Review: David Gray

(Above: A 2006 performance of “Freedom” at Hammersmith Apollo Theater in London. When David Gray returned to the song at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, it was one of several stand-out moments during the show.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

David Gray rewarded a decade’s worth of patience Wednesday night at a sold-out Uptown Theater. The English singer-songwriter broke through in America with the release of his album “White Ladder” in 2000. Gray has released three additional albums since then, but this was his first performance in Kansas City.

The set stopped just shy of two hours, and drew almost exclusively from those albums, tipping slightly toward last fall’s “Draw the Line.”

The crowd didn’t need a reason to get excited, but Gray gave them incentive anyway, pulling out heavy hitter “Sail Away” early. Directing the audience into the chorus with a broad sweep of his arm, the performance felt like an encore. It was the second number of the night.

Once he held the crowd, Gray never let them go. Or rather, the crowd never let go of him. Even quiet numbers were assaulted with proclamations of love and song requests.  The opening chords of “Babylon,” the song that likely introduced a lot of the audience to Gray, drew an evangelic fervor. Arms were waved and voices raised as the congregation celebrated every syllable of the song.

A couple times early on, Gray shook his head and wiped his face as if to shut out the relentless adoration, but the performances were too strong to be capsized by the overzealous assembly. Much of the credit for this goes to Gray’s four-piece backing band.

All of the members save one were lined up on the lip of the stage, adding further intimacy to the evening. Positioned at extreme stage left, drummer Keith Prior was the secret weapon, adding urgency and energy in all the right places, yet knowing exactly when to back off.

On “Now and Always” bass player Robbie Malone added a great bass line to Gray’s wailing harmonica that left the song sounding like a train in the distance. Guitarist Neill MacColl contributed great slide guitar to “Be Mine” and “Fugitive.” He also delivered especially nimble line on “Nemesis.” Behind them all, keyboard player James Hallaway was the subtle glue that held everything together.

Shifting from guitar to piano, Gray was spectacular regardless of the setting, be it the spare, solo piano of “Ain’t No Love,” the hushed acoustic guitar of “Kathleen,” or an epic full-band performance like “Freedom.” Whatever he played and however he delivered them, Gray’s songs all bore a certain similarity. Many of them started at a glacier’s pace. Like an iceberg, they didn’t appear to be moving, then would suddenly tower over everything, overwhelming the surroundings with their strength and beauty.

With touch of echo on the vocals and a starry backdrop, “The Other Side” seemed to be emanating from the Flint Hills. It was one of the more powerful performances of the night, but “Nemesis,” the next number, was even better. As thin beams of light bounced off a mirror ball and sprayed into the space, Gray closed his eyes and threw his arms out over his guitar as if healing the room. Meanwhile, everyone prayed it wouldn’t be another ten years until his return.

Phosphorescent: This pleasant, low-key act from New York was the perfect complement to Gray’s asthetic. The quintet’s 30-minute set caught fire with a pair of Willie Nelson covers: “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” and “Reasons to Quit.” Unfortunately, just when they started to build momentum, time elapsed. They would definitely be worth a closer look in a smaller venue, like Davy’s Uptown.

Setlist
Draw the Line; Sail Away; Jackdaw; World To Me; Now and Always; Kathleen; Babylon; Be Mine; Stella the Artist; Slow Motion; Freedom; Ain’t No Love; Fugitive; The One I Love. Encore: This Year’s Love; The Other Side; Nemesis; Please Forgive Me.

Keep reading:

Review: Mutemath

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

Review: No Doubt, Paramore

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

(Above: Hot Club of Cowtown get lowdown at the Americana Music Association Festival in 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When Elana James was growing up in Kansas City, you could usually find her in Westport on the weekends. After checking out the bookstore, window shopping for clothes or catching a movie she’d take out her violin and busk.

What James played, though, wasn’t the classical music she’d been trained. James’ bow bounced to old timey fiddle music meant for dancing. And it tormented her.

“I thought it was the road to ruin,” James (nee Fremerman) said. “It wasn’t until I graduated from college I realized I wanted to play a more immediate, social music and, especially, dance music. It was such an undeniable pull by then I didn’t feel bad about leaving classical music, but I was at war with myself for a long time over it.”

James may have gotten over her classical guilt, but she had a harder time getting over the demise of her band, the Hot Club of Cowtown. In the past decade, the band broke through and found success, only to crumble at its peak. After a few years apart, the trio reformed to try it all over again.

“It’s funny,” James said, “a lot of stuff has changed around us, but I don’t feel like what we do has changed, only gotten better.”

The Western swing trio opened the decade with two albums under their belt and were building a steady following with their dynamic live shows. In 2004 they caught a deserved break when Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson invited them to offer their joint tour of minor league ball parks.

“We were in England on tour when our manager told us of the offer,” James said, recalling the fateful day. “It was totally incredible – it was one of the happiest, most exciting things I had experience in my life at that point. There were no expectations for the tour. We just thought we’d play our 23 and a half minute slot and that’s it. It turned out the tour was incredibly fun, musically gratifying experience.”

What should have been a tipping point turned to disappointment when Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith decided to pursue other projects. Fortunately another guitarist, Bob Dylan, offered James a spot in his band.

“It’s not something I like to talk about,” James said. “He (Dylan) loved my playing and was a huge advocate of me musically and personally. He gave me a lot of confidence and it was an honor to have that reception from him.

“The highest compliment you can get is to be asked to play with somebody else,” James continued.”I got a lot out of my friendship with him and his enthusiasm for the things I was doing.”

After double-duty time with Dylan – James also served as opening act on the tour – James formed the Continental Two and released a solo album. She couldn’t stay away from her Cowtown bandmates, though. Smith frequently sat in with James. Before long, bass player Jake Erwin was back in the fold as well.

“The band is the best at what we do,” James said. “Nobody sounds like us or does what we do as well. That’s why we got back together.”

But a lot changed over the band’s four year hiatus. Print outlets that used to champion the band, like “No Depression” were no longer around. And the decay of the major labels meant the standard system of filters were no longer in place.

“It’s been difficult after stopping to regain that momentum. We’ve had to come back and reintroduce ourselves. The media opportuines – so disorganized and spread out,” James said. “We are swimming in a difficult sea.”

Between the release of a greatest hits compilation in 2008 and a new album in 2009, the threesome spent the year touring the world, reintroducing themselves to fans.

“We weren’t expecting it, but people found out about us and things have been going great guns,” James said. “We’re actually having more work than we can accommodate. We have to be choosy.”

While there won’t be a new Cowtown album this year, James said the band will “probably start heading in that direction.” In the meantime, they just want to enjoy their accomplishments.

“This is our fun year,” James said. “There’s no major agenda. Last year was hard work, making the record, then putting it out on three continents and touring to support it.”

Although James didn’t know it at the time, the country music she plays today is just as much a part of her upbringing as the classical instruction she started receiving at age 5.

“Coming from Kansas,” James said, “even though I didn’t grow up listening to fiddle tunes and old dudes sitting on the porch and drinking moonshine, when you pull back I can see how that culture just seeped into me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my time in Kansas City.”

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

More Bob Dylan on The Daily Record

New DVD Box Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

rock hall dvds

By Joel Francis

When the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, a tuxedo-clad Mick Jagger famously announced “Tonight we’re all on our best behavior — and we’re being rewarded for 25 years of bad behavior.”

That irony is on full display throughout eight of the DVDs in a new collection of induction ceremony performances released by Time Life and the Rock Hall this month. (A ninth disc features highlights from the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held in Cleveland.) Despite white tablecloth banquet tables and austere surroundings, great music frequently prevails.

The “Rock Hall Live” discs each run between 75 and 90 minutes and have a loose theme of soul, punk or ‘50s pioneers and the performances span the first ceremony in 1986 to this year’s Metallica induction. The performances tend to fall in two camps.

The early ceremonies were all-star celebrations of the inductees’ songbooks shot with on a couple video camera. Through fly-on-the-wall footage we see Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry swap verses on “Roll Over Beethoven” and Little Richard rejoice through “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as Jagger, Bob Dylan, members of the Beatles, Beach Boys and other rock royalty stand shoulder to shoulder, holding mics and strumming instruments. It’s fun to play spot the artist during these early presentations. Sometimes the results are shocking, as when Stevie Ray Vaughan appears – playing a Les Paul, no less – during “Beethoven.”

As the ceremonies grew in stature, the performances were better preserved and choreographed. The past 15 years of inductions play like one massive VH1 special, makes sense as these events have been a spring broadcast staple on that channel for better than a decade. Although the production is smoother, the spontaneity is retained when Jimmy Page casually strolls onstage to join Jeff Beck on “Beck’s Bolero” and Queen jam with the Foo Fighters on “Tie Your Mother Down.”

With are more than 100 performances across the nine discs, some unevenness is expected. Some this is because of the health of the performers. These discs capture some of the final appearances by The Band’s Rick Danko, Ruth Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell and Johnny Cash. Brown and Powell are fine, but Danko and Cash labor through their sets. Sometimes the pairings misfire, as on Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose’s duet through “Come Together.”

These missteps are minimized by the tight pacing of each disc, which moves from artist to artist like a well-paced soundtrack, with occasional snippets of introduction and induction speeches. (Complete version of selected speeches are available as bonus features.)  Despite the loose themes, each disc boasts a variety of guitar heroes, singer/songwriters, tributes and hits.

The best moments come when the performers reach beyond the formal atmosphere, like when Patti Smith spits onstage, or two kids bum rush the stage to help Green Day commemorate the Ramones. There is an impressive display of solos from guitar heroes Beck, Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, and Kirk Hammett, but the greatest six-string moment is Prince’s searing tribute to George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Anchored by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Harrison’s son Dhani, the immaculately tailored Prince soars on an jaw-dropping solo that is long on both melody and style.

Each disc contains about a several bonus features, which highlight backstage moments like watching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry induct Led Zeppelin from the wings of the stage with the band (and Willie Nelson!). It’s fun to watch Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty work out “Green River” and to eavesdrop on Hammett and Perry talk about guitars, but one viewing is probably enough.

One downside to this set is the packaging and sequencing. Each disc is housed in its own separate, full-sized case. This takes up a lot of shelf space. It would have been nice if they all came bundled in one compact, cardboard and plastic unit like seasons of TV shows.

The greater inconvenience is the sequencing. Cream’s three-song reunion from 1993 is spread across three discs. Ditto for the Doors’ 1993 set with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (three songs over three discs) and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street revival from 1999 (four songs on four discs). Culling the best moments is understandable, but it would have been great to get the multi-song sets in one place. It is also puzzling that less than two hours of the six-hour Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are included.

Oversights aside, any of these discs stand alone as a fun romp through rock history and celebration of its greatest songs and players across most genres and eras. At $120, this set isn’t cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot more affordable – and easier to come by – than the ticket that gets you a plate at one of those sterile, banquet tables. You don’t have to dress up, either.

(Full disclosure: The Daily Record received a complimentary review copy of “Rock Hall Live.”)

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

Rock Hall Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

Lanois + Raffi = Eno

(Above: Raffi was a staple of The Daily Record’s early childhood. The oft-spun LP remains in its archives.)

By Joel Francis

Like many adolescent males in the mid-‘60s, Canadian Dan Lanois pined for a guitar. But he didn’t just want to make music, he wanted to record it, too.

Armed with an instrument and a cheap, tiny cassette recorder, Lanois and his brother Robert started recording anything they could find. They soon found manipulating the results was almost as fun as making and capturing the sounds. The siblings eventually invested in a four-track recorder and set up a small studio in the laundry room of their mother’s Ancaster, Ontario home.

The domestic facility was named MSR Studios, and the brothers advertised that for $60 they would not only record a band’s demo, but arrange, play on and compose the tracks as well. A short time after MSR Studios opened for business in the mid-‘70s, the Lanois brothers’ ad caught the eye of Egyptian immigrant Raffi Cavoukian.

Cavoukian was a veteran of Toronto’s folk circuit, but his 1975 album, “Good Luck Boy” generated little heat. Cavoukian’s mother-in-law encouraged him to write and record some songs for the children at her preschool. Aided by his wife, kindergarten teacher Debi Pike, Cavoukian recorded a tape that was so successful other schools started requesting copies.

MSR Studios was everything Cavoukian was looking for. Cheap, efficient and local it even came with its own musicians. In 1976, Cavoukian borrowed $4,000 from a bank recorded his first children’s album, “Singable Songs for the Very Young,” at the Lanois brother’s small home studio. Dan Lanois also played mandolin, recorded, mixed and engineered the album.

The easygoing, folk-flavored “Singable Songs for the Very Young” was a smash that ranked among top children’s album more than two decades after it was released.  Boosted by sessions with Cavoukian, by now going by simply Raffi, Doug McArthur, another Toronto folkie, and rock band Simply Saucer, the Lanois brothers soon had enough money to move their studio to better quarters. In 1978 they purchased a Hamilton, Ontario house on Grant Avenue, which became, naturally, Grant Avenue Studio.

Raffi was one of the first artists to use Grant Avenue Studio. By now he and Dan Lanois had collaborated on two albums and would go on to record two more together. Their body of work together comprised Raffi’s first four children’s albums. Grant Avenue also boasted sessions by singer/songwriter Ian Tyson and new wave band Martha and the Muffins.

The Muffins had just come off a commercially successful tour opening for Roxy Music, but they lost two members in the process. When the remaining quartet decided to carry on, one of the new musicians they recruited was bass player Jocelyne Lanois, sister of Dan and Robert. The Muffins got permission from Virgin to make an album with Dan Lanois with the stipulation that they operate on a miniscule budget. This was no obstacle for Lanois, and the resulting album “This is the Ice Age” generated a Top 40 Canadian single.

The band and album didn’t do much outside of the Great White North, however, and they were dropped by Virgin. The Muffin’s relationship with Lanois, however, flourished through two more albums. Their 1984 album, “Mystery Walk,” featured guest drummer Yogi Horton. Horton was a veteran of the 1981 experimental album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and was recommended by his boss during those sessions, Brian Eno.

Eno, of course, had cemented his legendary reputation with his work in Roxy Music and the solo albums he released in the first half of the 1970s, and his production work with Devo, David Bowie, Talking Heads and the “No New York” No Wave compliation in the second half of the decade. By the mid-‘80s, Eno and Lanois were longtime associates.

Lanois’ tape and recording manipulations first caught Eno’s attention in the late ‘70s. Although embroiled in producing the final chapter in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and on albums with both the Talking Heads and their bandleader David Byrne, Eno and Lanois met at Grant Avenue to experiment with sound and recording. In 1979, Eno recorded “The Plateaux of Mirror,” the second installment in his ambient series, with Harold Budd at Grant Avenue. Although they did not produce the album, “Bob and Danny Lanois” are thanked in the album credits.

In 1982, Lanois co-produced and played some on the fourth installment of Eno’s ambient series, “On Land.” The following year, Lanois received cover billing for his musical and production contributions to the “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.” One of the album’s tracks, “Silver Morning,” was essentially a Lanois solo performance.

When U2 asked Eno to produce their fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire,” in 1984 Eno brought Lanois with him. The next year, Eno recommended Lanois to Peter Gabriel to help with the “Birdy” soundtrack.

Ten years after opening MSR Studios in his mother’s laundry room, Lanois was an A-list producer. He and Gabriel collaborated on several landmark albums, including “So” and “Us.” Eno and Lanois also repeatedly re-teamed with U2 for “The Joshua Tree,” portions of “Rattle and Hum,” “Achtung Baby,” “All that You Can’t Leave Behind” and the Irish quartet’s most recent album, “No Line on the Horizon.” Lanois has also worked with Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Hothouse Flowers, Willie Nelson and released several solo albums.

Meet the New Boss: Pat Green

pat-green
By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Pat Green may be a country singer from Texas, but his inspiration is a rock star from New Jersey.

“I’m trying to do what (Bruce) Springsteen did,” he said. “Jersey knew all about Springsteen before ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ came out and launched him.”

“Texas knows what I’m about. I can sell out as big of an arena as you want in Texas, but in Kansas City I’m playing a thousand-seater.”

Green will bring the music he describes as “if Springsteen and Willie Nelson had a kid” on Saturday to the Granada Theater in Lawrence. He’ll also be previewing his new album, “What I’m For,” which comes out Tuesday.

“When I get a new record out, I do like Springsteen and just make the shows longer. All the new stuff gets added to the old,” Green said. “You identify the bigger songs from that and throw them in the every-night pile.”

One new song he’s playing is “Country Star,” a country rewrite of Nickelback’s “Rock Star.” Green said he’s not sure if everyone will get the joke, and he’s fine with that.

“It’s a laughable notion to think of myself as a star,” he said. “Some of my guys know I’m kidding, that I’m not going to buy a shiny belt buckle and 10-gallon hat. But I like to write ambiguously, so that my songs can mean more than one thing to people. Others will laugh. Just picturing it is kind of funny.”

The flip side of that coin is “In It for the Money,” a soul-searching song about finding the right motivation.

“There is a quote by William Jennings I’m sure I’m going to butcher, but you have to do it for the right reasons. You have to care. This is not a dress rehearsal,” Green said. “Do you do it for love or do you do it for money?”

“What I’m For” also features a new arrangement of “Carry On,” a song Green has been carrying for more than a decade. The Police remake of their hit “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” inspired Green to take a different approach to his warhorse.

“That song is just part of my soul,” Green said. “Because I love it so much, I can move the furniture around without everyone getting upset with me. I never know how I’m going to play it in concert. Sometimes it’s just me and the guitar like a ballad. It’s been worn in every way you can wear it.”

Assisting Green for the first time is producer Dann Huff. The award-winning veteran has worked with artists as diverse as Bon Jovi, Megadeth and LeAnn Rimes.

“Keith Urban was mostly responsible for me hiring Dann Huff,” Green said. “I compared his work with Rascal Flatts and Faith Hill. Those albums sound completely different. They made me aware of Dan’s ability to wrap his hands around the individual artist and make the record toward them, rather than bending the artist to his vision.”

Pushing aside notions of trying to recapture the success of “Wave on Wave,” Green’s 2003 breakthrough hit, Green wrote an album that captured his life now as a father and family man.

“I’m not just going to sing anything to have a radio hit. I have to love it and believe it to sell it,” Green said. “I write about what I’m in tune with in this space, and that’s what Springsteen does, as well.”

Green, who happens to have his album coming out the same day as Springsteen’s “Working on a Dream,” has paid homage to the Boss by performing “Atlantic City” at his shows for years. For this tour he’s adding a new wrinkle.

“I think for this next tour I’m going to pull something off ‘The Rising’ for our encore,” Green said. “I have several songs in mind, but I don’t want to say what. If I go a different way, I won’t be caught lying.”

Top 10 Albums of 2008 (haiku remix)

raphael_saadiq_-_the_way_i_see_it

By Joel Francis

Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
Classic soul throwback.
Avoids tribute clichés by
keeping spirit true.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science
Great band gets better.
Bowie-meets-doo-wop epics.
Tunes for brain and feet.

Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson – Two Men with the Blues
Disparate worlds?
Not so fast. Legends say no.
Smiles all around.

David Byrne/Brian Eno – Everything That Happens…
Restless souls rejoin.
Straight-ahead compared to last album
Twenty-three years ago.

Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
Not Pixar film score.
Track 4 tears Dub-ya new one.
Mark Twain of music.

Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
Old country played right.
More Hank Williams than Junior.
Dad Steve should be proud.

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. 1
Esoteric beats
and furious politics
make for dark album.

Portishead – Third
More dark atmospheres,
Dormant band surprises all;
Not trip-hop retread.

She and Him – Vol. 1
Vanity project?
Hell no. Zooey is for real.
M. Ward is great foil.

Q-Tip – The Renaissance
Ten years not Tip’s fault,
stupid labels shelve three tries.
Glad to have you back.

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

willie2By Joel Francis

“Epic” is the key word in the title of Joe Nick Patoski’s 567-page biography on Willie Nelson. Drawn from dozens of interviews and scores of oral histories, books and articles, Patoski paints a comprehensive picture of his fellow Texan.

If Patoski skimps on Nelson’s childhood – less than 50 pages are devoted to his years as a minor – he makes up for it by piling chapter on top of chapter about Nelson’s early family life, struggles as a disc jockey and songwriter for hire and, finally, as a nascent country performer. Patoski also devotes an entire chapter on IRS struggles and puts in strong perspective how such horrible accounting could have transpired.

But while Patoski’s journalism skills and research is impeccable, he spends too much of his time telling and not enough showing. For example, there piles of anecdotes about Nelson’s generosity and his inability to say no. He sticks around for hours after concerts to sign autographs, and lavishly gifts his friends and family. When a credit card company asked him to put his face on their card, he said yes without thinking of the consequences. Manager Mark Rothbaum has to explain the implications.

“Well think about it: A third of all credit cards go into receivership, so a third of your fans will go bankrupt, and they will have to look at your picture on that card,” Rothbaum tells Nelson. “Every time they see your picture they will think, That prick is making money off of me.”

Nelson asked Rothbaum to get him out of the deal, but the reader is never given understanding of what compels Nelson to be so affable.

The person who shines best is Nelson’s longtime drummer Paul English. English doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, where he initially surfaces as a pimp who drills and robs pinball machines and operates backroom card games. When Nelson’s drummer failed to show up for a radio session, English is recruited. Even though he had never played drums before, but the experience went well enough English accepted Nelson’s invitation to walk away from the lucrative prostitution business and join the band on the road.

English’s skills with a gun and knife were handing in prying a reticent promoter away from the band’s money and bailing Nelson’s smart mouth out of fight. English was never shy about displaying the pistol he always carried, which was usually all it took to calm any disagreements. English’s black market background also came in handy procuring marijuana for the band.

Patoski’s meticulous exploration sheds light on Nelson’s long walk to fame, where record labels and producers try in vain to pigeonhole the artist, and Nelson’s inability to fit into their boxes, even when he gamely goes along. Later, as Nelson’s fame and wealth grows, he builds a studio on his Texas estate. Patoski conveys a laid-back atmosphere where music flows as freely as beer and songs are recorded as effortlessly as lighting a roach. That Nelson practically lived in his studio explains the prolificacy of his catalog (he released two albums in 2008), and the easygoing environment explains how his financial problems reached the boiling point.

The vision of Nelson unearthed in the book refuses to be worried about anything except his music, even when doing so compromised his family and friends. His nature reminds me of a line from the film “Walk the Line.” When Johnny Cash tells June Carter on the back of the tour bus that everything will work itself out, she replies “No, John. People work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.”

That Nelson’s music has attracted rednecks and hipsters alike is less mystifying after this thorough examination of the man. The songs are merely an extension of the personality: Nelson is willing to meet anyone anywhere for a good time. The access Nelson provided for this thick tome can rest proudly alongside his albums as a testament to the man’s generosity.

Too Close To Ground at Willie Nelson Concert

By Joel Francis

I’d love to discuss tonight’s Willie Nelson concert, but what I really want to tell you about is the crowd at the Willie Nelson show. You see, the good folks in Marshall, Mo. decided to host Willie and throw a concert in their city park. Now normally when a park contains a large hill, as the Indian Foothills Park does, one would place the stage at the bottom of the hill. Not the folks in Marshall, no sir. They put that stage right in the middle of the hill and made all of us watch it at a 15 degree angle.
Knowing what I do about angles and intoxication, I knew I would be in for some laughs, but I had no idea how big. The fun started before the show when the two white trash couples decided to punctuate their beers with some weed. The foursome passed a very small roach around for about 20 minutes before a Gatorade bottle was produced, which contained, I am very sure, not Gatorade. After a few swigs of whatever magic potion this bottle contained everyone seemed to be feeling a lot better. Coincidentally this is when Willie took the stage. So as the man in the Alan Jackson t-shirt put down the not-Gatorade and proceeded to line dance to the opening strains of “Whiskey River” he drew the ire of the crowd behind him. They needn’t of worried; it was the only time he was on his feet for the rest of the night.
You see, there was something in this wonderful concoction of weed and magic juice that when combined with the aforementioned 15 degree slope made it impossible to maintain a center of gravity. Not that our inebriated, high friend didn’t try. After tumbling too the ground he’d gingerly right himself by clinging to the lighting scaffolding. He’d tepidly place himself in his camping chair, but damn if that slope didn’t get him every time. Why if he could stay in that chair for more than 30 seconds without tumbling out and hitting his head on his scaffolding his wife was impressed.
The recumbent wife was not only not impressed – she was a little upset, too. Once, after her husband managed to place himself in his chair – and this was not an easy process for him – she started yelling at him. Expecting praise for completing such a difficult task, he started yelling back. Eventually the yelling got so intense that her chair toppled onto his, knocking both of them clean onto the ground. The Three Stooges would have been proud. Charlie Chaplain would have sued.
After much of the falling-down-bracing-on-the-scaffolding-sitting-in-the-chair-falling-down shenanigans (and they didn’t always happen in this order), the man decided all might be better if he just laid down for the remainder of the evening. This is pretty much what he did, except when the pesky police got involved. It seemed they didn’t believe a man could just lie unconscious of his own volution at a Willie Nelson concert. After shining a light in his eyes and lightly slapping his face, the boys in blue decided the best course of action would be to place him safely in his chair. I was silently praying they would, because I knew he would inevitably topple out and likely hit his head. Willie was churning through the hits – “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Always on My Mind,” “All of Me” – but there was no way he could compete with this.
Of course as we all expected, the man in the Alan Jackson t-shirt promptly tumbled to the ground, nearly taking an officer with him. I would have felt guilty at laughing at all this had I not witnessed these people gleefully bringing themselves to this state. Using his classic deductive police logic, one of the officers inquired of the other white trash couple if they may have any idea what could have happened to this stupefied stranger. Despite supplying the marijuana and not-Gatorade, they had no ideas. Unfortunately they also had no balance. As the shirtless, white trash supplier leaned in to spill his guts to the officer (the guilty are very willing to be helpful, up until the point they know they have implicated themselves), he started to fall, nearly taking yet another officer with him. Luckily our public servant remained upright, but the man did not fare so well, falling not only down, but over the milk crate that was doubling as his seat. Our topless sage wisely decided this was the safest position for him and remained doubled over the crate for the duration of the evening. Meanwhile, the unconscious blot was left upright in his chair by the police, who decided since he couldn’t hurt anyone, let alone move, they would leave him be. On cue, once their backs were turned, the man rolled out of the chair and sprawled on the ground leaving passers-by to fend for themselves to maneuver around his carcass.
You might think this would be the end. You might think that, but you would be wrong. You see, there were a couple thousand people at this concert, hundreds of gallons of alcohol consumed and still that pesky 15 degree incline.
A few yards past all this excitement, a woman in her late 50s was gleefully imbibing and dancing to the strains of “Seven Spanish Angels,” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” that were now filling the air. To say this woman was of generous girth would be an understatement, but this did not prevent her from flailing around like Greta Garbo. Fortunately this also did not prevent gravity from taking her on several sideways caterwauls. After several near-falls, the plump peasant managed to rapidly meet the earth, taking her husband with her. I only wish I could have seen it with both eyes, for my gaze was fixed up Sir Willie performing “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again” or some obscure number, and I only caught the tumble peripherally. My concert compatriot, Alan, though, saw the whole thing, the lucky so-and-so.
After that, my fantasy became that some poor bastard would stumble over the unconscious guy and be clumsily propelled into the fat woman, whereupon the two of them would topple over and take down a whole crowd. Think of it as human bowling.
It never happened, though. Last I saw them, the woman had – with the help of many friends – tepidly placed herself in a camping chair (it appeared to be more sturdy and did not spill its contents, unfortunately). The wife of the senseless man suddenly reappeared (she was gone for quite a while and I didn’t think to ask her what had taken so long), and loving place his head in her lap and gently ran her fingers through his hair as she spoke to him softly. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but she was probably reminisce about the times they had growing up together and what bears mom and dad could be.
Prior to this, the most fun I had experienced with a concert crowd was when we went to the Foo Fighters/Red Hot Chili Peppers show at Blandstone. It was just a couple days after Ozzfest had been through town and the turf back on the lawn was pretty torn up so to save the ground, the crew laid down mesh tarps. Unfortunately they got kicked up, revealing the slick underside, wet with the ground’s moisture. Understandably, no one wanted to stand on this slippery surface so it created what appeared to be a path in the swarm of people on the lawn. Many a sap unwittingly charged onto this lubricated runway, only to have their feet and head exchange places. I nearly fell down myself laughing at these poor souls.
That night had nothing on this, though. Why for the modest price of $25, I not only got two hours of Willie’s serenades, but so much slapstick tomfoolery that Buster Keaton would have blushed. Oh there was a lot more that happened that night – like the music itself, or the time I and a host of others were tricked into believe that we had met Willie himself – but that is another story altogether.