Birchmere

Girlyman and Susan Werner at Birchmere

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Last night was almost exactly five months from the last time we saw Girlyman in concert. That’s just about our limit before we burst, so we were thankful for the opportunity to see them at Birchmere again. (Apologies for the quality of the photos. Birchmere has poor lighting for compact cameras in general, and our angle and distance from the stage made it worse for those on the left side, very far from us.)

Our normal excitement for a Girlyman show was complicated by the following fact: Days after seeing them play at City Winery (covered in this post) we discovered that Doris was diagnosed with Leukemia! This would be our first time seeing her/them perform since then.

While we still pray for Doris to continue getting better, there is no need to worry for Girlyman’s ability to live up to their previous showings. They were absolutely spectacular last night. I honestly didn’t doubt they would be, but hey, it’s live, so you never really know.

Doris was also spectacular. Her voice was so strong and clear. Her guitar, banjo and mandolin play, wonderful. When she introduced Supernova (a relatively new song written by Nate), she took the opportunity to explain to the crowd what happened to her and how affected she was by the outpouring of love she received from fans and friends, far and near. That love, plus crazy strong and expensive drugs have dramatically improved her condition (from 100% reading of cancerous blood cells at original diagnosis, down to 4% a month or so ago!).

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The reason she introduced Supernova is that when she was alone in the hospital waiting for the original test results, Supernova kept playing over and over in her head. We had just heard it for the first time at City Winery. That night, Nate sang the lead (not surprising). Now that it has become so meaningful to Doris, she takes the lead.

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There was another qualitative difference in the performance last night. Girlyman always slays me with their humor/banter. Much of it comes in the form of tuning songs (these are short songs made up on the spot by Nate, to kill time while the ladies tune their instruments). In fact, they have a CD of 24 of their tuning songs, and their Live CD (Somewhere Different Now) also has a bunch of awesome tuning songs on it.

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Last night, there was only one real tuning song (OK, maybe two or three tops). But, their humor/banter was as good as it ever is/was (perhaps better), with a significantly more natural flow to it. It often started as part of the introduction to a song, sometimes morphing into a story with each of them feeding off the others. Not one second of it felt forced. On rare occasions, the beginning of a tuning song feels forced, though they usually find a way to make it just right before it’s over.

I could give you a good example, but it would lose too much in the translation from how amazing it was last night, so just get out to a show and you’ll understand. Instead, I’ll give an example of how the Birchmere lighting guy enhanced a semi-serious (but in the end funny!) introduction of Ty’s (relatively new) song The Person You Want.

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The longer title of that song is The Person You Want Me to Be. It’s about people in long-term relationships and holds out the hope that if you give me enough time, one day you’ll wake up and find me to be the person you want me to be (a lot of me’s and be’s, but hopefully you understood).

Ty asked the audience to raise their hands if they were in a relationship. That led to some humorous comments (some people hesitating, putting their arms up half way, etc.). Ty made some cracks about people who might just be there on dates and how it might be awkward to answer that.

Then she asked those people who were in relationships whether they thought they were good people to be in a relationship with. Just as people were sheepishly moving their arms upward, the Birchmere lighting guy turned on the house lights. That made for a lot of giggling and looking around as we could all see across the large room, including Girlyman getting to see the audience fully for the first time that night.

In addition to a great set list (they can’t really put together a poor set list, trust me), they also introduced a brand new Ty song (Soul of You). Aside from the obvious fact that Ty is a brilliant songwriter, Lois and I continue to be amazed at how it typically takes one verse for us to consider a new Ty song among our all-time favorites. She has a Svengali hold on us…

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Nate performed his usual MC duties as well as he ever does and was in fine voice. He played the mandolin wonderfully in addition to his ever-present baritone electric guitar. Nate introduced an accordion to the mix as well. What will he think of next?

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JJ was wonderful on the drums throughout, as she always is. During the one real tuning song, Nate also yielded to a full-blown JJ solo (excellent). During the encore, JJ stood up and pushed her stool to the floor. She proceeded to drum like mad, including a few full 360 turns (without losing the beat, of course), turning it into more of a rock spectacular than a typical Girlyman Folk show. Smile

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All of the above was performed to roughly 550 people (my guess, based on capacity of 650 at Birchmere). Zero rudeness from the audience that I was aware of. Here is a tweet from today by Zach Braff (a giant music lover and extremely talented and funny actor):

You folks who go to see a really cool band and talk the entire time… yeah, what’s your deal? Anyone in nyc know a good blow-dart school?

I feel exactly the way Zach does (and have loudly complained on these pages numerous times). I hadn’t thought of a good solution to this problem until I read Zach’s tweet. I’m seriously considering opening a blow-dart school now, so that I can study there. Winking smile

Girlyman received a standing ovation after both the main set and the encore (that’s a bit unusual). Well deserved. We are going to see them again on Sunday in Charlottesville and I simply can’t wait. It will be a different experience because Girlyman always keeps it fresh and the venues are nothing alike.

The show was co-billed between Girlyman and Susan Werner. Even with a co-bill, someone has to walk out on stage first and last night that was Susan.

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We’ve seen Susan once before in a solo performance (covered in this post). She blew us away that night. Last night, she was accompanied on all but two songs (or was it three?) by two incredible musicians and singers. I’ll get to them shortly.

Susan has an incredible voice (power that can make your hair sway, but with clarity and enunciation skills that I rarely hear). She is an amazing songwriter (a number of her songs can readily bring tears to Lois’ eyes). She plays the piano and guitar so well that she doesn’t need any other accompaniment (though she picked well and was definitely enhanced by her band).

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In addition to the above, Susan has a stage presence that is simply astonishing. There’s no doubt that she could be a full-time comedian. I also have no doubt that she could be a professional motivational speaker. Suffice it to say that while we love listening to Susan’s CDs, her live show is something that exceeds all musical expectations.

Joining Susan were two talented ladies.

Trina Hamlin on percussion, harmonica and vocals. First the summary, then some details. Trina is masterful on all three. Her voice is beautiful and she harmonized with Susan really well. Her percussion was excellent. Her harmonica play was beyond belief. (no really good photos of Trina, who was furthest from us)

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I didn’t want to interrupt the flow on Girlyman above, so I left out that they invited Trina to join them on Kittery Tide. They claimed that they didn’t really prepare her for it, implying that they never practiced the number with her. Of course, she was great. But, Ty asked the audience: “Have you ever heard a better harmonica player?”

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Well, having seen/heard Trina during Susan’s set earlier, I had already asked (and answered) that question of myself. The answer is yes. I have heard exactly one better harmonica player, the freakishly amazing John Popper (of Blues Traveler). He’s in a class by himself (in my opinion), but Trina mesmerized me (and the rest of the 550 people as well!).

But wait, there’s more! When I visited Trina’s website to get you the link, I saw that she’s apparently an excellent guitar player as well (why am I not surprised?). Smile

Gail Ann Dorsey on the electric bass and light vocals. Gail was excellent on the bass. She created lovely three-part-harmony on the few numbers where she joined Susan and Trina. Check out her Wikipedia Page to see some of the incredible people/bands that Gail has performed with (e.g., David Bowie, Indigo Girls, Gwen Stefani).

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Both Susan Werner and Trina Hamlin joined Girlyman for their encore, Son of a Preacher Man, with Trina on harmonica and Susan on grand piano and vocals. What an awesome way to end an awesome evening.

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The five of us enjoyed a wonderful meal at Birchmere (I’m a pulled pork fanatic and Birchmere always gets it right).

After getting our hugs in, the five of us hit the road for what should have been an hour’s drive. This is I95 folks, so sitting in wall-to-wall traffic at midnight shouldn’t have surprised us as much as it did. Only cost us 30 extra minutes though, so enough complaining for today. (Last complaint, couldn’t easily get the red eye out of this photo…)

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Don McLean at Birchmere

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Don McLean is one of the greatest songwriters of modern times. In addition to his songs being recognized as great when they first came out, they remain timeless today.

The only time I saw him perform live was in the 70’s at the Bottom Line Cabaret. It was a magical night, one that I can envision as clearly today as I did the next morning. The opportunity to see him perform last night was something both Lois and I looked forward to with tremendous anticipation.

Back then Don appeared solo with an acoustic guitar (and banjo) as his only accompaniment. He needed nothing other than his songs, voice and guitar to captivate.

Last night he proved that this formula is still true, but he’s no longer sticking strictly to that format. He had a four-piece band backing him up on roughly 65% of the numbers. They were all top professionals who added value every time they played.

As much as I enjoyed their play, and the fullness of the sound on those songs, for me personally, I still prefer Don all alone. Thankfully, he gave us plenty of that last night as well. Best of both worlds I guess.

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Don continues to create new music, putting out a CD in 2009 (we bought it last night and he signed it after the show).

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He also sang more covers than I expected, opening the show with two Buddy Holly songs and later playing a Beatles cover and a Jazz number with the word Weekend in the title.

I loved the show. I was pleased and surprised at how much the evening moved Lois. Every song transported her instantly back to her youth. I know the feeling, and it’s a great one, so I was glad to share that with her.

Backing him up, left-to-right on the stage:

Tony Migliore on keyboards (grand piano and electric). He was excellent all night. On the Jazz number he was the only person playing as Don just sang.

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Jerry Kroon played drums. Superb and tight the entire set. (sorry about the photo, Jerry was obscured by the large cymbal most of the evening.)

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Ralph Childs played the bass and sang harmony on a few numbers. He was superb on the bass all night and sang very well. A real pro. Couldn’t find a good link to him, so I linked his name to Don’s musicians page. That page also covers Tony and Jerry, but neither of the two guitarists listed there played last night.

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Vip Vipperman on electric guitar. Vip played extremely well all night long. He didn’t take any long leads, but those that he took were tasteful and interesting. Another complete pro.

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Don didn’t talk all that much, but when he did, he was personable and quite funny. I get the sense that he has a slight discomfort communicating with the audience because he understands that he’s an icon to most of them, and it’s hard to live up to that kind of billing.

He was on stage for 80 minutes before saying goodnight, closing the show with American Pie. After non-stop deafening applause, he came back out and played one of the longest encores I’ve seen in a while in these smaller venues, about 25 additional minutes!

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Birchmere holds 650 people and from what we could see it was completely sold out. In these times, that’s a neat trick, and Don was gracious to note that and thank everyone for spending their hard-earned money to come see him. From all of us Don, we were glad to do it! 🙂

We’ve enjoyed many opening acts the past few years, including some that have become favorites of ours causing us to stalk them now that they headline as well (The Paper Raincoat comes to mind). For the most part, if an opening act is pleasant, I consider it a win.

Last night we saw Kitty Donohoe open for Don McLean. In word, fantastic!

Kitty writes excellent songs (a wide variety). She played an acoustic guitar and cittern (a first for me). She was really good on both. She sings beautifully as well, and is completely captivating when telling stories to the audience.

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At intermission, Lois popped out to the Birchmere store and purchased three of Kitty’s CDs and got her to sign one. Another one that she played a few songs from was sold out the night before when Kitty performed at the Kennedy Center. We’ll download that one and continue following Kitty now that we’ve discovered her talent!

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Rounding out our day: we spent most of it with our Leesburg friends, bowling late morning with the boys, lunch with the entire family, and then Lois and I took the three kids to see Astro Boy. A long but terrific day all around.

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!

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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Colin Hay at Birchmere

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Last night we saw Colin Hay for the first time at Birchmere. I’ve known a lot of his famous songs for nearly 30 years, but I never knew his name, nor even knew that he was the leader of Men At Work.

In fact, more often than not, when I mention to someone nowadays that we love Colin Hay, they say “Who?”. When I say that he was the leader of Men At Work, they say “Wow, I loved them!”.

He became a little more of a household name when Scrubs had him do a number of cameos, including playing a number of his songs. That’s where we discovered him. He joked last night that he had a best kept secret career for 30 years, before Zach Braff selected his song I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You for his movie Garden State. Zach Braff is the star of Scrubs, so after the success with Colin’s music in the movie, he introduced him to the show, very successfully as well.

Colin can do both solo shows (wonderfully) as well as full band shows. The show last night was a solo effort. It’s likely that this entire tour is a solo tour, but don’t take my word for it.

He came on stage at 8:30pm (I’ll cover the opening act later on). There were already three acoustic guitars sitting on the stage, but he had a fourth one already strapped on when he walked out to greet the crowd. I am using the word crowd literally. The show was sold out, and Birchmere can seat 650 people, so this is no small accomplishment, especially in these times, for a solo artist.

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Colin Hay

Interestingly, and more predictable, he mentioned up front that this was the sixth date on the current tour, and the first one that sold out. Of course, he complimented the audience on being so smart. 😉

We have been listening to a lot of Colin Hay recently, so we had no doubt we’d like the show. Even though we were 45th on line to get in, we ended up with nearly the best seats in the house. Right near the stage, all the tables seat 12 people each. So, even though there were 45 parties of people who were seated before us, there were still five empty seats at the table immediately in front of the microphone at center stage. Lois sat in the second seat in (giving the person to her left the best seat in the house, and Lois the third best seat) and I was to Lois’ right.

It’s important to us to sit up close, because Lois is effectively legally blind, and if we’re even mid-pack, everything on stage is basically a blur to her. But, it turned out to be a blessing from another perspective. Colin Hay is simply hysterical. He told very long stories in between most songs (and told one even before he started the show). It was pretty close to a full-blow standup comedy act (which is one of my favorite things in the world), but most of the stories actually related to the song he was about to sing, making them all-the-more special (but no less funny!).

By sitting up so close, we could fully appreciate every nuance in his facial expressions while he was telling the stories/jokes. He’s truly a master story teller / comedian (I’m convinced he could make a living as a standup comic), and that includes his ability to use body language, facial expressions, little noises, etc., to complement his schtick.

So, enough with the comedy, how about the music? Awesome. His guitar playing is excellent, and very consistent. While he picks beautifully on a few numbers, he’s mostly a fancy rhythm guitarist (by fancy, I mean that he throws in picks here and there, a few small leads, and mostly change-of-pace strumming to complement the beat of the song).

What stands out though is his voice, and the lyrics. He’s a great songwriter, both lyrics and melodies, but his voice is really exceptional. It’s very strong, yet very clear as well. Even when he hits very high notes (surprisingly), his voice remains steady and clear.

The sound system (and sound engineers) at Birchmere is one of the most consistently good ones of all the venues we frequent. Last night was no exception. That enhanced his skills, since there was no distraction due to distortion, feedback, incorrect leveling, etc.

He played a bunch of fan favorites (I could hear a number of people behind me singing along to most of the songs). He has a new CD coming out in August, and he played at least one new number that will be on that CD (at least that’s the only one that I recall him explicitly mentioning was from the new CD).

After he said goodnight, he never left the stage (thankfully), and played one more song as an encore. He encouraged the audience to sing the entire song along with him, and many did. He tested them a few times, stopping to sing, to see if people were singing, and more importantly, singing the correct words. It turned out to be pretty funny.

While I’ve seen many solo acts in the past 37 years, many of whom were brilliant, he has to rank near the top in overall showmanship due to his ability to mesmerize with words, as well as with song. He had the crowd eating out of his hands from the minute he stepped on the stage, until the minute he left, which was a total of 100 minutes.

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Colin Hay Goodnight

If I had to guess, I’d say he sang for 60 minutes, and spoke/joked for 40. A very good blend. Lois commented to me that given his energy level when he sings, if he didn’t take a break to tell stories, he might not have been able to make it through a 90 minute set!

One of his songs that we love is called What Would Bob Do?, and he didn’t sing it last night (unfortunately). It has a very special meaning to us now, because we just recently wrote a custom version of that song (using only his chorus), and turned it into a birthday tribute song to our wonderful friend Bob! The we in that sentence was his family and friends (there were seven separate writers, all of whom wrote at least two verses each!).

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Colin Hay doing What Would Bob Do?

Here’s a link to our YouTube video tribute to our friend Bob! (it’s 10 minutes long, just warning you in advance!) 😉

Anyway, to repeat, he was awesome. We bought two of his CDs after the show, but we didn’t hang around to get them signed because the line was long, he wasn’t out yet, and we had a long drive back to Fredericksburg. Next time!

Colin had an opening act, Janet Robin, a solo act as well. She’s been opening for him a number of times on this tour (but not all). Rather than spend too much time on Janet, my summary is that she’s talented in ways that aren’t really suited to a solo act, in particular to an acoustic solo act.

Janet Robin

Janet Robin

She’s a considered a top guitarist by many. There’s little doubt that she has a lot of talent on the guitar, but it struck me that she’d have been more comfortable with an electric guitar than an acoustic one. Again, I could probably elaborate, but we were really there to see Colin, not Robin.

Her voice isn’t that great (at least not last night, but produced, her voice sounds better on her MySpace page, which I’m listening to now, as I type this). We weren’t that impressed with her songwriting either, so that was really three strikes out of three possibilities (though her guitar playing was still reasonably impressive!).

That said, I liked her (not the performance of the songs). Much like Colin Hay, she spent nearly as much time telling stories between songs as she did singing. She’s very funny (in a self-effacing way). In fact, I would have preferred that she played less, and talked more. In addition to enjoying her stories, it made her personally more likeable to me, and I was therefore more tolerant of her performance.

This was in stark contrast to when Chelsea Lee opened for Girlyman at Birchmere. That night, Chelsea’s voice was extraordinary, but her personality was non-existent to negative, making all of us anxiously await her departure from the stage.

Anyway, to be fair, there are definitely many Janet Robin loving fans, including some at the show (that likely came more for her than for Colin). One sat two seats away from us. So, as in all music, it’s a matter of personal taste. If yours are like ours, you won’t be seeking out a Janet Robin solo effort…

Not much back-story to tell here, so I’ll just say that my typical pulled pork sandwich was excellent, as it always is! 🙂

Rhonda Vincent at Birchmere

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Last night we saw Rhonda Vincent and The Rage perform at Birchmere. We’ve seen them once before at Joe’s Pub, and I wrote about it here. I concluded that post with the following paragraph:

We had a great time, and would definitely see her again given the chance. We’d also go back to the 9:30 show if the right performer was there, but we’d be gnashing our teeth all the way. I am grateful that the majority of the shows we have been interested in are the 7-7:30 ones, and I hope that it will continue to be the case.

Well, we did see one more Joe’s Pub 9:30 show since, but that was Girlyman, and we would go see them at 2am if that was the only choice. 😉

More important, we also got to fulfill our desire to see Rhonda Vincent and The Rage again. They’re simply wonderful. Last night the regular banjo player, Kenny Ingram was back, so we got to enjoy his amazing playing. He’s one of the fastest (and cleanest) banjo players we’ve seen. That said, he outran the rest of the band a couple of times (and they are super fast too), so it wasn’t a flawless performance in my opinion.

Rhonda’s microphone wasn’t right at Joe’s, but last night the sound was perfect. She has an exceptional voice and exceptional energy on stage. To repeat what I said in my last post, she’s also beautiful, and looks half her actual age.

Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent

Left to right on the stage:

Kenny Ingram playing banjo. I already mentioned how terrific he is. In addition to playing banjo all night, he played the guitar on one number, and sang only once, in a four-person a capella number.

Kenny Ingram

Kenny Ingram

Hunter Berry played the fiddle all night and he’s the only one that never sings (though Kenny comes close). He does chat up the crowd and banters with Rhonda a bunch, so you get a good feel for his personality and sense of humor.

I mentioned in my last post that he’s an incredible fiddle player. Last night only brought that to the forefront even more. He’s definitely up there with my all-time favorites, having seen him twice now. At Joe’s, he had to sit all night, coming off an injury. Last night he (and the rest of them) stood the entire night.

Hunter Berry

Hunter Berry

Mickey Harris played the upright bass. He’s an excellent upright bass player, with a terrific voice as well. He harmonizes with Rhonda on most songs, but also sang lead on a few numbers from his new CD. He’s also a new father, so he had a grin plastered on his face all night that was infectious. On one number he played the mandolin (quite well) accompanying Rhonda without the others.

Mickey Harris

Mickey Harris

Darrell Webb played the guitar. He’s a classic bluegrass flat picker. He’s fast and clean. He too (like Mickey) has an excellent voice, and he harmonizes with Rhonda and Mickey on most numbers creating a very nice sound. He too sang lead on a few numbers, which the crowd loved. On two numbers he played the mandolin, one of which highlighted a superb lead mandolin.

Darrell Webb

Darrell Webb

In between them all, center stage, was Rhonda. I’ve already heaped superlatives on her, all deserved. In addition to her signature mandolin playing (on most songs), she played guitar on a few numbers (at Joe’s, she only played the guitar during the encore). She also played the fiddle at least twice. She’s really good on the fiddle, but just like the mandolin, she chooses to take a huge back seat to her incredible band, rarely taking a lead. When she does, she nails it, so it would be nice to hear her let loose a bit more often.

I mentioned above that Kenny participated in a four-person a capella number. It was gorgeous. People mailed in requests before the show, and that number was one of them. The four of them (Rhonda, Mickey, Kenny and Darrell) shared one microphone, center stage, and nailed the song.

A Capella

A Capella

They were on stage for exactly 90 minutes, then said goodnight. After a standing ovation, they played one more song (never leaving the stage). They walked off to another standing ovation.

We knew we would love the show, but I was particularly grateful that the sound system was perfect and that we ended up with a pretty good table (given that we were 24th on line (it’s first come first served). We went with five folks from Zope Corporation, so there were seven of us. I suspect we were introducing the other five to their first bluegrass experience, so I can only hope that they enjoyed it 1/2 as much as I did.

The food at Birchmere is always good (classic southern comfort food), and my pulled pork sandwich was as good as it gets! Given that today is a work day, it was very nice to not have an opening act, and for the show to start exactly on time (7:30pm). We were back in the hotel room a few minutes after 10pm. Not too bad!

Girlyman at Birchmere

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This time around, we only had to wait a day to see Girlyman again. I’m glad to say we made it. 😉

While Gravity Lounge is a small, intimate place, Birchmere is cavernous. The other difference is that Gravity Lounge is concert style seating (everyone facing the stage) and Birchmere is dining table style (most people have a shoulder facing the stage and need to twist to have a full stage view).

Birchmere can seat 650 people. Given the economic hard times, and the generic fact that Girlyman’s style of music (Alt-Folk/Pop) doesn’t typically draw gigantic crowds (though it most definitely should!), I was marginally worried that the place might feel a bit empty.

I should have had more faith (after all, they sold out the Barns at Wolftrap in March, a nearby venue that seats 400!). We sat right up against the stage, so it was a little hard to gauge an accurate count (though I tried). My best guess is that there were at least 350 people there, possibly 400+. That generated the same feel as a sold out house, because there are many tables that are way off to the sides, and the entire center section (the bulk) had very few empty seats.

The show had a similar feel to the night before. However, as I expected (and was delighted to be correct), Girlyman mixed it up enough to keep it fresh even for the few of us (possibly just Lois and me?) that saw them on consecutive nights. The set list had at least three additions to it, and the one song that was on the set list the night before, but wasn’t played (James Dean) was done last night.

In addition, the requests that they played last night were different, so there were at least a half dozen different numbers. The tuning songs were different too, but there were actually fewer of them both nights than usual. I ascribe that to there being more new material, which might not require as many drastic re-tunings of the guitars/banjo/mandolin as the older stuff. Here’s a photo of a tuning song:

Girlyman Tuning Song

Girlyman Tuning Song

The music was fantastic (the acoustics at the Birchmere are wonderful). Their banter (and general stage presence) was perfect as well. In fact, playing to a significantly larger crowd can make the banter more difficult, since comedic tastes can be that much more varied, and there’s a slight reduction in intimacy. That wasn’t a problem, as the crowd universally and uniformly ate up every bit of the act, which fed the energy on the stage.

It’s hard (if not impossible) to describe a song. Lois really wants me try, so here goes. 🙂

One of their newer songs is Everything’s Easy (it’s on their new/current Live CD). It’s a great song in general, but also very special. Each of them sings one verse alone. Nate starts, then Ty sings a different melody. Doris sings a dramatically different melody (alone as well, the first time). Then, after blending together a bit, and starting to build in volume (and passion), they sing simultaneously (in harmony), but each singing their own verse.

Not only are they singing wildly different words, they are singing entirely different tunes (as opposed to singing in a normal harmony, where you are mostly just offset from the main melody). It’s stunning. The focus that they each need to maintain is incredible, but we shouldn’t care if it’s hard for them, we should care whether the result is sonically gorgeous. It is, in every way. Bravo!

If you’re interested in checking it out, go to their MySpace page, and the second song (at least as of this writing) is Everything’s Easy. Enjoy!

When they got to the request section (they do that at every show), I yelled (twice, at the top of my lungs) Hold It All At Bay. I was only five feet away from Doris, perhaps 10 from Ty, so I know they heard me. Unfortunately, lots of other people yelled out lots of other song requests, and I don’t think I heard any other requests for Hold It All At Bay.

I love so many of their songs so much, that it somehow feels silly to say “My favorite song of theirs is Hold It All At Bay”. And yet, I can say it with no caveat or hesitation. While there may be two dozen close seconds, from the first second I heard that song, it remains the most played song on my iPod, and it moves me (lyrically and musically) each and every time I listen to it.

I hadn’t heard them sing it live in a while, and I fully expected to miss out again last night. While I might never be sure, I want to believe that they chose to give me a personal gift when they decided to play Hold It All At Bay for the first request. They couldn’t have played it better! Thank you Girlyman! 🙂

Since they knew that they didn’t pick the most called for song, they were kind enough (and connected enough with their audience) to select another song for a request after that as well.

They closed the show with Joyful Sign. When they returned for the encore (as the result of a standing ovation) they played Nate’s new song (the one I didn’t know the title of in yesterday’s post). I think he didn’t mention the title last night either, but he did give the same cute intro. Lois and I are calling the song “My Eyes Get Misty” until we hear differently. They skipped the typical Girlyman Benediction song (which I love) and went straight to their stock closing number Son Of A Preacher Man (which they nail, every time!).

In total, they were on stage for 110 minutes. This was fantastic. It wasn’t just the extra five minutes over the night before, but they also came on later due to the opening act (different from the night before) being on stage significantly longer.

Girlyman

Girlyman

The opening act last night was Chelsea Lee (we didn’t know there would be one until we showed up). She came out at 7:30pm accompanied by Todd Wright on guitar (and harmony). Chelsea has a stunning voice, truly extraordinary. Todd is a good rhythm guitarist, whose voice complements Chelsea’s on their harmonies, perfectly. Unfortunately, since she’s the star, and they’re not officially a duo, he doesn’t sing nearly enough with her. Not that her voice isn’t amazing all by itself (it most definitely is), but their blended voices are even better.

Chelsea Lee

Chelsea Lee

As spectacular as Chelsea’s voice is, her material (mostly, if not all written by her) doesn’t live up to the same standard. It’s actually reasonably repetitive, both in general feel/sound, as well as brooding theme. She would do better playing in a real Blues Club (in my opinion) than in a place like the Birchmere. She’s a cross between Blues and Jazz. While Todd’s guitar playing complemented her really well, I couldn’t help but think that if there was a soulful grand piano accompanying her, in a blues club setting, she might have come across more authentically.

Todd did something that perhaps other musicians do regularly on stage, but I am generally unaware of the technique. Because we sat so close to him, I was able to see it clearly (this time). On one number, he clicked a switch with his sneaker on a board full of switches. Apparently, that started recording what he was playing. After a few bars, he clicked another switch and the previous recording started playing back in a loop. He literally took his hands off the guitar, but the sound kept coming out of the Birchmere speakers accompanying Chelsea.

Then, after a few seconds, he played a little lead guitar, supported by his own strumming, which he had just recorded live. After a few more bars of that, he eased back into strumming along with the recording, and when that was sync’ed up correctly, he turned off the recording and was back to strumming live only. It was an interesting and cool experience, which might be going on more often on stage than I previously realized.

Todd Wright

Todd Wright

Regarding Chelsea again, one more nit to pick. She’s not really comfortable on the stage. She’s not awkward either, just not comfy. She’s not leading/controlling the crowd in any way, she’s just settling herself down between numbers, building up the courage and focus to perform the next one. Last night’s crowd was extremely respectful of her, and clapped generously, so it ended up being fine. I could easily see her losing control of a crowd if she opened for someone other than Girlyman, who draws wonderful people wherever they perform.

She joked (awkwardly) a few times about how old the crowd was. When she was hawking her CD, she babbled about how we (the audience) were likely too old to be users of MySpace (uh huh). She and Todd spent a good deal of time teasing each other (including about the difference in their ages). Still, we didn’t know how old she was (if you already checked the link I gave above, the next paragraph will be anti-climactic for you).

I tried to guess her age, and figured something between 21-25. It turns out she’s 17! Wow. That certainly explains the lack of stage presence (not that 17-year-olds can’t have it, as Taylor Swift clearly demonstrates). She’ll likely get there. Hopefully it won’t take too long.

As talented as she is (vocally), she was still just an opening act, with the vast majority of the people in the crowd breathlessly awaiting Girlyman’s appearance on stage. In my opinion, Birchmere gave her too much stage time. She was on for 55 minutes. That’s long, even for a well-known opening act. Given that most of her songs have a very similar sound/feel, it dragged a bit, and a true Girlyfan would have to wonder whether it was eating into Girlyman’s time.

You already know the answer to that. Thankfully, Girlyman gave us every drop of value for our money. Whew!

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that Lois and I brought ten friends to see Girlyman at Gravity Lounge. Last night, we brought 13 people from Zope Corporation (including some family members). We drove three of them up with us and got there at 4:25pm (doors open at 5pm) to pick up our tickets and get a number to be seated early. I had asked the rest of the gang to be there no later than 5:45pm (the doors to the concert hall open at 6pm when they call people in for dinner in the order that they picked up their tickets).

Here are our car guests:

Zope Guys

Zope Guys

I was amazed (and really appreciative) when every single person in our party was there by 5:40pm. We were number five to be called in. However, since we had 15 people, we couldn’t sit together center stage. We chose two tables at the left edge of the stage and split our group. Each table could seat 12, but we put seven at one table and eight at the next.

Here’s the gang that sat at the first table:

Zope Table 1

Zope Table 1

And, table number two:

Zope Table 2

Zope Table 2

The food at Birchmere is Southern-style Comfort food, and they do it really well. I had the Pulled Pork sandwich. When I went over to the other table to survey what they had ordered, I said that my pulled pork was fanastic but greasy. Our CTO pointed out that I used the word but incorrectly in that sentence. He was right, and I corrected it to “my pulled pork sandwich was fanastic and greasy”. 😉

Everyone seemed to like their food, and it all looked great. A number of us had decadent desserts as well (I succumbed), but we had to do what needed to be done…

Of the 13 people we brought along, only two had seen Girlyman before. While it’s hard to know whether people are being polite, our group all said that they thoroughly enjoyed the show. One of the guys said that while he liked the music, he loved all of the non-music parts (which are significant in any Girlyman show).

Interestingly enough, most of them were not as kind (polite) about Chelsea’s performance. While the majority did praise her voice, they found little else to compliment. When asked what she thought, one person actually answered “I wasn’t paying that much attention…”. I didn’t love it, but I think I enjoyed it more than most (if not all) of them did.

After the show, seven of us waited in line to say hi to Girlyman. I got to thank them directly for playing Hold It All At Bay, and tell them how perfectly they did it. We took a customary photo with them, which included the youngest member of our group as well. She was a last-minute substitute when her dad got caught in a business trip and she joined her mom (who works at Zope). Ironically, it is the mom and the little one who had seen Girlyman before in NYC (nearly a year ago).

Girlyman and Us

Girlyman and Us

As with the previous night at Gravity Lounge, we ordered a copy of last night’s live show and I’m sure we’ll do the same at Joe’s Pub. Yes, we’re seeing them again on November 5th! 🙂

We talked about the show with our three car guests for the next hour on the ride back to Fredericksburg. For us, it was a perfect evening. We hope our guests enjoyed it at least 10% as much as we did. 🙂

Update: The little one’s mom just emailed us a great picture of Girlyman with her daughter. Here it is:

Little One Girlyman

Little One Girlyman

Dave Mason at Blend

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Last night we saw Dave Mason play at Blend in Ridgewood, NJ.

Some things about last night were perfect, others far from it. Since I acquiesced to Lois when similar problems occurred at Canal Room in NYC (covered in this post), I’ll do it again, and cover the music (the perfect part!) first, so you can ignore all the peeves later on.

I have loved Dave Mason from the very start (I was a fan of Traffic, as well as the Dave Mason Band, forever). I still actively listen to both bands on my iPod. Lois doesn’t know Traffic, and until recently, didn’t know Dave Mason well either (though some of his stuff is so famous that she knew it, but didn’t know whose song it was).

When I noticed that Dave was playing at Blend (more details on that in the negative section), I played one of his albums for her in the car, so she too was excited to see them last night.

There are five guys in the band. I linked to the band section of the site above, rather than to the home page (which doesn’t seem to be particularly up-to-date). You can certainly read the bios on that site better than I can summarize them here, but I want to mention at least something about each member of the band.

In their order on the stage, left-to-right:

  • John (Johnne) Sambataro played both acoustic and electric guitars. He was fantastic. When it was his turn to wail, wail he did, leaving the crowd in a frenzy. But, he’s no hog, as he supported the entire band when that was more appropriate.
  • Bill Mason played the organ (electric piano). He was solid the entire night. On a few numbers, Dave turned it over to Bill for long solos. He was incredible on all of them. Like Johnne above, he brought down the house whenever the spotlight was on him.
  • Alvino Bennett played the drums. Super solid, perfect rhythm all night, just the right amount of flare. They never gave him a real solo, so I don’t know how he cooks when it’s all about him, but I have no doubt that he can cook. His sense of timing is exceptional. My only complaint is that he’s a little too unselfish, a little too the glue that keeps the band together. Suffice it to say, a great drummer!
  • Alex Drizos played bass. Basically, everything that I said about Alvino above regarding the drums applies to Alex on the bass. So solid it was wonderful to watch and feel the bass lines that he was laying down. Nothing flashy, ever, but always there to keep the bottom perfectly with the entire band.

Both Johnne and Alex sang incredible harmony with Dave all night. Bill sang on at least one number that I noticed, but certainly not many.

Here are photos of the band, sorry about the quality:

Johnne Sambataro and Bill MasonAlvino BennettAlex Drizos

On to the star, Dave Mason himself. I was a tad nervous going in for three reasons:

  1. Would he still have it? (If you recall, I briefly mentioned how awful the Jefferson Starship were in my uber-post on rediscovering live music.)
  2. Would he play the old big hits, or just do new stuff (and if the latter, was his new stuff any good)?
  3. Even if he played the old stuff, and even if he was flawless, would he play them the way I expected to hear them, or would he tinker too much?

I have definitive answers to all of my questions (and perhaps yours) coming up right now! 🙂

Dave Mason is awesome. That answers #1 above. His voice is excellent (as always), and he can hit the full range of notes required to make his hits come alive, which is not unimpressive, since there are some pretty high notes in a number those songs. Whew!

His fingers still fly on the guitar. He doesn’t miss any notes, and he’s as soulful on some of the leads, while rocking the house down on others. Quiet when appropriate, driving at other times. A master of the guitar. On a number of his big hits, he played a 12-string guitar, and the sound of that is just wonderful as well.

Here’s Dave on the 12 string guitar:

Dave Mason on the 12 string guitar

On to #2. The answer is both! He played quite a number of his giant hits, opening the show with World in Changes and Let It Go, Let if Flow. During the night, he also played All Along the Watchtower, Every Woman, We Just Disagree and a couple of other favorites. He also played the title cut from the first Traffic album!

But, I said both above! He also played new tunes that I have never heard. They were awesome! While I would have been wildly disappointed to not hear any of the oldies, I have to admit, if he only played new stuff, and it was as good as the (at least three) numbers that he played last night, I still would have considered the show to be fantastic!

Finally, #3 above. If you watch any TV, you may know the slogan for Simply Orange (it’s an orange juice company). Their slogan is: 100% Unfooled Around With! That should be Dave’s motto with regard to playing the crowd favorites. He couldn’t have delivered better. Whew! 🙂

Dave was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. That was based on his being part of Traffic. For my money, he could be inducted again, just for good measure, on the basis of his Dave Mason Band work, including his new stuff!

Two of his new numbers were played relatively early in the show, and both were electric numbers. Here’s a YouTube video of one of them (from a previous show, well done, but much cooler last night). He only plays a drop of guitar on that number (but still beautifully), and it doesn’t stretch his vocal capabilities, but it’s such a fun song! The catch-phrase line is: Ain’t Your Legs Tired Baby, ‘Cause You Keep On Runnin’ Through My Mind! 😉

As a group, they are extremely tight. No one ever overwhelms the others and the sound engineer keeps the relative volumes correct throughout. His name is Chris Curtis.

They played for 75 minutes, then left the stage (extremely briefly) for the obligatory encore. When they came back out it was just Dave and Johnne with acoustic guitars only. They played another new number that was gorgeous! Then the entire band rejoined, and they played Dave’s money song, Feelin’ Alright. They jammed it perfectly with Dave and Johnne playing lead guitars that reminded me of some of the great guitar duels performed by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Total time on stage was almost exactly 90 minutes. It left me with a strong taste for more, but it was completely satisfying at the same time! Bravo Dave, Johnne, Bill, Alvino and Alex, you were simply awesome!

They’re playing on April 4th, 2008 at BB King. I’m only telling you this because I just grabbed two tickets, so I’m no longer worried about him selling out (last night’s show was sold out). You are now forewarned that if you don’t go see Dave, you’re missing out on a great show! 😉

OK, this post is already long, but has only been positive. I have a ton of negative things to say about last night, and it won’t be short either, so this post will be horribly long when it’s all said and done. Please feel free to stop reading if you only want to bask in the glory that is the Dave Mason Band, as they were truly as good as it gets…

<Rant>

As you already know, last night turned into YAAWTEW (Yet Another All’s Well That Ends Well) evening. While I can’t complain about the end, and therefore the experience in its entirety, there is plenty to complain about along the way. 🙁

I had never heard of Blend before. They use at least two separate tickets agents, TicketWeb and Ticketmaster. I have accounts with both, and one of them must have shared my email with Blend. I don’t mind that. A month ago, I got an email from Blend promoting a specific show. I never heard of the band, and I didn’t particularly care to discover them (we have an insane schedule as it stands).

But, I quickly scoured the list of upcoming acts, and noticed that Dave Mason was playing there on March 6th, 2008! Wow, I thought that it would be cool if we could swing it. Unfortunately, at first blush, it wasn’t looking all that likely. We were scheduled to be in VA that day. It was also likely that we would be heading home that day, but I couldn’t be sure a month in advance, so I sat on the email, but left it visible in my inbox to annoyingly remind me each day.

After two weeks, we were about to leave for VA, and I realized that if we wanted to do it, we could swing it. I asked Lois. As noted above, she wasn’t really familiar with Dave’s music, but she’s a genius, and realized that I was more excited than a casual “Hey, do you want to see some band I used to listen to?”

She encouraged me to get tickets. As I noted in my recent post on Dan Tyminski Band at the Birchmere Theater, I get nervous going to new venues, in particular when they are first-come first-served type of places. If you read that post (or have ever been to a show at Birchmere!), then you know that my fears regarding Birchmere were 100% unfounded, as the place is nearly perfect in all respects!

What’s the opposite of Birchmere? Blend! 🙁

We called two weeks in advance, to ask some standard questions (OK, Lois called, at my request, to get my standard questions answered). 😉 She asked if they serve dinner, they said yes. She asked if it was in the room where the show was held, they said yes, but that they also serve dinner in a more formal dining room. Lois asked again (I heard it with my own ears!) whether we could eat in our seats in the theater where the show would be, and again, she was told yes.

She was told that the doors open at 7pm for the show. The rest of the rooms (bar and restaurant) open closer to 4pm I think, so if we showed up really early, we could eat first I think. But, we were planning on leaving from Zope, so we would be driving straight from VA, and likely getting there at around 6:30pm.

For many reasons, we decided to leave on Wed from VA and head home. We got out later than we had planned, and arrived home at 10pm. We worked all day and left for the show at around 5:45pm. We got to Blend at 6:25. I dropped Lois at the door so that she could pick up our tickets (they were held at Will Call) and get on line for the 7pm opening.

After circling to find parking, I walked in the front door at 6:35. Lois was nowhere to be found. I had to wait for a number of people to be seated in the restaurant (including Jay Gold, if you know who that is!). Then I got to ask about Lois. They had no idea who I was talking about, but told me I was welcome to walk around and look for her…

I did, and I spotted her in the restaurant sitting alone at a table. I was surprised, to say the least. She told me that they informed her at the door that they would not be serving in the show room. It was now 6:45. We were more interested in good seats than in dinner, but I was pretty hungry nonetheless. When the waitress came by to ask if we wanted drinks, we told her that we were still trying to decide what to do.

We made one mistake which I am truly sorry for, and that is that we stood the entire time. While we weren’t directly in anyone’s way, the mere fact that we didn’t sit at our table was already a distraction to the rest of the diners. It also caused more of the staff to pay attention to us (which part of the reason why we didn’t sit).

Another hostess came over to ask what the problem was. We explained, and she asked “Who told you that they would serve dinner downstairs?”. Huh? So, either we’re liars, or you’re going to spank the person who gave us the bad information? Either way, you aren’t close to solving the problem. We explained our situation again, and she said she needed to check further and left.

A minute later, the manager came by. We explained (again). He said “Of course they are serving dinner downstairs, you’re welcome to just eat there!”. Lois was satisfied, but I said “Great, but that’s not what the hostess said.” Oh oh. You could see him turn white as a ghost, and he immediately backtracked and said “Uh, wait, let me check.”

He left, and Lois left with him. A few minutes later, a woman named Lori (sp?) came over to talk to me. She was marginally prickly, but I could understand, as we were borderline causing a scene (just from the traffic at our table). I explained our situation (again). She said that there was no food being served downstairs, but that occasionally, they do, when there is no separate seating and standing areas.

I told her that we called and asked specifically for this show and were told that they would be serving. Clearly, she thought I was lying. Again, wonderful customer service. Now it got weird…

I told her that all we cared about was getting good seats downstairs. I told her that my wife wasn’t really that hungry, and that she was willing to wait on the line for the doors to open at 7pm, and that I would order and eat here at the table, problem solved!

Amazingly, she says to me “What makes you think the doors open at 7pm? The doors open whenever the artist, in this case Dave, is in the mood to play!” Huh? Did the person we called also get that part wrong? Are the show times as listed on the site just guesses? If the artist wants to start playing at 6:30pm is that OK too, or just late starts are acceptable? This was getting surreal.

At that moment, Lois returned, in a reasonable huff. That was unfortunate, because Lori clearly had a hair trigger as well, and Lois was as close to that mood as possible. She told me to go with her, that indeed they were serving food downstairs. Lori lost her cool. She said “Maam, I’m the owner, and I’m telling you that they aren’t serving food downstairs!”. Lois said “I was just down there, and people are eating, and the bartender told me that I was welcome to come in and order!”

The fireworks started for real now. Lori called someone else over and told them to go downstairs and make sure the door was locked! Very nice touch! She then explained that the food was being served to the band, not the public. When Lois again said that the bartender told her she could come and eat, Lori said that we were welcome to eat standing at the bar, but not until the doors opened for the public, which would be very uncomfortable.

When she saw how amazed we were to be treated this way (by an owner no less!), she offered to refund our money. We politely declined. We walked out of the restaurant, and went around the corner to a Quiznos. This was my first time in one, and I had a very nice Mesquite Chicken sandwich on toasted whole wheat. We were back in the place by 7:05pm!

We went downstairs to pick up our tickets. There were already roughly 20 people ahead of us crowding the door (which was indeed locked!). We were given green paper wristbands, signifying that we had seats (not specific ones, just that we were allowed to sit in a chair). Standing room only people had orange paper wristbands. We were crowded in like cattle, in a tiny area, waiting for the doors to open. People were piling down the stairs to get on the line. This couldn’t end well…

It got extremely hot down there. Lori showed up and announced that she would turn off the heat, and I think she did, but it didn’t get cool, it just stopped getting hotter. The doors didn’t open until nearly 7:35pm.

When we walked in, we saw that there were roughly eight or nine rows of chairs tightly packed together, and then open space from the last row to the door. We could have gotten aisle seats in the first few rows, but I grabbed two seats in the fourth row, dead center. So far, so good. The seats were hard plastic, and were reasonably uncomfortable to sit on for hours, but that was hardly the low point in the evening.

The temperature in the room was close to absolute zero! While I only had a T-Shirt on, I also (cleverly) declined to check my coat in the sauna area, so I was able to get comfortable quickly. A number of people commented to me that I was indeed a very smart guy to bring a parka-like coat to the show. 😉 Over the course of the evening, it got marginally warmer. I never took my coat off, but during the encore, I was mildly on the warm side…

So, I was prepared for the show to start late, after all, nothing in this place was as advertised, so why would I expect 8pm to be a firm time. A little to my surprise, someone came on the stage at 8:09, perhaps to announce Dave?

Nope. The person came on to announce an unlisted warm-up group. Well, group is a stretch. Two people, both locals that play in the upstairs bar at least twice a month. Nikki Armstrong and Dave Fields. Nikki is a blues singer, and Dave is blues singer/guitarist/producer.

Dave’s guitar (an acoustic one) wasn’t mic’ed correctly, so that delayed the show. While they were trying to sort that out, Nikki was freezing on the stage, and she was wearing a coat! They gave up (thankfully, reasonably quickly) and Dave switched to an electric guitar, which worked.

As I’ve mentioned before, not communicating effective and correctly with your customers is not a great strategy. These people were not listed on the site. Aside from the surprise angle, their music wasn’t a great match for an act like Dave either.

They played six songs. Most of the people that were seated were polite. We were quiet during the songs, and clapped after each one. The people who were standing completely ignored Nikki and Dave. They couldn’t have talked louder if you egged them on to try. Honestly, I can’t even blame them. No one came to see them, and there was nothing about their music which was compelling enough to grab our attention.

Basically, they have some talent (certainly tons more than I have, so who am I to talk?). But, they are more like a lounge act (in my opinion), that is expected to be there in the background, for some people to focus on a bit here and a bit there, but for others to continue to converse while the background music fills the room.

Dave plays the guitar respectably, but considering the string of simply amazing guitarists that we’ve seen in the past six months (Bill Cooley, Joe Don Rooney, Keith Urban, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Craig D’Andrea, etc. – all linked in the tags section of the post), it was a disappointment.

In general, it was a time-waster and a disappointment. Of course, at that point, we were wondering whether this was just par for the course for Blend, and whether we should have taken the refund. The show was sold out, so offering us the refund wasn’t all that generous (it certainly was offered with derision, not apology), because Lori could have sold those tickets five seconds later.

They left the stage at 8:45pm. I assumed that Dave would be on at 9pm. All of the equipment was already fully set up. Wrong again. They came on the stage at 9:12pm.

You already know that from that second onwards, it was a perfect evening. Of course, we didn’t get home until 11:30pm (yup, we’re old folk, so that’s late), when we could have been home by 10:30 if they had put Dave on at 8pm…

The only good news (not counting the concert itself) about Blend is that they didn’t get a dime of our money, even though we started out wanting to support the place. We wanted to have dinner there, but I ended up eating at Quiznos. I wanted to drink there, but ended up happily passing (even though waitresses were serving people drinks from the bar at the seats). I simply was happy not to give them any more of my money, even if it meant missing out on a chocolate martini. 😉

</rant>

Dan Tyminski Band at the Birchmere Theater

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I’ve known about the Birchmere Theater for at least six months now, perhaps a little more. For the past seven years that we’ve been coming down regularly to Fredericksburg, VA, we weren’t paying attention to the live music scene here, spending all of our music time in NY. That all changed when we saw The Wailin’ Jennys at Gravity Lounge in Charlotesville, VA on November 17th, 2007.

Ever since that event, I have at least paid a little attention to what’s going on in VA when we’re down here. Over time, I noticed that lots of artists that we truly love play the Birchmere. In reading about it, it sounded like a great place to see a show, and many famous artists claim their start at the Birchmere.

We nearly went there a few months ago, I think to see Ricky Skaggs (one of our favorites). One of our hesitations was that it was a general admission type of place. That can always be a risk. Many of our favorite places in NYC are general admission as well. While it can be annoying (and at times even painful), at least we know the drill at those places, and we play whatever game we need to in order to get good seats (most of the time). In the end, we decided not to risk it for Ricky, with other factors tipping the scale as well.

A while ago, I noticed that the Dan Tyminski Band was scheduled at the Birchmere on March 1, 2008 (last night). We love Dan Tyminski. He’s the primary guitar player in Union Station of Alison Krauss and Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas fame. He’s also the voice of George Clooney (well, the singing voice) 😉 in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

We saw Alison Krauss and Union Station at the Beacon Theater. Dan Tyminski was awesome that night, as were all of the members of Union Station. That included the bass player, Barry Bales, who is now the bass player for the Dan Tyminski Band as well. Not only is he an incredible bass player, he sings harmony on many numbers and his voice is fabulous!

We decided to take the plunge and get tickets. The night before we saw the Jennys at Gravity Lounge, we had dinner with two of the single employees at Zope Corporation. We asked them if they wanted to join us for the Jennys, but both had plans. They both indicated interest in being invited to a future event.

So, when we decided to see the Dan Tyminski Band, Lois send out a blind invitation to a number of the single people in the company that had expressed an interest in live music in the past. Two of them were available and interested, so we bought four tickets.

Because I didn’t know anything about the Birchmere, I made some assumptions, which (of course) turned out to be wrong. I gathered a list of 10 restaurants that were all very close to the theater, and sent links to three of them to the two guys. They both picked Lilians (which was likely my first choice as well). Here is how the one review (linked above) begins:

This place is rad. Imagine a squad of fine latin women dressed in short black skirts and revealing tops serving drinks and awesome Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine.

When I mentioned this to another friend of mine, he said “Sounds like a Spanish Hooters!” Indeed, I wonder why two single guys, roughly half my age, would have any interest in eating at Lilian’s? 😉

Yesterday morning, I did something that I should have done before I asked them where they wanted to eat. I went to the Birchmere website, and read their FAQ. I immediately found out that this place is like most of the general admission places in NYC, meaning they serve dinner at the place. That’s one of the few positives about general admission. You have to show up very early, but at least you can relax, eat, drink and enjoy yourself without then rushing to make it to the show.

Unfortunately, we never got to experience the Spanish Hooters directly, but perhaps, some day. I love Mexican food, enjoyed the one Salvadoran meal I’ve ever had, and now feel the overwhelming need to report back to my loyal readers whether the rest of the review is accurate as well. 😉

So, we picked up the two guys and headed north, early. My plan was to get there by 5pm when the ticket doors open, then perhaps wander around the neighborhood a bit, returning at 6pm when the theater doors open. The best laid plans…

I have a GPS (I’ve written about it before, when mentioning that it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given). I set the address and off we went. When I was coming up on the exit, I was telling a story. I heard the GPS telling me that I needed to make a left, but she’s often a little late with the voice prompts, and I was certainly late in following the directions. I missed the exit. No biggie, because the GPS always tells you what to do.

The only problem was that we ended up crossing the Potomac River into Washington, D.C, before she guided us back (yes, since the voice in the GPS is female, Lois and I believe that the GPS itself is a woman) so the detour was much longer than expected. We didn’t get to the theater until roughly 5:15pm. We received ticket number I11, and had no idea whether that was good or bad.

Different than all of the other general admission places that we’ve been to in NYC, there is a very large indoor space at the Birchmere, where you can comfortably wait until the 6pm doors open. There is a bar, but no pressure to buy any kind of drink. Lots of seats (tables and benches). What an incredibly nicer way to treat your early arrivers than in NYC, where we stand like idiots in a line on the sidewalks outside of our favorite clubs…

We relaxed and chatted. The 45 minutes passed quickly. At 5:57pm, they announced how the numbers (our I11) worked. They called out every single number, in order, so there was no reason to rush the door. Wow, exactly as the FAQ explained it, and on time like clockwork. Regular readers will know that my appreciation for this type of behavior is over the moon.

The Birchmere understands the two most critical rules of customer service:

  1. Communicate clearly with your customers and prospects (set expectations!)
  2. Deliver the exact experience that you communicated

Could it be any simpler than that? No, but it’s the rarest of companies that delivers even #1 (the easy one!), and you can count on one hand the number of companies that then deliver #2…

They started last night with H49. That meant that we would have a bit of a wait to be called, but it shouldn’t be too brutal. That was correct. H49-H99, then I00-I11. Roughly 15 minutes, I think. But, we were indoors, seated, and knew exactly when we would be called. More than acceptable.

When we got into the theater, we immediately liked what we saw. The layout was similar (with some very significant differences) to BB King in NYC. Lots of tables, most seating 12 people (some smaller tables as well). Nothing was left near the stage, but there was an empty table for 12 2/3’s of the way back on the left side of the stage, with what appeared to be a fantastic view of the stage. We grabbed the first two seats on either side of the table and settled in.

We ordered drinks and food (mostly comfort food, burgers, BBQ, chili, salads, etc.). Food was wonderful (I had the pulled pork BBQ sandwich with homemade chips and spicy coleslaw). Everyone liked their meal. Service was excellent.

I am pretty sure that the concert was sold out, but there was a seat or two empty, likely from people who ended up simply not showing up after buying their tickets. I tried to guess the number of people, and my guess was 600 tops, but definitely between 500-600. BB King seats 400, and this place seemed to seat more (not that it was larger, but BB King has the bar inside, where the space at the Birchmere was filled with tables).

The show started at exactly 7:30pm, as advertised. The band came out to wild applause, and began playing fairly quickly. They were instantly awesome. Five people on stage. I’ve covered two of them already (Dan and Barry Bales). From left-to-right, here were the remaining three players: Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey and Justin Moses.

Ron Stewart primarily played the banjo (amazingly), but also played a mean fiddle on a couple of tunes. Ron reminded me of poker superstar Daniel Negreanu, and I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of a poker-playing banjo player. Ron talked a bit, but never sang a single note. Ron is one of the best banjo players I have ever seen/heard. Bela Fleck is perhaps considered the best, and we’ve seen him, and perhaps he’s better, but Ron is close. We’ve also seen Ricky Skagg’s banjo player, and he won banjo player of the year six times.

Adam Steffey played the mandolin, brilliantly. He was also incredibly funny, reminding both Lois and me of Bill Engvall. He only sang on one song (lead!). He was great, with a very deep voice, but perfectly pitched. It was surprising to me (after hearing him) that he didn’t participate more in the vocals. Adam is one of the greatest mandolin players I’ve ever heard/seen. He is so clean it’s amazing. He’s fast too.

Unlike the Ron Stewart vs Bela Fleck comparison above though, I think that Chris Thile is even more incredible than Adam. That’s not to take anything away from Adam. It’s like comparing Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson. Phil’s no slouch, and neither is Adam. 🙂

Justin Moses played the fiddle (mostly), but also played the banjo and the dobro. He was masterful on all three, but in particular, was amazing on the fiddle. He sang harmony all night with Dan and Barry, and hit a lot of high notes perfectly.

Steffey, Bales and TyminskiRon Stewart and Justin Moses

The five of them are all amazing talents individually, who blend together to form a perfect bluegrass band. I should mention that Dan sang his heart out all night. He is also an extraordinary guitarist, but last night, he gave 99% of the solos to the rest of the band, and only played lead guitar in two or three numbers, and those were short licks. He anchored the music with great rhythm guitar all night, along with Barry’s amazing bass playing.

As amazing as Union Station are (and they are truly amazing), many of Alison Krauss’ songs are very slow, and sometimes quiet. Talented musicians can shine on those numbers as well, but more up-tempo numbers give them more opportunity to show their wares.

Last night, there wasn’t a slow song in the bunch. Every single song had a driving beat (with no drum in sight!), with energy that had every person tapping their feet or swaying their heads, that had them sweating their little hearts out on stage. It was simply fabulous.

The crowd erupted into a standing ovation at the end of the show, and they played one song for an encore without leaving the stage in between.

I went up to one of the staff after the show and asked what the seating capacity was. 500, so I was correct on my estimation of the range. 🙂

After the show, Lois bought two DVDs (one by Ron Stewart and the other by Adam Steffey), and three CDs. None of these merch items are cheap, but it’s one of the most direct ways to support the artists, so we try to do it! Lois then stood in line (she was roughly 15th in a line that ended up getting very long!) and got all five of our goodies signed by the respective artist. Of course, since she’s so unselfish, she had each of them sign it To Hadar. Awwwwww, she’s so sweet. 🙂

Signature Party at Birchmere Theater

We had a fantastic time. We would go see the Dan Tyminski band or any of the individual members again in a heartbeat. We will definitely go again to the Birchmere. It won’t be hard to find a reason to go there, since they have top act after top act. For example, one week ago, David Bromberg and the Angel Band played there. Al Jarreau was there on Feb 12th (two days before we saw him in NYC). Acoustic Alchemy was there in early February (one of my all-time favorite groups) but we were in NY and couldn’t make that show.