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  Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 17

Rick Wood's Concert Diary - Vol. 17

6/19/04 City Stages Festival, Birmingham, AL. Nancy and I found a little street space to stand in, among the college-age crowd, maybe 40 yards back from the stage just before My Morning Jacket went on. Their set was much less subtle than their current CD, but the net effect was similar- I was interested and inspired at times and lost and/or bored at others. They did quite a few songs from “It Still Moves”, including “Mahgeetah”, “Dancefloors” and “One Big Holiday”. Lead singer Jim James’ theatrical, sometimes whispered vocals remind me a bit of Ryan Adams and they carry the slower, more dramatic moments that almost always morph into an extended firestorm of dual guitar mayhem, while four of the five band members triumphantly flail their long hair. Their CD is full of subtle layers and textures (tinkling piano, animated horns) and many more quiet vocal moments. But for whatever reason, subtlety had the night off as these guys pounded things out more forcefully; the keyboards could barely be heard over the roar of the guitars. Was this the way they typically rev up their live show or were they playing up to this street-fest crowd who were beginning to amass for Kid Rock’s 11PM set on this stage? At its best, it might be considered articulately arranged arena rock or a thinking man’s bombast. Color me interested, but not a huge fan.

After the set by MMJ, we walked a few blocks over to another stage that was set up facing a huge city park. We found a little spot of grass to sit on, amongst the folks in lawn chairs. There was a color guard on stage as the national anthem was played, preceded by a moment of silence for three Birmingham policemen who were killed in a crackhouse shootout two days ago. Heavy stuff.

But things turned from somber to joyous fairly quickly as Al Green took the stage. All decked out in a stylish white suit and accompanied by a dozen or more musicians, Reverend Al opened with “Amazing Grace”, giving us a welcome re-introduction to his rich, unmistakable voice. Instantly, each audience member was faced with a choice: stay seated and only hear (not see) the show, or stand up/dance/watch Al and band…we chose the latter. The sound of the band (with multiple backup singers and horn players) was sharp and succinct through a better than average P.A.

For his second song, he pulled out the older favorite, “Let’s Get Married”…fairly true to the original recording…from then on, he ran through a marathon of his most well-known material, giving the people (roughly 60/40 black/white) what they came for. “Love And Happiness” and “I’m So Tired Of Being Alone” hit that spot that only Al Green can- that rich falsetto that just makes you passionately believe every word he’s singing. He used 1973’s “Here I Am Baby” as a vehicle for the band to go off in a groove, the horns adding peppy punctuation. There were two or three songs that I didn’t recognize (presumably from his latest CD) that the band treated similarly to the old hits. There wasn’t a song I didn’t enjoy in this set, although a couple of ballads (The Bee Gees’ “How Do You Mend A Broken Heart?” and Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times”) provided breathers in what was otherwise a full-on groove-a-thon. Throughout, Al was very talkative between songs, giving frequent shout-outs to the good folks of Birmingham.

6/25/04 RIP Mike Blake. I knew Mike from back in that zone of time from 1993 to 1997 when Cicero’s basement bar was the epicenter of our little scene; back then, it was not uncommon to go hear bands there four nights a week- everything from well known touring bands to unknown acts to local bands. This was when we were all learning lots about the music of that time and Cicero’s was the place to hear it. Often I would read about some hip, up and coming band and damned if they wouldn’t show up on the Cicero’s schedule within the month. Everybody who worked there (Marla, Mike, Jen, Victor, Doug, Devin, Julie, Jim, Bill, Eve, Maggie, etc.) seemed like family- hell, we saw enough of each other.

Not that I ever really ranked ‘em, but Mike somehow struck me as the coolest, most easy-going of what was a pretty damn cool, easy-going bunch. As I got to be friends with Mike, he would turn me on to the occasional free shot or wave we in to a show for free from time to time. I can remember (although not especially clearly) having fun at the after-hours parties at Mike’s apartment down the street from the bar. It made me feel like I was in with the cool kids at times like these. Fittingly, Mike left town when the basement bar closed.

My friendship with Mike was nowhere near on the level of that of his closest friends. I can’t really say that I knew what made him tick or what his defining experiences/decisions were. So while his close friends have volumes to draw from, I really only have a bunch of scattered “snapshots” of Mike…stuff like:

We used to do crossword puzzles at the end of the bar before the bands went on.

I once saw him hastily “escort” a dude up the stairs in a full-Nelson hold.

He once told me that while hanging around late one night, everyone started kissing each other; he explained, as a matter of fact, that even though he was a total ladies’ man, the best kisser in the bunch was…Devin Baker.

There was this video game at Blueberry Hill that had “Mike Blake” displayed in about half of the all-time high score entries.

I still have the promo photo of Vic Chesnutt that Mike gave me.

Some of this is less about Mike and more about me trying to understand Mike’s death. This is the first time I’ve known anyone who has committed suicide, so in addition to the loss and grief that accompanies losing a friend, there’s the question…why? What kind of demons could this guy who was so cool, fun and friendly possibly have? People have wondered aloud about the breakup of his marriage, a failed plan to open a club in Austin and his health. Whatever the reason, it’s very sad.

The part of the funeral service that actually brought tears to my eyes was when Mike’s father got up and spoke about how it seemed like just yesterday that this skinny kid was running out the door to go play ball with his friends. Being a dad myself, I was shaken by the thought of my son leaving home, growing distant and doing something so tragic and final.

There’s this song by The Red House Painters called “Have You Forgotten?” that can make me sad just about any time…I put it on the other night and it almost overwhelmed me- from the melancholy tone cast by the instrumentation to the obvious title line/question, “Have you forgotten how to love yourself?”.

I don’t know what else to say.

6/29/04 Magnetic Fields, The Pageant. I really like about half of frontman Stephin Merritt’s songs. Given the volume of his output, that accounts for an almost overwhelming amount of material. His melodies are warm and tuneful, some to a degree that they sound like they could be from a Broadway musical (yes, he’s gay) and his lyrics can be anything from humorous to profound to fatalistically wry- often all of the above. On his recordings (under several band names) these songs have been done up as lush ballads, spare country/folk songs and synthesizer-driven techno-pop (my least favorite incarnation).

Fortunately, the band tonight was an actual band (no techno-tweakage) playing an unlikely combination of ukelele (Mr. Merritt), upright piano (Claudia Gonson), banjo and cello. The sound was rich and intimate- probably the best I’ve heard at The Pageant…and the crowd was quiet and attentive in a way that felt more like what you’d expect at the Sheldon. They did almost all of the songs on their most recent CD, “i”- lots of songs that start with that skinny letter: “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin”, “If There’s Such A Thing As Love”, “I Don’t Really Love You Anymore”, “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend” and “I Don’t Believe You” all delivered impressive melodies as well as lyrics that shed new and insightful light on old themes.

Interspersed with the new ones were older favorites: “Reno, Dakota” displayed Claudia’s pure and innocent-sounding voice (over simple, sparse banjo) and “The Book Of Love (is long and boring)” allowed Merritt to apply his somewhat disaffected baritone to amusingly droll lyrics. I was blown away…I didn’t want it to end; all too soon they were announcing the last song of their set, which was my all-time favorite- “Papa Was A Rodeo”…Claudia’s piano drove the whole thing in this arrangement and the poignant plucks (provided by violin? on the CD) were delivered via banjo tonight.

Encore #1 began with the hypnotic country/folk ballad, “All My Little Words”. The line “You tell me that you’re unboyfriendable” is a good example of how Merritt’s love songs can often (not always) be interpreted as hetero or homo, depending how you process what’s being said. Claudia’s backing vocals meshed especially well with Stephin’s on this one. The rest of this encore, as well as encore #2 featured more songs from “i”, including “It’s Only Time” and “I Die”…heavy topics given a lush, romantic yet quirky chamber music treatment.

7/2/04 Jon Dee Graham, Frederick’s. When I showed up tonight, I first went into Fred’s house to say “hi” and return a couple of CDs…I found Mr. Friction giving an introductory demonstration of spoons playing to tonight’s band. They sat transfixed as Fred demonstrated the nuances of digital staccato and knuckular (Fred’s word, not George W’s) staccato. Jon Dee was especially down-to-earth and appreciative of Fred’s hospitality. We spent a few minutes talking about some gig he did at Mississippi Nights years ago.

When I made it over to the bar, I was a bit surprised at how few people were there… 20 or 30 people were on hand as this three piece from Austin (no opening act) started up around 10PM. John Dee has gotten more notice as a writer and singer lately…I had forgotten just what a beast of a guitar player he is. The drummer got quite a bit out of a relatively spare kit and the bass player, a veteran from many noteworthy Austin bands, was impressive as well. There’s a component of Tom Waits in what JDG does, from the pork-pie hat he wears to his gravelly, understated vocal delivery. Their first set featured mostly material from a forthcoming CD. One nice thing about hearing a band in a relatively light crowd is that they tend to be especially grateful to those who do show up. When Roy suggested “Laredo”, they immediately delivered.

The second set drew from older material, including a couple from Jon Dee’s days in The True Believers. “Sleep Enough To Dream” was one of my favorite songs of 1985…they’ve reworked it, using some spooky, syncopated guitar, but it still hit that spot that aches just as it did as a piano ballad. The other TB song they did (another Roy request) was “Lucky Moon”, with its trance-like structure supporting the lyrical name-checking of Midwestern towns going by on an all-night drive. A few other songs he did tonight (in no particular order) were “Airplane”, “Restraining Order Song”, “Blackbox” and “Volver”, the latter was sung in Spanish and borrows liberally from “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” (or vice versa). Being from Austin, it made sense that he dedicated a song to our recently departed friend, Mike Blake. We had a brief conversation/remembrance of Mike after the show.

7/3/04 Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, The Duck Room. Maybe the holiday weekend was to blame, but The Duck Room was about half full tonight. I have seen Roscoe as a member of the Yayhoos as well as in Steve Earle’s backing band in the past few years, but he hasn’t appeared in St. Louis as the main man in ten years or more.

He’s got a new self-released CD out, but he opened with a couple of favorites from his 1988 “Roscoe’s Gang” album- “Girl That I Aint Got” and “Forever Came Today”…the latter is an old favorite of mine, done up tonight a step slower than the original, but equally moving. Another revisited older song was “Judas Kiss”, from Ambel’s days in The Del Lords. Its melody was totally reworked and was much bluesier. I loved the infectious pop melody of the original, but Ambel’s current interpretation is much more in keeping with the bitterness and betrayal depicted in the lyrics. Drawing from his stint in The Yayhoos, he did that slow, pleasantly melodic song that ends each verse with “Baby I love, just leave the fuck alone”…funny stuff.

Roscoe’s strong suit has always been his lead guitar playing. Covers of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” and Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio”, along with his original instrumental “Power Lounger Theme” allowed Ambel and band (b, d & rhythm guitar) to go off a bit. Songs from the new CD that stood out were “Stepside” (a simplistic rocker that Roscoe aptly compared to Neil Young’s “T-Bone”) and a song “given” to him by Steve Earle- “The Usual Time”, a soulful pop song that reminded me of that Motown hit “Pride And Joy”. The encore featured the pretty ballad “You Were Always On My Mind”.

7/9/04 Palookaville, Frederick’s. I showed up in time to hear the last song by The Bottoms Up Blues Gang- guitar, harmonica, and a pretty woman on lead vocals. Pleasant enough- I’ll have to hear more later.

I’ve seen (and described) Palookaville quite a few times, so before I repeat myself, here’s this weird idea I have about beer:

Lots of my friends have a favorite brand that you’ll find them drinking whenever they’re out at a show- for Jim, it’s Bud, for Susan it’s Rolling Rock, Fred- Stag and so on. But I’m kind of a beer chameleon- rather than drink the same brand all over town, I’ve arbitrarily arrived at a different beer that I regularly order at each different venue…so that in addition to each club having its own distinctive atmosphere, a unique flavor, literally, accompanies each place. Not that anyone cares, but based on taste, availability, price and I don’t know what, I have arrived at this assortment of low, mid and high-brow favorites:

The Duck Room….Schlafly Hefeweizen

The Pageant………Blue Moon

Off Broadway……..Corona

The Hi-Pointe……..Schlafly Pale Ale

The Rocket Bar……Old Style

Frederick’s…………Pabst Blue Ribbon

So if this is PBR, this must be Frederick’s… Bob Reuter and band played a mix of old and new songs that pleased the crowd of 25 or 30 people. Kevin (the fiddle player) stood way off to the side facing back at the band, taking it all in, while contributing as well. Jenna bowed her upright bass, adding low-end plucks along the way. Mike’s drums seem to drive things in this more spare setting, while Joey kept the guitar heroics in check, save for the lead on Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny”, which he played standing on the rail dividing the stage from the floor. In addition to now-familiar covers of “Mr. Soul” and “Little Red Book”, they applied their own unique vibe on The Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”- fiddle as the lead instrument.

Bob’s originals are both musically and lyrically memorable; ones that especially stood out tonight were “I Can’t Look Away”, “October Wind”, “Outside Of Your Class” and “Thomas Merten”, all of which capture some aspect of Bob’s experiences- seems like he’s always trying to connect with someone on the other side of some kind of barrier, be it financial, generational or emotional. The encore featured another prime example- “After The Money From Mama Was Gone”. Bob delivers one of those twangy spoken verses in this one, kind like Mick Jagger does on “Far Away Eyes”.




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