New Orleans

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.

This is 40

I just turned forty.

Thank you, thank you.

Polite golf applause.

And boy, are my arms tired.

Dammit, that’s not the punchline.

Maybe sense of humor is the first thing to go.

Or the ability to write paragraphs longer than one sentence.

Quite a few people have congratulated me on turning forty. They do realize I didn’t actually do anything to get here, right? This wasn’t Cal Ripken taking the mantle from Lou Gehrig. All I did was keep breathing. And this wasn’t even in the age of cholera or “the consumption.”

But I guess I bucked the odds and made it over the hill. Or is forty the top of the hill? When I was younger, forty seemed so much older. Yes, I know that sounds stupid. Wow, your parents were older than you? Welcome to the generation gap.

But I think it goes beyond that. When my parents turned forty, their youngest child was in eighth grade.  Five years later, they were divorced and empty nesters. Hence, forty meant they were on top of the hill and ready to coast down the other side.

By contrast, I am still a relatively newlywed with an infant who will graduate high school when I am fifty-seven. No time to put that cardboard under my butt and let gravity do its work. I’ve still got some climbing to do.

Which is not to say that I am not aging as nature intended. Things like gout and pre-diabetes were as distant as nuptials a decade ago. But I’m about to have a toddler running circles around me, so aging body be damned.

But I’m not here to write about aging with my whopping one week of forty-something wisdom. Instead I am here to talk of parties. Specifically birthday parties, because I’ve had some good ones and some not so good ones. Plus, the next few will likely feature bouncy houses, so indulge me.

A couple of the parties from my youth, twenty-eight and thirty, stick out.

Whoa, grandpa, did you just call thirty your youth?

Watch it, whippersnapper, patience is the first thing to go.

The only time I’ve had that “Holy shit, I’m getting old” feeling was at twenty-eight. For most people, the round numbers hit them, but not me. I think there were a few things going on with twenty-eight. From a generic number standpoint, at twenty-eight, you go from “mid-twenties” to “late twenties.” It also marked the ten-year anniversary of turning eighteen, hence a decade of adulthood. Up to that point, in my mind, I was still in “college aged,” even if I had been out of college for six years.

A more personal issue I had with twenty-eight concerned where I was in my life. I had received my teaching credential earlier that year after a failed first career, but I had not been hired as a teacher yet. With an October birthday, that meant I was still a good eight months away from the teacher hiring process. So I was waiting tables and occasionally subbing in an elongated “lost weekend.”

I’m sure waiting tables while failing to get hired for my second career had nothing to do with my focusing on the whole “late twenties, six years out of college” thing. It wasn’t so much a “mid-life” as a “pre-life” crisis.

So what did I do for said party? Got drunk, got stoned, went to karaoke with a bunch of the drunk potheads that I worked with, hit on and struck out with the cute girl from work, hit on and struck out with her friend, got frustrated, drank and smoked some more, finally learned the words to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (minor accomplishment!), then showed up very hung over for the lunch shift the next day and resolved that I wouldn’t go through the same thing when the Big Three-Oh hit in two years.

I also figured that, two years later and still striking out with pretty much any woman I faced in the batter’s box, my thirtieth birthday could replace my bachelor’s party. Who knew if or when I’d finally have a successful date, much less a full courtship and engagement. If it was forty or fifty, would I be able to have the big blow-out that every guy wants? Strip clubs frown upon men using walkers, right? “Here, missy, a dollar for your G-String. Don’t go spending that all in one place. Now where’d I put my teeth?”

Two years later, I was in a slightly better place. Still waiting tables, but now only to augment the measly second-year teacher salary. Even better, the school district that hired me featured a break between quarters that conveniently landed on my birthday.

So more money, job stability, time off, bachelor party atmosphere, and two years to think about it? New Orleans, baby!  Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Those good times might be the first things to go. Better let ‘em roll while we can.

I had been to New Orleans before – once for Mardi Gras, once for New Years. People were tired of me talking about it so much without experiencing it themselves, so I invited everyone to come along for an extended weekend. To ease the burden, I paid for two hotel rooms. Anyone willing to cram themselves in with three other people could stay for free. I even booked a couple flights for co-workers, because restaurant workers can’t be bothered with complicated stuff like that Inter-webs thingy.

Ten people ended up joining me. It was a mish-mash of people from different aspects of my life. That first, failed career donated a friend or two, the teaching credential program another handful. My cousin and her friend who I had already traveled with to England and Australia, and my mom. Yes, my mom. I mean, she was the only one that had been there thirty years earlier, right?

There have only been two or three times in my life I’ve seen my mom drunk, and my thirtieth birthday was one of them. That by itself would’ve made it a memorable trip. At one point, as I sat looking up Bourbon Street from the balcony of the Tropical Isle, the girls all decided to go to the male strip club and asked my mom if she wanted to come. Her quick response was “Oh,yeah,” before sheepishly turning to me and saying “I mean… if it’s okay with you… it’s your birthday…”

Continuing on the subject of inviting my mohter, one year later, when Huricane Katrina hit six weeks before my thirty-first birthday, the role she played in my thirtieth became more apt. Had she waited a year to have me, we would’ve had a whole bunch of non-refundable deposits to an inaccessible city.

Timing is the first thing to go. No, hold on. That doesn’t even make sense in this context.

We drank plenty (The liver is the first- oh, who am I kidding), but we also did some of the other touristy shit around town, like trudging out to the swamps for a boat tour and following the tourbook walk through the garden district.

We ate at Emeril’s restaurant the night of birthday, and that might have been one of the best dinners I’ve ever had. Not to be confused with Brennan’s the next morning, which is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. It was painful, though, on only two hours of sleep and still stuffed from Emeril’s (and a few drinks) from the night before. But oh, how I had to stuff myself. “No, I’m going to pass on the Bananas Foster. Oh, they cook it right in front of you? It smells so good…”

The Angels were even nice enough to clinch the division on my birthday that year, even if the highlights of that game got me in trouble from one of the girls in the group. After the male revue, she wanted to compare it to female strippers, so she found the boys and took us to a strip club. It had a big screen TV that occupied much more of my attention than the topless girls. Fewer scars and cottage cheese.

Simply put, we had a blast. It more than made up for the twenty-eight debacle.

Since thirty I’ve still had some fun birthdays.  My quarter break still sometimes lands on my birthday, so I still travel, albeit with a smaller entourage. I’ve spent one birthday in Ireland, and one checking out the Smurf Turf at a Boise State game. I even lost one birthday entirely by boarding a plane in Los Angeles the day before, crossing the International Date Line, and landing the day after in Fiji for my Honeymoon. My wife refused to accept that she was now married to a younger man.

Speaking of honeymoon, that bachelor party that my thirtieth was supposed to replace? It ended up happening at the age of thirty-six. It was great, but I was right with my earlier assessment. It was way more low-key than it would have been in my twenties. Sure, we went to Vegas, but we opted for a minor league baseball game over the strip clubs and woke up both mornings more tired than hung over. Nobody was arrested, which is something that happened on a Vegas bachelor party I had been to ten years earlier. The worst shenanigan of the whole weekend was a little short-sheeting.

My wife tried very hard to arrange a big blow-out for my fortieth birthday. She had some very grandiose ideas. One involved a trip to Kentucky for the Bourbon Trail and the South Carolina at Kentucky football game. Ora trip to Tennessee for a Jack Daniels distillery tour and a Titans game. I’m sure there were some other ideas that included whiskey and football. Or beer and baseball. Or wine and hockey. Really, I’m easy.

The problem this time was getting other people to go.  Money wasn’t an issue, as we are all making more money than ten years ago. But getting time off is more difficult at forty than at thirty. At thirty, most of us had jobs that wouldn’t suffer from a few days away. At forty, we have careers that are more difficult to take frivolous days off from.  We also have families now. Spouses and children not only complicate travel plans, but also change the priorities for the days we do get off work.

So instead of big travel plans, we had everyone over to our place for a barbecue. Nothing extravagant, just burgers, but not the fast-food inspired burgers that a thirty year old would like. No, we’re gourmeting this shit up! We wanted to stuff the burgers, but couldn’t decide with what. Bacon, blue cheese, grilled onions, Tabasco, Worcestershire? So we made it “Build Your Own” and put about thirty ingredients out with the raw meat. It went over great, and even better, I didn’t have to spend the whole time cooking. Everyone actually grilled up their own concoctions after putting it together.

Had I attempted this at age thirty, I am sure half the guests would have ended up with salmonella. But at forty we all properly washed hands, cooked burgers to a nice medium, and survived. And half of every couple limited their alcohol intake , so that everyone could get home safely and at a reasonable hour. Back to our families. Back to our careers.

Because irresponsibility, it turns out, is the first thing to go.