live music

First Concert of the 2020s

After more than two years away, I ventured into a super-spreader event.

Sorry, I meant a concert. Damn you, autocorrect!

Trust me, I’ve been to plenty of super-spreaders. Most of them included forty-five hormonal teenagers thinking their masks are supposed to go on their chin, not live music.

Oddly enough, the hormonal teenagers are STILL wearing masks around their chins, even after the mask mandate expired. I guess it’s the new version of wearing conservative clothes when you leave the house then going full goth. Their parents think they’re wearing the masks. But if that’s the case, why not put it in your pocket when you get to school?

Sorry. Concert. Right. A friend of mine texted me on a Monday night, asking if I wanted to go to a concert two days later. Seeing as the ticket said 7:00 show, I thought that sounded like a capital idea. I should be home by, what, 9:30? 10:00 at the latest.

Midnight?!?

Turns out the doors opened at 7:00. And they had this thing called a, what was it, opening band? I guess I’m out of practice.

In addition to getting my sea legs back, this was a band I didn’t know many songs from. I had heard of them, and when I checked YouTube, I recognized a few of the songs, so it’s not like I was totally flying blind. But it turns out there’s a difference between being marginally aware of a band’s songs and knowing (and singing along to) every fucking lyric, which described roughly every other human being in the place. It felt really awkward when the lead singer pointed at us to finish the chorus and all I could do was mouth some bullshit. Reminded me of the Apostle’s Creed back in my Catholic days. Did I miss the week when Catechism covered the Airborne Toxic Event?

That was the name of the band we saw, by the way. The Airborne Toxic Event. With special guest Mondo Cozmo. In case you’ve forgotten, as I clearly had, “special guest” means opening act. That band goes on at 8:00, not the 7:00 printed on the ticket, and the band you’re there to see, or that your friend is dragging you to see, won’t be on for another ninety minutes.

My friend invited me because his son, who was the original owner of the extra ticket, had dutifully cleared a night in June of 2020, not April of 2022. He might have been able to make the makeup date March of 2021, but hat didn’t happen, either. In the intervening two years, he’d dropped out of college, had a kid, and started working construction. He (perhaps wisely) didn’t want to attend a late concert then wake up for work the next day. Instead, his twenty-year-old ass makes the two pushing-fifty guys do the late night thing. What am I missing here? Isn’t that what being twenty is all about? I remember overnight trips to Reno (without a hotel) that ended with me getting home just long enough to shower and head into work with no sleep.

Then again, I didn’t have a toddler till I was forty.

Or maybe April, 2022

The concert was almost pushed off again. The week prior to our show, they had to cancel another thrice-rescheduled show in Southern California because somebody on their bus tested positive. Fortunately, he got the negative test before the Sacramento show.

Are the 2020s maybe not the best time for a band named “The Airborne Toxic Event?” If any new Covid cases are traced back to their concert, the headlines might become confusing.

The venue they were playing was one I’d always been curious to attend, which helped counteract my reluctance to miss sleep. It caters to bands that don’t cater to people my age. Bands with names like Goth After Dark or Dub Stars or Guadalupe Hidalgo. Or Gwar.

Holy shit, Gwar is playing there Memorial Day Weekend! I’m super curious about the clientele at a Gwar show. They were already an obscure joke back in 1990. So it’s got to be a slew of fifty-somethings that never really got the joke. I’m tempted to buy a ticket for crowd watching, but the bastards would probably expect me to sing along with their choruses.

The venue is tiny. And crowded. Hopefully Whitesnake never plays there, because any errant pyrotechnics and we weren’t getting out. As it stood, I couldn’t even leave my spot to grab another beer. I might not make it back. Not that I wanted any more beer, because it would be four hours before I left the confines, and who the hell goes to the bathroom during a concert? I might miss the lyrics.

Wait, are they saying, “Like gasoline”? That’s what it sounded like on maybe the fifth iteration. I guess that’s a cool lyric. I think the line referenced making out when they were seventeen. It rhymes. And, you know, gasoline is explosive. Fire equals passion. Just ask creepy elder statesman Bruce Springsteen and his “Hey little girl, is your daddy home?” Or Whitesnake.

Maybe this band isn’t too bad.

Two people in my close vicinity passed out. We’re all out of practice.

Oddly enough, the pass outs happened not during the concert while people were jumping around, but in between the opening band and the main event. The first lady to pass out was one of the only ones wearing a mask. 

Did I mention super-spreader event? 

Not too surprising. It was stuffy as hell and people were jockeying for position, despite the fact that nobody in the entire venue was more than twenty feet from the stage. And I know we’re only supposed to mock people who claim that it’s harder to breathe while wearing a mask, but I imagine that when five hundred people are jostling around you, the mask can’t be doing wonders. It was hard enough for me to catch a full breath, and my nose and mouth were wide open. Each inhalation contained about 85% body odor. Plus 15% Covid.

Her mask fluxed in and out heavily a couple times, then her eyes fluttered and she did the standard pirouette before being caught by her companion, also wearing a mask. The crowd was nice enough to part to let him pull her out. As long as you’re going away from the stage, you’re golden. Five people moved into the spot she vacated.

I suppose I should thank this particular canary for reminding me I was in a coalmine. After she went down, I remembered to bend my knees more often. Flex those calf muscles! But after four hours of standing in more or less the same spot, my feet still felt like they’d gone 25,000 steps. You know what’s nice about seeing Classic Rockers in arenas and stadiums? Assigned seating!

The second fainter fell a couple minutes before the band came on. His pass-out was the more pedestrian, self-inflicted style. No mask near his mouth, but he did have a beer, and it clearly wasn’t his first. And “near his mouth” was the closest he came. He couldn’t quite find it. When he faceplanted toward the back of the woman’s head, somebody else grabbed him and stood him back up. At first I thought they were together, but second dude might’ve just been a good Samaritan. Drunkie then sways backward, toward said Samaritan.

When security came around, Samaritan held his hand up, signalling toward the drunkard like a plane’s flying over his deserted island for the first time in a decade. Security was already looking for the drunkard, which was impressive because as far as I knew, the guy had just shown up. Maybe they’ve got us all under strict surveillance. We didn’t have to show our vaccination card because they’re already monitoring our biorhythms from the 5g DNA sequencing that Bill Gates put into our bodies!

Sir Sways-a-Lot didn’t put up a fight. I don’t even think he knew they were ushering him away, nor whether he was at a concert in the first place. Security used the “hey buddy” approach instead of “Respect my Authori-TAY!” and dude was easily led toward the back. For good measure, he took one more sip from the IPA while following along. Not so much rebellion as inertia.

Good Samaritan immediately took two steps forward to take the vacated spot.

How was the band? Not sure. You might want to check with someone who knew what they were seeing. They had a viola player. Or maybe it was a violin. Perhaps even a fiddle. When she wasn’t on the strings, she played the keyboard. But then when she was playing violin, other members of the band stopped playing guitar and went over to play the lonely keyboards. By the end of the concert, that thing had more people tickling its ivory than your mom.

The opening act was also impressive. Much like Jethro Tull, I don’t know if Mondo Cosmo was a person or the whole band. Unlike Jethro Tull, nobody named Mondo Cosmo invented a seed drill. The guitar player was great. Drummer, too. But in looking at this guy’s/band’s videos online, it’s clear that, Mondo Cosmo or not, Mondo Cosmo is the only guy who gets camera time. 

He’s pretty hard core. Every bit the Mondo. Seemed way more comfortable on the songs he was jumping around the stage than on the songs he had to sit still and play rhythm guitar. I feel like he’s either going to make it big or flame out very, very hard. I’m rooting for the former.

The drawback of the band was that they had way too much pre-recorded backing tracks. It took me a number of songs to figure out where the hell the bass was coming from. Was he behind the curtain? Was the lead guitar busting out low notes on the thick strings when he wasn’t in solo mode. Once I realized the bass was still going while he was soloing, I realized it was all a ruse. 

Then they did a cover of “Bittersweet Symphony.” I knew for a FACT there was no string section in the three-man band.

Did you know you could jump around the stage and headbang to “Bittersweet Symphony”? Although, as a general rule, you shouldn’t get more into another band’s songs than your own. 

I don’t want to give away too much, because for the first time sine 2019, I can have a year-end concert review. I’ve got tickets bought for at least one more, with potential plans for as many as three more. When it rains, it pours.

I just had to make sure I got that “your mom” joke in before I forgot it.

2020 Virtual Concert Review

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.

Preservation Hall. 

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.

Nathaniel Rateliff. 

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…

Oh, I think I get it now.

My bad.