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  • 'There's No Leaving New York' — A Review

    I’ve always wondered why some people follow their favorite bands around the country, catching them at every stop on every tour in every type of venue. Then, about a year ago, I found myself doing the same with Jason Isbell.

    In just over a year, Jill and I have seen Isbell twice at outdoor arenas in Maryland and Virginia, once at a benefit in Washington, D.C., at the Durham Performing Arts Center and at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I firmly believe he’s one of the best songwriters — hell, writers if you check his Twitter account — we have in music today.

    Still, a reasonable person would ask, “Why would you want to drive to New York City to see him again, especially when he’s not the headliner but in a supporting role with a shortened, one-hour set?”

    In a word: nostalgia. (And, if I’m being honest, an opportunity to take photos of one of my favorite artists for the second time.)

    Four years ago, I saw The Replacements on their reunion tour at Forest Hills Stadium, a magical evening that remains my all-time favorite concert, in part because I was able to take my camera inside and capture the night.

    I also found myself intrigued by the venue and its history. Located in a residential section of Queens, the stadium hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 as well as some of the largest acts in music history from 1964-67. Among them: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. It stopped hosting concerts, in part due to the noise in the quiet neighborhood, before reopening for shows in 2013 with a strict 10 p.m. curfew.

    I’ve been looking for a reason to return to Forest Hills since, but nothing caught my eye until I saw Isbell was playing as part of a two-day festival headlined by The National — “There’s No Leaving New York.” My wife was out of town at a work obligation, leaving me with a rare weekend free.

    That coincided with Isbell answering a question on Twitter about his all-time favorite opening verse. “Write you a letter tomorrow. Tonight, I can’t hold a pen,” Isbell responded, quoting from The Replacements’ 1987 classic, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

    I saw it as fate.

    As summer gives way to fall and the outdoor festival season winds down, it felt appropriate that The National — whose reputation as an outstanding live band is without question — would conclude its year-long tour at Forest Hills.

    In a pre-show interview with the blog Brooklyn Vegan, guitarist/keyboard player Aaron Dessner called The National’s October 2017 show at Forest Hills “one of our favorite shows in the history of the band.”

    Dessner, The National’s primary songwriter with lead vocalist Matt Berninger, said after the show they “started talking immediately about finding a way to come back for multiple nights with friends.” He cited the venue’s “incredible legacy” and noted how it manages to feel intimate “even given its size.”

    Cut to this past Saturday. Five groups are on the bill, with Isbell and the 400 Unit — minus his wife, Amanda Shires — performing just before The National.  The first three groups — Adia Victoria, Phoebe Bridges and Cigarettes and Sex — play short sets of 30 to 40 minutes.  Victoria shows range, and Bridges is a devastating songwriter (“Motion Sickness,” from her debut album, is written about Ryan Adams). Cigarettes and Sex belongs in a small, smoky club.

    To most in the audience, Isbell’s songs represent the outlier/musical stretch for the day, making it all the more appropriate that his set stretches from twilight to dark. A few minutes in, the connection becomes clear. While recording 2013’s Southeastern, his first album sober, Isbell said he only wanted to listen to The National when he left the studio.

    Isbell’s song list is short — 55 minutes — and typical for anyone who’s seen him over the past year or two. Ten of the 11 songs are from his last three albums; the Drive-By Truckers era “Never Gonna Change” is bookended by “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires.”

    Still, no matter how many times I see him, I never tire of these songs. Without Shires, who’s touring with her own band right now, the five-member 400 Unit rocks harder and the jams seem longer. “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” gain poignancy in part because she is missing.

    When The National appeared for its 90-plus minute set, they were primed for a much-deserved valedictory lap. Their set focused primarily on Sleep Well Beast, the group's 2017 album. Berninger told the audience he was “too freaked out to have any fun” the last time the The National was at Forest Hills, and more than made up for it on this night. Bridgers, who has been opening for The National on the tour, joined them on stage for two songs, the lovely “I Need My Girl” and “Sorrow.”

    The communal feeling you sometimes get from live music was in true evidence throughout the day, and it showed during the final song of the night, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” as the crowd sang each verse with Berninger conducting from the stage. It reminded me of the night the crowd sang “Can’t Hardly Wait” back to The Replacements, sending shivers down my spine.

    As a music fan/evangelist, I’m happiest when I see friends enjoy the bands I love. Walking to the subway with a close friend (Bernadette Jusinski), who had accompanied me to The Replacements show and bought an $80 ticket on my faith that Isbell would not disappoint, I knew I had another convert.

    “Now that,” she said, “was a good day.”

    To see more photos from the day, go to my Facebook albums  here and here.

  • Music Week: Cowboy Junkies

    I saw the Cowboy Junkies last night at The Birchmere, my third show in five nights (after Lori McKenna and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit) in a personal summer concert series. It was the first time I’ve seen the Canadian-based group in more than two decades and they did not disappoint, playing material from their terrific new album “All That Recknoning” as well as highlights from their 30-plus year career.

    In case you’re not familiar with the band, they became known for “The Trinity Sessions,” a 1988 lo-fi mix of covers (“Sweet Jane,” “Blue Moon: Song for Elvis”) and originals (“Misguided Angel”) that was recorded using one microphone in a Toronto church. Over the past three decades, they’ve developed a steady following of fans who love their ethereal, often haunting sound.

    What makes the Cowboy Junkies fascinating is that they are a mix of family and longtime friends. Margo Timmins, the lead singer, is the sibling of guitarist and principal songwriter Michael, and their brother Peter plays drums. Bass player Alan Anton co-founded the band with Michael Timmins, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird has played with the group since “The Trinity Sessions.”

    It was a great show, with tricky lighting that made it a fun challenge to shoot. To see more photos, go to my Facebook album or to the Americana Highways link here.

  • Music Week: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

    Summer Concert Series Week #2: Jill and I saw Jason Isbell for the fifth time in a year last night at Wolf Trap. Another terrific show, highlighted by an encore of Crosby Stills Nash & Young's "Ohio." We also saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders walking in to the show; two songs later, Isbell played "White Man's World."

    Coincidence? I think not.

    If you're keeping score, we've now seen Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and Durham Performing Arts Center in North Carolina. Both shows featured Amanda Shires, Isbell's wife, on fiddle and background vocals. We saw Isbell and Shires play acoustic at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville as part of the 2017 Artist-in-Residence series and again at a benefit at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C.

    This show did not feature Shires, who is on a tour of her own to promote a new album. (We'll see her at the Birchmere next week.) The dynamic, as a result, was different. Isbell dug more deeply into his catalogue and the show had a harder edge, highlighted by the "Ohio" encore.

  • Music Week: Lori McKenna


    Our personal summer concert series began tonight with the first of three shows I'll see this week. First up was Lori McKenna at City Winery in Washington, D.C., and she proved again why the small stuff in life means so, so much. If you haven't heard her music — chances are you have and don't know it — by all means go have a listen.

    Next up: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Wolf Trap on Tuesday, followed by the Cowboy Junkies on Thursday at The Birchmere.

  • Isbell at Country Music Hall of Fame

    With Jill on another adventure, seeing Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Isbell, one of my favorite performers, was selected as this year's Artist-in-Residence.

  • Two-Show Weekend: Sister Act

    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.

  • A Memorable 4th Weekend

    It's been a memorable Fourth of July weekend, in part because we've been home, a rarity given schedules, conferences, and summer travel. Nick and Conner joined us on Friday and we went to see Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion, then went to the Workhouse Arts Center for their annual Fourth fest and fireworks show.

    Despite my long association with the Workhouse and the Arches Gallery Artists, we've never attended the celebration. To see more photos of the fireworks, go to my Facebook album here.

    Hope you have a happy 4th!

  • Ryan Adams & Amanda Shires

    Last week, while in Salt Lake City, I had an opportunity to see Ryan Adams & The Shining with opener Amanda Shires on tour at the Red Butte Canyon outdoor amphitheatre. The setting just outside the University of Utah campus was beautiful, complete with an almost full moon.

    Adams, one of the most prolific and diverse musicians of the past two decades, has been dipping into his extensive catalogue for the past couple of years. A lovely highlight from the show was his duet with Shires on "Oh My Sweet Carolina."

    Shires, the wife of Jason Isbell (another favorite), has a new CD scheduled for release in mid-September. Nothing has been forthcoming — yet — on Adams' next project.

    For more photos, check out the Performances section of the website or visit my Facebook album here

  • Post-Opening Random Thoughts

    Post-New York randoms a week after Tuck Everlasting opened on Broadway:

    • Master of the Obvious: Well, that was a trip I won’t soon forget.

    • The best part of the trip was getting to spend some quality alone time with my boys. I don’t get to do that enough.

    • The second best part was seeing my son do what he loves, and seeing his siblings happy to be part of the experience. We missed Kate not being there, though.

    • Watching a friend tap dance while Jon Dee Graham played an instrumental in the basement of the Hill Country BBQ was NOT the most surreal part of the trip. Close, but not quite.

    • When people are obviously trying to listen to acoustic music in a small venue, I don’t know why some feel an uncontrollable urge to turn up their inner frat-boy volume to 11.

    • I've was in way too many photos last week and not behind the camera enough. There is something wrong with this picture...

    • Things I thought I'd never say: I agree with John Boener on something. But then he had to bring up Ted Cruz.

    • Riding a bus home is OK until you get stuck in traffic and someone decides to leave the spicy burrito they ate in the bathroom 3 rows back.

    • People are bipolar. Mother Nature is not. Not sure what she is exactly, but that's a different story.

    • NYC tourist tango: 1, 2, 3 ... GAWK! 1, 2, 3 ... GAWK!

    •••••••

    Two more observations, all with accompanying art…

    • If our cats could speak English, they'd say, "See? We told you, this stuff is real..."

    • Kids, this is appropriate... (And yes, my mom did send it to me.)