Archive for the ‘Academy of Music’ Category

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Two nights, two concerts. One venue. On Thursday, Neil Young delivered a spellbinding acoustic show at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. On Friday, Jackson Browne and a crack band gently rocked the same house.

On the surface, the differences couldn’t have been more stark. Neil, at 68 years of age, looks like a grizzled miner, albeit one for a heart of gold. He possesses a stage demeanor that is, in a word, gruff. He ignored the shouted requests (typical for a Philly crowd) for obscure and not-so-obscure songs from his decades-deep catalog and, at times, seemed visibly annoyed. “CSNY!” someone in the balcony yelled. “Never again,” Neil snapped. “Crazy Horse?” someone in the front row queried. “Always,” he replied.

Jackson, on the other hand, looked decades younger than his 66 years; and fended off the shouted requests with aplomb and humor, jokingly wondering if he’d selected the right songs for the setlist. At one point, as he prepared to play a song from his new album, the excellent Standing in the Breach, someone shouted out for an old song – and he swapped his guitar, huddled with the band members and then served up “Your Bright Baby Blues” from The Pretender.

Yet, appearance and stage patter aside, they share many similarities. They’re both singer-songwriters with long resumes who, at their best, craft songs that caress and/or express the heart and soul; they’re each comfortable on stage alone or with a band; and they’re passionate about defending the environment. Neil performed “Mother Earth” and the new “Who’s Gonna Stand Up (and Save the Earth)?”; and shared his disappointment with President Obama for signing off on deep-water fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. Jackson, for his part, discussed the need to save the oceans – every second breath we take is thanks to them – prior to performing the new “If I Could Be Anywhere,” a wonderful song from Standing in the Breach about a trip he made to the Galápagos Islands.

They also split their concerts into two sets.

Neil showcased a few songs from his recent, all-covers album A Letter Home and four from his forthcoming Storeytone. His setlist:

From Hank to Hendrix / On the Way Home / Only Love Can Break Your Heart / I’m Glad I Found You / Mellow My Mind / Reason to Believe / Someday / If You Could Read My Mind / Harvest / Old Man // Pocahontas / Heart of Gold / Plastic Flowers / A Man Needs a Maid / Ohio / Southern Man / Who’s Gonna Stand Up? / Mother Earth / When I Watch You Sleeping / Harvest Moon // After The Gold Rush // Thrasher

Jackson’s set featured a handful of new ones, though “The Birds of St. Marks” is actually very old – it dates to 1968. There was also, after his return from the break, a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the audience to him, as he’d celebrated his birthday the day before. His setlist:

The Barricades of Heaven / Looking Into You / The Long Way Around / Leaving Winslow / These Days / Shaky Town / I’m Alive / You Know the Night / Fountain of Sorrow // Rock Me on the Water / Your Bright Baby Blues / Standing in the Breach / Looking East / If I Could Be Anywhere / The Birds of St. Marks / For a Dancer / Doctor My Eyes / The Pretender / Running on Empty // Take It Easy / Our Lady of the Well

People who know me in the real world know that, when push comes to shove, Neil Young is my favorite musical artist – his music is ingrained in my DNA. Yet, as I’ve written elsewhere, the older I’ve become the more I’m drawn to the work of Jackson Browne – especially Late for the Sky, which now easily ranks in my Top 10 Albums of all time.

Since Friday night, I’ve been comparing and contrasting the two concerts in my head, and – beyond the superficial – coming up with blanks. Neil’s was, as I said at the outset, spellbinding. Jackson’s was a little less so, yet some of his songs (“Rock Me on the Water,” “Fountain of Sorrow” and “For a Dancer”) resonated deeper in my soul. Read into that what you will.

So I stuck my hand into a pile of ticket stubs and came up with this:

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Nowadays, country music is all the rage amongst the younger set thanks to Taylor Swift and the countless hunky hat acts, plus whoever else is considered hot. In the early and mid 1980s, however, the first wave of the MTV generation – especially here in the northeast – saw and heard country as little more than an extension of The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw. I.e., corny. We were more about big hair, thin ties, synth pop and…

Well, “we” wasn’t me. I followed the same fashion sense then that I do now: jeans, T-shirt and, often, untucked flannel shirt. Don’t get me wrong – I liked (and still like) my share of the era’s pop acts. It doesn’t get any better than the Go-Go’s and Bangles, for instance. But I digress…only to digress again:

Somewhere in there, and I can’t remember exactly when beyond a vague “sometime in 1981 or ‘82,” my appreciation of the Byrds launched via their Greatest Hits LP, a solid 11-song set originally released in early 1967. That led me to investigate their other albums, including one that, at the time, was long out of print – the country-flavored Sweetheart of the Rodeo with Gram Parsons. That, in turn, led to the Flying Burrito Brothers and then Parsons’ two solo albums, GP and Return of the Grievous Angel, both of which featured – and, yes, this is the end of this roundabout intro – Emmylou Harris.

According to my desk calendar, I purchased her brand-new Ballad of Sally Rose LP on February 17th, 1985 (and liked it so much that, in a few weeks, I also bought it on cassette). Perhaps not her best work, but a work that interested me nonetheless due to its connection with Gram, who inspired it. This leadoff song, especially, drew me in –

The next song, “Rhythm Guitar,” became another favorite…

As did “Woman Walk the Line”:

By month’s end (March 29th, to be precise) I was at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia – the first time I saw her, and my first time inside that hallowed hall. She started with a set of her older tunes, took a break and then returned for a second set that featured the Sally Rose album from start to finish. In between the two sets, she said, she received flowers with a note requesting a specific song that she and the Hot Band hadn’t rehearsed. She thought “Heart to Heart” might fit the bill instead:

In any event, I wrote in my desk calendar that it was a “great show” – the second-best concert I’d seen to that point in time. I wish I remembered more.

What a fun few weeks it’s been. Months may pass and there’s nary a show that interests us, then a spurt of concerts are announced, tickets are purchased and the calendar fills up.

This time, the run began on June 4th at the World Cafe Live Upstairs in Philadelphia. If you’ve never been there, it’s the smaller of the two WCL rooms, really no more than a restaurant-bar with a stage at one end. Capacity is likely 120 to 150, depending on how many tables are set up, but it’s rare that we’ve been there for a sold-out gig. This night the headliner was the Singer-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named; we first saw her in 1989 at the now-defunct Chestnut Cabaret, where she was backed by a crack band that included Dave Alvin on guitar.

Now, I’ve witnessed some bad performances – most concert-goers have. Back in the mid-2000s, for instance, the Australian alt.-country singer Kasey Chambers headlined the Keswick Theatre in Glenside while sick with the flu. Her voice was shot, she was near-delirious with fever and 40 minutes after the show began it was over. But, since my first concert in 1983 until June 4th, I’ve never witnessed an act deliver a thoroughly atrocious performance.

That is, I hadn’t until the Singer-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named stumbled to the stage with a glass of Maker’s Mark in hand. On a few occasions she launched into one song while her band began another – her mistakes, not theirs. And the second time was something she’d sung 10 minutes earlier! She also rambled near-incoherently, gave the finger to a WCL staffer who stopped her from bringing her dog out of the dressing room (it would have violated a health code), and rambled some more.

On the ride home, Diane mentioned that the show almost made her want to quit live music altogether. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but thankfully our next concert – which came a mere two nights later – stopped such talk. The singer-songwriter Patty Griffin took to the stage at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall with “Wherever You Wanna Go,” the lead-off track of her recent American Kid album, and proceeded to lay down an extraordinary 90-minute set that rocked the emotions even as it connected with the intellect. “Carry Me” from her classic 1998 Flaming Red album fed into “Ohio” from her new one and… wow. That “wow” extends to the hall – the acoustics, at least from our second-row seats, were incredible. The best I’ve ever heard.

That same night, the fabled ‘60s rock-R&B act the Rascals were performing theirOnce Upon a Dream revue, a stage show put together in large part by the E Street Band’s Little Steven Van Zandt, at the Academy of Music. We caught it two nights later, on Saturday. Essentially a history of the band, the 30 song-strong set was interspersed with pre-recorded interview segments, as demonstrated in this clip of “Mickey’s Monkey”-”Love Light.” At times the pre-recorded bits stole from the momentum of the music, yet even with that it was wondrous to hear such songs as “How Can I Be Sure,” “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free.”

The final concert of the run came last Wednesday at one of my favorite venues, the Keswick. It’s not as plush as Verizon Hall and the acoustics aren’t the best – but it’s much closer than Philly, and parking is free. (Always a plus, in my book.) The act: the early-1980s practitioners of perky pop, the Go-Go’s, who sound as good now as they did back then. (One day they should tour with the Bangles and bill themselves as the Bang-Go’s. Just a thought.) To say the night was flat-out fun would be an understatement. People stood and bopped about to most of the songs, including – of all things – a Kiss (!) tune during the pre-encore flurry of “ Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat.” Also included in the mix: the Belinda Carlisle solo hit “Mad About You” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” If heaven was a place on Earth, that night it would’ve been in Glenside!

Of course, it’s only normal to compare and contrast concerts when you see a few in a short amount of time. Me, I generally subscribe to the Neil Young school of thought: “Live music is better/bumper stickers should be issued.” They’re all good and great.

Unless, that is, it’s the Singer-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Then warning labels should be affixed.

“We’re not that old,” my wife Diane said to me. “We’re not!”

Thus was her first, most visceral reaction to the Jackson Browne concert we saw at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia last month. We’d arrived 20 minutes before show time, picked up our tickets from Will Call and navigated to our seats, two faces amongst a sea of middle-aged and – dare I say it? – old people. Many had gray hair, others sheer white. A few men wore the stereotypical jumpsuits of the shuffleboard-set. Even more sported canes.

Though the show was billed as a “solo acoustic” outing when I bought the tickets, it turned out to be Browne and a sparse band whose members included opening act Sara Watkins. (He explained that he made the change just prior to hitting the road.) Highlights of the 18-song set, for me at least, were the three songs he performed from his classic Late for the Sky album, including the title track, “Fountain of Sorrow” and “The Late Show”; “The Pretender”; “A Child in These Hills”; an impromptu rendition of the Temptations’ “My Girl” (!); a slowed-down “Running on Empty”; and the closing “Take It Easy,” the Eagles hit he co-wrote with Glenn Frey and recorded himself on his For Everyman album.

Of course, anyone who knows rock ‘n’ roll history – or listens to Classic Rock radio – is aware that those songs hail from the 1970s. Browne’s eponymous debut (often called Saturate Before Using) came out in 1972; For Everyman in 1973; Late for the Sky in 1974; The Pretender in 1976; and Running on Empty in 1977. So a 30-year-old fan in 1974 would be 68 now. And while my wife and I aren’t that old, the fact remains that we are – dare I admit it? – decidedly middle-aged.

Now, in the scheme of things, there are far heavier things to confront and contemplate. That goes without saying. But it’s still disconcerting to attend a show, look around and realize that, as at the Bob Seger show Diane and I saw last December, the only young people in attendance are in the company of their parents. Or that a new artist – like Rumer – whose music you’re enamored with is singing to a room full of people your age, not hers.

It seems like just last month that I was walking across the quad at PCS while Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” wafted on the wind around me. That would have been 1974, a year before my family moved to Hatboro – we lived in Saudi Arabia at the time, and my brother and I attended a Western school, the Parents Cooperative School in Jeddah, with other expat children. (I plan to write about some of those experiences in future posts.) Music was a known entity to me by then, but I was 9 – a few years shy of my music-obsessiveness kicking in. Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” was my idea of a good time.

In 1978, when I began making my weekly pilgrimages to the Hatboro Music Shop, one of the first 45s I bought was a re-issue of “Doctor My Eyes” that had “Rock Me on the Water” on its flipside. And over the next few years, courtesy of both the Hatboro Music Shop and RCA Music Club, I picked up his first three albums and Running on Empty. I’d be lying if I said I loved them. Lyrically speaking, Browne deals with subjects – love, disillusionment and death among them – that were beyond me at that point in my life. Yet there was a song or two on each of those albums that led me to buy the next, regardless, and through the years – and decades – I came to treasure the heartfelt insight of the songs I once dismissed. Has there been a more elegiac song about loss than “For a Dancer”?

Which leads me back to the start, Diane and I amidst a sea of aging men and women who’ve lived the experiences Browne sings about. Perhaps that’s why a younger crowd didn’t turn out that evening. His songs don’t speak to them. Yet.

Or maybe I’m fooling myself.