John Doe, Cafe Nine, New Haven, CT 6/11/16 (Including a Review of “The Westerner”)

John Doe is a punk rock legend. Together with ex-wife Exene Cervenka,  drummer D.J. Bonebreak, and guitarist Billy Zoom, they formed X. They were a band that literally changed the musical landscape in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They paved  the way for countless other bands to leave behind the corporate rock and disco mentality that was so prevalent in the country at the time and shake up the music world as we knew it.

John Doe, despite being punk rock royalty, has always had a bit of folk and country in his soul—folk, rockabilly, and country are laced liberally throughout many X songs. John also tapped into these roots with The Knitters, a side project he formed with fellow X band members Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebreak. This group showcases a genre very different than that of X, with original music, covers of country music songs, and acoustic versions of X songs.

In The Knitters, as well as in X, John’s lovely voice and really good songwriting was often overshadowed by the stage presence and exceptional songwriting of Exene. John needed to be on his own for his light to shine as brightly as it was capable of doing. When he released his first solo album, Meet John Doe, in 1990, his brilliance and ability to stand on his own became clear. Over the last 16 years, he has released 11 albums and has continued to grow even stronger in his songwriting, lyrics, and personal style. His star really shines most brightly when performing his own solo music.

When I spoke to John recently at a book signing and live performance at Rough Trade in Brooklyn,  I asked him how difficult it was to be touring with both bands this summer. He looked at me, laughed, and said “Well, somebody has to pay all the bills.” That’s the bittersweet thing about someone who has influenced music so greatly. Their influence can be heard in musicians decades behind them, but their paychecks and mainstream recognition don’t always match up to those following in their footsteps. Like so many artists, writers, and musicians before them, these innovators often don’t reap the benefits of being the ones that changed the landscape. They often have to work their hearts out just to survive in a comfortable manner.

Bandmate and sometimes-opening-act Jesse Dayton recently joked about aging punk stars using country music as “their retirement plan” and how the “alternative country” or “cowpunk” genre  seems to be all the rage, particularly among aging punk and alternative artists. The difference with  John is that he’s  been performing this music since the times it defied classification. This music isn’t something he’s cashing in on. It’s just the music that seems to flow seamlessly from his soul.

John, at age 63, is not slowing down. He has recently released a book of essays about the punk scene in Los Angeles in the late ‘7os and early ’80s called Under The Big Black Sun. With essays from John and other musicians including Exene and Henry Rollins, the book provides an insightful and accurate look into how these musicians lived, what they felt, and the music they made during this time. As a lifelong X fan (My kids knew the lyrics to most X songs from the time they were in diapers), as well as a huge fan of John’s solo work, I was thrilled to read Under The Big Black Sun. As a punk fan from NYC and CT, I’d often been intrigued by how the L.A. punk scene started and what it was like being in the midst of it. This book really brings me there (I will say, however, that as an East Coast/NYC punk, I did take slight offense to John’s assertion that L.A. punks were tougher than New York punks, but I digress…).  The L.A. scene, often overshadowed by the New York and London punk scenes, was just as critical to music. This book really brings that point home.

As if he weren’t busy enough, John has also released a new album, entitled The Westerner. This album was inspired by his time in Arizona, when he was recording and spending time with friend and author Michael Blake (Dances With Wolves), in the hours leading up to his death. Themes of this beautiful and haunting album include the inevitability of mortality and the dark expanse of loneliness, so beautifully exemplified by images of the Arizona desert. Most of the tracks on this album are softer and more haunting than what we are used to if we only know Doe through his work in X. Doe is joined by Debbie Harry of Blondie on one of the albums more upbeat tracks, “Go Baby Go”, but when you are finished listening, the songs that stick with you are beauties such as “Alone in Arizona” and “Rising Sun,” which speaks of friend Blake, “In his dreams he still flies, In his dreams he still rides,” touchingly .

Doe describes this album as “not country, but most definitely western” and that says it all. The Westerner is Americana at its finest.

I was able to see John and his band perform at Café Nine in New Haven on June 11, 2016. The band, with the incredibly talented Jesse Dayton on the guitar and X drummer D.J. Bonebreak on the drums, was excellent. Jesse Dayton is a shining star, and his guitar playing is exceptional. He was the opening act for John, and his talent is clear. Jesse was a guitarist on the late Waylon Jennings’ last two albums, and it’s obvious why a star like Jennings would want to work with Dayton. He is gifted and I expect that we will be hearing a lot from him in the future.

The setlist was filled with classic John Doe songs such as “The Golden Sate,”, but also included X classics, such as “The Have Nots” and “4th of July.” New releases, such as “Alone in Arizona,” really showcased John’s voice and talent. At 63-years-old, his voice remains clear and true and his passion for his music is evident. In this world of one-trick ponies and one-hit wonders, I’m relieved to see that there are still musicians out there with the capability to sing songs that range from hard and classic punk to lovely and poignant melodies. John Doe is a class act. And one with a very long career both behind him and ahead of him.

Bob Mould, Webster Hall, 4/29/16

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Photo by Amanda Hatfield, Brookyn Vegan .My joy is pretty evident!

 

Bob Mould. He has  been my musical hero since I was about 15 years old and got to see him live with Husker Du in a little club in Bridgeport, CT. Through his days in Husker Du, his time fronting the band Sugar and his many years as a solo artist, all of Bob’s music shares equal time in my weekly music rotation.There is literally never a day that goes by without me listening to at least a song or two. Bob’s lyrics have always mirrored things going on in my own life, and because of that I’ve always felt a connection.This man has some kind of supernatural ability to see into the deepest recesses of the souls of so many of his fans who’ve had times when in their lives when they were outcasts, loners or misfits. He just gets us.

Because of the many years I’d stopped seeing live shows, I hadn’t seen Mould perform as a headliner since I was 15. I was blessed enough to see him join Dinosaur Jr. on stage at their show in NYC in December, 2015. This tiny taste of how hard Bob plays live and how much he gives to his audience made me even more determined to see him as a headliner.

My son, who is 19 years old and a musician himself, has a real appreciation for Bob.  I got us both tickets to see him play at Webster Hall in NYC on April 29, 2016. This was going to be a great show to share with him.

Any of you that have read Bob’s memoir understand that he likes to date a certain type of man. He calls them “Bears”. They can be identified by their stockiness, scruffy beards and fondness for flannel shirts. When the night of the show came and I looked over at my bearded, flannel wearing and very cute son, I felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t have suggested that it was cold out and he might be warmer in flannel? Kidding! I didn’t really try to bait Bob with my handsome kid. But if he wanted to talk to us after the show I wouldn’t mind! In all seriousness, though, Ryan and I were beyond thrilled to be at this show and made sure to be first in line so we could get right up to the stage. We succeeded.

Ted Leo was the opening act. While he was entertaining and really very good, I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that I couldn’t wait for him to finish so that Bob could begin. My son, on the other hand, became a real fan of Leo, and came home to download some of his music.

When Bob and his longtime band, bassist Jason Narducy (Superchunk, Split Single) and drummer Jon Wurtser (Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Split Single), finally took the stage I was beyond ready. I had really hoped that Bob would delve into his extensive catalog, not only playing his solo stuff, but including Sugar and Husker Du as well. I didn’t have to hope for long. The set began with not one, but two, Sugar songs.;  “A Good Idea” and “Changes.”

Throughout the night,  Bob delved frequently into the back catalog of music so many of us in the crowd were hungry to hear. While the set was rich with new material from the incredible new album “Patch the Sky”, it was also balanced with frequent trips into the past. Husker Du was very well represented, with some of the highlights including “Something I Learned Today” and a beautiful and touching rendition of “Hardly Getting Over it” (The teenage girl next to me was literally bawling her eyes out, and if I’m being honest, I had to wipe a tear away myself).

What really impressed me about this show was how hard this band plays. Bob Mould, at 55 years old, plays the guitar harder and louder than musicians half his age. Wurster and Narducy also play with incredible sound and energy. They were happy to be there and happy to play for their fans. It was obvious in the energy they exuded. They were not going to be satisfied with going through the motions. This band came to play their hearts out and they succeeded.

The night ended with a 3 song encore set that began with Jon Wurster coming up to the microphone to sing the Ramones classic “Beat on the Brat” while Ted Leo took over on drums. This was followed by “Love is All Around”, which is the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore show, and ended with an incredible version of Husker Du’s “Makes no Sense at All”

The night was full of energy, joy and outrageous volume. Bob and his band played their hearts out. I could not have asked for more. And while I missed the presence of my closest Bob Mould fan friends, who couldn’t make it to the show, I was extremely glad I got to share a show like this with my kid.

#bobmould #jasonnarducy #jonwurster

Drive-By Truckers, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 3/6/16

My musical taste may have started with the Replacements, the Ramones, and Husker Du, but my tastes have evolved to include other genres as well. One of my very favorite bands are the Drive-By Truckers. They are often classified as alternative country and site their varied influences as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Replacements, the Rolling Stones, and REM, to name just a few. What they bring to music are incredible lyrics, amazing musicianship, and a true heart and soul for doing what they do. DBT is a band that has had up to 3 songwriters, very different in style and content, at any one time. While for most bands this could easily turn into a scattered, incoherent mess, with DBT it melds into something that seems effortlessly beautiful. A marriage of voices, styles, and souls that compares to no other band I know. With the departure of Jason Isbell in 2007 (and his subsequently very successful solo career—Isbell recently won two Grammy awards), the bands songwriting remains incredibly strong and relevant. And although Isbell was a critical part of DBT albums such as Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and A Blessing and a Curse, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to prove that they are strong enough songwriters to preserve the DBT stories and sound without a third lyricist.

I’d seen DBT before, but only as an opening band for Alabama Shakes in September of 2015. While seeing them as an opening band was certainly better than nothing, my love of the entire Drive-By Truckers catalog made it a priority for me to see them as headliners. I waited patiently until I heard that they were coming to the NYC area on March 6, 2016. Overjoyed, I purchased tickets the second they went on sale.

DBT is a band that is also well-loved by some good friends of mine, so we met in a quirky (and very good) Thai restaurant called SEA a couple of blocks away from the venue. I highly recommend it as a pre-show stop for drinks or dinner.

As always, It was my intention to get there early so that we could stand right up front. I got my wish.

The setlist spanned the long and incredible career of DBT, beginning with the quieter and more reflective “Tornadoes” but segueing into the much louder “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” and then a rendition of “Sink Hole” that made you stomp your feet and cheer.

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley alternated songs throughout the night, and what struck me is how rare it is to find a band where each of the singer-songwriters is so different in tone, style, and content, but each equally as strong. These guys really are some of the best songwriters out there, but they add to it with how well they play and how well they back each other up. There is no other team out there as cohesive as Hood and Cooley when they’re up on that stage together.

Hood is always a great story teller, and being the progressive woman that I am, I have to say that one of my favorite parts of the evening was when he stepped up to the microphone and said “Mama, I know you’re listening on the internet, and if you vote for Donald Trump, I’m putting you in the nursing home… .” I’d already been smiling from ear to ear because of the quality of the show, and that only added to it. Another favorite moment of mine was when Hood changed the lyrics of “Let There be Rock” to include the Replacements and REM, instead of Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC. Hood has a very wide collection of musical influences, and this was really reflective of that.

The band had already been playing for almost 2 hours, but I never wanted it to end. They rocked the house down. I don’t think that a person in the audience was spared from having one of the best concert experiences of their lives.

When the band came out for their encore, I hoped for 2 or 3 more songs. I just didn’t want this show to end. And as if they read the mind of the overjoyed audience, the encore set consisted of 6 songs. Beginning with a rip-roaring version of “Birthday Boy” and ending with the subdued “Angels and Fuselage,” the show ended as it had begun. With a beautiful and reflective song, filled with a grand total of 21 high-energy, kick-ass songs in between. It’s not often that a show feels perfect from start to finish. This one really did.

Drive-By Truckers have been together for 20 years, but this band shows no signs of letting up or slowing down.They just keep getting better with age.

 

 

 

 

Dinosaur Jr. , Bowery Ballroom 12/6/15

Dinosaur Jr. has always been one of my very favorite bands. Their unique sound, quirkiness and lyrics were all something that made this band special. They are also famous for crushing it live. My life was kind of a mess in the fall of 2015, and I remembered my promise to myself; go to more live shows. So when I heard about this tour, which was in honor of the 30 year anniversary of the release of their first album, “Dinosaur”, I knew without doubt that I would be going.

I have a strong dislike for going to shows with people just willing to tag along without really caring about the music. Fortunately for me, I have a few musical soulmates. This is particularly true of a friend who despite being 11 years my junior, is always on the same wave length as I am musically. I got her a ticket for her birthday and counted the days.

While my plan had been to get the show very early and get right up next to the stage (an extremely brave thing to do, considering the outrageously loud volume of a Dinosaur Jr. show!), meeting friends for dinner meant arriving later and having to stand towards the back of the room. All was, good, though. I was at a show with people I cared about and trusted, getting ready to hear one of the best live bands in the world.

Everything started pretty quickly after our arrival. Henry Rollins announced the band from way up high in a balcony overlooking the theatre. While it was great to see Henry, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, given that he follows the band as they tour quite frequently. We knew that some pretty cool musicians had been showing up to play with the band on this tour, but we kept our expectations low. All that really mattered was that we were seeing Dinosaur Jr.

The first set was the album “Dinosaur” in its entirety. And when the first blaringly loud notes of “Forget the Swan” began to play, I knew this night would be something special. It may have been the 3 glasses of wine I’d consumed, But I was at a show with people I cared about listening to one of the best bands in the world. Something happened when I was dancing with my friend and belting out the lyrics to “Repulsion”. I was happy. But it was more than that. I began to feel like me again for the first time in a very, very long time.

The second set started with “Bulbs of Passion”. This was followed by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo joining the band for a very good rendition of “Little Fury Things”. Matt Valentine from the band MV+EE  made a guest appearance during the song “Start Choppin’”. The only disappointment of the evening came when Pussy Galore’s Julia Cafritz came out to sing “Budge”. It may be just my opinion, but her screeching rendition of this classic song did it no justice.

We had already witnessed a handful of musicians join the band, and truthfully, after “Budge” I kind of hoped that the rest of the night might be just Dinosaur Jr. playing alone. But suddenly, the volume in the room went way up. And the people around me cheered. And it took me a few minutes to even comprehend what I was seeing up there on that stage. But then I heard the first chord to my favorite Dinosaur Jr. song of all time. And my eyes we not deceiving me. There on that stage stood Bob Mould. My musical hero. He had a smile from ear to ear and was belting out the chords to Freak Scene harder than anybody who is 55 years old could ever be expected to do. I knew that I had to get up to that stage. Suddenly, my friend grabbed my hand and somehow, miraculously parted the sea of people and there we were, up against the stage watching Bob Mould play “Freak Scene” with Dinosaur Jr. When the song was over, J. Mascis switched to drums and the band played an outrageously good version of Husker Du’s “In a Free Land.”  After this song, my friend headed back into the crowd to join our other friends. Maybe it was my screaming and obvious joy at seeing Bob Mould up there, but as I started to walk away one of the sound guys grabbed my arm and yelled “Don’t go, Bob is coming back for the encore”. So I stayed.

The final song of the evening was a version of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”. On stage were Dinosaur Jr., Lee Ranaldo, Fred Armisen and Bob Mould. The night could not have ended any better. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week.

December 6, 2015. That was the night I woke up. And became myself again. Thanks Dinosaur Jr. and Bob Mould. It’s all because of you.