Rascal Flatts

Ceili Rain at Joyful Noise III

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Over a year ago, I wrote a post entitled Everybody Clap for Everybody. The second paragraph explains how we came to discover Ceili Rain, in September 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11. We’ve been huge fans ever since, but have never had the opportunity, and therefore the pleasure (and privilege) of seeing them live.

That oversight was finally corrected yesterday. All of my posts are overly long, and for the few of you with the fortitude to stick with them all the way to the end, I apologize and thank you (and secretly applaud you as well!). 😉 This one won’t be an exception. I’m busting with things to share, including a generally extraordinary day, in addition to experiencing the magic that is a live Ceili Rain show!

I’ll cover Ceili Rain first (as I typically do), and then describe the rest of the day.

Ceili Rain was scheduled to come on stage at 5:30pm, and play until about 7pm (a very nice length indeed). Due to the constant downpour all day, logistics were thrown off course a bit, and Ceili Rain didn’t start playing until 6:20pm.

Their CDs are marvelous (I recommend every one, but I’ll be more specific later on for those looking to dip their toes, rather than buy the whole shebang at once). I know all of the songs well. Still, nothing can prepare you for seeing them live. Not five seconds into the opening number (Jigorous from Erasers on Pencils) and we knew we were in for a completely magical experience.

Most groups can’t deliver a live experience that matches the polish of a well-crafted CD. Many can and do. A rarer few blow away any sense you have of them as recording artists when you see them perform live. Ceili Rain is in that rarified group. There is literally no way I can do them justice by trying to describe the feeling, so I won’t try too hard.

I’ll state the normal facts as I always do, and simply say that in this case, the whole, greatly exceeds the sum of the (extraordinary) parts (facts).

Here’s a group shot of them on stage:

Ceili Rain

Ceili Rain

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Burt Mitchell on whistles and pipes (he also sang on at least one number). Bagpipes aren’t typically an instrument one associates with Rock music. In fact, I bet that many people don’t associate Bagpipes with music at all. 😉 Give Burt a few seconds, and you’ll change your mind. He plays a variety of whistles, just as well, and adds a marvelous flavor to Ceili Rain.

Burt Mitchell

Burt Mitchell

Joe Davoli on fiddle. I’ve written about many great fiddlers over the past few years. I’m now officially adding Joe to my list. We both loved every note he played last night. At intermission, Lois bought Joe’s CD (along with guitarist Harvey Nusbaum) called Fiddle & Guitar. Wow. It’s a gorgeous instrumental collection of amazing fiddle and guitar tunes! Of course, Joe was kind enough to sign it for Lois. 🙂

Joe Davoli

Joe Davoli

Bob Halligan Jr. on the acoustic guitar, vocals and electric keyboards. There are many people with great voices. While Bob is one of them, he has a quality that very few have in addition to the voice, and that’s the ability to use the voice and every body part to take you on a trip with him, wherever he feels like taking you.

Bob Halligan Jr

Bob Halligan Jr.

Like my caveat for Ceili Rain in general, I’ll never do justice to describing seeing Bob perform live. Unlike Ceili Rain, I’ll at least make a half-hearted attempt to describe it a drop. 😉

Let’s start with the voice, since I mentioned it first above. Bob can hit notes that are surprising and breathtaking. One some levels, it can give me the same chills that Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts does (both can create high sounds that are still distinctively male, and both can maintain complex melodies while switching gears seamlessly). Unlike Gary, Bob can also sing in more normal tones (no disrespect to Gary, who is one of my favorite vocalists!).

In addition to also being an excellent musician, Bob’s performance is completely infectious. If joy was a disease, then he’s a carrier, and he can spread the disease in an airborne manner, to all in his vicinity. If you don’t want to be uplifted, stay far away from a Ceili Rain show! 😉

I could on and on, but I’m not sure that I could adequately convey the magic, so I’ll just add that Bob has an instant, and deep rapport with the audience. When he called for a conga line to dance around the tent, it formed spontaneously, with sheer joy on the participants’ faces, and on the fuddy duddies in the crowd (like us), who didn’t join in. 🙂

Finally, Bob is one of the most prolific, and amazing songwriters of our time. He has over 1,000 songs to his credit. He is the heart and soul of Ceili Rain, and the world is the better for him!

Hadar Bob

Hadar Bob

Bob Lois

Bob Lois

Kevin de Souza on electric bass and harmony vocals. He’s the newest member of Ceili Rain. Rating a bassist is generally difficult, because even great ones often fade into the background, by design and choice. I have no trouble claiming that Kevin is awesome on the bass.

Kevin de Souza

Kevin de Souza

In addition to simply laying down fantastic bass lines all night, and taking an amazing long solo (beating out most of the bass solos I have heard in the past), he also has all the requisite on-stage energy necessary to make him a full-blown member of Ceilli Rain. He’s simply delightful to watch and listen to, all night.

Raymond Arias on lead guitar (electric) and vocals. Ray has been with Ceili Rain for nearly 12 years now, making him the longest-standing member playing with Bob. Raymond sings harmony with Bob beautifully. He plays the electric guitar exceptionally well. When his turn came to play solo, he also sang lead in true Rock ‘N Roll style, belting out renditions of two classic Rock songs back-to-back. He too is a great fit for Ceili Rain.

Raymond Arias

Raymond Arias

Bill Bleistine on drums. Bill sits in the back, center stage, behind Bob. Loyal readers know that I love nearly every instrument, and pay a lot of close attention to every band member at every show. This is always true for the drums, for which I have a special love.

Bill Bleistine

Bill Bleistine

I’ve written about a number of drummers in the past few years who have mesmerized me. I need to firmly, and unequivocally place Bill near the top of the list (on any given night, he could easily top the list). Aside from his impeccable and fantastic playing all night long, the energy level of every Ceili Rain song, and the length of the two sets, make his feat all the more inconceivable.

In addition to supporting the band on every number brilliantly, he took a long solo that has to be among the top five I’ve ever heard, quite possibly #1. Bravo Bill!

Whew. Magic, magic, magic, magic (and then some more magic).

Hadar Lois Bill Ray

Hadar Lois Bill Ray

During intermission, Lois also bought two copies of the new CD, I Made Lemonade. The official CD release is on July 1st (according to at  least one website), so you may not be able to buy it anywhere except at a live show until then. Of course, Bob and Bill signed it for her. It’s a wonderful CD. Lois and I feel privileged to have played the tiniest of roles in helping to bring it to fruition.

When you lift the CD out of the jewel case, two large paragraphs of text are revealed on the inside of the back cover. The top one is from Bob. It starts off with him saying that when people ask him which of the CDs is his favorite, he feels like a parent does when someone asks which of your children is your favorite!

While I understand that completely, I also know that many people who read this will not want to jump in and buy all six CDs before knowing if they will love Ceili Rain as much as we do. For those people, I suggest two things:

  1. Listen to the selection of free streaming songs available on their MySpace page. Selections can always change, but at the moment, in addition to the title cut from the new CD (I Made Lemonade), you can also hear my personal favorite (That’s All the Lumber), and Love Travels, the song that started this whole wonderful journey for us in the first place.
  2. If you’re going to buy only one CD, I’d recommend starting with their namesake: Ceilin Rain. It’s just one phenomenal song after another, including both That’s All the Lumber and Love Travels.

After the intermission, they played for roughly another hour, making their time on stage over two hours. The fact that they didn’t melt into a puddle of their own sweat after putting on such an intense show for that long is incredible.

Since the entire show was pushed back a bit, that put the second set in near darkness (given the clouds and rain). Since that wasn’t anticipated, there were no lights to shine on the band. It was still fantastic, but could have played out differently.

Here’s how this all came to be…

Because we purchased the first five CDs directly from the Ceili Rain website, we’re on the regular mailing list informing fans of upcoming shows. A month ago, I noticed that they were playing two hours away from us in Quakertown, PA (technically, Applebachsville, PA, but don’t expect your GPS to know where that is!). This was going to be their third headlining appearance at the Joyful Noise fund-raiser run by St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Given our schedule, it was a tad inconvenient, but it was also our best bet to see them live and we decided to make the commitment to be there. We were surprised to see that the event was free to attend. All of the funds raised would be voluntary. In addition, they were requesting non-perishable foods be donated, since the entire event was for the benefit of the Quakertown Food Pantry.

Wanting to participate in the spirit of the event, not just getting to see Ceili Rain for free, we went to Costco and bought quite a bit of non-perishable stuff. For the most part, food we typically buy for ourselves, so we know it’s really good. We loaded up the back of our car and drove from NY to Quakertown, early yesterday morning.

First, a brief mention of the other five performers who played all day leading up to the Ceili Rain finale. Since all-but-one of these performers isn’t really a professional, it’s not really fair to subject them to the same review that I would normally give any group or individual.

In the order that they appeared, starting at 11:15am:

Living Water. This is a local group from Quakertown United Methodist Church. Eight of them were on stage for roughly 45 minutes.

Living Water

Living Water

Kickin’ Brass. Five performers (trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn and another trumpet). They were on stage for roughly 45 minutes.

Kickin Brass

Kickin' Brass

Once Called Saul. Five guys in the band. They were on stage for roughly 45 minutes.

Once Called Saul

Once Called Saul

Keith Spencer. I’ll say a bit more about Keith, because of the five groups that performed before Ceili Rain, he’s the only one that is likely able to (and I would guess does) support himself solely through his music. He lists himself as:

Vocalist, Actor, Cabaret Performer

Keith Spencer

Keith Spencer

He’s backed singers like Robert Flack. He has an exceptional voice, and a warmth that makes audiences sit up and take notice instantly. He sang mostly Spirituals, with a few Broadway tunes (also spiritual in nature) mixed in. Lois and I were enthralled at his performance.

He was accompanied on the electric keyboards by Charles de Mets. His playing was excellent, and he complemented Keith perfectly. I updated Charles’ name from my original post, when Keith was kind enough to email me the correct spelling!

Charles Demetz

Charles de Mets

Keith and Charles were on stage for roughly 45 minutes.

This has nothing to do with yesterday, but I stumbled on it trying to find a link for Keith, so I’ll share it. Here’s an article written two years ago about the frenzy of couples trying to win a free wedding courtesy of the Today Show. The last picture of the bunch is of Keith and his then fiancee. A little further down, they tell the story about how Keith proposed to Amy. 🙂

SWiM was the last band to perform before Ceili Rain. Four guys on stage for nearly an hour.



Except for Kickin’ Brass, which was purely instrumental, the other four sets were purely Christian Music. Of those, Keith clearly performs other types of music in other venues, with the remaining three groups strictly performing Christian Music.

Lois and I enjoyed what each group had to offer the audience, and they fit the spirit and mood of the day quite well. Thanks to all of them for participating in Joyful Noise III!

On to recap the rest of the day. Weather.com was calling for 80-95% chance of showers for every single hour of the day in Quakertown, PA yesterday. Nice. It was quite cloudy for the first hour of our drive over, but we still held out the slightest hope that the rain might be minimal. Those hopes were dashed in the second hour, when it started raining steadily. The rain continued without many breaks until 3pm!

The rain stopped from 3-5pm, then started again. When Ceili Rain was on for a little while, Bob complained that the humidity was wreaking havoc with the tuning on his guitar. He gently asked if could put a suggestion in the box asking the big Boss for better weather.

10 minutes later, it stopped raining. 15 minutes after that, the sun came out, very brightly. 10 minutes after that, a beautiful rainbow appeared. The gentleman who was collecting donations in the buckets all day came over to us and asked Lois to come with him to see the rainbow. Here’s a shot that Lois took:



Even though it later started to rain heavily again, I still am respectful of Bob’s ability to get his suggestion acted upon so quickly. He clearly has a more direct line than I do to the big Boss. 😉

When we arrived at St. Paul’s (thank you GPS for being able to find this rural Church with zero problems) it was raining hard. We parked, but a gentleman immediately came up to our car and asked us to drive a mile down the road to the local elementary school where a shuttle bus would bring us back.

Before we left, three gentlemen unloaded the back of our SUV on behalf of the Quakertown Food Pantry. We also left our two plastic chairs there (to get soaked) while we drove to the elementary school. We were the first car to park there (having arrived at 10:45am) and the shuttle bus took us back immediately, since there was no one else to wait for.

We planted our plastic chairs about 25 feet from the stage, in what felt like it would turn out to be an arbitrary first row. Sitting any closer would have been good for the view of the stage, but would have likely lead to instant deafness, as there were giant speakers on the grass in front of each side of the stage.

Even though it was pouring, we were under a very large tent, and very thankful for it. What was apparent from the moment we returned on the bus was that every single person we encountered was as nice and helpful as they could possibly be. There were an enormous number of official volunteers, all wearing purple T-Shirts with Joyful Noise III on them.

The organization for the event was as good (if not better) than most professional venues we attend. This, despite the fact that the weather wasn’t cooperating in the least.

The main coordinator of the event is a delightful man named Rich Baringer. He was the MC as well. He kept everyone informed throughout the day, and kept the flow as smooth as you could want. He told a number of corny jokes. I’m a sucker for a good groaner, so I laughed with him, not at him. 🙂

Rich Baringer

Rich Baringer

In addition to coordinating the event, he had the vision and passion for it as well, so we all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude, as does the Quakertown Food Pantry. In Googling around to find a link for him, I discovered that he’s a Personal Chef with his own website. If he cooks 1/2 as well as he runs Joyful Noise, then his client’s are extremely happy, I’m sure!

For two complete outsiders, attending an event like this can potentially be uncomfortable, if it’s really meant to be an insiders celebration. I’m happy to report that the good folks at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church are wonderfully welcoming. We felt like we were a part of their community, and it felt good.

I could probably tell 100 stories as examples, but I’ll spare you and tell a few. At one point during the day Rich announced that one of the couples in the audience was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. We all cheered as the wife waved to us. The husband was serving food a hundred feet away.

Later in the day, Rich had to point out that we shouldn’t have been all that impressed with the earlier announcement. He had just found out that a couple of days before, another couple had just celebrated their 71st anniversary! We turned again (and again only saw the wife). My goodness, she could have passed for a spry 60-year-old. There’s some good water in the wells in Quakertown if you ask me! 🙂

There were a ton of kids of all ages at the event, with lots of activities planned for them as well. All of the kids, including the really young ones, were extraordinarily well behaved, so my hat is tipped to all of the Quakertown parents that we met as well! Cute doesn’t even begin to describe them. Lois and I giggled a bunch as we watched kids chase their parents (and each other) with glee.

Boys Eating Hot Dogs

Boys Eating Hot Dogs

Lecture 101

Lecture 101

Helping Dad Carry the Amp

Helping Dad Carry the Amp

Rich’s wife, Mary Beth, was the French horn player in Kickin’ Brass. During Ceili Rain’s second set, Rich (playing the saxophone), Mary Beth and two other members of Kickin’ Brass came on stage to form a horn section for Ceili Rain. It was fantastic! Bob Halligan Jr. joked that he’d be pleased to have them tour with him as long as they were willing to play for free. 🙂

Brass Section

Brass Section

We spent 10 solid hours with a group of strangers. Within minutes, we felt at home. By the end of the day, we felt like we were extended family. Thanks to everyone who attended the event for making us feel so welcome. Aside from the obvious connection of the music to the term Joyful Noise, all of you made a truly Joyful Noise throughout the day!

Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood at Madison Square Garden

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Lois and I have never watched a complete episode of American Idol, and the only time we’ve even seen a reasonable portion of one was at our godson’s apartment, the night that Jordin Sparks won.

So, we didn’t know Carrie Underwood from that show (though, of course, we knew of her). We fell in love with her when she released her first CD, and have loved pretty much everything she has done since then as well.

When I saw that she was opening for Keith Urban at Madison Square Garden (MSG), I grabbed two tickets for us, a while ago. We aren’t all that familiar with Keith’s music (though we obviously hear his more popular stuff on the Country channel on XM Radio). We figured that at best, it would end up being a bonus like Kenny Chesney was (when we really went to see Pat Green and Sugarland!), and at worst, we’d know to avoid Keith in the future.

I wrote about that night here, and as you can see (or already know), we were blown away by Kenny’s performance. 🙂

We were both marginally surprised that Carrie opens for Keith. She couldn’t be much bigger on her own, winning award after award, and selling CDs like crazy.

Last night’s show was scheduled to begin at 7:30pm. As I’ve written a number of times before, MSG usually runs like an on-time train. It’s a pleasure to know in advance that you won’t be sitting around for hours wondering when the show is going to start.

Oh well, the best laid plans… Last night was a wild exception to the norm. At 7:35pm (already five minutes late, no biggie yet) they put up a very big screen, with a digital timer on it, counting down from five minutes. You could feel the excitement in the crowd, as people focused on the counter. So, the show would only be 10 minutes late, but, you had five minutes warning, so, not too bad.

When the clock hit 10 seconds left, people started to clap and get really excited. When it hit zero, the lights went out. Typically, the music would start (in the dark), almost instantaneously. Unfortunately, nothing, for more than 30 seconds. A few minutes later, some yellow lights above the stage came on, but were facing out toward the crowd. It was masking the stage, so perhaps this was part of the show.

Nope. A few seconds later, the normal background music (from the speakers, not the stage) started up. No way the show was about to start. A few minutes later, the rest of the house lights came back on. No announcement, which was very disappointing. Then the digital timer came back on with five minutes again. Much less excitement in the crowd this time, as most people ignored it.

This time, the crowd waited until the countdown was at five seconds before starting to clap and cheer. When the lights went off this time, indeed, the music started in the dark, a few seconds later. When the stage lights came on, Carrie wasn’t there yet. As you started to hear her voice, they started showing videos on the very large screen behind the stage. Intermixed with desert scenes (including snakes), were snippets of Carrie, looking like she was walking through the video onto the stage. It was strange, but sort-of cool too.

Instead of her magically appearing from the video screen, after a bit, she emerged front and center stage, rising slowly from underneath. The crowd ate it up.

Let’s get the mundane out of the way. Carrie Underwood is stunningly beautiful. Of course, if you didn’t know that already, then you don’t own a TV, have never glanced at the cover of a magazine even casually, or have very strange taste. 😉

(As with all the photos in the this blog, click on any one of them to see a larger version):

Carrie Underwood on the RunwayCarrie Underwood on the Runway 2

Carrie has an exceptional voice (duh, that’s probably true of most Female Vocalist of the Year winners). Her songs are really good as well, and the selection last night was excellent. Her band is obviously top notch as well. All that said, with the lousy acoustics (in general) at MSG, she wasn’t the best fit for the arena. Don’t get me wrong, her talent was obvious to everyone there. In addition, Lois believes that Carrie was working through a cold (and I think she’s right).

One of the problems (acoustically) is that Carrie’s voice is loud, clear and she hits lots of very high notes as well (with lots of power!). At MSG, it was simply piercing. Not her fault, as hitting the notes is exactly what she’s supposed to do. Still, it was on the painful side at times, not just because of the volume.

She has great stage presence, but even though the crowd loved her, it wasn’t the same energy (not even close) that we’ve seen with other performers at MSG. I was very surprised.

One thing that was very different from all other opening acts that we’ve seen at MSG (and most other places), was the staging. Normally, the opening act does everything in as muted a fashion as possible, in order to avoid any upstaging of the main act. Since Carrie is a legitimate headliner (in my opinion at least), she had way more glitz than any other opening act we’ve seen before.

There were two floating screens on either side of the stage, tall and thin, that mostly showed her live, so that people sitting far away (like us) could see her up close and personal. Behind the stage, where the counter had been, was a large screen showing videos in the background. She also changed her outfit four times, making five separate outfits during her show.

To recap, she came on at 7:50pm and played for exactly one hour. She then came back for a very nice encore, going off the stage at exactly 9pm. So, she was on for 70 minutes in total, after the 20 minute delayed start.

There was a 30 minute intermission, while they prepared the stage for Keith Urban. For the first time ever (in our personal experience), the effort was entirely visible to the crowd. Usually, they hang a very large black cloth to cover up all of the activity.

While we were killing time, we were chatting about how great Carrie was, but how horrible it was to see her at MSG (she really belongs at Radio City Music Hall, which would complement her strength amazingly well!). Lois said “I’m done with MSG, this is the last time I want to see a concert here.” I completely understood her feelings, but felt bad that certain acts would be shut off to us (e.g., Rascal Flatts).

At exactly 9:30pm, the lights went off, and the mood in the crowd changed dramatically. The second the first note on the guitar was heard, a bunch of people starting standing and going crazy (that didn’t happen for Carrie at all), unfortunately, including the two women sitting in front of us…

I won’t be able to do justice to the slick way they used the giant video screen behind the stage to introduce the first song, but trust me, the effect was mesmerizing, creative, and very cool.

When they finally lit up the stage, and Keith (and the band) were all out there (rocking their hearts out!), the crowd was in a complete frenzy. I was pretty sure it would be just like the Kenny Chesney show, but I was wrong. 😉

Kenny’s show is a party, and he’s the guest of honor. He loves his fans, and it couldn’t be clearer, but it’s not really about the music (at least, not the one show that I was at). The music that night was great, and his band is exceptional, but it still isn’t/wasn’t about the music (to me).

That’s different with Keith Urban. In addition to the reason I mentioned above, about wanting primarily to see Carrie, I was curious about Keith, because my godson saw him two years ago in Washington, DC, and told me that he puts on a great show, and that he’s an incredible guitarist. So, I was definitely curious.

Props to my godson, as he was correct on both scores. Without a doubt, Keith Urban is one of the greatest entertainers I have ever seen.

Let’s start with something I really can’t explain. He (and his band, obviously) pretty much overcame the horrible acoustics at MSG as best as can be expected. There’s something about their sound that works in that place. As nuts as we are for Rascal Flatts, they did not overcome the problems, but we loved them despite that. Some part of it has to be the emotional connection with Keith. You are so sucked in, you aren’t distracted by the acoustics.

Perhaps the most brilliant touch last night was the simplicity of the staging. Both Kenny and Rascal Flatts had amazing technical displays, and wonderful uses of them. Still, on some level, they are a distraction from the band, and the music.

Keith had a giant screen behind the stage. For all but two or three numbers, it showed the live action on the stage (of course, mostly Keith himself). For a venue like MSG, it made all the difference in the world. Now, no matter where you are sitting, you see him (or whomever else they are highlighting) larger than life, including every facial expression, and guitar lick. It was fantastic.

Keith Urban on the Big Screen

I mentioned facial expressions because there is such a warmth and sweetness about him that is completely infectious (in fact, that’s true of the majority of his band as well), and if you weren’t in the first few rows, you wouldn’t connect to that unless they projected it so clearly.

Most of the repertoire last night was driving hard rock. It probably qualified as Country (for the most part) because of the themes and harmonies, but from a musical point of view, hard rock it was. But, he’s a very talented and varied musician, and he switched gears a number of times, including a few acoustic guitar numbers, and at least two numbers with him playing piano!

He has an excellent voice (I hadn’t appreciated that as much before last night), which somehow, wasn’t ruined by MSG either.

Here’s another example of simplicity. As I mentioned in this post (and showed photos as well), Rascal Flatts did some cool numbers on a rotating center stage, that had a special bridge which was raised and lowered at various times to give them access. It was way cool. Last night, Keith had a circular center stage as well, but there was a permanent runway connecting the two, and he used the runway effortlessly, all night.

Keith Urban AloneKeith Urban on the Runway and Big Screen

During one set, the core members of the band (six I believe) were on the center stage, and it was a little mellower, closer to us, and amazing!

Keith Urban on the Circular Stage

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!

Keith Urban with Chris McHugh

Two final examples of Keith connecting with the crowd. Toward the end of the show, he walked off the stage into the crowd. Not just a few feet, but way into the crowd, and then up into the stands! Of course, he was mobbed by back-slappers, etc., and yet never missed a beat of playing his guitar, or singing. (I’m not sure Nicole Kidman should see this next photo.) 😉

Keith Urban in the Crowd

Then, when he was jamming with one particular group of people, he took off the guitar, took a marker from one of his helpers, signed the guitar, and gave it to a couple. Because of the giant screen, we could see every nuance of the gesture. The woman looked like she died and went to heaven. Keith continued to sing, ran back to the stage, grabbed another guitar, and rocked out the rest of the song on the runway.

The second example will have to wait so it can be delivered in the correct order. 🙂

Keith played for 100 minutes before saying goodnight. That alone is longer than most acts play, especially when the opening act plays for 70 minutes! In addition, the energy level they all put out (but him in particular!) was so high, that keeping it up for that long can’t be easy. So, when the lights went out, Lois said: “Surely, he isn’t coming out for an encore, right?”

I laughed, and said: “No way he doesn’t come back out!”

He did, for a solo on the piano, in a beautifully moving song that he sang for his wife, as a Valentine’s Day tribute (she’s apparently back home in Australia at the moment). Then the entire band joined him, and they did at least three more numbers. The encore lasted 20 minutes (sweet!), so that he was on for a total of two hours, which put the end at 11:30pm!

Keith Urban on the Piano

Near the very end of the show, they set off a number of confetti canons simultaneously. Here’s a fuzzy shot (larger than the rest) to give you a sense of the mayhem. 😉

Keith Urban Confetti

After the show, nearly every single one we’ve ever been to, the lights go out, and the artist is gone (after the encore that is). The house lights then quickly come up, indicating to the audience that they should get out! 😉

Last night, when the encore was over, the lights never went off. After the band collected together in front of the stage to take a group bow, they all stuck around and kept thanking the crowd. Then, even when the rest of the band was long gone, Keith kept walking around the stage and the runway, and thanking every section that was still around. There was no way we could even consider leaving before him.

It was very moving for both of us. There was a humility to his actions that was overwhelming.

So, I have no idea whether we’ll ever be back at MSG for a concert or not, but we’re not likely to be able to duplicate this experience without seeing this type of crowd interaction, on this scale.

Did I love it? Absolutely! Am I a Keith Urban fan now? Yes, at least for his live performances. I’m not really sure I’ll run out and buy his CDs, but I might. Do I prefer him (specifically, this show!) to Girlyman or The Wailin’ Jennys? (not just another gratuitous plug) 😉 Definitively, no!

There is an intimacy that comes with seeing people like Girlyman and The Jennys in a small venue that can’t be described accurately to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Aside from that, I actually prefer (reasonably strongly) the music and lyrics that both of those groups create to the more general Country music songs (which I love as well, but not as much, and differently).

That said, I am still amazed/impressed by how close Keith got to creating a sense of intimacy in a cavernous place like MSG.

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!