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  • Photos & Review: Los Lobos at City Winery

    For the past several years, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Los Lobos have come east to play a series of multiple night residencies at City Winery, the rapidly expanding venue that added Washington, D.C. to its stable in 2018.

    The six-member band arrived in the nation’s Capital on the Friday before Christmas for a two-night stop that followed shows at City Winery locations in Chicago, New York and Boston. Billed as an “Acoustic & Electric Evening,” the show featured different setlists each night as Los Lobos drew from a 45-year catalogue of originals, eclectic covers, and traditional Mexican music.

    The first night started almost an hour late, as the group struggled with technical issues during the soundcheck. The trouble with the monitors made for a harried beginning, as vocalist Cesar Rosas noted after the second song.

    “We’re playing the music we played when we first started out. I hope you like it,” Rosas said, “It’s our first time to play in the venue. I wish I could hear myself.”

    Four of the six members of Los Lobos — Rosas, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Conrad Lozano — have been together since the mid 1970s. The quartet started the acoustic set — called “folk music for the hearing impaired” by Rosas — and were soon joined by saxophone player Steve Berlin and drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez.

    Despite an occasional buzz in the monitors, the sound issues had no effect on the audience. The band quickly found its groove during the electric set, despite limited interaction with the audience. After opening the set with “La Pistola y el Corazon,” Perez offered the beautiful “Saint Behind the Glass” from Kiko, the band’s most acclaimed — yet unjustly overlooked — 1992 album.

    Hidalgo is the band’s de facto lead vocalist, albeit one who also plays accordian, percussion, bass, violin, melodic and banjo, among other instruments. Highlights for me were his versions of “Tin Can Trust,” “Emily,” “The Neighborhood,” and the sublime “Tears of God,” the closer from 1987’s “By the Light of the Moon.”

    Rosas took the lead on “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),”and “Chuco’s Cumbia,” from 2006’s “The Town and the City,” a song cycle that focuses on the immigrant experience in America.

    Los Lobos is one of the few bands whose covers are almost as interesting as the originals. Perez, who leaves the drumkit behind when the band tours, played lead on three — Johnny Thunders’ “Alone in a Crowd” and Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba,”

    Thanks to the movie on Valens’ too-short life, the last two helped the band break to a national audience more than 30 years ago. You can’t help but think they could play La Bamba, especially, in their sleep, but the performance was strong and the audience went along for the ride. Much more interesting was “Alone in the Crowd,” a lesser-known cover that showed Los Lobos’ ability to cross genres without blinking.

    For an evening that started with glitches, all had been forgotten by the time the band ended with an encore of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.”

    Of course, that’s the benefit of being together for more than four decades. What’s remarkable is that Los Lobos shows no signs of decline, even with the core well into their mid 60s. Their voices and playing remain strong. Not fade away, indeed.

  • Photos & Review: Ryan Bingham in Austin

    It’s nice to see Ryan Bingham smile.

    That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.

    On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.

    The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.

    Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.

    The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.

    “It was badass,” Bingham recalled.

    The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.

    Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”

    The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.

    At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.

    The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”

    The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.

    That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.

    That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.

    This story and photos were posted to the Americana Highways  website. You can see more of my photos  here.

  • The Replacements: Timeless Moments

    The first time I tried to see The Replacements, my grandfather died. The second time I tried to see them, almost three years later, my grandmother followed suit. Two years after that, the band broke up.

    Given the seeming effect on my family’s mortality, I chalked it up to a curse, a weird piece of karma that seemed on the fringes of a fate that seemed to have befallen one of the most influential groups of my generation.

    Of all the bands I listen to, and I listen to a lot, The Replacements are the ones that should have made it. They should have been playing to stadiums of 15,000 instead of clubs of 150 and small venues of 1,500.

    On Sept. 19, they played in a stadium — one that held the U.S. Open for more than 50 years and, like the band, is making a comeback of its own as a neighborhood concert venue. Unlike the other times, I was there, despite some hurdles.

    But no one in my family died — thank God. And the show was even better than I imagined.

    ••••••

    Explaining my lifelong affair with music is difficult. As a writer and photographer, I love songwriters who capture life’s little moments and tell complete, visual stories with smart and clever turns of phrase in 2½ to 4 minutes. I greatly admire musicians — especially guitarists, piano players, and a good horn section — whose passion seeps through every chord change, whether you hear them live or in the studio. And, even though I can’t carry a tune, I appreciate singers who can push the limits of their instrument to bring intense feelings of emotion and release to the songs.

    My grandmother, who loved music of all kinds well into her 80s, believed very strongly that the best songs are reflections of their time in a way that's somehow timeless. It’s through this lens that I hear music. How does it relate to a specific era? Does it sound dated, or is does it mean as much today as it did when it was first released?

    I’m not nostalgic for my childhood or, even worse, my teenage years or my early to mid 20s when I hear music. I’m looking for timeless, and for the most part, Paul Westerberg’s songs are just that, just like the cover songs the band plays (some successfully; others not so much).

    I did not become a Replacements fan until "Let it Be," then became obsessed when “Tim,” their major label debut, was released in 1985. At the time I was just really starting to get into contemporary music, having grown up on a steady diet of Elvis and the 50s groups and singers that my father and grandmother loved.

    “Tim” was unpredictable, a mashup of different genres and styles that combined yearning and attitude, disenchantment and hope, anger and heartache, with a sound that ranged from acoustic to punk. You could never tell where the band was going next, but their diversity of styles shaped my tastes in a way that no group has done before or since.

    Like too many of the great ones, The Replacements’ influence was much greater than their reach, with only one song approaching the Billboard Top 50 while they were active. They alternated brilliance with self-destruction, always coming this close to success before imploding on themselves in some way.

    When they broke up in 1991, it felt right at the time, but wrong nonetheless.

    •••••• 

    “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success. Took one step and missed the whole first rung.”

    I followed Westerberg’s career — in part because he was the chief songwriter and lead singer — the closest after the band drifted apart. I read the stories about the demise of Bob Stinson, the original lead guitarist who was fired from the band for erratic behavior and a Keith Richards-like habit (though, sadly, not professional constitution) of ingesting various legal and illegal substances.

    Westerberg stopped touring in 2005 and, despite the reissue of The Replacements’ catalog three years later, stubbornly refused to get the band back together. Chris Mars, the original drummer, became a painter. Tommy Stinson, the teenage bass player, started lucrative gigs with Guns ‘n Roses, among other bands.

    It wasn’t until Slim Dunlap, who replaced Bob Stinson as the lead guitarist, suffered a massive stroke a couple of years ago that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson decided to resurrect the band’s name. They recorded a five-track EP to launch the Songs for Slim project, raised more than $100,000 to help pay for Dunlap's medical care, and — just as important — enjoyed it so much that they decided to play together again.

    The tour — actually a series of one-off concerts at major summer festivals — coincided with my layoff last May. The timing, along with the easy availability of concert tapes that surfaced as mp3s within days after each show, gave me a chance to listen to the group in a way I hadn’t done since the mid 1980s. And ironically, as I approach 50, the lyrics resonated in a way they hadn’t when I was in my 20’s.

    I hoped Westerberg, Stinson, and the replacement Replacements would come our way at some point. When they announced the Forest Hills concert, I had my chance. And, short of family members passing away, I was determined to take it.

    ••••••

    Forest Hills Stadium is located in a residential section of Queens. It hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 and, despite some renovations and the addition of some seating and a permanent stage, remains the same horseshoe-shaped concrete landmark befitting of the quiet neighborhood.

    Concerts were held during the stadium’s heyday, with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Steisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix and others performing there. The venue was reopened to live music last year, with a strict curfew of 10 p.m. to keep the residential peace, and was a perfect place for an outdoor show just before the official start of fall dawned.

    Since taking up photography professionally, I’ve tried to shoot concerts on the now-rare times that I go, partly because of the challenge of live events and in part because I want to capture the groups that I enjoy. The ubiquity of camera phones has made it impossible to police the taking of stills and video, but Forest Hills had a strict policy of no professional cameras.

    I tried to contact the promoter, the band, and the stadium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, I just decided to say to heck with it, take my camera and see what happened. Because Jill couldn’t come due to circumstances at home, I was meeting our friend Bernadette at the venue, so I had some extra time.

    Arriving an hour before the two openers — Deer Tick and The Hold Steady — began, I was promptly stopped by security and told I couldn’t take the camera in. Rather than take the train back to Manhattan where I was staying — there was no parking at the stadium — I managed to convince security to let me in with the camera, but no battery.

    The security guard, a nice guy that I chatted with for a half hour, told me as I left that I could get the battery back if I could somehow manage to swing a press pass. He too had been a photographer and sympathized with my situation.

    Walking in, I looked around the stadium and thought back to all of the events and history that had occurred there. Readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by history, an interest that dates back to my grandmother and dad. I walked over to Guest Promotions and talked to the two women sitting at the table as the sun set, talking to them about the stadium, the musicians that performed there, and my desire to photograph my favorite band. They too were sympathetic, but said they could not give me a press pass.

    Instead, they did me one better, giving me a sticker that allowed me to go to the VIP tent and score free beer and food. I showed it to the security guard, noted my dumb fortune, and he fished the battery out of his pocket.

    “I guess it’s your lucky day.”

    ••••••

    Lucky, indeed. The pass allowed me to walk through the floor area and snap away, although I also wanted to experience the band from my vantage point in the lower bowl (which happened to be close to the VIP tent). When I returned to my bleacher seat off stage left, I had a stack of photos on my SD card and the feeling of finally being close to the band I could have seen almost 30 years before.

    That allowed me to sit back (and stand from time to time) and listen to The Replacements perform their catalogue of should-have-been hits. This time, however, it felt like a valedictory lap as the crowd sang along to a band firing on all cylinders. Song after song, anthem after anthem, I found myself moved during each verse chorus verse.

    I could never be a music critic. I love what I love too much to pick things apart and I dismiss the stuff I don’t like with barely a passing glance. A flubbed lyric here, a missed chord there — it means little to me if emotion and passion are in its place. Watching The Replacements become the rock stars they once ached to be, seeing the faces and hearing sing-along shouting of fans old and new, was more than worth it.

    You could not help but join in, too.

  • My Grandmother, Dad & Elvis

    The story goes something like this…

    In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.

    It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.

    My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.

    “Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”

    The “guy” was Elvis Presley.

    ••••••

    Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.

    I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.

    I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.

    Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.

    In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.

    For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.

    Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.

    Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.

    The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.

    Still, Elvis seemed to top them all. 

    ••••••

    The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.

    The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)

    Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)

    Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.

    To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.

    ••••••

    1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.

    By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.

    The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.

    My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.

    We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her. 

    ••••••

    Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.

    “Elvis is dead.”

    I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.

    Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.

    There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.

    The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.

    The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.

    And that means more than you know. 

    About the Photos:

    Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."

  • Two-Show Weekend: Moorer/Lynne

    I felt somewhat guilty about seeing Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer perform on Sunday night at The Birchmere. My wife and I had just returned from Chicago earlier that afternoon, and we’d seen Green Day just three nights earlier. I’ve been on the road for five of the past six weekends, and the work was piling up. Family members and lifelong friends were dealing with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey, and Texas was — still is — on my mind.

    Little did I know that seeing — and photographing — this sister act would be such a salve for the soul.

    On a short tour to promote “Not Dark Yet,” a stunning and mesmerizing collection that is their first album together, Moorer and Lynne talked about their heritage and the bond they share as sisters. It’s a bond that has been forever cemented despite horrific violence (their father killed their mother, then himself when they were teens), lives on opposite coasts (one in L.A.; the other in New York), and disparate personalities (Lynne, three years older, is the introvert; Moorer just completed a memoir).

    Nashville musician Rick Brantley opened the show, and was joined by Lynne and Moorer for his song “Hurt People,” a beautiful moment that offered the promise of things to come. I spoke briefly with Brantley between the sets, and he said that watching the two sing together will “blow your mind. Their sound will put you in a trance.”

    I’ve seen Moorer live several times, the first time at Joe’s Pub in New York when she was eight-plus months pregnant with her son, John Henry, and then as part of her then-husband Steve Earle’s band. I saw Lynne years ago and have most of her albums in heavy rotation.

    Brantley was right. Together, they were better than I could have imagined. At points, they would glance at each other as only siblings can, wordlessly helping the audience understand their “Sissy” bond.

    Performing all 10 tracks — nine covers and one original — from “Not Dark Yet,” plus songs from each of their catalogues, their voices blended seamlessly as the selections ranged from family staples (Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter) to the unlikely trio of Nick Cave, the Killers, and Nirvana.

    But it was the title track, a Bob Dylan song from his Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind,” and the sole original, “Is It Too Much,” that resonated most strongly. Dylan’s song, one of his best, is both a sad reflection on mortality and a message of hope. “Is It Too Much,” a song about the sisters’ family history, reaches out to others in pain. Sample lyric: “No one else bears this heavy load/Bring it here to my side…Don’t you know you ain’t by yourself/I’m right here to help you lay it down.”

    Appropriately, the sisters donated proceeds from the sales of their T-shirts to victims of Hurricane Harvey, a generous gesture that showed the compassion they have for others in need. The donations are small in the light of the scale of the destruction, but you start somewhere. After all, the message is about uniting in the face of tragedy.

    Postscript: This morning, as the tour moves to Chicago, Moorer posted a childhood photo from a family trip to Texas. Today would have been her mother’s 73rd birthday.

    “The loss of her feels deeper somehow this year — maybe because we're out here singing together and we both miss the third part she would've chomped at the bit to add. Maybe because she would've been so proud of us. Maybe because we know that she IS proud, looking on, and cheering for us,” Moorer writes.

    Moorer then addresses her mother’s death, and her father’s horrifying decision.

    “He and he alone took her beautiful spirit out of this world. He was able to because of two things — she didn't know how to fight back and he had a gun. The most harrowing and frustrating thing about domestic violence is that it wears down a person's spirit in such a way that most women forget they are in charge of their own lives. I wish someone had been able to tell our Mama that hers was worth more than she ended up believing it was.”

    These sisters, now both older than their mother was at the time of her death, honor her memory every time they walk on stage. They certainly did Sunday night.