reaction to the Berlin Wall imagery coming down at intermission.

There was a huge swell of energy and emotion at the start of UTEOTW; I am sure that some of that came from me, but I would stand and assert that at least part of it was universal. It is a song that generally picks up the whole audience, and tonight was no different. Berliners know where that song came from. And then, when the screen switched to the wall and the banners came down, there was a gentle but definite gasp of recognition—you could feel the energy in the room heighten—and then of course everyone took out their phones. That was when we scurried to the back of the floor. The slogans were in German; there was also a live subtitle scroll at the bottom of the large screen tonight when Bono was talking between songs. (I do not envy that person their job.)

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In Berlin, the back quarter of the E stage was cordoned off. But there was plenty of room at the very back along the dividing barrier, and we could see just fine. There was a group of very drunk Germans sending a woman in their party to dispose of their empty beer cups and acquire more beer, and luckily they decided they were more interested in drinking more than watching the show at the end of “Invisible” (which I still actively dislike for the exact same ways I did in July at MSG) when Bono announced, “Please welcome to the E stage…” at the end of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and out of the screen came Larry, Adam and Edge.

Bono was breathing heavy into the mic and I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t recognize the synth drone. But as soon as the first car-crash-chords emanated out of Edge’s guitar, the hair on my arms stood straight up and there was a collective OH MY FUCKING GOD as we and the people in front of us (some great South American fans) absolutely exploded. Like, Zoo Station? In BERLIN? On the FIRST NIGHT? It hasn’t been played ALL TOUR? And then the initial rhythm of the intro, the band finding their groove and neatly slotting into it, before those shimmering chords come in from the Edge and carry the song to the first line.

I am levitating. I am praying for time to stand still. I am singing in my best Fly intonation because I don’t know any other way to sing it. “I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to be alive / I’m ready, ready for the — PUSH,” and if your pelvis didn’t move a little bit like Bono’s vinyl-clad ass used to towards the camera, I will tell you that you are lying.

Bono was feeling it. Larry and Edge were DRIVING it. It was unpredictable and rough and gorgeous and emotional and enormous, huge for the fans who knew that this hadn’t happened yet, for everyone who knew why it was happening now. It was beyond wonderful. When it was done, I was absolutely numb. I did not know how I was going to get through the rest of the night.

This is the one you want to watch:

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about Mysterious Ways, it was that I was still floating somewhere above the lighting rig, not ready to come down yet. So I tried to focus on the mundane. Not having been back there before, I was fascinated by exactly how much work and crew-frantic-scurrying it takes to get the E stage set up, and was glad I didn’t care about watching “Invisible” to pay attention to it happening.

I also understand why people fight for spots back there, even those who aren’t trying to get a free guitar or dance with Bono; you are that much closer to them all, surrounding them on all sides in what is a very tiny space. We had a great side view of the rhythm section, which was particularly enjoyable as Bono repeatedly fucked up the intro to “Elevation.” Repeatedly. As in, more than once. And it’s amazing how many people sprung to his vivid defense every time I brought this up the next day: you don’t understandit’s hard to hearhis ear monitorsif you don’t get the rhythm of the song exactly right. GUYS. It’s ELEVATION, not “Salome,” and the looks on Larry and Adam’s faces while this was going on was all I needed to see to know that I was right, and was alone well worth the price of admission.

My favorite line from Mr. B: “This is very exciting— for OTHER people.”

Larry and Adam vacate the stage. Edge points at the stage and waves his hands—presto-chango!—and the piano comes out of the stage. “Every Breaking Wave” and “October” have the same problem that they do everywhere else on the planet, in that the quiet nature of the performance is the universal signal for EVERYONE TALK LOUDLY NOW. But at least I’m hearing their chatter in other languages, which is slightly less distracting, and have the bonus of being able to observe Edge’s facial expressions while he’s playing the piano.

We head back to the center of the floor in time to the opening riffs of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It was a relief to be on a less-crowded floor after Madison Square Garden. The venue marked off aisles along the edges of the floor that they policed and kept clear, which made it possible to migrate from front to back without being a total dick to the people around you. Bono has an EU-flag megaphone to match his stars and stripes one; I wonder where one acquires these.

The crowd got to their feet at the end of Zooropa, cheering the “#refugees welcome” message on the screen, and stayed there as soon as they recognized the chords of “Streets”. There were two German bro-dudes standing behind us with their large beers, uncharacteristically close for two German dudes. That lasted exactly one second after the lights came on for “Streets,” and it wasn’t just us; the older serious bearded dudes to my left were jumping up and down as much as we were. It was amazing, amazing energy.

The audience loved ‘Pride” more than I have seen a lot of audience love “Pride,” and it was heart-swelling and beautiful. I ran out during WOWY to hit the bathroom and get water (we knocked over the cup of water–why venues won’t even give you a lid and a straw is just ridiculous –we had been saving for the show about one song before People Have The Power and it was incredibly hot in there), and it was amazing that the hallways and food stands and internal lobby of the venue were a ghost town. No one was standing out there chatting; at the Garden there is always someone outside talking or bored or waiting or doing something that’s not watching the concert.

We were exhausted by the end, “City of Blinding Lights” and “Beautiful Day” and, to be honest, too many political issues jammed into the end of a show that was floating on air. Not because I have a problem with Political Bono, but because it was literally too much and killing the vibe. He can’t talk about the refugees (which got the crowd on its feet) and AIDS and the Global Whateveritwas 2030 (see, I pay attention to stuff and I couldn’t even get it). And I wish he would sing “One,” or at least more of it than he does; I still love that song, and the end, when the band come in and do play, when Larry plays this majestic fill and Edge works the counter harmonies on the guitar, is stunning. I just want that for the whole song.

We were on the edge of the floor and out the door like a couple of pros as Larry came out from behind the drum kit, and walked across an amazing bridge with castle turrets, huge moon above us, on our way to get dinner. (I would find out later that this was Oberbaumbrücke, which used to be a border checkpoint between East and West Berlin.)

We just saw U2 in Berlin. They played “Zoo Station.” I go to sleep on a happy little cloud.

Our line position was significantly improved night two. We got there half an hour earlier because that’s how the day fell out, and there were less people in the queue. This time, they scanned the tickets and handed out wristbands before we were sorted into the queue pens, and we were sorted by side.

Not long after we sat down, Glenn leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Macphisto has arrived.”

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Sure enough, at the front of the queue, Mr. Macphisto was there, in full drag. It would be easy to laugh (and we did laugh), but on the other hand, that getup took a lot of planning, and after “Zoo Station” the previous night, I was happy for any additional reminders to inspire the band.

Once inside, we grabbed two spots on the rail at the catwalk, right at Larry Mullen Jr. position for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and right at Lord of the Flies. It was pretty much the only place in the venue we hadn’t watched the show from at this point, so it felt like a good spot for our last I&E show for 2015.

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I was pleased to observe that Macphisto had managed to get himself onto the South Side of the E Stage, where he was busy touching up his makeup. (I will also note that I thought it was hilarious that his horns were AC/DC horns, which he wore backwards so the logo faced the back.)

This show had the absolute best audience energy of the 7 shows we saw on this tour, coming very close to topping that last night at the Garden (and in some places, they absolutely did). It was a Friday night in Berlin, and people were ready to party. It was also the 39th anniversary of the day that the band met in Larry’s kitchen and decided to start a band, a fact noted by Bono right before “Electric Co.”

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I didn’t have central stage or a screen, but I did get to watch the staging of my favorite parts of the show, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into “Raised By Wolves” into “Until The End of the World.” There is so much that goes on during RBW that you absolutely do not see unless you are right there on the catwalk, and I remain astonished that they pull this off every night. I didn’t get hit by a book (or catch one as it went into the crowd), but I was glad to finally be able to watch this particular piece of theater happen right in front of me.

The catwalk spot would prove to be great for the E stage, with fantastic views of everyone, and Bono out under the mirror balls before “Mysterious Ways” started. And then, in the middle of the song, you see him gesture to a fan, and to my delight, there is Macphisto, his gold lame suit glittering in the spotlight, stalking Bono around the stage. Bono loved it. The rest of the band loved it. Mr. Macphisto himself was having the time of his life (as he should be), as Bono sent him down the catwalk, where he posed and preened and strutted, before posing one last time as the lighting guys sent a bright red spot on him, up at the end of the catwalk, before he left the stage. “I’d like to thank Mr. Macphisto,” Bono said, “Haven’t seem him in–quite a while.”

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I’m not sure Bono meant for him to disappear, and it’s not like his presence would have changed the set from “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem” into “Ultraviolet” (BUT IT SHOULD HAVE). At least we didn’t get any amateur guitar players, despite massive signs at the E stage again (they were there the first night too, and that’s the band’s fault at this point) and that is a good thing because this crowd sang the hell out of “Desire.” I literally have never heard a crowd sing that song so hard, and so loud. Bono took one of his in-ear monitors out so he could hear it better. It was one of those times where a crowd sing-a-long didn’t take the guts out of a song and turn it into some kind of campfire melody (which is one of my main complaints about allowing “One” to be just that).

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The end of the show was a bullet train, the band on 11, the audience right there alongside them. And we kept thinking, okay, whatever special Friday night Berlin surprise the band has planned, we didn’t get it on the E stage, we’ll get it on the I stage — remember, Bruce showed up there, and not on the E stage, is what we kept telling ourselves. And no doubt that the back end of the show was performed with strength and emotion and energy, but it was missing that special something that the previous night had — plus, got derailed by what felt like a lengthy explanation about how Bono was going to New York on the weekend to hold the politicians accountable.

Tonight it was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that closed down the night, with the band walking down the runway, Bono singing the chorus to “People Have The Power” as he headed for the stairs. Outside, the moon was still full, and the energy high as we headed out across the castle bridge one last time.

The next day, we’d drive a Trabant around Berlin while listening to “One,” and blatantly trying to model Anton Corbijn photos.

[Photoset is here]

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Tales of Extreme Fandom at WORD next week!

I am very excited to be appearing at Brenna Erlich’s book launch Tuesday August 25th, talking about Tales of Extreme Fandom! I’ll be reading, along with Jason Diamond and Claire Beaudreault of the band Handjob Academy! More info & RSVP on Facebook! PLACID GIRL launch at WORD!

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FIVE NIGHTS WITH U2 AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, 2015

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U2’s Innocence and Experience Tour arrived in New York at the end of July for an eight-show run, the longest run the band had ever done in one place before. I’d opted in to four of the eight nights, justifying it by saying that eight shows in my own city would allow me to forgo the time and expense of traveling elsewhere in order to see more than one show. Some of you reading this will think I am insane; others will think me lightweight.

(Also, please keep in mind that originally, when the tickets went on sale, the band insisted that shows that fell on back-to-back nights would feature two completely different set lists, a statement at which you should in fact be congratulating me for my restraint.)

JULY 18, 2015
GA Floor, South Side

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I’d been planning to queue early in order to get a good spot on the general admission floor, but a chronic, awful cough that’s haunted me for weeks meant I couldn’t manage more than to show up when doors open, and hope for the best. This ended up being about center ice, with my back against the railing around the (Red) Zone enclosure (the premium area for those who paid more as a donation to the band’s HIV/AIDS prevention charity). But what would have been an average position at a standard concert turns out to be a very good one for Songs of Innocence and Experience. It’s such an enormous and non-traditional setup that there are a lot of great places to watch the show from that aren’t the traditional first 20 rows on the floor.

The show is split between a core setlist that begins with four songs on the traditional, end-of-arena main stage, six songs utilizing the full length runway that splits the floor in half, and five songs at the “E stage,” the round, b-stage platform at the opposite end of the arena and connected by the full floor runway, before the band heads back to the main stage for the encore. My location tonight ends up being perfect for the main stage, the runway, and the video screen. It’s not quite as good for the E stage, but that’s supplemented by video footage on the main screen. The end sum result is that there isn’t a moment of the evening where I don’t feel fully immersed in the show. (Okay, the moments where obnoxious (Red) Zone jerks think they can order a drink at the bar in the enclosure behind me by trying to shove into my shoulder and bark an order weren’t fun.)

I’ve followed the tour’s progression closely since it opened in Vancouver back in May. The miracle of 2015 technology means that I can watch and/or listen to as much of it as I want to. The flurry of opening night Periscope feeds dissolved away, as really, no one wants to hold their phone up all night. But they’re replaced by an app I’d never heard of before, called Mixlr, which every South American fan seems to have on their phone. It’s a live audio streaming software that’s incredibly solid and easy to use, and I’ve listened to just about every night’s show up until the end of the E stage. And while I know a lot about the production, it is so genuinely coplex that all this advance work has done is give a trainspotter type like me a head start.

I am still not expecting Bono to enter the arena from the back, coming in from the dressing rooms on stage left mid-court, climbing onto the E stage, and then walking down the runway singing the infectious opening to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” acapella, several times, holding the mic up for the audience to answer back. It’s a well-staged piece of theater. I’m not terribly in love with the song, or with the song as an opener, but I understand why they’re using it, and the way it’s staged brings the audience into the story and the performance like a magnetic force.

Slot #2 is the oldies roulette, and tonight we get “Electric Co.” (Red) zone idiots want beer, but I want to pogo so they’ll have to find another place to do it. “Vertigo” in the 3-hole is a gimme, and I wish they’d mix that slot up a bit more, but it’s fun and energetic and participatory, and bolts on nicely to “I Will Follow.” The top four songs serve two main purposes: the setting of the emotional space of the early days of U2, and an auditory sugar rush of the loud and familiar that will hopefully sate the audience long enough to let themselves be brought into the space of the next three songs: “Iris,” “Cedarwood Road” and “Song For Someone.”

Bono sits down at the front of the stage, and has a rap about his childhood, and their childhood, and how the next few songs are going to take you back to the “north side of the city of Dublin,” and how they’re going to show you where he came from. And then he talks about his mother, and her death, and how he never talked to her after she collapsed at her father’s funeral, but how he’s been singing to her ever since. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, writing a song about your mother is a risky thing if you’re in the business of rock and roll, and these are not subjects that an arena audience on a Saturday night is going to have a lot of patience for, but he miraculously knows when to stop talking and start singing, and the audience, equally miraculously, comes right along with him.

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“Can Edge come out to play?” The call of “Cedarwood Road,” the song where Bono disappears into the screen and becomes part of the video. The thing I’m struck most by is how the show doesn’t feel overly staged or choreographed, even though there are definite cues and marks that obviously have had to be hit. The moment at which Edge and Bono are lined up above and below the other feels genuinely organic. And then “Song For Someone,” of the cartoon of young Paul Hewson sitting in his room with the Clash and the Kraftwerk posters on the wall and a familiar lightbulb hanging on the ceiling, Bono telling the story of writing a song to impress the woman who would be his wife, and how he’s still trying to impress her. Or how she would tell him, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be.” These are big, open-hearted confessions to give 15,000 people, to give 15,000 cynical New Yorkers every night. But somehow it works.

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The E stage is, as more than one diehard described it to me, the one place where something genuine or unpredictable can happen, which is why so many of them queue to position themselves down there, even if it’s just five songs. Sometimes “unpredictable” is what transpired in Toronto, where a fan in full belly dancing regalia is brought up to dance for “Mysterious Ways,” or a U2 cover band being allowed to take over while their real life doppelgängers watch approvingly from the edge of the stage. It’s also the place for band’s response to those dozens of Periscope feeds night one, where a fan gets to handle a Meerkat-enabled phone for one of the b-stage songs. Some fans have better camerawork skills than others; I joked that if I got up there, I’d just stand in front of Larry Mullen, Jr. the entire time and wait to see what Bono would do.

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But the environment does genuinely add spontaneity, for good and bad. There were a few too many “Let’s pull a fan up who says they can play guitar” moments along the way, resulting in, Bono refusing a “Mysterious Ways” dancer’s request to pull her brother onstage, noting that the band give him a hard time about those incidents. (That didn’t stop him from doing it twice in the 8-show run, both times the guitar player got to leave with the guitar.)

The good—no, amazing— though, was “October,” performed live for the first time since 1989, Bono and Edge on piano. And sure, it’s a beer run for a lot of people, but there’s enough audience paying attention, and enough magic being generated, that some kind of cone of silence hangs over the place and it’s an unbelievable moment.

The back 8 of the set, including the encore, are the parade o’ hits, the songs that most of the audience showed up for. But there is legitimate, tangible energy and movement powering them and the performances feel fresh and powerful, and not like a parade of warhorses marching stately down the avenue. (Even if I could live a happy life if I never had to hear “With Or Without You” again. To be fair, I never liked it, not even back in the day.) “City of Blinding Lights,” “With or Without You,” “Bullet The Blue Sky,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” boom, boom, BOOM.

Night one is a good night, with great moments. But we just got started.

JULY 19, 2015
GA Floor, North Side

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I arrived a little bit earlier tonight, and between it being a Sunday and the oppressive heat, the line is shorter so I get a better standing location, this time stage left, Adam’s side, or “North Side,” in SOI tour parlance. I still have the (Red) Zone rail at my back, to keep an old lady propped up, but I’m not anywhere near the bar area. So instead of socialites who are there as a status symbol and demanding drinks over my shoulder all night, I’m surrounded by actual fans.  

The energy night two is different immediately; it is sharper, crisper, the audience is more focused on the band. This is brought home with “Gloria” in the wildcard slot and its instant roar it generates from the crowd. We’re on Adam’s side, and I’m always conscious of those moments where I think, “I am listening to ‘I Will Follow’ and watching the Edge play THOSE guitar chords, Adam Clayton is right there and those are his actual fingers you are watching run up the fretboard in ‘Gloria.’  The band have locked in and found a rhythm, which continues through the entire set. “October” appears at the E stage again, and so does Songs of Innocence deep cut “Volcano.”  Again, the SOI songs just sound so much better, have more life and substance, performed live. “Volcano” is fun and poppy and enjoyable. “Stuck In A Moment” gets subbed for “Ordinary Love” as the Edge/Bono duet/piano number on the E stage and the solidity of its performance brings home how there are these U2 songs hanging around this year—“Invisible” is the other one—that feel like they get put on the setlist because they are recent and the band thinks they should play them, but the reality is that there are better songs, and better choices, that would also fit contextually.

The Edge is playing with a physicality and muscularity I am not accustomed to. Adam has embodied a true Entwistleian presence onstage, calmly overseeing everything and reacting to none of it, except for the smiles at the front row in front of him. (And the hair is magnificent.) Larry Mullen, Jr. is the rock and the foundation, and is my generation’s Charlie Watts in his power and stoicism and lack of showmanship. And Bono’s voice is absolutely on form tonight, soaring into the rafters, rich and warm, notable on “Iris” and “Song For Someone” and “Stuck In A Moment.” They are all still capable—okay, excellent—musicians. They are all still healthy. There is eye contact and there is an energy created up there between them that remains unmistakable.

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Being a SOI tour veteran after one night, I like knowing where to look on screen and on stage, knowing what’s going to happen next, and making mental notes about what I want to pay more attention to next time around. I love the moments in “Until the End of the World” where Bono embodies a Macphisto-like energy, holding Edge on the palm of his hand, spitting water at him and the audience. I love the character Bono assumes in Raised By Wolves, and the physical conflict and parry between him and the Edge in the middle of the runway. I’m not entirely sold on the connection between UTEOTW and “Raised By Wolves;” my interpretation is that they’re both about dramatic losses of faith, and falls from grace, the latter echoed by the shower of book pages that fall from the ceiling, pages from Dante’s Inferno, Alice in Wonderland, and the book of Psalms, which fans posited has another direct tie to photographs of the streets of Dublin after the bombing referenced in RBW, but in fact have their origins in what happened after the library in Sarajevo was firebombed (this from a fascinating interview with creative director Willie Williams, which is well worth reading if you like this kind of detail).

This show is layered and complex; you could see it 10 times before you’d get it all. You would think that the screens would dictate an interpretation, but they are so massive and there is so much going on that there is no way that they can. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that’s how the video worked on ZooTV and Pop, but it is because of how tightly controlled media is in this day and age. The only disconnect is if you don’t choose to follow Bono around the arena and watch the other three on the main stage; you’ll notice that you’re surrounded by people who are facing the back of the floor, while you’re facing the front.

The back eight are played just about as well as they are ever going to be played; the Garden is bouncing, the room is moving, and just when you think how wonderful it all is, Bono starts singing the words to “Moment of Surrender” from the last album, but the background is something else, and then Edge plays the opening riff to “Bad,” and the hair on my arms stands up, and I am utterly speechless. The last time I heard this song was at Wembley Stadium in 1993, and there is no way you are a fan of this band and do not have indelible memories of the song. It is their “Jungleland,” it is this moment of enormous emotional resonance that is never the same, but is always familiar. I am not a U2 super-fan, by any means, but they are a band I have been with since almost as early as I could have been here in the states, they have always been with me, and they are still here, all four of them, right now.

I finish up my internal moment with “Bad” just in time to get my bounce on to “Streets,” feeling the entire building move with me. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” plays us out, shimmering up to the rafters. It’s an absolutely fantastic show, and I compare the difference between night one and night two to the difference between Opening Day of the baseball season, and the game the next day, which is generally thought of the game for the real fans.

JULY 26, 2015
Section 220, Row 10

Friends of mine arrive from Florida, get on the ticket drop line at the MSG box office, and promptly pick up $35 tickets marked ‘obstructed view’. A few hours later, I get a text from them asking if we want a pair of these tickets, from other fans who bought them as insurance against not getting anything better. Do we want them???

“I’ll go pick up the laundry,” says the boyfriend, running out of the apartment. “View these as Crystal Ballroom insurance tickets.”

Sure, U2 have jettisoned the concept of pairs of shows, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t end up chasing certain songs over the course of eight nights. I was worried that the appearance of “Angel of Harlem” with the Roots the previous Wednesday would mean I missed my chance; I was sad to have missed the Terminator meets Duane Eddy vibe of “Lucifer’s Hands” the next night. But either you go to all of them, or you face the fact that you are going to miss songs you want to hear, because otherwise all you will do is drive yourself crazy.

As noted, our tickets are marked “Obstructed view” but I don’t know what MSG classified as an obstruction, exactly; they were high up but they were also hard stage right, and gave me a perfect view of every element of the production. It was good to be able to see the screen with some distance; it was good to be able to observe the entire production as a whole; and it would end up being the best E stage view I’d have out of all five nights. For $35, these tickets were the well-kept secret of this run.

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I’d used the time in between my shows and the weekend to re-acquaint myself with the new record. I decide that the new songs hold up better live because there is less polish, less smoothing out, less electronic trickery. I do not like Ryan Tedder in particular, at least I do not like him as a producer for a rock and roll band (and Dangermouse aside, this is still a rock and roll band); I do not like the sonic quality of the album as a whole, although I do like the lyrics and I do like the music and I do like the actual songs. I also do not like how the record was released; someone in their organization or Apple gave them very bad advice about how people like to consume music these days, and instead of people being excited about the record, the art and the music were overshadowed by awful jokes and uproar from people who were never going to care about U2 anyway.

On an interview on Sirius XM broadcast at the beginning of August, Larry said that the band viewed what they refer to as ‘The Apple Experiment’ as successful, because he can see younger fans who know all the words to the new songs, but don’t seem to know any of the words to the older songs. In a day and age where you can listen to pretty much every note of music that’s ever existed for free, and don’t have to rely on friends or having enough money to buy everything, I do not understand how they can view that as a success, but that is another subject for another day.

There’s a quote Adam gave Grantland about how for their next record, they might choose to stop caring about what everybody else thinks, and only care about their fans; I think it would be an exceedingly interesting experiment, mostly because I am genuinely curious what they would do, and what that would sound like. You might assume that U2 are irrelevant or hokey or boring (although I don’t think you would have read this far if you did), but the tremendous strength of the fan base in places like South America is astonishing, and overwhelming, and certainly sufficiently profitable for the people in their organization who require money to be made. Just like I discovered when I was in Europe seeing Bruce Springsteen [gratuitous book plug], there are still plenty of places in the world where blues-based traditional rock and roll is still popular, and valued. (Or maybe they’d go all John Cage and Steve Reich on us, but I’d still argue that would be worth listening to.)

Tonight I’m focused on watching the transition from the early songs played under the lightbulb meant to signify the room the band used to rehearse in (as Bono points out, it could have been Adam’s room, or Larry’s room; he’s just the one with the microphone), into the journey through childhood reflected in the “Iris”/“Cedarwood Road”/“Song For Someone,” and then into the intrusion of the outside world as a child growing up in Ireland, specifically, with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and then “Raised By Wolves.” The distance from the floor up in section 220 provides a wider, more holistic perspective to the multimedia and allows you a different appreciation of the careful thematic continuity: with the backstory to RBW being projected on the screen at the end of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” backstory without heavy explanation, a radio broadcast, a single car on the screen, the screen goes dark with the explosion sounding through the arena.

It’s critical to the album and to the performance, but if it was the kind of thing that Bono would have had to verbally explain every night, it would start to feel tired and it would drag the show out. This execution is powerful, moving, and emotional. It’s the answer to the child who confronts Bono later in the show, during “Bullet The Blue Sky”: “Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten where you came from?” Davos or not, this isn’t false emotion or theatrical crocodile tears: this is all coming from a very deep place. They did an uncharacteristically poor job of expressing all of that to the press, but that was probably because they spent entirely too much time apologizing for the album showing up on everyone’s iTunes.

The sound: I am up in the top left-hand corner of the Garden and I can hear absolutely everything, crystal clear, sharp as a bell. U2 sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy created an immersive sound experience for this show, to accompany the unconventional staging, and the sound was fantastic absolutely everywhere I sat. I sat one section over for 12-12-12 (they were the cheap seats) and the sound was not half as good as it was for U2. (The only location I struggled to hear spoken vocals would be the last show, when I was right up against the stage.) I know the media has written glowingly about this but, like the screen and overall production, is a thing that I think they are still not getting enough credit for, because every journalist has to waste column inches reminding the world that U2 put SOI on everyone’s iPhone without permission.

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I gratefully collapsed into my seat at the end of UTEOTW, only for the kid in front of me to solicitously ask if I could see, since he was standing up. I thanked him, but also pointed out that it was intermission and there was nothing to see. I know there’s an intermission because I listen to the damn show every night on Mixlr,  and because I’ve seen annotated set lists and understand the production needs, but I’m reasonably certain that your average civilian at the show does not, and not indicating it in some explicit manner is not helpful to the continuity of the show—especially since the next song is “Invisible,” and not just “Invisible,” it’s “Invisible” being played inside the screen by all four band members. The light show around it is well-executed, but it’s not a particularly good song, and I think it’s a pretty weak way to kick off the second part of the show.

I realize “Invisible” is in the setlist because of the “there is no them, there’s only us” theme that Bono wants to espouse as one of the touchstones of the show, but I didn’t hear him invoke it once at five shows out of eight, and to be honest, there are enough keystones and themes in the show that we don’t need another one. I would have much rather seen “California” in that spot, which would have given us another song from the new record and kept the main emotional plot line moving forward with “there is no end to love.” Fans who saw “California” say it wasn’t performed well, but that just means more rehearsal, not ‘let’s exclude it from the set forever.” If you listen to the acoustic version included in the SOI CD, it’s clear that they are more than capable of performing a rearranged version of the song.

I also was not a fan of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” being performed inside the screen. It’s a big noisy song that generates a huge amount of energy, and instead, it felt trapped and constrained. In terms of staging and presentation, I would have rather had it back on the main stage, and then have the band move down the runway to the E stage than emerge out of the screen, it would have had just as much  impact.

This was the night Lady Gaga showed up for “Ordinary Love” on the E stage, and this now makes it twice I have seen Lady Gaga with U2. I respect her as an artist but I just do not care, and I think she over-sang, to be honest. I also could have made a list of 60 other musicians I would have rather seen as guests, and will remain heartbroken that the extended “Miss You” snippet introduced at the end of “Crystal Ballroom” in Toronto wasn’t preparation for Jagger and Richards showing up in New York.

During the parade o’ hits, it’s fun to observe the large percentage of the Garden that are on their feet; it’s usually one of the drawbacks to getting stuck upstairs, that people yell at you to sit down. There were plenty of us standing up, dancing, and jumping around at the upper reaches, including both bridges (the new seating areas that are up at the roof of the Garden).

Back tomorrow night for night four.

JULY 27, 2015
Section 111, the Larry Mullen Jr. Special

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I pulled these tickets thinking they were at the other end of the arena, and only afterwards realized I’d bought tickets behind the stage. (In my defense, this was a very stressful ticket pull.) But this wasn’t a problem: behind the stage is one of my favorite places to sit at Madison Square Garden because the seating bowl is so close to the stage, unlike most other arenas. It’s either a perspective you love or you don’t, but I do, and I am all too happy to be here because I am able to look over Larry Mullen Jr.’s left shoulder all night and watch him play. I can see him hit the kick drum, I can observe his set up, I can watch him play all of the songs, watch him on “TWO HEARTS BEAT AS ONE” (emphasis mine) and “I Will Follow” and even “With Or Without You,” which is my least favorite song, but on which he plays tremendously.

“Two Hearts,” which hasn’t been played in 25 years. I thought it was going to be “Out of Control,” but then the baseline is utterly unmistakable. The people around me must have thought I was possessed; a lot of them probably knew the song, but may not know how long it had been since it had been played live last. It was fantastic and they need to play it more often. “Angel of Harlem,” which I haven’t seen since 1993, was something my heart needed to hear, and I am so glad to hear it here, at home, and glad that it wasn’t relegated to the “one and done” list. We just visited Memphis the first time earlier this year, and literally stood in the exact place the band stood when they recorded that song, while everyone else was trying to stand where Elvis stood (although to be fair it was largely the same; the room is not that big)—although to me it will always be more of a New York City song than a Memphis song, Memphis horns or not.

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“Bullet The Blue Sky” was next on my list to observe, and watch carefully, especially from this angle. I am not sure it fits in the set, exactly, or if it’s there because it’s the only way Bono can work some of the themes he touches on what is listed on the teleprompter as “Bullet rant” (another advantage of the rear stage is being able to do something like read the teleprompter, and the boyfriend brought binoculars to do just that. [Don’t look at me like that. It’s interesting]). The theater of Bono turning his mic stand into a shoulder rocket launcher is absolutely stunning. I wasn’t sold on the use of the megaphone (and made jokes about a Mr. Stipe wanting it back) but he seemed to feel more comfortable with it by the third night, and made better use of the stage and the space. But the rant either has to be completely rewritten, or omitted completely, because bringing in lines like “a man breathes into his saxophone” from the “Joshua Tree” days feels forced, even if the followup—“and everyone stares into their cellphones”—is perfectly apt. I’m not sure that part of the show has to echo back to make people understand it. The footage of Wall Street is stunning on its own. I’m curious how this rant will transform now that the band is moving on to Europe. (I’m equally curious how many Mixlr feeds we can count on over there.)

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The crew had Larry’s drum setup in place before I could even notice, just as Bono announced that they were going to do something they had only tried a few times before: “The Troubles”. It requires that he sing against a backing track, since the song is built against the duet with Lykke Li, and Edge can’t sing quite that high. It was definitely unfamiliar to the people around me, but it was well-executed, ethereal, and compelling enough to make them shut up and watch.

There was something definitely off a little tonight; some missteps, some miss-starts. “Invisible” feels very out of sync, and I blame the screen. I wondered if Bono was sick, other fans thought he was having trouble hearing himself in his monitors. Having the crowd start “One” is a total train wreck, it’s as though different sections were singing different parts of the song, at the same time. Bono stops us: “The rhythm has t’ come from th’ drummer,” he says, pointing at Mr. Mullen. “I’m not a fussy rock star, just picky.”

Four down, one to go.

JULY 31, 2015
GA Floor, North Side

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So many things could have gone wrong on the last night of the U.S. tour. The line could have staged a revolt. Someone could have run ahead, pushing and shoving (although that did happen, just further back). The (Red) Zone could have been let in before the general queue and gotten our spots. But everything went right, and I ended up exactly where I wanted to be, front row at the corner closest to the catwalk, Adam’s side. (Nothing personal against the Edge, but it’s a really popular spot over there, and it’s easier to watch Edge from the other side anyway.)

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The Springsteen rumors amp up, but they have been amped up for the entire run. People were telling me he would be there on a night where his tech was spotted at a bar in Asbury Park, setting up during a soundcheck at which Bruce songs were played. I got text messages on the Wednesday night (when I was not anywhere near MSG, but rather at a Muscle Shoals tribute show to see Sam Moore), because someone who is friends with Steve Van Zandt tweeted that the special guests would be amazing. This would not be the first time Bruce would come see the band play and not get on stage.

But, I get ahead of myself.

A good thing about Innocence and Experience is that the show generally starts on time, and you don’t have to sit through an opening band. You watch the crew set up the stage; you check Twitter for celebrity spotting. The technicians check the instruments, Dallas Schoo turns on the Edge’s amps to warm them up, and Stuart Morgan walks around the stage with Adam’s bass on, playing a bass line that sounds suspiciously like “Born To Run.” Hillary and Bill arrive.

The opening tape could be my iPhone on shuffle, whether it was the version playing the early punk hits, or the more grunge-flavored one that swapped in halfway through the NYC run. But we all spring to attention as Jay Dee Daugherty’s drum roll spills out through the PA, and Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” fills the arena. I am ride or die for Patti Smith; she saved my life in high school, and I consider myself beyond lucky that I still have the chance for her to give me a spiritual beatdown every year when I get to see her play her December residency somewhere. (I consider it a mark of maturity and restraint that I didn’t rip the head off of the fan standing next to me the first night who tried to tell me that I only knew the words to PHTP because I’d been at the SOI shows.)

Sometimes, the second to last night of a run, or a tour, is the night to remember, the night you wish you were at. But everyone said the crowd was bad, and strange Thursday night, and the only thing I am sorry that I missed was the Lou Reed tribute, and “Satellite of Love,” right out of ZooTV, and the dedication to Laurie Anderson. (I am not sorry about missing Paul Simon, and ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is the only part of the set I truly dislike and find unnecessary.)  But I needn’t have worried: tonight was running on all cylinders from the second Bono began the call-and-response to “The Miracle,” when the roof threatened to blow off the top of the building from the volume of the response. It was a loud night; it was a strong night; it was a night where the North Side challenged the South Side as to who could jump harder and higher. (I think we won, but I am biased.)

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If you want to ask me if 36 hours of line shenanigans was worth it to be in this spot for this show, I will tell you without hesitation that it was. It was intense and emotional and loud no matter where you were, and it was all of those things x100 in the very front. I have been front row for U2 in the distant past (seriously, like October and War,) but that was before Bono was Bono. Out of all of the band members, being that close to him was the experience that felt the oddest, and yet the most fascinating. I still worry that he is fragile post-bike accident, that even with private jets and four-star hotels that his constitution will not hold up to a long tour. I note, again, that his leather jacket is too big for him, sleeves folded up and not tailored neatly, wonder if it is his from back in the day, when Guggi snuck them all in to see the Ramones at the State Cinema in Dublin.

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I watch the eye contact between the band members, between Edge and Bono, the eye contact that is part of the normal course of doing business onstage, and then the eye contact that goes beyond that, the eye contact that is about connection and about the years of generating the energy that is U2. I watch Adam come to the edge of the stage and smile at the fans all night, really smile, making eye contact, starting to remind me of Billy Zoom of X and how he interacts with fans. I watch the technical production elements, I can’t help it, I can’t be that close and not take advantage of it: watch the stairs coming down, watch Edge running up (while he’s playing guitar. I find that particularly impressive), watch Bono disappearing into the “rabbit hole”. I watch the band’s security in action; all four of them require the level of personal security that, say, only Bruce Springsteen requires when he is onstage. I can’t see much of Larry besides his eyes peeking out over the top of a cymbal, which is the only unfortunate element of this particular position.

The man, the hair. Adam Clayton #u2ietour

And last but not least, when you are that close you are completely immersed head to toe in the music, in the songs and the guitar and bass and drums blasting at me from the amps on the stage, surrounding me in the arena. I yell; I sing; I dance; I wave my arms in the air. I laugh hysterically because it is so absolutely unbelievable to witness the show from this location; I cannot stop smiling for one second. The only thing that suffers sonically is the between-show patter when Bono is on the runway or at the E stage. And you also cannot see any of the visual elements on the screen at all whatsoever. It’s a price I’ll happily pay tonight.

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The first four songs are rocket fuel, “Out of Control” in the wild card slot, and accurate for the audience this evening. The people behind the stage were on their feet and losing their shit. Raised By Wolves drama is more intense down here, and “Until The End of The World” is the best I have seen it since 1993. It is huge and enormous and overpowering, and I am a wreck by the end of it, grateful for the wall descending and a moment to catch my breath. I collect hugs from friends new and old at intermission.

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Unless you are standing up against the center runway rail so that you can lean over and see your way down the security gap, you will see very little of the E stage. I was sorry I missed the South American fans who dressed up like U2 as the Village People in the “Discotheque” video, sorry we didn’t get a little bit of that song somehow during the end of “Desire,” the song that was the Meerkat song for the night. But even “Desire” was full of heat and energy and rhythm, and I can hear Edge and Bono singing harmony together, and I love “Desire” and I honestly love Rattle and Hum and think it gets a bad rap. Bono tells a story about how the Edge went out for Halloween on Venice Beach dressed as the Edge, and no one knew it was him.

“What are we doing now?” Bono asks, possibly seriously. And then, a series of unmistakable chords on acoustic guitar, and the heavens opened up and the stars rained down, and “It’s a special night; we’ve a special treat, for for anyone who cares to remember back this far.” ME! ME! I DO! “WOO HOO,” I yell in triumph, arms in the air. It is “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” and I have not heard “Party Girl” live since 1987, when I called in sick to work and ran down to Philadelphia to see one more show, one last show, I was going to be moving overseas and I was worried about when I’d see U2 next, I was broke but I did it anyway, taking NJ Transit to SEPTA (which was the old, cheap backdoor into the city), and finding a ticket at face value from a fan at the box office, and dancing to “Party Girl” in the aisle on the floor of the Spectrum. It is my favorite song; it will always be my favorite song. It is my best U2-friend’s favorite song, and although she lives on the other side of the ocean, I make sure to Tweet at her even though it’s the middle of the night where she lives. She is there with me, too, no matter what time it is. There is a bottle of champagne, just like old times; Larry will abscond with it later, back to the mainstage.

I am a wreck again.

I regain composure to get through “Every Breaking Wave,” amazed that they would allow this jewel of a song to get compressed into MOR sludge on the record, and hold my breath during “Bullet The Blue Sky,” Edge doing battle with six strings, singing “Pride” as loud as I can, continually amazed how much Bono gets away with on this one (“I can’t breathe, I’m an American” he sneaks in more nights than not, during the “Hands That Built America” reference that takes us from BTBS into “Pride”). Bono is down at the E stage when he works a “Hungry Heart” snippet into “Beautiful Day,” and I wonder if that is all we are going to get.

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I feel like I am drowning in euphoria and happiness at the intro to “City of Blinding Lights,” an intro that so perfectly captures the champagne bubbles rising feeling in your stomach of the first time you glimpse the city skyline, or see it on an important night, or see it on a night where you need to be reminded of why you live here.  Bono keeps taking out his in-ear monitors to hear the crowd properly, and I know it is not just me, that we are that loud, that there is that much energy in the air. I am ready to take off well before Bono exhorts us at the beginning of “Streets,” “Come on! Let’s see ya!” I cannot see the stage through the tears in my eyes. I am not sure where I am finding the energy to bounce like I am in my 20s, but it is effortless, the energy of the floor and the stands and the people up against the roof in the bridge seats carrying us all. “Streets” tonight is a steamroller, it is God and the universe and the solar system walking through Madison Square Garden. It is visceral, physical, tremendous, the middle bridge where Larry hits that martial drum roll before hitting cruising altitude and the Edge weaves in and out like a jet fighter. If you ever witnessed this performance, or one anywhere like it, you would not ever be able to be cynical about this band, and if you were, I would feel sorry for you.

I am barely recovered from this, when Bono starts talking about someone who gave them a reason to be a band, a reason to continue to be in a band, and I know who he is talking about but I am still really not convinced, except that OH MY GOD THAT IS BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN WALKING IN FROM STAGE RIGHT, AND HE IS CARRYING A GUITAR.

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If you have ever read this site, you know that I have spent decades writing about and seeing him perform. Seeing him with U2 was a bucket list item, and I thought it would never happen, until I ended up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary show (and got Patti Smith to boot; she did not show up at this run, btw, because she was in Europe the entire time). I was in Times Square when Bruce subbed for Bono last December.

And, well, I am here right now. I am in the front row, waving at Bruce: Hey there, buddy. Nice to see you. Been a while.

I guess you can criticize this part of the show (as some did) for not being something new or original, but that would just be foolish. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is church music. It is rock and roll gospel. It was written for a large crowd to sing, and Bono doesn’t have to ask the Garden twice. It’s a great song for Bruce to sing, and he is singing it well, and it is good to hear him, and the crowd is loving it. But then the improbable happens, and Bono walks over to Edge and says something to him, and then goes back to Bruce and tells him, and Adam kind of peers over at Edge’s hands and then there’s a glance between him and Larry–and it’s a freaking audible, called on the fly, into “Stand By Me.” Yes, they did this in 1987, the first time Bruce showed up with U2 in Philly. I don’t care. They’re doing it now, and it wasn’t planned, and probably wasn’t rehearsed (the intel I had said they’d rehearsed “Promised Land,” if that was even reliable).

But you can count on Bruce Springsteen to know the words to “Stand By Me,” and all of Madison Square Garden also seems to know the words to “Stand By Me,” and we’re singing “Stand By Me” with U2 and Bruce Springsteen on the last night of the eight-show run, and pretty much no other surprise that turned up is going to come close (although a close second, easy, to the Roots and ‘Angel of Harlem,’ the only guest I’m sorry I missed).

Bruce departs swiftly, and Bono steps to the mic again, telling us about Dennis Sheehan, the late, beloved tour manager who passed away in May: “He drove the van. He drove us up and down streets and cities and towns in this country…we feel very much that he is here tonight, and so we are gonna sing a song that he made famous, called ‘40.’” That’s when I notice that, of course, Edge and Adam have switched instruments (I am sorry I did not get to see it happen), and the bass notes rumble in. I cannot think of another band that has a closing number like “40,” that mixture of sacred and profane and band and audience. I have seen it before and I have seen it as recently as 2005, I saw it the last night of PopMart in North America in Seattle, and I saw it on October and I saw it on Joshua Tree, and it is heart-stopping and it is awesome and it is beautiful. It is just beautiful.

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And at the end, Bono picks up the spotlight; Edge, still playing, heads down the center runway, followed by Adam, Bono sending the light right down the middle, illuminating the walkway. The audience sings, and sings, and keeps singing. Bono asks for the lights to be cut, Larry keeps playing, and the spotlight points at different areas of the arena. And then th, the final drum flourish; then the drums halt, Larry heads down the runway, spotlit by Bono at the other end, as we keep singing. The audience knows what to do, and it is loud and I don’t know how loud it is anywhere but down where I am, but the audience is singing “How long, to sing this song” and it’s all I hear. The lights stayed off for a good long while, and at least on the floor we were singing and singing and singing, not wanting it to be over, not wanting it to end.

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Then the house lights came back up, and the carriage turned back into a pumpkin, and the (sigh) Macklemore song (“Same Love”) that was played at the end of every other night, squelching any other chances for the refrain to echo through the stairwells and the lobby as we went out into the night. As soon as I could peel myself off the rail, I hugged my new friends, and hugged the boyfriend, and stepped onto the floor and turned circles, “Woo hoo!”-ing in triumph, skating through the bottles and flattened beer cups like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, still stunned at everything that had happened, feeling like the music was still resonating through my bones.

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They’ll be back, and you should be there when they do. See you in Berlin in September.

==
IF YOU LIKED THIS…you might like to read my first novel, about how a woman’s life changes the night Joey Ramone dies.

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Visiting Memphis: Travel Report

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I travelled to Memphis a few weeks ago. It was amazing, and exceeded every expectation I had. I do not know how and why it took me so long to get here; over the years I have been led to believe that there wasn’t much to do or that it wasn’t worth my time. All I can say now is that I am so incredibly sad I had not been there before.

Memphis is a town that knows what side of its tourist bread is buttered on; the airport’s logo is a music note, and the background music in the terminal is Elvis. Rental cars were cheap, and you need a car for Memphis. (Okay, it depends what you are coming to Memphis to do. If all you want to do is get drunk on Beale Street, then you should forgo the car, and the exorbitant downtown hotel garage parking prices, and stay downtown. If you are there to see the sights, you will need a car, no matter how appealing the various shuttle services might be.)

Our first stop was Payne’s BBQ, which is a 10 minute drive from the airport. There is no shortage of delicious foodstuffs on your way to downtown — or anywhere, really — from the airport, and thus no reason you shouldn’t stop and fortify yourself. Having an opinion about barbecue in Memphis is like having an opinion about coffee in Seattle; the front desk clerk at our hotel had no qualms at sniffing at our revelation that we’d been to Payne’s, stating that he was a Central BBQ man himself. You don’t have to choose sides, so try them all. Payne’s is an old gas station; the line was short, and the pulled pork served with a surprisingly delicious and mustardy cole slaw.

Thing of beauty. #bbq #memphis

Despite my dreams of staying at the Peabody, we opted for the cheap and cheerful Holiday Inn Express near the medical center, because we knew we would be spending very little time in the actual hotel room. It was centrally located, had free parking, and was reasonably priced for Memorial Day weekend. The front desk handed over all sorts of coupons for Graceland and Stax; unfortunately the Graceland coupons were not valid on, you guessed it, Memorial Day weekend, but we appreciated the gesture.

ARDENT STUDIOS

Our first destination was Ardent Studios, where a friend had kindly arranged for us to meet up with Jody Stephens for what I imagined would be a quick walk through the studio. Jody graciously spent over an hour and a half taking us around the place and into the various studios. It is a gorgeous building, with a courtyard and fountain and decks and patios and art everywhere. He regrettably had no Replacements stories (but did show us a great photograph I’d never seen from the album release party, with the band wearing plaid hats and looking suitably ragged) but did talk about the Afghan Whigs (no surprise, he loved them) and Big Star and Lynyrd Skynryd and ZZ Top and a long list of others who worked in the building. I love being in places where creative energy has been present over a period of time and am always thrilled to walk into a room where magic has happened. The lobby is more or less open to the public and you can see the wall o’gold records recorded there, as well as a small tribute to the late John Fry (including his bronze tennis shoes), and the neon Big Star logo just behind the reception desk. H/T to Glenn for managing his Memphis playlist (more on this later) so we pulled into the parking lot listening to “Alex Chilton”.

Waiting room. #nevertravelfar #memphisHallowed ground. #memphis

I posted about this on Tumblr, but while researching things for the trip, I found a great Jim Dickinson quote about the ‘Mats in Memphis:

You’ve got about eight blocks from Ardent to the former Holiday Inn on Union at McLean.
Yeah, and they could get in trouble in those eight blocks, believe me! They could score dope before they were out of the parking lot. They were amazing. You know that line in “Can’t Hardly Wait”: “Lights that flash in the evening/through a hole in the drapes”? That’s about that hotel.

Of course, that meant that I had to find it (it’s empty now):

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SUN STUDIOS

After grabbing a coffee to calm down after starting our Memphis sojourn with a bang, we headed for Sun Studios. The Sun tour is every hour on the half hour, and even Mystery Train aside, I had never heard great things about it — but if you want to get into the room you have to take the tour. Our tour was mobbed, which was to be expected on a holiday weekend; our solution to that is to make sure that we’re either the first people or the last people. Even if you don’t care about the tour or the studio, stopping at the gift shop will give you enough of the feel of things, with photos and memorabilia on the wall, and every possible type of merchandise with the Sun label logo. (And, free parking in back, which will never not be a delightful thing for a New Yorker.)

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The actual tour was surprisingly informative, mostly due to the tour guide’s level of energy and enthusiasm, and the fact that we did not need to silently trainspot any errors or misstatements. There is a small museum upstairs now, including a replica of the WHBQ studio from the old Hotel Chisca (which is currently being turned into condos after being abandonded for decades). I very much appreciated that they deliberately encourage you to take as many photos in the actual studio as you like, with what they call the “Elvis microphone” placed in the exact spot that it would have been back in the day. (I preferred the shots at what we called the “Larry Mullen Jr. drum kit.”) There are musical instruments to pose with (although they ask you to please not play them) and again, waiting everyone out means that you can get a couple of minutes in the room to yourself. I didn’t care about the microphone either, but here I am next to the Million Dollar Quartet.

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The next stop was Gus’ Fried Chicken, where I drank about a gallon of sweet tea. It hadn’t been on our original list of places, because we had done the chicken thing in Nashville this past fall, but we were encouraged by a Memphian to not omit it and I’m glad we didn’t. Then it was time for a well-earned nap, before heading out for a Chris Bell tribute at the Hi-Tone Cafe. When the doorman looked at my license, he said, “You came all the way from New York for this?” “No, we just happened to pick this weekend to visit Memphis.” There were people from Ohio and Chicago and although I am usually dubious about tributes, this one had several of the same folks involved with the various Big Star tributes, as well as Jody Stephens playing drums for the first five songs. The Bell family was in attendance, and Chris’ sister gave a lovely speech thanking all of us for our continued interest in Chris’ work. I started to fade around 10:30 (after a prolonged acoustic interlude) and we had an early start planned for the next day, so we headed back to the hotel.

GRACELAND

Saturday was up at 7 to leave at 8 to be at Graceland as early as possible, and the sky was grey and cloudy as we turned onto Elvis Presley Blvd. and I put on “Johnny Bye-Bye.” It is faded and not as grand or as busy as you would imagine (or at least as I would imagine). I had hoped that getting there so early would get us through the house before the hordes descended, but early access is reserved for those spending $77 as part of the VIP tour, and we were eight groups back despite being the first people on the line to buy tickets. This gave us time to browse the multiple gift shops and fully immerse ourselves into the Elvis Industrial Complex. We paid $40 for our tour; you can pay up to $77, for the full VIP, front-of-the-line, see-the-airplanes visit. An important thing to note is that only the VIP tours allow you to go through the house more than once; I still would not have paid more than I did but if you think you might want to do that, you should keep that in mind.

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I am not an Elvis fan, but I am not a non-fan; however, I was approaching my Graceland visit as a music historian and cultural observer. That said, I was pretty excited to be here. That got choked out of me at some point in the queue when it was close to 10am and we had not yet gotten on the shuttle bus to go over to the mansion, and then once we were there, were herded into various lines wearing our headphones and carrying our iPads while we waited for other groups to clear the first rooms in the house.

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There are no more guided tours; you get an iPad (with narration by John Stamos, for reasons that escape me) and headphones and while this should in theory move things along, what you get is an army of zombies shuffling along in a line, despite the staff saying THERE IS NO LINE, PLEASE MOVE TO FILL ANY SPACE YOU SEE. I kept one side off so I could talk to the boyfriend, so the entire encounter wasn’t completely devoid of any human contact, but I didn’t learn anything from the commentary, and found it mostly annoying. The iPad doesn’t take into account that people are carrying a purse or a bag and a camera or a phone and there’s a lot of awkward juggling going on; the iPad has a rubber case and a shoulder harness, but it’s a lot of dead weight.

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The iPad ‘features” there is ‘extra multimedia content’ but you don’t get the time or space to really see it while shuffling from room to room. Along with John Stamos, there is commentary from Lisa Marie and Priscilla; the former was vaguely interesting while the latter was faux-reverential in a way that turned me off, and I don’t have a horse in this race.

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My immediate impression was that the house, while ostentatious in all the ways you’d expect, was more humanely-scaled than you’d expect a mansion to be. You get to see 8 rooms in the main house, including the pool room, the TV room with its trio of screens, and the Jungle room, before being shuttled out to an office and former storage area. Here is where you can start to make some time and get ahead of the blindly shuffling masses, and let the iPad catch up to where you are, which was a common complaint I heard from other people on the tour

The next stop is the trophy room, which is a collection of memorabilia and awards, and is another place you can hopscotch ahead of people who need to see and photograph every item in every exhibit and case and vitrine. The last building is the racquetball court, and I was already rolling my eyes and going, “I literally do not need to see this, let’s just hit the meditation garden and GTFO,” but after paying $40 (and that’s only $4 up from the basic mansion-only tour) you kind of start to feel obligated to see every last goddamn thing in the place, and they don’t make it easy for you to shortcut the thing at all. The boyfriend was enamored by the old-fashioned 70s “EP” initials on the wall of the lounge area of the racquetball court, while the actual court itself is filled with post-death awards and achievements and a couple of costumes that clearly didn’t fit into the Trophy Room. The narration on the iPad mentions that the piano in the racquetball court was the last place Elvis was before he died, which is probably why it is part of the tour, but by the time John Stamos got to that part of the narration I was ready to bail.

Too much fucking perspective #graceland

A photo posted by Caryn Rose (@caryn_rose) on

Elvis and his family are buried at Graceland because of security reasons; they had been in another cemetery but almost instantly had problems with grave robbers. I have been on the side of anyone needing their communal moment with Elvis the entire tour, and this is the worst place for there to be a line, but there was a long line, and it did not move. There are steps behind the walkway around the graves, and we finally just walked the opposite way behind the line. People were complaining about it but literally all I wanted to do was take a walk and quietly sing a barbershop raga version of “Heartbreak Hotel” and make a joke under my breath about “too much fucking perspective,” before beating a hasty retreat to the shuttle.

Neon ghosts of Elvis #memphis

There was another stop at the “archive,” which we just outright declined. Our ticket level entitled us to the archive and the cars, and we only really cared about the house and the cars, and about getting over to Stax in enough time to properly enjoy it. The archive just houses additional memorabilia, and I’m sure it would have been interesting, but I was pretty much done at this point.

The cars used to be housed under the carport behind Graceland, but are now in their own exhibit (with their own gift shop), and given that it’s only a $4 upcharge, I would encourage you to spend the money — although nothing in the exhibit beat Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac at Stax, but I am getting ahead of myself.

My gift shop haul: a pink cadillac pin, a TCB pin, an Elvis Presley Boulevard bumpersticker, and a postcard of the front of the house, because there was no way for me to get a shot of it given all the queues to get inside. We left, planning to come back at the end of the day in order to get a shot of the legendary gates, which are of course open while the mansion is open.

THE STAX MUSEUM OF AMERICAN SOUL MUSIC

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Lunch was at Central BBQ. You could have barbecue for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Memphis, except then you couldn’t have sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Central has more on the menu than Payne’s did, and was so good that we briefly considered having it for dinner.

Blasting Sam and Dave, we headed for our next destination. My heart started to beat faster when we turned onto McLemore Avenue, and before we knew it, there it was, THAT marquee, with ‘SOULSVILLE, USA’ on the front. My heart was in my throat, and I was covered in goosebumps. I know it is not the original building, but you make a right turn from McLemore onto what is now signed as David Porter Way, and tell me that you don’t started to get all choked up. It is still the same locus of energy, the same parcel of land, it is matching the vision I had in my imagination.

This is holy ground, no mistaking it.

The marquee is there, the front facade is there, there is a replica of Satellite Records, Estelle Axton’s domain, there is the historical marker that for years was the only reminder of what had happened in this location. So much care went into the recreation of this space.

The introductory movie had already started, but we didn’t care, we rushed in and sat down. Not that we needed the history lesson, but just to sit there and soak it in, surrounded by other people who were also fans of this music, including a large family reunion group in matching t-shirts, was wonderful. And literally, Glenn and I never would have met had Sam Moore not performed with Bruce Springsteen 12 years ago, had we not discovered that we each loved this music in the same way, for the same reasons, that we could sing the horn lines in “Wrap It Up,” that our faces lit up at a mention of Otis Redding.

The museum does such a very good job at telling so many stories, the stories of the Black church tradition and gospel, the story of Memphis music, the story of Stax from beginning to end, the stories of the individual musicians, the story of how all of it fit into the history of popular music. There is Steve Cropper’s amp, Wayne Jackson’s trombone, there is my favorite photo of that era, from a Sam and Dave session: Al Jackson, Wayne Jackson, Sam Moore, Dave Prater, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones. We stared at that for a while, before we both had the same thought: Now, *there’s* the Million Dollar…Nontet.

There is a replica of the old original control room, with a note that it and the studio had been recreated from plans and written histories and the collective recollections of everyone who had worked there. From there, you walk into the recreation of Studio A, which was placed on the exact original footprint of where it stood back in the day, with the rest of the museum built around it. When I stepped into the studio, I thought it was all fine, and good, until I stepped into it further and realized that they had recreated the incline of the old movie theater floor, and got goosebumps again. You stand there, and close your eyes, and try to imagine. Everything happened in this room.

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After that, there is still more to see, including a trivia game I beat Glenn at twice, and Isaac Hayes’ 24-carat gold plated Cadillac. By the time we reached the end, we were sad it was over, but so very happy we had finally gotten here. We over-spent in the gift shop, and had to restrain ourselves as it was. (I also had to restrain myself from punching the tourists complaining there were no BB King postcards available in the gift shop.)

Isaac Hayes' Cadillac #stax #memphis

We headed downtown quickly, because I had a date with some ducks. At 4:30, the Peabody was already mobbed, and I was ready to bail, but Glenn insisted that we stay. I found a reasonable perch to watch the spectacle, and in the end, was glad that we stayed. (Don’t ever try to see the ducks at 5pm on a Saturday, would be my advice. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is a handy link.)

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Then, we headed off to find somewhere to have a drink overlooking the Mississippi (yes, make your “Heartland” jokes now), and then sat and played cards and had dinner at the Bardog Tavern, waiting for the sun to go down. That’s when we got back in the car and headed back to Graceland, so I could get a shot of the closed gates and one of Glenn “trying” to go over the wall (which is a Springsteen reference), headed back to Stax to get the marquee lit up (which we’d confirmed with the staff before leaving, that it would be), and then back to Sun for the same thing. We probably should have headed for Beale Street, but it had been a long and emotional day, and we were both exhausted.

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SUNDAY

Sunday morning, we got up early. I did my hair, Glenn shaved. I put on a fancy dress, he put on a suit and tie. We had an important destination later in the morning, and we needed to be dressed properly. But first, we headed downtown for breakfast at the Bon Ton Cafe. The wafting smell of urine in the gutter that greeted me getting out of the car made me glad we did not try for Beale Street the previous evening; it’ll give us another reason to come back.

That is sausage gravy and biscuits defined at the Bon TonIMG_8539

I had expected some wait at the restaurant, and when there wasn’t one, the end of breakfast meant that we still had time to kill. Glenn suggested that we drive into Mississippi so he could add to his state line sign photo collection (although according to the rules*, we cannot count it as a state we have been in), and when we passed a sign pointing out the exit towards Highway 61, we absolutely could not resist. It was Bob’s birthday, and here we are on Highway 61, singing along (because of course we both have it on our phones), as well as “Like A Rolling Stone”. We found a suitable sign for photo purposes, got Glenn’s photos, and then headed back up to Memphis for our 11:30am engagement at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.

Full gospel Tabernacle Church. bishop Al Green. #memphisGoing to Rev. Al's church hat. #memphis

The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church is Al Green’s church, and I have wanted to go there for decades. The thing about going to see the Rev. Al at church is that there is literally no way to know if he will be there; I asked a very well connected friend, and his comment was, “The church doesn’t even know if he will be there.” But we went, hoping against hope. It’s a modern building located in the southern part of town, surrounded by suburban houses. At 11:15am when we arrived, Sunday School was in progress, and the church was full of tourists, 90% of whom were wearing t-shirts and shorts. Literally, I do not know how you can go to someone else’s house of worship and dress like a slob. I will confess that I might have bought a hat for the occasion (no, I seriously did) and I was proud that we had bothered to dress properly. I mostly felt sorry for the dude two rows ahead of us wearing a t-shirt that had a small, but noticeable, Confederate flag on the back of his shirt, because it must be hard to go through life that clueless.

After Sunday School, the choir arrived, the band came out onstage, and the service began. All of this was thoroughly enjoyable even if the Reverend didn’t appear. But then someone began handing out programs, and the program listed several items next to which the name “Rev. A.L. Green” appeared, and the program had today’s date on it. A few minutes later, we saw him walk past a door opening at the back of the pulpit, and I looked down and tried to remove the smile on my face. And then, there he was, sitting in the chair previously reserved for BISHOP AL GREEN, wearing ecclesiastical robes and reading glasses.

The Bishop is in. (And I only took this because he told people it was okay.) #memphis

He preached. He sang. He told stories. He preached some more. He walked through the crowd, reciting the Lord’s Prayer (me: “Hey, I know this one!”) He asked people in the pews where they were from, and there were people from all over the planet, from Australia to Norway to Belgium. He encouraged people to take photographs (which is when I took one very tiny one, still feeling bad about it). We knew that there would be a collection, and I left this up to Glenn to handle since this is not something a Jewish girl from Connecticut knows anything about. At Rev. Al’s church, you have to walk to the front to drop your envelope in the collection plate. This is when the tourists from Norway and Belgium and Australia headed for the door, which was even less classy than showing up wearing shorts.

THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM

We left around 1:30, and only because we still had a lot to do before we left town the next day. After changing out of church clothes, we headed downtown to get a snack before our next destination. After we parked the car and were walking uphill, I turned to my right, and there was the sign for the Lorraine Motel, and the building itself with the wreath on the balcony, and I just had to stop for a minute, there was a lump in my throat and I had to hold back the tears. It was overwhelming in a way I did not expect.

There was a long, long line at the museum, due to the holiday weekend, and security at the doors, and an unfortunate dearth of ticket sellers. But everyone waited patiently. I can tell you that it was unbelievably well done, and I can tell you that it was devastating; if you go, I would suggest making it the back half of the day, because you will need some time afterwards to process it.

When I was doing my pre-trip reading, the thing I learned that surprised me the most from Robert Gordon’s Stax history “Respect Yourself” was the connection the Lorraine had to Stax. Back in the day, there were very few places in Memphis where black people and white people could meet and socialize, and the Lorraine was one of them. The musicians often stayed there, and worked there together. Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett wrote “In The Midnight Hour” at the Lorraine; Cropper also wrote “Knock On Wood” with Eddie Floyd there as well, during a summer storm (which is where the “It’s like thunder, lightning” line comes from). This would be the only photograph I took; there was no way I felt good or right taking photographs of anything else.

The Lorraine Motel was one of the only places where block people & white people could hang out. So Stax musicians would hang out here & work. knock on wood & midnight hour were written here. #memphis

The room that Dr. King was in when he was shot is still there, exactly as it was. It is the last thing you will see in the museum, after you walk through the exhibit about the garbage collectors’ strike in Memphis, which was why he had come to Memphis. And then you will stare out the window onto the balcony, and out at the window from which he was shot across the way, and you will not have many words after that.

We left the next morning for New Orleans, boarding The City of New Orleans just as the sun was rising over Memphis. It was an incredible three days, and we will definitely be back.

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The full photo set is on Flickr.

*THE RULES

In order to say that you have been to a state, you must have spent the night, or stopped, got out of the car, and had a meal. Changing planes does not count.

PLAYLISTS

We both made CD’s for this trip; there was some overlap, but otherwise they definitely reflected the personality of the person who made it. Glenn had two discs, one for songs about Memphis, and one for songs recorded in Memphis, while I just went for one overarching definitive list combining both. A Spotify playlist of mine is below. I will note that the exclusion of things like Marc Cohn and Paul Simon are deliberate.

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On the Replacements “breakup,” 2015 style


Seattle, and that fucking amazing, genius opening

Everybody wants to know what I think about Paul’s declaration onstage in Portugal that this was the band’s last show. I maintain that I’d like to wait until I hear a full tape or find a full video, or talk to someone at the show who had actually had some kind of history with the band, before descending into gloom and doom and donning sackcloth and ashes. He could mean it; he could have been kidding; he could be half serious.

But right now, it’s one report, tying into another ‘someone close to the band’ report, and everyone’s reposting it like it’s gospel. (What in the ever loving Sam Hill is wrong with all of you? Come on.)

The truth, though, is that I could not see Paul and Tommy wanting to continue all that much longer as a nostalgia act, and I am frankly amazed they lasted as long as they did in that form. There are new songs; there is video footage; this could be a going concern…or Paul could do what he has done for as long as we have known him as a performer and not do any of those things, although now would be the perfect time in which to do all of them (which is generally exactly when he doesn’t do them).

When it comes right down to it, though, this outing was a fucking triumph, plain and simple, down to the very end. They started out strong, and only got better. Some 2015 examples:


Barcelona. Look at how much fun they are clearly having.


Another Girl, Another Planet – I love the look on Dave’s face when Paul starts singing: “Look, he DOES know the words”


DC: Shitty sound, but Paul’s confidence is stunning to watch


Philly, singing their hearts out kind of sums it all up.

Yeah, I ain’t buying it. They’ll be back. Mark my words.

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Two Nights With The Replacements, 2015

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NIGHT ONE: ECHOSTAGE, WASHINGTON, DC, MAY 8, 2015

Takin’ a ride, and its doing no goooood…

I am listening intently to Paul Westerberg belt out that line, letting his voice linger on the last word with some extra oomph. It is something that the other thousand or so audience members crowded into this converted warehouse/now EDM club on the outskirts of washington, DC may not notice, or care to notice; to them, it’s just a kick ass version of “Takin’ A Ride” and it reminds them of their college years or high school times or maybe this is a brand new memory, a memory they never thought they’d get to have, because they weren’t old enough the first time around. But I am here to pay attention, I am here for these extra details, I am here to make up for lost time, for the years I didn’t get to hear these songs sung and played over and over again. I am here because we didn’t get to watch our band grow and change and shift and get old with us in real time. I am also here to sing along at the top of my lungs, to feel what it’s like to recite words you know as well as your old phone number or your Mom’s birthday, to sing them alongside thousands of other people doing the exact same thing, whether for the first time or the 20th time.

As a fan, it is good to be at this point in the Replacements reunion cycle, where the emotional thud in the middle of your chest is still there but is not so all encompassing you get lost, like it was for me in Toronto and then again in St. Paul. Those nights were not dissimilar to walking into the room and seeing the E Street Band together again in 1999 or hearing Patti Smith live again in 1995, that wonder and sheer fucking joy at being in the presence of that unique energy again.

In DC Friday night, Westerberg bounds onstage, full of energy, dancing to “Surfin’ Bird” as the audience screams along to the chorus, “Everybody knows that the bird is the word!!” He steps to the mic with an unguarded, open confidence and comfort that is not his usual modus operandi; it’s what I imagine we might have seen if the Mats hadn’t imploded in 91 or if his solo career had found its mark (and don’t get me wrong, I love those records; the problem was, he needed more than just us to love those records). My compatriot for this run, who has seen five of the previous shows, confirms that this is new, and different.

They start with “Takin’ A Ride,” “Favorite Thing,” “Hospital,” “Kissing In Action” (which is GREAT; I’d love to know why that one in particular got revived, out of all of the possibilities) and “I’m In Trouble” are a straight shot, five songs barrelling full speed ahead, and you think to yourself, man, we’re in for a great one tonight.

Paul asks if we want to hear “Little Mascara” and the answer is a resounding yes, of course we do. And it’s here that he either let go or somehow lost focus, and it’s beautiful to hear the song but the grip is a little looser, either it just happened or he chose to let it go. I think about what it must be like to sing these songs of love and loss and heartache that you wrote so long ago, and what place he is singing them from now, all these years later. The audience is bringing their own personal prisms that they filter the songs through, and I often wonder what Paul’s is. (I also wonder about Springsteen singing lines like, “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man, and I believe in the Promised Land,” too, for what it’s worth.)

We veer into Waitress, and then back to Valentine in its lush gorgeousness. Treatment Bound is a good old fashioned singalong up to the rafters. Paul accuses Dave of practicing, before introducing the next song as being about “unrequited marital dischord.” I raise my eyebrows.
“Nobody” starts another strong run bringing the energy and focus back, with “Kiss Me On The Bus,” “Seen Your Video” (my first this reunion), and “I Will Dare.”

Paul announces that his ears have finally popped. This would be the only reference to the two cancelled shows that preceded this one, and caused people to worry if this was the start of the wheels falling off this bus. I was at the venue early enough to hear soundcheck, and was glad it was confined to Dave singing covers (Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me” and half a Led Zep song) and that Paul was saving his voice.

The harmonica comes out for a delightfully gravelly “White and Lazy,” before they slam straight into “Color Me Impressed” and then “I’ll be You,” the latter of which Tommy declares, “That’s the best we played that the whole fucking trip.” But then it’s “Whole Foods Blues,” which I’m sure was hilarious in Portland and probably still funny in LA, but I think the joke is over. “Merry Go Round” is solid, but then Paul takes the mic back to the drum riser, sits down, and drops the mic to his level. Four notes and I hold my breath, the one thing I wanted to hear more than anything else, “Within Your Reach,” which was stunning and ethereal and as magic as it should be. He finishes the vocal, and while still playing, walks to the edge of the stage, smiles broadly, and just as we start to applaud, he mouths that final “REACH”.

Time for the anthems. “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Bastards” are back to back, and with ears ringing and smiles from ear to ear in the crowd, they walk off the stage. They return shortly thereafter, Paul carrying the 12 string, and it seems like he was waiting for Tommy (who was having a sidestage conversation) before he gave up and started playing a song that I didn’t recognize, and then once i realized that it actually felt like a Song, I just hit record. (I know his head is cut off, I was just trying to get the music.)

It was later confirmed to me by People Who Know About These Things that this was, indeed, a new song. I am glad to hear that there are new songs, because I have been wondering how long I will ride on the reunion train if it is just a reunion train, I wonder how many other people will come back again if it’s just an oldies act, and frankly I wonder how long Paul and Tommy independently will want to do just that. I mean, I would go watch Paul read the phone book, but I am hoping that there will be new Westerberg music in some form or fashion, whether he wants to call it the Replacements or not.

The 12 string gets put to good use with “Skyway,” before shifting into the downslope of the set, “Left of the Dial” and one of the best versions of “Alex Chilton” I have ever heard. The energy was on point again, and Paul must’ve been feeling it too, because he came back yet again for “Nevermind,” which was loud and grand and arena-worthy, and would have been a fitting close. But he still wanted to play more, so he kept going into “I.O.U.” and with that, the evening comes to a close.

NIGHT TWO: FESTIVAL PIER, PHILADELPHIA, PA, MAY 9, 2015

We go from a warehouse in Our Nation’s Capitol to a glorified pier on the river in the Cradle of Liberty, a venue that’s basically a parking lot gussied up with some sand and a couple of beer tents. [PLEASE STOP PLAYING SHITTY VENUES, GUYS. PLEASE.] Superchunk played an absolutely meteoric set, the kind of set you play when you’re opening for people that made you want to play music in the first place. And then, there they are again, Paul racing onstage and looking comfortable and ready to play. And while tonight there was plenty of fun and joshing and private jokes, plenty of Replacements-esque type business, the energy was also strong and consistent and well-paced and it was an incredibly solid set from start to finish.

Josh asked for “I Don’t Know,” and I love the detour into “Buck Hill” mostly because I love the chance to yell BUCK HILL at the right time, before they come crashing back into “I Don’t Know,” and the glorious WOO HOOS. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils” out was back, then “Kissing In Action,” “I’m In Trouble,” boom, boom boom, knocking them out with strength and confidence. Paul starts playing part of “Election Day” and says something like, “You asked for it,” when Tommy makes a face. (Now, that would have been awesome.) Once again he asks if we want to hear “Little Mascara,” Paul singing again with what feels like an extra flourish. “We got that one over with,” Tommy gripes into the microphone.

Paul asks what we want to hear, and is met with the usual barrage of requests (the one I hear more than anything is “Unsatisfied.” It’s a little early in the set for that, I think) and then he points at Daryl in the front row and says, “You’ve been asking for this one for three days in a row, we don’t know it, we might get to it later…’Hold My Life’ with the 7 ½ bar change?” He gestures at Tommy. “Fuck it, we’ll try it!” Now, he’s a little bit of a liar there, because it had been soundchecked at a previous show, but who cares, because they played the fuck out of that song and he played the fuck out of the guitar on that song (as well as most of the night, to be honest). It was one of those nights you watched Paul Westerberg play guitar and shook your head in awe and regret and wonder and hope.

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“Valentine” soars up to the stars, and then “Nobody” followed by “Kiss Me On The Bus,” which was punctuated with Paul kissing Tommy on the ear with gusto. “Okay, ‘Androgynous’ or ‘Seen Your Video’?” Paul asked next. The crowd seemed to be firmly on the side of “Seen Your Video” over on my side of the stage, but Paul obviously heard differently. “What? Both at the same time? No problem at all whatsoever.” With that, Tommy and Josh began to play “Seen Your Video” while Paul and Dave launched into “Androgynous.” You might think that this would not work, and under conventional definitions of “work” you might be right, but there was really nothing more thoroughly Replacements than those glorious moments of noise and chaos, as all four of them made their way through about a minute and a half of the combination before dropping the effort in laughter and going back to “Seen Your Video.”

The loudest, grandest singalong to “I Will Dare” rose as high as the Ben Franklin Bridge. “Wake Up” into “Borstal Breakout” was solid as heck. The mic stand went back to the drum riser again for yet another heart-rending, delicate, hold-your-breath “Within Your Reach,” with another deliberate journey to the front of the stage, mic stand in hand, to give us that final “REACH.”

And then we’re launched into the anthems once again, “Can’t Hardly Wait” joyful and bouncy, people hugging each other and their friends and their kids, everyone screaming along with Paul at the intro to “Bastards,” beautifully skirting yet again into “My Boy Lollipop,” and back, and just when you thought your heart could not grow any larger in your chest, “Nevermind” as the perfect ending, wistful and triumphant at the same time, the Westerberg double-whammy at its best.

They came charging back out for “Left of the Dial” and “Alex Chilton,” making everyone happy, letting us sing along together, these songs that are so big and meant so much, that despite their author’s absence have grown and become something else, possibly even something other than what they were when they were first written. Friday night, I listened to a young kid explain to his friends what “Left of the Dial” meant; he noted that he was 12 in 1991, while his friend was 6, and yet the fact that the left of the dial is not what it once was doesn’t seem to matter, it is still a song about longing and desire and wishes and what ifs. A song about Alex Chilton was cool in 1986 and was a tribal rallying cry for those who agreed that you should never travel far without…etc. etc., and while it’s still cool in 2015, it’s now monument and tribute and farewell and a beautiful capsule of so many things, what we meant, what we believed in, what we hoped for.

And then the 12-string is on and without any ado, the reward: “Unsatisfied” shouting into the night sky, heartfelt and broken and gorgeous and heart-rending as ever, as always. They waved goodbye, and headed off, one by one, leaving us wanting more, wanting to know what’s next, and when we’ll see them again.

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