Celebrate Rosh Hashanah with The North Mississippi All-Stars and The Sugarman3

Note:  This review originally appeared on the now extinct About.com jambands page, way, way back in September of 2000.  It was a prehistoric time, so please forgive my naive, 24 year-old writing style.

As I trudged home from my long day of doing nothing at work, it was already sundown.  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, had begun.  Since I was literally $400 shy of being able to afford to worship God in a New York synagogue for the evening, I decided to head down to my own temple, The Temple of Groove.  In truth, I knew that for 12 bucks, the North Mississippi All-Stars and The Sugarman3 could take me to spiritual heights far higher than that of any stolid, Ben Stein-like, filthy-rich rabbi.
After a brief phone conversation with my brother, who was celebrating the New Year by watching the tape-delayed broadcast of the Olympics, I started to get ready to leave my apartment.  Then I realized that “The Simpsons” were on TV, and to my shock and surprise, this was an episode that I had never seen.  It was like I had found a Holy Grail of sorts (God, please excuse the Christian analogy) because it is a rare find when a Simpsons episode is unfamiliar to me.  “God surely likes The Simpsons,” I rationalized.  “Otherwise, he never would have advised Homer to skip church and watch football.”  I had no choice but to watch.
When “The Simpsons” ended, I had changed my clothes and was lacing-up my dancing shoes (the ones with holes in the bottom and a only small trace of an actual heel) when “Malcolm In The Middle” came on the TV.  Suddenly it occurred to me that this was the episode when the Dad teaches Malcolm how to skate, a half-hour of hilarious sidesplitting, pee-your-pants laughter.  This was a tough call, but I decided that “Malcolm In The Middle” hasn’t been around long enough for God to make a valid judgment, so I bolted for the subway.
All of my transfers were working-out smoothly, and to pass the time, I read an old copy of the elitist New York Magazine.  Is gossip-queen Liz Smith gay?  Does anyone actually care?  This was riveting stuff.
I got off of the train and misread the directions, so I wound up walking in a big circle.  That was okay because there are few places on Earth that smell sweeter than Chinatown in the evening.  The pungent aroma of rotting fish on the sidewalk prompted me to get my natural compass in gear and find the Bowery Ballroom post-haste.
I went inside to find my fellow Jew, Adam.  He, too, would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah inside the Temple of Groove .  I grabbed an overpriced beer in an elegant plastic cup (The Bowery Ballroom has an impeccable sense of style), and we sat downstairs and listened to the last song of pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph’s set over the P.A.  We traded Jewish war-stories (actually neither one of us has been involved in any Jewish wars), and then we went upstairs to partake in the groove known as The Sugarman3.
The crowd was very sparse and very middle-aged.  I knew that The Sugarman3 would not be a huge draw, but the North Mississippi All-Stars have been getting a lot of airplay on NPR recently, so I had no idea how many people would be there for the headliner.  Sure enough, it was NPR-donor night at the Bowery, as the place was populated with white upper-middle class liberals slumming in Chinatown .  The men were instantly recognizable by their tucked-in t-shirts, although there were several yuppies in dress shirts and slacks as well, and I even saw a man in a corduroy jacket and tie.  Ah, but I stereotype and digress…
The Sugarman3 were kicking-out some sweet funky grooves, and I had no choice but to move my body.  Unfortunately, the middle-aged NPR crowd was not interested in shaking their ass.  In fact, one might assume that they were not interested in having a good time either. An outbreak of “arms-folded disease” had swept over the crowd.  I turned around and began to read the minds of the disgruntled.
“What is with this funk music?  I did not pay for this!”
“How dare these musicians attempt to make me tap my toe.  I am appalled.”
“This is atrocious!  How can they be The Sugarman THREE if there are FOUR musicians?  This logic does not compute.”
“I wonder if the current economic downturn in Priceline.com’s stock price, coupled with their failure to meet the industry’s quarterly projections is a signal to buy the stock at a bargain price in what may be another surprising upswing into a bullish market.”
I bent down to pickup my beer and I discovered that this crowd was suffering from two major ailments:
1)      This crowd was anything but hip.  There were no hips to be found in the entire place.  None.  I mean these people had no hips.  Their rib cages were connected right to the femur.  It was an odd biological phenomenon, and I had no cure.
2)      Everyone had been suffering from having a two-foot pole stuck up his or her ass.  As a former sufferer of this disease, I know how painful this malady can be.  With extreme caution and dexterity, I began my task of extracting the poles.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far when one man turned around and saw me reaching for his ass with a fixated look.  There are few situations in life that can be more uncomfortable that this one, so I pretended that I was doing some sort of drug-addled frog-like dance, and I escaped the crisis with only my pride in a shambles.
After this gaffe, I decided to just focus on the music.   It was a good choice because the grooves were just getting thicker and thicker.  However, the crowd was simultaneously backing away from the stage, leaving a large area of open turf in front.  At this time, the dancers in the crowd consisted of Adam, myself, and a late 1970’s Deadhead in a late 1980’s tie-dye.  None of us were interested in jumping into the open space because then we would become entertainment for the unmovable crowd.  As it was, the guy next to me, whom I could have sworn starred as a Hells Angel in the documentary, Gimme Shelter, was standing two feet away and staring at me.  I don’t know if he either wanted a date (since he was a guy, he wasn’t really my type) or was just amused by my poor dancing skills.  After all, I was cutting loose with my typical white-boy reckless abandon.  Then another guy grooved into the open space and started cutting a serious rug.  This guy had real moves and he kept trying to get Adam and I to join him.  His skills were way out of our league, and I was hoping to avoid turning the concert into a lame ‘70s disco scene where everyone forms a circle and fixates on the people dancing in the center.  (Later I learned that this dancing machine was none other than opening-act and pedal-steel master, Robert Randolph.)  The tense situation was salvaged when our compadres from the nyc-freaks email list arrived and began to get down.  As The Sugarman3 closed their set with a rollicking “Soul Donkey,” I heard several thuds as poles began to fall from many an ass.
I have two complaints about The Sugarman3.  For one, they need to cross the seven-minute barrier.  They can start really cooking in a song, and then they’ll just stop.  They have the skills to keep the groove going but for some reason, they refuse to do so.  Listen up guys, if my butt is shaking, I’m not bored, so please keep playing!  My other major complaint involves the basslines.  Their keyboard player kicks out phenomenal and thick basslines on the organ, but this doesn’t work for me.  Why?  When I hear a great bassline, I need to make an ass of myself and play “air bass guitar.”  Without ever having picked-up the real instrument, I can tell you that I am an air bass guitar virtuoso.  However, when the bass is played on an organ, I look like a novice grooving on my air bass guitar.  I tried playing “air bass organ,” but it just looked stupid and not nearly as cool as air bass guitar.
So I went downstairs to grab another fine beverage in a plastic cup, and when I came upstairs again, the crowd had swelled tremendously.  The place was packed, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.  Now the age-gap was closed, and people were ready for some good Southern blues grooves.  The North Mississippi All-Stars took the stage to a riotous ovation, and they began to release their Southern-fried rock onslaught upon the crowd.  The music instantly had an enema-like effect as poles began to drop from asses left and right.
I was in a very fortunate spot because I was surrounded on all sides by men who were 6’5” or taller.  These members of the Norwegian National Basketball team acted as the perfect shield from the Gestapo-like security force of the Bowery Ballroom.  (For those of you who don’t know, the Bowery has a zero-tolerance policy for fun, as muscle clad cavemen patrol the place in search of anyone who is smiling too much.)  One little puff was all it took to get me in perfect synch with the music, and NMAS was on fire.
Chris Chew was tearing it up on the bass.  He holds the bass ridiculously high, but his fingers are monument to dexterity.  The guy runs up and down the fret-board with incredible skill and his vocals add a lot to the overall sound.
Cody Dickinson pounded the skins with amazing energy.  His fierce and riveting beats kept my pulse-rate moving at heart-attack level.  However, I was most amazed by the fact that he never stopped playing over the course of their 2 hour-plus set!  Every time a song would end, Cody kept riffing and morphing into the next beat until the other guys were ready to begin the song.  It was mind-boggling to think that this guy could even lift his arms after such an energy-depleting run.
Luther Dickinson’s guitar and vocals provided the power in this power trio.  His slide work was ferocious, and he was willing to explore a lot of varied territory in his jams.  He was all over the map, as he incorporated quotes from both The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, while utilizing Middle-Eastern, funk, and blues influences to create a web of crunchy sonic explosions.  You might say that the guy is good.
This band has grown light-years since I last saw them open up for Galactic in April.  They were willing to go to new and different places with their jams, and at one point they even dropped a funk bomb on us.  I was totally unprepared for this, and my body responded by doing a dance that I call the “mechanical whitesnake.”  No, it had nothing do with the 1980’s big-hair band.  My body just undulated uncontrollably as the music had taken control of my brain and placed a permagrin on my face.  As I let myself give-in to this spiritual force, I had found my religious rite of passage.  It’s obvious that God digs a good jam.  I know because she told me herself.
NMAS brought Robert Randolph up to add a little pedal-steel, and he only served to spice-up the red-hot soup.  He traded lines with Luther with glee, and the crowd loved every minute of it.  Robert kept trying to leave the stage after each epic song, but the band and the crowd wouldn’t allow it.  This guy had been absorbed into the mix and he could not escape.
The band played two long encores, and I don’t think that they were expecting the second one.  With the crowd chanting, stomping, and screaming for more, they really didn’t have much choice.   Robert stayed with them for both encores, and as the second encore finished, Luther announced that they were gonna let Robert finish the evening with a solo jam.  The guys from NMAS walked to the side of the stage, and Robert went to town.  After they couldn’t hold back, Robert’s band jumped onto the stage to join in the fun.  NMAS were more than willing to hand-over their instruments, and this was a great and unselfish way to end the show.  The house-lights immediately came-up, as if the management was saying, “No more fun for you this evening.  We have your money now, so get out.”
I had just seen an amazing show, and I left for home as a physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted soul.  It’s not often that we get to experience moments that lift us to new heights and then sap us of our energy, and it was a great way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.  This music took me to spiritual peaks, and after all, isn’t that was religion is supposed to be about?
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The Fattest of Tuesdays: Outer Borough Brass Band and Gordon Au’s Traditional New Orleans Jazz Jam Session 3-8-11

Fat Tuesday in New York City has always felt like a bit of a letdown to me, especially after I had the experience of celebrating Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans in 2007. NYC promoters tend to pull out their big guns for epic bashes on the preceding Saturday, such as (le) Poisson Rouge’s Mardi Gras Ball, featuring Dr. John, Soul Rebels Brass Band, and Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds with yours truly, DJ Cochon de Lait, playing Nola classics in between. The Mardi Gras Ball was such a blast, but since Tuesday is really THE day of celebration, it felt as though we New Yorkers had peaked too early.

What to do on Fat Tuesday? There certainly were plenty of options in the city, ranging from all-you-can-eat buffets of boiled crawfish and mediocre imitations of Louisiana fare to bars with bead-laden fratboys two-fisting cough syrup-filled hurricanes. Most music-centric alternatives offered shows with either Crescent City-sympathizing B and C-listers or quality bands who had some guy from New Orleans sitting in. The traditional jazz scene was represented with New Orleans’ excellent Loose Marbles making a rare New York City appearance before a bevy of eager Lindy hoppers at (le) Poisson Rouge’s Mardi Gras Ball. Wait a sec…(le) Poisson Rouge hosted a second event called the Mardi Gras Ball?!? Couldn’t they think of another name? Well, I guess it was somewhat fitting because balls tend to come in pairs.

Each of these options had some appeal, but I was drawn to the Parkside Lounge, where a free event for Loyola University alumni was showcasing the world debut of the Outer Borough Brass Band, the brainchild of Afroskull’s Joe Scatassa, a talented multi-instrumentalist who had recently acquired a sousaphone and decided to put it to good use. Second lining to brass band music just may be my favorite thing to do on Earth, so I knew I had to be there to encourage the debut of a brass band that NYC could call our own. I didn’t expect them to be all that great, but I considered my presence and support to be a bit of an investment in the future of a band that I desperately wanted to succeed because more opportunities for second lining equal more opportunities for unbridled joy.

I expected the Parkside to be filled to the rim with Brim, but it wasn’t all that packed when I arrived at 10PM. Nevertheless, it was a decent-sized crowd that immediately responded when the band began strutting in while playing “The Second Line, Part I,” an old chestnut that was popularized in the 1970s by a group of session musicians known as Stop, Inc. The Outer Borough Brass Band paraded their way into the room, forming a semi-circle in the crowd before gradually making their way to the stage.

Almost immediately, it became obvious that something was missing. Indeed, Afroskull drummer Jason Isaac was slated to play bass drum alongside someone else on snare, but Isaac had been sidelined after breaking his arm from falling on ice while chasing after an MTA bus. Yes, you read that correctly—the MTA is hazardous to your health. Drummers who have the New Orleans feel don’t exactly grow on trees, so the capable Dave Berger, who has backed up some of Alex McMurray’s NYC visits, took over on a drum kit. Berger is a quality drummer, but adding a full kit to a brass band just feels a little strange, and during both the opening number and the ensuing “Bourbon Street Parade,” the pure, captivating second line rhythms just weren’t there. Indeed, the bass-and-snare-drum combo is the engine that propels people to dance to brass bands with the sousaphone acting as the fuel for the engine. The horns are nice, but they’re a slightly less important part of the vehicle, like the brakes.

In other words, I was listening to a band play traditional brass band music without traditional instrumentation, and it felt a little weird. As if the drum situation wasn’t enough, Afroskull’s Matt Iselin was playing keyboards, which is the first time I can recall keys with a traditional brass band. Apparently, there was supposed to be a guitarist/vocalist, but he dropped out with short notice, so Iselin’s keys and vocals were a late inning replacement. This made me think the band’s first album should be called The Disabled List.

As slightly awkward as the entire situation may have been, something great happened on the third number. Scatassa started playing a now iconic bassline, and when his compatriots jumped in on the melody of “Blues For Ben,” the band suddenly coalesced. Frankly, never in my life have I heard a spontaneous transformation like this. It was as if all of the jumbled pieces of this aggregation instantaneously locked into place, immediately resulting in a confident band with their own unique and vibrant sound. The keys worked. The drumset worked. The horns really worked…and everyone was loving it!

From this point forward, the Outer Borough Brass Band launched themselves into Nola classics, such as “Lil’ Liza Jane,” “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and “Big Chief,” playing with funky abandon. Saxophonist Scott Borgeois, a utility man who backs many Nola residents passing through town, was taking the lead, playing bold lines and gleefully dueling with aggressive trombonist Mark Miller, while trumpeter Jeff Pierce was clearly relishing his rare opportunity to summon the ghost of King Oliver. Scatassa proved to be shockingly proficient on the mammoth sousaphone, playing basslines with a remarkable degree of skill for a guy who had only picked up the instrument two months ago. And when it came time for the aforementioned “Big Chief,” Iselin went berserk on the keys and vocals, but Berger blew everyone away with a hypnotic drum solo that left the entire crowd transfixed.

By now the crowd was relishing every note of music, but once the band opted to play Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a lot of folks quickly looked at their watches and decided to depart in hopes of placating the ugly spectre of Wednesday morning work. It was a shame that they picked this moment to leave because the gang really nailed this tune, playing it with the proper dynamics and feel it requires. All too often, musicians fumble this song like a middle school jazz band (and if you were in middle school jazz band, you DEFINITELY played “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” at some point), but the Outer Borough Brass Band utilized their novel instrumentation and experience as jazz artists to make the most out of what can easily be a clichéd number.

In closing with the fitting “All Over Now,” the band paraded out of the room, leaving a den of thrilled fans in their wake. (Okay, that’s not entirely true, as there were three people doing heroin in the bathroom, and nothing could really thrill them, but the bouncer did provide them with a first-class escort out of the building.)

While the lineup will likely shift, I sincerely hope the Outer Borough Brass Band attempts to get more gigs because they’ve stumbled upon a truly original sound and can fill an important musical void while bringing lots of joy and sweat to the audiences of New York City.

After the show, I planned on heading to nearby Mona’s for a traditional New Orleans jazz jam session. Like any good music fan, I attempted to recruit each and every musician in the Parkside Lounge to join me, as this jam was right up their alleys, but they all had other plans. Scatassa was intrigued but concerned about showing up unannounced. I pleaded, “Dude. If you walk through the front door with the sousaphone, I guarantee they will part like the Red Sea and make way for you, if not worship you unconditionally.” No dice. He wasn’t biting.

I made a quick pit stop at Snack Dragon for a tasty pulled pork taco. I love this little shop, and it’s always a very interesting visit after midnight. On this night, I found myself deep in an entertaining conversation with a couple of friendly strangers, charting the death of modern music as a result of Autotune and pondering whether Charlie Sheen is proof that narcissistic assholes gravitate toward cocaine or whether cocaine turns people into narcissistic assholes like Charlie Sheen. The question went unresolved.

I made it to Mona’s around 1AM and discovered a packed house, which was rather impressive for a (now) Wednesday morning. Within seconds, I was glad that my earlier pleas had been overruled because had we showed up with a sousaphone, half the joint would have had to leave in order to fit the instrument inside. The band was playing at the far end of the bar and serendipitously, I was able to grab a seat nearby. There was also a backroom with the remnants of a “New Orleans buffet,” and my first thought was “Damn, I shouldn’t have eaten before I came here,” but after I saw the buffet, I quickly thought, “Damn, I’m glad I don’t have to eat here. This ‘food’ could kill someone.”

The jam session was led by trumpeter Gordon Au, who has made a name for himself by leading and playing in numerous local swing bands. With members of the Grand Street Stompers, the Cangelosi Cards, and other swing groups on hand, it was clear that the musicians were very familiar with one another and had no qualms about jumping in to add their two cents to a traditional jazz standard. No one was amplified, aside from a vintage microphone (I think it may have been a Shure Model 55 Unidyne) that both New Orleans’ Jayna Morgan and NYC’s own Tamar Korn utilized to deliver their precise vocals. The great Gordon Webster took plenty of turns on the upright piano, but without amplification, it was a real struggle to hear him, although he is so talented that it was absolutely worth it to try.

The bar was loud, particularly the area near the front door, and when the talking became unbearable, I annoyingly led my end of the bar in some strident shushing that remarkably shut up most of the room…at least for a few seconds. The more I drank, the more bullish I became with the shushing, although the people who wanted to hear the music seemed to appreciate it.

When I hear this type of music, I immediately want to get up and start dancing, but that was impossible in this venue. Not only was there no room at all to dance, but there weren’t any followers, aside from a couple of well-seasoned instructors who were way out of my league…and also way more sober than I. Instead, I took the opportunity to just sit, watch, and listen, and it was remarkable because I don’t think I’ve been able to truly do that during the last three years that I’ve been swing dancing. This was a golden opportunity to appreciate these musicians as master craftsmen who can play with the music in ways that extend far beyond the art of making people dance.

And then Naomi Uyama got up to sing. I’ve taken a Lindy hop class from her, and I know her as a very talented teacher and a phenomenal dancer. While I had been aware that she was also a singer, I had never really heard her voice until now. And all I can say is wow. She was so effortless in her delivery, and her vocals just washed over the crowd like the tide gently rolling in at sunrise. The simplicity and purity of her voice was simply stunning, and after she had finished, I wanted to find out why she isn’t in a band on a full-time basis, but after numerous beers, I believe my question came out like this: “Naomi, you were fantastic. Your singing was beautiful, and I wanna know how we can get you into a regular band because I think that you really have a thbbmffffbbbllddddllluuuuummmsssssssssssszzzzzz…”

I believe she waited for me to finish drooling and then said something about always being out of the city on extended weekends for teaching excursions. She then deftly waited until my head was turned and quickly sidestepped away to a position that was free from the noxious fumes emanating from my rambling mouth. I can’t blame her. I would have run away from me had I had the chance.

The band finally wound down around 4AM, at which point Gordon Webster took control of the piano and went to town solo. Widely regarded as one of the most talented musicians and bandleaders in the global swing scene, this guy would be revered far and wide if he traveled in less dance-centric circles. He just has such tremendous command of the keys and plays with incredible depth and feel. From a dancer’s perspective, when someone plays with the touch and flair of Gordon Webster, he makes you into a better dancer.

At this point, we were past the legal 4AM closing time, but the drinks impressively continued to flow. Thankfully, I knew enough to realize that I needed to quit while I was behind, and when the piano ceased to play a little before 4:30, that was my cue to stumble out the door.

I was on my way home when I suddenly realized that I was oh-so-close to Artichoke Basille’s Pizzeria, an incredibly popular hole-in-the-wall slice joint that serves amazing pizza into the wee wee hours between midnight and day. Typically, there’s a massive line of drunk people outside of Artichoke after midnight, but I figured I would have a minimal wait at a quarter-to-five in the morning on a schoolnight. Sure enough, I was right, and I walked right in to grab a slice of their margherita. Artichoke is well known for its artery-clogging, cream-laden, spinach-artichoke slice, but I believe the real gold is in either the margherita slice or the Sicilian slice, both of which have a similarly salty flavor with a crisp, crunchy crust that gives way to a soft and chewy center. Mangia!

Well, under the beer-soaked circumstances, I knew it was doubtful that I’d escape with only one slice in my stomach, so I also opted for a Sicillian slice. I was pretty excited because I saw them closing up shop and thought that I was going to get the last slice they served that morning (as if there’s some prize for being the idiot who stayed up the latest), but then some dude walked in and crushed my dreams.

I’m not really sure what happened after that. I have vague recollections of riding on a bus, but that could have been something I’d longingly visualized while making the lengthy walk to Union Square. I don’t quite know how I got there, but I do remember boarding an uptown 6 train. Then I recall having an internal argument as to whether or not the E trains would be under construction at this hour (around 5:15ish). I was absolutely befuddled as to which stop I should choose to make my transfer, but the debate was all for naught when I nodded off and awakened on the Upper East Side. I quickly got off the train and then walked to the other side to catch a downtown train. There’s a good chance I may have fallen asleep on that train, too, having to repeat the process again. I just remember having no idea which stop I needed (the practice of thinking was very challenging at that point, but in my defense, the MTA loves refusing to provide vital construction and re-routing information inside the train cars, where such information might actually help people), and then I finally gave up when I chose 59th Street, figuring I’d take an N to Astoria and then just crawl home for 17 blocks. To my amazement, a Queens-bound R-train appeared, and I hopped on that sucker…and promptly fell asleep. I only missed my stop by one or two stations, so that wasn’t too bad, and after quite an odyssey, I arrived at my destination at 6:45 AM. In all, it was a 30 minute ride that took 90 minutes, but on the bright side, I apparently got a lot of rest along the way.

For anyone worried about my safety, i.e. my mother, I can happily tell you that most New York City criminals are smart enough to be in bed by 5AM, so there isn’t much to worry about in the morning. At that early hour, the trains are mostly filled with sad people who are begrudgingly commuting to work, and they want nothing to do with the guy who was out partying all night for fear he might puke on their shoes. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t in that bad of shape—I was just really tired, but the commuters steered cleared of me anyway. Again, I cannot blame them, as I would have done the same.

And so at 6:45AM, I exited the subway station, plugged in my headphones, cranked up Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Watcha Wanna,” and then I followed the instructions of the song, strutting down the sidewalk, passionately twirling my handkerchief high in the air as if the fate of the entire world depended on it. Sure, I got plenty of stares from normal folks, but why the Hell would I care? I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, celebrating life the way I love, ending my day with my own little second line. Yehyourite. Life is good.

Happy Mardi Gras!

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My Life as a Suspected Terrorist

Editor’s Note: From 2000 through 2007 or so, I wrote a humor column for Jambands.com. This was one of my more popular pieces, but when the site migrated servers, this particular column was relegated to the Internet scrap heap. I’ve been asked to re-post this more than once, so here it is. Note that I am no longer dating the girlfriend mentioned below, but this column was not the reason why she dumped my ass. (She had PLENTY of other reasons for that!) I did make a few minor grammatical edits from the original file, but I didn’t change the content, as I wanted to preserve the original piece’s complete lack of integrity. Enjoy!

October 15, 2005

My Life as a Suspected Terrorist

I quickly bolted from the constraints of my day job and made a break for the overcrowded rush-hour subway. I was a man on a mission. I had a golden ticket to see the star-studded Madison Square Garden Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, and I’d be damned if I’d be missing a single note.

With alacrity, I exited the 34th St. subway station and made my way to O’Smith’s Generic Irish Pub. It was there that I would meet my lawyer, a crazed individual with a penchant for cheap beer, loose women, and other conservative values. We each hoisted a frothy pint, mine having a rich copper hue, his resembling pale urine, and within 6 minutes and 36 seconds, we were out of the door. He made a brief stop to purchase a pack of cancer-causing agents, and at the time, I considered grabbing some sustenance in the form of a slice of pizza. However, the constraints of time were too heavy, and I opted to skip dinner in order to make the beginning of the concert.

It was the first of many mistakes that evening.

We entered the Garden and began the steep, nosebleed-inducing ascent to our lofty perch. With leg muscles twitching in defiance, we found our section, 422, just two sections away from the most popular and foggy place to see a Phish show at MSG.

My lawyer was instantly intoxicated by the aroma of shitty beer, and he made a motion for us to acquire two watered-down brews. However, we immediately ran into some hungry friends who were in search of New Orleans cuisine. Their seats were on the floor within errant sweat-bead distance of Jimmy Buffet, but they had discovered that a gustatory caste system had been ruling the Garden: The same food was available on all levels, but the higher you went, the cheaper the prices became. At last, there was a victory for the working man! With Marxist glee, we set out to find some gumbo.

However, my lawyer was distracted by the narcotic scent of hard liquor. He had recently returned from a transcendent, savings-depleting evening of seeing the Rolling Stones in concert and was raving about the stiff-as-a-sailor-on-Gay-Pride-Day drinks he had purchased at Giants Stadium, so he bought two Jack and Cokes as I waited in line for the gumbo. As I expected, the drinks were so weak a kindergartner would scoff at them, but the gumbo was rich and tasty. We headed back to our seats but not before my lawyer would grab two canary yellow beers from the evil tap that read “Coors Light.” A thought ambled through my head: “If I’m going to drink, I think I need to eat something more solid than liquefied gumbo. Well, I guess I won’t drink much tonight…Speaking of drinking, a beer would be great, thanks!”

With beers in hand, we sat one row above our seats and surveyed the situation below. Looking down, we noticed that three pre-menopausal women were sitting to the right of our vacant seats. Not particularly an attractive lot, it appeared to be a “Girls Night Out.” Good for them. As long as they would not be getting in our way we had no problems with them and their estrogen-based agenda. Then we noticed the divine creation sitting to the left of our vacant seats. There she sat—two velvety smooth legs that were nestled in a sultry pair of brown suede knee-high boots. (She was accompanied by….some woman? I’m not really sure, as my eyes were focused on those glorious femurs.)

I must ask you this, friend, “Aside from a steel blast-furnace or the liquid magma of Krakatoa, is there anything hotter than a woman in boots?” In a word, no.

Lesson #36A: Never trust a woman in boots.

At this point in the story, one might ask why two gentlemen with steady girlfriends would become entranced by a mere pair of legs. Admittedly, these were not normal legs—they were legs with boots, but that doesn’t change the situation. Indeed, I have long been dating a fantastic woman, and I have used this very forum to publicly describe our glorious sex life. My girlfriend has delighted in these ruminations—after all, what woman wouldn’t want the intimate details of her bedroom to be posted all over the Internet? It’s my belief that if you like creamed corn casserole while you do the inverted pile driver, you just can’t keep it to yourself! You need to spread the gospel throughout this chaste and pure world.

But I digress…

I don’t know why Legs-in-Boots distracted me so, but she did.

And I should tell you right now that this little lesson isn’t really a lesson at all. In fact, it’s not even part of the story. It’s just an extra thought.

So the show began and we quickly finished our liquid meal. My lawyer typically doesn’t eat food, and on those rare occasions when he seeks nourishment, “a couple wieners” will suffice. Nevertheless, he was impressed with the rich flavors of the gumbo, and mistakenly feeling sated, we hopped down to our seats one row below.

At first, everything was peaceful, despite the dreaded presence of the F-word: FAMILIES. Families don’t jive with our hedonistic vibe. I have nothing against children. In fact, I was once one myself. However, I don’t want children near me when I am having a good time, an activity that occasionally involves breaking the law. I am many things, but a father figure is not one of them. I will be a father figure when I become a father. Until that time, I will be a law breaker and damn proud of it.

We broke the law with such tremendous skill and dexterity that no one noticed, not even those damn inquisitive children with their fertile and curious little minds. It was a great accomplishment, and Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Daniel Ellsberg, and other great historical figures who’d have no business associating with the likes of me would have been impressed.

My lawyer and I were in fine form. We had great gumbo nestled in our bellies, a cup of beer (okay, it wasn’t really beer; it was just Coors Light) in our hands, and hip shaking music delighting our ears. Unfortunately, the crowd never got the memo about the hip shaking. It seemed as though Krazy Glue had attached everyone’s asses to their seats. Sure, they were indulging New Orleans’ finest musicians with the obligatory golf clap and occasional “Woo!” but this was dancin’ music! These people were sorely misled. I could expect this kind of behavior from the aristocracy down on the floor, but these people in the cheap seats were supposed to be my people, yet somehow my people had poles lodged in their asses.

Then the Dixie Cups came on and saved the day. When these Queens of New Orleans soul busted into “Iko Iko” (with the aid of fellow badasses Irma Thomas and Cyndi Lauper), it was time to get up and get down. Instantly, the cast of The Vagina Monologues to my right got up and danced with reckless abandon. I wanted those wonderful estrogen producers to know that the Legion of Testosterone was right behind them, so I leapt to my feet to support their noble cause of ass-shaking. My lawyer joined in the fun, and within seconds, Legs-in-Boots sprang into action, joining our little Dance Party USA with her faceless companion following only seconds behind. It was a glorious moment—7 people having the time of their lives, clapping, singing, and grooving along to an iconic piece of musical history. We were united, smiling at one another, and we were going to spread our message of love far and wide. That’s right, damn it. Section 422, Row E, Seats 11-17 were going to change the world, man!

When the music stopped, Bette Midler entered the stage. The thought of a 27-minute version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” slammed our asses right down in those seats. As if the Divine Miss M’s execution of our dancing revolution wasn’t bad enough, she launched into a tasteless and uncalled for anti-Bush diatribe. Now I dislike President Shrub as much as the next guy who has a brain and less than a million bucks, but I saw no reason for this rant. If you’re trying to appeal to the entire country for charitable donations, why offend 38% of the nation? Unfortunately, my lawyer happens to sympathize with the Republican party (I know, I’m working on it!), and he was less than pleased with her rant. To be honest, many people were loudly booing, and if you have an ultra-liberal New York City crowd booing your criticisms of Republican government, well, in the words of my first grade teacher, “You fucked up.”

My lawyer asked if I wanted a beer. Truthfully, I wanted a beer and not a Coors Light, but I replied in the affirmative anyway. Legs-in-Boots and her faceless companion overheard our conversation and asked us if we would grab beers for them. They were certainly of age, so we took this request as a clear attempt at flirtation. Oh, it was totally obvious: WE WERE GOING TO SCORE!…even though neither one of us would really have the balls or genuine desire to do anything, especially when we were already dating the loves of our lives. (Incidentally, Honey, if you are reading this right now, I think it’s an appropriate time to remind you that I love you more than anyone on Earth. I just thought I’d mention that before you kick my ass to the curb.)

My lawyer got up to grab beers (okay, Coors Lights), and I stayed to see what Bette would sing. As soon as she began to vocalize, the arena grew silent and everyone was transfixed on her incredibly boring but heartfelt ballad. As you might imagine, I was not moved, so I left my backpack at my seat and made my way to the egress on the right. I asked Eve Ensler’s posse to excuse me as I walked past, but curiously, they refused to move their feet, so I gingerly attempted to step between them while they inadvertently got a close-up inspection of my family jewels. My lawyer brought the beers down the aisle and then awkwardly tried to silently motion for the attention of Legs-in-Boots and her faceless companion. After a textbook display of pantomime, they noticed the beers and thanked him for his libido-loosening gift. Feeling like we had the world on a string, we decided to stroll around the top level of the arena for a few minutes to get a better vantage point of the artists onstage. We grabbed real beers (New Orleans’ Abita Amber) and found some good seats on the rail.

Elton John was up next, and quite frankly, I was blown away by his performance. Having never experienced his live show before, I envisioned a homo-erotic version of The Lion King with a lot of sequins, spangles, and a red feather boa. I was in no way prepared for him to open with a tremendously solemn and moving “Funeral For a Friend.” Sir Elton clearly meant business, and I think his seriousness stunned us so much that my lawyer and I lost our dexterity in our covert, hedonistic maneuvers. A slip of the fingers and a treasured piece of glass was shattered. My lawyer picked it up and sliced his hand open. The next morning, certain that it wasn’t that time of the month, he would wonder why his pants were covered in blood.

My lawyer grabbed a couple Coors Lights, and he walked in the direction of our original seats. Seconds later, he ran back toward me and shouted in his most formal legalese, “DUDE! Those chicks told security there was a bomb in your bag and they took it away!”

I had been drinking, I had been indulging, but this made no sense at all. Instead of trying to unravel the puzzling logic that might have led to such a bizarre decision by Legs-in-Boots and her faceless companion, I calmly approached the next security guard I found and asked if I could retrieve my bag. The security guard told me to wait where I was while he investigated where the bag could be, so I stood motionless for the next fifteen minutes. At this point, I started to wonder why a security guard would leave a terror suspect (me) alone instead of taking me to the authorities. I seriously pondered this troubling thought until Jimmy Buffet started performing “Scarlet Begonias,” and then I just danced around absentmindedly.

The song ended, and when Buffet began eloquently rhapsodizing about lost shakers of salt, my attention once again turned to my missing bag. I was troubled, and I needed a beer, but my lawyer brought me a Coors Light. I then found another security guard, and she offered to take me into the bowels of MSG. We made our descent and found the head of security, a man with a gigantic walkie-talkie, who radioed until he found the location of the missing “bomb-laden” bag. Our journey then continued as we waited forever for an elevator, while I faintly heard Neil Young performing “Heart of Gold” in the distance with Buffet. I had to see this to believe it, and I asked the guard if we could suspend our search for a few minutes to watch Neil Young in action.

“Who’s Neil Young?” Conisha asked. “Is he on the new DMX album?”

I lowered my head and resigned to wait for the elevator. Later, I was relieved to learn that the singer was not Neil but Dave Matthews. No loss there.

I entered the top secret security room in the inner sanctum, where out-of-shape middle-aged men with gray mustaches and red blazers eat donuts and drink coffee while listening to the Yankee game on the radio. I felt safe.

After giving a thorough description of my bag, they produced it for me. It was the only bag in the place. I was then lectured by a man who had little flecks of French cruller nestled in his Fu Manchu.

“You can’t be leaving your bag around here. You should know that.”

“Well, you guys did search my bag on the way in,” I replied.

“Someone could have put something in there.”

“You searched everyone on the way in.”

“Anything’s possible in this day and age.”

“Listen, I understand I look suspicious because I have a beard, but I’m Jewish. My people don’t blow up buildings. We build buildings and then subdivide them into expensive condos.”

“Go back to your seat.”

I followed his orders and now had a mission to discover why Legs-in-Boots and her faceless companion had turned on me. I sat down next to them and calmly said, “You know, we did you a favor and bought you beers. Why would you tell security I’m a terrorist?”

Suddenly, she pulled back the skin on her face and revealed herself to be an evil fire-breathing harpy. “We don’t even know you,” she shrieked. “We’re just two innocent young ladies and these two strange guys start buying us beer!”

“Wait just damn second,” I retorted. “We have been called a lot of things, but we are not guys…no…I mean…we are not strange.” Shit. The cumulative effects of beer drinking on a relatively empty stomach were dulling my wit like a cheap Ron Popeil knife set.

“Everyone in this section was freaking out about your bag. We don’t know you, and that’s what we told security. They took your bag.”

With beer running through my veins and slowly turning my brain to mush, I didn’t know how to argue with the harpy’s story, so I opted for the path of least resistance.

“Okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if my bag frightened and inconvenienced you.” I then turned to the women on my right and offered a genuine olive branch. “Excuse me, I just want to apologize for frightening you by leaving my bag. I didn’t mean to inconve-”

The closest woman, the one I had been happily dancing with earlier, stared at the floor and chanted, “It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’sfineIt’sfineIt’sfineIt’sfine…”

I then noticed her friend on the aisle race up the steps and within seconds, a security guard shouted, “YOU! COME HERE!”

I walked to him, this time clutching my “bomb-harboring” bag. I casually explained that I was merely apologizing to these wretched ovary holders, and I hadn’t done anything wrong. He then lectured me about leaving my bag, and I brought us back into the Laurel and Hardy routine about the ineffectiveness of MSG security searches. A fun time was had by all.

He suggested we smooth over the conflict by going away, so my lawyer and I sought out better seats for the next hour or so. However, after being fueled by a few more Coors Lights (my lawyer was now borrowing my money to buy me beer) and the rabble-rousing music of John Fogerty, I just couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. Sure, the smart thing would have been to forget about the incident and move on, but I am not smart. I am an obstinate motherfucker, and I wanted to know why that walking Midol commercial on the aisle ran to get security when I was merely apologizing to her friend. I needed to know why she did this, so I rolled up the sleeves of my short-sleeved shirt and marched over to 422.

If you have read this far, and bless your heart if you have because this has been a lot cheaper than therapy, you might think that I can occasionally be a tad abrasive and even misogynistic. However, this was not one of those times. After all, I had nothing against these women or any women in general, but I was peeved at the puzzling and insulting way these women behaved toward me when I did absolutely nothing wrong. Nevertheless, my approach was incredibly gentlemanly, and while I did have a burning desire to kick that woman in her babymaker, I suppressed my boiling rage and took a calm and Zen-like approach to the problem.

I slowly walked down the aisle and sat next to her. “Excuse me. I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but I just wanted you to know why you called–”

“SECURITY!!! He’s harassing me! He’s harassing me!”

I didn’t even bother to wait for the guard to yell. I just turned around and walked up to him, trying to explain that I just wanted to know why she wouldn’t let me apologize. I was sober enough to realize he was placating me when he called me “the bigger man,” and he suggested we go find two seats that were close to the stage. I threw my dull axe over my shoulder and we solemnly trudged down to the expensive seats.

The big names kept coming, and the concert ended with a bang, but I couldn’t help staring up at that black hole in 422. As Simon and Garfunkel sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” I just wanted one last chance to tear that woman’s head off.

When you’re weary, feeling drunk,
When bloodshot are your eyes, I will show you spunk;
I’m on your side. When security gets rough
And your bag can’t be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will bring that bitch down.
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will bring that bitch down.
When you’re down and out,
When you’re in your seat,
When apologies fail so hard
I will comfort you.
I’ll grind your axe.
When the harpy yells
And pain is all around,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will bring that bitch down.
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will bring that bitch down.
Sail on Legs-in-Boots,
Sail on by.
Your time has come to shine.
Crushing men along your way.
See how you whine
If you need a beer
We’ll be right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water
You will haunt my mind.
Like a bridge over troubled water
You will haunt my mind.

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Phish 10/29-31/10 Boardwalk Hall Atlantic City, NJ

It was an epic weekend that certainly renewed my faith in Phish.  Here are the high and low lights:

Built in 1926, Boardwalk Hall is certainly one of if not the oldest indoor venue Phish has played.  For an arena that was built way back in the day, I thought it was surprisingly well designed and free from the overcrowded concourses that plagued a place like The Spectrum, although bathroom lines were a little long.  (I waited about 15-20 minutes to pee DURING the show, but I guess everyone hates “Stash.”)  Getting from the floor to the seated areas was a bit of a time-consuming odyssey, but it wasn’t the end of the world.  However, getting into the actual venue was a real bitch-and-a-half.  Everyone had to enter from the Boardwalk, which was not nearly wide enough to accommodate the foot traffic of people moving back-and-forth plus the people entering the arena.  To make matters worse, some people were riding down the hall in rickshaws that took up a lot of space and went against the flow of shuffling foot traffic.  (Shock of shocks, I think I saw Craemer riding in a rickshaw on Halloween.)  Security pat-down stories seemed to vary from person to person, although I didn’t hear of anyone losing anything, aside from a few heavy Halloween props, which could very debatably be used as weapons.

As crammed as the whole scene was out front of the venue, the situation for the entire weekend was rather unique for its total lack of cops.  In one of those silly “Atlantic City Cops Go Undercover to Learn About Phish” articles I read that AC now has a police force of fewer than 300 officers, which is kind of crazy for a crime-ridden city of that size.  More or less, the po-po decided to essentially leave us alone this past weekend, which was a welcome change of pace from just about every other show from the last 15 years.  Of course, it was interesting that the lack of police presence resulted in people generally abiding by the law and keeping their cool.  Funny how that works!

By the way, if you ever wanted a free ticket, Friday could have been your night, as there were tons of extras floating around outside and not enough people to take them all.

It was nice to finally be in a venue that isn’t under the draconian rule of Aramark concessions, and while there weren’t a ton of food options, people did seem to love the candy buffet.  They had Hop Devil on tap, which was nice, and this was one of those crazy venues where they let you keep the cap to your bottled water because they realize that water is not a weapon—it’s merely a vital component of the human body.

I don’t think it was easy for anyone to sneak into G.A., although I did see a couple of people make some fortuitous hops on to the arena floor, but more or less, most people seemed to want to be in the seats.  I don’t know if that was a function of our collective old age or merely a need to store people’s coats and stuff, but the floor was far from crowded and had plenty of room to move, while the seats were a total free-for-all where chaos rained supreme.  Security was essentially irrelevant, although night one began with three cops standing right behind my section.  As the band began, everyone around me started customarily blazing away, and it was interesting to watch these three cops talk amongst themselves because I couldn’t figure out if they didn’t understand what was happening or if they were debating whom they should bust first.  Eventually, they made their move, but surprisingly, they just took people’s pieces and let them off without even much of a warning.  Of course, no one wants to hang in Copland, so it wasn’t long before my entire section became a ghost town.  Surprisingly, these three cops hung around for about the first 20-30 minutes of the show (maybe they liked their view of the light show from that vantage point?), and right when they finally left, Phish immediately played “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.”  The timing was perfect in so many ways.

From here on out, the set shifted into a new gear, and a particularly rockin’ “Axilla (Pt. 1)” shifted into a nice “Rift.”  Then we went into the uber-funky homestretch of “Moma Dance->Cities->46 Days.”

Good shit all around here.  Set Two had a great “Sand->Carini Had a Lumpy Head,” but everything lost steam with “Prince Caspian.”  It was here that I was reminded of recent criticisms about Trey playing passively.  While the rest of the band was firing away, I did notice that he wasn’t entirely assertive and wasn’t exactly sustaining greatness throughout the night.  On the whole, this was a very fun show with a bunch of ups and some downs.  Most people seemed to be rather happy, and out of 100, I’d give it an 81.

I should also add that it was loud as balls.  I sat dead center in the back of the arena, and I couldn’t remember another Phish show that was this loud at that distance.  It was also the first time I could recall seeing repeater speakers in a Phish arena show, so maybe the volume increase was a result of those speakers being pointed directly at me.  I’m not really sure, but the sound seemed loud enough that I wore earplugs throughout the weekend, something I rarely do at an arena unless I’m right in front of the speaker or Van Halen is playing.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe played a post-show concert in Trump Plaza.  This seemed like a very under-publicized event, as I only found out about it through friends, and most people there didn’t seem to know it was happening.  Trump Plaza didn’t help by displaying lame signs that read “Phish Post-Show Party” without mentioning the band.  It wasn’t crowded at all in the very Vegas-style room, complete with lots of banquettes.  With a mixture of seating and lots of dance space, the room had the perfect layout for a show.  KDTU came on around 12:40 and started a little slow.  It took them a while to get into a higher gear, but they finally did get to funkytown a couple of hours later.  Also, it probably helped that there was an influx of people coming into the room at 3AM, providing a virtual kick in the pants for everyone there.

Saturday afternoon was a day of rest for many.  We were staying in Harrah’s, so while the rest of my krewe napped, I went downstairs for a dip in The Pool, a glass dome enclosed structure so impressive that it merits its own capitalized article.  The pool, itself, was nice, but the hot tub was money because it was really big and could probably hold around 30 or more.  If you’re tired and feeling a little hungover, sipping a nice Bloody Mary while soaking in the hot tub is a fine remedy.  The only downside was the ear-splitting “um-chi um-chi um-chi” of the club music played at full volume, which was a little much for 1PM.  I don’t know if this bad music played at the Loft club above the pool was normal for a Saturday afternoon or if this was something special for the LGBT Outfest thing that was happening over the weekend.  As a friend remarked when looking at some of the outlandish costumes of the LGBT-ers, finally the Phish people are the normal-looking ones in town!

After a gut-busting gorgefest at the Harrah’s Waterfront Buffet, which will eventually be detailed in an epic post on another blog in the future, it was time for the show.

I was on the floor in the first set and in the stands in the second, and both places were again really loud, which helped for the rockin’ numbers.  The “Whole Lotta Love” verses in the middle of “Chalkdust Torture” seemed very organic and fit in nicely.  Little did we know that it would be thematic.  Of course, everyone will rave about the “Tweezer-Heartbraker>Ramble On->Thank You->Tweezer->Stairway To Heaven Coda” sandwich that was sprinkled with doses of “Whole Lotta Love” teases.

It was a total blast to hear in person, but I think that after we hear the tapes, let’s just say that no one will list this as a career-defining moment for Phish.   The looseness and (real or imagined) spontaneous feel of the sequence was what made it great, but if you were looking for solid vocals or even consistently impressive guitar work, you were in the wrong place.  For my money, the real highlight of the night was the “Wolfman’s Brother->Undermind” combo, complete with a nice vocal jam in between.

Once again, this night was lot of fun, if not technically precise.  It was a real improvement over Friday, so I’d give it an 88.

Against my will, I was coerced into attending the Marco Benevento-Marc Friedman-Billy Martin trio late show at Trump Plaza.

I love Marco’s songs with his trio, but this was just not the right kind of music for a late show.  Late shows, especially late shows after an exhausting Phish show, need to be mindless affairs that do nothing but keep people dancing.  Instead, what we got was a very good Marco show (my personal highlight was the “Benny and the Jets” sing-along) that would have been better suited to start around 8 or 9:00.  Trust me, unless you’re drunk and crying, 2:45AM is no time for an emotional ballad. My legs were jello, so I had to leave by 3:00.

I had a large brunch at the Harrah’s Waterfront Buffet (which shall eventually be described in full detail on another blog) before switching hotels to the comparatively shitty (but next door to the venue) Trump Plaza, home of elevators that don’t work and massive waits to get to your floor.  I had just enough time to shower, change into costume, and meet a couple of people before the show.  I really wish I’d been outside to catch this:

In the frenzy leading up to showtime, I’d almost forgotten about what the second set might hold, but I was relieved to see the program confirming my friend’s suspicion that it would feature Little Feat’s awesome live album, Waiting For Columbus.  Set One began with an enjoyable string of Halloween-themed songs, and Page’s keytar work on the opening “Frankenstein” was impressive.

I can only imagine that the woman handing out free roses, prompted the “Roses Are Free,” which led into a truly nasty “Funky Bitch.” 

Now Phish was dropping the funk in a major way, really killing this tune like I’d never heard them before.  I was dancing my ass off, and suddenly, I went from thinking, “Gee, it’s not going to be too hot to wear a fleece-lined costume tonight,” to “Holy shit!  I’m going to die of dehydration!”  “Boogie On Reggae Woman” kept the funk flowing nicely, and I think that the superfunk throwdown of these two numbers was probably my favorite part of the entire weekend.

I’d venture to guess that at least 90% of the crowd was wearing some sort of costume, and it was great to be in a room with so many energetic people who were all fired up and feeling the Halloween spirit.  Phish had two photobooths at the venue, and they were taking people’s pictures, printing them out a souvenier copy and then uploading them to Faccebook.  Check  out the galleries because there are some great costumes.

I went as Punch Ewe In the Eye, although as expected, not one single person I met got it:

Everybody was on board with the Little Feat set, and while I haven’t heard it since, I thought Phish really did justice to this classic album.  It was gritty, funky, jazzy, and had what sounded like credible vocals.

I thought it could have been a disaster having Fishman sing “Willin’” with Page on bass, Mike on piano, and Trey on drums, but Fishman did a decent job (for Fishman’s standards), while Mike played a wonderfully soulful piano solo.

It was hard to pick a real highlight of this set because the whole damn thing sounded great.  The sparingly-used horns really perked things up, particularly on a slinking “Old Folks Boogie,” and Giovanni Hidalgo’s percussion nicely accented everything throughout the evening.

In my view, this was exactly what you’d want from a Phish Halloween set: great songs, horns, added percussion, and a perfect vehicle for Phish to make this music their own.  Oh, and it all ended with a secondline/parade jam around the arena in true Little Feat fashion!

After a setbreak that featured the music of Professor Longhair, the rest of the night was just gravy.  Who cares that they botched the opening “Down With Disease” and had to start over?  It was hard not to be on Cloud 9 for most of this set, especially during “Back On the Train,” “Gotta Jiboo,” and “Camel Walk.”

I did think it was strange that they didn’t pull the horns back out for “Suzy Greenberg,” and “Harry Hood” was definitely shorter than normal.  The same was probably true of “You Enjoy Myself.”

However, those horns did return for a nice “Julius” encore.

You can’t hear it here because the video stops immediately after the song was supposed to conclude, but it really ended awkwardly because Hidalgo started playing again a couple of seconds later, as if he was trying to get the band started again.  He did this twice before finally giving up after a few “Dude, this ain’t your band; you’re a hired gun, so act like it” stares from his fellow musicians.  It was a little strange way to end a show that nobody wanted to end, but it was a great night that will easily become one of my favorite Phish shows.  I’m giving it a 97.

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Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds with Pickup at Sullivan Hall 6-23-10

After beginning the evening by listening to fantastic performances from jazz titans McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, Francisco Mela, Stanley Clarke, and Hiromi from the perch of a large rock outside of Central Park’s Summerstage, I made my way down to the Village to grab a refreshing Great Divide Belgian IPA and a bowl of 7 Pepper Chili at Blind Tiger Ale House. Then I ventured on to the evening’s main event at Sullivan Hall.

Toy Soldiers were the listed openers on this bill, but they did not show. They had some sort of van breakdown in Philly. It was their loss, not ours. Way to blow your New York venue debut, guys.

Pickup with Trevor Exeter and John Kimock was a little heady but not too esoteric. It didn’t seem to grab most of my fellow Freaks (and I’d say there were around 15-20 in attendance), who were hanging outside during most of the set. Trevor was singing while playing some weird arpeggios that were run through a series of pedals to create a sort of electronica sound. It was unique, and I enjoyed it. They closed with a very short cover of a well-known Bill Withers tune, which I don’t quite recall but believe was “Use Me.”

As for Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, I will forever label this show as “The Awakening” because while I’ve had a great time at their shows in the past, this was the one where I really got it. In talking to some of their longtime fans, I learned that last night’s set wasn’t particularly “better” than others, but the environment was certainly one of the best the band’s had at any of their shows. The room was far from full, but everyone pressed up to the front and most of us danced our asses off. It was a bigger than usual stage for them, and they filled it out well with lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe taking charge and commanding attention.

I really love how this band is an incredibly tight nine-piece ensemble that works so well together, yet all of its members are polished enough that they can really seize the moment when given the spotlight for solos. For whatever reason, that seems to be an anomaly among most bands– either they’re an all-star lineup of people needing room to shine or they’re the kind of ensemble where the whole is far greater than the individual parts. I get the sense that while the Dirty Birds are particularly skilled at playing together, you could cherrypick a couple of them and start a great trio or quartet with little effort.

And Arleigh’s performance had me simply transfixed. There was one moment when I was thinking, “You know, this young lady could really…wait a sec…oh….wow…did she just…uh-huh…yes…wow….just…wow…I hope no one saw me drool all over myself…Hell, I don’t care, I can’t look away….wait…oh, man….damn….can’t she just stand still and act a little less sultry for just one second? I was about to think of something brilliant, but I’ve completely lost my train of thought. Thanks a lot!…oh, yes…thank you very, very much….”

To be perfectly honest, I had to stay off to the side because I was afraid of how much power she could potentially wield over me by making eye contact. From my vantage point, her performance was nothing short of spellbinding, and without thinking, I would have cut out someone’s vital organs with a butter knife if she’d asked me to do so. I’ve seen Arleigh on stage before, and I’ve hung out with her a few times at Jazz Fest, but I’ve never seen her demonstrate such a heightened level of raw sexuality.

The only knock I’d put on her is for less-than stellar diction, as I often had a hard time deciphering lyrics. Part of that seems to be a vocal choice that she’s made (because she certainly speaks normally), but I would throttle that back just a tad for clarity’s sake. Otherwise, she shouldn’t change a damn thing.

If you want a funky, reggae/ska-infused evening steaming with the scent of late night seduction, Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds are the band for you.

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Going Furthur 2-23-10 Radio City Music Hall – New York, NY

I was rather happy with last night’s Furthur. If this is how the music of the Grateful Dead is going to live for the foreseeable future, it’s in very protective hands.

This band feels somewhat like the merging of Ratdog and Phil & Friends with the least desirable parts of each (and the truly experimental elements) all falling by the wayside. Weir isn’t choking the jams like he does in Ratdog and Phil isn’t trying to orchestrate everything like he does in Phil & Friends. Of course, the difference maker here is John Kadlecik, who is playing the lead guitar lines we all know and love. He’s really the one who’s making this music accessible to the masses, whereas Phil & Friends were always trying to take it into some fusion-inspired direction, while Ratdog was going for a more sparse sound. Kadlecik is putting the rounded edges on this beast, ensuring that nothing pointy sticks out and pokes you in the eye. Whether or not you want your beast with rounded edges is a different story.

The opening “Other One Jam” was solid, and it was unexpectedly great when they suddenly shifted into “Playin’ In the Band.” However, the buttery smooth transition into an Eric Clapton-style “After Midnight” was the moment when the band truly shifted gears. Thanks to Sir Joe Russo laying in the pocket, everything became tre funky. Kadlecik took the charge and started dishing out his first major statements of the evening, throwing us back to 1970 with intensity. However, disappointment was afoot as soon as backup singers Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Garcia Becker had their chance to sing one of the greatest lines ever written for backup singer: “What it is all about, What it is all about!” Unfortunately, in a moment that begs for the backup singers to cut loose and wail, they delivered the straightest, most soulless rendition of these lyrics I’ve ever heard. They were perfectly on pitch, but everything out of their mouths sounded incredibly square, almost as if they were singing chamber music. This would become a running theme throughout the night, but these two also had their virtues because every time they sang the lyrics in unison with the big three, the vocals were mixed perfectly and sounded excellent. It seems as though the rigid styling that makes them ideal backup singers also makes their sound less than ideal when singing their own lines. By the way, Sunshine Garcia Becker is apparently no relation to Jerry, but her fate to sing this music was obviously predetermined by her parents on her birth certificate.

“They Love Each Other” relished in the mid-‘70s Jerry Garcia Band groove, and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was a rousing crowd pleaser. On the whole, Weir’s vocals over the course of the night were surprisingly good (for Bob Weir circa 2010), and when he couldn’t sustain the notes, the entire audience was more than willing to fill in the gaps. I honestly can’t recall a live version of “Masterpiece” that I’ve enjoyed more than this one with it’s full-throated sing-a-long and happy vibe. “The Race Is On” was a nice, rare boogie, perfect for a little swing dancing in the aisle with Ms. The, although that was the first time that I’ve ever attempted swing dancing on a 35 degree incline, and thankfully, no ankles were broken. The “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that followed was dripping in psychedelia, despite failing to take advantage of the backup singers. Kadlecik led a little jamlet out of this one, heavily teasing “Hey Jude” before the band dissolved into a Jeff Chimenti solo that seemed to be prompted by Phil. I hadn’t really noticed Chimenti up until this point, but if this was his time to shine, he sure as Hell took advantage of it. Simply put, the man cut loose on the baby grand like a dosed version of Professor Longhair. He was dropping into this wild, barrelhouse piano groove that kept revolving around a captivatingly odd riff. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this moment featured some of the finest keyboard work to be heard on a stage with Lesh and Weir since 1992, if not 1974. It was *that* good.

The solo wove its way into Ratdog’s “Two Djinn,” a number I haven’t heard in at least 10 years. This one was lengthy, and every time I kept thinking, “Okay, Bob, you’re boring me,” they went right into this very catchy hook that sucked everyone back in. The “Samson and Delilah” set closer was thunderous, wailing, and right on point. No complaints there.

I went to visit friends during setbreak and found myself in a great seat all the way down on house left with plenty of room to move during a “Viola Lee Blues” opener that was more funky than psychedelic. Keeping with the funkdafied theme, they leapt right into a fantastic “Shakedown Street” that had everyone up and grooving. Shortly after the start, people returned to the seats I was occupied. The very nice young woman kindly offered to share her space, but I needed room to dance, so I gratefully declined. Apparently, that was not okay with her because she said, “No, really you can stay.”

“Thank you, that’s very generous, but I’m going to go,” I replied.

“I’m serious. It’s okay. We can share the space,” she said.

“I appreciate that, but I’m going to find some more room.”

“Really, I don’t mind!”

“Ummm…I’m going now.”

Having escaped the clutches of her generosity, I found myself moving back a bit in the center left aisle, getting a perfect view with excellent sound. The security was also super chill, and they never hassled me at all. The fairly relaxed vibe of the staff really added to the excellent ambiance and sound in Radio City.

I need to add that the band did some cool things to the arrangement of “Shakedown,” adding in a few stops and turns and a great “Shake it down, shake it down, shake it down, shake it down now” vocal section that seemed to be ripped right out of the Commodores’ “Brick House.” And with the aid of Russo, Kadlecik was really working the tension-and-release solos to thrilling effect.

The resulting “Hard to Handle” had a very odd feel to it. The 8-6-71 version with Pigpen is one of the high watermarks for the Grateful Dead, and if that dog-in-heat version was NC-17, last night’s rendition was rated G and appropriate for preschoolers. Somehow they’d stripped the song of its raw sexuality and left a cute, purple Teletubby in its place. That being said, I kind of enjoyed it, which probably makes me gay in the eyes of the late Jerry Falwell.

“Deal” continued the hot streak with some of the most searing leads of the night from Kadlecik. Chimenti also took advantage of another all-too-rare opportunity to bust out some rollicking piano chops, often getting the best of Kadlecik in their back-and-forth sections. The whole band was really locked in here, and the much of the house was rockin’ with “Mason’s Children”…but then they deep-sixed all the energy in the room by moving into “Days Between.” Truthfully, Weir delivered a fine version of this song, but it really took the wind out of a lot of sails. Down front, the vast majority of the aging audience took sat down in those cushy seats to wait out this one. For me, the momentum of the set was lost, and while the resulting “Let It Grow” had plenty of excellent moments, I now felt like I was in a different show. As a result, the closing “Franklin’s Tower” never truly soared as it normally does when coming out of the buildup from “Help On the Way->Slipknot!” It should be noted that people cheered for the rare Phil-led vocal, which wasn’t much to write home about but was still a welcome change of pace from Weir’s horrendous Shatner-ized versions from 2009. The “Johnny B. Goode” encore was little more than standard.

As far as a light show goes, I personally find this setup to be rather weak. They have very few lights and seem to have invested most of their money in a gigantic LED screen that naturally looks rather pixelated up close and appears to be a lot clearer from a distance. The images they showed were often very incongruous with the music, and I’d imagine the shots of barbed wire flying in your face during “Let It Grow” must have been mildly horrifying for anyone who’d paid a visit to Dr. Hoffman. It’s no secret that these tours are now thinly-veiled money-grabs for Lesh and Weir, but if you’re going to charge people an arm-and-a-leg for tickets, you need to deliver more than just excellent music. People are paying for a performance, and if we’re shelling out at a significantly higher price than we did in the past, it’s time to shoot off some lasers, inflate a pig, or at least light someone on fire. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Was anything last night ground-breaking, Earth-shaking, or even “the shit”? No way, Jose. But were there any trainwrecks? No, not at all. I hesitate to call the show “safe,” but the element of risk was certainly missing. That may be part and parcel of this relatively new band’s philosophy, but it’s probably a little too early to tell. On the positive side, Russo adds plenty of vitality to the drumming, never settling for the kind of heavy-handed pedestrian beats which had previously plagued many of the ballads. In the realm of percussion, I’m not quite sure what Jay Lane adds to the mix, but nothing he did stuck out like a sore thumb, so I can’t complain. The new-found trust in Kadlecik is what seems to have really improved the sound of this group. They’re wisely letting him sing lead more often, and they’re giving him space to shine. Unfortunately, he’s not always taking advantage of these opportunities and doesn’t quite consistently sound like a guitarist leading a band, which is probably because he’s not one of the two leaders. Of course, his playing is as Garcia-esque as we’re ever going to hear, although he is wrapping each and every one of Garcia’s lines in bubbles, removing any daring edges from the work. Again, it’s all very protected and enjoyable, and hopefully, this is the foundation for a musical experience that will eventually embrace the unexpected and take some risks. Until that time, these shows will remain nothing more than pleasantly fun. No harm, no foul.

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A Subway Collaboration

12:13 AM 2-17-10
42nd St Port Authority Subway Station Uptown & Queens Platform

The coolest thing just happened.

I descended the stairs to the platform for the E-train and I saw a subway bard with an acoustic guitar sitting on the bench near the map.

Now for years I’ve been wanting to relive a magical late night moment that occurred in this exact spot. On that particular evening, a very different middle aged subway bard led an entire platform in a 3AM soul sing-along, including “My Girl,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” and other ’60s classics. He was amazingly charismatic, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the greatest solo subway performer I’ve ever seen. I would often try to find him in order to recapture that moment of spontaneous simultaneous vocal jubilation, but it was never meant to be.

Subsequent performances on this very “stage” would include the fragile old lady with the huge sunglasses who would play mind-numbingly simple but poorly executed “melodies” on her synthesizer and never receive more than occasional pity pocket change for her efforts, as well as some oddball trios featuring djembe, trumpet, and pan flute.

In other words, the stage had seen better days.

That held true until this evening when I saw a white-haired woman whisper something to tonight’s troubadour. I figured I’d at least give him eight bars to prove himself before donning my headphones and walking away, so he began by playing some classically influenced arpeggios. (I DID say he was a bard.) This quickly became the intro to Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.” He was thankfully not playing the Taylor Swift arrangement, so he was singing on key. To be perfectly honest, his was a fine version of the song, filled with pathos and emotion.

But then came the unexpected.

At the other end of the bench, a young guy started freestyling on top of the bard’s playing. His rapping took everyone by surprise, and the platform was suddenly…well…rapt with attention toward the bizarre duet. The bard, presumably not a hip hop fan, seemed quite annoyed and tried to play louder. The white-haired woman shook her head in disappointment because this rapping was not what she had requested. Everyone else just stood there staring, waiting to see what would happen. The bard looked like the pacifist type, but he was clearly irritated and reaching his breaking point. Would he just stop playing, yell, or smash his guitar into the rapper’s cranium? It was hard to get much of a read on the rapper, so I had no idea if his goals were collaborative or antagonistic, and what would he do if someone tried to stop him?

It was a tense situation, but in the midst of all this tension, some oddly beautiful music was being made. Never in a million years would I pick “Landslide” as the perfect background for hip hop, but this guy was making it work. Now I wasn’t able to understand much of his lyrics, but they did seem to be positive. (Had he taken this opportunity to rap about violence, misogyny, or the size of his genitalia, it would have been rather tacky but fantastically incongruous when juxtaposed with Fleetwood Mac.) Somehow he appeared to be perfectly in sync with the song, deftly matching the bard’s dynamic and tempo changes with impressive style.

The longer this went on, the less resistant everyone became. While the bard never fully embraced his rapping collaborator, by the end of the song, both the bard and the white-haired woman cracked the faintest of smiles. The beauty of collaborative music had triumphed over pessimism! The rapper calmly got up and walked away, disappearing into the shadows without acknowledgement. I dropped a buck in the bard’s guitar case, the E-train arrived, and another great musical moment in subway history was in the books.

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My new purpose in life!

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The Rise and Fall of Music in the 20th Century

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