October, 2009:

Ian Axel at Rockwood Music Hall

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The title of this post is as big a surprise to me as it is to you. 😉

When we planned our evening last night (a couple of weeks ago), I was unaware that Ian Axel was scheduled to play at Rockwood Music Hall, and was unaware of his music. Our plan was to see Greg Holden at 8pm (our first time seeing him) and then running a few blocks away to Arlene’s Grocery to see Atomic Tom for the first time as well. The best laid plans…

The night before (Thursday), we were also at Rockwood, to see ambeR Rubarth and we caught most of the set before her, Chris Kasper and Ross Bellenoit. Adam Christgau, who was drumming for ambeR, mentioned that he would be drumming for Greg Holden the next night (we knew that, which is why we were interested in seeing Greg’s show to begin with), but he also mentioned that he’d be drumming for Ian Axel immediately thereafter.

Hmmm, that made me listen to Ian Axel’s MySpace page and I liked what I heard. We were now leaning toward hanging at Rockwood, especially if we had one of the few seats in the place, rather than chance being shut out at Arlene’s Grocery.

I’ll come back and describe the rest of the evening’s musicians and logistics after covering our experience of Ian’s set.

Wow!

OK, I covered it! Seriously! We were both blown away by Ian in every respect. He’s an absolutely phenomenal piano player. He has an excellent voice (more on that in a bit). He writes interesting songs (melody, lyrics, arrangements). He delivers them with tremendous energy and showmanship. He connects with the crowd. He’s funny.

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On his up-beat pop numbers he was accompanied by Adam Christgau on  the drums and Chris Anderson on electric bass. Both were excellent, and both sang harmony a bit.

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Adam has always impressed me (as I’ve written a number of times) but even more so last night, after seeing him play with Greg and Ian, adding more styles than is required to support The Paper Raincoat and ambeR’s music. He’s a super talented drummer (and singer) that adds to any artist he’s supporting!

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In addition to those high energy numbers, Ian also played a few solos on the piano, ballads, and he played one solo on the ukulele, which was more mellow.

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He told a story that when he started out, he really didn’t consider singing. A friend of his, Chad Vaccarino kept pressing him to sing, telling him that he was destined to be a singer. Obviously, Chad got to him, and we are all grateful that he did!

Apparently, roughly the same time that Ian started singing, Chad stopped performing (Ian didn’t explain why). Until earlier this week, when Chad performed at Rockwood (on Monday), and according to Ian, killed it! After telling the story, Ian invited Chad up on the stage to sing a song with him. Excellent!

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Ian’s a definite follow around whenever we can.

Toward the end of the set, Ian mentioned that he hopes to get his new CD out by the end of the year. In the meantime, he had a 6-song EP that he offered to give away to anyone who came to find him at the end of the show. He allowed for the fact that some people might wish to donate instead of just taking it for free. 🙂

In addition to being generous in the Tip Jar that was passed around for Ian, Lois found him after the show, and donated $20 for two copies of the EP. We enjoyed it on the ride back to the house this morning.

Working backwards musically, appearing before Ian was Greg Holden, the primary reason we were at Rockwood to begin with. I mentioned Greg in a post about Cardboard Bikini (a.k.a. The Paper Raincoat), where he stood right behind me at Rockwood for one of their shows. After that show, both Adam Christgau and Alex Berger told me that I really needed to catch Greg’s show.

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The next morning, he left on a six-week tour opening for Ingrid Michaelson, all over the country. I started following him on Twitter right away, and I enjoyed his snarky updates and got a feel for the tour through his eyes.

He also has a song that will be featured on this week’s episode of Private Practice on ABC, so he’s well on his way to a career in the music biz.

I thoroughly enjoyed his set, though clearly not enough to have bumped Ian from the title of the post, hence my own surprise.

Greg played the acoustic guitar well. On his more energetic numbers, he was accompanied by Adam Christgau on the drums, a bassist whose name I didn’t catch and Ian Axel on the piano.

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You already know how I feel about Adam and Ian, so I’ll just mention that the bassist was really good too. It was even more impressive when Greg mentioned that he was pressed into duty at the last minute, and had to learn the three songs (perhaps even that day!). I tweeted Greg last night asking his name, but haven’t heard back yet.

Update: Greg just tweeted that the bassist was Jon Estes! Thanks Greg.

He has a very relaxed style on stage, with good audience rapport. He played a cover of Walking on Sunshine, where he easily got the entire crowd to sing along, loudly. He’s also very funny (both on Twitter and in person).

Greg also played a few solo numbers (including Walking on Sunshine). He has a really good voice, and writes interesting songs. If I had to tweak him a bit, I’d say that a number of songs achieve their length by being a little too repetitive. They’re still good, but I have no doubt that he can do better, and I’m sure he will.

According to him, he took a major gamble this past January and moved to the US from the UK to launch a music career from scratch. Obviously, he’s achieved so much in so little time. Still, I have a feeling that he will continue to grow dramatically, likely at a rapid pace as well, so I look forward to tracking his career.

As with the night before, when we discovered Chris Kasper, I checked out who would be on before Greg, in the hopes that if it were someone good, we’d have a better chance of having a seat for Greg, while still enjoying the set. This week is the CMJ Showcase all over NYC, so many shows are more crowded than they might otherwise be, due to the extra publicity and press.

Edie Carey was on from 7-8pm. I listened to a few of the songs on her website and liked what I heard. Also, I noticed that she was on the last Cayamo cruise (she’s going again in March 2010), and in addition to all of the major stars that perform on that, our very own Girlyman went on last year’s cruise as well. So, I was officially intrigued.

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We walked in at 6:43pm to a jam-packed crowd listening to the group that was on from 6-7pm (I’ll describe our brief encounter with them after saying a bit more about Edie).

With a ton of luck, and some very nice people, when the set before Edie ended, Lois was able to get a seat, and a few minutes later, I was able to snag one right next to her (absolutely incredible given how crowded the place was).

Edie has a wonderful voice, which she controls really well, delivering power when she wants, and whispers at other times. She accompanies herself well on the guitar, mostly rhythm, with occasional finger-picking thrown in.

She describes her song-writing style as overwhelmingly dark (she’s right). She has an incredibly devoted fan base. Most of the people in the crowd for her set were there specifically for her. When she asked for requests, I was amazed at how many people started yelling, and how many different songs they were trying to get her to play!

One guy, standing in the very far corner, whom she called Vincent, yelled “Nice!” as she finished each song, cueing the exuberant clapping.

All of that is to say that for a large number of folks, Edie Carey is magic. She moves their souls. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that reaction. While both of us thought her voice was excellent, and her stage presence was good, the songs did very little for us. The comment that I used above saying that Greg was a bit repetitive could be multiplied for Edie.

Both of us felt that every song was overly repetitive, but since she’s singing mostly extremely slow, dark, dirges, the effect is worse than in a catchy up-beat song, where at least the repeating hook is fun.

There was nothing unpleasant about the set, and the plan to find a seat during her show and be settled in for Greg and Ian worked out better than I could have hoped, but she’s not someone that we would seek out in the future.

She told one story about writing a song for her wedding (she was married in May 2009, and her husband sat a few feet away from us). The story was warm and engaging, and it was the only time during her set that I was 100% captivated and attentive. Unfortunately, the song itself, not so much…

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Since we walked in at 6:43pm, we got to hear the last two songs of the set before Edie.

The Uglysuit had a packed crowd (as I mentioned before), and from what we heard, fully deserved! Three electric guitars, one electric bass, grand piano, and drums. That’s about as many people as you can cram on to the tiny Rockwood stage. In fact, they couldn’t! The drummer never sits on stage, and in this case, the bassist was in the crowd too, taking up the space where two people would normally be sitting.

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They have a gorgeous, rich sound. They sing well too, but they jam for much longer stretches than they sing. I would have been extremely happy to catch the rest of their set, and will look out for them in the future, though they hail from OK and tour all around. They’re playing today at 3:30pm at Kenny’s Castaways, but we’re already at the house.

I’ll use them as a specific example of a point I want to make about Rockwood in general.

At a number of venues, including some of our favorites, Sound Engineering can be hit-or-miss. Even at our favorite club, Joe’s Pub, on occasion (thankfully not too often), the sound can be downright bad.

Rockwood has nailed it for every set we’ve seen so far. What’s more impressive is the range of instruments and styles and number of people on stage, etc., that they consistently nail it for.

Using The Uglysuit as an example, three electric guitars, an electric bass, grand piano, drums, and two people singing, typically, something is too loud, or something can’t be heard. Simply not the case at Rockwood. Even with all of that music going on, the volume was appropriate, and each instrument was clear. It’s a crying shame that this isn’t the case for every show at every venue.

I stand in awe of the two people who run the sound for the sets we’ve seen at Rockwood, one of whom we believe is the owner. Absolutely incredible.

If we could be assured of always getting a seat, I hazard to guess that it might even surpass Joe’s Pub as a favorite destination for us, though some of the groups that we see at Joe’s wouldn’t play a place as small (or free!) as Rockwood.

ambeR Rubarth at Rockwood Music Hall

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If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the past six months, then you know that Lois and I can’t get enough of ambeR Rubarth, whether she’s playing solo (and releasing amazing solo albums) or doing her part in the incredible duo, The Paper Raincoat. So, when an opportunity arises to see her live, it would take a team of wild horses to keep us away.

Last night she played two separate shows, 8pm at Rockwood Music Hall and 10:30pm at Gallery Bar a few blocks away. Given how exhausted we are from all of our running around, we intended to see only the Rockwood show, and we succeeded. 🙂

Joining ambeR on stage were The Paper Raincoat regular drummer, Adam Christgau and the wonderful bass player who accompanied ambeR at Joe’s Pub for her CD Release Party, Tony Maceli. In the post about her CD Release Party, I noted:

Last night’s show was one of the best concerts we’ve ever attended!

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ambeR was wonderful last night at Rockwood in every song in the set, and the crowd was loudly appreciative in their applause (and whoops) after each one. For all but two numbers, she played beautiful finger-picked guitar. On the others she played the grand piano. She’s wonderful on both instruments.

In a slight departure from past shows, she asked the crowd if she could play one of her favorite cover songs. Do you think anyone objected? 😉

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She performed a solo version of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman. While remaining totally true to the original, ambeR still made it her own. It was fantastic. You could have heard a pin drop in this extremely crowded (and tiny) bar, people were so rapt in attention. When she was done, yet another intense burst of applause.

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They were on stage for 45 blissful minutes. After the set, there was a very long line of people wanting to buy her CDs. Exactly as it should be!

Rockwood Music Hall is very small, but a completely wonderful place to see live music. Most sets are one hour, including setup, so perhaps 45 minutes of music. As such, there isn’t usually the concept of an opening act (there are exceptions), so other performers are playing before and after the act you might be interested in seeing. The shows are free. There is a one-drink minimum, and a suggestion of $5 per act to place in the tip jar.

The only other time we were at Rockwood, it was to see the alter ego of The Paper Raincoat, a.k.a, Cardboard Bikini. That was a 10pm show, and it was more packed than a sardine can. Thinking that this could happen for ambeR as well, I decided to check out who was on before her, to see if we would like to get there earlier both to enjoy more music and to hopefully snag two of the few seats.

Chris Kasper was listed from 7-8pm. I checked out his MySpace page and really liked what I heard. That made me want to get there in time to hear his entire set. Unfortunately, other tasks during the day conspired against the best laid plans. We arrived at 7:20 and Chris was in mid-song.

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The other part of the plan worked to perfection. There were a decent number of people there, but it wasn’t nearly full and we were able to get two seats up at the stage right in the middle (our favorite spot). I don’t know if it’s because Chris is from Philly and perhaps not well known in NYC, or it was just the earlier hour (noting that our only other time there was for a 10pm show).

Accompanying Chris was Ross Bellenoit on guitar and some harmony.

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We were drawn to Chris (and Ross) even before he finished the song we just walked in on. He has a soulful, almost wispy voice (not wimpy, a little gravely, in the interesting sense!). He writes sophisticated lyrics which are beautifully constructed, triggering a rush of interesting images the minute you hear them.

He plays guitar very well (though for the most part, he deferred to Ross on the leads). They also played a cover of Help On the Way by the Grateful Dead, where their guitar leads were in perfect harmony between each verse. Awesome!

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Ross played exceptional leads on an acoustic guitar on every song. The audience clapped after a couple of Ross’ leads (and wanted to every single time), but no one wanted to miss the next verse that Chris was singing either. At one point, Chris had to stop, and prompt the audience to do what they badly wanted to do (after a particularly good lead). Very classy!

Ross sang harmony a few times. He was actually good, but I only know that because we sat about five feet from him. He didn’t step up to the mic, so he was more of a whisper in the background.

After the set, Lois purchased three of Chris’ CDs. Two are his directly, and the third is from a band call Lowlands that Chris was part of for a while, called Bark & Twine. We listened to all three this morning, and like them all a lot. This is not a knock on Chris as a solo artist in any way, but we both really loved the Lowlands CD, it meets all of the criteria we have for things that get to us immediately.

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Anyway, a very nice surprise, with the bonus that we had seats for ambeR’s entire set. Chris definitely benefited from being on before ambeR in terms of possibly picking up new fans. From the minute we walked in, a steady number of people kept coming in throughout his set, with the intention of being settled in for the ambeR show.

By the time his set ended, the place was nearly full (though not sardine like). The rest of ambeR’s crowd clapped just as enthusiastically for Chris and Ross as we did, and I hope they too will support him and look him up in the future.

When we got up to leave after ambeR’s set, we bumped into Jason (who we met at the Livestrong Fundraiser) and a friend of his, who happened to also be at the Brad Paisley show the night before. We chatted briefly, and headed out before the next act started to play.

Brad Paisley at MSG

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We own one Brad Paisley CD, which we like, but in general, we don’t know his music all that well. When we saw Brad and Keith Urban perform Start a Band on the CMA Awards show a year ago, we fell in love with the song, and bought it right away. More importantly, it was the first time I paid attention to the fact that Brad is a guitar god!

The only person listed on the bill when we bought tickets was Dierks Bentley, someone who we’ve really liked for a long time. We got a wonderful surprise when we found out a few days ago that Jimmy Wayne was opening the show. More on Dierks and Jimmy after covering Brad’s set.

Most of these big shows open with a bang, from lights out to overwhelming multi-media delights. Brad took the opposite tack, and it worked to perfection! With the lights off, you could hear him playing an acoustic guitar only, and from our seats, make out the fact that he was walking down the runway into the crowd (still in complete darkness).

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When the lights came up, they were soft and Brad was alone with the acoustic guitar, playing the intro to Start a Band. He sang a few verses, paused, looked back at the main stage, and voila, the multi-media extravaganza began, ushering in his band, like the song instructs. Very nicely done!

They didn’t complete the song. When he joined them on the main stage, he switched to an electric guitar, and the set continued with another song.

Brad can mesmerize with just an acoustic guitar, even in a place like Madison Square Garden (MSG). With an electric guitar, he really only needs a drum and bass to create a very big sound. But, he doesn’t skimp. He has seven band members (not including him), and they are all really good (no surprise).

I’ve written twice about Keith Urban’s incredible guitar playing, spirit, showmanship stage presence. This isn’t a competition (between them, or anyone else), but Brad has all of that, with a few differences (not necessarily in capability, where I still think Keith is simply mind-boggling on the guitar).

One difference is that Brad takes more solos than Keith does, and most are of longer duration. Fantastic! He’s that good, that it would be a crime if he didn’t. He’s still as generous with highlighting his band members.

We’ve admired Brad as a person in pieces that we’ve read, and in a number of TV appearances. That comes across in spades on stage. His connection with the audience is palpable, and his comfort/ease is truly something to watch. He’s also as energetic as other top performers, running all over the place. Like Keith, he continues to play flawlessly while running at high speeds.

He descended into the crowd as well, as you can see from a shot that Lois got where he wasn’t too far from us. He also ran up on a platform that was above and behind the band, right in front of the big screens. In some shots he was just a silhouette, in others, he was lit up. Half the band joined him up there at least twice. Very cool effects.

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While the majority of the numbers are high-energy, Country Rock productions, there are electric ballads , and a few fully acoustic masterpieces thrown in (not just the opener). Basically, he does it all, and he does it all well!

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So, just great music, delivered by a great guy, right? Wrong! The entire production is clever, interesting and entertaining. The giant screens behind the stage switch between live shots, appropriate photos and full-blown videos, both animated and shot with cameras. The videos are a mix of professionally produced, and made-to-look-casual outings starring all of the band members. All fun and engaging.

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What blew me away was not just the overall creativity (there are a ton of extraordinary people who can hold my interest for hours on end), but that Brad was credited with a number of things, including the animation in a cool super-hero send-up starring Brad and many other Country stars. He’s simply talented at anything he sets himself to. Bravo!

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They did a creative bit with Guitar Hero playing in the background:

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Toward the end of the show someone near the stage boosted their son on their shoulders. The kid was wearing a cowboy hat like Brad wears, and Brad sang right to him, leaned down and high-fived the kid, who took off his hat and tipped it to Brad and the crowd. Precious!

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I called out Keith for his generosity to his band and entire crew and we continue to applaud him. Brad continues that spirit and tradition in his own creative way.

The band members are introduced in a special video that shows their name and what instruments (yes, most play multiple ones) they play. At the end, they also had a full-blown Credits video, like Keith. It included everyone (band, crew, caterers, bus and truck drivers, etc.). We love it.

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Unfortunately, as with the other two artists from last night, Brad’s web page doesn’t make it easy to find the band members names. They’re all good, but I would personally highlight the fiddle player and the drummer. The guitarist is really good too, but for the most part, Brad is playing lead. On occasion, Brad isn’t, and when I paid attention, there was still an excellent lead guitar sound, so I know there’s another guy wailing on that as well!

After the credits rolled, as the crowd was walking out, they put up a video of the entire crew (dozens of people), dancing a Broadway style big production. A nice touch to give them some exposure (as Keith did by bringing the crew out on stage!), and a fun way to end the evening with a laugh.

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As we were walking out, Lois excitedly said to me that this is the best show she’s ever seen. Then, knowing that I know that she rarely wants me to print statements like that, because she’s overly sensitive about hurting anyone else’s feelings, she said: “And you can quote me on that!”. Wow, there you go, you’re quoted. 🙂

Brad was on stage for 110 minutes including a very generous encore, which included both Dierks and Jimmy joining him to sing one number together.

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Bolstering the middle of this great night of music was Dierks Bentley. He’s another major talent, backed by a very talented band. He had four people backing him up. While Dierks played rhythm guitar on a few numbers, he’s really a singer/performer, with a very tight band behind him.

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He played a number of our favorites, but the rest of the crowd knew every single song (better than we did) and loved every single song. As is the case with all of these giant MSG shows, each performer gets a somewhat bigger production than the one before them, culminating with the headliner (Brad in this case). So, Dierks had more going on with the screens, etc., than Jimmy did, but nothing compared to Brad.

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His lead guitar player is incredible. His pedal steel guitar player is incredible (he also played the banjo on a few numbers). The drummer is something special too. He too spent the time to talk about each of them (something we completely appreciate), but I can’t find them mentioned by name on his site…

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Dierks was awesome, and held the crowd’s complete attention for 50 minutes!

Here are some shots of all of them together at the end of their set:

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Opening the show was Jimmy Wayne. We saw Jimmy Wayne play at Joe’s Pub on May 21st, 2009 and I wrote about the show in this post. Jimmy was fabulous that night, so we were excited to see him again. Of course, MSG wouldn’t and couldn’t be anything like a Joe’s Pub experience, so I was both nervous and interested to see what the differences would be.

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Just like Dierks, Jimmy had four band-members backing him up. Also like Dierks, he didn’t play too much guitar (though we know from the CMA show that he’s a good guitarist!). His band is really good too, every person! Jimmy is like a kid in a candy store, loving every second on the stage and infecting the crowd with his enthusiasm.

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I was impressed (and I admit a bit surprised) at how well he carries off the big stage persona, given how well he handled the intimate setting at Joe’s Pub. He’s a natural performer and makes the best of whatever the situation calls for.

His guitar player has been a friend for 20 years, and is superb. His drummer is the band leader and was excellent as well. The bassist is solid, and sang nice harmony with Jimmy.

The standout musician (close call, because the guitarist was exceptional) was Jake Clayton. Jimmy said he plays 27 instruments (are there even that many?). 😉 He played the fiddle unbelievably well (including behind his back walking from the center of the crowd down the catwalk back to center stage! He played electric keyboards, guitar and mandolin as well. Oh yeah, and he’s only 22-years-old!

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While Jimmy was very generous in his praise of the band, and he did introduce them all by name and tell how he met them and how long they’ve been together, I didn’t write the names down, and I am disappointed to find out that they aren’t named on his website…

I don’t have a single complaint about his set last night, it was wonderful. That said, I felt way more connected to him and his music in the more intimate environment. As I mentioned in that post, he writes and performs from the heart, and that comes across so much better in an effectively one-on-one performance more so than it does at MSG, where he’s just another excellent Country Star.

We also love the story telling that introduces many songs in the CMA series, for which there is little time (and perhaps little patience on the crowd’s part) in a venue like MSG.

Jimmy was on stage for just under 30 minutes.

I’ve complained about MSG in the past, both the acoustics/volume and the potential to be forced to stand for much of the show. I decided to experiment with our seats last and for the first time, picked seats on the side just above the floor. I was a little worried about the angle.

I’m very glad I did it, as this was by far our best experience at MSG to date. We were significantly closer to the stage (both elevation and distance). We also got very lucky (and are very thankful for it!). Our section was the only one anywhere near us where almost nobody stood throughout the entire show (including no one in the row in front of us, we were in the 2nd row). The section to the right of us had people stand in the front row, forcing everyone else to stand.

Second, for both Jimmy and Dierks, the volume level was perfect. Loud enough, but clear, with no distortion or pain. Unfortunately, literally the only complaint I have about the Brad set is that they cranked the sound significantly from that starting point.

I think they cranked it for three reasons: 1) He’s the big star, and they feel that he has to have a bigger sound, 2) He has three more people in his band, and they feel that they need more volume to get them all heard, and 3) The crowd is fuller and louder, and they feel that they need to pump it up to overcome that and keep the excitement at a fevered pitch.

Unfortunately, a few times it was actually painful and I felt that my left eardrum might vibrate right out of my ear. When we left, and I mentioned that, Lois said her ears were still ringing and she wasn’t happy about it. Also her only complaint of the entire evening.

Even with that, another show that we will never forget, and another set of artists that we will bend ourselves into a pretzel to see whenever we can. Thanks Brad, Dierks and Jimmy for making it a very special night!

Acoustic Alchemy at Birchmere

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Last night was our third time seeing Acoustic Alchemy perform, first time at Birchmere. It was also our third Birchmere show in the past eight days! There were also three of us in our party. Three was a lucky number last night. 🙂

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Our last Acoustic Alchemy show was awesome, and fully covered in this post. I’ve been trying pretty hard lately not to repeat myself too much, so if you want lots of details, please read that post, it really all applies to last night’s show.

They were incredible last night, to a person. The differences were more related to the venue. Birchmere is big (seats 650) and typically produces a better sound than most clubs that we attend. They played a wide selection last night, including a couple of songs from their first CD and sprinklings throughout their catalog (I own all 15 of their CDs!).

I would guesstimate that there were 400+ people in attendance last night. The crowd was made up of huge Jazz lovers, and specifically Acoustic Alchemy lovers. We were sitting four seats from the stage, dead center, and the people around us (who were on line for an hour to get those seats) were super fans.

There were multiple spontaneous standing ovations after particularly amazing guitar solos (mostly from Greg Carmichael). He deserved every one. His partner, Miles Gilderdale, is equally mesmerizing, with a completely different style (night and day different).

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In a heart-breaking moment, Miles told the crowd (many of whom knew) that the band lost someone very dear to all of them over the summer. It was the daughter of the drummer Greg Grainger, Dianne, 24 years old! She was also the niece of the bassist Gary Grainger and the fiancée of the keyboard player, Fred White. Obviously, close friends of Greg and Miles as well. Truly tragic! Miles was choking back serious tears while talking about an upcoming benefit for Dianne.

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We have seen quite a number of great opening acts, sometimes even discovering a new life-long passion (The Paper Raincoat is a recent example). That said, it’s sometimes hit-or-miss as to whether they’re even complementary to the headliner, or good on their own. When they’re good, it adds value to the ticket price. When they’re bad, it drags the evening out, often bringing down your mood even before your beloved band hits the stage.

This week, at two separate shows at Birchmere, the opening bands were outstanding in every respect (Po’ Girl last Sunday, and Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson on Wednesday). Still, when we showed up last night and saw that there would be no opening act, we were thrilled.

First, no gamble on the quality. Second, it was Sunday night, with a work day to follow. Third, we had a one hour drive back to the hotel after the show. All of that meant that a shorter evening was welcome.

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Acoustic Alchemy played for just under two hours, including a two-song encore. The food was excellent (as it always is at Birchmere), and we brought one very special guest with us, who made our evening all the more wonderful (thanks for coming along!). 🙂

The Grascals at Birchmere

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Last night we saw The Grascals at the Birchmere. It was our second time seeing them live. I covered the first time extensively in this post (2/3 of the way down), and all but one comment from that post applied to last night! The one comment that would require updating is that they now do indeed include photos of Kristin Scott Benson on their site. 🙂

So, I won’t repeat it all, but rather, summarize those points as concisely as I can. The three guys in the center of the stage, Jamie Johnson (vocals, guitar and general MC), Terry Smith (vocals and bass) and Terry Eldredge (vocals, guitar and the secondary MC) sang wonderfully together last night:

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Again, the biggest highlight of the evening was Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. He’s so fast, and keeps up the speed for really long stretches, that it just doesn’t seem possible. Very close behind him (as I noted in the last post) is the amazing Kristin Scott Benson. I purposely picked seats toward the right side of the stage (normally we aim for the middle) so that I could sit right in front of Kristin, and watch her fingers fly (apparently effortlessly) on the banjo.

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Once again, Danny Roberts was incredible, and incredibly fast as well. He also has a great smile on stage, easily disarming the audience every time he flashed it. 🙂

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They played an electrifying 65 minutes, then let us know that they would be playing the last song for the night. Given the long opening set (to be covered shortly), we wouldn’t have been too disappointed at the short-ish set that we thought we were about to experience. But, we were wrong.

The last song lasted 10 minutes! It was also the only instrumental number of the entire set. Each of the three brilliant musicians, Jeremy, Kristin and Danny took unbelievably awesome and long solos. Each time you thought they might give up their solo to the next person, they would crank it up again. The audience was in awe.

When they finally stepped off the stage, it was to a standing ovation. They returned shortly, and took a request from the audience for the encore. In total, roughly 80 minutes on stage, each and every one of them delicious.

A month ago I made a mental note that they would be at the Birchmere, but I didn’t buy tickets in advance. As such, I paid no attention to whether there was an opening act, or who it might be.

We attended a Girlyman concert this past Sunday at Birchmere, and while there, decided that we would be up for the 2-hour round-trip drive to return for The Grascals, and I bought two tickets then. I noticed that there was an opening act, and who it was, but to be honest, I still didn’t focus on the names enough.

Either way, I was going…

The opening group was Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. The two are life-long friends, and were in The Desert Rose Band together (we loved them!). Chris was also in The Byrds (one of my favorite groups when I was growing up) and The Flying Burrito Brothers. In other words, worthy of headlining any place they would choose, making this an even bigger treat than expected!

Joining them for the entire set was David Mansfield, violin/fiddle, previously unannounced. Of the three, David is by far the best musician. He didn’t sing or speak, but he played superbly on each number.

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Chris Hillman still has a strong, crystal clear voice, with an excellent range as well. He plays the mandolin solidly (and played guitar on one or two numbers). While Chris is as generous as one can imagine in sharing the spotlight with Herb and David, it’s still clear that it’s his spotlight to share.

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He’s warm and engaging with the audience, sharing stories in a self-effacing manner. The bond with his fellow musicians on stage is strong, palpable and enveloping.

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Herb Pedersen sang and played guitar, very well (both). His voice is every bit as good in the same dimensions that Chris’ is. The two of them blend perfectly in their harmonies. Given the broad range that both have, typically, whichever one is taking the lead sings lower and the other one takes the high notes. Herb took the lead in a fair percentage of the songs.

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They played quite a range of songs, which wasn’t surprising, given their longevity in the business and the great groups they’ve been part of. On the second number in the set they performed Turn Turn Turn! a song that was also the title of the second Byrds album.

They also did a very nice version of Eight Miles High (another Byrds classic). It wasn’t the more rock version that they Byrds used to do, but true to the roots of the song nonetheless, while suiting the style of these three performers well.

They performed a Stanley brothers song, as well as other classics that had the audience whooping it up. They were on stage for 65 minutes (very long for an opening act). They received a rousing standing ovation when they walked off, and could not avoid coming back for an encore (also atypical for opening acts!). So in total, roughly 70 minutes on stage!

At intermission, Lois went out and bought two of their CDs: Chris and Herb together on Bakersfield Bound and Chris’ The Other Side. Both signed the Bakersfield Bound CD.

After the show, we purchased three more CDs. We already own all three of The Grascals CDs, but we downloaded all of them from Amazon.com, so we didn’t have a physical CD. We bought one of those for all of them to sign (which they did). We also bought a Kristin Scott Benson CD (which she signed) and a Danny Roberts one (also signed).

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Lois asked Jamie for the set list, and amazingly (they are all so nice it’s hard to describe), when they left to go back to the dressing rooms, he had Terry Eldredge come back out and give it to her. Wow!

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At dinner before the show (I’ve mentioned numerous times how good the food is at the Birchmere!), we had a series of nice conversations with a father and son who sat across from us, and a lovely couple to our right. The six of us passed the time very pleasantly before the show started.

Another fabulous evening out, listening to top-notch Bluegrass music!

Wonderful Weekend Wedding

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Heretofore, whenever I saw the letters WWW, I inevitably thought World Wide Web. From now on, when I see WWW, I’ll think Wonderful Weekend Wedding!

We have incredible godchildren who’ve brought many blessings into our lives. Among these is the wide circle of wonderful people attracted to them, who’ve become life-long friends of theirs. We’ve had the privilege and pleasure of meeting many of their friends, and in a number of cases, becoming their life-long friends independent of our godchildren.

One of the very special people who came into our lives this way is our godson’s college roommate. When he graduated, he moved to NYC and has been here for more than five years now. Let’s call him Neal.

On January 18th, 2009, we had a lovely lunch with him at our favorite Mexican restaurant, for the express purpose of meeting someone very special to him. We’ll call her Maggie. We loved her immediately, as everyone who ever meets her has and will.

(All photos in this blog can be clicked on to see a larger version.)

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In the summer, they told us that we should leave 10/17/2009 open for a possible wedding date. We were thrilled, and would have made any date they picked, but I turned to Lois and I said, “Man, if only they had picked 10/10/2009, it would be a tad more convenient for our crazy travel schedule up and down I95.” Of course, we never said anything to them.

A few weeks later, they wrote to say that the date was going to be 10/10/2009, and they hoped that the change wouldn’t be a problem for us. Sweet! 🙂

Aside from the scheduling convenience, 10/10 is such an auspicious day in our lives for weddings. Lois’ parents were married on 10/10. Both of her mom’s siblings (a brother and sister) were married on 10/10 (different years for all three). The CEO of our first portfolio company, who we are still close friends with all these years later, was also married on 10/10. All of those marriages were strong and long, as this one is sure to be!

We were also invited to the rehearsal on Friday afternoon, the rehearsal dinner Friday evening, and a breakfast send-off on Sunday morning, hence the appropriate WWW moniker for this wedding!

One last pre-wedding story. In June, we brought 17 people to join us at a Girlyman concert at the Highline Ballroom. I blogged about that night here, and ended with the following two paragraphs:

I have to conclude with an incredible small world story. One of the couples that attended last night was married last year on 08/08/08 (I blogged about that wedding too). Another couple that attended last night is getting married this year, on 10/10. They had never met before last night.

In introducing themselves, and getting to know each other a bit, they discovered that the pastor that married the 08/08/08 couple will be marrying the 10/10/09 couple as well. That this tidbit is true is strange and cool enough. That they would separately be invited by us, chat to each other, and figure that out so quickly is a little other-worldly to me. 🙂

The wedding was held in Trinity Church in Princeton, NJ (where Maggie’s parents live). The rehearsal was wonderful, lighthearted and informative. Their minister is a very special man, and while he kept everyone focused on the task at hand, it was done lovingly, with good humor.

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The flower girl practiced her glide down the aisle in a red wagon, pulled by the maid of honor:

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Before settling on that, other configurations were tried. Here’s one that was scrubbed after a test run down the aisle:

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Afterward, we attended the rehearsal dinner with roughly 40 people, in a private room at a local Chinese restaurant, Sunny Garden. We sat at four round tables for 10, with a large Lazy Susan in the center of each, making it easy and fun to share a wonderful meal, with excellent company all around.

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We met a number of Neal and Maggie’s friends and family at the rehearsal and got to meet more at the dinner. It was as warm and inviting an atmosphere as one could hope for, and the circle of friends got wider, quickly. Inevitable given how we all love Neal and Maggie!

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The wedding was at 2pm on Saturday. We got there early, so we could sit close up to the action. The ceremony was beautiful. Maggie underscored her exquisite taste by having elegant bridesmaid’s dresses, something I understand is unusual. 😉

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While we knew the minister would be inspiring from the wedding we attended the previous year, he still managed to surprise us in a major way. The one question I never asked Neal or Maggie is how they knew the minister. Since Maggie grew up in NJ, and he’s based in NJ, I just assumed the connection was through her.

Well, I was wrong! The minister told how he met Neal when he was in high school, and how they became friends because of what an extraordinary person Neal is. No, the surprise for me wasn’t that Neal is an extraordinary person, of that, we were already sure. The surprise was how far back their relationship went, and how it began.

I’m sure (partially from experience) that the minister gives great advice to all couples who are about to be married. Still, I have a feeling that knowing Neal as well as he does, for so long, the moving speech he gave them wasn’t just a boilerplate one. It was great advice, that all married couples should heed.

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No, I won’t repeat it here, because I don’t want to cut into the minister’s royalties or be sued for divulging trade secrets. 😉

We had a one in five chance of getting David as our usher. That’s exactly what happened. Here he is, about to seat us:

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More photos from the gorgeous ceremony:

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After the ceremony we headed back to the hotel to relax before the 5pm reception. A little while later, David called to ask if I could return to the church and shuttle some people back to the hotel. I was happy to do it, and ended up bringing back Neal’s sister (a bridesmaid herself), the maid of honor and David.

We then met David out front and headed off to the reception. The hors d’oeuvres were amazing (though I’m told I missed the best of them, which is hard to believe). I was also (virtually) forced to drink some lovely champagne, only because I noticed that they were serving them in my all-time favorite champagne glasses. 😉

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We watched a slide show of pictures of Neal and Maggie side-by-side in similar poses and outfits, from birth through high school. It was a hoot and incredibly creative. Following that were professional photos of them that were stunning. In a nice surprise, we saw that two photos that Lois took of them, one from the first time we met Maggie, and another from the concert I mentioned above, were included in the mix!

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More opportunities to meet new friends and catch up with old ones:

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Then we were off to the main dining hall. Great toasts by the maid of honor and the best man. A wonderful DJ, who played an eclectic mix of music while we dined, all at an appropriate volume to permit people to converse. The mix even included Acoustic Alchemy, one of my all-time favorite groups, that we are likely going to see for the third time this coming Sunday!

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The food was incredible. The service was impeccable, yet delivered with a zesty personality. Everyone at our table bonded with our primary server. If she could have joined us as a guest at the table, we would have welcomed it!

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There were a number of babies at the reception, including two at our table, and they were the focus of some wonderful memories that will be with us forever.

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Once the meal was over, the dancing commenced, and the DJ kicked it into another gear. The youngsters danced their hearts out. I’m never surprised when women dance well, but I admit to always being surprised when I see a man dance well. Color me purple, because at least a half a dozen guys there impressed the heck out of me!

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Neal’s sister took pity on me and tried to get me to dance. I’m proud that I stood my ground, and resisted. Lois wasn’t as strong-willed as me, and she ended up dancing one dance with David. 🙂

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The traditional cake cutting:

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After dessert and coffee, and plenty more non-stop dancing, we all bid the happy couple good night, and left for the hotel ourselves.

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Their Just Married car, with balloons streaming in the night air from behind, passed us on the highway! We drove Neal’s brother and his girlfriend back to the hotel. The girlfriend said “I think Maggie just waved to us!”. Sure enough, she was right. The next morning Neal asked us if we saw Maggie wave. 🙂

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Simply a perfect day/evening. The next morning we joined the bride and groom for a farewell buffet breakfast that was also outstanding. Eight of us then took a nice stroll around the Princeton campus. Afterward we met the newlyweds at the train station, where they came to say goodbye to the California contingent that was boarding the train back to Newark Airport.

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David and his friend took off in one car, and we left in ours, with the four of us heading straight to Alexandria, VA to see a Girlyman concert that night. As exhausted as we were, it was a fitting way to top off an already perfect weekend.

Neal and Maggie, have a extraordinary life (we know you will), but make sure to share as much of it as you can with the rest of us. You are both a joy to be around individually, and even more so when you’re together.

Thanks for including us in this most wonderful of celebrations!

Girlyman at Birchmere

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Last night was our 13th time seeing Girlyman live. The last time we saw them was the only time we took no guests. Last night, we set a new record (previously 19 at Highline Ballroom). Including us, we purchased 26 tickets for last night’s show. Two of our expected guests missed their flight in Chicago, so only 24 of us showed up. That worked out, since we sat at two tables for 12, right up against the stage.

Since I’ve written about Girlyman endlessly, I’ll make this one very short (ha, you say!). Last night was the last show on their East Coast CD Release Tour. I think they played 11 out of 12 consecutive nights. Given that, the change of weather, the various colder northern states they played in (we saw them on the opening night of this tour, in Norfolk, CT, and it was 40 degrees that night), it wasn’t a surprise that both Ty and Nate had pretty bad colds. 🙁

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The show was still generally excellent, as excusing a slightly sub-par performance was easy to do. The crowd gave them rousing ovations for every song. The banter was top notch, so their brains weren’t foggy, it was just their throats that were froggy. 😉

They played a long and well-balanced set (songs from the new album, but also songs from the early ones). They were on stage for roughly 100 minutes, including the encore.

I don’t begrudge Girlyman their political views, but Nate couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Bush Years when introducing the song True Enough (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek homage to Obama). I’m just curious as to when Obama supporters will start owning this nation’s problems. It’s so easy to only blame the past, and I’m sure it’s fun. Until you own the problem, you can’t and won’t fix it. Time to follow your most favorite advocacy group, and Move On!

Opening for Girlyman on this tour (with the exception of Joe’s Pub) was Po’ Girl. They were very good at Infinity Hall when we saw them on September 30th. That night, they played a 30 minute set. Last night, they were better, in fact, significantly better. They played a 45 minute set, and while they repeated a few songs (two or three I think), there were a number of new (to us) ones in the mix, and they were all really good.

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While we knew what to expect, none of our guests did. I was overwhelmed (in the most positive sense) by the spontaneous reaction of all of those around me to how awesome they thought Po’ Girl was. The two couples sitting immediately near me both went out and bought a Po’ Girl CD (one during intermission, they couldn’t wait to get their hands on it) and the other one after the show. I think others in our group also bought CDs (both Po’ Girl and Girlyman) after the show.

Everyone thanked us after the show and told us how much they enjoyed it. I’m sure that the entire experience delivered that feeling. The food was excellent (as it always is at the Birchmere), and a number of people commented to me how surprised they were at that (clearly first timers there).

More than half of our party saw Girlyman before (at least once), so they could factor the colds out and still know how awesome Girlyman is (and can be), but I felt a little bad for the first timers, who didn’t quite get to experience the real magic of Girlyman, even though it was still a really good show!

A bunch of shots of a portion of our our gang:

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Keith Urban and Sugarland at MSG

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Thursday was a very big night for our musical tastes in NYC. Our favorite band, Girlyman, was in town playing in our favorite club, Joe’s Pub. The Paper Raincoat (playing under the top-secret moniker Cardboard Bikini) was playing at Rockwood Music Hall. The group that has been opening for most of Girlyman’s shows on this tour, Po’ Girl was playing at The Living Room and Will Knox was playing at Rockwood Music Hall.

Months before any of those shows were announced, we bought two tickets to see Keith Urban and Sugarland at Madison Square Garden (MSG). Having seen them each once before at MSG (not on the same bill), we knew that even though we were missing other great shows, we wouldn’t be disappointed that we decided to stick with our original plan!

Keith came on stage at 9pm (I’ll cover Sugarland after Keith). He had five band members on stage with him. Keith is an extraordinary guitar player, all styles, has a superb voice (great range as well) and for the most part, has a really good catalog of songs. While we own two of his CDs, and I like them both, I’m not drawn to them in the way I am to many others.

All that changes when you see him live. He is a consummate performer and entertainer, and for that alone, it would worth seeing him live (along with the top-notch production crew and execution). Even that isn’t the real reason to go (IMHO). As I mentioned in my last post after seeing him at MSG, Keith has an aura, a presence, a soul, that is completely captivating. That he delivers 100% on the performance and the music, is gravy (good gravy, indeed).

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He is generous in so many ways (a quality we admire greatly, and I call it out whenever I spot it). Not only does he thank everyone involved in bringing this big a show to so many cities, he thanked the crowd, for finding a way in these tough times, to come out to the show. More on that a little later on.

Keith delivers consistently from soft ballads, accompanying himself on a solo acoustic guitar, to hard-driving rock songs, with the full band cranking out ear-splitting sounds. He plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and on one special number, sung to his wife (Nicole Kidman, who was in the audience last night), he played electric keyboards (very well!).

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We sat pretty far back and reasonably high up (these shows are nearly sold out before tickets go on sale, let’s not even get started on that nonsense, or the outrageous fees associated with purchasing via TicketMaster). That makes the people on the stage look like hand puppets. Here’s a view from our seats:

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Similar to last year, but still quite different this time, Keith overcomes that by projecting the action on very large screens at the back of the stage, and large (but much smaller ones) to the left and right of the stage. The effect is generally excellent, and you really do feel that you’re part of the show, and not just a distant observer.

Here are a group of shots to give you a sense. In most, you can see the people on the stage, in front of the giant screens. You can click on any picture in this post to see a larger version:

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To somewhat compensate for the fact that very few people can experience him up close and personal, Keith spends a decent amount of time moving around in the crowd. The simplest thing is that he has a ramp at either end of the stage where he plays to the crowds on either side, as if they were center stage!

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The more complex maneuvers involve a few bodyguards leading (and trailing) the way as he runs through the crowd, continuing to sing and play the guitar while moving, until he settles somewhere. Twice, he ended up on a tiny alternate stage toward that back of the floor area. At most it was a 6’ x 6’ platform (it could have been as small as 4’ x 4’).

The first time he made his way back there, he played a solo number on electric guitar, leading it off by asking the crowd “Who has the good seats now?” 🙂

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He followed that by sitting down for a soulful acoustic number, accompanied subtly but gorgeously by the drums (perhaps a whisper of some other instruments) which were still back on the original (darkened) stage. Then the lights came up on the stage, and the full band played another number, with all of them seated on the stage, as Keith remained seated on the mini-stage in the back.

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There was no buffer zone from the mini-stage to the crowd back there, so Keith was high-fiving and shaking hands with a lot of people between songs. He then promptly made his way back to the main stage, while singing and playing the guitar the entire way through the crowd.

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He descended into the crowd at least three more times. He went into the stands, and sang part of a song surrounded by the folks, no stage involved. He then made his way back to the mini-stage for part of a song, and from there, worked his way back to the main stage through the other side of the floor.

None of it feels like a trick, even though it obviously is, as you feel his desire to connect with, and give value to the audience, even those that are stuck far away from the main stage. He pulls it off perfectly, every time. When they show the beaming faces on the big screens, even if you’re not one of them, you feel the same elation on their behalf.

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He warned the audience early on that this wasn’t going to be a short show, and he told the truth. Including a very nice encore, Keith was on stage for nearly two hours and 15 minutes! Don’t forget, there was also an opening act!

About 3/4’s of the way in, Keith invited Sugarland to join him. They did a stunning number that was 50% a capella and 50% with Keith and Kristian playing their guitars. Fantastic!

I mentioned his generosity, and I’d like to go into a bit more detail on that. I’ll start with his band. Nearly all artists introduce each member of their band by name at least once in the show. Not all do, and there will be an example of that later on. Keith goes way beyond just introducing them, and aside from the wonderful spirit in which he does it, for me personally, it made a big difference in another way.

Here are some good shots of the band on the big screens:

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There are five people in Keith’s band. Three of them play any number of stringed instruments, one of them plays the electric bass and there is a drummer. While it’s inconceivable that the band members aren’t among the best musicians around (after all, Keith can obviously have his pick), the general sound is so loud, and Keith is such a highlight in most songs, that it’s really hard to notice any of the band members too critically.

In particular, except for when the banjo is the lead-in to a song, it’s hard to even hear that the banjo is being played (later on in the same song). So, rather than just introduce each member, Keith explains what their expertise is, and then gives each of them (individually) the main mic, center stage, and let’s them have the sole spotlight for 2-3 minutes each.

Wow! Each of the four guys (not including the drummer, who I’ll get to in a minute), have incredible voices. While you can hear harmonies with Keith, you can’t tell who’s singing, and the instruments drown it out a bit. Those four guys are (each of the photos was of them, during their spotlight solo!):

Brad Rice on vocals, guitars, banjo and mandolin.

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Chris Rodriguez on vocals, guitars, banjo and mandolin.

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Brian Nutter on vocals, guitars, banjo and mandolin.

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Jerry Flowers on vocals and bass.

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Last, but certainly not least, we come to the extraordinary drummer, Chris McHugh. I am drum fanatic, and I write a lot about the many great drummers we see. For this kind of music (Country, Rock, Ballads), he’s the best (in my opinion). If you didn’t click through to my last post about seeing Keith at MSG, I’ll repeat what I said about Chris here:

While the entire band was superb, I feel the need to specifically call out the drummer, Chris McHugh. I had never heard the name before, but obviously, I’ve heard him before. If you look at the page I linked to, I own at least four of the albums he’s played on, and I saw the movie Cars as well. I don’t know how he finds the time to eat given how much studio work he puts in, but he’s so amazing, that I understand why all of these superstars want him!

He was that good, again, last night.

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As if that wasn’t enough, Keith called up the entire road crew on the stage, and thanked them for the great job that they do. Come on, who else does that? When the encore was over, the big screen ran the Credits like in a movie, and in addition to the band, every member of the road crew was listed, along with their job. The scrolling went on and on. It’s the right thing to do, and we applaud Keith for doing it!

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As the encore was ending, Keith ran off stage (while the song was still going on). A camera followed him running through the tunnels in the back of MSG. Then he ran on to the street (all while the song was still being played by the band on stage). Then he hailed a cab, got in, waved, and drove off. It was a fun touch to end the evening. 🙂

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On to Sugarland. We both love Sugarland, now a duo made up of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. They are supported by five additional band members.

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For all that, Sugarland is effectively Jennifer Nettles  (don’t get me wrong, Kristian and the band are very talented, but it really doesn’t matter). Jennifer has one of the most consistently amazing voices in Country music. It’s strong, clear, has incredible range, deliver emotions appropriately and everything else you could want from a voice. She plays guitar (well) on a few numbers, but that doesn’t matter either.

She also has an infectious spirit on stage, and a great smile, that was captured in all its glory on the big screens.

The other thing that makes Sugarland great is that whomever picks their songs (they write some, but I believe that they cut more than they create) is a genius (it may be them, I don’t know). Whereas Keith brings average songs to life in person, Sugarland starts with 90% of their recorded songs being phenomenal to begin with. That they then deliver a fantastic live performance makes it all the more delicious.

While Keith’s sound got a bit too loud in the higher energy numbers, Sugarland’s never did, and Jennifer’s voice was perfect (in every sense, including volume) last night. In fact, we normally hate the acoustics (and sound levels) at MSG, but for Sugarland’s performance, I was quite impressed.

Here’s a picture of the audience from their perspective from the stage, as shown on the big screen:

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They did two numbers (at least) where it was just the two of them, both singing (mostly Jennifer) and Kristian playing acoustic guitar. Not the type of sound you would expect to fill MSG. Her voice (all by itself), did! It enveloped every person in the crowd, and drizzled honey on all of us. 🙂

Here’s a shot of them with a cool effect where they appear in silhouette on the big screen (you can see them standing right in front of the big screens at the bottom of the photo if you click on it):

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All of that is the good stuff. For the bad, the mirror image of Keith’s generosity. Sugarland didn’t introduce a single member of their band, even though they were on stage for 70 minutes! They had excellent chemistry with the band, in particular with the female bassist. They even closed the show with the two of them surrounding the drummer on his final flourish.

We don’t understand that, and it doesn’t happen all that often.

I’m going to try to do what Sugarland doesn’t, and give them some credit, which they richly deserve. Unfortunately, I might be naming the wrong people, since I really can’t be sure who was on stage (in particular since we were so far away!):

Annie Clements played the electric bass and sang quite a bit. The bass playing was good, but the voice was exceptional. She also has an excellent stage presence, and hammed it up quite a bit with Jennifer (hence my assertion that the chemistry seemed great on stage).

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Brandon Bush (Kristian’s brother!) plays keyboards (don’t know if he sang, I simply couldn’t see). He was excellent throughout the set.

Scott Patton played lead guitar. At least I’m pretty sure it was him. He was really good throughout as well.

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Thad Beaty played guitar and sang. Another good performance all around.

Travis McNabb played the drums. He was particularly good.

Anyway, I feel better now. 🙂

When the show was over, we were both sorely tempted to do something that we’re too old to do, and not temperamentally suited to do, and that was to head over to Rockwood Music Hall, and catch the Paper Raincoat show, which began at midnight! We came close to pushing our limit, but some sanity returned and ruled the day.

The main reason we didn’t push it is that we have a wedding weekend that we’re attending in Princeton, NJ (I’m typing this in the hotel at the moment), and we didn’t want to fall asleep during the rehearsal dinner. 🙂

Paper Raincoat at Joe’s Pub

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We’ve had the pleasure of seeing The Paper Raincoat perform twice before, and I’ve covered both extensively, the first time at Canal Room and the second at Rockwood Music Hall. You can read those posts here and here, since I will take a different tack in this post, and everything that I said in those posts remains true and applies to last night’s show as well. 🙂

Quick background (refresher for those of you who’ve read the other posts, or know The Paper Raincoat). The group is a collaboration between ambeR Rubarth and Alex Wong, accompanied on drums by the incredible Adam Christgau.

The Paper Raincoat

The Paper Raincoat

Adam Christgau

Adam Christgau

The only difference in last night’s show (and it was a very big one) was that they had a string quartet on stage throughout. The show was a release party for their brand new CD, self-titled (The Paper Raincoat). The CD has strings on a number of songs, so this was the first time they got to play live with the same sound as on the CD.

It was awesome, and the quartet was great. Since you can mix a CD to balance everything perfectly, the strings only add to the beauty of the CD. If I understand correctly, a number of people consider their mixer, Eddie Jackson, to be a genius, and listening to the CD, I have no reason to object to that.

Live, the strings add a lot, but they also detract/distract a bit, since the subtlety and blend of ambeR and Alex (both vocals and instruments) got run over just a drop.

Why are we so enamored by ambeR, Alex and The Paper Raincoat, separately and together? You’ll be sorry you asked, because there are many reasons, not all of which will be covered here (you’ll be thankful for my restraint). 🙂

They feel like the hardest working people in the industry (of course I’m sure that’s not true, meaning that so many talented musicians give it their all), but when I recount some of their accomplishments, you might agree that it at least feels like they are delivering on more levels than many, if not most.

We only discovered them in mid-April this year. In six months, here are the accomplishments I’m aware of, off the top of my head, with zero research, presented in no particular order:

  1. They recorded an incredible CD, including writing all of the songs (music and lyrics). Go out and buy it, you won’t regret it. If you’re nervous, listen to five of their songs on their MySpace page first.
  2. They arranged and produced the CD themselves.
  3. They designed all of the artwork and packaging for the CD, which is completely non-standard (i.e., very creative). (Update: as per the comment below from Alex, the artwork was hand drawn by Diana Ho!)

    Paper Raincoat CD Package

    Paper Raincoat CD Package

  4. They promoted the pre-release of the CD very creatively, and designed three levels of pre-orders to connect with existing fans, and have the fans help pay for this effort, while providing great value in exchange for paying a premium, early.
  5. They toured (and are touring) in support of the CD, as headliners and opening for the incredible Vienna Teng as well.
  6. ambeR put out her own CD (a solo effort: Good Mystery), and what an effort it is. I’ll admit here for the first time publicly that I was nervous that the quality of each CD would suffer because ambeR was working on both at the same time, and I was wrong, as both are spectacular!
  7. ambeR also designed the CD packaging, and the pre-order extravaganza, which included hand-made boxes to lovingly hold the CD. We cherish ours.
    Amber Rubarth Good Mystery Collectors Edition CD Package
  8. ambeR headlined Joe’s Pub for her own CD release party on August 21st, 2009. I covered that show in this post, and I repeat here that it was flat-out one of the best shows we’ve ever seen, and we see so many shows, so that statement still amazes even me. 😉
  9. ambeR arranged the entire show at Joe’s Pub, as well as her solo CD.
  10. ambeR toured extensively with Joshua Radin and Gary Jules, and received rave reviews all over.
  11. Alex produced CDs for Alex Berger and Ari Hest.
  12. Alex runs (probably with others, but like I said, I’m not doing research here!) AngelHouse Studios in Williamsburg, NY (that’s Brooklyn for those of you not in the know). 😉
  13. Alex tours with Vienna Teng as part of her trio. This is separate and apart from when The Paper Raincoat opens for Vienna, where I imagine he plays both sets!
  14. Both of them support many other musicians, some of whom they’ve co-written with, by unselfishly appearing as guests in their shows.
  15. Each is a multi-instrumentalist (OK, this isn’t an accomplishment in the past six months, but it deserves mention in a list of their talents, including the fact that they have to practice that much longer to stay on top of multiple instruments!). For The Paper Raincoat, ambeR is mostly a keyboard player (including electric, piano, glockenspiel, etc.). Last night, she played guitar just once, in the encore. For ambeR Rubarth solo artist, she plays way more guitar (wonderfully!). Alex plays guitar, keyboards and a few other things for The Paper Raincoat. He drums (among other things?) for Vienna Teng, and on various CDs.

    ambeR Rubarth Guitar

    ambeR Rubarth Guitar

  16. They both (separately and collectively) are very active with Social Media. While I’m connected to them through a number of channels, I consume most of their updates via Twitter: @Paper_Raincoat – @ambeRRubarth – @highceilings (the last one is Alex Wong’s Twitter handle). Aside from being active without being obnoxious, they offer specials (like details of secret shows) so it’s useful to follow them if you’re a fan. Also, they are very responsive and interactive with their fans. Finally, because they are part of a very large community of talented artists, just checking out who they communicate with allows you to discover other great musicians!
  17. They are both extremely nice people, who are very accessible. Even if you never see them live, you can tell from their lyrics how deep they are in addition to just being nice. And yes, for the record, being nice is definitely an accomplishment! 😉
  18. Last one: they are fan friendly. When we pre-ordered ambeR’s CD, and then again for The Paper Raincoat one, the minute the final masters were ready, everyone who pre-ordered was given a link to download a digital version of the CD, so we could begin to enjoy them before the physical CD was available. I’m sure other bands do it, but we have pre-ordered a number of CDs from other artists, and only ambeR and Alex have done this in our personal experience. Trust your fans (not necessarily the world), they really want to help you not hurt you.

OK, I could probably go on (Really? Yes!), but if I haven’t made my point yet, then I should give up trying to convince you anyway… 🙂

We hope that they continue to produce more Paper Raincoat goodness over the years, but either way, we are 100% sure that we’ll be following ambeR and Alex in many other projects that they are involved in. It’s inevitable!

I mentioned in my post on Sunday morning about Ceili Rain that we believe it’s important to find as many ways to support the groups you love as you can. The most straightforward way is to purchase merchandise (CDs, T-Shirts, Posters, etc.) at the shows that you attend. We do that, nearly every time.

Since we pre-ordered two packages of their top-level, which comes with four CDs between the two, we didn’t really need to buy anything last night. That’s not the point though, right? It’s about supporting them (you are paying attention, right?) so we bought 13 additional CDs last night to give away as gifts to friends who otherwise would be unlikely to check them out.

So, at least some of you who are reading this post will be the very lucky recipients of a free copy of a fantastic CD. Congratulations, you’ve indirectly supported The Paper Raincoat, and you can help spread the word. 🙂

Whew, this has been way long already, but I needed to get all this goodness out of my system. Unfortunately for those of you who have OCD, and can’t quit reading a post until it’s over, you still have a while to get to the end… 😉

In addition to last night being the CD release party for The Paper Raincoat, it was actually a co-billed show with another group, Elizabeth and the Catapult. We hadn’t heard them before, but I had heard the name and had no idea what to expect. Sorry, all the pics of E&TC came out too poorly to post. 🙁

Elizabeth Ziman is the heart and soul of the group. She has an absolutely extraordinary voice, completely captivating. She plays the piano exceptionally well. She played accordion (well) on one number, and guitar on one other number. Still, even though her piano skills are top notch, it’s the voice, the voice, seriously, it’s the voice!

The Catapult consists of two really good musicians that support her well. Pete Lalish plays guitar (and accordion on one song) and Danny Molad on drums (I also believe he’s Elizabeth’s boyfriend, but don’t quote me on that). They had a bass player with them last night whose name I didn’t catch. I just had to work way too hard to (possibly) find the right one: Emeen Zarookian.

It’s a shame that Elizabeth doesn’t name him in any of the interviews (though she raves about him), because he really seemed to be the glue that brought their sound to life! I’m hoping that I indentified him correctly!

There are no obviously good links to the music of Peter Lalish or Danny Molad (as individuals). Peter was good all night, possibly even better than that. Danny was superb on the drums, throughout the set.

They are very tight and produced a quality sound. So, perfect, a new band to follow around like lost puppy dogs, right? Unfortunately, not for us (but yes, for many other people, including most of the crowd that remained after The Paper Raincoat set).

First, pigeonholing their sound/style is hard, and possibly a bit unfair to them. Still, I’ll do it. They are a very interesting mix/blend of Jazz/Pop/Classical/Blues, put together in a very creative way. All of that is heavily tinged with Rock, even hard rock at times, so it’s really hard to say they’re this or that. They also write original songs, though they do perform a few covers.

None of the lyrics grabbed us. And yet, they’re a clear focus. Elizabeth has a lot to say, and she’s clearly doing it through her lyrics. I suspect that if I listened to them in the quiet of my headphones, perhaps even just once, I too would become a huge fan. On the other hand, most of the groups that I heard in concert first (Girlyman, The Paper Raincoat, Indigo Girls, etc.), I was mesmerized by the lyrics instantly. They hooked me right away.

Last night, I found myself drifting away from the lyrics, and allowing Elizabeth’s voice to wash over me, purely as an instrument. No complaints, but it did feel like something (ever-so-slight) was missing…

The other downside (no blame to anyone, just a harsh reality) is that it took 30 minutes to tear down The Paper Raincoat and set up Elizabeth and the Catapult. Given that The Paper Raincoat didn’t come on until 9:40pm, and played for nearly 50 minutes, Elizabeth and the Catapult didn’t come on stage until 11pm! That’s way past our bedtime (and now true fans of E&TC have a good excuse to ignore everything I’ve said about them!).

They played a long set (thanks for that, it made the value of the ticket price exceptional!), on stage for about 70 minutes. After saying goodbye to The Paper Raincoat, we got out of there at 12:15am. Way too late for these old folks, but an incredible night nonetheless.

P.S. While waiting on line to get in, we bumped into Jason Black who we met on September 21st at the Livestrong Fundraiser we attended. Then, while seated, we spotted Michelle Citrin walking by (she performed at the Fundraiser) and I had to stop her to tell her how absolutely awesome she was at that show!

Mary Poppins

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Laura and Chris saw Mary Poppins on Broadway last year and raved about it. Aside from Wicked, we rarely see any shows unless we go with friends who are visiting NYC.

Chris’ parents are in town visiting them this week, and Chris and Laura bought four tickets to take them to see Mary Poppins. When they realized we would be around as well, they invited us to join, which we happily did.

Laura was able to get tickets at a nice discount, and even though she bought the tickets on separate days, we were able to get two tickets in the center orchestra, roughly 15 rows back, immediately in front of them.

Lois and I both felt that the sets were the most creative and technologically sophisticated of any show we’d seen on Broadway. Amazingly, Lois has never even seen the movie (Disney has long been searching for the one person in America who hasn’t!) so everything about the show was fresh to her!

The entire experience was delightful. Good moral tale, enough magic to please kids and adults alike, and excellent singing and dancing throughout. One very creative scene (when the stuffed animals come to life) is apparently being taken out of the show next week and replaced with something different. Considering how much I enjoyed that scene, I’m doubly glad we went last night!

The entire cast was wonderful, I didn’t feel that any of the performances were weak. That said, I feel it necessary to specifically call out the Mary Poppins actress, Scarlett Strallen, who was perfect in the role. While a few people (including Lois) rose to give the Bert character (Adam Fiorentino) a standing ovation, the entire audience rose to their feet when Scarlett came out for her bow.

It pays to have friends in high places. 😉 A good friend of Laura and Chris plays in the Mary Poppins orchestra and was in the pit last night. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife and spending a wonderful day with them hiking in Bear Mountain.

After the show, we all met him outside the stage door, and he took us for a tour back stage. It was fantastic. We got to stand on the stage, and look out at the theater, and get a sense for what the actors feel like. Apologies, but I couldn’t get the red eye out of this photo…

On Stage at Mary Poppins

On Stage at Mary Poppins

Looking up at all of the cables and gadgets that make all the magic happen was wonderful too, and didn’t detract from the mystery in any way (since they were all sleeping at the time).

Cables Off Stage at Mary Poppins

Cables Off Stage at Mary Poppins

We then walked down in the orchestra pit itself, which was interesting too. It’s quite a maze down there, and all of us commented on how it was much warmer than we expected. At least they have a bunch of fans spread out for the musicians.

After the tour we walked back to the apartment at a leisurely pace, and had some of Laura’s award-winning (well, I don’t know if they’re formal awards, but they are from me!) apple pie on the deck. The weather in NYC yesterday could not have been more delightful.

Before heading to the show, we had dinner at Bobby Van’s (the one on 50th Street). Getting there was a bit of a nightmare, because the Pulaski Parade was still underway, and most of the cross streets were closed off. We enjoyed a terrific meal there, with excellent service, but had to rush out at the end to make the curtain. That worked out, as it left room for Laura’s apple pie, since we had to skip dessert at Bobby Van’s. 🙂

Bobby Van's

Bobby Van's

An absolutely delightful afternoon/evening with wonderful people. One of life’s true pleasures! Thanks all for including us!