Madison Square Garden

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.

JimmyWayneBand

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!

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).

KeithUrbanCloseup

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:

ViewFromOurSeats

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.

KeithUrbanAmongTheCrowd

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:

ViewFromStage

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):

SugarlandSilhouette

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. 🙂

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at WaMu

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Longtime readers know that both Lois and I are Alison Krauss fanatics (just look at the title of my post when we saw her at the Beacon Theater). I’m also a long-time big fan of Led Zeppelin, and therefore, by extension, a big fan of Robert Plant. When we heard that they were pairing to produce the Raising Sand album (and now tour), we were excited.

I already wrote a long post about the album and how I finally came to purchase tickets to the show. In that post, I mentioned that the seats were in the seventh row. It turns out that the row was labeled G, but it was the fourth row, since the left side didn’t start at A. 🙂

The seats were awesome. As usual, I’ll give more color to the venue and the crowd in general, after discussing the show itself, including covering the opening act.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss came out at 8:55pm. There was instant electricity in the crowd, and many people gave them a standing ovation as they walked out. They launched into a couple of numbers from the album, and again, I was amazingly underwhelmed. It was certainly interesting (OK, even enjoyable) to see them live, but my heart wasn’t skipping any beats (and in fact, my feet weren’t unconsciously tapping along either).

To be clear, there are no flaws in their performance. They are both fantastic singers, with fantastic stage presence, backed by a pretty amazing band (I’ll cover them individually in a bit). The problem is the material. It’s nice, nothing more. I consider it to be background music. It does nothing to grab or hold my attention, but it sounds pleasant while your mind freely wanders to other thoughts…

Here they all are on stage, just to give you a sense of setting, though they shifted around a bunch throughout the show:

Raising Sand

Then, on either the third or fourth song, one of the band members (Stuart Duncan) started playing solo banjo (yes, banjo), and within a few notes, the crowd recognized it to be the lead (and repeating theme!) from Black Dog, a very famous Led Zeppelin number. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of an iconic rock song being played on the banjo!

Robert then sang the song, in a slow, relaxed style, and it was really cool. Toward the end, it got a little much for me (sorry folks), as the original is so great, and this was more of an interesting play on it, that dragged on a bit for my taste. Here’s Robert singing (not necessarily during Black Dog):

Robert Plant Singing

Robert also had awesome stage presence throughout the show, often acting as a cheerleader for the rest of the band. One of the hallmarks of the Raising Sand sound is both Alison and Robert clapping to the rhythm when they aren’t singing. Here’s a shot of that:

Robert Plant Clapping

Throughout a long show, they did the majority of the new album. They also did a mini-set of Alison singing without Robert, and Alison singing with Robert (and the others) singing background (including Robert standing toward the back of the stage). Here’s a shot of Alison singing:

Alison Krauss Singing

They did a couple of other Led Zeppelin numbers, including a cool (and slowed down) version of Rock and Roll, on which Robert had a great rapport with the crowd.

Both Alison and Robert left the stage for a bit, giving T-Bone Burnett (the producer of the album and the tour) an opportunity to sing lead on two songs with the rest of the band. Those songs were good too (he has a good voice, and a great on-stage persona).

One of the better numbers (again, just my opinion!) was entirely a cappella. Alison started out alone (as she always does on this number), not only singing alone, but the only one on stage. She sang Down to the River to Pray. After a verse (or two), Robert Plant, Stuart Duncan and Buddy Miller slowly walked on stage (reverently), and all shared one microphone to sing backup vocals. This version was way closer to the version on Alison Krauss and Union Station, Live, than it is to the version on O Brother Where Art Thou (where Alison sings with a choir, including many female voices, in a much more up-temp version).

They performed the song flawlessly last night, and the three men all sing great, individually and collectively, and blended with Alison to perfection. Here’s a strange shot of them (due to the lighting), but it’s also kind of cool, because it shows Alison in an ethereal (or ephemeral?) light, with the others singing in the background:

Alison Krauss Down to the River

One of the problems (to me) is that they don’t really know what sound they want. Bluegrass? Check! Rock? Check! Blues? Check! Soul? Check! Cajun? Check! All of the above, simultaneously? Check! Oops, therein lies at least part of the problem.

They finished up the show with Gone Gone Gone. I enjoyed it live, but it’s more fun on the video. Let me cover the band first, then circle back to the encore. Before doing that, here is a shot of the three headliners (Alison, Robert and T-Bone), clearly beaming righting after they finished Gone Gone Gone, rightfully so. The crowd was in a frenzy!

Robert Plant Alison Krauss T-Bone Burnett Beaming

Left-to-right on the stage (not including Alison and Robert) were:

Buddy Miller playing electric guitars, peddle steel guitar, electric mandolins and autoharp. He also has a MySpace page. His fingers literally fly on the guitar. He is a truly great lead guitarist. He has an excellent voice as well. For the first 1/2 of the show, he may have had a problem with his amp, as he wasn’t all that easy to hear, but his fingers were astounding to watch, even then. Then they replaced his amp, and his sound came alive, and he was awesome.

Here’s a shot of Buddy (with Stuart Duncan in the background), followed by a shot of Buddy’s amplifier, being worked on during the show:

Buddy Miller Stuart DuncanBuddy Miller Amp Work

Stuart Duncan played fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, all brilliantly. He sings really well too. Alison Krauss called him “my favorite musician in the whole world”. Wow, quite a compliment. If you read the awards he’s won (linked to his name above), clearly, she wasn’t being sarcastic. Still, even though he is incredible (truly!), that’s quite a statement, especially given who she plays with regularly, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tymninski, Ron Block and Barry Bales.

If Alison Krauss is going to call you her favorite musician, she may as well sing a duet with you:

Stuart Duncan Alison Krauss

Here’s Stuart on the mandolin:

Stuart Duncan Mandolin

Dennis Crouch played the upright bass. He was solid the entire night, but never highlighted. Amazingly, he could be heard (but never too overpowering!) even during the louder Rock numbers. I thoroughly enjoyed his play. Here’s a shot of Dennis:

Dennis Crouch

Jay Bellerose played the drums. I’m quite sure that most of the people in the audience considered Jay’s performance to be awesome. It was certainly impossible to ignore. Jay drums in a reasonably frenetic style. To me, there was nothing wrong with his drumming (meaning, he keeps a good beat, etc.), but he was a little over the top, in particular, in trying to carry the Rock parts. Nothing wrong, just not up to par with some of the drummers we’ve seen recently. Here’s Jay:

Jay Bellerose

T-Bone Burnett played rhythm guitar (and took a rare lead too). He’s certainly fine on the guitar, but I didn’t notice anything special. He sings well, and as mentioned before, has a very nice stage presence. Definitely seems to be enjoying himself on stage, in an infectious way. Robert goes out of his way to credit T-Bone with making this entire project happen. Kudos to him for that! Here he is during his two-song set:

T-Bone Burnett

Back to the encore…

When they left the stage, the entire audience was standing and making a giant ruckus. They were off stage for longer than most bands nowadays, but there was never a doubt that they were coming back! The house lights never came on, and the energy level in the crowd was awesome.

When they came out, it was without Alison. Robert said some beautiful words praising Bo Diddley in noting his passing, and they played a wonderful rendition of Who Do You Love. Alison then joined them and they did at least two more numbers (possibly three), making it a very long and excellent encore.

The show was nearly two hours, including the encore.

My bottom line is that I am very glad we went and I loved the experience. The show itself was choppy for my taste, but at least the worst parts were pleasant. The great parts were excellent, though even those weren’t quite like some of the shows I’ve written about in the past year.

Opening for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was Sharon Little. She was backed by a five-piece band, including Scot Sax on guitar, who co-writes the songs with Sharon.

Sharon has a very good and powerful voice and the band members are quality musicians. That said, the material didn’t do it for me. Also not unpleasant, even for a second. The sound was repetitious and Sharon over-emoted (to my tastes) quite a number of times, trying to force a feeling down my throat. Whenever she did that (or attempted to switch singing styles into something more bluesy or soulful), her voice was not as clean or nice as it was when she just sang straight up.

They were on stage for exactly 30 minutes, followed by a 23 minute break before Robert and Alison came out.

If you read my previous post (linked above) about the difficulty I had in getting good tickets, then you might be as surprised as I was that the section we were sitting in (which were awesome seats), was relatively empty. The three rows in front of us only had six people (out of 24-28 possible seats) for the opening act, and even during the main show, there were at least 15 empty eats. Only four people were in the front row.

No one sat in front of us during Sharon’s set. But, just as the main event began, a couple sat in front of us. The man was a giant, with a bushy beard and wild curly hair (very much a Mountain Man type). The woman was short. She sat in front of me, and he sat in front of Lois. It was a like a giant eclipse of the sun for Lois…

I begged her to switch seats with me, and she refused. After two songs, I insisted, and forced her to switch. It made all of the difference in the world, as Lois got to see and enjoy the show. That said, the couple were annoying and distracting as hell, but then that’s often par for the course at these type of events.

In other crowd news, a number of people (including two of the people in the front row of our section) gave a standing ovation after every single song. It’s nice to be fans, and I’m sure they truly feel it, but come on, it’s a tad much.

Most of the crowd stood for the entire long encore. Since my view wasn’t blocked, I sat down when they returned to the stage. Lois stood, or she wouldn’t have been able to see. A number of people (including the annoying super fans who sat in front of us) left before seeing even a minute of the encore. It was definitely a long show, so I can understand wanting to beat the crowd (or get home to relieve a baby sitter), but they missed a very nice encore indeed.

WaMu is a very nice theater. The maximum capacity is 5600 people (I would have guessed 2500 seats, so I was way off!). The last (and only) time that Lois and I were there was 23 years ago, when we took our godson (then three years old) to see a Muppets On Tour show. He just graduated medical school. My how time flies… 😉

Finally, we drove in to the city yesterday morning (and back to the house this morning). In between, I had lunch with one of my all-time best friends (we met on our first jobs after graduating college) and worked together at our third job as well, for many years. I haven’t gotten to spend much time with him over the past few years, but my feelings for him have never lessened, he’s just an awesome person in every respect.

So, we had a terrific sushi lunch (my first in a while, which was also a good thing to rectify), and we have promised each other that we won’t let this kind of time elapse between future get together’s. Our third job was at First Boston, but he is not one of the people who attends our semi-regular Boys Night Out dinners. We’re going to rectify that too, and ensure that he joins us on the next one. 🙂

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus

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We have a 10-year-old boy spending the weekend with us in NYC. I’ll share the details on that in tomorrow’s post about tonight’s Girlyman concert. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I walked over to Madison Square Garden and picked up three tickets to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I was able to get great seats. Nothing at MSG is cheap, but it wasn’t completely outrageous either. The show was scheduled to start at 11am.

We got there pretty early (a nice walk from the apartment, but very windy and cold). We spent some time browsing around in Borders, and finally went into the Garden at 10:40am. There was mayhem on the floor, as many people purchased an All Access Pass, which included a pre-show entry to the floor, where many of the performers and animals were out and about.

I’m glad we didn’t do that, because it looked crushing, but there’s no doubt that the people/kids who were down there were having a blast (being 10 feet from an elephant, for example), and it gave us something to gawk at as well.

They cleaned up very quickly when the pre-show was over, and actually had some clowns out warming up the crowd a few minutes before 11. The show started promptly at 11am.

It’s really not necessary to give specific details on the various acts, but I’ll summarize by saying that the entire experience is tons of fun and reasonably entertaining throughout the show. I was very pleasantly surprised at the length of the show. I assumed it would be 90 minutes (with or without an intermission). It turned out to be 140 minutes including a roughly 25 minute intermission.

There were many things that seemed to thrill the adults (me included) more than many of the kids. Part of the reason/problem is that many times, there are simultaneous performers doing things in different places in the arena. I can see how deciding what to watch can be distracting (even to adults). Of course, while clowns amuse kids physically, the humor itself is often way over their heads.

They bill themselves as The Greatest Show On Earth. Obviously, that depends on your taste. That said, from a pure spectacle point of view, it’s arguably an accurate description. There are so many peformers in the show it’s a little mind-boggling. Even though our tickets weren’t cheap, it’s hard to imagine a mathematical split of our collective fees that can even feed that many people and animals, let alone have them make a nice living. I’m sure they’ve worked it out, but still…

Speaking of money, these kinds of events are meant to soak parents out of every extra cent they own. The only two things we broke down and bought were a $7 box of popcorn (which was actually quite tasty, if not value priced) and a $15 DVD of the Circus itself.

We watched the DVD last night. It’s highlights of the show. We were actually quite pleased with the ability to relive the experience, even though it was only seven hours after we left. So, that too wasn’t a bad value. 🙂

On the other hand, a snow cone was $10 (but you got to keep the plastic cup). If you bought cotton candy, you got a circus hat which was like the one worn by the Cat In The Hat (but in circus colors). I think that was $12 or $15. Of course, kids screamed for every one of them, and parents often relented. It would have been trivial to spend more on the junk than on the tickets…

After the show, we walked up to the giant Toys ‘R Us in Times Square. It was so mobbed I can’t even describe it. Recession my foot! Yes, I know about the math of this supposedly dead economy, but everywhere I go (and yes, I mean everywhere), there are mobs of people, spending tons of money, on completely discretionary things, like circuses, concerts, toys, movies, Broadway, restaurants, etc.

A good time was had by all yesterday, with the adults possibly enjoying it even more than the kid. 😉

Random Madness

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I’ve written a number of times regarding my frustration at the apparent randomness of many computer programs/processes. In some cases, it’s simply not explainable (from the user’s perspective). In some cases, it almost feels rigged, but then something else happens, which even casts doubt on that theory…

Regular readers already know that we love Bluegrass and Country music. They also know that Alison Krauss is one of my favorites (along with Union Station). When her new album with Robert Plant came out (Raising Sand), I immediately bought a copy (downloaded from Amazon MP3). I listened to it once, thought it was pleasant, but I liked her stuff with Union Station more.

We recently started watching a drop of CMT and GAC (country music television stations) and have seen the video of Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On) a number of times. It’s fun. I then listened to the album again, and I’m still not nuts about it, but it’s not bad either.

We then saw that they were going to be appearing together at the WAMU Theater at Madison Square Garden (MSG). We’re on a number of early access lists. For most (perhaps all) MSG/Beacon Theater/Radio City Music Hall events, we get early access through American Express. Typically tickets are available as much as a week before they are available to the general public.

In the case of Alison Krauss, Lois is also subscribed to her newsletter, and we get a password for early access directly related to the Alison Krauss fan club. So, two separate shots to get good tickets.

I was on the site within a minute of tickets officially being available. There simply weren’t any great seats left. We could have sat in the second to last row. It certainly didn’t feel special. 🙁

We decided to pass. We know that we would definitely enjoy seeing them, but it simply isn’t that big of a deal, and we decided to ignore it.

A few days ago, Lois gets another email from the Alison Krauss site, informing her that because tickets sold out in a matter of minutes (no, really?), they were adding a second night. Those too would be available using the password, starting at 10am yesterday.

I was on the site at 10:01 (yes, I’m slow, I know!). No tickets anywhere near the stage. Yuck. I tried a few more times, and nothing good was available. I decided to simply put this concert out of my mind.

Then yesterday afternoon (long after my failed attempt) I received a separate notice from the MSG/Amex side of the equation, announcing the second date, and the early access for Amex holders would start today at 10am. I have to admit that I chuckled to myself. After all, the super connected Alison Krauss fan club had access to these tickets a full day in advance, and nothing good was left.

Still, this morning, at roughly 10:03 (I was in a meeting, and I missed the exact 10am deadline), I logged on to Ticketmaster using the special Amex link, and searched for tickets. While I was able to get two seats that were better than the day before (which was quite surprising), they still weren’t good. I hit the “search again” link, though I can’t really explain why I bothered…

Hola! This second search produced wildly better seats. Seven rows from the stage, on the left, but not too far left. I grabbed them, so we’re going to the June 11th show.

That’s cool, no doubt, but, it also annoyed the daylights out of me. In all cases I clicked on best available. In this case, I can likely guess the scenario, so it’s not really accurate to call it computer randomness (meaning, the program is not to blame, but life’s randomness is).

I think that when I searched the first time, someone else started a search before me. They were assigned the good tickets, but were given 2:15 to complete their transaction. For whatever reason, they didn’t complete the transaction in time. I then got lucky in that I searched again, at exactly the right moment in time, and was able to get those tickets.

I’m happy at the end result, but why weren’t those tickets available the day before? On that day, I tried at least five separate times, in some cases waiting 30 minutes between searches. At some point, I would have thought that these tickets would have been available, unless, they were reserved for Amex only, all along.

Oh well, another all’s well that ends well story… 🙂

On a separate but related topic, perhaps someone out there can explain the following head-scratcher to me. Ticketmaster is one of the few outfits out there that charges zero to snail mail real tickets to me, but charges for me to print the tickets myself. I simply don’t get it. How could they not want to incent me to print it on my printer, and avoid the printing, handling and postage costs?

Whenever there is enough time to have them safely mailed (June 11th certainly qualifies), I always have them mailed to me, because I hate incenting bad behavior on the part of any vendor. I always print my own tickets when that is the cheapest (usually free, but not always!) choice.

Folks, please explain to me what I am missing in this equation, even if your theory is kooky! 😉

Rascal Flatts at Madison Square Garden

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Last night we finally saw Rascal Flatts at Madison Square Garden (MSG). I have written a number of times about the company that owns MSG (and also Radio City Music Hall and The Beacon Theater). That company is a subsidiary of Cablevision. They run their concerts like clockwork, and I think that is extremely customer friendly.

Actually, The Beacon Theater is an exception. Both MSG and Radio City are like on-time trains. The Beacon is more relaxed (in the bad sense), and often starts the shows pretty late.

Last night started at exactly 8pm (as announced), with Kellie Pickler. We were far enough away that I couldn’t appreciate her beauty. Her voice is good, and the songs are good enough. That said, given the lousy acoustics of MSG, there was nothing special about her performance, or her group’s. I was impressed that many of the people in our section sang along to every word of her songs, so the draw last night wasn’t exclusively Rascal Flatts.

She performed eight songs, for 36 minutes, and was definitely a hit with the crowd.

After a 24 minute break, the lights went off at exactly 9pm.

Like I said above, we were extremely far from the stage. In fact, exactly opposite the stage. For all I know, we were in the exact same seats that we were in for the Kenny Chesney show. Smack in the middle of the floor, there was a large round stage with the words Rascal Flatts on it. Before Kellie came on, Lois conjectured that perhaps Rascal Flatts would perform there. I was sure she was wrong, because there was no access to that area.

It wasn’t used during Kellie’s performance, and we both noted that the people sitting at the seats on the floor behind that structure seemed like they got ripped off, since seeing over it to the real stage appeared to be obstructed.

After the lights went off at 9pm, we started to hear the music without seeing the band yet. When the lights came on (to the crowd’s frenzy), the three guys in Rascal Flatts (RF) were emerging (rising) from the circular center stage. The rest of the band (five other musicians) were on the main stage. The crowd went nuts, and suddenly, our seats weren’t so bad. The previously awful seats on the floor, were now front-row good.

They sang one song in that configuration, and toward the end of the number, a very large bridge came down from the ceiling, connecting the circular center stage with the main stage. They each walked (one at a time) over the bridge, while continuing the song, and ended it on the main stage. Holy moly, it was amazing! Then the bridge went up, and they covered the center stage again, and all was back to normal.

Here’s a shot of them after the center stage was up and lit. You can see the bridge clearly behind the stage. Click the photo to enlarge it:

Opening Number from Rascal Flatts at MSG

They are absolutely amazing performers, and the symbiosis with the crowd is at least as good as it is with Kenny Chesney’s shows (which are legendary). As I’ve said before (and even earlier in this post), the acoustics at MSG are horrible. Every single note on the bass guitar literally shakes the floor and the seat you’re sitting in. Guitar solos are piercing (not in the good sense).

None of that mattered last night. If you were there to hear music, in silence, it would be disappointing (though I doubt that RF is capable of disappointing!). But, I would describe last night (as did they) as more of an amazing party, than an acoustical event where you come just to hear the music. For this kind of show, you come to be part of the music. Lois described it as an old-time revival meeting.

Gary LeVox (the lead singer) has an absolutely incredible voice. We’ve known that, but it’s also powerful enough to be able to overcome the horrible acoustics, reasonably well. In other words, he was absolutely amazing last night.

That said, he was particularly sensitive to the fact that the crowd wanted to sing every single word of every single song along with him. He began most songs singing relatively softly, in order to let you hear the crowd pretty clearly. Then, as the song built momentum, he would raise his volume and show you what makes him so special.

All three of them have wonderful personalities and interacted with the crowd in delightful ways. After a bunch of amazing numbers, the bridge came down again. At the time, all three RF guys were on the main stage. But, when the circular stage came up, there was a drummer with a drum set on it. Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus went across the bridge to join the drummer. When the light faded on the main stage, Gary LeVox was left on the other side.

Jay DeMarcus normally plays bass, but on the center stage, he played an electric piano, extremely well. The three guys (Jay, Joe and the drummer) played two or three numbers, that were much mellower, but excellent nonetheless. Then the bridge came back down, and Gary joined them. They played a bunch of numbers. The center stage rotated very slowly (in both directions!), so that everyone could see every one of them, from every angle.

Here’s a shot of the three of them plus the drummer, playing a set on center stage (click to see a larger photo):

Rascal Flatts plus Drummer on Center Stage

Then the bridge came down again, and the three of them went back to the main stage. They continued doing smash hit after smash hit. Other than chatting occasionally to the crowd, there were almost no breaks between songs. When they finally said goodnight, they had played for 94 minutes. The lights stayed off, so we knew they would be coming back for an encore (how could they not?).

Here’s a shot of the entire stage. You can see that they had giant screens where they showed videos, stills, colors, etc. If you look closely on the top left quadrant, you can make out the bridge that’s hanging in the air (at least the steps on either end), and on the bottom of the black blob on the left, are a person’s legs hanging down. I believe he’s the bridge operator. Again, click to enlarge:

Rascal Flatts at Madison Square Garden

Immediately after they started the last song of the evening (the last one before the encore, that is), 10 Marines in full dress uniform marched on to the stage, and stood in a line behind the band. The crowd started to clap loudly even before Gary encouraged them to, at which point essentially the entire crowd stood up and gave a giant ovation to the Marines, who saluted back. I can’t begin to tell you how unusual it is in NYC, and I don’t know if it’s more Country Music Fans in this case, or respect for the choice that Rascal Flatts made, but it was heartwarming nonetheless.

When the lights came back on, Gary was alone rising from the center stage again, but you could hear one or two instruments on the main stage, which was still dark. He started singing one of their signature tunes, Here’s To You (which I predicted to Lois they would do for the encore). When the song began to build, the bridge came back down, the lights came on the main stage, and he crossed over (slowly, singing to all the people on either side of the bridge along the way).

After that, they played another number. The crowd stood for the entire encore (many people stood for the entire concert, but thankfully, no one who was immediately in front of us in our section).

When we left, Lois said that it was the greatest concert she’d ever been to. I totally understand her enthusiasm, but disagree on the terminology only. As far as concerts go, it’s going to be really hard for me to ever agree that any show at MSG will even come close to hearing someone like Girlyman play an intimate club like Joe’s Pub. That’s not just a gratuitous plug for Girlyman, but a contrast to listening to a concert rather than participating in a party.

It was an awesome night, period, regardless of the acoustics.

Now I have to explain just how magical a night it was for Lois. I’ve written often about The Wailin’ Jennys. We’ve seen them twice live, and like Girlyman, their concerts were both better than the Rascal Flatts one (in my opinion, with the caveats about terminology mentioned above). We’re seeing them again on April 8th at Joe’s Pub (we haven’t seen them there yet), and I literally am on pins and needles with excitement, looking forward to that night.

To continue, Lois really fell in love with them the second time we saw them live, at Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville, VA. Joe’s Pub will be almost as intimate, so we know we’re going to love it. Since then, without a doubt, she plays the Jennys on the iPod in the car, more than any other artist. Still, she plays many others as well.

The one unfailing truth though has been that as we get to within 10 minutes of our house in Westchester, for at least two months now, 100% of the time, Lois always plays Heaven When We’re Home. It captures the spirit we both feel about coming home to our house, which we don’t get to spend as much time in as we’d like.

This morning, we drove back from the city to the house. She played Rascal Flatts songs the entire way, up until we hit the driveway, when she turned off the iPod. I was stunned, no kidding. Clearly, she had RF on the brain, and the Jenny’s couldn’t get through! 😉

CMA Writers Series at Joe’s Pub Featuring Rascal Flatts Songs

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In November, we attended our first CMA Writer’s Series event at Joe’s Pub, and covered it in this post. As mentioned in that post, we purchased tickets that night for the next in the series, which was last night.

Whenever we can, we reserve the same table for two, and last night, we had been told that we had our usual table. Unfortunately, when we arrived, they apologized and seated us right up at the stage (knees touching the stage, literally). We had previously discussed trying that particular table out in the past, but never bothered. Except for the fact that we were right under an electric piano, which obscured the view a bit (more for Lois than me), it wasn’t a bad spot.

Perfect chocolate martini – check! Perfect Seared Tuna – check! Perfect French Fries – check! Perfectly boring me, sticking to my usuals – check! 😉

Last night was a celebration of Rascal Flatts music, though they played a number of other songs as well (which were all great!). It was meant to coincide with Rascal Flatts playing at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night. Yes, Lois and I have tickets. 🙂

Bob DiPiero was the host (I think he’s always the host). The other four (one more than last time) were (in seating order): Danny Orton, Steve Bogard, Tony Mullins and D. Vincent Williams (Bob sat in the middle).

In closing the November show, Bob mentioned that at the end of January, he was going to visit the troops in Iraq with Kix Brooks. A while ago, a good friend of ours gave Lois a book called Dear Soldier. Lois decided then and there to get some copies and give them to Bob at the next show.

So, last night, before the show started, Lois went backstage and asked someone to get Bob to come out. After a bit, he did. They chatted briefly, and she gave him two copies to bring along with him to Iraq. She told him that if it seemed to resonate with the soldiers, that we’d be delighted to buy many more copies and get them delivered over there.

In closing last night’s show, Bob said that a wonderful woman from the audience gave him a couple of copies of Dear Solider to deliver on his upcoming trip. It was extremely nice of him to recognize Lois publicly, and yes, she’s a wonderful woman, in all respects. 🙂

On to the show. It was excellent. As I’ve mentioned before, half the fun is hearing all of their stories (they’re writers, after all) 😉 and last night was no exception. They are fun, interesting people, who tell the tale of their lives through their songs. Then, famous artists make those songs famous, and we associate the words with their lives, but it’s the writer’s life that created those songs.

We had a blast, and will definitely continue to support the CMA Writers Series at Joe’s Pub when they’re next in town!

Pat Green, Sugarland and Kenny Chesney

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Another long one…

Last night Lois and I saw Pat Green, Sugarland and Kenny Chesney at Madison Square Garden (MSG) in NYC.

We don’t own any Kenny Chesney albums, and don’t know his music well at all. I have heard many times that he gives one of the greatest shows, but that alone wouldn’t have necessarily gotten me to buy tickets, especially as far in advance as we did. I believe that Kenny Chesney was the top touring artist in 2006, but for sure was the top Country touring artist then. He is currently projected to be the top Country touring artist in 2007, and the second overall, to the Police.

Regardless of whether we should have wanted to see Kenny Chesney, we both really wanted to see Pat Green and Sugarland. Lois has loved Pat Green from the first song she ever heard of his. I think he’s great too. I am nuts about Sugarland. Lois likes their music, but Jennifer Nettles grates on her a little like fingernails on a chalkboard. She appreciates the beauty and power of her voice, but can’t stand what appears to be an overly put on twang. Just listen closely to any word she pronounces that rhymes with “life”. I can’t do it justice, but it comes out like: “laaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyf”. Anyway, it doesn’t bug me in the least, nor distract from her absolute brilliance as a singer.

So, we were both instantly committed to going to this show, and we considered finding about about Kenny Chesney to be a likely bonus, rather than the actual draw to go. We bought the tickets well in advance, and tucked them away in our trusty drawer.

We walked from the apartment to MSG and got there a little before 7pm. Since the primary purpose of MSG is to house the Knicks (basketball) and Rangers (hockey), seeing a concert there can be less than ideal. We didn’t want to sit on the “floor” (though tickets were available), since it’s flat, and typically everyone in front of you stands the entire time, forcing you to stand too (keep in mind, we’re old folk). So, I purchased tickets directly opposite the stage, about 1/2 way up the arena. From a broad perspective, these are/were good seats. But, practically speaking, they are nearly a city block away from the stage (given the oval nature of the arena), so the performers look a little larger than ants.

I have written before about the group that owns MSG, Radio City Music Hall and The Beacon Theater. They run their concerts like well-oiled machines, starting with the marketing and finishing with the actual schedules of the concerts. I am incredibly impressed with everything they do. To begin with, they send two emails, spaced a few days apart, reminding you about the upcoming show, and giving details (like starting time, order that the artists will be appearing, etc.). Very nice touch.

Since they run their shows like an on-time train (if only they owned an airline!), we knew that Pat Green would be hitting the stage at exactly 7:30pm, not a minute later. Indeed, he did. He played 5 songs, and was on from just about 1/2 an hour. He was great. I didn’t recognize 3 of the 5 songs, which were likely off of his new album (Cannonball) which we own, but I haven’t listened to yet. The other two were wonderful, including his biggest hit, Wave on Wave, which he closed with. It was incredibly well done, and the audience went wild for it, singing along the entire song. He had tons of energy and was super jazzed to be in front of such a big crowd in NYC (specifically at MSG), and kept repeating that throughout his set.

After exactly a 15 minute intermission, Sugarland came on. They played for 45 minutes and played hit after hit. I knew every song, and delighted in every song. Not only do they sound great, but their energy is incredible as well, and Jennifer Nettles gives an excellent show. She dances and prances and basically engages the audience extremely well. And, of course, there’s her voice. 🙂

As good as both Pat Green and Sugarland were, to me, MSG is not nearly as good a venue to see these types of groups as the other places we typically frequent. It’s not just that it’s large, but given that it’s a sports arena, it’s gigantic, there is no carpeting, etc., so sound just bounces around the place. That forces them to really crank up the volume. Of course, while that solves some of the problems, it creates new ones, including reverberation, piercing notes, etc. It can really be quite unpleasant at times. This is no fault of the bands, nor likely even of the people working the sound board, just a fact of life in these kinds of arenas. Given how many fans Kenny Chesney has, he can’t realistically come to NYC and play a smaller venue, unless he does what The Allman Brothers Band did, and play for a few solid weeks at a place like the Beacon Theater…

For both Pat Green and Sugarland, there was a giant drape behind the stage showing the cover of their current albums. On either side of the stage was a very large screen showing the highlighted performer (live) at that time. So, even though people were small on the stage (from our seats), you could always see what the current soloist (vocal, guitar, drum, etc.) was doing, reasonably clearly. It was nicely done.

Both bands were really excellent as well, though because of the acoustics, it took effort to pick out individual instruments.

After a 20 minute intermission, things started happening. I’m not trying to be mysterious, we really didn’t know exactly what was going on because they dropped another drape in front of the stage during this intermission, so whatever they were doing behind it, was invisible to most of the crowd. During the other down times, they played pretty good music (a very wide range, not only Country). All of a sudden, it started sounding like the band (Kenny’s) might be playing live (but a tad subdued) behind the big curtain. Not sure, but after the fact, I think not!

Anyway, they started with an interesting set of videos on the aforementioned large screens on the sides of the stage. The excitement was certainly building. Then, the video switched to a (likely) live feed labeled KennyCam. So, from backstage, you (supposedly) were seeing everything Kenny was seeing, but of course, you never saw Kenny himself. It was definitely cool, if a touch on the cheesy side as well, since it dragged out for quite a while (MSG is pretty darn big after all).

When he showed up on stage, they dropped the drape from the front, the crowd erupted maniacally. The entire stage had been transformed into a multimedia showcase. There were even larger screens (at least 4) behind and above the stage, and they were utilized to perfection! On occasion, they showed live scenes, on occasion music video style action, and on occasion just very heart-warming stills or videos of scenes that seemed to go with the current song. Truly brilliantly done.

Even though I don’t know his music (in the sense that I don’t own his albums, and therefore specifically listen to him multiple times), I recognized the vast majority of his songs (even many of the words). This is a testament to how much radio air time he gets, since Lois and I often listen to Country on XM Radio (as previously reported). I characterize most of his songs as fun, in the style and sense of Jimmy Buffet. Kenny’s sound is much larger. He has a huge band, including 4 horn players, multiple lead guitarists, and I’m reasonably sure there were two drummers on the stage as well. They were extraordinary musicians, and somehow, rose above most of the acoustics problems of the evening. Don’t ask me to explain how.

Kenny is a breathtaking performer. Pat Green and Sugarland had seemingly infinite energy, but you have to trust me when I tell you that they didn’t even come close to how much running around Kenny does on the stage. It’s 100% for the benefit of the fans. He does everything he possibly can to connect with as many individual fans as he possibly can. He shakes hands, gives high fives, etc., whenever he gets the opportunity. He never stops smiling, and seems to care deeply about the audience and their enjoyment.

As opposed to some who choose to be political on the stage (in either direction), he made one very simple statement: “There are a lot of problems in the world. We can’t possibly solve them tonight, so let’s enjoy the music and have a good time.” Amen!

I might have thought in advance that he was particularly beloved by humans of the female persuasion. I would have been wrong. The guys in our section were insane for him. Many were dancing throughout the show. All knew every word to every song, and belted them out as loudly as you can imagine. It was actually fun being surrounded by people who clearly idolize the performer they came to see. The energy was contagious in a way that both Lois and I (independently!) described as “being in a revival meeting”. It had the same kind of genuine fervor.

For me, I don’t think Kenny has such a great voice. There’s nothing wrong with it, and perhaps he missed a note here or there because of the physical energy he puts out. That said, it didn’t make the slightest difference. There was a pure joy throughout the show, that is in some ways indescribable.

I would sum it all up with one word (but you have to pick the word) 😉

Extravaganza or Spectacle

Here’s what I really think going to his concerts is all about, and I think he’s well aware of it, and his fans are too, even if it’s not conscious on their part:

A Kenny Chesney concert is an opportunity to come sing your favorite songs with Kenny himself!

Seriously, 90% of the crowd sang every word of every song with him, as loud as they could, and Kenny encouraged every bit of it, often stopping to sing and pointing the mike into the audience. It was like being invited into his living room for a sing-a-long, with 15,000 of his closest friends.

At one point he said that he had taken his gang out to the Yankee game the night before, and sat in the 10th row (the Yankees beat the Red Sox that night, in fact, they swept this week’s series). Shortly after telling that, he brought out Roger Clemens on to the stage, and then Johnny Damon. I think there was a third Yankee as well, but I didn’t catch his name. The crowd went berserk! During the song (that they sang with Kenny!), Roger pulled up his son from the crowd. It was a wild scene in the audience, and at the end of the song, they strapped a guitar to his son (who seemed a little overwhelmed), and it was as cute as you could imagine.

The encore was one of the more unusual (and fun) that I have ever seen. When they came back out, they did a fantastic number (sorry, I don’t know his music well enough to drop the right name here). After that, the band played without Kenny (a fantastic song as well, with each taking wonderful solos). Kenny spent the time thanking/saluting the crowd, and signing dozens of autographs on hats, programs, etc. He was like a machine, and the fans were eating it up. It was a true celebration of the evening between the star and his adoring fans.

So, we had a great time, and enjoyed the Kenny Chesney concert way more than either of us thought we would, in particular, in a venue that was less than perfect for music. Bravo!