Friday, September 25, 2009

A Concert Life

OK, the move has happened and we are just about settled, so maybe I can get back to doing this on a little bit more of a regular basis. We'll see, I'm still responsible for taking care of a kid that is right now just about 11 months old.


I moved back to Chicago earlier this month after six years living on the East Coast, with the last three being in New York and it was really hard leaving Manhattan. We got really used to how great it is to live in The City. Great vegetarian restaurants, the best public transportation in the U.S. and a lot of really cool music venues to see some of my favorite acts who seemed to be coming through town all the time (I saw Robyn Hitchcock five times in 2008 alone). And

So being back in Chicago will take some getting used to. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of great memories living here. I saw the very last Replacements concert from the front row in Grant Park and walked away with a guitar pick. I met my wife here (well, in the 'burbs) and some of my favorite friends still live here. And of all the places I've seen live music, my favorite for a long time was The Hideout, though in NYC I really fell in love with Barbes and The Bell House, both in Brooklyn, and the Concert Hall on the Upper West Side. Of course, none of those compare to seeing a show at The Turning Point in Piermont, about an hour north of Manhattan. Seriously, if you like live music at all, do yourself a favor and see a show there before you die.

But Chicago is a really good town for live music, and I got to be reminded of that pretty quickly after I got here. I went to another of my favorite Chicago venues, Martyrs, for The Baseball Project/Minus 5/Steve Wynn show. If you haven't heard of The Baseball Project, here's a quick description: Scott McCaughey, leader of both the Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 and a permanent sideman of REM for more than a decade, and Steve Wynn, formerly of the Dream Syndicate, got together and wrote a bunch of songs about baseball. They were joined by Linda Pitmon, a drummer for lots of different bands, and Peter Buck from REM to record a great album.

These are some of my favorite musicians. I grew up an REM fanatic, and Scott and Peter also play in The Venus 3, Robyn Hitchcock's (my absolute favorite musician) current backing band. Scott McCaughey plays with so many of my favorite people - Wilco, REM, Decemberists, Robyn Hitchcock - and is such a great songwriter. He really should be a lot more famous than he is. There is really no more proof needed in how unjust the world is than the fact that Hannah Montana plays in packed stadiums and Scott McCaughey only gets to by hanging out with REM.

And The Baseball Project album is fantastic. Rather than write songs that just celebrate their love of the game, ala Centerfield (don't get me wrong, I LOVE that John Fogerty ditty), they made some tunes about specific players and incidents, some based on fact and others based more on folklore. There's Ted Fucking Williams, based what Teddy Ballgame supposedly used to scream out during batting practice ("I'm Ted Fucking Williams and I'm the greatest hitter in baseball!"), Gratitude, about Curt Flood, who fought on his own for players' right to free agency and who is largely forgotten by today's players who owe their million-dollar paychecks to him, Satchel Paige Said, a celebration of the man who may have been the best pitcher in the history of the game; among the songs about players from the game's history.

Two of my favorites are Steve Wynn's Harvey Haddix and Scott McCaughey's Broken Man. The first tells the story of the pitcher who may have pitched the best game in the history of Major League Baseball, 12 perfect innings, but is not in the record books because his Pirate teammates could not score and he lost the game in the 13th. The latter song is about Mark McGwire's fall from the man who helped "save baseball" after the strike to the disgraced steroid user. Scott McCaughey has an amazing talent for writing really catchy songs (listen to John Barleycorn Must Live, Town That Lost Its Groove Supply, Cigarettes, Coffee and Booze or With A Gun and you'll see what I mean) but Broken Man might be his catchiest yet. It has a hook that just pulls you in.

I walked in to Martys on the night of the show and it felt like I had been there yesterday, even though the last time I saw a show there was back in May of 2003 for a Jeff Tweedy solo gig. The place was as cool as I remembered it. It didn't seem like anything had changed, except I think there might be better beer choices now. And despite good beer on the menu most people there still seemed to be drinking Bud, Coors, PBR or some other swill. What is it with Chicagoans and their love of shitty beer?

I was at the show by myself, a common occurrence. I see a lot of shows on my own, not that many of my friends are in to the same music as me or are as interested in seeing shows as often as I like to. In the last couple of years in New York I had met some people at a couple of Robyn Hitchcock shows that became my concert-going posse. I did wish they were there, a fun group of music geeks that I really liked hitting shows with in NYC.

But no matter. I was in my element. Around my people. Indy-rock music dorks, oh how I love them so. This was the kind of crowd that, had I struck up a conversation with anyone, many of them might have been impressed with me saying, "So I saw Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow opening for Robyn Hitchcock at the Backstage in Seattle back in 1994," or "I was at the Crocodile Cafe in 1995 when Peter Buck played with Kevn Kinney, that included the most amazing cover of Leaving On A Jet Plane." (I went to both shows with my favorite all-time concert-going buddy Trevor) I didn't need to have these conversations that night, it was just enough knowing I was around a crowd who might appreciate the experiences.

I was not really prepared this night on just how great this show was going to be. There was no division in the sets between each band, it was the four members of The Baseball Project playing for the whole night, doing songs from Baseball Project, Minus 5 (and one Young Fresh Fellows song), Steve Wynn's various incarnations (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, etc.) and a few covers.

They absolutely brought the house down with an incredible high energy show that went for two full sets and an encore. By the time they were done it had been almost three hours since they took the stage. I've seen Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey play dozens of times, in many different projects, but I'd never been to a Steve Wynn show before so I didn't know what to expect. Well Steve Wynn is one hell of an impressive guitar player, but Linda Pitmon really stole the show for me. She plays her drums with an incredible energy of wild abandon yet completely focused at the same time. She is the funnest drummer I've seen play since Bill Berry from REM. I was mesmerized by her stick work and her flailing hair as she banged her kit.

A truly fantastic night, maybe my favorite concert of the year so far, going neck-and-neck with Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 at the Bell House in Brooklyn. And that show had half of the same people playing.

I really enjoy two things more than anything else in the world - traveling and live music. My dream is to combine the two some day and do some rock and roll tourism. I'd love to see one of my favorite musicians in a club somewhere like London or Spain or Germany or Tokyo. The one I want to do the most is see Robyn Hitchcock do one of his benefit shows at the Three Kings pub in the Clerkenwell neighborhood in London. That's how much of a music geek I am.

Why I like to travel seems pretty obvious. Seeing different cultures, sights and people is something a lot of people like to do.

But it has always been hard to explain why I am so in love with live music to the point I'll spend my last dollar on a band instead of food.

I was thinking about this when I was leaving Martyrs that night, why I feel such pure joy at a show. It kind of finally dawned on me.

I'm not the most "in the moment" kind of person. Ask anybody who knows me. I tend to over think just about everything and always be in my head. But not at shows by bands that I really love. I am so in the moment when I'm standing there taking in the music, I just let it flow over me and suck me in its world. No thinking, just feeling. No worries, just happiness.

Is my career where I want it to be? Am I a good husband? A good father? Am I doing enough to make a difference in the world? These thoughts go away for a time and are not a part of it.

But what is "it?" I don't know how to put it without sounding incredibly gooberistic and dweeby. At one with myself? With the universe? An out of body experience? Religious experience? See what I mean? Very stupid sounding, all of them.

I guess I'm

And it seems that on those occasions I'm OK with being just that. And that is no small thing.