Scenes From the Music City

As I mentioned the other day, I went to Nashville. While there, I took pictures. Here are some of them.


Never The Same Song Twice

I knew Lori McKenna was going to be playing Nashville.

And, in case I haven’t mentioned it recently enough, I like the Lori McKenna. (And so should you.)

She played three dates there not that long ago, and I hated that I couldn’t go. There was a Friday night show at the Bluebird Cafe, much like the one I went to last year, but I was volunteering at the Space & Rocket Center. A little later, she was doing two more dates, but they were in the middle of the week.

But some things are worth doing. The latter of the two shows wasn’t going to work, but tickets to the other were only $5, so Rebecca and I headed up to Nashville.

The concert was actually a benefit event featuring several songwriters. Like, a lot of songwriters. I think we listened to like 15 other artists before Lori took the stage, each performing maybe three songs. Some of them, I plan to follow up on.

Lori wrapped up the show with two other songwriters, and it was an interesting performance. I’ve seen her live twice before, and each time it was what you would expect from an artist in concert — a mix of material from her latest album, some better known songs and some new unreleased songs.

This show, however, was nothing like that.

Lori was in Nashville because she’d been writing songs with the other two women, and they just showed off the songs they’d been writing. Lori sang only one song that had existed a week earlier, and even that was new since her last album.

While she’s a brilliant songwriter in her own right, she’s probably better “known” by the general public for songs she’s written for artists like Faith Hill, Sara Evans and Mandy Moore, among others. Some of those were very much Lori McKenna songs, others were songs that were very much written to sell.

From the comments made that night, these songs were very much the latter. And, barring her next album being very different from its predecessors, that would make since. Even though Lori was involved in their inception, these weren’t what I traditionally think of as Lori McKenna songs.

But, you know, that’s OK. Frankly, I would be first in line to buy an album of Lori doing this material. She’s a brilliant songwriter, but she also has an amazing voice. It was all kinds of awesome hearing her perform the songs.

It was also delightfully random. I hadn’t planned on going to the show, and, when I decided to at the last minute, I thought I was going to see the sort of Lori McKenna show I’d seen twice before. Instead, I saw her doing songs that she may never sing again. If I’d not gotten on the road, I may never have heard them in her amazing voice. I was glad I went, and I was glad I got to be there for them.

Which isn’t to say I don’t hope I get to hear her sing them again.

Ryman Simon Round-Up

Paul Simon at the Ryman. Photo by Heather.

Last week I said I was planning on posting a few more thoughts from the Paul Simon concert Heather and I went to at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, but then I got distracted by the whole getting-engaged thing. Here then are a few more-reviewy details. (I’m basically just typing my notes as I made them, so it’ll be the set list, interrupted by thoughts.)

— We got there a little late, unfortunately, so don’t know what he opened with. The first song we heard was “Dazzling Blue,” followed by “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He then stopped to do his welcoming comments, including a nice remark that there are few concert halls that make you feel humble just to be playing there, but that the Ryman was definitely one of them.

— After that, “So Beautiful or So What,” which is probably my favorite song from the new album. He had an eight-or-so piece band with him, and it was amazing how lush the arrangements were. But we’ll get back to that later.

— “Slip Sliding Away” reminded me of the Simon & Garfunkel performance I went to last year. During that concert, which was, logically, mainly Simon & Garfunkel songs, I wondered what it was like for him to get up and do a show like that. The songs they were doing were things that he had written forty to fifty years earlier, and he’s done a whole lot since then. Does he have the same affection for the older material? Would he rather be doing newer stuff?

That’s something you read about artists having to deal with — writing a song early on that becomes a hit, and so they have to play it years later to make people happy when they have sort of moved on from it and are getting tired of it.

Point being, that did not seem to be the case at all at this show. Paul seemed to genuinely love and enjoying playing these songs, be it his older classics or the ones from his newest album. And that was neat to see.

— Next up was an unreleased song about Viet Nam, which drove home that we were some of the younger people at the Ryman, albeit not the youngest by far. It says something, though, about the strength of a songwriter when you hope that they’ll play some of the songs that weren’t “good enough” to make an album.

— I’m not sure why, but “Mother and Child Reunion” gave me a bit of perspective on the timeline of his career — the first concert in Central Park was in 1981, he did another a decade later in 1991, and now I’m watching him in concert two more decades later in 2011. I was a bit young to remember the first one, but remember being excited watching the second one.

— There was a similar moment during “That Was Your Mother.” I remember driving to see a good friend in Lake Charles, Louisiana 15 years ago and making a special stop just so I could stand “on a corner in Lafayette,  state of Louisiana” like in the song that I’d loved for years already at that point. The song took on a different significance when I dated a woman from there for a while. And now, with Heather, having kids in my life for the first time, there are slightly different resonances — “You are the burden of my generation; I sure do love you, but let’s get that straight.” Never the same river twice. I’d wondered if I should enjoy the song the same way after the ex connection, but, you know, hearing it there, it’s just too fun to not.

— Also, one of the fringe benefits of being a successful musician, to me, would have to be that you get a free pass on your dancing being cool. You ever been to a concert and see a singer dancing in a way that, if they were just some man or woman in a club, you’d laugh at them, but because it’s their concert, they get to be cool? Totally apropos of nothing, I assure you.

— During “Hearts and Bones,” I made a note about the versatility of the band. Often you might have a horn player who plays different horns, or whatever — different instruments, but in the same family. It makes sense given the diversity of the instrumentals in his songs, but the band he had with him was crazy versatile — almost all of them at different points playing instruments that had nothing to do with each other. It was pretty impressive when you paid attention to it.

— Um, up next was a cover that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t recognize. It had almost a Johnny Cash sort of country feel to it. After that was “Rewrite,” and then another song I didn’t know, and then “The Obvious Child,” which for me was the only point during the concert that I felt could have been better. I love the song and so probably had a very high standard, but the arrangement they did that night just seemed a little fast, lacking the range of the texture of the original. It’s a very high energy, driving, generally up-tempo song, but with moments that border on brooding, and those moments seemed to get lost in the energy of the live performance. Still awesome, though.

— After that, “The Only Living Boy In New York,” followed by “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” which to me was far better live than on the album for the same reason “Obvious Child” wasn’t — it was even more raucous and high-energy and fun. After that, “Questions for the Angels.”

— And then, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” I was more than a little impressed, at the opening, that he and the band he had nailed the depth of the vocals. It was funny to see, though, that even his improv is scripted — they deviated from the studio version of the song, but very closely followed the almost-as-old Concert In Central Park live version, with the stretched out “tananananananana” riff.

— During “Gumboots,” a guy was drumming the strings inside a baby grand piano like a xylophone. ‘Cause they were just that awesome. This was the last song before the first encore, which you knew was coming, because there was no way a Paul Simon concert would end with “Gumboots.” Nothing wrong with it; it’s a good song, but just not a show-closer.

— That said, I assumed the first song of the encore really would be the end — Paul Simon, alone with his guitar, singing “Sounds of Silence” on a barely-lit stage. Powerful.

— The next song could have ended it, too — “Kodachrome.” Its status as a classic was reinforced for me that night when I realized I was listening to Paul Simon sing Kodachrome in an era in which they really have taken his Kodachrome away — the song has outlasted its inspiration.

— Up next was “Gone At Last,” followed by “Here Comes The Sun.” The latter made me wonder briefly what it would be like if somehow The Beatles had recorded music in the last couple of decades. Both The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel began their careers recording brilliant but relatively simple songs, and their work became more complex as they matured. Compare early S&G with “Graceland” or “So Beautiful …”, and there’s a world of difference. Really, the same is true of The Beatles from the beginning to end of their career, but it’s still interesting to think “what if…”

— “Late In The Evening,” as I wrote in my last post, was just a great, fun rock concert performance. It wrapped up the first encore, which was followed by a second, starting with “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Don Everly came out and joined Simon for “Bye Bye Love” and then Jerry Douglas joined him for “The Boxer.”

— The show concluded for real with an awesome performance of “The Boy In The Bubble,” which made me happy with a cool space video playing in the background. Not that it wouldn’t have made me happy otherwise; it’s another favorite. I love how it still rings true years later — twenty years after it was written, it still makes lasers in the jungle sound like miracle and wonder.

So baby don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry.

“Sometimes the Redneck Angels Aren’t Fair”

Matraca Berg and Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna (profile) and Matraca Berg at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville on 14 January 2011.

So a week ago, Heather and I went up to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe for a singer/songwriter “In the Round” concert, featuring Kim Carnes, Matraca Berg, Barry Dean, and Lori McKenna, whom I think I may have mentioned on this blog once or twice.

Rather than trying to write any sort of coherent or cohesive review, here are some thoughts from notes I took, first on a napkin, until I spilled Heather’s Sprite on it, and then in a notebook she loaned me.

• It was my first time at the Bluebird Cafe, which is the pinnacle of intimate venues. For the In the Round show, the performers were in a circle in the middle of the room, and the audience sat at crowded tables or in pews in a corner, all packed together. If anyone’s ever been to one of our packed-out Face2Face improv show at Sam & Greg’s pizzeria in downtown Huntsville, it’s like that, but on a larger scale. (And if you haven’t, go soon.)

• Lori was third in the circle, and started with “The Luxury of Knowing,” from her new album. I’m biased, but I was amazed at the power of her voice. I’ve seen her live once before, but it was different in a smaller venue and being closer up. To me, her voice was the strongest of the circle, to the point that at first I though she was more mic’d or something.

• Most of the circle was from Nashville, with Lori, from outside of Boston, being the exception. There was still a good bit of ice and snow on the ground, and one of the other performers thanked people from coming out in the blizzard. To which Lori replied, “That was a blizzard? We have 16 inches of snow and my damn kids went to school.” Welcome to the South.

• Lori’s second song was the only one she did that night that wasn’t off of the new album. Instead, it was newer than the new album; she’d written “Sometimes He Does” three days before the concert. It was a great song, devastating and beautiful; a happier companion piece to “Lorraine”‘s “If He Tried.” It was a little depressing; I want to hear it again, and don’t know when or if I will. Lori does so many great songs that don’t make the albums, and I would hate it if “Sometimes He Does” becomes one of the ones that disappeared. (She told me her manager wouldn’t let it.)

• Kim Carnes was the celebrity of the group, best known for “Bette Davis Eyes.” (Her celebrity status was clear from the fact that she made up half of the circle with her two accompanying musicians.) Although I’d never heard most of the material she did Friday before, and really only knew her from the one song, it was funny how her voice would have moments were it was just so familiar (enhanced perhaps that she sounds a bit like the child of Bonnie Tyler and Bob Dylan, with some notes sounding exactly like the latter).

• Matraca Berg’s guitar wasn’t working so her husband went home and got her a new one. When he got back, she asked him to sit in and do a song. He played one he’d written, “God Bless The Broken Road,” known perhaps best as a huge hit for Rascal Flatts. A nice added bonus; and the first non-Lori song of the evening that I actually recognized. Heather saw Rascal Flatts last year, and we’ve talked about trying to see them together but haven’t been able to make it work for their current tour, so it was neat seeing that song together in that way.

Matraca commented that she writes songs pretty much every day, and he takes the time maybe a few times a year, and writes stuff like that. Commented Barry Dean of the country-music inspiration process: “Sometimes the redneck angels aren’t fair.”

• So Lori gets ready to do another song at one point, and asks Kim Carnes if she would be willing to join her. And I’m hugely disappointed that I don’t have a way of recording this, because the idea of a Lori McKenna/Kim Carnes duet is rather awesome. So she starts singing, and it’s “Sweet Disposition,” one of the “Lorraine” tracks that Lori had released a while back as a preview of the album, so one I’ve known the longest. It turns out that Kim Carnes sings back-up vocals on the album track, and I never knew it. I was a little amused because I loved the idea of the two of them working together, only to realize it was one of the songs on Lorraine that speaks to me personally the least. That said, I think hearing it like that gave me a new appreciation for it. Cool how concerts can make songs literally come alive for you.

• Barry Dean and Matraca Berg both did songs that they had cowritten with actress Mary Steenburgen, who was in the audience. Dean’s was not half bad, and Berg’s was incredible. It’s going to be on her new album, which comes out in May, and which will be purchased by me. Berg, by the way, is best known for her songwriting work, having written hits for other artists, including “Strawberry Wine,” “Wild Angels,” and “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.” She recorded some of her own albums, but never had as much success singing her own material; May’s album will be her first in well over a decade. After the concert, I ordered one of her older albums, and am very much looking forward to the new one.

• The artists all seemed to be having fun. It was a great format for the show, and it was cool watching them interact and enjoy themselves. Lori was introducing a song that she wrote driving her kids to school (by recording it while driving — “Thank God for the iPhone,” she said) and talked about how she figured out she can get away with wearing her pajamas to take the kids to school if she wears yoga pants to sleep in. People see her, and figure she’s just on her way to work out. And when she’s wearing the same thing to pick them up, they just think, “Damn, she works out all day. Not doing anything for her, though.”

• For her last song, Matraca Berg did “Strawberry Wine” and the applause started from the first couple of notes. It was only the second non-Lori song I knew. I loved that she had changed the lyrics by a decade — “I still remember when 40 was old.” The whole singer-songwriter thing is interesting; how some songs are more successful by some people. I like Lori’s versions of the songs Faith Hill recorded on “Fireflies” better than Faith’s, and Matraca’s version of “Strawberry Wine” was at least as good as Deana Carter’s.

• It seemed random, at first, when they had Matraca’s husband come out and do another song, and he chose not to do one he wrote, but one he wished he’d written. Why is this guy doing “Mr. Bojangles”? I mean, it’s a good song and all. Well, thanks to Wikipedia, it’s because Jeff Hanna was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. You know, that’s kinda cool, too. Another little bonus I wasn’t expecting going into the night. It was one of a few times during the night when other artists just sang along for the fun of it, and I also wish I had those recorded.

•Kim Carnes wrapped the whole thing up with, of course, “Bette Davis Eyes.” Which, it turns out, ironically, she didn’t write. Something else you may not have known about “Bette Davis Eyes” — according to Billboard Magazine, it was the second most successful song of the 80s. Which, really, is kind of crazy. Also crazy was the idea that I’m listening to this huge hit of the early 80s, sung by the original artist, at a cafe, 30 years after it came out. Wouldn’t have seen that coming. Cool getting that opportunity, and cool hearing such a big song in such a small place; very intimate. It took me back to being a kid, when, having not yet heard of Bette Davis, I thought she was saying “She’s got better taste, besides.” It was a great performance; Kim Carnes’ voice is a very unusual instrument, but she uses it flawlessly.

• Perhaps most cool of all, though, is that I went up and introduced myself to Lori to thank her for her part in my Christmas presents, expecting to have to explain that I was the person who she’d let write an advance review of “Lorraine” and sent the signed LP to. I went up and said I wanted to thank her for my Christmas presents, and before I could even introduce myself, Lori asks, “Are you David?” Um. She knew who I was. That was kind of cool. So she has me meet her manager, and she knew who I was. And her producer (the aforementioned Barry Dean) and he knew who I was. It was rather surreal, and incredibly flattering. I ended up talking to Lori for a while and Barry for possibly even longer, and really enjoyed it.

Oh, and, hey, by the way, earlier, when I mentioned that Mary Steenburgen was there? With her was her husband, Ted Danson. Really did kinda feel like a concert where everybody knew my name.