Bruce Springsteen Made Me An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Source: Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America

I’d always heard that, off-stage, Bruce Springsteen is a very normal sort of person. Meaning that the uninhibited, propulsive sides of his personality are reserved for those many moments when he stands beneath spotlights. Yes, everybody knows that in concert he rocks and rolls like few mortals ever have, sweating up storms of great magnitude while giving it all he has. And now I can attest to the truth of this paragraph’s first sentence too, because last week I met The Boss. At my house, no less. He’s a good guy. As is his buddy Steven Van Zandt, a guitar slinger who has been a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band for many years. I didn’t know that they were planning to visit me. I’d have put on something more flattering than a Donald Duck tee shirt and a pair of candy-striped shorts if I had. Whatever, as they say. The main thing is that it’s a good thing I was home when they knocked on my suburban Philadelphia front door yesterday afternoon.

“Hey, Neil, surprise!” said Stevie when I opened the door. “You’re not the best looking guy I’ve ever seen, but you’re nowhere near as ugly as I was expecting. Bruce and I drove all the way from northern New Jersey to meet you. We’re glad to be here. Nice shorts, by the way.”

“Holy crap!” I said. “Stevie? Bruce? What the hell’s going on? Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?”

“Hi, Neil,” said Bruce, peeking out from behind his friend. “Believe it or not, we’re here on serious business. Well, maybe not all that serious. We’ll explain all. C’mon, man, can we come in? I’ve got to use your bathroom. Half an hour ago I emptied a two liter bottle of RC Cola in no time flat. Big mistake. My bladder is sending out an SOS.”

“Gentlemen, enter!” I said, bowing and sweeping my right hand in a dramatic, welcoming arc. Enter they did, Bruce quickly spotting the ground floor john and heading towards it pronto. Stevie and I shook hands and took seats in the living room. I stared at him in disbelief. He smiled that smile of his that’s wide as a canyon.

“Stevie, what do you want to drink?” I finally managed to ask.

“Got any seltzer? Bruce I’m sure would love some, too.”

“I’ve got gallons of it. I’ll be right back.”

Two minutes later I strode into the living room with a big tray that held glasses of fizzy water and bowls of pretzels and chips. I looked at Bruce, who had finished his business and taken a seat on the sofa, and at Stevie. We lifted the glasses to our lips and reached into the bowls.

“Guys,” I said, “nothing like this has ever happened to me. Woody Allen is the only star I ever met before. That was in 1973 when I was living in Manhattan. I accidentally knocked him over with a shopping cart in a Gristedes supermarket when I made a U- turn in the cereal aisle. He got up from the floor, glared at me and kept on shopping. Never said a word. More importantly, he didn’t sue.”

“Yeah, Woody’s the forgiving kind, so that doesn’t surprise me,” said Stevie. “Anyway, here’s why we’ve paid you a visit. It’s because of that story you wrote last week about your weakening obsession with music [click here to read it]. It found its way to one of the Springsteen-fan websites.” Bruce nodded in agreement. “And Brucie boy, having nothing better to do, checked out that site the other day. Your story jumped out at him like a wild animal. After reading it he knew that he had to take some action to try and help you out. So, he called me, told me what your article was about and explained everything he had in mind. I was on board just like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point. “Ergo, here we are. And don’t bother asking how we found out where you live. It’s a Google world, my man. The only person that nobody can find hasn’t been born yet.”

“Stevie, Bruce, I’m humbled. Please continue.”

“Neil, we’re all about the same age here. Not getting any younger, that’s for sure,” Bruce said. “But Stevie and I are having the times of our lives. Just like always. We haven’t gotten tired of rock and roll in the least. Man, the passion, the fire are still there. It broke my heart when I read in your article that you’re only one-fifth the music guy that you used to be. Neil, we have come to get you out of what I am convinced is a funk. We want to turn you back into the rock and roll animal that you once were. And you know how we’re going to do that? Hold onto the few strands of hair that you have left on your wrinkly head . . . Neil, we want you to become part of The E Street Band! You’ll have more excitement than you ever thought possible. You’ll travel all over the world. You’ll drown, like me and Stevie and the rest of the band, in audience applause. Man, you’re going to have the time of your life.”

Photo: Don Marshall

I swear, my jaw dropped through the living room floor and into the basement. Whose wouldn’t have? Quickly I pulled it back into place, slapped myself in the face and said, “Bruce, this is an offer only a fool would refuse. My life has been good till now, but I wouldn’t mind it becoming great. Only problem is, I’m unfit to be in your band. You guys are the best. Me, I can’t stay on pitch when I sing. And I have less talent on musical instruments than the average three year old.”

“Doesn’t matter, Neil,” said The Boss. “We’ll teach you to sing simple background harmonies. You’ll sound just fine. And as far as instruments go, I want you to play the triangle. Anybody can play the triangle. And on a few tunes maybe we’ll have you bang on some wood blocks. Some of my songs would be strengthened with some incisive wood block poundings, don’t you think, Stevie?” Steven gave the thumbs-up sign emphatically. “Thunder Road, for instance, and Born In The U.S.A. You will be able to handle this, Neil. I’m totally confident.”

At that moment Sandy, my wife, turned her key in the front door lock and entered our house. She had been out shopping for some Matisse-inspired toilet seat covers. Sadly, none were to be found. Bruce and Steven rose, fine gentlemen that they are, when she came into the living room. Not unexpectedly, her jaw dropped not only into the basement but through the basement floor itself.

Well, Bruce and Steven hung around Sandy’s and my house for a few more hours. We all got on famously. Like I said, they are good guys. Very good guys. Bruce and the band are taking a break from the road right now, but plans for the next round are in the works. Rehearsals and touring start early next year. Sandy will fly to be with me now and then, like when the band is in London and Amsterdam and Stockholm. I’m psyched about what’s ahead.

This is the damndest thing, isn’t it? Me, a schlub who gets yanked from behind a computer keyboard to become a cog in one of the most popular bands in the universe. You know, I’m awake, but pinch me anyway. I won’t mind in the least.

 

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Thumbs Partly Down, Thumbs Way Up: Reviews Of Sing Street And Miles Ahead

Movies, movies, movies. They make good fodder for opinions. I never knew I had so many opinions about movies, and about all kinds of things for that matter, till I started writing this blog. Now I can’t shut myself up. When I retire from blogging I plan to go back to my former ways, which involved a vow of near-silence and rigorous mental training to keep opinions at an unmeasurably low level. For now, though, here we go again:

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My wife Sandy and I caught two movies, their themes heavily musical, in suburban Philadelphia on a recent weekend. First we saw Sing Street. The next day it was Miles Ahead. Sing Street came with a three and a half star rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer. I took a look at The Inquirer’s 50-word summary of the movie and at some words of praise quoted in the film’s newspaper advertisement, and I was sold. I mean, here was a story, set in 1985, about an Irish lad infatuated with the idea of forming a rock and roll band, and also infatuated with a girl. Undoubtedly it would be a charmer. Count me in.

Turns out that Sing Street ain’t da bomb. Very surprising, since John Carney, its director and author, previously turned out way solid fare with two music-infused films, both of which he also wrote and directed. Is there anybody who didn’t like Once, the lower-than-low budget love story from 2007 that brought the world to tears with dazzlingly tender songs such as Falling Slowly? And what was there to dislike about Carney’s 2013 opus Begin Again? It starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and it did nothing but snap, crackle and pop.

Now, Sing Street isn’t the worst. It’s watchable. It’s pleasant. But halfway through I began scratching my head, wondering if I was viewing the same flick that the Inquirer’s reviewer had fawned over. Admittedly, on paper the set-up seems good: Fifteen-year-old Conor, a nice, directionless kid, is living in Dublin with his sister and older brother and squabbling parents. He is introduced to emotive, big hair 1980s rock and roll (The Cure, Duran Duran) by his slacker brother. Then he meets a cute 16-year-old girl who knocks his socks off, and decides to become a musician and put together a rock band to impress said girl. Conor, natch, will be the band’s big-haired lead singer. So, what’s my gripe? In two words, sloppy screenplay.

Example number one: This is a movie partly about a boy and his band, yet only one of Conor’s four bandmates gets to do much yapping. Whatever personalities the three others possess are pretty invisible. Collectively those three lads recite maybe 60 words during the movie.

Number two: Family-wise, the movie delves only into Conor’s relationship, which is strong, with big brother Jack. But Conor seems to get along pretty nicely with the other family members. Which is why I was lost at sea when Conor, permanently leaving the parental household near the end of the film, directs moving words toward his mother but not a syllable toward good ol’ Dad or Sis.

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That’s enough examples. Hey, sometimes you lose. But sometimes you win, and I can’t say enough good things about Miles Ahead. This is a most unorthodox and highly creative take on Miles Davis, the superb jazz musician whose aura blanketed the globe for over 40 years. Miles was a force musically and sartorially, and set the standard, if you can call it that, for hipster cool. He was a singular talent, a complicated guy, multisided. Not everybody he knew necessarily saw the same sides. And he was a prolific and hardworking musician, recording many dozens of albums as a leader, starting in 1951. His final studio sessions took place in 1991, the year he died at age 65.

A strange thing happened, though, during the second half of Miles’ career. Due to health problems and drug addictions and who-knows-what-else, he went into near-seclusion in 1975, holing himself up in his Upper West Side townhouse in Manhattan. And for the next several years apparently he didn’t do much of anything worth noting. Eventually he felt the urge to make new music, and returned to the recording studio in 1980. The next year he began to tour again. But what was life like for Miles during his period of withdrawal from public life? What was going on inside his head? Those are the questions that Miles Ahead grabs hold of. Fantasizing some answers, the movie takes the audience on a wild ride.

Miles Ahead is Don Cheadle’s baby. He plays Miles in the movie. He looks a lot like him, nails the raspy voice, and constructs a cinematic Miles so natural and believable I have a feeling that he comes damn close to the real thing’s personality. Not only that, Cheadle directed the movie — to me, flawlessly — and co-wrote the screenplay. Yeah, you bet this guy is talented.

Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.
Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.

During his self-imposed confinement, was music ever far from Miles’ mind? Probably not, though he had hit a huge creative roadblock. The movie opens in 1979 or so, in Miles’ spacious and disheveled home, where he has yet to come out of his lengthy funk. And where he dwells on the past, on the music he had made. In flashback scenes throughout the film, covering the late 1950s through about 1966, we see Miles at work. And in love. That was a fecund musical period for Miles, and during it he was head over heels for Frances Taylor, a professional dancer who married (and divorced) him and helped inspire him. Seamlessly blended with the past is an invented scenario in which 1979’s Miles becomes involved in a loopy caper that has some good results: It gets him out of his house and ultimately leads him to reclaim his misplaced musical mojo. His semi-trusted companion in the adventure is a music journalist (done just right by Ewan McGregor) who has edges as flinty and unpredictable as Miles himself. And that is why Miles comes to like him.

I won’t say more about the plot. What I’m wondering, though, is if a viewer needs to be a Miles Davis fan to enjoy this movie. Me, I’m a big fan. But I think I’d have loved the movie even if I weren’t. It seems so real. It breathes like Miles Davis trumpet solos . . . on the trumpet, Miles might dartingly probe the outer planets of the solar system, or might ruminate bittersweetly. And it’s the opposite of the standard biopic in more ways than its fantastical caper. After all, it entirely skips about 55 years of Miles’ life. If Miles, a forward thinker, were alive to view the flick, no doubt he’d say something like this to Don Cheadle: “Man, I don’t know how you came up with this crazy plot, but it slays me. Motherf**ker, that’s me up there on the screen.”

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Great Fortune Smiled Upon Me When Willie Nile Came To Town

I had no doubt that something celestially-inspired was happening when my once-Greek-god-like hair began to move most unusually, each strand inching upward rapidly till they all pointed straight . . . straight . . . towards the stars! Yo, was anybody staring at me? I looked a mess. But at times like that, who gives a flying fig? This incredible occurrence meant only one thing: The stars had aligned themselves for me. I was in the right place at the right time. In Philadelphia. At funky, small and narrow Tin Angel, a music club where my wife Sandy and I sat 40 feet from the stage. Upon which Willie Nile and his band, only seconds into their set and ablaze from the first whack of the drum kit, were transporting me to — yeah man, as clichéd and dumb as this sounds, I’m gonna say it — rock and roll heaven. I was so jazzed I started to drop to my knees to kiss Tin Angel’s floor. Sandy held me back. “What, are you nuts!” she wisely exclaimed. “There’s a bacterial frat house party going on down there. Stay in your seat, young man.”

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And I did, as Willie and his pals commandeered the stage for nearly two hours. They took no prisoners, blasting out 20 holy crap-that’s-catchy songs (17 of them fully or co-authored by Willie), not even offering up a medium-paced number until halfway through the show. What they unleashed was unadulterated rock and roll. The kind of rock that any lover of  The Clash, The Pogues, The Ramones, Petty and Springsteen would go wild for. Rock propelled by Matt Hogan’s lean, soaring electric guitar and Alex Alexander’s huge drum poundings and Johnny Pisano’s electric bass lines that bobbed and bubbled. And what about Willie? Why, he led the way, packing his lead vocals with brio and strumming madly on his low-in-the-mix acoustic guitar. He showed off his ace songwriting skills, delivering righteous social anthems (such as Let’s All Come Together and One Guitar) and acutely-detailed observations about love (Beautiful You). And he owned the stage, because he’s one of those cool guys with way natural magnetism.

Man, how long had it been since I’d been rocked to the bones like this? Too long, partner, too long. And it wasn’t only the hooks and riffs and pounding drums and great songs and Willie’s lead singing that made the night special. The band possessed a secret weapon, one so astonishingly good my ears opened up like sink holes. We’re talking here about exuberant harmony vocals that deliriously dressed nearly every song’s chorus. The chorus of Forever Wild, for instance, the set’s opener. Leaning into their mics, Nile, Hogan and Pisano whooped and let loose: “Forever wild — uh-uh-uh uh-uh/uh-uh-uh uh-uh/Forever wild!” Throughout the set, like a bunch of half-drunk revelers, they sent the songs into outer space, Pisano reaching crazily-high notes almost out of the range of human hearing.

I should have kissed the floor.

In another lifetime maybe I’ll tackle writing Willie Nile’s biography. For now I’ll mention but a few things about him, starting with the obvious fact that he is one of the hordes of musicians whom the average Joe or Jen never heard of. He definitely has his fans though, quite a few, actually. But he deserves to have mucho more of them. And throughout his career, which began in the 1970s, he has been a darling of many music jounalists. They have loved his albums and his concerts. Still, that never has translated consistently into lots of gigs at good-sized venues, or into much airplay for his songs. Hell, Tin Angel can squeeze in maybe 140 bodies, and it was only half-filled when Sandy and I saw him there this month. As with much of life, I don’t get it. I mean, Willie should be a star.

Willie seems undaunted, though. He’s closing in on 70 and has been on a creative roll, churning out studio albums with little pause. His latest, World War Willie, just came out, and it’s his fifth since 2009. Willie and band played nearly all of it at Tin Angel, every song sounding fine as can be to my sink hole ears.

Left to right: Matt, Alex, Willie, Johnny.
Left to right: Matt, Alex, Willie, Johnny.

Flanked with cartoony murals that look like modern day caveman art, Tin Angel welcomed Willie and band in the right way. Meaning, a person with talent and good judgment was at the sound board. Isn’t often that you can make out more than 40% of the lyrics at a loud rock and roll show. The other night, the sound lady balanced everything just right and I deciphered most of the lyrics no problem. And they were cool. “Grandpa rocks, Grandpa rocks/He listens to the Stones on the waterfront docks,” Willie happily shouted on the set’s second song. And on the eighth he warned, “I’m a bad boy/I ain’t no good/When I was born they said ‘knock on wood’.” Those pithy rhymes came from songs on World War Willie whose titles are easily guessed.

Not only that, Tin Angel has the vibes and layout that full-frontal rock and roll needs in order to flower. It’s cramped. it’s sweaty, and it puts its audience in potential danger. Halfway through the show, Johnny Pisano sidled to the edge of stage left, his electric bass’s neck gleefully bopping around and sticking far out into the skinny corridor that leads to the bathrooms. A guy, fresh from relieving himself, sauntered from the loo and headed back to his seat. A collision awaited. Watch out, mate! You’re about to get whacked in the head!

I don’t think that Pisano ever saw him. But the guy nimbly ducked. And all was well.

(Click here to watch Willie and his band performing Grandpa Rocks one week before I saw him at Tin Angel)

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OJR Will Tour With The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards Assured Me Of This)

My cell phone rang in late afternoon on a recent Sunday. I answered and an unmistakable phlegmy voice said to me: “Yeah mate, how ya doin’? I’m OK. Just sittin’ here in my hotel room watchin’ the telly. Drinkin’ milk, munchin’ Oreos. They go good together, ya know?” It was Keith Richards calling from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where The Rolling Stones had played a show the night before.

“I know, Keith, I know. Every time you call it’s the same old thing. Milk and Oreos. Milk and Oreos. Come on, amigo. Switch it up once in a while. Didn’t you ever hear of Chips Ahoy? Vienna Fingers?”

He guffawed. “I’m hooked, son. I can’t switch. I won’t.”

“Okay, Keith,” I said. “So what’s the scoop? How was the show last night?”

Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark Seliger)
Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark Seliger)

“Cool, man, cool. We had fun. Ya got a minute?” As though I didn’t. Before the phone rang I had been cutting coupons for half an hour. And before that, working on a story idea about celebrities’ genomes that I plan to pitch to Science Magazine, I’d spent 90 minutes meticulously plotting the Kardashians’ family tree. I was pooped. I was ready to have a relaxed phone conversation. “Spill your guts, partner,” I said to my old friend, whom I’d met and instantly bonded with in 1978. This was at a Bingo parlor in Philadelphia the day after a Stones gig in that fine city. Keith’s a Bingo man. He has wandered into Bingo halls all over the world.

“What’s the Stones’ signature song?” Keith asked me. “Ya know, the one we’ve played ten thousand times. The first letter is an S. Here’s another hint. It starts like this: dum dum da da dah da da da da da.”

“Let me guess,” I said “Is it Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?”

“I wish,” my friend said. “I’d like to play that one. I’ll run it by Mick. But I got a problem here, bro. No joke. Every show we hafta play Satisfaction. Last night I almost couldn’t do it. I f – – kin’ hate that song. If I hafta play it again I’m gonna plotz.”

“Relax, chum, relax,” I said. “You’ll get through this. You’re a pro. Drink some more milk.”

“C’mon, pal. I need a boost. Talk to me. What’s good? What’s new and happenin’? Clue me in.”

Oliver John-Rodgers. (Photo by David Salay)
Oliver John-Rodgers. (Photo by David Salay)

“Okay, laddie,” I said. “There’s something really good that I checked out the other day. Great music by a young guy named Oliver John-Rodgers. Calls himself OJR. His YouTube videos have gotten about as many views as my blog articles, which means that just about nobody ever heard of him. But I think that’s going to change. For him, I mean. Not for me. His new album is fantastic. I ain’t Nostradomus, but I predict that he’s going to be big.”

“Hold up, Neil. Someone just tapped on my door. It’s Mick, no doubt. I can tell by the secret knock . . . dum dum da da dah da da da da da. You heard that, didn’t ya? He’s been doing that to me for the last 50 years. Gotta go, compadre. Send me an email about OJR. Peace, brother.”

With that, Keith hung up. Before I’d forget I sat down and composed my message to him. Here’s what I wrote:

Hey, boyo. Thanks for calling. OJR’s new album, Nashville Demos, rocks like a mother lode. Catchy melodies, nifty lyrics, guitar licks that wrap themselves around your brain. He recorded the album in, believe it or not, bedrooms all over the world. I guess he’s sort of a vagabond. Played most of the instruments himself. I found out about him from WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station I listen to sometimes. OJR has a song called Numb, and it’s in XPN’s rotation. The song’s a monster. OJR put the whole album up on his website (Keith-o, click here to listen to the album). And I found a primo YouTube video of OJR and his band playing Numb in a slowed-down head-warping version (Keith, my man, click  here to watch it). That’s all for now. It’s almost 7 PM, my bedtime as I’m sure you remember. Talk soon, matey. Oh wait, one more thing. Please ask Charlie, Ronnie and Mick to look at my blog. There’s a chance they might like my stuff. Peace out.

A few days later, at 8 PM, my phone rang. I’d been asleep for an hour. Thanks, Keith, for waking me up. He was calling from his hotel room in Lima, Peru. The Stones would be on stage in Lima the next night. “Yo, what’s up, cool guy?” he asked. “You were right. OJR is the friggin’ bomb. Best rock and roll I’ve heard since the end of the Ice Age. Or maybe it was the Cold War. I forget. Anyway, the boys and me had our managers get in touch with him. OJR’s a sweet dude, they said. And you know what? . . . We’re gonna have him open some shows for us later this year. Thanks for the tip, Bingo Boy.”

“No problem, Keith. Glad to help. How about my blog? What did Ronnie, Mick and Charlie say?”

There was a long pause. I knew the news wasn’t going to be too good. “Well, buddy, I sent them the link to your blog. Sorry mate, let me tell you straight — slow and snoozy are a couple of the words they used about your articles. What can I say? But I’ve got a great idea for ya. You’ve never written a story about Bingo. I think ya should.”

“Thanks, Keith. Maybe I will.”

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The First Time I Saw Springsteen

Before today I hadn’t mentioned the words Bruce or Springsteen anywhere on this blog. But you know, this article about The Boss probably won’t be my last. That’s because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s. I’m not one of his fanatical followers, not one of the myriad folks who own every recording he has ever issued and have attended Springsteen concerts in the dozens and above. But big enough. I consider Springsteen to be a huge talent. For decades he has been a superb singer, songwriter and guitarist, and an in-concert performer blessed with off-the-charts charisma and energy. On January 16, he and The E Street Band will be hitting the road for the umpteenth time. When I read recently about their upcoming tour, my mind wandered back to the first time I saw Bruce on stage.

Springsteen got his start in the late 1960s. By 1973 he had developed a fairly big fan base in a few locales, such as the New Jersey Shore communities and the greater Philadelphia area. Part of this was due to his relentless gigging around the USA. Back then if you toured enough you were bound to catch on somewhere, especially if some radio stations played your tunes. But overall he and his E Street Band still were little known. For the most part he played in small venues until finally breaking through nationally in 1975. Global superstardom would follow some years later.

I moved to Philadelphia in February 1974 and soon started hearing Bruce on WMMR, the city’s premier rock station at that time. They played tracks from his first two albums, both of which came out in 1973: Greetings From Asbury Park followed by The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. It didn’t take me long to become a Bruce devotee. I bought both albums and especially liked what was on The Wild. Who wouldn’t have? The songs, every one Bruce-penned, are fabulous. They are literate and intriguing stories put to wonderful melodies. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Incident On 57th Street, Kittie’s Back . . . man, the seven songs on the record sound as good today as they did all those years ago. There was no question in my mind that Springsteen carried the goods. I wanted to see him in person.

The Bottom Line (photo by Peter Cunningham)
The Bottom Line (Photo by Peter Cunningham)

In July 1974, Bruce and The E Street Band played six shows in Manhattan at The Bottom Line. Three nights of music, two shows per night. Long gone, The Bottom Line was a magnificent small club in Greenwich Village, magnificent not because of its décor but because of its wide-ranging musical menu. I was there with my brother Richard at one of the early shows. Richie wasn’t as ardent a rock lover as I was, but somehow I had convinced him to come along. I suppose I’d known about Bruce’s Bottom Line gigs via announcements on WMMR. I can’t imagine how else I’d have heard.

Springsteen a few months before I saw him (Photo by Burton Wilson)
Springsteen a few months before I saw him (Photo by Burton Wilson)

How much of the show do I remember? Well, to put things in perspective, I’m probably exaggerating on the high side when I say that I recall about 0.0001% of my adult life. Pathetic and depressing, but true. And yet I  do have some memories of that summer evening nearly 42 years ago. I can picture Richie and me seated at a table. We were 20 or 30 feet from the stage. I remember the start of the show. The house and stage lights went dark, and then one spotlight illuminated a small section of stage. Springsteen stood in that focused light, a big floppy hat tilted on his head. And he began to sing Incident On 57th Street. Quietly.

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night/With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat up old Buick, but dressed just like dynamite/He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street/But they said “Johnny, it falls apart so easily, and you know hearts these days are cheap.”

The E Street Band whispered behind Bruce. And as the vocals gradually intensified, the band followed Bruce’s lead nimbly and powerfully. For this song, The Bottom Line, just like that, was transformed into a tough part of town where sorrow and longing prevailed. The reports that I’d heard in Philadelphia were true — that Springsteen, on stage, enveloped a song like few others, tapped into a cache of emotions that were invisible to most vocalists, and that The E Street Band was scarily good. I knew that I was at what would be the best concert I’d ever attended.

Bruce and the boys danced through maybe 10 or 11 more songs before leaving the stage, and they never let go of the audience’s gut. The concert was an exhilarating and spellbinding ride, a trip to rock and roll heaven. The only other tune that I specifically recall being played is Rosalita. It was rollicking and wild. Delirious. Amazing. There was nothing that Bruce, Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Garry Tallent and the other E Streeters couldn’t do.

Richie was as stunned as I was. I don’t think he’d had any idea what the night held in store for him. To this day I rank Bruce and band at The Bottom Line as one of the ultimate shots of live music in my life. It gave me shivers. It made me shake my head in disbelief. It sent me out into the streets with a buzz that still echoes.

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One More Stop On The Road For Donna The Buffalo

My wife Sandy and I recently saw in concert an electric and eclectic band from upstate New York amusingly named Donna The Buffalo, and afterward I wanted to write about the show. Before sitting down to compose my magnum opus though, I mulled over my approach to the subject matter. The main question I posed to yours truly was: What should the subject matter comprise? Naturally, Donna The Buffalo needed to be a big part of the focus. But you know what? I knew little about DTB pre-gig, and possess only a cursory knowledge about the band now. We went to see them on little more than a whim. I’d heard of them, knew that their history was lengthy, and decided that taking a chance on them would be fun. When my mulling concluded, I was of the opinion that the path that brought me to this show also should be part of the story.

I think of myself as a music lover. I listen to a wide variety of genres and have been to well over 1,000 concerts during my earthly tenure. Yet, these days I feel like a tyro when I listen to radio stations or read music-related websites, magazines and newspapers. I mean, more often than not, I am unfamiliar with the musicians. To me, it is just incredible how many solo performers and bands are out there playing the game. In the USA alone, there must be 50,000 professional musical acts, maybe more. In my younger days I thought that I had a handle on a fair percentage of music makers. No longer, not now in the Internet Age when anybody and everybody can make his or her presence felt.

And so, ten or more years ago I largely gave up on trying to keep up with the avalanches of musicians plying their trade. It was just too much work, too exhausting. Better, I think, to stay in tune to a lesser extent, and also to take gambles and hope for the best. As with Donna The Buffalo.

New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.
New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.

Donna The Buffalo appeared at New Hope Winery, a venue in the Philadelphia suburbs that Sandy and I discovered last year and have become very fond of. The joint was packed with 200 or more souls when DTB took the stage. A front-and-center area, where tables normally would be placed, had been cleared to create space for dancers. I looked over the crowd. At some previous visits to the Winery I’d seen demographics heavily tilted to the 50 and above bracket. Not this night. DTB had tipped the age scales downward substantially. Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings abounded. There even were a few very young children in the room.

Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.
Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.

What a band. Not having known what to expect, song number one told me that I had chosen wisely by attending this concert. A quintet, DTB was tremendously tight and intuitive all night long, and possessed a large catalog of songs to choose from. They held the stage for two hours and 10 minutes, filling their long set with 22 songs and little between-tune chatter. I was standing just behind the dance section, which was crowded with bobbers and weavers. After two or three songs, I too began to go with the flow. And kept going. But I was bouncing alone — Sandy stayed at the extremely stage right table to which we had been assigned. Her view of the musicians from there was lousy, but in the dance area she wouldn’t have had a chance seeing over anyone’s head. Mea culpa.

DTB has blended a bunch of musical styles into their sound: rock, country, zydeco, reggae. Rock being the dominant force. On some songs (What Money Cannot Buy; Love and Gasoline) the power was relentless, Stonesy, irresistible. On others (The Ones You Love; Conscious Evolution) the groove expanded, contracted, widened once again, giving no mercy to the audience. All you had to do on those expansive numbers, Grateful Dead-ish and Allmans-ish as they were, was close your eyes to be transported to a higher and mind-opening plane. Yes, Donna The Buffalo was that good.

DTB began its journey in the late 1980s, picking up steam in the mid 90s, and in the current century has become a decently successful and popular unit. They tour like crazy and have amassed a loyal national fan base known as The Herd, a mini version of the Deadheads. Two original band members (Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear) remain. Tara and Jeb compose most of the group’s songs, usually individually. At the Winery, each took the lead vocal spotlight on his or her compositions. Jeb opted for the laidback Jerry Garcia approach to singing and handled electric guitar sizzlingly. He’s a guitar hero unknown to 99% of Americans. Tara’s sweet and gentle mountain drawl pleased me much. And she was the band’s multi-instrumentalist. Fiddle, acoustic guitar, accordion, tambourine and scrubboard (for the zydeco numbers) were her arsenal.

A bunch of musicians have played alongside Tara and Jeb since DTB’s inception. The three current guys have been around for several years. Mark Raudabaugh killed on the drums. Kyle Sparks was all over his electric bass’ strings, drawing out lines that percolated and sang. And organist David McCracken was immense. So many times in so many bands, especially the poppier or atmospheric ones, the keyboard player is on the lame side, somehow fooling the audience with pretty chords and simplistic runs. Not McCracken. He can play. He jabbed, moved fast, reached for the skies, whatever it took.

So, how many acts that I’ve never heard of or barely heard of, and that I’d find to be great, are on the circuit? The question is a puzzle, the answer unknowable. Which makes music and, similarly, much else of life, delightful.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Mason Porter And The Chris Kasper Band Take On The Grateful Dead

1970 was a very good year for the Grateful Dead and a fairly good one for me. I was one year out of college, no long-term success plans in place, working here and there to earn a few dollars. But I was happy enough, I’m pretty sure. Unlike me, The Dead mined gold in 1970, recording and releasing that year what many agree are their two best studio albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. These albums were a big change from Aoxomoxoa, their pretty darn trippy effort from the previous year. The 1970 albums presented tightly arranged songs, many of them quiet and lovely ballads, straight out of the folk, blues and mountain music traditions. The 18 songs on these records shine with a timeless aura and are nothing but grand. The quality of the material probably took the Dead, and most everyone else, by surprise.

During a vagabond-like tour of the USA in summer 1970 I found myself in San Francisco for two or three weeks. I knew about the Dead (who didn’t?), but I don’t think I had any of their albums in my collection at that time. I wasn’t yet a fan. But in San Francisco, the Dead’s home base and where they had become emblematic of hippie culture,  I was smart enough to realize that I should go and see them if I had the chance. The chance arose, as they were booked for three nights in mid-August at the Fillmore West. I went to one of those shows. Workingman’s Dead had come out two months earlier, and the guys were already hard at work on American Beauty. It was a rich period. Sadly, for me the concert has almost disappeared into the fog. Well, I do recall a few things, such as standing in the middle of the Fillmore’s crowded open auditorium gazing at the stage. I also vaguely still can hear the band playing Casey Jones, the tune that brings Workingman’s Dead to its end. And I remember thinking that the concert was good but not great, an opinion that would have left Deadheads shaking their noggins in bewilderment. But memories about the show other than those  . . .  man, I could fill fifty books with all the things I’ve forgotten in my life, if the details magically could be jolted back into place.

Which brings us to April 29, 2015 at the Ardmore Music Hall in suburban Philadelphia. That evening I went with friends to watch two locally-based bands, musicians who had had the superb idea to play the Dead’s 1970 albums in their entirety, track by track. I’m writing this not long after seeing the concert, so my brain hasn’t had a chance yet to get fuzzy about the experience. And the experience was great. I enjoyed the concert in Ardmore more than I did the one in San Francisco 45 years ago.

The Ardmore Music Hall is in the midst of presenting five shows that celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s founding. The centerpiece show for me easily is the one I attended. Handling Workingman’s Dead was Mason Porter, a band not a person. The American Beauty duties fell to The Chris Kasper Band, a quintet that grew bigger on some songs with guest musicians. Both units lovingly approached the landmark albums, but didn’t try to duplicate the Dead’s sound. Each was pure rockier than the Dead, and each possessed something the Dead didn’t, a fiddler.  Three hundred or more folks packed the Ardmore, ages 20 to 70 all heavily represented and swaying and hippie-dancing to the tantalizing beats.

Mason Porter at Ardmore Music Hall
Mason Porter at Ardmore Music Hall

The five-person Mason Porter had me going from note number one of song number one, Uncle John’s Band. The group built the tune in stages, reaching heady heights with lead guitarist Paul Wilkinson’s soaring Eight Miles High-ish solo. And they nailed the seven songs that followed. Lead singer Joe D’Amico had an easy and calm delivery, very much in the Jerry Garcia vein. Sarah Larsen’s Appalachian fiddling infused the band with a whole lot of grit. The crowd erupted in applause after her long solo on Dire Wolf. She was overwhelmed by this outpouring and smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a musician’s face. It stretched out of the hall and halfway to the next town.

The Chris Kasper Band at Ardmore Music Hall (CK is second from left)
The Chris Kasper Band at Ardmore Music Hall (CK is second from left)

For some reason I was delayed getting into The Chris Kasper Band. But they hooked me with Candyman five songs into the set and didn’t let go after that. Keyboardist David Streim brought strong and broad chordal waves to Candyman and the song took flight with Chris’s electric guitar work and fiddler Kiley Ryan’s sweet solo turn. Quite a night for female fiddlers, and not usual to find two at the same concert. On some songs Ryan exchanged the fiddle for an acoustic guitar.

Chris Kasper’s lead vocals were crisp and mellow all set. Like Joe D’Amico and many others, he’s partly from the Garcia school of singing. He alternated between acoustic and electric guitar and used the latter to drive Till The Morning Comes, snapping off white hot riffs like Keith Richards. Matt Muir’s firecracker drumming bounced that song outrageously, pop pop pop. Tremendous.

Truckin’ brought the band’s American Beauty homage to a close. But the night wasn’t over. Mason Porter and a few guests joined the Kasper outfit on stage and a four song Grateful Dead encore ensued. The energy in the Ardmore Music Hall grew to dangerous levels as the huge ensemble ripped through Goin Down The Road Feeling Bad, Bertha, Franklin’s Tower and Mr. Charlie. The music was ferocious, the audience insatiable. At 11:30 PM the last notes rang out.