Well not only have I not been blogging enough this summer but I had not been to SPAC yet for the entire season, missing a slew of interesting shows for lame reasons like my nonstop work schedule, bad timing, wanting to avoid big crowds, and my own downtime inertia. For the most part I prefer clubs and smaller settings, newer music than SPAC presents, and not having to worry about parking, logjams of traffic, or the perceived obnoxiousness of some mass events. All bullshit excuses, really.
But SPAC was, is, and always has been one of the elements that drew me to want to live in Saratoga Springs in the first place, and with that comes the knowledge that the concerts there only last from mid-May to September, though with global warming coming on, they do seem to be extending the season into early fall a little bit more every year. So, THE OUTLAW MUSIC FESTIVAL, featuring Willie Nelson and Neil Young with their respective bands, stood out on the WEQX schedule as something I should not miss…especially since the outdoor music season was almost over, and I didn’t think that the final’s week’s offering of the Zac Brown Band was going to compel me to attend.
For as long as I’ve been a rock fan, and as much as I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young as a high school kid… I had never seen Neil Young perform live. Same with Willie Nelson, whose voice, lifestyle, and politics I always admired, but never saw him in person. Given that Neil is about a decade older than me, and Willie is unbelievably stilll performing at age 85, there was a certain air of mortality around all this– how many more chances would I get?
I had worked a 6-hour open house shift at THE SARATOGA SHOWCASE OF HOMES entry I represent at 43 Doten Ave. in Saratoga Springs the previous day, and had to work at least half the day Sunday, speaking to and guiding people through an ultra-cool new home creation construction built this spring and summer by friends and clients of mine, The Earth Source Company. After speaking to 1000+ home viewers each of the first two weekends of said SHOWCASE, my voice was giving out and I’d hit the wall of business overload. A change of clothes, a quick nap/meditation, a mind adjustment, some late lunch, and I was out the door… not sure what awaited me. I had no ticket in advance, and was not even sure if the concert was sold out, or lightly attended, but since SPAC is only 2 miles away, it wasn’t a big gamble to go find out.
My goal was to get there ahead of time so I would be comfortably….um, Attentive, when Neil Young finally came out. I had missed Willie Nelson’s sons’ bands early in the afternoon, I knew, and thought maybe I could catch a bit of Nathaniel Rateliff’s set if I hustled. I knew that a country-based rocker named Sturgill Simpson was on the schedule as well, and figured if I didn’t like his music I could prowl around the perimeter where the vendors were and soak up some sun in the back….waiting for the headliners.
Well first of all, the place was packed more than I’d seen even for Dave Matthews’ concerts in recent years. The Rt. 50 parking lots were full and traffic was re-directed a mile down the highway to another park entrance, and most of those lower lots were already full too. It was like a mini-Woodstock, having to find a free scrap of side-road lawn to leave the car, and take a long hike back to the entrance. Gorgeous day that it was, not a big deal, and good adrenalin exercise ahead of time. There were still plenty of others pouring in along the walkways and crammed parking lots. It reminded me of the old days when it seemed like half of upstate NY converged upon this awesome place for communal music experiences…. until I got up near the gate and saw two young camoflauged soldiers in full combat gear, holding AK-47s as they scanned the crowd coming in. Never saw that before, different world, but somehow I guess I felt safer.
Getting one of the last lawn tickets available was no problem at the window, albeit 57 bucks was the most I’ve paid for one of those. It beat shelling out over $200. for the remaining indoor seats, meaning SPAC was treating this like a Broadway show and maxxing their profits at the end of the season. But it was a multi-act show, so I understood. I held off on my first beer as Nathaniel Rateliff was indeed still playing at about 5pm when I went thru the airport-like screening process and crossed the Geyser Creek canyon bridge, into the packed throng. I realized at that moment that it was my first time EVER going to a concert here alone, rather than as a couple, a group, a family thing, or with like-minded friends. In my new mentality, it was fine– I could slither my solo way thru tight confines to find my best vantage point, and I quickly located a spot at the top of the sloped lawn where I could lean against my favorite white oak, and see a bit of the amphitheater stage down below, and had a straight shot looking at the new improved video screens on the perimeter of the structure, larger than life. I’ve always found the sound to be better on the lawn than in the balcony and maybe even less muddled than inside down in front. So, while I did not reserve a seat or bring a chair for the lawn marathon, I found a sturdy trunk to lean against. and felt at home. It seems strange to say and admit, but this was my 47th year of attendance here, since first discovering the wonder of SPAC with my girlfriend from high school, in the summer of 1971. Many memories were born and harvested here, but I was ready for something new.
The Nightsweats were in fine form, and their tunes were resonant, loud, and excellent replicas of the radio versions…a good start. The first thing Nathaniel Rteliff said that struck me was the line: “I need never grow old!” That was reassuring, albeit easier for him to say than me. He introduced the band, which had 3 horn players taking turns as soloists that stood out in brief, punchy bursts. Then he broke into the much-desired crowd favorite singalong: SONUVABITCH!! which had launched his career into stardom a few years back. I thought that might be the big climax but he played a more plaintive tune after that, with the line… Hey Mama, you picked a fine time to listen to me..” whatever that meant, not sure. But his voice sure sounded good, and his band is tight. I would still see him again.
I took a long walk after that, got my first (only?) 16 oz. Stella, and made my way thru the phantasmagoria of moving faces and bodies at this now-densely attended event. I never saw such a wide range of ages and characters and political persuasion represented at one concert. There were young couples with newborns and three year olds, there were millenials male and female alike, there were 40 and 50 year olds, and there were a ton of pickicking couples and groups who were much older than me. I saw a woman I’d say was 90, and a handful of rocknroll survivors who might’ve known Willie Nelson when he started recording in the 1950s. There were gray ponytails galore, and tee-shirts with every kind of message known to man. I circled thru the tent areas in back, looking for a patch of sunshine on what once had been frisbee-throwing lawn areas, but it was all fenced off and boxed in by automotive exhibits out back. I found a cluster of guys of mixed ages and there was a certain scent in the air that was beguiling. Like the old days, I got to hang with them for a few minutes and my mood improved greatly. One bearded young dude fist-bumped me and I felt like I’d been accepted into the club. Meanwhile his friend told me he’d gotten concert tickets for this father’s 50 birthday so I fist-bumped him too and told him he must’ve raised his kid the right way. Between the fragrant air, the tall can of Stella, and the Mushroom Elixer Tea I drank before heading out, my perspective was illuminated for what came next. The walk back toward my favorite oak tree was exhilarating.
Sunbeams were slanting as I sat back in my spot, as if I’d reserved this tree. The group in front of me had a massive picnic spread and a semi-circle of folding chairs all around the low table, and that prevented the area from a lot of foot traffic. I started scrawling notes, thinking that if this next act was “too country” I might have to move. But once Sturgill Simpson started, I did not.
I may have heard a song or two of his on WEXT, but on the radio, he never stood out to me. After his performance, I will be seeking not only recorded music– preferably live– but also YouTube concert videos and whatever he has on SoundCloud. With a stage largely unadorned other than a slate-blue backdrop, his guitar was augmented by a stripped-down group…bass, keyboards, and a wiry kick-ass young drummer named Miles, like both my son, and Miles Teller, the actor. His crispness and power stood out immediately, and what Sturgill Simpson did with his guitar was the highlight not only of that whole concert, but culminated a summer of fine music I’d heard. Every song was stunning and different and almost all of them featured a minimum of vocals but a ton of guitar stretches that had me totally hypnoitzed. There was very little country “twang” which is what I’d expected… but an entire montage of rock licks, some Stevie-Ray blues, a bit of heavy metal at times, R & B grooves (with an organ chiming in at time, streams of jazz fusion, and “out there” sequences which touched on Pink Floyd territory at times. I did not want it to stop. I was trying to capture some of it on my phone, and found myself recording my own voice, cheering him on from like half a mile away, as if he could hear me. But he seemed supremely attuned to the place, and the crowd, and the great late day sunshine and he spun the crowd into a magical place that had nothing to do with recognizable song lyrics or song titles they knew. This was just music, pure and flowing and unique. I googled him and found out he was born in 1978, and at about 40 years old I couldn’t believe I hadn’t discovered him before this. It seemed impossible to categorize what he was doing, it was just great extended jams, rooted, not spacey, that flowed and evolved to greater and greater crescendos. There were some lyrics here and there in a gravelly growl but the music itself was forefront, with very little fluff or fanfare.
I was both exhilarated and crushed when he finally finished. I have to see him again somewhere. Sturgill Simpson, you won me over, bigtime.
So after that, another celebratory beer was in order, and I decided to give up my tree spot and leave those “old people” with their picnic in peace. They were passing a whisky flask around a bit, but seemed puzzled that I could be so animated in my appreication of what Sturgill’s band was doing… one dude had his phone in his hand, looking down playing freaking solitaire which the music was boiling over, and I realized it was not just teens that miss real life while they stare at their cells. I left them behind and found other vantage points for Neil and Willie.
Neil was clearly the crowd favorite that most people knew– I deduced that from the larger reaction the audience had to his chestnuts from the past, his recognizable jams (especially Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World, toward the end), and the fact that a lot of people were leaving early after his set, before Willie came out. I enjoyed a few of the early beauties of his catalogue– notably Heart of Gold, Tell Me Why, and It’s Gonna Take a Lot of Love— and his power as a solo performer is undiminished after all the years he’s survived and outlasted many contemporaries of his, dspite his own health problems. But when the full band, now named The Promise of the Real, kicked into full rock mode like the old Crazy Horse days, it was superb to hear the lengthy jam versions of Powderfinger and then his best tune of the night, Take A Chance on Love. He was surging and churning his old Stratocaster in his classic manner, kind of bent over facing his rhythm section, curled around his instrument and driving back and forth like a human metronome.
I had gravitated a bit down the lawn to a spot where I could stand behind a row of seated fans and had a great look at the stage and screen above. I felt centered in the sound and absorbed it like medicine, swaying in time like reeds on a windy lake with the people around me, who happened to be two gorgeous women to my right, hanging out with a older guy behind them. This is the communal vibe we all crave, just lost and found in the wave of loud beloved music washing over us like a mass massage of our psyches. We bounce our heads in tune, in time with each other, and while it is not purely sexual, it is indeed sensuous and fundamental, and gives us faith in a common experience that is independent of politics, preferences, romance, world news, or any other complicating factors, all forgotten in the flow of the music inundating us at that moment. One girl rocking a Stevie-Ray Vaughn-type hat proclaimed to her friends she was “taking tomorrow off– I’ve got the Irish flu, I’m gonna tell my boss!!” and I nodded that yes, it could be quite contagious.
I thought nothing could top what I’d seen so far when Young was done, and it was getting late, but I’d purchased an organic cotton sweatshirt that was emblazoned with the slogan, Live the Life You Love, and while I thought I might slip out and miss Willie Nelson at the end just due to exhaustion and getting chilly, I decided to slide further down the lawn, get deep into the remaining throng, and stay… so glad I did. A couple of sacred DoughBoys from the Esperanto booth in the concession area, plus my last beer, a Blue Moon this time, helped fuel my rejuvenation, late into the evening.
Willie was also a revelation. The two women next to me, who had come down together from Canton, NY, primarily to see him, kept remarking about the remarkable fact that he was born in 1933! I’d know he was old, but this put him a decade or more ahead of other still-performng legends like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, McCartney, Robert Plant, and other amazing specimens of the 60’s rock scene. Willie had long ago surpassed and outlived his country colleagues like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and Jerry Jeff Walker and of course Elvis. He is 13 years older than Neil at this point, and 16 years older than David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, who received rave reviews for his energy and re-worked tunes at The Palace in Albany recently, while leading a choreographed rock symphony of his own at age 69. Nelson’s longevity and brilliant wit and intense performing schedule (with Farm Aid being just before this) exude an endurance that belies not only his age but his notorious partying lifestyle and constant herb smoking, which I guess relate to why this event was called THE OUTLAW FESTIVAL in the first place. He is truly the oldest poster boy for Rock and Roll left standing. Other than Tony Bennett, whose niche is totally different of course, I can’t think of anybody his age or older who is still doing his thing, unimpeded.
But then, as soon as his grizzled visage lit up the stage, his finger-style guitar takes the limelight. Close-ups of his work show that he is not simply relying on his band to sustain the nostalgia of his songs… he can still play, amazingly well. A stream of his well-known hits and some hidden gems began to flow, and I was swaying in time with those around me once again. There was no quavering signs of age in his voice, and he seemed in full control of his senses, no matter the constant video logos of Southern Comfort and exaggerated-or-not stories of his weed consumption. It was a tight, skill-packed show, and was so cool to see his sister plunking and punching piano keys behind him like she was the female Leon Russell, right down to the long blonde hair, and then his son Lucas coming out to perform alongside him, who has more hair than any one man might need, as he tore into a Stevie Ray Texas blues tune, trading licks with his old man. Just great, great stuff. I have to go back and look at the set lists for all of these groups I’ve mentioned to really formalize in my mind all I had seen and absorbed, but at some point it all blurs together, and yet I was humming an amalgam of all of it on my way back to the car, and just wrote all this from memory and my notebook scribbling in the dark, most of it unintelligible.
I realized as I crossed the bridge with other exiters after the final lights on stage had gone down, this was a phenomenal concert to have seen, especially as the only one I’d chosen to attend this summer. Others striding alongside agreed that Sturgill had stolen the show to a surprising extent, being the least-kown quantity of the final four on nthe docket… but as one guy pointed out, he might’ve kicked Neil Young to “up his game” just by the energy and tour-de-force that he presented…
I road home elated and wish all my new concert acquaintences well– thanks for sharing that tremendous set of shows with me, in the ethereal real of SPAC.