Last week I wrote about the two aborted concerts that I hoped to attend in 2020. One was from Billy Joel, a tried-and-true entertainer I saw once before when I was in college. The other was Vampire Weekend, a band I wasn’t even aware of a year ago. For obvious reasons, neither concert happened.
But 2020 wasn’t completely devoid of live music. As long as you were willing to watch it on a screen.
So although I didn’t see the two concerts I intended to see, I did manage to watch two concerts in their entirety. Again, one featured old performers that I’ve already been throwing money at for decades, while the other came from a newish band that I’ve always been curious about seeing live.
I couldn’t make it to New Orleans to watch Vampire Weekend, but at least I could watch a streamed version of a concert for the New Orleans Jazz Preservation Hall. Or maybe it was on PBS. I can’t remember.
Seeing as New Orleans is one of my favorite cities to visit, I’ve watched a few concerts at Preservation Hall. It’s fun to stop in on an afternoon jaunt down Bourbon Street to hear jazz combos similar to my high school jazz band That’s not knock. My high school jazz band was pretty kick-ass. I love me some saxophone, trumpet, and trombone combos. Play me a simplified arrangement of a Count Basie tune, and I’ll happily put off my next hand grenade for twenty minutes or so.
At least I thought it was Preservation Hall I’d frequented on those trips down Bourbon. But now that I looked it up on Google Maps, it might actually be Maison Bourbon, a half-block away from the actual Preservation Hall. Oops.
Regardless, I was happy when they had a benefit concert online, with some really big names. I’m talking Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney. Unfortunately, it was in typical telethon fashion, where they wasted twenty minutes in between each song with interviews and “call in now” and shit. At least I could pause and skip ahead, something my grandparents could’ve only dreamed of back in the Jerry Lewis Labor Day snoozefests.
Those big-name benefit songs had a very, very pre-recorded feel to them. There were a few, like Dave Grohl and Nathaniel Rateliff, who seemed to take it more seriously, picking their jazzier numbers and talking about the importance of either live music or of preserving olde tyme music. Others seemed to send in whatever promo song they had recorded for charity write-offs. I was looking forward to Elvis Costello and was disappointed when he just played some “songs off his newest album,” aka the part of the concert containing the Great Restroom Exodus.
Everybody on the comment box was pining away for McCartney. Where’s Paul? When will Paul be here? Clearly they haven’t sat through proper telethons. It was obvious he was going to be last, and it was obvious to be as non-specifically for Preservation Hall as it gets. He might’ve done “Hey, Jude.” I don’t remember. And he might or might not have looked two decades younger. At least Elvis had the decency to half-ass a newer song so we knew it was recorded this decade.
I ended up liking the actual jazz band, who played an occasional song in between the big acts, better than the names that brought me there in the first place. Even so, I didn’t donate.
I’ll drop some money at Maison Bourbon next time I’m in NOLA and we’ll call it good.
Later in the pandemic, Red Rocks in Colorado did an online fundraising concert, as well. Again, a place I’ve been to and enjoyed. And a band I like, as well. Tune me in.
And this was legitimately live. They were literally playing on the stage in front of an empty Red Rocks Amphitheater. You could switch cameras to watch the rocks instead, something I found myself doing when I went there, too. Although I didn’t have to switch cams then, I only had to pivot my neck.
Nathaniel Rateliff has been on my short list for some time. He wasn’t some unknown to top ten skyrocket like those Vampire Weekend upstarts.
Of course, my first introduction to him was “S.O.B.,” the best drinking song this side of “Tubthumping.” Although neither of those songs should be considered happy drinking song. Maybe thinking enough about booze to want to write a song about it predicates a certain bipolar dependency. But then just when you’re about to commiserate with the artist, right there on the precipice of singing the blues, they bang the door down with a grandiose “fuck it, let’s get blotto.”
With a first song like that, one could understand my hesitation against full-throated bandwagon-jumping. If your initial hit is reminiscent of “Tubthumping,” you’ve gotta worry about being the next Chumbawumba. And how many other Chumbawumba songs have you ever heard? Unfortunately, I’ve heard others, and they need a drink. Holy crap, that’s a bad album.
At least Rateliff seemed to have some musical talent going for him, which was always missing from even the acceptable Chumbawumba song. Something similar could be said about Fun., which you must properly pronounce as “Fun period,” another band with a song that, at first, sounds like a fun (period) song about hanging out with your friends at the bar, something I did the majority of my twenties (and thirties). But on closer listen, it’s closer to a creepy “Every Breath You Take,” with the dude hoping to swoop in on an ex (whom he beat) when she’s drunk at the end of the night. At least Fun. had some good musical talent, but it was all based on something approaching ten-part harmony. Rateliff gets there by himself. With apologies to the Night Sweats.
But still, if you take one look at him, you don’t think rockstar. Or at least not young, eager, carpe-diem rock star. In his first music video, he looked like someone who’s been touring for forty years. Tore up from the floor up. Rode hard and put away wet. Whatever phrase you wanna use, he was no Justin Timberlake.
So somewhat gimmicky song about drinking and looking like he might be dead by the end of the week. I spent most of the last decade on the fringes of fandom. Perhaps appreciation would be the best descriptor. I heard some of his other songs and they all showed promise. What I was waiting for was the staying power. It’s so much easier when the band already has four full albums before I discover them.
Similar to Vampire Weekend, Nathaniel Rateliff’s most recent album (actually his third album, not his second as I originally believed) came out shortly before the pandemic, so I was able to hear the songs as they received copious amounts of radio play. I enjoyed “Baby It’s Alright.” Very bluesy. A ballad. Some vibrato in the voice. Polar opposite of “SOB,” although not really, because you’ve still got the mournful voice, the hurt. There’s a lot lying there underneath the surface. This was no Chumbawumba. This wasn’t even a repeat of Fun. (Am I supposed to put another period if Fun. is at the end of a sentence?).
The final hurdle I needed to pass (aside from buying his albums because that’s what YouTube is for) was to see him live. He definitely seemed to have the vibe of a good live act. I tend to like the acts whose songs are equal parts emotion and talent. Those tend to make the best shows as opposed to, say, a band that’s more concerned with choreography or pyrotechnics. In all honesty, I’m a little worried my current fascination with Vampire Weekend might wane after seeing them live. They seem a wee bit aloof, a sconce “we wrote good songs, so we don’t need to put any emphasis into it. Sing along if you must.”
So the last thing I needed to become a proper Nathaniel Rateliff fan, to finally determine if he’s talent or hack, was to see him live. And if I can see him for free, all the better.
Oops, was I supposed to donate to Red Rocks while watching the free concert?
And yeah, the dude is solid. He feels every song. He emotes. And he’s no slouch on the guitar, either. I could see him being the kind of guy who would play for three or four hours if the crowd and venue allowed it. With “S.O.B.” it’s clear he’s got some inner demons. It feels like the stage is where he exorcizes them, and he’s all too aware of it.
One oddity was that he appeared to be playing through his entire new album, track by track. I tuned in late, so I don’t know if this was explained or if the first half of the concert was some old stuff. So he never played “S.O.B.”
I bet a lot of artists wish they could do that. After all, the new songs are the ones that mean the most to them. It’s our fault that they keep having to bust out “Freebird.” If we aren’t in the crowd then we can go fuck ourselves if we’re only tuning in for his one hit six years ago.
The weirdest part of the whole concert was that he DIDN’T come out for an encore. What the fuck? Were we not cheering loudly enough at our homes thousands of miles away? What do you want us to do? Pay to get you to…
Oh, I think I get it now.