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In Praise of Working Musicians

Over the years I’ve been to a lot of concerts. I’ve seen huge stars in arenas and stadiums. I’ve seen fairly big (and some very big) names in medium- sized venues like the Beacon or NJPAC. They’re all enjoyable in their own way as long as the sound is good and the crowd is not too obnoxious. Sadly, that’s not alway the case. There’s no doubt that the stadium experience is better in general than it used to be as both sound and visual technology has gotten better, bringing with it an improved sense of engagement with the artist. Some acts really get it (Bruce, U2, McCartney) while some don’t (Dead and Company last summer).

There is however, a special pleasure in seeing a great performer in a smaller more intimate venue. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to see some great music up close and personal, and I’m not even including Bruce on Broadway, which I’ve already written about for this space (here).

It’s nice for me as a New Jersey resident that I don’t have to cross a body of water to see and hear good music. There are a number of smaller theaters in my area such as SOPAC in South Orange, the Mayo in Morristown, and Union County PAC in Rahway that have a wide variety of shows. They share a warm, intimate vibe and good acoustics. There are also organizations like Outpost in the Burbs that put on shows in several churches in Montclair. The musicians who perform at these venues have a lot in common. They’ve been doing this for a long time. Although they have different styles and have had different degrees of fame in the past, they all share a devotion to their craft and continue to perform frequently around the metropolitan area.

I’ve recently seen two terrific shows as SOPAC. A while back, it was Tom Rush (76) and Livingston Taylor(67). Then a few weeks ago it was James Maddock opening for Willie Nile. Rush was very popular during my college days in Boston. He was one of the leading lights of the folk revival that started in the 60s. Although he doesn’t write much, he was one of the first performers to record songs by future stars like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Livingston’s big brother James. He still sings well with a deep voice and a humorous stage manner. His guitar playing is excellent, and he hasn’t lost a step.

Livingston Taylor is a walking musical encyclopedia. When he’s not performing he’s teaching it at Berkeley School of Music in Boston. His repertoire ranges from originals to updated versions of songs from the great American songbook. Alternating between guitar and piano, he projects his great love of the history of music in his performances. I saw him in college opening for Jethro Tull of all people – an odd pairing to say the least.

James Maddock originally came to fame as the lead singer of Wood, whose songs were used extensively in Dawson’ Creek. He’s the baby of this group at 55. He is a wonderful songwriter who has released 5 superb solo albums since moving to New York in the early 2000s. He’s an artist in residence at Rockwood Hall. I’ve seen him with a full band, but this night he was solo. His husky but warm voice is the perfect vehicle for his songs. The only problem with his set was that it was too short.

Willie Nile (69) has been a fixture of the downtown New York music scene since he debuted in 1980. Thanks to problem with his record company and other factors his career hit the skids for most of the 90s, but since 2000 he’s been back with a vengeance, recording album after album and touring extensively. He’s a rocker, and with his black leather jacket and upright mop of hair he looks the part. His songwriting is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Petty’s – his songs can be deceptively simple but there’s a depth to them that becomes apparent on repeat listening. His live shows are legendary, especially when he’s abetted by his partner in crime Johnny Pisano on the bass and harmonies. Willie’s most recent album is “Positively Bob”, a collection of Dylan covers that Willie makes his own. His show at SOPAC was his usual high energy performance, featuring a few of the Dylan songs, some old favorites and a surprise opener of Petty’s “Running Down a Dream”. This was his first show back in the states after touring Europe with just Pisano, and the band at a few points seemed a little out of synch. Willlie at 90%, though, is still better than most people at 100%.

My next show was Ian Hunter and the Rant Band at Outpost in the Burbs. Hunter is 78!! years old, although you’d never know it. He was the lead vocalist of Mott the Hoople, and has had a long solo career. His “Cleveland Rocks” was the theme of Drew Carey’s sitcom. His most recent album, “Crossed Fingers” is really good, the best work he’s done in a long time. Ian’s show was at the beautiful Congregational Church in Montclair. Unfortunately a lot of the sound was swallowed by the vaulted Gothic ceiling. It’s odd to complain that a rock wasn’t loud enough, but that was the case here. It was tough to make out the lyrics, making it hard for me to appreciate the performance. I’d like to see him again in a more conducive environment.

I do sometimes cross the Hudson. This past week I did so two nights in row, and not entirely to escape holiday family obligations. First it was for Marshall Crenshaw at City Vineyard, the relatively new offshoot of City Winery. It’s a great 100 seat room with amazing views of the Trade tower and Jersey City skyline. Seating is first come first serve, and I came first- I got a seat right in front of the stage. Crenshaw (64) was solo this night, singing his power pop accompanied only by his guitar. His singing and songwriting are spot on, and his guitar playing is surprisingly good-no problem maintaining the audience’s attention without a band. Some of you know may know him from his performance as Buddy Holly in La Bamba. He played a couple of Holly songs in addition to his own compositions. Good music, good wine and good food.

The last show was acoustic Hot Tuna at City Winery. Same wine, same food, bigger but still intimate and beautiful room. Hot Tuna started as an offshoot of Jefferson Airplane, with lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassady playing acoustic blues. Sometimes they were their own opening act. They later went electric and added other musicians. Seeing them was full circle for me. My first rock concert was Hot Tuna and Commander Cody at the Boston Music Hall in 1972, (Yes, I’m old too- but not as old as these guys. Jorma is 76 and Jack is 73). They are both virtuoso players and their rapport is as telepathic as you’d expect for people who’ve been sharing a stage for 50 years. It was wonderful seeing these two hall-of-famers in such a great setting. Time has not taken anything from their abilities, at least their musical abilities.

It was wonderful to see these performers, still working and still wonderful after all these years.


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