2019 delivers diverse experience for concert couple

Guest Columnist

Brynne knows that the best way to my heart is through my ears.

For my recent birthday, she surprised me with tickets to see Elvis Costello. Then, the next Saturday, she surprised me with Boz Scaggs tickets.

A better 55th birthday could not be had. The shows represented perfect capstones for a healthy dose of 2019 concert-going.

Music is important to Brynne, too. For her birthday, we saw Phil Collins. His tour was aptly titled, “Still Not Dead Yet, Live,” a cheeky English wink-wink from Collins who, due to health issues, can no longer play drums (his 19-year-old son replaced him and proved to be a bona fide chip off the old man’s chops). He also can’t take to the stage without aid of a cane. During the sold-out show, he simply sat on a center-stage stool and delivered the vocal goods. Watching him wow his legion of fans brought to mind an old joke, the one about a poster advertising a missing pet: “Lost! Blind in one eye! Three-legs! Has been hit by four cars. Porcupine quills in nose. Skunk sprayed. Accidentally neutered. Answers to Lucky.”

Since seeing Journey in 2017, we have become quite the concert couple.

During our July honeymoon, we saw Electric Light Orchestra (or, Jeff Lynne’s ELO). The ‘70s super group, with its unique fusion of rock and roll, classical instruments, laser lights, and yes, cowbell, provided us with an out-of-this-world-greatest-hits experience, each song becoming a 20,000-person sing-a-long. It was a real Rockaria!

We spent Father’s Day at the Ryman watching Roseanne Cash and Ry Cooder perform Johnny Cash covers. Spellbound, we sensed the Man In Black’s spirit on that hot Nashville night, as if he was smiling down from the Ryman rafters while his daughter lovingly paid tribute to him from the most hallowed of country music hall stages.    

We saw Santana on Earth Day and The Who backed by an orchestra (the codgers are alright). We bravely saw punk rockers Gogol Bordello, which marked my first mosh pit experience (we safely sat in our box seats reserved for nerdy middle-agers). This band of multi-national anarchist gypsies, in all their runaway freight-train fury, welcomingly collided with our Yacht Rock mainstream musical sensibilities. We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Gogol Bordello is like a Molotov Cocktail with mercy.

Mexican-American electric guitar-slinger Alejandra Escovedo, backed by Italian band Don Antonio, delivered gritty tales of the immigration experience during my favorite small-venue sojourn. We saw David Gray (bleh), The Verve Pipe, The Mavericks (a Tex-Mex-Latin live-act must-see), and English gentleman Nick Lowe. The folk-rocker Bacon Brothers (yes, the Kevin Bacon) left us feeling footloose. We were moved by Motown via The Temptations and The Four Tops.

We saw Louisville-based Joan Shelley, who arguably has the best song voice in folk music today. Prairie dress cladded and poised, she performed pure lyrical poetry plucked from her new release, “Like the River Loves the Sea.” Hearing Shelley sing is like being privy to a sixth element of nature.

In October, I finally saw Bob Dylan. My daughter Delaney, a bigger Dylan fan than me, joined. I’ve seen a hefty lineup of musical greats of historical distinction, but no artist seemed more surreal in the flesh than Dylan. We are talking the Bob Dylan. At 78, in his white dinner jacket, he gloriously glowed hologram-like. Brittle-boned and crazy-haired, he struck a crooner’s pose, right hand gripping the mic, left hand holding the cord. Bent-kneed, he leaned in, delivering his legendary lyrics like boxer blows or snake bites, “…sometimes my burden is more than I can bear, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” reeling us with right hooks, left jabs, leaving us whiplashed, satisfyingly snake-bitten.

Two days later, Brynne and I saw the exquisitely exhilarating Rhiannon Giddens, who is as critical to our planet’s humanity spin today as Dylan was back in his day. Her dark lyrical history lessons about slavery and racism, most notably via songs in 2017’s “Freedom Highway,” should be required listening in schools. (Nothing would make me happier than for you to ditch this column right now and Spotify two songs, “At The Purchaser’s Option” and “Birmingham Sunday.”) A classically-trained singer and virtuoso at banjo and fiddle, Giddens’ voice occasionally conjured an operatic Odetta of sorts. Her face turned trancelike as she delved into the depths of each soulful song, yet she was hilariously self-deprecating during her between-song banter—that is, when she wasn’t tirelessly giving us a welcomed master course on the pivotal influence of black musicians throughout music history. FYI, the banjo came from Africa, not Appalachia. Much of the show was focused on her new album with Sicilian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, titled “There Is No Other,” which deftly demonstrates the harmonic merging of Arabic, European and African-American musical styles, allowing Giddens to further teach us that music has long been a migratory thing, that different musical styles and instruments comingled and merged via the camaraderie of converging immigrant musicians throughout history. In other words, what we hear today actually demonstrates our shared musical roots with other nationalities and races. Each time I see a Giddens concert, I return home a better person for it. I hope to see her 100 more times.

Last but not least, we saw the late-great Aretha Franklin. Well, not live, since she was already dead, but it felt like a live experience when we viewed the amazing documentary “Amazing Grace,” which chronicled her legendary gospel performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. We left our church pew, nay movie theater seats, feeling somewhat sweaty, a tad teary, and blessedly soul-stirred, which is how we like to feel after any concert.

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