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The Twilight Of The Rock N Roll Gods (Parts One To Three)

What is is about musicians from the 60s and 70s, now well into their fifth (or in one case sixth) decade of performing that keeps them so compelling, keeps us coming back for more? I think it comes down to a few things: some nostalgia, a level of comfort with their material for us boomers, but mainly it’s the quality of their work. I really feel that those decades represented a golden age for music. Certainly there has been some great stuff before and since, but I don’t think this era can be topped.

My odyssey through the past began with Paul McCartney at MetLife Stadium on 6/16. Seeing Paul is like spending an evening with your old uncle, if your uncle was a genius. You know your going to hear the same old stories (Hendrix asking Clapton to tune his guitar, Blackbird and the civil rights movement, George and the ukuleles). But you know you’re going to get 3 hours of mostly brilliant music. Paul seems almost untouched by age. He almost casually plays whatever instrument is in front of him wonderfully. His stage band, who have toured with him for many years, is perfectly tuned in to him and they always seem to be having a great time, especially drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. Some changes were apparent, though. This is the first time I’ve seen him with a horn section, which brought new color to “Got to Get You Into My Life”, “Lady Madonna” and others. Another innovation thanks to Peter Jackson was using John’s vocal on “I’ve Got A Feeling”, isolated from the original Abbey Road rooftop concert.

There were a few let downs. Some of the newer songs, particularly “Come on to Me” and “Fuh You”. were below his standards, quiet juvenile in their lyrics, like pre-teens talking about sex in the bathroom at school.

By the way, did I mention that it was almost Paul’s 80th birthday? And that Bon Jovi came out to sing Happy Birthday. Oh, and that Bruce Springsteen came out and did “Glory Days” and “I Wanna Be Your Man”, then joined the band for the guitar duel on “The End”?

Do you remember the old cereal commercial, “Even Mikey likes it?” I prevailed upon my wife to join me when my friend who was supposed to come had to cancel. She hates stadium and arena concerts, but she had a really good time.

Next was Bonnie Raitt at the Beacon Theatre, on 6/22 with Lucinda Williams opening. Lucinda , the youngster of this group at 69, had a stroke last year. She was unable to play guitar, and needed help getting on and off the stage. We had some anxious moments until she opened her mouth. Thankfully her voice is untouched, and her band Buick 6 is as tight as ever.

Bonnie, now 72, has been a favorite since my college days in Boston in the mid 70s. Her voice is beautiful, capable of subtle ballads and knock you back in your seat rockers, and her slide guitar playing is impeccable. Bonnie doesn’t write much, but the title track from her new album “Just Like That”, moves me to tears. It’s the story of a woman who feels responsible for her son’s death in a car accident who is brought back into the world by meeting the man whose life was saved by getting his heart. Bonnie always gives credit to the songwriters she covers and exudes warmth. I talked my wife into going to this one, too, by playing the supporting women artists card.

Exuding warmth is the last thing anyone would say about Steely Dan (6/30 at PNC Art Center) which now consists of 74-year-old Donald Fagen and whatever hired gun musicians he’s got touring with him. Walter Becker, his partner in crime, died suddenly in 2017. Since Fagen sings pretty much all the lead vocals, his absence was not really noticeable. The opening act on this tour, which I bought tickets for over 2 years ago, was supposed to be Steve Winwood, who is great, then Aimee Mann who got fired, and wound up being a very competent but totally forgettable jazz group. Steely played a 19 song set, featuring all my old favorites. Icy but brilliant musicianship, elliptical lyrics, same as it ever was.

Elton John, 75, was next, again at Metlife 7/23 (here), Elton had us in the palm of his hand from the first note of “Bennie and the Jets’ to the finale of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” The set was perfectly paced between rockers and ballads. Elton’s recounting of his NY area shows and gratitude to the fans in the area seemed sincere, as well as his statement that he wants to spend his remaining years with his family

Jackson Browne, 73, is another singer/songwriter I’ve been seeing regularly since my college days. The first time I saw him the pedals fell off his piano; the next time I think at the Palladium, a drunk or high attendee sitting right in front of me kept yelling “boogie” and Jackson quieted him by coolly saying “fuck you boogie man”. Apparently Jackson is still a favorite with the ladies- I overheard a comment in the men’s room that “one good thing about a Jackson Browne show is that there’s never a line for the men’s room”. Jackson still has it, playing 25 songs, in great voice, hitting all the high points while mixing in a few songs from his new album. He remains politically committed without pushing it in your face to much. He does tend to ramble a bit with his stories between songs. Bonus for us old farts: starting time was 8 and HE HIT THE STAGE AT 8. Miraculous!

Elvis Costello, a relative youthful 68, rounded out my journey with a show backed by The Imposters at the spectacular Pier 17 rooftop. Elvis started out in the late 70s as the epitome of the angry young man, with a snarling voice and rapier lyrics. His voice hasn’t changed much and his lyric writing is still just as sharp- check out his recent album A Boy Named If. Elvis is a great example of someone with limited classical musical ability who makes the most of what he has. He doesn’t have a great voice, but he’s a very effective singer. He’s certainly no Clapton but his guitar playing is just right in service to his songs. His stage presence is much warmer, almost avuncular. Although this show wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, (see Iman’s review here) it had some unquestionable high points: A wonderful performance of “Still Too Soon to Know” with Nicole Atkins, and a spectacular duet on “(What’s So Funny Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” with songwriter and opening act Nick Lowe (also a god in his own right). One thing I respect tremendously about EC is his willingness to take chances. Over his long career has done a country album, collaborated with McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Roots, and the Brodsky String Quartet. It’s very easy to stay in your comfort zone, but Costello won’t do it.

Pete Townshend famously wrote “I hope I die before I get old”. He’s still out there with Roger, too. When we first fell in love with these musicians 50 to 60 years later, did we think they’d still be playing and we’d still be listening in 2022? And why are we? It’s the music, stupid. They all have something in common- while there is some showmanship, these people are all about the quality of the songwriting and musicianship. Unlike many of today’s stars, they don’t need an army of dancers and special effects to draw us in. They don’t sample beats from other artist- their work is original. Is there anyone who is really popular today that people will still be listening to in 2072? I don’t think so.

It may be the twilight of the Gods, but they’re making it last!

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