As I began to write this, we were into early June, and as of 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon— when most upstate towns are in a semi-somnolent state, the Broadway Saratoga scene was bustling and jammed like mid-summer already. Anyone transported here who didn’t know the town would wonder– “What holiday is this? Am I missing something?” Or, if they knew about SPAC they might wonder if there was a major concert going on that made the downtown population swell like this. No, it is just another late spring day in Saratoga Springs, and this is how the local inhabitants and random passersby hang out here.
The previous weekend, in late May, the Dave Matthews Band appeared for a two-day stint at SPAC; in less than a month PHISH would be appearing for the 3-day 4th of July extravaganza. But there is nothing big going on at the State Park south of town today. The third race of the Triple Crown the Belmont) was yesterday and I’m sure the horsey-crowd was partying hard last evening, but this is the aftermath of that, and the real horse people don’t show up here till mid-July.
Skidmore College students have largely left by this time of year, and local high school kids haven’t graduated yet, so they weren’t contributing to the hordes downtown I wouldn’t think. But there is a magnetism of our town’s primary Boulevard which draws the traffic of both motorists and pedestrians, to make it feel like a thriving small city on just a “normal” Sunday in the Northeast’s hippest enclave.
But sometimes, for music at least, we have to venture a bit farther, and out of our comfort zone, to see some truly good stuff. So, about two weeks ago now (as I write this) that it was MY turn to Get Lucky, as Daft Punk sang, and I won some tickets to see The Head and the Heart– a six-piece Seattle band of some note– down in Clifton Park, at Upstate Concert Hall– which I hadn’t been to since it was called Northern Lights, however long ago that was.
Memorial Day was the end of a 3-day weekend heralding summer’s imminent arrival of course, but for me was a Monday when I still had to work. “Your day off is my day on…” I used to say early in my career, volunteering to give up my holidays like a dutiful bodhisattva. Sunday had involved 8 hours of sun doing yard work so I could easily have passed on the freebies and stayed home in boring middle-aged fashion… but with the help of some post-supper coffee rallied to make the trip 20 miles south or so. From where I live west of Saratoga you can bypass the Northway and head south on Middle Line Rd to Route 50 and swing onto Rt 146A to make your way to the unlikely shopping plaza location that houses perhaps the best concert venue in Saratoga County, other than the seasonal glory of SPAC itself.
We got there after the opening band had played already and the parking lot was full– certainly an anamoly for any other shopping plaza in upstate NY on a holiday Monday evening. We passed through the burly bouncers and ID-checkers at the 1entry, who seemed bored that the crowd that evening was so civilized and un-rowdy. With the stage straight back, most of the standing room area was jammed full even though there was no sign of the headliners yet. I’d read the place could hold a max capacity of 1400 but it looked liked maybe half that to me. Not hard to grab a beer at the U-shaped bar in the middle of the place… not a heavy-drinking crowd, apparently. A random survey told me that more than half the audience was female– not the average punk- or rage-music aggregation which would’ve given the bald/buff bouncers more conflict to deal with.
My exposure to the band-of-the evening was via the two radio portals I keep talking about on this blog– WEXT, a sponsor of the event and source of my free tix– and WEQX, the independent Vermont station which procliams itself “the true alternative.” I had purchased the 2013 release from The Head and the Heart a few days before– a Sub Pop production dubbed “Let’s Be Still.” Out of the 13 songs thereon, three had grabbed my attention the most– the killer “hit” was the infectious SHAKE, while “Another Story” was quite different as a beguiling break-up tune, and I’d been seduced while writing one night by the last song on the CD– “GONE” which built to a swirling quasi-orchestral climax. I can’t say I was knocked out by the album overall– nice harmonies, but more ballads than upbeat tunes– not my favorite mix as a rule. Hence, I didn’t feel like a fanatic fan going in, and in looking around the Hall that night, it seemed I was outnumbered by those who knew all the words…
But once onstage, “From Seattle, Washington…” as Master of Ceremonies Chris Wienk intro’d them…”The Head and the Heart!”– they got right to it. Some groups have their big radio tune batting clean-up– 3rd or 4th song in to their set– or worse yet, they save it for the very end. Here, the tune I’d come to hear was batting lead-off…
“SHAKE” starts out with a big, firm TOM TOM beat like a call to a POWWOW, a ritual dance, or a HOEDOWN, then comes the bouncing pogo-stick bass line that buoyed the crowd instantly… me included. With a great set of lyrics concerning a brief “one-day” stand, it became a natural sing-a-long in a hurry:
“And the memories we’ve maaaaade
Will never be lost, no… oh!
And the look on your face—
We both knew the cost
But the wind, yes the Wind keeps
The mass of those in front of us, much closer to the stage, was just a swelling clot of bobbing heads (and hearts, come to think of it)) as the ode to evanescent love payed out, culminating in the last chorus, in which the narrator/composer/singer asserts his indelible imprint on his lover’s life:
“Even if it was a mistake, I can’t forget your face
Even it was just a day, you won’t forget the man
Who’s making you SHAKE!
and the song revvs up to orgasmic fun and fury as we all mutually REPEAT:
Who’s making you SHAKE!
I’m making you SHAKE
I’m making you SHAKE!!!
What a great sweaty climax on the first five-minute song, I thought. Good start, and it eliminated the suspense of waiting for it.
Next song up was called “Ghosts”– a jaunty tune about death and moving on. From their stage presence and tone, my wife notes, “This group sounds happy…” as opposed to the subject matter, I’m thinking, nice contrast. The third song, however, was a sweetly mournful one called “Another Story…” which I took to be the less-contented side of failed romance. Along with SHAKE, this is getting radio play locally on both Exit 97.7 and WEQX, which is kind of surprising in that it is a piano-driven ballad…with a lilting upper-range chorus, and Charity Rose Thielen’s haunting violin lines. This song has grown into one of my favorites from the CD, beautiful and deep. The “AHHHH-YOOOOOO” choruses were like a signature yowl from this group’s harmonic palette.
The next song of their set was familiar from their first CD— update singalong called
“Lost in My Mind…” a title I can relate to all too well:
Put your dreams away for now,
I won‘t see you for a while,
I am lost in my mind,
I get lost in my mind…
O my Brother, your wisdom is older than me—
O my brother, don’t worry, don’t worry about me…
Then comes the tom-toms again, heralding the blue-collar hymnal section, which the crowd took to more enthusiastically than any church-goers would:
How’s that brick layin’ comin’??
How’s your engine runnin’??
Are your hands gettin’ filled??
Won’tchu tell me my brother??
“Cuz there are STAAAAARRRRR‘s
UP A- BUUUUVVVE…
(the whole place singing this, surprisingly harmonic)
…& we can start
And the communal singalong had once again raised the hairs on my arms and gave me a few moments of goosebumps– not bad for a suburban shopping mall experience on a Sunday night.
As I sipped a beer and soaked in the next few songs, with opening lines like:
“There’s no such thing as love” and “I wuz burned out and lost…” the spell diminished a bit, but that was all right. Can’t be ecstatic all the damn time. I scribbled my typical garbled bar-notes as I watched the enticing Ms. Thielen saw and slither with her violin bow..
“Echoes of long-gone 70’s bands I remember… Renaissance, with Annie Haslem playing the sultry front-lady part, or a group called It’s A Beautiful Day, who had a quasi-FM-hit with a song called White Bird… “
Then suddenly it was time for the “last tune” (i.e. before the encore) which turned out, after a somewhat dreary start, to be a song worthy of closing time in an Irish bar– “Rivers and Roads”, to wit:
“A year from now, we’ll all be gone.
All our friends will move away.
And they’re going to better places.
But our friends will be gone away…
Nothing is as it’s been.
And I miss your face like hell.
And I guess it’s just as well.
But I miss your face like hell.
Rivers and roads, rivers and roads,
Rivers till I meet you.”
It was moving, as a live tune, though it had left me cold on the album, first time. And not too many rock groups have the nerve to finish off a set in a capella fashion.
The encore sequence began with a solo acoustic version of the title tune, “Let’s Be Still” by (I’m guessing at the name here) Jonathon Russell. But the more exciting tune to follow started slow and mournful too–
I wish I was a slave / to an age-old trade,
like riding around on rail cars
and workin’ long days…
Lord have mercy on my rough ‘n rowdy ways…(repeat)
And it turned out to be that so-familiar tune that came out a few years ago, and already feels a hundred years old… “Down in The Valley.” The recurring Tom-Tom drum picked up the pace again, as the singer’s voice gains enthusiasm and traction:
I am on my way, I am on my way,
I am on my way back to where I started–
California, Oklahoma, and all the places
I ain’t never been to–
But down in the valley, with
these are the places you will
find me hiding. These are
the places I will always go...
And I thought that fine tune would be their last, but there was one more. It was the final cut on the new CD, and it had attracted me at my desk when I first listened to it– dubbed simply “GONE.” As with the dynamics of the live concert itself, the tune was almost orchestral and non-rockish, and yet grew with intensity to hit a collaborative climax that was unexpectedly complex… and the words, when I read them reflect the name of the band, indeed:
Whether it’s your head or your heart
And you’re too damn scared to start
it’s in your mind and your soul
But you just don’t know where to go
It’s in your head and your heart
And you’re too damn scared to start
It’s in your mind and your soul
But you just don’t know where to go
Now you’re Gone
and so were they, abruptly, Gone.
The sad thing was, we had Meet and Greet rights for the band afterwards, but didn’t connect with MC Chris Wienk quick enough to take advantage of that once we slipped outside for some fresh air and came back in. I wouldn’t have know what to say– “I wasn’t wild about the new album right away, other than Shake and Gone…but man, in concert you were freakin’ GREAT…” would’ve been an inappropriate (duh) fan reaction, so at least I didn’t embarrass myself by saying something stupid. We rode home happily and listened to both CDs in the car, having picked up the first one with the strange front cover at the merch table. Having studied the lyrics and recalled the feeling of the live concert itself, their music became more amazing and intelligent to me, with lots of hooks and triggers that now enchant me. I would love to see them again.
PS– Since seeing this concert I caught BECK at MassMoCa on June 24th which was amazing and also gave me a new appreciation for his mastery and breadth of catalog over the past 20 years… more on that some other time.
Sorry the delay is so great between posts… will try to speed up production...now that Saratoga is in full summer bloom.
The Slowest Blogger in the World
Wayne Perras, for WaynesWord2
Saratoga Springs, NY