Posts Tagged ‘Keswick Theatre’

IMG_4736Stephen Stills has long been one of my favorite artists, yet I’ve rarely seen him live – one of those oddities of life, I suppose.

For those who may be unaware of who he is, and I imagine that means a number of younger folks – he’s the S in CSN (and sometimes Y); and was the driving force behind Buffalo Springfield, whose “For What It’s Worth” is one of the de rigueur protest songs used in films and TV shows about the 1960s. His solo hit “Love the One You’re With,” released in 1970, is another go-to song often used to evoke the free-love aspect of that era. And, in the early 1970s, he released a string of excellent, four- and five-star solo albums – especially the sprawling double-LP Manassas set.

His were the first songs I played when I deejayed the Folk Show at Penn State in the mid-1980s: “Crossroads/You Can’t Catch Me” and “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” from his 1975 live album.

Anyway, as I wrote a few months back, I first saw him in 1984 at a Walter Mondale rally in Philly; as I remember it, he was good – but it was a four-song set. I also saw him that same year with Crosby, Stills & Nash at the Mann Music Center – an excellent show, if my memory is correct; and in 2002 with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Wells Fargo barn, though at the time it was known as the First Union Center. That was an incredible show.

Anyway, all things considered, his July 9th, 2015, concert at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA, was very good – “all things considered” being the optimal phrase. Through the years, Stills has developed hearing issues that have caused singing to become something of an issue for him, especially on acoustic/softer numbers. He’s not always in tune. On songs when he sings from his gut, he sounds great. Deafness hasn’t impacted his guitar playing, however; he basically put on a two-hour clinic for how to wrench emotion from six strings. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was a wonder to behold.

The show was split into two hour-long sets. The first consisted of acoustic (and a few gentle electric) numbers; the second was electric, rockin’ and bluesy. He was also in a talkative mood, recalling conversations with Fred Neil about “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me,” Bob Dylan about “Hollis Brown” and Steve Jobs about the iPhone’s subpar sound.

The first set opened with “Helplessly Hoping” and featured quite a few cover songs, including his take on Graham Nash’s “I Used to Be a King.” He borrowed the arrangement from Shawn Colvin, he said, and it was powerful. Unfortunately, my recording of it stopped mid-song when I received a flash-flood alert – it was stormy night. Thunder rumbled during “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me,” in fact.

I’d have loved it if he’d included a few more of his own classic compositions – “Fishes and Scorpions,” say, or “Black Queen,” “See the Changes” or “First Things First.” Still, no complaints.

The second set was, as I said above, electric. He opened with the classic “Southern Cross,” which is one of my all-time favorite songs, and continued with two songs from the Rides, the stellar blues group he formed with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg a few years back. “Bluebird” flew high; and a fierce “Rockin’ in the Free World” came close to blowing the roof off the venue.

The encores were fun, too – especially “For What It’s Worth.” Everyone was on their feet and singing along with both songs. Our seats weren’t the best, tall people were around and it was a humid night. No matter. No distance. It’s the ride.

First set: Helplessly Hoping; Change Partners; Thoroughfare Gap; Everybody’s Talkin’/Dolphins; Girl from the North Country; Reason to Believe; Ballad of Hollis Brown; Daylight Again/Find the Cost of Freedom; I Used to Be a King; Johnny’s Garden; Suite: Judy Blue Eyes

Second set: Southern Cross; Treetop Flyer; Don’t Want Lies; Roadhouse; Make Love to You; Virtual World; Bluebird; Rockin’ in the Free World

Encores: For What It’s Worth; Love the One You’re With

Natalie_1

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the adjective “sublime” as “very beautiful or good : causing strong feelings of admiration or wonder.” That’s the concise summary, at least. The extended, third version explains it as thus: “tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence.”

That was Natalie Merchant’s July 11, 2014, concert at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa.

It started slow. A restive audience didn’t embrace the opening “Lulu,” a solid song from her new album that would have worked better deeper in the set, especially if coupled with context by way of a brief introduction. (It’s about Louise Brooks, the silent-era star who flamed out for reasons that had much to do with, to borrow a line from Neil Young’s “Crime in the City,” “giving the finger to the preacher” – or, in her case, the movie studio). It’s a mid-tempo story-song, in other words, that requires rapt attention – a near-impossibility when folks are still finding their seats. It’s also not the way to win over folks who, if those around us were any indication, bought their tickets based solely on yesterday’s glories. (I heard someone behind us say she was expecting an oldies/retrospective-type show. I’m sure she wasn’t alone.)

That’s not to say a known song was needed, just something that laid out the night’s itinerary in more dramatic fashion – something that grabs you by the proverbial lapels. First Aid Kit, for example, opened with “Shattered and Hollow,” a dirge-like number in which the narrator declares she’d “rather be broken than empty” and “moving than static.” And Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band kicked off their 2012 shows with the anthemic “We Take Care of Our Own,” which set the stage for all that followed.

The hypnotic “Giving Up Everything,” also from the new album, would have worked better in the lead-off spot, I think. It’s sparse yet powerful – a lead-off home run, to return to the baseball metaphor. It’s both a statement of purpose and, in its way, anthemic.

In any event, by “maggie and milly and molly and may” – Natalie’s mesmerizing take on the e.e. cummings poem (from her 2010 Leave Your Sleep project) – it didn’t much matter. I could see some folks still scratching their heads, confused by their lack of recognition of the song, but, by and large, the audience’s restlessness was fading into rapt attention.

Highlights abounded, including the usual suspects of “Life Is Sweet,” “Break My Heart,” “Wonder,” “These Are Days,” “Carnival” and “Kind & Generous,” which closed the show. Also: the sultry ode to femme fatales, “She-Devil” (from her 2005 Retrospective set); “River,” her heartfelt song about River Phoenix; and two off-the-cuff covers, “Always on My Mind” and “Super Trouper.” (Yes, Willie and Abba in the same set!) And “It’s a Coming” and “Ladybird” both rocked much harder than they do on album – “Ladybird,” especially. Guitarist Gabriel Gordon had a field day on that.

The only downside: the overzealous security personnel, who raced helter-skelter around the theater stopping folks from taking pictures and/or filming songs. It was far more of a nuisance than what, I presume, they were trying to stop – someone holding their phone up to snap a shot or record a video isn’t much of a bother, at least to me, but when a security guy races into a row to tap said someone on the shoulder, as they did more than once, it’s beyond distracting. At one point, during the encores – everyone’s on their feet, dancing (or, in my case, bopping about), a security guy slapped at a woman’s phone while she snapped a picture.

There are worse things in life than not being able to take a picture or record a song, of course. Blogging on blog.com, for instance. The site is slow, riddled with errors and… well, I’ve moved on to here, wordpress.com. (When I’m able, I’ll be transferring my oldgreycat.com domain to here. And springing for a nicer theme.)

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 their Once 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.