Growin’ Up and Rushing Down The River Of Life With Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1/29/16 WASHINGTON DC

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 30, 2016 by midliferocker

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By Steve Houk

It’s a rare thing, seeing someone grow up. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see your children, your partner, other relatives, even some close friends, go through the myriad of miraculous changes and trying times that growing older brings. But it is a special and beautiful thing to witness and share.

For many of us, we have been given that unique blessing with Bruce Springsteen. Thirty five years ago, when his fifth album The River was released and I saw him for the first time third row in Hartford in front of Clarence, he was a 30 year-old, wiry, scrappy, mutton-chopped young man still searching for his true path, unknowingly on the precipice of true greatness. And he was using his extraordinary music to find his way, creating stories in his songs that described the pains and triumphs of becoming an adult. We were all growing up too, on our own edge of discovery, finding out who we were going to be, and his music spoke to us, it said to us: be free, exult, laugh and dance, but also be wary of what life will bring, and here’s why. It was like we grabbed his hand and said, hey, take us along with you, we may need help with all of this growing up shit, too.

Three decades later, a beefier yet fit, mature, grown-up Bruce Springsteen took the stage last night to play The River for us again, this time as a 66 year-old man who through his incredibly powerful and passionate music has spent those last 30 plus years telling us his own story about his coming of age. And now, with us also being adults, some of us parents, all of us as older people, who have lived some life by now (oh boy, have we), we are still holding his now rougher, deeply-lined and a tad more craggly hand, and have never been more appreciative of how he has helped us through the hardest, most beautiful, most challenging times in our lives, while also living his. And The River would never be more powerful or meaningful than it was on this night.

With his astonishingly tight even-after-all-these-years band in superb form as the newborn tour revs up to speed, Springsteen cold opened with the rare River sessions track “Meet Me In The City” with full lights up, serving as a “We’re back, and we’re yours” type of welcome. Bruce then paused to tell about how when The River came out, he was still trying to figure out who he was, how he fit in, how “I’d taken notice of things that bond people to their lives. Maybe if I started writing about them, they’d start happening in my own life.” He said he had wanted “to make a big record that sounded like life and would contain fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, politics, sex, good comradeship, love, faith, lonely nights, and of course…tears. So tonight I want you to come along with us as we…go down The River.”

And with that, The E Street Band, led by their ferociously committed bandleader urging the crowd on with the chant of “Let’s hear party noises!” launched into the classic album with a string of rockers that would cover the comradeship element to a tee: “The Ties That Bind,”, the raucous “Sherry Darling,”, the tempting “Jackson Cage” featuring a rare turn by Big Man nephew Jake Clemons on harmonica, and the always joyful Bruce/Steven Van Zandt ode, “Two Hearts.” The wild dancing was full steam ahead by the first note of this opening suite of some of Bruce’s most joyful songs, provoking images of friends and neighbors shaking it deliriously at a backyard party in Jersey on a hot summer night.

Yes, like us, this is an older E Street Band, not that 1980 version, but even though some songs this night may have been a tidge slower than their ’80 predecessors, and Bruce would not be sliding on his knees or sprinting across the stage, there was very little loss of power or glory all night, and it’s clear the band has already hit its stride. Nils Lofgren was in excellent form with his virtuostic playing while Van Zandt filled his sidekick role as good as ever. Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg shined on the deep end, Charlie Giordano was strong on keys, and Clemons continues to wonderfully fill in for his legendary uncle on sax.  And as always, Roy Bittan provided his masterful piano magic. Some die-hards may incorrectly think the talented Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell aren’t necessarily essential, but last night, they helped fill in splendidly on background vocals and in other understated ways, and definitely added an extra element to several songs. There were moments looking across the front of the stage and seeing the five players in line when I thought, yes this works, they are in sync and this newer E Street Band ensemble, although different from the boys’ club of 198o, is a perfect evolutionary piece of this lifelong puzzle.

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With those four party songs over, the lights dimmed. ” ‘Independence Day’ was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons,” Springsteen said quietly. “It’s the kinda song you wrote when you’re young, and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity. You come to realize that they had their own dreams and their own desires, and all you can see is the adult compromises they’ve had to make. When you’re young, you haven’t had to do that yet, all you could feel as a younger person was a desire to escape that world. So I had a simple setting for the song, it was just a conversation between two people futilely trying to understand one another around the kitchen table late at night.” There’s Bruce’s hand we’re holding again, making you think of the times you sat with your father, your mother, wife or husband, son or daughter, around that same table. “Papa go to bed now, it’s getting late,” Bruce sang achingly, “nothing we can say will change anything now, ‘cuz there’s different people living down here now, and they see things in different ways, soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.” When my son Ben went to college two years ago, I put this song on and wept. And I’m sure I’m not alone. And last night, I wept again. But I also took Ben to his first Bruce show ever two years ago at Nationals Park, and it was incredible to share it with him, I cried but they were different tears. So there ya go, the ups downs and facts of life, all with Bruce alongside.

“Here’s another leaving home song,” Springsteen shouted, as the singalong fave “Hungry Heart” kicked off another string of out-of-your-seat songs that really are the centerpiece of the “fun-dancing-laughter” core of the record. “I took a wrong turn and I just kept going” conjures images of Bruce in that hot rod taking that turn and not looking back. But like everybody, like us, always craving love. He would also do his fall backwards into the crowd stunt here and be passed by hands gingerly along and back up on stage. “Out In The Street,” “Crush On You,” a surprisingly strong “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” were next, followed by “I Wanna Marry You,” where he reflected, “I wrote this song as a little daydream, where you’re standing on the corner watching someone who you’re never going to meet walk by, and you imagine a whole life with that person, in thirty seconds. Of course you imagine the easiest kind of love. One without consequences. That’s why it’s a song of youth.” Again, he takes us to a place in our imaginations, and in our real lives, where we’ve all been before.

Things would go very deep for the next two, and among many, this was certainly one of the evening’s most powerful pieces of the show. The stirring, run-back-to-your seat-if-you’re-getting-a-beer, harmonica opening of “The River,” the hauntingly baptismal title cut, began one of Bruce’s most pointed songs about finding out there are consequences to moments of passion and yet you can still find the beauty amidst the dissapointment. In one of the most devastating lyrics he’s ever written, Springsteen and Scialfa sang stirringly in harmony, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is something worse?” Sound familiar? Probably. His falsetto at the end was like a desperate cry from the banks.

Bruce continued this deeply affecting part of the show with another slug-you-in-the-gut look at relationships, “Point Blank.” Opening with the familiar gorgeously grand piano flourish by Bittan, Bruce sings of the ache of lost love and yes, more lives singed by dissapoinment. “I was gonna be your Romeo and you were gonna be my Juliet, but these days you don’t wait on Romeos, you wait on those welfare checks.” This was also a song that because of it’s lyric, “Point blank, they shot you in the back,” was not played at several December 1980 River shows after John Lennon was killed.

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Weinberg’s familiar drum opening signaled another chance to ratchet the party back up as Bruce announced, “Has anybody got my Cadillac?” before “Cadillac Ranch”, Bruce’s slambanging ode to hot rods that featured a scorching fiddle solo from Tyrell, followed by “I’m A Rocker,” before returning to the perils of love with “Fade Away” (featuring one of Van Zandt’s strongest harmonies of the night) as Bruce pleads with his lover not to let their love dissapear.

As the lights lowered once again, Springsteen became thoughtful, pensive. “This is the first song I wrote about men and women. And to ask the question, if you lose your connection, do you lose yourself.” With the gentle strums of the acoustic and Roy’s tinkling piano that Backstreets magazine’s review described  as “a lover’s tears hitting the street at night; lonely, delicate and fragile,” Bruce began the heart-rending strains of “Stolen Car,” which has turned out to be one of the early favorites on this tour. It’s a song that has always made us look long and hard at the love in our life and how important keeping the connection really is. “She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote, when our love was young and bold, she said last night she read those letters, and they made her feel one hundred years old.” There’s that kitchen table we’ve all sat around again, where the deepest things are often said. And there’s Bruce again trying to help us understand the heights and depths of love.

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After stopping at the musical keg for another brew and a dance on the roadhouse romp of “Ramrod” and a beautiful band-all-in version of “Price You Pay,” things would come to an emotional crescendo with two more of Bruce’s most stirring songs ending the River portion of the evening. “Drive All Night” was much anticipated and did not dissapoint, it was in fact magnificent, the best version of the song I have ever heard save the 1980 one, with the aching promise of devotion from one lover to another  slowly building to an utterly stunning intensity yet unseen for this song before, with Bruce in is as fine a voice as he would be all night, or on this song, as he ever has been. Some of his most evocative lyrics — “I wanna drive all night again, just to get you some shoes and to taste your tender charms” — echoed through the sold-out arena, and tears twinkled and streamed down cheeks amidst the faithful. “Don’t cry nowwww, don’t cry nowwwww…” followed by a staggering Jake Clemons solo. I mean, really?

“Wreck On The Highway,” the last song on the record and a fitting way for Bruce to complete the mood and tone of The River as a whole piece, brought people to their figurative knees, with a story about a man — Bruce, you, me — coming upon a crash on a desolate stretch of road one night, and then getting home to his love and treasuring their life amidst the always present spectre of loss. “Sometimes I sit up in the darkness, and I watch my baby as she sleeps, then I climb in bed and I hold her tight, I just lay there awake in the middle of the night, thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway.” As the song ended, Bruce walked to the mike, and said, “And that’s…The River.” Certainly one of the most remarkably emotional sets many there including me had ever seen him do, The River was done total justice and was performed exceptionally well. And above all, once again, Springsteen had our hands held tight, telling us the stories of our life, and his, in his music.

Not slowing down one bit, Springsteen and Company would slam right into a fabulous seven song home stretch that largely he rotates every show this tour, give or take a couple. A fun roll of BITUSA’s “Darlington County” was followed by two major Darkness On The Edge Of Town gems for this ecstatic DC crowd, “Prove It All Night” and then seamlessly into “The Promised Land.” Two more songs that have always made us yearn along with Bruce for hope and redemption, if you just believe. A real nugget from Tunnel Of Love followed, “Tougher Than The Rest” featuring the best moment for Scialfa by far as she and her husband melded voices beautifully across the powerful lyrics and yes, sparking memories of my life when Tunnel came out. “Wrecking Ball” was next and then, speaking of powerful, “The Rising” rose up the foundations, and at least for this fan, you could not help remembering Springsteen’s first show in Washington after 9/11, arguably the most emotional show he has ever played here.  And to end the main sets, perhaps Springsteen’s greatest song, “Thunder Road” was the fitting closer. With lights fully up on the crowd and everyone singing every word at top volume, Springsteen and his band brought the house down with yet another song that in one way another we can all relate to. We’ve all rolled down the windows and let the wind blow back our hair, feeling alive and free, even with the uncertainty of life swirling around us.

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It never seems the E Street Band would have any gas left in that ol’ Cadillac after 2 1/2 hours of playing, but of course Springsteen and Co. returned to the stage for a five song encore, starting with “No Surrender,” a song that no doubt resonated with the large amount of veterans in the audience who Springsteen had acknowledged earlier. With the house lights remaining on, fists were raised and crowd voices finally went hoarse on exuberant versions of “Born To Run,” “Dancing In The Dark,” a well-played “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and finishing the evening, as has been standard so far on the tour, with a lively and wedding-memory-inducing roll of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Even when rolling covers, Bruce is able to help us summon up memories of our past, I mean, who hasn’t gotten a little bit louder now next to the bride and groom? The band would gather front of stage and bow as is customary, bringing t and More edition of this incredible thing that is a Springsteen show to a close.

Of the dozens of Springsteen shows I’ve seen, the sheer emotional power of this rendition of The River was astounding, and affected me and I’m sure many others there very deeply. It took me back to 1980 and that first River show as a teenager on the brink of 20, and also reminded me how much water has flowed down my own river of life since. And other moments last night outside of The River made me remember other points in his career when, as he was writing about life and love and happiness and despair and how to best try to endure it all, we were all experiencing it too, and learning and listening and trying and failing and trying again, with his voice in our heads and in our hearts.

As last night becomes a treasured memory, I still have Bruce Springsteen’s hand in mine, as others do, and we will continue to as long as he will allow us to go along on this incredible journey of life, both his and ours. We’ve grown up with him, and hopefully there’s still a long river of life ahead for all of us. And as long as we’re all breathing air, Bruce will be there to ride the rapids of life’s river with us.

 

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TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 29, 2016 by midliferocker

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By Steve Houk

I remember that it was snowing. Big puffy flakes that we were catching on our tongues as we giddily skipped down the streets of Hartford towards the Civic Center. It was Dec 12 1980, three days after John Lennon was shot, we were all 19 or 20, in the prime of our young lives. It was even our friend Linda’s 20th birthday, and in a stunning reminder how much time has passed, she passed away just last month.

But on that cold and wintry night in 1980, we were beside-ourselves ecstatic to be on our way to see Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band on a stop during the tour to support his latest album, The River, his much anticipated follow up to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. For many in our posse, it would be our first time at a full length Bruce show, a couple of us had seen him do his six or seven song set at the No Nukes Benefit a year before at MSG, but this was our first foray into a no holds barred full on Springsteen show. And it was a show that for some of us would end up being the greatest concert of our lives. And tonight, Bruce will be up there again, playing the entire River record, almost four decades after we first saw him.

Why was this concert that took place over 35 years ago so memorable, so profound, so unforgettable? Because it was way more than a concert, as most Springsteen shows are. This show was an experience, almost like a Broadway show, where we were taken on a journey, an adventure, an odyssey. We were brought to the highest heights and also down to some low lows, it’s a story, a tale, rather than a list of songs that a band plays and then they’re done. It was a revival meeting, a therapy session, a short story, a love song, a party crasher, a psalm, a hymn, a raging rocker. All of those things in one 3 hour and 45 minute expression of the sheer joy of rock and roll. Seeing Bruce for the first time was an utter mindblower. In subsequent Springsteen shows that I have seen, which were all spectacular in their own ways, you knew what to expect. He’d still find ways to surprise you, but you knew what you were in for. At this show in Hartford, we had yet to experience him, and so to sit there and see this relatively scrawny, mutton chopped Jersey Devil blow our minds ten ways from Sunday was an incomparably exhilarating feeling.

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For Bruce, The River was another vitally important chapter in his growth as an artist, and as a man. On Born To Run, Bruce took Wendy from the front porch to his front seat in a desperate attempt to escape the hopelessness of youth. On Darkness, he started peering into the reality of life and his need to find the promised land and escape the badlands became even more urgent, but he was still figuring it out, all as he kept racing in the street.

But on The River, responsibility and commitment have arrived and taken center stage, and amidst the hungry hearts, Sherry darlings and ramrods are strewn the stolen cars, wrecks on the highway and deep rivers of stark reality where beneath the surface of hot cars and hot girls flow the deep challenges of marriage, parenthood and work. On “Independence Day,” among the most deeply personal songs Springsteen has ever written, he makes no bones about telling his father that he’s a man now, he’s leaving to make his own way, because he knows one thing for sure: “They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched ’em do to you.”

And it was at this very moment, a critical time when we were all figuring out who we were too, that we were first given Bruce. A man standing tall and proud but also wary and troubled, on the edge of true adulthood, and huge superstardom, giving every single solitary ounce of his heart and soul for almost four hours, leaving us to walk into the snowy 1980 night deliriously happy, mouths still agape at what we had witnessed, and ecstatic we had found him.

And tonight, when the lights go out at Verizon Center, and we all take another dive into The River, we are no longer 18 or 19, like Bruce we now also have families, we have responsibilities, we have commitments and yes, we have struggles and challenges all these years later. And thankfully we still have Bruce, who tonight will take us back to that snowy Connecticut night when our rock and roll lives changed forever, and then ecstatically take us up into the stratosphere before letting us out in the streets once again to ponder what we just saw.

Take me to The River. Wash me down.

 

 

 

GRACE POTTER: THE ONGOING JOURNEY of the COSMIC BOOGIE QUEEN

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 10, 2016 by midliferocker

Grace Potter's new album, Midnight, comes out August 1

One of music’s most dynamic performers talks honestly about following her muse no matter what the risk.

By Steve Houk

 

Oh, to be a Grace Potter fan these days. Boring is not a word that comes to mind.

Euphoric. Rapturous. Enchanted. Those words do come to mind when you describe how the legion of devoted followers of the 32 year-old gorgeous tornado of a musician largely feel about their girl. Forget Taylor, Adele, Beyonce, Gaga…their glittery glorious Grace is da bomb, and they are as passionate and adoring as any fan base community in music right now. 

“Going to a Grace Potter concert is so much more than two and half hours of the best live music out right now…it’s an experience,” gushes Jessica Bohn, who is traveling all the way from Buffalo to see Potter in DC for all three of her 9:30 Club shows in late January. All in all, she’s seen Potter dozens of times. “I’ve made so many friends, some I consider family, following this band on tour. That’s what keeps me going to show after show after show, it’s like you’re in another world, euphoria takes over. And my mom raised me on Clapton, Zeppelin, Petty, The Stones, and Fleetwood Mac, to me, Grace is all of them combined and more.”

But along with adoration can come frustration, it’s just part of the deal, part of the ongoing relationship between fans and their idols. In Potter’s case, many like Bohn love her no matter what, but for some, the current aire of frustration is two-fold.

For one, there’s a buzz on social media about why she isn’t a bigger star, how she’s got the perfect combo of looks, talent, songwriting chops, plays both guitar and keys, so why isn’t she huge by now? Well for one, rock is way harder to sell to the masses than pop, and up to now Grace has been a rarity: a female rock and roller. But hey, singing the national anthem on NFL’s opening night on national TV, wailing on “Gimme Shelter” with Mick on the Stones current tour, performing for troops in Qatar this month alongside Michelle Obama and Conan, those kinds of high profile appearances inn 2015 aren’t anything to scoff at. And along with a solid bank of work in the past and present, it’s clear that her big star is continuing to grow.

But on another level, some fans are grappling hard with why she decided to put her killer rock band The Nocturnals on the shelf for now, veering away from her rock and roll sound to a more pop direction — “what I’m going for is this kind of cosmic boogie thing” — at least for the time being. One comment posted recently was, “I hope she gets back to her roots.”

For Potter, it’s all part of her ongoing growth as a musician, her wanting to test different waters to see how the chips fall. She has no regrets about the tack she’s taking, and is relieved to see that many core fans have come along for the ride, a ride that includes her latest effort, the soulful power pop gem, Midnight. 

“It’s been one of the greatest gifts of my experience, especially in going solo and really making this shift, to see and experience the fans in a very new way,” the sincere and affable Potter told me from her home in her beloved Vermont, where she was “tucked in, sitting in front of the fire, got a cup of coffee, got my sweat pants on,” all as she enjoyed a holiday rest before resuming her always fierce tour schedule. “To realize that all that devotion wasn’t just because they liked to come and get drunk and listen to a rock band. There are some really genuine connections being made, I feel really connected to my fan base, never moreso than with this solo record.”

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Grace Evelyn Potter has worked very hard to cement her career into a viable, successful one, so after thirteen years of heavy touring, four solid records (five if you count her very first solo album), and an ecstatic following, Potter decided to listen to her heart and record a different kind of album. Basically, like others before her, she wanted try on a new sound and see how it fit. And when she first sent the Midnight demos to her cherished Nocturnals as is SOP, the silence was deafening. But after a couple worried weeks, she understood why.

“It was kinda hilarious,” Potter said in her contagiously exuberant way. “I sent out the demos and then a week went by and I’m like, I’m not hearing back from anybody, this is strange. And then two weeks went by, still radio silence. I’m like, OK, listen guys, we have to get in the studio in five days and I haven’t heard from anybody, what the f–k is going on? I think that was the moment I realized, it’s not that they weren’t being supportive, it’s just that they didn’t have anything to contribute. The work was done. The thought was complete. I had what I wanted and they knew it. They knew that this was not a Nocturnals record that they had been hoping to make. Especially after 13 years of being used to having me hand them music that is literally built and catered to everybody having a part, a working part to play. So it definitely was a shift, but I feel like it was an important shift for me personally. And it was really hard to do that, because I did feel like I was taking things away from people that I really cared about.”

Grace Potter live on tour in 2015 (photo courtesy Jessica Bohn)

Grace Potter live on tour in 2015 (photo courtesy Jessica Bohn)

Clearly the absence of more involvement from her bandmates, which include husband Matt Burr on drums, still weighs on Potter. “I always write with a very specific intent to make sure that everybody feels included, make sure that there’s parts for everyone. I’ll write guitar solos and I’ll write drum parts and I’ll write bass lines, and make sure that everyone has their moment, you know? That’s kinda just the way I am as a person, too. Like if I’m throwing a dinner party, or sitting in a taxicab, I like to engage people, I like to make them all feel they’re valued and important to me. So yeah, this was hard.”

And along with her band, she fully realizes taking a chance on a new direction was taking a chance with her fans too, that some wouldn’t be too happy about where she was going. Her large Facebook following is rife with some fans lauding the new record while others wish she’d stay rocking and not dwell into poppier waters.

“It’s hard to find your footing in a new context when you know it’s gonna bum people out,” Potter said candidly. “And that there’s a chance that you’re gonna lose. But one of the most exciting and interesting things about this shift have been people coming up to me…one fan kind of whispered it under his breath, he’s like, ‘This is my favorite record you’ve ever made, I listen to it all the time, it’s just so listenable I just can’t help myself!’ Like it was this guilty pleasure, like he was sorry, and that I’m gonna get mad and say something like, ‘Speaking from the Nocturnals man, that is f—ed up! (laughs)’ But it probably is the most challenging thing to do to your fans, to make a shift because you’re being true to your heart, to take a risk and not even know if it’s the only thing you wanna do, but it’s something you’re trying. And to really risk the possibility of losing fans. So that experience of kind of connecting with the fans that feel the most devoted, even when they feel betrayed and they’re angry and they’re sad and they’re scared and they’re like, ‘God what happened to our little Gracie Potter?!,’ all that is part of the experience of being human. It’s really amazing.”

But regardless of the challenges of trying a new direction, Potter remains confident that it was a path she simply had to follow, that there was no choice but to take the risk.

“I was very much surrendering to the muse with this one,” Potter reflected. “And I didn’t try to please anyone else, I just tried to please myself. It was the first time I’ve ever done that as a songwriter, where I’ve really just chased down the idea that I had in my head, regardless of the parameters. There’ve been alot of times where I want to have it sound like a cohesive community of people making music. This time around, I didn’t feel that urge. I felt the muse was pulling me into much more specific place. And that was towards complex, hooky melodies. Really straight ahead but awesome, bouncy beats. And just the feeling of fun, and the feeling of an effervescent, bouyant singer. Really just building framework for me to sing to. I don’t think I had ever done that for myself, or allowed myself to go there. So that really was the big shift for this record.”

 

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Potter scoffs at the notion that somehow she is going to become a different kind of artist by experimenting with her sound. To her, there’s no doubt she will always be the same rockin’ Grace Potter that fans have come to know and love, and after talking to her for only just half an hour, you can feel that this dynamo will never stray too far from her rock and roll soul.

“You know what, you get it. But a few interviewers, you know, when they first heard that I was going solo, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be like you with a piano onstage?’ And I’m like, wait, WHAT? Do you know me at all? Have you ever seen one of my shows? This is Grace Potter and the Nocturnals by the way, there’s a reason my name was in front of the band, I’m a f—ing piece of work, I’m a force of nature, I’m a hot mess, I’m a Tasmanian Devil and you can’t contain me. So I’m not sure what part of that is gonna change as a human being from one year to another.”

For most of us, when it all comes down to it, we need to be true to ourselves first. That’s why Grace Potter is so excited about her time spent burning the Midnight oil, because it feels right to her, it’s exactly what she wanted to accomplish, even if it means taking a big chance.

“I’m obviously proud of it, I’m obviously thrilled. But I don’t really care if people like it or not, I love it, you know? See, I’m comfortable in my own skin, I’m very comfortable as a singer and performer. Yet there were some very uncomfortable moments this year just trying to get my head around exactly what I was trying to do. But once I did that, all the other shit is gonna find it’s way. In the end, I can’t tell people how to feel. All I can do is be super honest, and real, and make the best music I possibly can. And I just know there’s something going on right now that has never happened before. It’s really powerful.”

(Black and white photo of Grace Potter courtesy Jessica Bohn)

Grace Potter’s three shows January 21-23 at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St, NW Washington, D.C. 20001, are sold out.  For her website, click here

 

 

 

 

 

NEW YEAR RISING: Ringing In 2016 With Rising Appalachia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by midliferocker

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One of America’s most unique bands plays a triumphant first New Year’s Eve gig to a revved-up crowd of dozens of couples (and one solo writer) in Charlottesville.

By Steve Houk 

When I got word that folk/world/roots music force-of-nature Rising Appalachia would be playing the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville on New Year’s Eve, I thought, hey cool, maybe I don’t have to spend New Year’s Eve alone (my wife’s in Florida dealing with some extended family health issues) and could work out covering the show. Plus this could be a really special thing. I mean, even more special than a normal RA show, which is saying a lot. So I put the wheels in motion, and set up the trip.

I’d been a fan of the band ever since I interviewed charismatic co-lead-sister Leah Song a few months back when the band released their excellent Wider Circles record, and was captivated not only by their brilliant and mesmerizing music and presentation, but their whole additional sincere vibe of activism and a sense of real community with the people they play for. So speaking with Leah a week or two before the New Year’s Eve gig, you could sense a palpable aire of anticipation and excitement for this show, which would be the band’s first-ever New Year’s Eve gig. “We’ve never done a show on New Year’s Eve,” Leah told me. “We’ve always kind of kept to ourselves. But it’s a beautiful theater, and it is kind of central to so many of our friends and family. We thought it’d be a good place to try it out.”

And a really special night it was, in many ways, for band and packed house alike.

Beginning with an intimate pre-show party at local Charlottesville music venue The Southern for people who dropped some extra coin on VIP tickets, you could tell from the get-go that this was going to be a uniwue and different experience for Rising Appalachia. Coming off an exhausting, exhilarating year where they saw their fan base and following grow exponentially, the band was looking forward to a few weeks of rest before heading back out on the road, so New Year’s Eve was a perfect way to send an incredible year packing, and ring in a new one full of promise and possibility, all before hibernation begins. And to start the evening off like they did provided a great way for the four core members of the band – Song, sister Chloe Smith, guitarist/bassist David Brown and percussionist Biko Casini – to touch and feel their core audience before the hullabaloo of the main event. Before mingling with fans, the band even played a short, playful set in the venue’s music hall, which concluded with a spontaneous and endearing waltz between Song and her sister.

“The intimacy of our ‘speakeasy VIP session’ was a real treat,” Song told me a couple of days after the NYE show. “Simultaneously mysterious, acoustic and personal, it is a rare treat that we get to be so playful and unrehearsed with a live audience, let alone so close up with everyone. It felt like a really special synergy between our crew and the audience there to share with us.”

Leah Song dips sister Chloe Smith at the VIP party before the main event

Leah Song dips sister Chloe Smith at the VIP party before the main event

After making the rounds and genuinely seeming to enjoy the interaction with their fans, the band ambled over to the Jefferson to prep for their set, and around 8, the evening began with longtime band friend Theresa Davis, who calls herself an “Educator/Author/Poet/Artist/Pirate” serving as host and in-between-sets entertainment with her powerful edgy poetry about everything from reproductive rights (“Stay AWAY from MY vagina!”) to the poignancy and humor of her son’s first forays into love. Davis was well-suited to this role, providing laughs and thought provoking ruminations as gear was swapped out and bands got ready for their sets.

Elby Brass Quintet

Elby Brass Quintet

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Birds of Chicago

First up was Fredericksburg’s wildly energetic brass ensemble Elby Brass Quintet, who romped through a short set of boistrous tunes that blended a traditional brass band feel with a contemporary flair. Ending with a raucous cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” Elby Brass got the party started, all as the hundreds in attendance began to file in. After another provocative poetry slam by Davis, Birds of Chicago was up next and led by husband and wife JT Nero and Allison Russell provided a great set of well-crafted singer/songwriteresque songs and talented playing. It was the popular Chicago band’s first gig in Charlottesville, and judging by the general response, they will certainly return. Next up to get the proper vibe really going in Rising Appalachia’s direction was exceptional Burkina Faso musician Arouna Diarra, who started RA’s recent tour as a warmup act and has since become a contributor during RA’s main sets. Accompanied by RA’s Casini on percussion, Diarra set the mood perfectly with an exquisite handling of a variety of indigenous instruments native to his homeland.

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Chloe Smith

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Leah Song

Around 11pm, Leah, Chloe and David bounded on stage to join Biko and Arouna, and Rising Appalachia had finally and gloriously arrived for their maiden New Year’s Eve voyage. And a wondrous journey it was, as the band fed off the electric and anticipatory ambience in the packed theater, and amidst a stunning new lighting motif and assorted musicians and characters joining them here and there onstage, played an enthusiastic and dynamic set of enthralling music from their impressive songbook of music that combined hill country folk with world music rhythms and also a sound all their own. The mood onstage seemed buoyant and lively as the four core members of this unique and memorable band worked in sync and played their hearts out throughout their set. “We were all really pleased with the flow of the evening, ” Song continued. “All of the artists over the night helped create such a laid back but celebratory vibe, so the stage felt well seasoned once we stepped to it. And the lighting was absolutely brilliant, and catered so well to our sound.”

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Biko Casini (L) jams with Leah Song

As midnight approached and champagne was poured in anticipation of ushering in 2016, I teetered on the fence between journalist and fan as I had all night, and then gave in, dancing amidst the throngs as the band counted down from “10” until the clock struck 12 (or thereabouts) when an avalanche of silver balloons and confetti covered the crowd as the band rang through the thoroughly appropriate new beginning strains of “Wider Circles”which calls out for expanding your horizons, your own “circle.” Joining them on stage as the popping of said balloons and New Year’s revelry exploded were three large puppet-headed dancers and other performers, making this particular stroke of a New Year’s midnight quite different from any I’ve ever experienced.

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Chloe, David Brown and Leah

“We had a blast figuring out how to fit a countdown organically into our set,” Song said with a characteristic sparkle. “We called it ‘an analog countdown’ and apparently we were actually only about 3 seconds off!  So, I would say across the board it was a joy to bring in the New Years steeped in our own artistic pursuits. We look forward to that being a blueprint for many years to come!”

So the evening started and finished without a date, but amidst the throngs at the Jefferson, I was certainly not alone, especially as far as the infusion into my heart and soul of the incredible enriching experience that is Rising Appalachia and Friends. Get some rest, band…you’re gonna need it.

(All concert photographs by Steve Houk)

RISING APPALACHIA: KEEPIN’ UP THE REVOLUTION

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by midliferocker
Rising Appalachia (L-R, Biko Casini, David Brown, Leah Song, Chloe Smith) play the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville on New Year's Eve (photo courtesy RA)

Rising Appalachia (L-R, Biko Casini, David Brown, Leah Song, Chloe Smith) play the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville on New Year’s Eve (photo courtesy Honk Honk Beep Beep Photography)

The phenomenon that is Rising Appalachia sets its sights on the future. 

By Steve Houk

It’s hard to believe, but the soaring caravan of righteously cool troubadours that comprises a Rising Appalachia tour has finally pulled into the driveway, and turned off the engine. Home again home again, jiggety jig. Deep breaths and catching up on sleep await.

Aside from what’s sure to be their very special first-ever New Year’s Eve show at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, the exceptional folkrootsworldmusicactivism experience that is Rising Appalachia is taking a much-needed respite after unquestionably the most profound period in their collective lives. After ringing in the new year, they will rest, rejuvenate and reboot as they continue their incredible ride.

So what has 2015 meant to the world of Rising Appalachia?

“It’s been a big year,” a weary but still sparkling Leah Song — who along with sister Chloe Smith, percussionist Biko Casini and guitarist David Brown comprise the multi-instrumentalist inhabitants of this astounding ten-year old ensemble — told me from the road. “We’ve definitely taken lots of risks, and done a bunch of experimenting. So there’s been a kind of growing curve. But we’re tired, and we’re ready for some time off. After New Years Eve, we’re done until spring, we take the winters off. But everybody’s good.”

This is not your average band, not by a long shot. If you’ve ever heard their breathtaking music or seen their mesmerizing show live, you know that the swirling, whirling, earthy, musically rich sounds that come out of the myriad of instruments they play, paired with the sisters’ stunning vocals, is an unforgettable fusion of world, folk, roots and soul that sticks with you long after your first listen. And along with a socially active, ever-growing fan base and rising popularity, another change the band experienced is the exciting discovery of a unique new collaborator during this past tour.

“The most obvious shift that we’ve taken recently is we’ve brought on a new opening act, Arouna Diarra, and we’ve integrated him, his musicianship, into our set,” Song said glowingly. “Really we thought he’d be an opening act, but it’s really become such a beautiful, integrated part of our sound. We’ve had a wonderful time with him, he plays all of the music from Burkina Faso, he plays the n’goni and kora and xylophone and talking drums, so it’s been really really cool to have his sound, and we kind of keep bringing him into more and more of our songs. He’s an amazing, hundred generation musician from all different walks of his family life.”

But Rising Appalachia does more than just play moving, enthralling music, they also have what Song calls “an incredibly bad-ass community of activists, educators and artists” that wrap themselves around their shows and are a critical part of their mission to foster awareness about social, economic and environmental justice and injustice. This community is part of their voice, part of what makes them the special entity they are. So has their burgeoning fame affected what they are trying to do out there, as in make a tangible impact when they come to town and be more than just a pop-in-and-pop-out touring band?

“I would say it hasn’t affected the mission yet,” Song said. “Fame can be a really derailing thing, it can be very, very unstabilizing. But I would say we’re still quite a far mark away from the kind of fame that starts deteriorating people’s sanity. Now, if we start getting our music played at the Mall of Georgia or something, then that could all change (laughs). But it’s all currently still in these powerful underground enclaves. We also all have really good families at home that continue to remind us that we are not actually famous in their eyes, at all. And that we better do the dishes.”

So after New Years Eve and a long-awaited winter’s rest, what does 2016 hold for Rising Appalachia? Leah and her bandmates have, and will continue to, set some clear goals to strive for, which includes trying to adhere even more to the concept of their Slow Music Movement, which promotes sustainable touring practices and immerses them more in the communities they visit.

“We’re definitely hoping to kind of scale down our tour schedule and create a model where we’re playing less shows but in the higher calibers. So really to take that Slow Music Movement model to action, and see if we can sculpt our travels in a way that feels a little bit more organized towards being in the communities that want to see and touch in on. And also to reach broader as well, there’s talk of a European tour, and we’re very very much hoping to get into Alaska, also up into a little more of the Canadian folk festival community.”

Chloe Smith and Leah Song of Rising Appalachia (photo courtesy Envision)

Chloe Smith and Leah Song of Rising Appalachia (photo courtesy Envision)

So why Charlottesville for their first ever-New Years Eve gig and not a bit closer to home? “They kinda picked us, I think they wanted to do a show, and we’ve never done a show on New Year’s Eve, we’ve always kind of kept to ourselves. But it’s a beautiful theater and it is kind of central to so many of our friends and family. Close to DC, close to North Carolina, in the mountains, but still kind of a small town, so it won’t get too wild and crazy. We thought it’d be a good place to try it out.”

The beautiful sunset-filled technicolor sky seems like the limit for the multifaceted organism that is Rising Appalachia. And Leah is keenly aware of how special the people who come see them and become part of their world really are.

“As far as who shows up, it’s pretty awesome. We’d like to but will never mathematically be able to connect with everybody that shows up at a show, but it all continues to be really inspiring. Filled up with such a rich diversity of people. It’s all good. ”

Rising Appalachia with special guests Birds of Chicago, Elby Brass and host Theresa Davis perform at 8:30pm on December 31st at Jefferson Theater, 110 E Main St, Charlottesville, VA 22902. For tickets, click here

 

 

 

 

 

NRBQ’S TERRY ADAMS: MONK-Y MAN

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2015 by midliferocker

(photo courtesy Danid Yandell)

NRBQ’s founder brings his lifelong passion for a legend even more into focus.

By Steve Houk

Even as a kid, NRBQ founding member and piano man Terry Adams knew what he liked: music. And there was one particular musician that he felt a true kinship with, a kinship that would last a lifetime. And it got serious with a birthday request.

“When I first heard Monk, I guess when I was about 14, it immediately made sense to me,” Adams told me from Vermont during a break on NRBQ’s current tour. “At 15, my Dad asked me, ‘What would you like for your birthday? Let’s go see a baseball game,’ or something. I said I didn’t care about professional sports, and he said, ‘Well, where would you like to go?’ And I said, ‘You mean it? I’d like to go see Thelonious Monk at the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival.’ I couldn’t believe he did it, bought tickets for all three nights and down we went. ‘Course I left him back in our seats, and I was right down in front of that stage.’

Yes, Terry Adams clearly knew what he liked early on, and he has taken that adoration for Monk’s timeless music and melded it into the sound he has helped craft for his own legendary band NRBQ for the last 50 years. But it wasn’t until much more recently that Adams finally decided to put out a specific collection of Monk tunes with his own arrangements, Talk Thelonious. Adams and his current NRBQ lineup will play a few tunes from that collection as well as NRBQ faves at The Hamilton on November 28th.

Not long after that memorable 15th birthday, Adams headed up to New York to not only see his idol, but to get to know him. It was a relationship that would last up until Monk’s death in 1982.

“I’ve learned alot from him, so eventually it came back out finally,” Adams explained. “I had alot of opportunities to be around Monk and talk with him here and there and learn from the experience, and he’s always been a positive influence on me.  As far as the Monk record, it took while for it to distill in me. I’m glad that I was asked to do it, I hesitated at first but once I got into it, I realized that I was supposed to do this.”

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Thanks to Adams, NRBQ has always had Monk in the mix ever since the early days. “We’ve been doing his songs since the 60’s, they’ve been in our sets or in the books and I was always workin’ to get ’em better, ya know. See what we could with them. Takin’ this music and puttin’ it in a place that is true to its intention and composition, but also where it could be ‘cuz that music can travel, it’s meant to. I think that the songs don’t have to just belong to jazz fans. I think that the songs can be heard in alot of ways and be appreciated by alot of people, and obviously they are now.”

It was a gas for Adams to get serious with more Monk music, and even more of a gas when he asked his current band to help him interpret it on his record.

“NRBQ, the guys on this record, it’s amazing how much they learned in a short period of time, and how as great musicians as they are, how on the edge of their seats everybody was. ‘Cuz it’s so easy to make a mistake, there’s so much to it. I could leave one note out of a chord and think, that doesn’t sound wrong, but is it really right?”

Adams and his fabulous band have put out a lot of great music over the last half century, I actually was at their 10th anniversary show in 1977 at Toad’s Place in New Haven. And Adams is damn proud of the music and the NRBQ legacy. But it’s Monk’s music that really is something extra special, something soulful, to Adams.

“It’s rich and beautiful. Beyond words, I think. It’s in its own class, it’s own place. One of the things I get from (his) music is it’s about being yourself and believing in yourself, and I think that’s a big message that comes through there. Beyond the notes.”

NRBQ performs November 28th at The Hamilton,  600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here

 

 

 

DEL AND DAWG FOREVER

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 11, 2015 by midliferocker

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Two bluegrass legends keep the ties that bind strong for a half century.

By Steve Houk

You could almost call it a “crossroads” moment.

At one such intersection in a field in Virginia, three musicians would stand together, their soon-to-be world class careers in different stages of evolution, but already connected in profound ways. And they would carry those relationships close to their hearts for the rest of their lives. The stars were aligning.

“I played a Bill Monroe show in Warrenton, Virginia in the mid-60’s, a bluegrass festival, and David came in, we had met before,” Del McCoury told me, recalling an early encounter with fellow bluegrass legend David Grisman. “I was just getting ready to leave cuz’ I had to go to another festival somewhere the next day. David said, ‘Hey I want you to meet my new banjo player before you leave,’ it was real black headed guy, his name…was Jerry Garcia. He was playing banjo with David at this time, this was still in the 60’s. I didn’t see Garcia for a long time after that, but I’ve known David that long.”

Grisman and Garcia, who first met at a Bill Monroe show a few years prior to that encounter, went on to become close friends and collaborators right up until Garcia’s death in 1995.

“I think about Jerry every day and sometimes even dream about him. We had a very close musical sympatico in that our musical tastes were both diverse and similar. Our life experiences were also similar in that we both lost, at very young ages, our fathers who were both professional musicians. We also shared many other similar experiences, like taking our (then) five-year old daughters to see Pinocchio, or meeting as we did at a Monroe show. He also was a completely unique individual who was a very kind person.”

McCoury would also talk to Garcia about bluegrass music through the years, but it’s actually McCoury and Grisman’s relationship that would last for decades. And now in their seventies, they’re on the road with a tour dubbed “Del and Dawg”, just the two of them, playing their favorite music. They’ll be bluegrassing it up at The Hamilton on November 15th.

This is a friendship that started early. In his teens, Grisman would figure out that bluegrass was his thing by watching McCoury play with Monroe, beginning a half a century long relationship that is still going strong.

“I met David when he was just a kid, when I was working for Bill Monroe in ’63,” McCoury, 76, told me. “He came to shows, he said, ‘I came to the first show that you played with Bill Monroe’ and I was playing banjo actually then. So that’s when I got to know David. He and my brother Jerry played in the same band, Jerry was bass player, and David was mandolin. One day in ’65 or ’66, my brother said, ‘David wants me and you to go with him to Troy NY and play a show.’ I said OK, I’m not doin’ nothin’, so we went up to Troy NY and played this college up there. Years later (in 1980) David called me up one day and said, ‘You know what, I got a tape of that show we did up in Troy, I think I can clean that tape up and put it out on a record.’ So he did, he called it ‘Early Dawg.’ ”

“We’ve known each other for many many years,” Grisman, 70, recalled. “We’ve had many musical collaborations going all the way back to 1966 when we played our first show together. It’s always very special for me in many ways, especially the challenge of singing with him. Del is a unique musical force to be reckoned with.”

Their plan for this tour is to primarily dig deep, to harken back and grab the gems, to play the music that they feel best represents them and their mutual interests.

“What we thought we’d do is go back and get some of the really old songs from years ago,” McCoury said. “We only have guitar and mandolin, and I just play rhythm, he plays all the lead and we sing duets together. We tell folks a little history about the music from back then, they like to hear all those things, you know, that we all went through.”

Both men are traditional players at heart, but know full well that collaboration with and the success of young bluegrass musicians can only help get bluegrass out to more people.

“It’s great to hear and meet and play with some of the fabulous younger players that we have today,” Grisman said optimistically, yet with a caveat. “My son Sam is one of them, I’ve gotten to meet so many talented acoustic musicians through him. Understanding that tradition is not static, that it is continuously developing and evolving, makes it easier for me not to be too judgemental. Having said that, there are some who are trying a bit too hard to reinvent the ‘wheel’ so to speak. I keep going back to what Duke Ellington said — ‘There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.’  I prefer the good variety.”

“I’m really glad that folks take it up, young people, because it’s a great art form, bluegrass is,” McCoury continued. “They see a challenge in trying to play a mandolin or a violin or fiddle or a guitar or bass or whatever it is, you know. It’s a challenge to learn and get good at playing an acoustic instrument. And bluegrass is a big part of that. Those guys in Phish, they recorded a song I wrote, they got it off an album I put out years ago, and that’s how we got acquainted. I played their festival, Trey really knows his business. Youth is a part of everything. You have to realize that there are young people coming along and they gotta hear things they like, and it may not be hard core bluegrass either, you know.”

Both Grisman and McCoury clearly realize the importance of appreciating the past while looking towards the future. And it’s their very special collaboration, one that stretches back decades, that reinforces the ties that bind.

“All music is kin, it’s all related to somewhere, you know,” McCoury said. “Way back to when we don’t even realize. Everybody hears somebody when they’re young.”

Adds Grisman with a nod to his mentor, “And what could be better than hanging out and playing with Del?”

Del McCoury and David Grisman perform Sunday November 15th at The Hamilton, 600 14th Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.

 

 

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