Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Capella "Africa"

Wow. It seems to have been over two years since we posted anything about Toto's "Africa" -- what is happening to this blog?

Luckily, the fabulous Marjorie Tucker has called our attention to an a capella version of the song that begins with the choir creating a full-on tropical rainstorm out of finger snaps, palms-on-thighs and cringe-inducing jumping on the risers.

Check it out.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Unforgettable Rain: U2 in Minneapolis

As you no doubt read in Matt's post about U2's Chicago show, we witnessed one of the best stadium shows I've ever seen...that is, until I saw their Minneapolis show at TCF Stadium (pictured left). While I had spent much of last week feeling sad I wasn't joining Matt and fellow Sound of Blackbirds bloggers Nick and Allan out at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I ended up having an amazing weekend of music. I even got to enjoy some great folk music myself at the 13th Annual Northeast Folk Festival, a fun festival of local talent at none other than Grumpy's Bar NE. With music indoors and out, there was a great cross-section of the local roots and Americana scene with performances by Charlie Parr, The Brass Kings, Jeff Ray and more. Sporting my "Nordeast" t-shirt, I played with my Mother Banjo Band on the outside stage with Pocahontas County's Jake Hyer sitting in on fiddle, which was a real treat. We played U2's "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," which has now become a band staple. This pleased the crowd, esepecially because I discovered many of them were going to the U2 show that night. In fact, Martin Devaney, who played a sweet set right after me, was also going after he stopped by yet another festival to play. (On a side note, I just found out that he's playing with Robbie Fulks at the Turf Club on August 12th--can't wait for that one!)

After wolfing down a tasty pulled pork sandwich, I bused it down to Whitey's Bar, where I met up with some pals for pre-show whiskeys (important since the University-owned stadium has no alcohol). Although there was no U2 playing on the jukebox (as there was when Matt and I were in Chicago at that Irish hotel bar), it was still clear many of these folks were going to U2. In fact, really it seemed like everyone and their mom (literally) was going to the show. What with light rail construction on University Avenue and the crazy amounts of traffic headed to the University of Minnesota's new TCF Stadium, it was madness. Luckily, one of the gals going with us was able to get her husband to drop us off so we arrived with no problem. The very first concert to be held in this stadium (usually used for Gophers sporting events) and the biggest outdoor concert in the Twin Cities in decades, this was the event to be at. In fact, I keep finding out more folks were there (including our Democratic Senator Al Franken and our former Governor Tim Pawlenty, now making a Republican bid for US President). And with only 60,000 seats (compared to the 70,000 at Chicago's Soldier Field), everyone felt pretty close to the gargantuan stage set, including the folks watching from outside the gate.

U2 has the stadium show down to a perfect art form--a spectacle that somehow seems personal. Ross Raihala captured this most eloquently in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Although I couldn't take down the whole setlist due to the torrential downpours, I was able to find this setlist from U2's website. Normally I would just craft a little story to remember the song titles, but as you'll see, there were so many snippets of songs that Bono threw in (many rain-related) that I totally lost track of my Hitchcock-inspired story of the zoo that is the city where you go crazy with vertigo...

This show was supposed to be the final date of their tour, and although this rescheduled date was actually the third-to-last, U2 played it like it was their finale. And the crowd was with them the whole way, even amidst the threatening thunder and lightning, making this a truly unforgettable show. All week they had been predicting storms for Saturday, but the evening started out beautiful. The weather had cooled off a little and there was a light breeze while Interpol played their opening set. Fans bounced balloons and beach balls around from their seats, and in between sets, while the 360 screen scrolled world statistics, someone in our section actually released hundreds of balloons all at once. Like little kids, we all started cheering--a truly magical moment I was actually able to capture on camera.

As the seats filled up with people, it was clear that this crowd was a crowd that was committed to seeing U2. When the first drops fell, and everyone started cheering. Even when the torrential rains came down, no one's spirits were dampened, especially not the band who powered through like it was nobody's business. Not staying under cover, Bono was on the runway most of the night, getting just drenched and adding in fun rain-inspired covers, most notably "Purple Rain" (Prince always gets a big reaction in his hometown) and "Singin' in the Rain." Adam Clayton's white shirt got so drenched, he ended up ditching the thing completely, showing off his good-looking abs (someone's been working out!). It made me really respect how dedicated this band is to performing a good live show. When I think of all the musicians I've seen, who complain because it's too hot or too cold or too wet, I will always think of these guys, and how they could have stayed undercover playing a solid but sedate set under a canopy. Instead, they brought the show to the crowd, getting soaked like the rest of us.

Local critics Jon Bream and Chris Riemenschneider put together some of their highlights along with cool pics in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, including the surprise guest appearance by Somali hip-hop artist and former Minneapolis resident K'Naan and the acoustic rendition of "Stuck in a Moment" that Bono and The Edge sang for Amy Winehouse. Another great moment was when the crowd continued to sing "Pride" long after the song was over. He kind of stood there awe-struck and then clapped for us. But my favorite moment came at the end. After the band took its final bows and started leaving the stage, Bono ran back to the mic and started singing "Singin' in the Rain" for the second time, leading us all in a grand sing-along. He then waved goodnight, and we all kept singing, drenched and happy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2011

A superb weekend of music at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival came to its conclusion Sunday afternoon, albeit not without a touch of sadness. Ever since Dave Carter passed away nine days before he and Tracy Grammer were scheduled to perform at the 2002 festival, the Falcon Ridge mainstage has been marked by souls departed. Curiously, Tracy’s stage presence on Sunday was upbeat and cheerful, with a little off-color humor and insular banter with her bandmates. I say “curiously” because the news had slowly been filtered to the festival goers by various sources that both Amy Winehouse and Bill Morrissey had passed away over the weekend. While Winehouse was not a part of the folkie scene, Morrissey certainly had his fans at Falcon Ridge, and there were plenty of solemn faces in the Sunday afternoon audience. Combine these strands with the loss of Jack Hardy, whose songs were honored in a workshop performance early Saturday evening, and a web of wistfulness was woven into the musical architecture of the weekend.

In years past, the New Artists Showcase has been a pleasure to behold, as the novices try to make good, but I barely caught any of it this year. My late arrival combined with the blistering heat meant that my slow, staggered efforts to set up camp happened out of sight of the mainstage. Not out of earshot, however. Among other things, I heard Occidental Gypsy’s catchy updated gypsy jazz, a song from I’m-not-sure-who that mentions trains and was co-written with Brooks Williams, a percussion-heavy trance/trip-hop performance by Bulat Gafarov from Moscow (who I now see has a pretty impressive resumé), Paul Sachs from Jack Hardy’s crew who sang with a strong and clear voice and was accompanied by Mark Dann on bass, and a band called ilyAIMY that sounded catchy. After nine or ten performers, I walked down the hill to peruse the vendors, drink lots of water, and wait for fellow Sound of Blackbirds bloggers Matt Winters and Allan Roth to arrive.

While waiting, I stumbled on a tent devoted to Jack Hardy. In attendance was Angie Page, Jack’s partner for many years, and the mother of some of his children, including Morgan, a former student of mine. There were dozens of photographs of the great man, along with LPs and CDs of his music and of the Fast Folk recordings, and plenty of other goodies. Some of it was on display only for educational purposes, but some of it was on sale to help pay for some of Jack’s outstanding medical bills. There were two photographs of particular importance: one of Jack with Tom Waits and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, which was just plain cool, and another of him with Matt Winters and Matt’s dad. As I later heard Morgan say to Matt’s dad, “you’ve been hanging on my dad’s wall for years!”

A little after 2:00, Matt and Allan arrived with Matt’s friend, Mandy, and we made our way up to the campsite to play some guitar together—for me, a Falcon Ridge first—and, eventually, head down to the mainstage to enjoy the rest of the new artists and explore.

Another Falcon Ridge tradition is the Friday night song swap. This year, we were treated to Red Horse, the trio comprising John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, and Eliza Gilkyson. After opening with Neil Young’s “I Am a Child,” the remainder of the set consisted of each musician singing a song written by one of his or her bandmates or, toward the end, by him- or herself. So, John sang Lucy’s “Don’t Mind Me,” Lucy sang John’s “Blue Chalk,” and so forth. Each member of Red Horse also played 45 minute sets the following day on the mainstage, one after the other, with each singer inviting bandmates to join him/her for various songs, including ones recorded for the Red Horse album. In the context of the festival, blurring the individual and group concepts worked just fine, as the communal spirit of the festival and the folk music tradition seemed to be reflected in the combination of the properly rehearsed and the casually offhand.

Although I think of Eliza Gilkyson as being my favorite of the three Red Horsers, both as group participants and as individual performers, I now find myself thinking more about Lucy Kaplansky’s set. She began it with “Manhattan Moon,” from one of her recent albums that I’ve yet to listen to from beginning to end and made me want to revisit all her albums. Later on, she invited her 8 year old daughter onto the stage to show off her drumming lessons on a few songs, including “End of the Day” and “Don’t Mind Me.” “Written on the Back of His Hand” is one of her best melodies, and she even found time for Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song.” As for Eliza, I missed the first half of her Saturday solo performance, unfortunately, but I returned in time for “Dark Side of Town,” which Matt had requested at the top of his lungs from the seat next to me. Finally, John Gorka, who began the mainstage performances at noon on Saturday, played eight or nine songs of his own and others’ and kept my attention. The most memorable moment of his set was his performance of Tim Hardin’s “The Lady Came from Baltimore,” which fit the contours of Gorka’s warm voice just right. And, pretty much for the first time at a folk festival, I found myself hooked by some of John Gorka’s own material. Not so much the newer “Where No Monument Stands,” but older stuff like “I’m from New Jersey,” “Writing in the Margins,” and “Semper Fi.” A pleasant surprise.

Exhaustion led me back to my tent after the song swap, so I missed the night cap—Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and The Magic Rockers—which sounded great from my tent, and I’m sorry I missed them. Friday night’s music was dominated by two up-tempo acts: Professor Louie and the Crowmatix and The Honeycutters, neither of whom I’d heard of before this weekend. Professor Louie was a colleague of the Band’s and worked closely with them on their post-Robbie Robertson records, like Jericho, a song from which the band played during their set: Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Their overall sound was very similar to the Band’s, with Professor Louie himself playing keyboards and accordion, singing Levon Helm-ishly, and talking about the late Rick Danko in between songs. The Honeycutters played country music, medium-to-fast, without any aggressiveness of rhythm or attitude, but plenty of assurance and poise. The feel of the band was more Tennessee Three than Garth Brooks. There were some mandolin solos, but they punctuated the songs rather than distracting from them. And some of the songs were very good, like “Lillies,” sung from the perspective of a colonist fighting the redcoats who dies after taking a bullet to the chest, or “Firebreathing” which includes the line “you’ve got no business on the wild side,” thereby summing up a folk festival audience, including the drug-addled participants in Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams’ Saturday night dance party. One of the best acts of the weekend.

I also missed all but the final two songs from the Most Wanted Song Swap, another Falcon Ridge tradition, wherein the most popular of the previous year’s new artists return for a round robin-style performance. I’m sorry I missed it too, because what I heard from The Folkadelics and Spuyten Duyvil sounded great.

The Saturday event I was most looking forward to was the Jack Hardy tribute on the workshop stage. I’ve been working on an essay about the great man for this blog, and the events of this past weekend have stoked my interest in finishing it. Since he died, I’ve been listening to his music more often, and I sense, perhaps without good reason, that more and more people have become aware of his songs and his contributions to the music scene in New York City and beyond. The initial plan had been to leave the mainstage at around 4:30, about halfway through Mary Gauthier’s set, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. But as so often happens at these festivals, plans got derailed; I wound up missing the first 10 minutes or so. And for a damn good reason. Matt and Allan weren’t around for Mary Gauthier’s set, but Matt’s friend Mandy was, and she and I sat spellbound by an artist who was so supremely in command of her gifts as a performer, that I couldn’t imagine leaving her for anything. I’ve heard part of her newest album, The Foundling, and it sounds wonderful, but she only played one song from it on Saturday afternoon. Instead, her set emphasized the material that first put her on the map. Three of the first four songs were from her excellent 1999 album Drag Queens in Limousines, and she also treated us to the three best songs from Mercy Now (2003): “Mercy Now,” “Prayer without Words,” and “Wheel Inside the Wheel,” the last of which sounds like Chris Smither’s “Train Home” with celebrities doing the “graveyard dancing.” In between songs, she talked earnestly about the folk music tradition, emphasizing the need to tell stories, and she told great ones in her songs, about the death row convert to Christianity, Karla Faye Tucker (“Karla Faye”), the man once elected king of the hobos, Steam Train Maury (“Last of the Hobo Kings”), the dirty sugar business in Thibodaux (“Sugar Cane”), and herself (“Drag Queens in Limousines”). With Tania Elizabeth backing her up tastefully on violin and harmony vocals, the performance was also musically astute, each melody perfectly formed and each violin lick and harmony vocal perfectly deployed. Sometimes her music even became rhythmically propulsive, like on "Prayer without Words" and “Wheel Inside the Wheel.” The singer threw out the emotional fishing rod with her opening drawl, “I hated high school / I prayed it would end,” and had us caught on the line by time she hit the climax: “sometimes you’ve gotta do / what you’ve gotta do / and pray that the people you love / will catch up with you.” Best act of the festival, by far.

There were other fine moments. The Jack Hardy tribute, of which I only missed the first song (John Gorka’s version of “Potter’s Field”), had some good stuff in it. My favorite was probably David Massengill’s version of “Tree of Rhyme” from the Landmark (1982) album, and I also liked the way that Dan Navarro put his full, deep voice into “I Oughta Know.” Mary Gauthier had made her way over to the stage after her set was over and quietly climbed onto the stage with her fiddler. When it was her turn, she damn near stole the show, first by talking about what great stories everyone was telling about the man (or was she talking about the stories in the songs?), before recapping her belief in the power of songs to tell stories, which she had just been talking about on the mainstage, and then wowing us with Jack’s unrecorded “Ain’t I a Woman,” sung from the perspective of Sojourner Truth. Then, after the dinner break and a fine set of bluegrass music from Dirty Kitchen, Greg Brown played a leisurely, laid-back set of songs, peppered with some self-amused chatter and augmented with Bo Ramsey’s electric guitar. “The Poet Game” is a great song, and I was happy to hear it, and I was also happy to hear “Let the Mystery Be,” written by his wife, Iris Dement. “She’s funny,” he said off-handedly, practically to himself, as he mumbled about his wife, accounting for one of the funniest moments of the weekend. “Freak Flag” and “Tenderhearted Child” from the new album, Freak Flag (2011), both sounded great, and “Fat Boy Blues” made me laugh out loud. The Sunday morning gospel wakeup call, another Falcon Ridge tradition, featured some great stuff from Susan Werner, particularly the decidedly un-gospel “Probably Not,” and Red Molly’s take on “Come on In My Kitchen.” And there was a Band tribute on the workshop stage, led by Professor Louie and Terry Kitchen, which was a lot of fun, particularly when Professor Louie himself led the way through the songs. I smiled to see Katryna Nields with her two lovely children on hand to enjoy the Band tribute. And during their own set and during the gospel set, a trio called Bro Sun offered some soulful singing.

I only caught a few minutes of Susan Werner's set, and I sense I missed out on something great. And by leaving during Sunday afternoon, I also missed the featured act, Mary Chapin Carpenter, who I haven’t seen live since a beautiful, understated performance at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore sometime in the late ‘90s.

Finally, there was Tracy Grammer, one of the acts I was most excited to see, and someone who will forever be linked, for better and for worse, to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. I remember quite clearly how moved I was by her performance with Dave Carter in 2000 and 2001, when they upstaged acts like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, among others. And Dave’s workshop stage appearances, and his warm stage presence, and the 2002 tribute to him, with Erin McKeown’s “Gentle Arms of Eden,” Chris Smither’s “Crocodile Man,” Mark Erelli’s “Cowboy Singer”…I could go on. Now, 9 years after Dave Carter’s death, Tracy Grammer has long since come into her own as a performer. This time around, she appeared with a five-piece band that included Massachusetts folk scene stalwarts Dave Chalfant and Ben Demerath. Her set included a Decemberists’ song that I didn’t know, the instrumental fiddle feature “28th of January,” and a series of Dave Carter songs, including “Gentle Arms of Eden,” his greatest, and “Shadows of Evangeline,” which benefited more than the other songs by the presence of the band. I also took note of her concluding song, “The Verdant Mile,” which gave this blog its name, and also hinted at the deaths that hung over the festival—“it’s everything and nothing / when the spirit cracks the sky”—even as it embraced life which, with her chipper stage presence and happening band, Tracy seemed to be doing. She mentioned Amy Winehouse and Jack Hardy in some between-song moments and joked about her band’s name, “The Hot Nuts,” in others. And as if to verify the power of positive, life-enhancing music, the very next act, the last act I stayed for, was a Zydeco band, whose danceable rhythms and soulful vocals pretty much epitomize life. In other words, it got people up and dancing. I was about halfway up the hill, on my way back to the car, when I had to stop and listen almost to the end of their set, as a searing electric guitar solo cut through the air, splitting through the polyrhythms.

Looking forward to next year already.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Kasey Chambers @ The Iron Horse, July 7th, 2011

I’ve now been living in Portland, Maine for two weeks. For the purposes of my Sound of Blackbirds contributions, that means exchanging the Iron Horse for One Longfellow Square and the Calvin Theater for the State Theater. In fact, there are more possibilities for live music in the greater Portland area than there are in greater Northampton, as near as I can tell, but there’s nothing quite like the Iron Horse. And that’s one reason why, for my first concert in a couple of months, I drove three hours back to the Valley for another concert at that magnificent room.

The other reason is Kasey Chambers. I first heard of Kasey about 10 years ago. I recall sitting in my friend Joanna’s living room in Brooklyn, listening to her friends and roommates talk with great enthusiasm about the act that upstaged Lucinda Williams at her recent Roseland concert in the city. There was an album out called The Captain (2000), and a couple of them raved about it. I wasn’t sure what to make of these reports at the time; had I missed out on something big? Lucinda Williams is great, no doubt, but I had seen her be upstaged before, most notably in Baltimore, when her Shriver Hall performance felt remarkably flat after Patty Griffin torched the stage with her Flaming Red (1998) songs. And I’ve also seen her open for rocks icons—the Allman Brothers in 1999, Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 2003—in a way that didn’t do justice to her own greatness. Lucinda Williams (1988) and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) will always be great albums, but…I digress.

I got the answer to my question when, in early 2002, I attended an acoustic WFUV-sponsored Kasey Chambers performance at the Museum of Television and Radio in midtown Manhattan. She was touring to promote Barricades and Brickwalls (2002), but I don’t think I had heard an album of hers yet. I went to the show on the recommendation of Joanna and in the company of her friend Marisa. As I type this, I’ve accessed an audio recording of that performance, available from the WFUV archives, and it sounds fabulous. What I remember best is hearing a song that I figured had to be an old Hank Williams song that she’d updated slightly and being pleasantly surprised to learn that “A Little Bit Lonesome” was a Kasey Chambers original. I also remember being completely floored by her natural instrument; her voice, I mean. Listening back today, hearing her perform “On a Bad Day” makes me wonder why I haven’t been a huge fan ever since. But the whole performance was wonderful, and so was meeting her and getting her autograph after the show.

Even after that, however, the real breakthrough for me was seeing her with Annie in the fall of 2004 at Irving Plaza with her full band. There, she rocked. I had only listened to Wayward Angel (2004) once or twice before the show but, afterwards, I began listening to it constantly. The Irving Plaza show featured not only great songs from each of her three albums, but fantastic covers of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks,” harsh and rocking, and Neil Young’s “Comes a Time,” slow and acoustic with lush harmonies from her bandmates.

And it was Annie who I took with me to see Kasey on Thursday night. This was the first time she's accompanied me to an Iron Horse show since we saw Dar Williams there in the fall of 2009, as detailed here. She drove 90 minutes or so from Vermont, I drove 3 hours from Maine—the longest drive I’ve ever taken for a concert. Since Kasey doesn’t come to the states all that often any more, I figured this could be the last chance we’d have to see her for a long time. It turns out that Kasey is 6 months pregnant with her 3rd child.

Before she took the stage, her bandmate and father Bill Chambers entertained us with about 20 minutes of solo guitar and songs. The originals—“Theresa,” “South-end Rain,” and, best of all, “Drifting South”—worked just fine, but I was particularly impressed by the two covers. First came Mary Gauthier’s “I Drink,” which I haven’t listened to in a long time and elicited some laughter, just like I remember it doing over 10 years ago when I first heard Mary play it (opening for Richard Shindell at the Bottom Line). It’s actually a deeply serious song, about alcoholism and selfhood, and the laughs were in the same vein as the laughter that Loudon Wainwright elicits with his best material. And then there was a Fred Eaglesmith song called “Just Dreaming,” which I had never heard before. The mood of the song was interrupted a bit by an Iron Horse waitress who starting topping off my water glass without noticing that I had hard cider, not water, in the glass. But whatever. By the time the music had begun, the show had sold out, and even watered down cider couldn’t dilute my excitement.

Kasey Chambers hit the stage at about 7:35 with her band and launched a couple of songs from her new album, Little Bird, out into the room. I didn’t know these songs, but they were delicious, especially one that, I’ve since learned, is called “Beautiful Mess.” After that, the band leaned into “Last Hard Bible” from her first album, The Captain (2000), drawing big applause and, from there, she and her band took us through songs from each of her albums, with a focus on the new one, and included some ace covers along the way (including a Nancy Griffith song that I didn’t know). From the opening song, her huge voice filled the room and

Her band is sharp. Along with her immensely talented father, a second guitar player was onstage, Michael Muchow, and so was a beautiful 18 year old fiddler, Ashleigh Dallas, who was, in her own shy, rather endearing way, having the time of her life on-stage. This was, it turned out, her first time in the United States. Kasey assured us that she’d done her best to acclimate Ashleigh to American culture…by having her watch the complete My Name is Earl DVD set. Michael Muchow didn’t talk much, but he smiled and laughed at Kasey’s gags. After a particularly long story from Kasey, Michael discovered that his gear wasn’t yet ready for the next song. He fiddled with it a bit and said, into the microphone, “It’s not like I haven’t had enough time to get it ready.” That crack drew some of the hardest laughter not only from us, but from Kasey, not to mention Ashley, whose eyes widened in delighted shock at that comment. The band's accompaniment was functional, direct, and to the point. Not many solos. One song, whose title I did not catch, was a Bill Chambers-Ashleigh Dallas co-write, and it was really good. Michael had only recently learned the banjo, Kasey told us, specifically to play with her on tour. He did fine, and so did Ashleigh.

Kasey was a charming, gracious hostess. She and her band were really happy to be there. Really happy. And by "there," she meant the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. She reported that this is one of her very favorite venues in the world, a place that she talks about and yearns for playing even while they’re on the other side of the world. She joked about her pregnancy, noting that “getting knocked up” was one of her only skills outside of playing music. She told stories about her band, her travels, her children. She was cheerful and upbeat and impossible not to warm to.

Her newest album, Little Bird, is already out in Australia, and it will appear in the US next week. Based on what she played Thursday night, I sense it’s a great one. Along with “Beautiful Mess,” there was a song called “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard)” about her childhood, growing up in the Australian desert, a theme she first addressed in “The Nullarbor Song,” from Barricades and Brickwalls. All told, she sang half a dozen songs from Little Bird, and they all sounded great to me.

What else? She played “The Captain” alone on stage. There were a bunch of Barricades and Brickwalls songs—“On a Bad Day,” “Not Pretty Enough,” “Still Feeling Blue” (one of the highlights of the whole show), and, for the final encore, “Barricades and Brickwalls”—but only one song from Wayward Angel –“Pony.” As her band was getting in tune for “Pony,” someone from the audience asked if she would name her next child after Ralph Stanley, a reference to a line in the song. She laughed at that and talked about the problems with naming her second child, Arlo. She and the father had wanted to name him after a great songwriter. For the father, that meant Neil Young. But Neil didn’t seem quite right to them, particular given all the Neils in the world. So they decided they’d go with Neil Young’s middle name…until they learned that his middle name was Percival. “So that’s how we settled on Arlo,” she concluded, and we all laughed. Then, “Neil Young is the coolest guy in the world...but his middle name is Percival,” and we laughed even harder.

Toward the end of her set, she mentioned that Australians are not particularly into bluegrass music, so they had to be eased into it. That was her introduction to the band’s bluegrass medley: get-down arrangements of “Not Pretty Enough” and “The Captain,” leading into the Bee Gees' “Stayin’ Alive” and Michael Jackson's “Beat It.” This was corny, but it was also a lot of fun, particularly on account of how big and powerful the band sounds when Kasey leads them in harmony.

The set ended with “We’re All Gonna Die Someday” from The Captain, and upon returning to the stage for the encore, she assured us that there was no way she wasn’t going to return for another song or two. We could have already left, she told us, and they’d have been back to sing to the empty room. And then came a highlight of the evening, as the band played a slow, elegiac, mournful version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” before finishing off the evening’s music with “Barricades and Brickwalls.”

Kasey is in the US through July 16th. See here for tour details. Seek her out, is my advice.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

U2 at Soldier Field

I know that there are some haters out there, so with my apologies to you, let me say that U2 is the best damn band on the planet.

Ellen and I were 110 percent satisfied with their appearance at Soldier Field in Chicago on Tuesday night, which was the reason behind and the last event in a wonderful Fourth of July trip to Chicago.

We pre-gamed the show with a healthy pour of Jameson at Kitty O'Sheas, a bar in the Hilton, up Michigan Avenue from Soldier Field. The place was full of U2 fans, and there was U2 coming off the jukebox. So it was great fun to hear folks reminiscing about The Unforgettable Fire tour and talking about having seen 18 previous U2 shows or to see them jumping up and down a little bit when "Bad" came on. Ellen and I were having a lot of fun reciting our favorite lines from Rattle and Hum, such as B.B. King protesting that he would not be able to play the chords on "When Loves Comes to Town."

We arrived at Soldier Field shortly after Interpol had started their opening set. I had not known who the opening band would be until shortly before the show, and I was super-excited to hear them. But the stadium swallowed them right up. The place was about half-full, and the crowd that was there wasn't terribly excited, and the band seemed to mostly be going through the motions. Certainly, this is the way that most opening acts at a U2 concert go down, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

(By the way, here is my bold -- if ultimately disrespectful -- suggestion for some future U2 opening band. In order to gain maximum notoriety and possibly start a riot, why not take the stage and play a complete set of U2 songs without first getting U2's approval? How unbelievably insolent would that be? Would they bring the sound down? Would the fans storm the stage? It would be a happening at the very minimum.)

In between the acts, we discussed the provocative statistics streaming across the LED screen at some length. Those faded away, and David Bowie's "Space Oddity" ("Ground Control to Major Tom") announced the band's entrance. That recording segued seemlessly into "Even Better Than the Real Thing," and we were off for a little Achtung Baby action to start off the show. "The Fly" was up next. And then "Mysterious Ways" with just a touch of "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" tagged on. Oh my! Could the Achtung Baby festival continue? It could! "Until the End of the World" was next.

Then they jumped back to Boy for "Out of Control." And then all the way forward to No Line on the Horizon for "Get On Your Boots (Sexy Boots)."

Bono took a moment to elicit some boos from the crowd by talking about Larry Mullen Jr. going to see the White Sox play. And then he also announced that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel had declared Independence Week as an extended celebration of American independence.

With "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Bono stepped away from the microphone for almost a full verse to let the crowd sing it -- some 70,000 strong. And then he talked about the band recording the songs for Achtung Baby and Zooropa before playing "Stay (Faraway, So Close)."

Bono announced that they would be sending the next song out to Gabby Giffords. It was "Beautiful Day," and Giffords' husband Mark Kelly appeared from the International Space Station during the song. Bono took us out of "Beautiful Day" and back into "Space Oddity" before the band moved on to "Elevation."

Introducing "Pride," Bono waxed a little poetic about the notion of America as an idea and not just a country, and then at the end of the song, the crowd kept the vocal part going for another few rounds.

The reference back to The Passegers' CD with "Miss Sarajevo" seemed to leave a substantial portion of the crowd scratching their heads, but the band came out of that with the more familiar "Zooropa" and then the more recent "City of Blinding Light" and "Vertigo."

Coming back to No Line on the Horizon for the second time of the night, they played a really altered version of "I'll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight" that concluded with a segue into a little bit of "Discotheque" (the only reference to Pop in the show). "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was given a set of graphics referencing the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East, and then "Scarlet" (from October) was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. As it faded into "Walk On," people holding Amnesty International candles came out and filled up the whole circle around the stage and the pit.

There was then a recorded presentation by Aung San Suu Kyi about freedom and repression in Burma that led the band into "One." Bono used Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" to lead into the iconic opening arpeggios of "Where the Streets Have No Name." Ellen and I both thought that was totally brilliant.

The obscure "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" was followed by "With or Without You."

Bono then hinted at the band wanting to play "One Tree Hill" in honor of the 25th death anniversary of Greg Carroll for whom the song was written. He said that he needed to consult with "the professor," and I was really excited for a brief moment until I realized that he was talking about The Edge.

In order to get everything in place, the band played "Moment of Surrender" (the third entry from the most recent CD). And then Edge had to find the right key and make sure that his fingers could still do it, but the band closed with "One Tree Hill." And what a special moment -- to see those guys have to figure out a song that they hadn't necessarily expected to play after all of the pomp and circumstance of the show, and then to put it all out there and end the night of music.

And so Ellen and I walked out of Soldier Field feeling sated and satisfied.