Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Elvis Costello w/ Larkin Poe at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts: March 18, 2015

This originally appeared on (FKA FDRMX) 5 years ago. It's probably my favorite concert review I've ever written and hands down the best last paragraph. This is still one of the best shows I've ever seen and where I became not just a huge Elvis fan, but a huge Larkin Poe fan.

Larkin Poe

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve usually found I actually have less in common musically with people my age. For the most part, as people age, their taste in music narrows, and in many ways just freezes completely, stuck in whatever period they can nostalgically hold on to as being better than “kids today.” That’s not to say I don’t like old and straight up retro music, because I obviously do, but I don’t just like that, and I don’t dismiss anything new outright.

Still, for years I’ve heard my contemporaries talk about seeing people like Paul McCartney live and how he shames young musicians by playing marathon length shows and demonstrating a complete mastery of his art. I’ve never had the chance to see McCartney live, but I’ve had a small taste of that seeing Dylan a couple of times. But that was just a small taste. Last night, I really came to understand what total mastery of the artform is when I saw Elvis Costello play, mostly by himself, for approximately two and a half hours at Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

Before I get to Costello, though, we have to talk about Larkin Poe. I’d seen them on the YouTube series Jam in the Van not too long ago and liked what I heard, so I was familiar with them already. Last night, however, it was just the two Lovell sisters, minus bass and drums, which is fine because these two sisters from Atlanta know their shit. Roots music, whether blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, folk, or whatever depends on a certain authenticity to be sure, but it also depends on a knowledge of its history that I don’t think more modern genres necessarily do. That knowledge has to be organic in order to really come across. I know nothing of their upbringing, but judging from their performance last night, I would not be surprised if they learned to play mandolin and lap steel on a wooden porch by watching their elders. There’s just something loose and natural about their style which came accross from the first song they played, “Wade in the Water” and in every original song they played as well, including a stripped down and more gothic version of “Jailbreak” off their first full length album, Kin.

Of course, as much as I was already loving Larkin Poe, they took me over the top with the last song of their opening set. “You’ll have to decide if this is a Cher song or a Nancy Sinatra song,” announced Rebecca Lovell, eliciting an immediate “Oh shit” of excited recognition from me that I’m sure everyone around me must have noticed as I stumbled for my cell phone. What followed was a completely fresh take on one of my favorite songs of all time, the often covered “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”

During the intermission, I met the ladies at the merch table where they signed their album for me and I mentioned that to me it was a Nancy song because her version was better than Cher’s original, but I should have added that the version I’d just heard was up there with Nancy’s because they brought something completely new to the table by making this story of a love gone as bad as possible into a true southern gothic tale and really all their own while not losing the original’s vision. There’s just a certain fire that they brought to out that came through with the lap steel.

Before the show and during intermission, on the stage was a giant TV playing Elvis Costello videos. So when Elvis just matter of factly walked on stage with little warning, he approached the mic and said “well, you’ve heard all the hits, so I guess you can just go home now” and then unceremoniously started playing “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Right off what stood out in this solo performance was that there was no pretension about it. He was just going to play and that’s that. Also, he was going to be heard, and everyone there understood that.

I’ve always liked Elvis in a more distant way. I’ve never really dug deep into his catalog because, as he pointed out at one point last night, at this point there are over 500 songs. That’s intimidating to get into if you’re exploring. The good news is, as of last night, it’s clear to me that his mastery of the craft goes well beyond the songs I was already familiar with. I finally really understand what the big deal is.

How often have you been to a show where a performer tries to do something a little quieter than normal only to be drowned out by talking or inappropriate cheering (or worse, heckling) followed by angry shushing from the rest of the crowd? Sometimes the performer will practically have to plead with people to just shut up for one damn second because this could be special damn it!

I experienced the complete opposite of this several times during this show. The first one hit me in the face with it’s power. At the end of “Accidents Will Happen” he stepped back from the mic, played more quietly on the acoustic guitar and sang with no amplification for a few verses. And you could hear every bit of it. There was never a moment of transition to being quiet. It just happened and everyone just understood because he wasn’t asking. He was just doing it and he is Elvis so you’re going to listen, is the feeling I got. There was something very powerful about the way this happened and it happened several more times throughout the night.

For most of the show, Elvis Costello played one guitar or another, acoustic or electric and I was wowed by how underrated he is as a guitar player. He’s not just playing chords for the sake of rhythm, it’s much more complex than that. But his first journey over to the piano resulted in the most clear indication of two other things about Elvis: his songwriting and the overwhelming beauty of his voice. He really is a complete songwriter in the sense that every note, every pause, every flourish is there to support a lyric or an idea.

This is when he played “Shipbuilding,” a song I was familiar with, but never loved or even liked that much, to be honest. But, hearing it this way, just piano and vocals, stripped down, highlighted the complexity and emotion of the song and the performance showcased the power, range, control and genuine feeling that Elvis radiates with every note he sings. His vibrato particularly is amazing to hear live. He’s been accused of oversinging and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of his recorded work, but last night, there was nothing over about it. It was right on and I’m still impressed.

So, there were three encores. The first one was with Larkin Poe and felt like a good ole fashioned hootenanny with the lap steel, mandolin and harmonies. This set ended with the mandatory and uplifting “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song he didn’t write but did make famous. Like most people I was sure this was it, but suddenly, Elvis just appeared inside that giant TV and started playing again. At several points throughout the night people yelled out requests. I kept hearing calls for “I Want You,” which I would have loved to hear in a stripped down version like this, but that wasn’t to be.

The other most requested song was “Allison” and this is when it came. What hit me at this point, is that as much I had wanted to to hear this song, and as great as the song is, I can understand why he might have skipped it and it would have been ok. There just wasn’t much more to do with the song in the way that he did with some of the others he played earlier in the night. It was a good performance and I’m glad he played it, but I understand now why the first time someone had yelled it out the response was a sarcastic “I love a man with an imagination.”

The second encore ended with a song that I think perfectly distills everything that happened that night, “Radio Soul,” which is an early version of his hit “Radio, Radio.” In this early version, it’s a love song to radio, but it can more broadly be said to be about music and the lines “but everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed but for myself I don’t work too much least not since I’ve been told I could sail away to the songs that play upon that radio soul,” could have closed the night. But, of course, they didn’t. There was one more encore, which started with Elvis on piano doing a somewhat creepy take on the standard “Side by Side,” before he called Larkin Poe back out for two more songs.

All around me everyone was impressed with how much music we had just heard. All told, Elvis played 32 songs for about 2 and a half hours. It’s the longest I’ve ever seen anyone play. The theater had senior citizens who volunteer as ushers and as I was walking out I overheard one of them saying to another “I kept thinking it was over but every time he just picked up that god damned guitar again.” So, in summary, at 61 years old, playing mostly acoustic songs by himself on stage, many of them ballads, some country and at least one standard, Elvis Costello is still pissing off old people. Punk’s not dead.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Perfect Songs - Manna

This originally appeared over (formerly FDRMX) back in December of 2014. At the time, I was beyond thrilled because Tanya Donelly commented on it. A week later, my dog, Kane, died and I was devastated, but this song had laid some kind of groundwork for me to deal with it. Over there it was filed under Single Review, even though it wasn't a single. Here, I place it back in it's proper place as a Perfect Song.

I got to see Ms. Donelly with Belly last year in Brooklyn, and while I didn't get to hear this song live, it was still moving to finally get to hear her live, in person and at close range after all the years of wanting to.

Lovesongs for Underdogs

Emotional responses to music do not depend on having any understanding of what the song is supposed to be about. In many cases it can happen even if you don’t understand the language at all and there are instrumentals that can evoke very specific feelings. Sometimes we do understand the language but the lyrics are just cryptic enough to somehow put you in a very vivid, if mysterious frame of mind. You won’t know what the original intent of the song is, but it won’t matter, and really it hardly ever does. When art manages to connect with something universal, while doing something that is likely very specific, it’s breathtaking, but when it does this and maintains a certain air of mystery that allows you to make it wholly your own, we’re in a transcendent space altogether. For me, a clear example of this is Tanya Donelly’s “Manna” off her first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs.

I fell in love with this song the instant I heard it, 17 years ago. It opens with a quiet whistling wind like sound that leads to a simple acoustic guitar chord progression, complete with fret noise that seems to suggests weariness. The song instantly transports me to another room and though I’m not entirely sure what is in that room, I know it’s white and there is a large open window with white lace drapes, letting the light shine through. And although the room is comfortable and providing some sort of relief, there’s a sense of sadness in it, or perhaps just melancholy. It might be grief. But tt might not be. It might just be intense love that somehow makes one weep at the sheer beauty of life. Either way, Tanya says she is “here now and I’m staying put, for reasons, my reasons” and I’m moved by her voice and presence. And she never tells us her reasons, which only helps this song become yours as you fill in your own reasons. Is this a deathbed she’s sitting next to? If so, whose? I don’t know, but it affects me in a very deep way that I cannot explain.

Once the chorus kicked in that first time I heard this song, and every time since, I was blasted with nostalgia that I could not put my finger on but also could not deny or avoid in any way. That marching snare drum and cello and the melody of Tanya’s angelic voice reminded me of something from my childhood. Over the years I’ve determined that it somehow brings to mind an artist my parents used to play when I was a kid, Demis Roussos. But try as I might, there’s no one specific song that I can say directly connects. It could be several, from “Goodbye My Love, Goodbye” to “Morir Al Lado De Mi Amor” or even his cover of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne a L’amour.” Interestingly, each one of those could also relate to “Manna” thematically, but I would not have known that from hearing them as a child.

I’ve always leaned towards thinking this song was about someone who comes to visit a dying loved one. Perhaps that’s because I took the lyric “and when I hold you like tomorrow you might die, well, that’s because you might, but I’m here now and I’m staying put for reasons my heart knows” literally. But over the years, I’ve also come to appreciate the preciousness of life to the point that I think I understand that we are always dying and now I think that’s what the song is about. And while that may be morbid, it’s also quite beautiful and touching to accept it so that you can fully love someone in the moment. What’s truly amazing to me is that while that idea comes through so clearly, there are verses about a “milky whiteness” that leave me scratching my head. Could the song be about trying to conceive a child? It’s likely this song is about something very specific in Tanya’s life, but I couldn’t care less to pry into what’s behind it because It’s now about so much more than what she might have intended that I think she succeeded, regardless. It’s a perfect song.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

IDLES, NYC 10/17/19 - I Was Done In On A Thursday

I guess it was about 6 months ago that I became obsessed with IDLES. I think I'd heard one or two songs before, but it wasn't until then that I really listened to the message. When I played Joy as an Act of Resistance for the first time I was moved in so many ways. The things they were singing were things I'd been feeling in stages for most of my fucking life and here I was at 46 years old before I really felt like another man really understood them the way I felt them. It wasn't one particular lyric, though if I had to boil it down it's obviously "The mask of masculinity, is a mask that's wearing me." But the entire feeling of the album made me feel heard and understood and like there was hope for the next generation after all. 

I've watched countless videos of their live shows and at some point while witnessing the beautiful madness I decided I must be a part of it. I’d never been in a real mosh pit, aside from that now almost laughable incident at Arctic Monkeys, 9 years ago. Again with those regrets I've spoken of before - things I wish I'd done when I was younger but I was too paralyzed by fear, depression, self-doubt and shyness. I've halfway denied that my increase in concert attendance over the last 10 years has been a midlife crisis, but in some ways I guess it has been. 

So, when I saw they were playing the last stop of a pretty short US tour at New York's Terminal 5, I started to figure out how I could justify going. And it quickly evolved into a trip where I would be alone in NYC for nearly 24 hours, with no room. Fly in, kill time, go to the show, kill more time, go home. Anyway, there's definitely something great about just being aimless and on your own in NYC. Still, it was a pretty long day before I even got to Terminal 5, so I was worried I'd be too tired to really enjoy it.

I got there just a few minutes before doors opened, so the line was pretty long. Yet, somehow I got in, went to the floor and stood 2 people from the front. I was excited now. At one point, during opener Preoccupations, I really had to go to the bathroom and got worried because I didn't want to lose my spot. I actually asked the dude next to me to hold it, he said he'd try and off I went. Coming back I felt like a complete dick and also realized (or should have realized) that getting in and out of this crowd was going to be impossible once IDLES came out.  And when they did come out, and started with the ever building crescendo of Colossus, well, reality laughed it's ass off at my midlife crisis.

The crowd behind me, all however hundreds there were, started this slow, rhythmic wave of that was crushing everyone. It would come forward, then back, then to the sides, then forward, getting slowly more intense. I quickly put my phone away and raised my arms up over my head so I could actually use them. I instantly knew I was going to die if I stayed and that I basically had no choice. And then I went into instant denial figuring this would get easier when it got faster. 

Among the things I regret but not because I never did them is getting blackout drunk. There's a night I won't detail, where I remember grabbing a drink and then it’s just  hazy, out of body flashes of crying and panic all around me, and then waking up on the kitchen floor wearing nothing but wet shorts. Those flashes of haze, where the details are completely lost, are something I do remember vividly as being quite scary. Once the last part of "Colossus" started - the hardcore tag that was supposedly going to be easier - I started to feel like that haze thing was coming over me. But my terror was mine alone. The crowd was actually fine and there was no danger of anyone intentionally harming me in anyway. That much was clear, but made it no less terrifying.

Pic from the excellent piece at Pancakes and Whiskey.
As “Colossus” went right into “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” my mouth went instantly dry. I was trying to jump and scream along, thinking I just have to get more excited, which I did, but it was no use. Quickly, the spirit of denial that was trying to keep me there, gave up and said "fuck this dude, you’re not equipped for this, get out of here." Now I had to figure out how to swim against this fucking raging ocean current and get out before I passed out. 

It took the entirety of NFaMWaP, and into “Heel/Heal” during which the haze kept threatening, to finally get clear of the mosh. I have no fucking idea how I survived but I have a vague memory of singing along at several points, with what must have been a distant look of terror on my face, in between shouting “coming out!” to whoever would listen. At various stages, several people did about all anyone could have done in the midst of that chaos, yelling "let this guy out!" with concern and authority before fading back into the tumult. Thanks, kids, for helping an old man having a panic attack after biting off more than he could chew.

By the time I got to the bar where I planned on ordering about 5 gallons of water, I was completely drenched in sweat, only mostly my own. The pressure of hundreds of bodies pressed against me with full force and not having any control over it was still lingering in my insides and I have no idea how I stayed on my feet. It was like my internal organs had been moshed. But the thing is, I did stay on my feet. I came to mosh and I did. And no matter how it went, I can no longer say I never did it. And now I know. And now I'm free from. . . something.  And it somehow feels like this experience has served as a surrogate for just about every experience I regret not having when I was younger. I don't honestly know why that is, but it is and I'm grateful. And now, a few days later, while the feeling still lingers, I have to say I would try again, maybe stupidly, but still. I would have to get in much better shape before I did, but if IDLES come back again any time soon, I may try to be in the middle of it.

The rest of the show, I was on the outskirts because at that point even if I had wanted back in, there was no penetrating the edge of that mass of bodies. I kept noticing how even by the bars there would be ripples of the force coming through the crowd. 

The energy of that crowd was the direct result of a feedback loop between everyone there and the band as one fed the other which fed the other which fed the other, etc. "Goes and it goes and it goes." This was the thing I love about music made into a physical form where you could literally see the emotional energy radiating through the crowd and back to the stage as band members kept coming out and surfing over them. It's one thing to see that on video or even from a distance, but to actually feel that in the room is beautifully powerful. 

And to top it all off, it's not wasted power. Because at the heart of everything this band does is community, love and acceptance. Being in a crowd that large that is receptive and welcoming of these things was quite moving. Singing “Samaritans” and "Danny Nedelko" at the top of our lungs together after Joe Talbot spoke about the fucked up state of the world and how New York was built by immigrants and the idea of true community was particularly special. 

Once it was all over, walking out of Terminal 5, everyone was overwhelmed by how amazing it was. Many were saying it was the best show they’d ever been to and as I walked the streets of NYC, no matter how far from the venue I got, I kept hearing people singing out IDLES lyrics in the distance from different directions. The message was spreading.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Songs of the Times - Going to a Town

rufus wainwright

In 2007, Rufus Wainwright released a song that I've always thought was the most complete in capturing the post 9/11 Bush era of sadness and impending doom. It would be one more year before we entered the supposed era of hope under Obama and while that hope was real no matter how imperfect, the stage had already been set and the racist backlash against Obama and the deeper entrenchment of the far right pulling everyone with them has proven to be unstoppable. Now, 11 years after its release, and particularly this week - the push to rob transgender people of their identity, the racist lies about an impending caravan of immigrants from South America, bombs sent to prominent Democrats, the right dismissing it as a hoax, and then today a shooting at a synagogue - "Going to a Town" is even more prescient than it was in 2007.

This song has always made me cry, but the other day, driving home after reading a few bits of information about the bomber (I won't use the cutesy, catchy name based on the president's shitty motto, fuck that) and other miscellaneous chaos, and thinking about how fucked the country is and the whole world because of it, it really got to me. I've never been a patriot by any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact, imagination is good word because my guiding principal - if I even have one - when it comes to countries, religion and isms in general is John Lennon's "Imagine," no matter how much of a hypocrite he was. But even though I've never really felt "America" in the way that people do, I do know that I'm deeply "American." I've benefited from it and do enjoy the lofty idea of it. Where I've always drawn the line is in any sort of allegiance or deification of it and its principals. Or any one country's for that matter, because I'm also a Trekkie. That being said, its loss is still sad and that's what this song is about.

I'll leave it at that because going on any more of a depressive rant about the state of the world would just be too damn much. Over on Saint Audio, we posted 2 (so far) Halloween playlists that touch on how we're feeling as well. It's kind of hard to shake, really. It's either completely forget about it or be consumed with feelings of helplessness. My choice for now is to, symbolically at least, go to a town where I'm more present with my family and enjoy what we have now - NOW. And if the revolution does come (and that is it what it will take, don't kid yourselves), great, but I'm not optimistic. What does that mean for the day to day when human rights and lives are at stake? I don't know that either.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to work and on the side of the road there was a guy standing next to what I guess was some kind of Buddhist monk, in full robes - in Davie fucking FL of all places. The monk was calmly holding the man by the shoulders and seemed to be trying to ease his turmoil - whatever that might have been. The man seemed a little agitated, but glad to be listening, glad to be heard, glad for some kind of connection and understanding. There were no other pedestrians, and this is not an area where this sort of thing would ever happen. There is no Buddhist monastery anywhere near there. So it was way out of left field to see this. I don't know what it means or if I was reading way more into it because of my state of mind, but either way, it stayed with me. All I know is that if there is anything positive that has come out of the severe state of fuck the world is in it has been in how ordinary humans of certain mindsets have sort of stepped up their game in terms of every day kindness - whether it's too late or not. That's the town that I'm going to, because I am sick and fucking tired of "America."