Fair to say this year got off to a slow start. But here’s what I’ve seen so far, with some brief notes.
May 8, Umphrey’s McGee, Westville Music Bowl, New Haven, Connecticut
I’m not quite qualified to call myself an Umphrey’s fan, even though I have seen them four times now. I can’t name any of their songs, but I do listen to their shows on Nugs sometimes, only hitting FF once or twice. But live they really are fun. And more “all over the place” (in a good way) than anyone else. They sound like Dream Theater one minute and, I dunno, Lee Ritenour the next. Quite a feat.
This was my first show back following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, better known to you and yours as SARS-CoV-2, or, as the kids call it COVID. The last show I’d seen before this was Tim Russ’s band (The Tim Russ Crew!) on the Star Trek Cruise, in early March, 2020. No diss to Tuvok, who is great and all, but when those first notes hit in New Haven, it was an instant, full-body reaction.
My friend Brett had extra tickets and offered a lift, and this was pretty much my first post-vax event. He drove me and his pal, Teresa, whom I’d met before, and who is one of those people I love who just knows everything about everything. After a long conversation about the Mahavishnu Orchestra she starts telling me about her career as a scientist. Far out. Also on the ride was this dude who wore glasses and was carrying a beat-up copy of some enormous classic. It wasn’t “Middlemarch” but for the sake of argument let’s say it was “Middlemarch.” I think he said he played trumpet and bass. He told me the name of a band of his and I looked them up, and they were pretty good. Foolishly, I didn’t jot it down, and now that I’m getting around to writing this it’s long forgotten. Maybe I’ll ping Brett and ask what his name was, and Google. I’m terrible with names.
So like I say this was my first show back, but it was extremely limited seating (no way that a profit was made on this night) and it was also drizzling. So it was empty. But I had a terrific time. We got New Haven pizza and high ABV % beer, then I had more beer at the venue. After I got home and conked out I woke up at 5am and had rip-roaring diarrhea. This is part of the reason I do not drink much anymore.
June 22, Trey Anastasio with the Rescue Squad Strings featuring Jeff Tanski, The Beacon Theater, New York City, New York
It’s a little weird, because seeing Trey acoustic with strings at the Beacon felt like something I’d already seen eight times, thanks to his Beacon Jams series the previous autumn/winter. (Read my report at Vanity Fair here.) This show, only the second indoor event in New York City after Foo Fighters at MSG a few days earlier, was like sliding back into a glass slipper.
June 23, Trey Anastasio with the Rescue Squad Strings featuring Jeff Tanski, The Beacon Theater, New York City, New York
Night one for this gig I far to stage left, in the front of the mezzanine. A terrific section, and, considering this was an acoustic show, people were seated for much of it. Night two I was more centered, but in the lower-upper balcony. What the means is I was DIRECTLY next to a main door with people going in-and-out nonstop for drinks. And then planting themselves directly in front of me. So obstructed view and LOTS of chatter. It hurt. I left the show with a headache. It was my own damn fault; I’ve been to shows in that spot before and didn’t learn my lesson. I had an okay time, but it wasn’t a highlight of my Trey-going life.
June 24, Carlos Abadie Quintet and Jam Session, Smalls Jazz Club, New York City, New York
In the style of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Carlos Abadie’s group blows hard bop, and if you happen to be seated up front at Smalls, he blows it right in your face. Hearing this played at high volumes and in-person for the first time in a year-and-a-half made my hair stand on end for two days. Turns out this whole night is on YouTube. Watch long enough and you’ll see my thighs (no I am not kidding.)
June 27, George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic All-Stars, SummerStage, New York City, New York
George Clinton is 80. For part of the show he just sat in a chair —a throne!—and watched the madness on stage from the stage itself. Then he’d bring the mic to his mouth and shout “ow!” or “yeah!” At least 20 people were romping around up there at some point, some dressed to the nines, others in sweat pants. It’s a whole scene.
The P-Funk All-Stars played all the hits (even “Maggot Brain”) and it was a trip. Clinton’s grandson wore some kind of purple tunic and a crown and toasted for a bit, and his granddaughter came out in a thong and shook her rear end. Then at 10:01 pm SummerStage pulled the plug and there was no encore. A cowardly act.
July 7, Tedeschi Trucks: Fireside Live, Westville Music Bowl, New Haven, Connecticut
I almost ruined this show with my own mental hangups, man. I was really excited to take my wife to this (she has not seen the Tedeschi Trucks Band before, but likes them; who wouldn’t?!?) so we took the drive up from Queens to New Haven. I had mapped out a stop at one of New Haven’s more celebrated pizza parlors, but we got going late and then were simply hammered by bad traffic. Summertime. So then I became an asshole in the car, not assigning blame, but just howling at the injustice of the Universe, and how we’d miss the opening numbers. Even though shows kick into gear by set two (as we all know) there’s still the magic of LIGHTS (even at an outdoor venue) and the first amplified notes.
Monitoring Waze the whole time, changing highway strategies, and basically acting like a dope made for a really miserable ride up. Entirely my fault. We ended up getting into our seats mid-way through the first song (“Anyhow“), though we did have to boot some people who didn’t realize they were in the wrong section. Of course, we were absolutely starving, so I went and got some food after a few songs. (There is a southern brisket vendor at this venue that isn’t bad!)
Once I shook that stress and let the food settle into my brain I realized what a jerk I’d been the past few hours, and wondered, once again, how I haven’t been served papers by Jacoby & Meyers. Set two started with three cuts from “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” the album that the Tedeschi Trucks Band performed in full with Trey Anastasio on stage in Virginia in 2019. (Of course, Derek Trucks’s uncle, Butch Trucks, was once in a band with Derek and the Dominoes’s co-lead guitarist, a fella named Duane Allman . . .) One can argue about who plays these songs better on the guitar, Derek or Eric, but there is no competition when it comes to singing. Susan Tedeschi stomps Eric Clapton into the ground, and anyone who disagrees is a fool or an anti-masker or whatever.
This wasn’t the full Tedeschi Trucks Band (that’s not til October at the Beacon) but some of the band, since these shows were booked before the wider distribution of the vaccine. So only one drummer. But clutch vocalist Mike Mattison was there, which is what I was most hoping for, naturally. Also, with fewer members on stage (a mere six or so!) Susan took more leads on guitar. I mean, compared to Derek Trucks, one of the finest working today, it’s no wonder he takes most of the leads, but still, she frickin’ shreds, man.
July 25, Venezuelan Music Fest, The Beer Garden at Bohemian Hall, Queens, New York
This was a happy accident. I went here to welcome my friend Eric, who was in town for a few days. There were four or five of us in total. It happened to be the Venezuelan Music Fest, so there was some quality playing (and also dancing). I didn’t get the names of any of the acts. But there was a conga line, and also three very entertaining six-year old girls were playing around near our table where we slowly nursed Czech beers.
August 4, Chris Forsyth with Tom Malach, Ryan Jewell, and Doug McCombs, The Sultan Room at Turk’s Inn, Brooklyn, New York
On a roof in deep, dark Bushwick, surrounded by tapers and guys who looked like they had entered a Marc Maron lookalike contest. It’s hard to put Forsyth in a box. He has been embraced by the “jam band community” but to me is more of an evolution of the Television or Sonic Youth sound. Then there are moments when he echoes Bill Frisell. I guess the thing to say about him is that he sounds like himself, man. Anyway, some really long, crunchy, and loud jams were heard. I left during the last song and walked around the neighborhood and you could hear him two blocks away. I later found out that at least one bonafide celeb was up on that roof (I doubt more than 50 people in total) and whenever I learn such a thing, as corny as this may make me sound, it plants a seed like, yeah, you were in the right place. I gotta work on that, though. Mr. Moneybags was in the right place because I was there, man!
August 11, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, City Winery, New York City, New York
Southside Johnny plays songs you’ve never heard before that are still somehow familiar. This is good time rockin’ music, unassuming R&B played by white guys who mean well. It’s impossible to consider Southside outside of the context of Bruce Springsteen, but that’s okay. He is not a ripoff artist, he is a ship caught in a great vessel’s wake, riding along. Anyway, I had a decent time at this show and regret not buying the “I Partied With Southside” t-shirt that was on sale.
August 13, Phish, Atlantic City Beach, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Well this is what I’ve been bellyaching about the most since the coronavirus pandemic began, right? It wasn’t missing Passover seders or trick ‘r treating. It was being denied access to my beloved Phish, the greatest live act around, my favorite band, my favorite activity. It took five (5) hours to drive from New York to Atlantic City on a Friday in August. That’s just the way it is. I came down with my wife’s cousin and his wife. Of course I’ve known them both for decades now, but this is the longest amount of time I’ve spent with them. Great people. Didn’t realize he was a Keith Jarrett fan. Or an Alan Moore fan. Quite frankly, I would not have minded the traffic jam so much if I wasn’t so stupid as to skip lunch. Was absolutely starving by the time we pulled into an Exxon station and I tore into one of those “Serving Size: Six” bags of Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Combos. Inhaled the whole thing in a matter of minutes and felt bloated and awful. Thank god the show was on the ocean so no one could tell I was blasting like a rhinoceros.
The show was fantastic, of course. Like I said, it was on the beach, and it was hot, but there was a breeze. I wore Teva sandals on the sand, but by the end my back was hurting. I lost my mind during “Possum” into “2001” and then sang along to “Rise/Come Together.” Great songs, great band. After the show I was absolutely dehydrated and bought three bottles of Poland Spring water for $10.50 from a kid at the pizza parlor who seemed quite tickled by all the old, stoned white people. I went to bed at the Days Inn and heard the hissing of nitrous tanks out my window.
August 14, SNACKTIME, Atlantic City Boardwalk, Atlantic City, New Jersey
I woke up on Saturday, after the Phish show on the beach, feeling lousy in body and spirit. A lot of this, I think, was just being at Phish. Call me corny, but it’s a big emotional event for me, and I certainly built this up over time. So … I dunno, it was just a big morning. And I was alone. Now, on the one hand, I was lucky to be staying at the Days Inn on Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City. My buddy Brett, who flipped it to me, swooped down on this spot, like, eight months earlier, once Phish’s 2020 weekend was bumped because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. For three nights, to stay literally half of a block from the boardwalk, it cost $510 in the heart of the summer. Once the festival weekend was announced, rooms went up to over $400 per night. That’s the good part. The bad part is that it was absolutely disgusting. It reeked of cigarettes, had stains on the walls, a layer of dust everywhere, and dents and holes everywhere. It was so freaking hot the night before that I had to crank the A/C so it was like a clammy, damp ashtray.
I had to work a shift from 10 til 2, so had bad coffee and Kind bars for breakfast. I opened the windows for ventilation but there was no screen, so flies kept coming in. Then I’d put the A/C on blast again and the cold cigarette smell returned. At 2 I got the hell out of there and it was hot, hot, hazy, hot, humid, hot, and crowded on the Boardwalk. I went looking for a reasonable sit-down restaurant. I tried the Margaritaville, where the host’s name was Hashem. I couldn’t contain myself and said “hey, did you know your name means ‘God’ in Hebrew?” (This isn’t exactly so. My understanding is that Hashem means ‘he who can not be named’ — kinda like a nickname, like “big guy” or something. I could be wrong.) Hashem, who looked about 25 and resembled Neil from The Young Ones, but slimmer and with a slightly darker complexion, said “yes, yes, I did know that! I just learned that yesterday!”
That’s what threw me. The guy was young, but not that young. He’d gone until yesterday not knowing that Hashem meant God? Had he never Googled himself before? (Okay, speaking of Google, I just did a little poking around. Apparently Hashim, with an “i” is a fairly common Arabic name. This guy’s name tag had an “e.”) Anyway, the guy was friendly and all, but I decided not to eat at Margaritaville. I saw a sushi place across the way within the Resorts Casino, and sat down. I was then told it would be a 30 minute wait before I could be served, if not more. They, like everyone else, are short staffed. So I bailed and wandered to the Hard Rock Café. By this point it is 3pm. Despite the fact that there are ample empty tables, I can only sit at the bar. Again: short staffed. I order a “steak salad” and seltzer with lime. Thirty minutes later it comes. I pay with my phone and Apple Pay (first time using that) and the total is $25, maybe more.
I go back outside and find a bench. I have a book but can’t concentrate. I get some soft serve ice cream (I had a salad) and wander around the Steel Pier, sweating. I see miserable families on cheap rides, and teens bored out of their minds. I worked one summer at Six Flags and know the feeling. There’s one of those “music express” rides with a poorly rendered mural of Elvis, Madonna, Elton John and other artists. I can’t place them. Is that supposed to be Bono? Eh, I don’t think so. And who is that womanl? Ariana Grande? Lady Gaga? Can’t really be sure. All white artists, I notice. Every single worker is Black, except for one Indian-American gal doing the “step right up!” routine to shoot water pistols into a clown’s mouth. The clientele is a mix of everyone.
God, it’s so fucking hot. I wander down the boardwalk and feel trapped. I simply can’t stay outside anymore, but I don’t want to go back to that awful Days Inn. Also, I’m trying to be somewhat cautious in crowds, what with the delta variant of the coronavirus. I’m wearing a paper mask, which is giving me pimples around my nose, but every time I pull it below my chin I find myself surrounded by a group of bros talking loudly at one another, my head in the crossfire. Lots of smoking, too. I didn’t think this much about secondhand smoke before Covid.
I go into a saltwater taffy shop to get une petite cadeaux pour ma femme, and when I am in there I hear someone playing the tuba. Well, it’s actually the sousaphone, but I didn’t know that yet. Then the snap of a drum kit. It’s a New Orleans brass band called SNACKTIME out of Philadelphia — sousaphone, drums, alto sax, trumpet, trombone, and what I think is flugelhorn. They are doing a terrific, joyous version of “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey.
I head back outside and it’s a party. They’re doing other radio hits — can’t remember them all, now, except for Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and a Bob Marley tune (can’t recall which.) Eventually the police came to break it up and they went into CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You,” which was fun. Also fun was meeting a guy I’d never met who knew me from Twitter, and then seeing this guy Zach I know, a musician and birder whose longtime g.f. is a writer and personality I hold in very high esteem, even though I suspect she is repulsed by my centrist political views and liberal Zionism. We don’t talk about that when we interact on Twitter. Anyway, he introduced me to his crew, all young, all upbeat, all friendly. One guy wore a light blue shirt with white flowers on it. Another told me his name, then said “you know me as Big Jazz, though.” “Holy shit!” I said. “You’re Big Jazz?!!” “Nah, he answered, pointing to SNACKTIME. “This is Big Jazz!”
August 14, Phish, Atlantic City Beach, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Night two was incredible, man. They played “Tube,” they played “Reba,” they played an incredible “Squirming Coil” that nearly brought me to tears. Imagine that. Tearing up over a song with a name like “Squirming Coil.” Mike sang The Who’s “Drowned,” which was great, and there was a “Ghost” and then “Chalkdust Torture,” which went to some really avant grade free jazz places. There are moments when Phish is a lot closer to Sun Ra than people want to admit.
What killed me, though, was this messy, dark “Chalkdust” merging into Page’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” I’ve been lucky to catch him do this two times before, but this time, on the water, with this massive and surely very expensive relay speaker system, there was something about the tone that I just can’t put into words. A roundness to it. A glowing roundness. It isn’t on the videos, it isn’t on the audience tapes or the mixed soundboards. You need to be there live. It makes standing on sand for four hours with an aching back absolutely worth it.
August 15, Phish, Atlantic City Beach, Atlantic City, New Jersey
I am ready to accept that I am in a cult. I have spent three nights in a shithole hotel in an overcrowded city among 30,000 other lunatics, all of whom are under the misapprehension that we have a personal relationship with Trey Anastasio. I sit for a bit on the boardwalk after my afternoon shift (it’s a little cooler out today) and eavesdrop. I hear people talk about making eye contact with Trey at this or that show, about decoding his Instagram, about the deeper meaning in various segues. And I realize I’ve done the very same thing.
It’s a cult. The world’s most benign cult, but a cult all the same. Anyway, Sunday’s “Piper” and back into “Carini” was just out of control. You’ve got to see Phish, man. You really have to.