Wombat’s Annual Concert Review

I’m starting this year with a slightly different retrospective. I have no friggin’ clue what the hell I did over the past twelve months or what I would like to do for the next twelve. I have a three-year old daughter at home, and both her long-term memory and planning are definitely contagious. Also, since I stopped writing for a large portion 2017 (see above: three-year old), there’s no better time to post about what I did last summer. I’m not likely to remember these things much longer.

Wait, was I saying something?

Anyway, last summer, I saw three more old-dude concerts: Mumford and Sons in June, Blues Traveler in July, and Neil Diamond in August. I know technically Mumford and Sons aren’t old dudes, but most of their fans are.

Each act was one I had seen in concert before, so it allows me to put them into a little perspective.

Mumford and Sons: This was my second viewing of Mumford. If you like their music, you should see them in concert. There always seems to be a divide between how people want concerts to sound. Some people want the songs to sound exactly like they do on the album, so they can sing along. Others figure they can listen to the album whenever they want and, for the price of a concert ticket, they want the songs to be distinctively live.

Mumford and Sons seems to split the difference. The first time I saw them, my wife asked what they were like. I said, “They sound exactly like they do on the album, only moreso.” She didn’t understand how that could be, so this time, I took her. After that show, I asked her what she thought. She said, “They sound exactly like they do on the album, only moreso.”

Every harmony, every chord, every mandolin solo, is as close an approximation of the recorded versions as you will find. You can sing along, if you want. Each note will begin exactly where it is supposed to. A couple might go on a skosh longer, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out which ones.

I sang along at parts. How can you NOT join in with thousands of people singing “I really fucked it up this time”?

But really, you don’t want to sing along too much, because you’ll miss the “moreso.”

There are a few things that define Mumford and Sons. The emotion and the drive of their music. I don’t mean the emotion of their lyrics (see below: Blues Traveler). In fact, I have to ignore the very obvious born-again lyrics to “I Will Wait” every time I belt along at the top of my lungs.

But I have to belt it, all the same, because of the emotion of the music. It feels like it’s at a fast tempo, but it’s really not. Maybe mandolins can be strummed faster than guitars? I don’t know. Speaking of things I don’t know, is there a difference between a banjo and a mandolin or is it just based on the genre, like a violin and a fiddle?

Anyway, I have always found Mumford’s music invigorating. Even some of their slower songs seem to push forward rather than lay back. I wasn’t a fan of “Wilder Mind” when it came out, because I worried they were becoming Coldplay, but after a few listens, I realized that there was still a lot going on throughout that album.

All of what makes Mumford is on display when they’re in concert. It’s louder, obviously, but same as with tempo, I don’t think volume alone accounts for their draw. And seeing Marcus Mumford sing the lyrics, which whether I agree with them or not, are very personal to him, adds an extra layer of emotion. I don’t know how he has the voice to sing like that night after night.

Like on the album, but moreso.

I have two slight issues with my two Mumford and Sons concerts. The first time, they played a bunch of songs that they were working on for a future album. I liked them, but they were nowhere to be found when I saw them eight months later. I hope those songs, and a forthcoming album, will be appearing soon.

My other issue is the song “Winter Winds.” It is my favorite Mumford and Sons song. They have not played it either time. A quick perusal of setlists shows that they do not play it very often. Marcus, if you’re reading this, put that bad boy into the rotation.

The venue we saw Mumford and Sons at was pretty cool. It was at “The Joint” (gosh, I wonder what that name is hinting at?), a venue inside the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Fun place, with only a couple of problems for bands with aging fans. It’s general admission, so we all had to stand in line or else we’d have to stand at the back. My wife and I arrived at the casino more than two hours before the concert started. We were going to grab a bite to eat and maybe gamble and drink a bit, but thought we would check the line first, just to be sure.

Holy shit, the line stretched for fifteen miles! Okay, maybe not that long, but in all honesty, the end of the line was in the parking garage. Meaning outside. In Vegas. In June. Yikes. Extra trooper points for my wife, though, who stood there for a half-hour holding our spot while I went in search of the elusive beer.

When they finally let us into the venue, not only was it general admission, but it was standing room only. Twenty years ago, that would’ve had mosh pit written all over it. But this was Mumford and Sons.I’m 43 and I probably lowered the average age by a year or two. So it was basically just a bunch of old people standing around for an hour.

Then for another hour during the absolute douchebag of an opening act. Seriously, he was not talented. And he was kind of an asshole in between songs. At one point he said he was from New York City and there was a smattering of boos. He seemed shocked.

“Who the hell would boo New York City?”

Umm, everybody who isn’t from New York City, dude.

“You guys are just jealous.”

And THAT’S why we all hate douchebags from New York.

But the venue was actually nice. Accoustics were good and you could get as close to the band as you wanted, body space notwithstanding. And I was even able to get a little bit of booze, too.

Holy shit, did I just pay $48 for a margarita and a Jack & Coke?

Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond is also an act I’ve seen once before. Not two years in a row, like Mumford and Sons. I think the first time I saw old Neil, Mumford was still just a son.

My first Neil Diamond concert was a bit of an aberration. I had always wanted to see him, but the price point was too high. Then the city of Stockton was opening a new arena. Stockton is a city in the central valley of California whose main claim to fame is a murder rate that rivals Detroit’s. But they’ve been trying to revitalize the downtown with a brand new minor-league ballpark, single-A but nicer than a number of AAA ballparks I’ve seen, and a 10,000-seat arena for a minor-league hockey team (I’ll be curling there at the end of the month!). Both venues, even a decade later, are beautiful. The downtown still sucks.

When the arena was first opening, they wanted a big name to open it. Last year, when Sacramento opened The  Golden One Center, they brought in Paul McCartney. But Sir Paul wouldn’t be caught dead in Stockton, so their big-namer was Neil Diamond. But there was still a problem, namely that the tickets were still pushing $100 for a city that is notoriously low on the socioeconomic scale. Oh, and it was a septuagenarian playing for a city with less than five percent of its population college-educated.

So Neil Diamond wasn’t selling and the grand opening of the brand new Stockton Arena was barreling toward a quarter-full opening night. The city manager had promised Neil Diamond $1 million to open the arena,  with the city reimbursing whatever ticket sales failed to provide. Except that particular arrangement wasn’t run by the city council. The city manager lost his job over that one. It was bad.

Except it was great for ticket price purposes. With about three days to go until the concert, somebody decided they didn’t want a lackluster opening night, so they lowered prices. All of a sudden it was $25 to see a classic rocker. I was in. Part of the fun of that first concert was trying to deduce who around me had paid full price for the same seats I got for the price of a pizza.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with Neil Diamond that first go around. It felt like he was going through the motions. Maybe he was pissed that half the people in the audience were only seeing him because he cost less than the tank of gas they had used to get to the concert. Maybe he was just performing one of his 150 concerts a year for the 38th year in a row.

The give and take between he and his background singers felt forced and there was virtually no interaction with the audience. His clever lyrics about UB40 stealing “Red, Red Wine”  seemed a little less avant garde twenty years after said cover of said song.

My one takeaway from that first Neil Diamond concert was that he had changed the words of “Desiree” so that the girl was nearly half his age, instead of nearly twice his age. I guess that was funny when he was in his sixties, but now I kinda want him to go back to the original. If, at the age of 77, he’s becoming a man with a 144-year old lady, that’s pretty impressive. Not hot, but impressive!

I’m glad I gave Neil Diamond a second shot, because this year, he put on a really good show. It was at the aforementioned Golden One Center, the new Sacramento arena that Sacramentans said they didn’t need but has already hosted at least ten acts that never would’ve come to Sacramento before. It was Neil Diamond’s 50th anniversary tour, and that might’ve helped him find his love for performing again. Maybe he was able to pick whatever the hell he wanted to sing. He performed a couple of very early songs that have been out of the rotation since “Hot August Nights.”

He played the two sides of the arena off against each other to see who would cheer more, and at one point he turned and sang an entire song directly to the people that were cheering the loudest. I had always heard he was a big showman like this, so maybe I had just seen him on a bad night before. Maybe it was all the fault of those assholes who thought he was only worth a $25 ticket.

Unfortunately, he still played the old, tired, UB40 riff in “Red, Red Wine.” Dude, Neil. It’s been 35 years. Let it go. You don’t reference The Monkees when you sing “I’m a Believer.”

No report back on the age of Desiree this time.

Blues Traveler

I’ve been a huge Blues Traveler for most of my adult life. I listened to them constantly throughout my twenties and a good portion of my thirties. Right up until the time I discovered Mumford and Sons. I joked that if I saw Mumford (my current favorite bad) in June and Traveler (favorite band of my twenties) in July, I couldn’t wait to see the favorite band from my teens in August.

Still waiting for that Beatles reunion tour…

While 2017 marked only my second time seeing Neil Diamond (turned out he was the August concert in question) and Mumford and Sons, I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve seen Blues Traveler. Probably somewhere between ten and twenty.

I’ve seen Blues Traveler opening for Allman Bros Band in arenas. I’ve camped out to see Blues Traveler playing both days at a weekend festival at the Laguna Seca racetrack. I saw Blues Traveler in the wave pool at the Mandalay Bay, maybe the greatest venue ever.

This time, though, didn’t rank quite as high as a pool in Vegas. It was at the California State Fair. The very same venue that has hosted a Taylor Swift cover band. Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the concerts at the State Fair. I plan which day I’ll go to the Fair based on who’s playing. I’ve seen Huey Lewis, Air Supply, Eddie Money, and Weird Al Yancovic there. It’s a standard stopping spot for bands on the Indian Casino circuit.

To say I was upset Blues Traveler had fallen so far would be inaccurate. It’s not like they were ever filling arenas on their own. Nonetheless, I was a bit dismayed. State Fair means has-been, and I don’t know if Blues Traveler ever-was. With some bands, like Air Supply, I’ve enjoyed their current circuit, because they come through town often and I’ve been able to see them repeatedly at Indian Casinos and State Fairs.

Air Supply, by the way, is a great show. You wouldn’t think they shred on their repertoire of ballads, but they do.

But my worry is that the current trajectory of Blues Traveler’s career will not lead to them playing smaller and smaller venues. My worry is that the State Fair might be signalling the end is near. It’s the canary in the mine. At least when Eddie Money plays the Fair, people see him out of 1980s nostalgia. With Blues Traveler, it’s the same fans it’s always been, there are just fewer of them.

As for the concert, it was pretty lackluster. The State Fair usually is. The acoustics aren’t great and they’re competing with the sounds of cows and the Zipper and  deep-fried vomiting. The band sounded good. They’ve been a remarkably consistent band, with pretty much the same lineup their entire career, except for the guitarist’s younger brother joining when the original bassist died. They play very well together.

I still miss Bobby Sheehan, their orginal bassist, though. They’ve never sounded quite the same. The album that came out after he died, “Bridge,” was one of my favorites, but I feel like they had been sliding before that one and have continued after.

John Popper is one of the most underrated lyricists of the last thirty years:

-Unrequited love? check out  “Alone.” “Hopes can always go up, tears can only fall down.”
-Second guessing love? “Girl Inside My Head.”  “How hard will it be if she is nice to me?How bad will it get if I let her get to know me? Should she see the willing dog or should I be a jungle cat? And most of all, my god, how does she make her eyes do that?
-One love away from figuring it all out? “Conquer Me.” “Conquer me/Figure me out and set me free… It’s not my impatience, or perhaps just there I lied/ It’s just I’m feeling invincible, and it has me terrified.”
-General melancholy? “Sweet Pain.” “Well all of my heroes up and died/ Songs and a dream are left for me/ What did them in, not suicide/ Just a lengthy friendship and a dream of how it could be”
-Friend just died? “Pretty Angry.” “And i want to shout from my guitar/ Come out come out wherever you are/ The joke is over open up your eyes/ A heart like yours it never dies.”
-Pissed off at the world? “Whoops” is a great song about environmental damage. Get it? We’re destroying the world. “Whoops!”

And you don’t have to be in a bad mood. “Optimistic Thought,” “Just For Me,” “Sweet Talking Hippie.” But seriously, who wants happy songs?

Of course, I had to go off on Popper’s lyrics, because most people only want to talk about his harmonica skills. And yes, the notes he can blow on that mouth harp are paralleled by nobody. The speed with which he blows, holy crap. You’ve never heard “Devil Went Down to Georgia” until you’ve heard John Popper play the solo on harmonica.

But here’s where I’m going to buck the trend. Popper can’t blow like he used to. The speed of the notes is still there, and I’m not saying he plays wrong notes or anything. But there used to be an intensity to his play that is lacking now.

And I think I know what it is. I’m a horrible, horrible person for saying this, but ever since he lost weight, his harmonica playing has dropped a bit. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, mind you. If he hadn’t lost his weight, he’d probably be dead by now, and a John Popper blowing at seventy percent is better than a John Popper blowing at zero percent.

See if you agree. After watching the above link, check this one out. Look at that gut. And then listen to that harmonica.

I just wish that science could build him a prosthetic gut that he could only pull out when he’s on a harmonica solo. Is that too much to ask?

The concert was free with admission to the State Fair, but you can pay extra to get reserved seating. We were about eight rows back, which was great for the first hour of the concert. Then three warmed-over hippies came to the seats right in front of us. The bastards then proceeded to stand up and do the hippie sway/twirl dance for the rest of the fucking concert. Whether the band was playing or not.

Don’t get me wrong, I expect doped up-hippies, completely unaware of their surroundings, at a Blues Traveler concert, and these three were clearly solid Blues Traveler fans since they bought their tickets before I bought mine. But hey, hippies, (no, over here hippies. I’m the one talking. Why are you looking at… never mind, just read this when you’re sober. Like, maybe when you wake up at noon, and… what? Pot is for sale in California now? You know what? Never mind).

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. Hey, hippies, if you’re that big of Blues Traveler fans that you physically cannot sit down, even when Chan Kinchla’s re-tuning his guitar, then where the fuck were you for the first hour of the concert? Shit or get off the pot, hippies.

In this case, I’d have preferred you to get off the pot.

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