Last year, our readers may remember my ventures to listen to Bruce Springsteen from my front porch and attend Riot Fest to see Elvis Costello and sundry others. This year, big concerts were not in the budget as I am saving for a lot of book-related activities, and the Wrigley Field free concerts were not on the same excitement level as Springsteen, yet it’s hard for me to pass up the chance to hear terrific A-List music. Armed with a case of Shiner Bock in my cooler, I went out to hear some tunes and also observe the audiences.
The Wrigley Field music this year brought back a lot of nostalgia for my days at the Ohio Department of Transportation, cruising along the Mahoning County highways picking up litter and listening to whatever was on the driver’s preferred station, and our drivers preferred the hard rock/heavy metal and country stations without exception. As a strong proponent for melody in music, I developed an unexpected taste for country during those summers as a type of music which thrives on crafting infectious tunes you can hum, and while I did not acquire a similar love for a musical style that seemed to involve screaming out the words half the time, the modern rock station gave me a healthy appreciation for Pearl Jam: the songwriting without the necessity of rhyme, the roaring emotion of Eddie Vedder’s voice, the way Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitar lines never resolved the way you expected. To this day, “Black” remains one of the most impressive and moving—and excellent—rock songs of my lifetime. So I had high hopes for these two evenings.
How much the audience shared these hopes was revealed only with the passage of time. The key takeaway of my pre-show people watching was how corporate these audiences were: while a significant number were in T-shirts and jeans (including about 70 different Pearl Jam shirts from various tours), there were many men in button-down shirts, and many women in dresses, done hair, full make-up, for outdoor concerts on very warm July nights. There was much complaining about scalping, and much discontent whenever someone saw me writing things down in my pocket Moleskine. These did not seem to be people who were enjoying themselves but people who viewed the shows as commodities, presentations of particular things which they deemed fit of occupying a few hours of their time, and treating them as any other event.
This impression was wrong.
Pearl Jam took the stage and, though Vedder’s between-song stage banter was mushy and unintelligible, his vocals were recognizable enough to power through excellent renditions of “Nothingman,” “Low Life,” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” among others. The latter, with the thousands in Wrigley and on the surrounding streets singing along, was the seventh song of the concert—and the band immediately suspended activity for three hours due to rain. After midnight, by which time your writer had thrown in the towel and his soaked clothing with it to go to bed, they went back on and played TWENTY-FIVE MORE SONGS for a large and loyal crowd who toughed it out to hear their favorites wail, including “Black” near the end, a circumstance depressing to me whenever I think about it.
It rained again during Jason Aldean’s headline spot in his four-act Night Train tour’s stop in the Windy City, and not particularly caring to try to brave this, I returned to home and hearth, having already had two great experiences. One was listening to opener Thomas Rhett Akins sing “If I Could Have a Beer With Jesus” at the end of his set. This article is going to stop so you can click on the link above and read the lyrics.
Laughing just thinking about it…
How could somebody write this song?! HOW?! HeeehahhhahaaaaaaahehehahaOhMyGod I’m dying here!!!!!
That’s better. The second experience was a pleasant surprise which reminded me of going to the Jack FM Festival in Irvine, CA in 2008 and hearing REO Speedwagon play with every instrument cranked up to eleven and a half and making even “Can’t Fight This Feeling” sound intense. After Jake Owen played his quasi-metallic country music for forty minutes, he surrendered the stage to Kelly Clarkson—and to my amazement, Clarkson’s live philosophy is to push the guitars to the front of the mix, sing over them in a shattering, pitch perfect voice, and work the crowd into a frenzy. In a well-constructed hour, she sang her hits and newest singles with flair and inspired even the middle-aged men on the street by me to pump their fists and dance during “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Since U Been Gone.” Even her cover of “I Will Wait” was certainly NOT BAD. And during the suite where “Because of You,” arranged for just her and a piano, transitioned seamlessly into “Breakaway,” the entire crowd joining in on vocals (and “Because of You” is an immensely depressing song to hear 40,000 people sing in unison), I got a sensation I had only felt once before, attending a sold out matinee of Mamma Mia! with my mother and realizing I was one of six men in a room full of middle-aged women, their friends, their daughters and nieces. This was girl power write large and I was outnumbered. And that certainly wasn’t bad either.
A week later J. and myself met up on Milwaukee Avenue for Wicker Park Fest, where we gladly forked over $5 minimum to benefit local schools and then proceeded to answer that always troubling question, “What do you do when both the bands you want to see go on at the same time?” Thankfully the stages were not far apart, so I made the efficiency decision to split the shows in half.
I’m glad I picked Mucca Pazza for part one. J. and others had told me many times about how much a must-see this band is, and there is no good word in the dictionary (an expression also recently used by yours truly on twitter to describe seeing Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan in The Butler) for this experience, watching the sousaphone lead the way as a full marching band with percussion, accordion, electric guitar, and cheerleaders (they only needed Virgil Starkwell on cello to make it complete) did all the things high school bands do: single-line formation, everybody in a circle moving their bodies up and down, and even cheers (with “Left! Right! Turn signal! Moose!” being a favorite). Above all, their musicianship was superb, the rhythm steady, the band clearly listening and synchronizing notes and dynamics with each other in a wonderfully frenetic display. Could I name any of their songs? No! But that did not detract in the slightest from the event.
Eventually I raced over to catch Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, a band Marc introduced me to right before I moved to Chicago and coincidentally one of J.’s favorite bands. Apparently I’d missed a killer “Me and Mia” but this was of no consequence, for the thirty minutes I was on the spot for found Leo and the band at their finest. The melodies are power pop, the guitars punk-fast, and Leo himself in his short-sleeved button down shirt, looking for all the world like a professor of the humanities, sings so unlike Vedder, his surprisingly sweet voice making all of his tongue-twisting lyrics come across loud and clear. The end was the highlight: he debuted a fantastic new song, a heart-wracked slammer mixing a dying relationship with some trademark Leo social comment, and then “Parallel or Together?” and “Timorous Me” from their 2001 debut as a band, The Tyranny of Distance, played with love and power.
A few days after that, happened to be the first of August, I walked over to the AMC River East after work to see a one-night only presentation of Sunshine Daydream, a 16mm film with perfectly remastered sound documenting the Grateful Dead’s 8/27/72 Veneta, Oregon concert, a benefit for the Springfield Creamery, an organic dairy co-owned by Ken Kesey’s brother which still exists today.
Anyone who knows me knows my devotion to the Dead, but this was my first real chance to watch them play after listening to them for so long, and director John Norris’s very sympathetic cameras captured something I would not have predicted: the former classical musician in me recognized the band’s onstage persona as far from the typical rock star posturing. Instead, they perform with the concentration and captivating focus of the symphony member or jazz musician, ready to improvise, logically and emotionally building off previous ideas. The footage of a twenty-five minute “Dark Star” which turns into “El Paso,” of all things, is the most revealing: Jerry Garcia stands as still as a milestone, fingers flashing beyond the speed of human comprehension but body locked in place, while Bob Weir, Phil Lesh (who occasionally sports a giant pink hat or takes off his specs), Bill Kreutzmann, and Keith Godchaux (playing with an open can of Hamm’s balanced on his piano) are following suit in perfect interaction. The harmonies are killer, especially on a closing “Sing Me Back Home” when Donna Jean Godchaux joins them as the sun sets and the unprofessional lighting makes every distance figure in the image blur into each other. The poor man’s Terry Gilliam collages for part of “Dark Star” are not as riveting as performance/crowd footage but are decent enough, while the clips of Neal Cassady in action during “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” are the most loving tribute. And there’s lots of naked people. More naked people than in a porn flick. Including a long-haired man who spends half the movie grinding against a giant pillar which looks like a phallic symbol in itself.
There’s also beautiful shots of children running across the stage and the band smiling down on them. Universal peace and love.
And moreover, the audience was half people who had seen the Dead in the day and people my age, an encouraging note that truly enduring music will live on.
To wrap up these odds and ends I want to put the spotlight on five songs: my four favorites this summer and my one least favorite.
Everything has been said about Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” so take a moment to enjoy Stephen Colbert and his friends doing what the song was designed to make everyone do.
On the other hand, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have inspired much reaction and should still keep inspiring more. “Thrift Shop,” the well-deserved number-one single they achieved with only the barest of record deals in place at a time, is not only one of the funniest (“They had a broken keyboard/I bought a broken keyboard” does it for me every time.) and most intelligent (the sheer volume and variety of words, read the lyrics if you haven’t already) rap songs ever, but arguably will go down as one of the most important. The commercial ethos, consumerism, and racial portraiture of rap and hip-hop has progressed to the point where Jason Whitlock can with great appropriateness demolish Jay-Z for fueling the most “self-destructive and seductive” fantasies of his audience. Macklemore’s wittily subversive economic stance in “Thrift Shop” is not a breath of fresh air, more of a hurricane, an outward-directed celebration of the good things in life available to all of us. Like Bob Dylan’s greatest songs—not that I’m comparing Macklemore to Dylan but there is a similar attitude—“Thrift Shop” speaks volumes about society by not tying itself to an ultra-specific point but to a general observation on our tendencies, and thus breaks free from the moment of its time. (On the other hand, the admirable “Same Love” is almost as grueling as some of Dylan’s ultra-specific numbers, but is saved by Mary Lambert’s unforced, tearjerking-in-the-best-way vocal s.)
Another band who can sometimes get grueling for me is Mumford & Sons. Their best songs are among the most stirring and entrancing of our time, and you can feel the honesty and sincerity they bring in every note. Yet with both Sigh No More and Babel, I found it hard to make it to the end of each album due to the endless parade of strummed guitars, banging drums, and “Let’s use every dynamic level possible in every song!” vocal style. Their commitment to this made me worry that they, like U2 in their worst moments, were taking themselves far too seriously. Then came “Hopeless Wanderer” and its video and these fears were banished forever. “Hopeless Wanderer” is on the same powerhouse level as “Little Lion Man” and “I Will Wait,” and if you haven’t seen the video…I will spoil nothing but you are in for much happiness.
Those who have followed my past websites may know I have a bit of a fascination with the former Elizabeth Grant, now entertaining the masses as Lana Del Rey. Del Rey’s songs are fine in themselves, but what interests me is in how I see her as less a singer than a performance artist, a walking self-constructed definition of post-modernism, blending music, cultural artifacts, and various attitudes (particularly regarding gender) from every generation since World War II into a bizarre, deliberate concoction which can sometimes baffle and annoy but at its best gives one a moment’s pause, if only to try to deduce what you just saw/heard. Del Rey’s own material has fostered this ongoing performance, but now she is releasing what may be the beginning of a series of covers, which I discovered the same way I found “Hopeless Wanderer”—YouTube singling out a video. In this case, her version of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” was a startling surprise. I’ve been a Leonard Cohen fan ever since my father played me his first album, and have long felt Cohen’s particular combination of language and style made for a foreboding act to cover, and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” one of his most beautiful but baggage-laden songs, raises the stakes even higher. Del Rey, however, has a husky croon to match Cohen’s baritone, and more importantly, she makes the song her own, adding layers of ambiguity and desire by not changing Cohen’s lyrics and packing every line with emotion. The only part which doesn’t ring true, as a new acquaintance pointed out, is “We are ugly but we have the music.” Lana Del Rey isn’t ugly—she revels in being the opposite—but this song reveals she DOES have the music enough to make me think of her as a musician for the first time.
Finally, Robin Thicke’s blockbuster “Blurred Lines” somehow manages to annoy me for more reasons than the horrid, sexist video to accompany the lyrics he swears are feminist-tinged because of their irony—a classic cop-out. When you litter that same video with giant hashtags, the infuriating now adds embarrassment. And the lyrics, as simplistic as they are, don’t even follow proper grammatical construction! (“Do it like it hurt, like it hurt, what you don’t like work…” There is NO WAY that expresses a thought coherent in the English language!) In the words of my esteemed colleague Mr. Bean in referring to another bit of music, “kill it with fire.”