Category Archives: music reviews

We Get Out: Ben Platt at The Anthem, 5.11.19

Last week, I was at what is D.C.’s arguably most beautiful venue, The Anthem, for the Ben Platt show. I am not a “Dear Evan Hansen” fanatic (not knocking it, just haven’t seen it) but when Platt performed “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) on the 2018 Grammy’s, accompanied by just a guitarist and a cellist, his stunning rendition of the song nearly broke my heart, so I was curious to see him live.

The Anthem is a gorgeous space, even more so when the audience shines its lights
(here, for the song “Grow As We Go”)

I had no takers when I floated buying tickets, and pondered going solo. But then I saw that HeadCount.org, the national bi-partisan group dedicated to signing up new voters at special events, was offering free admission to volunteers who would stand with a clipboard, addressing the audience as it arrived to find new electoral blood. So, I had a mission, very nice people to hang with, and free entry to the show. Win-win, yes?

As one would expect from a Broadway veteran,
Ben Platt had a classy set and strong support players.

Though our little team of four had limited success finding new voters (as our leader noted, D.C. is a government town, so most people are registered), I’d say that 90% of the people I addressed were psyched to see us, many saying “thanks for being here,” or expressing how much they wanted to vote – for change! – as soon as possible. This was an unusually mixed crowd for The Anthem, as you might expect for a concert by an openly gay Broadway veteran touring on a solo album of big-hearted ballads – same-sex couples, white-haired matinee ladies, and high school theatre nerds (I was one!). In short, a place for sequins, not MAGA hats.

But there’s always a few bummers, not downright rude, but folks who look at you like you have three heads when you simply ask, “Are you registered to vote?” And teenagers who don’t know how to talk to anyone not in high school! I asked one girl how old she was (you can preregister at 16 in D.C. and Maryland, 17 in Virginia). She stared at me and mumbled, “I don’t know.” Probably best that you don’t vote, honey.

Doing my civic duty meant that I missed the two opening acts, but I was done with just enough time to grab a bite and find a great seat about 30 rows back from the stage to enjoy the show. (No SLR tonight; just iPhone.)

Ben Platt is a mensch – and I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. He’s a good Jewish boy who talks lovingly about his parents, writes and dedicates songs to them, graciously shares the spotlight with his band, and repeatedly thanks his audience, radiating genuine joy about being back where “Dear Evan Hansen” was born and raised before moving to NYC.

As best as I could tell (again, I don’t know the show), Platt didn’t perform anything from the musical that made him famous (I would have thought maybe as an encore, but no), concentrating on his debut album, “Sing to Me Instead,” and a few cool covers. There is no set list posted from the D.C. show, but this one from Chicago seems to be the same as our show, although I would have sworn “Honky Cat” was the Elton John tune.

Platt’s voice was as good as I could have hoped, his between-song stories were immenschly (I made a word!) sweet, and, considering I barely knew his original material, the songs made a good first impression with their strong melodies and lyrical emotion. I moved closer to the stage to take a few more photos and found another comfy seat in the second row.


Final bows.

Sometimes it feels like the world is on fire and there’s no good news to be had. Spending time in a big room full of people with a like-minded appreciation of musical talent and love (is love is love!) is one way to find hope again. A great way to spend a rainy Saturday night.

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We Get Out: Matt Nathanson, 2.19.19

So, after a bit of a winter drought, it was time again for live music.

Doctor Daughter (Emma with the PhD) and I bought tix last year for Matt Nathanson‘s recently launched solo acoustic tour, when our favorite singer/songwriter/funny guy first announced he’d be going on the road to support his excellent 2018 album, Sings His Sad Heart. I rarely buy concert tickets far in advance but my girl and I have attended Matt’s shows, together or separately, about a dozen times each, and we knew this date would sell out pronto, so we jumped.

With two other Nathansonians in tow (Carrie, another 10+ show attendee, and Elizabeth, a bit of a newbie at only 4 shows), we got to The Birchmere in time to find a sweet spot to the right of the stage, with good sight lines. (That’s why all the pics have the same angle.) The venue’s flex stage is a smaller space than Nathanson has played in some time. He’s sold out the 9:30 Club for double-date runs, and tix for this date disappeared in a day, so it’s safe to say that the place was packed with genuine fans. Why, then, would I call this the worst audience I’ve ever shared a Matt show with?

Because a few boneheads mistook the intimacy of the space as an invitation for random chatter with the man on stage. And while much of the joy of his shows is the spontaneous way Matt goes off on tangents between songs (he’s got the speedy wit of a great improv comic) he’s there for a concert, not a conversation, people! Matt tease-scolded the interrupters in his usual easy-going way but the message didn’t land. Except for the funny way a Snow Day announcement rippled through the crowd, leaving Matt confused (“Are you all students? Teachers?” It actually mean that government offices and many ancillary workers get a holiday), the unwanted give-and-take was wearying to both the player and his listeners.

Maybe it’s the presence of the giant wheel, which Matt spins to add an element of surprise to the set list (about two-thirds planned; the remainder selected by chance), but general unruliness seems to be an ongoing problem on the current tour. Matt often tweets the day after a show, full of enthusiasm for the night before. No such message appeared after the DC show, and his Twitter feed a few nights later mentioned another show – or was it two? – ruined by “a few obnoxious humans” (RT from 2.24) and “entitled, drunk audience members” (Matt’s own Tweet, from 2.25). This from paying patrons who no doubt consider themselves “fans.” One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl, but a few can tarnish an otherwise sterling night. Sorry, Matt. You deserve better.

But you’ll never leave a Matt Nathanson show without a smile on your face, and last Tuesday was no exception. We heard a great selection of tunes old (my personal favorite, “Answering Machine,” showed up in a spin) and new (“Used to Be” is a great one from the new LP), a few cool covers (The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” – oh yeah) and even a brand new ditty we’ll call “8-Track Tape” that he made up on the spot while ruminating about outdated technology. You can see the full list of songs at setlist.fm.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Matt Nathanson play. The first was February, 2004, so this Birchmere night was “our” 15th year together (I’ll call it the Vinyl Anniversary). And I was lucky to have my camera at some past shows, so if you want More Matt, here are a few links to pics and text memories:

9:30 Club, 2011

Sixth and I Synagogue, 2008

Tysons Corner Plaza (free show), 2018

And Matt was kind enough to respond to a request for a contribution for my set list site, sending a great souvenir from a Houston, TX show in 2006.

It’s been an exhausting day, watching the Cohen testimony, worrying about the decline of our democracy, and waiting for a return to true American greatness (ITMFA), so I’m calling this post, however ragged and much delayed, done! As ever, thanks for stopping by. And here’s one more shot from the Birchmere, as a ‘post-credits’ treat…

It’s like he’s looking right at us.

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New Year, New Me?

I’m a little miffed at my local YMCA. The big banner across the entrance to the recently renovated temple of family fitness shouts, “New Year, New You!”

Oh, yeah, YMCA?! What’s wrong with me as I am? You calling the current me old? Why should I change for you?

Here’s to making America sane again.

As the first month of the New Year comes to a close, I am used to writing 2019 on dated documents.  I’m a fan of the fresh start and the blank page, but have never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Goals, hopes, and dreams? Sure. But resolutions seem more like a way to set yourself up to be disappointed – with yourself. And so, while I did join the YMCA earlier this month, it was only today that I took my first class, a wonderful mishmash of aerobics, yoga and drumming that’s marketed as “Pound.” Whatever the name, it was great fun for an older woman who, as a child, used empty coffee cans of different sizes to make a drum set. (The plastic lids were the skins, and a set of pick-up sticks bound at one end with a rubberband made for a fine drum brush.)

For just shy of an hour, a bunch of free-in-the-late-morning, mostly later-in-our-lives women and, judging by his shin tattoo, one brave, graying ex-Marine, jumped to hard pop and light metal tunes while flailing around and smacking the rubber workout mats with regulation-size but neon green plastic drumsticks. These are the times when I know why Five Seconds of Summer or Def Leppard have made successful careers, much the same way being in a booming dance club commands me to appreciate the disco sounds I disparaged back when I was a New Wave purist.

Music makes me move, thank god(dess). And since a winter like this one – yesterday, Chicago literally had to set fire to the railroad tracks to keep the trains running – is too easily spent in slug-on-the-couch stagnation, I need music more than ever.  

Shamefully, I admit that I haven’t been to a live show yet in this new year. (I did see a ballet at the Kennedy Center.) I came close Tuesday, when I was invited to see a 17-year-old singer/songwriter, Ethan Sak, open for an act I also knew nothing about, Hey Monea. The kid’s one streamable song, with a happier Sam Smith feel, was catchy and the headliner’s web-site seemed friendly and fun, so I was up for the adventure and looking forward to taking some concert shots again.

But that was the first night of the pre-Polar Vortex snow, at a venue that I was also at on the night of 2011’s infamous Snowmaggedden, when it took me eight hours to drive eight miles home. (That’s no joke. And neither is peeing in a cup.) So I stayed home.

BUT – and here’s where I get back to business (is that what this is?)  – I have been working on processes for keeping up with new releases and reviving my web presence. After a year of neglect (see previous post for explanation), WhatchaGonnaPlay.com, my pet project devoted to set lists stolen from the stage and concert shots taken from the pit, is back. There is a new landing page and interface, and I’m still testing different graphic themes, so what you see today may be different from what’s there tomorrow. I’m anxious to start adding new materials; meanwhile, the old site has been archived so all the previously gathered materials, including musician interviews, are still clickable.

New business cards are also being designed (it helps when your daughter is a talented artist who has a job at a print shop) to bring together the Close Personal Friend and WhatchaGonnaPlay “brands.” And I am preparing stories, reviews, etc. to post here to make up for the fact that my relationship with AXS.com ended with the old year. (They wanted me to sign away rights to my photos. Ain’t gonna happen.)

So, things are happening. I resolve (that word!) to be back soon and often. I hope you’ll come along for the ride. Happy Belated New Year!

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A Year of Loss and Learning

Hello again. Whoa. But for that little teaser about having an explanation for my absence, it’s been over a year since I wrote a blog post. Yeah, it’s been quite a while.

The ticker on the left says 425 people follow this blog, which makes me wonder:
Does that number indicate real people? How many of that figure are just ‘bots?
Who reads this? Why?
Are my personal anecdotes a bug or a feature?
One day I’ll do a survey to find out more about you, dear reader. In the meantime, feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment.

But now, at the risk of TMI of a personal nature, I’ll tell you about the last 12 months in the life of your Close Personal Friend.

It was a year ago this month, almost to the day, that, while my sister and I were helping my 92-year-old mother in the shower, we discovered a small lump above her left breast. Three days before Christmas 2017, the doctor confirmed that it was inoperable breast cancer. With thanks to whatever great spirit watches over us, my mom felt no pain, and we made the holidays happy in spite of the news. A week in the hospital and a series of radiation treatments took up a large part of January.

Throughout the winter and spring of the new year, my mom enjoyed the loving care of many family members, friends, and hospice care professionals who helped to keep her comfortable and gave me great emotional support. Life went on, but my attitude toward work changed.

It’s not that music became less important to me. Au contraire! It was my solace, my escape, and my comforter. I still went to shows and took photos, and posted stories to AXS. But when it came to tracking new releases, following trends, or staying up-to-date on my social media postings, I didn’t have the bandwidth to worry about it.

Writing about music is not how I make a living. (If someone knows how that can be done in these days of free content everywhere, please advise.) I do it for the love of it, like a musician traveling in an old van and sleeping on floors for the thrill of a few hours of live music that reaffirm my faith in the power of sound. Taking a long break didn’t affect my budget and, to paraphrase the wonderful Courtney Barnett, nobody really cared if I didn’t come to the party.

In late May, I drove my mom to upstate New York, to the summer cottage that is her happiest place on earth. She spent the next few months sitting on a screened porch that looks out on Lake George, a gorgeous Adirondack vacation destination, and watched old musicals while sipping on root beer, slowly losing the ability to recognize the many people flocking to visit.

Mom passed away in her sleep on August 19. Our sorrow was tempered with gratitude that she died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones in her own home. We’re still dealing as a family with emotional frayed ends and tedious realities of finances, property, etc., but life is settling into new rhythms.

So, I’m an orphan now? Strange thought. My father died 13 years ago, after a long and difficult hospital stay. A few months after he passed, I was at a Death Cab for Cutie concert when the lyrics to “What Sarah Said” hit me like a sledgehammer:
“Love is watching someone die.”

I did that. It’s a cliché to say I have a new perspective on life, but many clichés exist because there is a truth to them. My head is full of new thoughts and stories and insights, and I’ve slowly worked my way back to where I feel like writing again. I look forward to blogging more regularly, redesigning this web site, relaunching WhatchaGonnaPlay.com and pursuing a bunch of self-publishing ideas.

Watch this space.
And thanks, as ever, for listening.

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We Get Out – Niall Horan at Fillmore Silver Spring, Nov. 4, 2017

I would like to write a long, chatty post, and catch y’all up on recent musical doings, but I’m preparing for some travel and time is tight. So I’m just dropping in with a link to my latest review – Irish cutie, Niall Horan, once (and, hopefully, again in the future) of One Direction. I took pics and wrote words for AXS.com.

Niall Horan at Fillmore Silver Spring.

At the show, I gave out a few CPF biz cards to a few nice fans, and I want them to see the review if they drop by the site. More soon!

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ICYMI: Dashboard Confessional, et al.

As I mentioned in the last post, Dr. Daughter and I had a great night earlier this month, at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, for a triple bill of The Maine, All-American Rejects and Dashboard Confessional.

I finally wrote the review, with photo slideshow, of Dashboard, for my AXS.com column and it would please me mightily if you would check it out.

Since I didn’t write much about All-American Rejects, I’ll take this moment to say that I was surprised I actually knew four songs by the band, which I had thought of as little more than one-hit-wonders.
(I will now give you a moment to see if you can name some AAR songs. Are you ready?)
“Dirty Little Secret,” “Move Along,” “Swing, Swing” and “Gives You Hell.”

Tyson Ritter is the band’s strutting rock star frontman – lots of f-bombs and exhortations for the crowd to get wild – which would be really annoying if he didn’t also seem to be self-aware about how ridiculous that role can be.

Anyway, since The AARs didn’t get any photo love in my review, here are a few pics of them in action:

 

That’s all for now. Thanks for dropping by!

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Does This Question Make Me Look Dumb?

During one of my trips to Canada to visit my Toronto-resident daughter, I was introduced to a Vancouver-based indie rock outfit called Said The Whale and began following them on social media. The band has a new album coming out soon (As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide, due March 31) and posted an intriguing message on Facebook earlier this month. The band offered to share an advance stream of the album with any group of 10 or more fans willing to host a listening party, or – this is where it gets more interesting – would be willing to Skype into classrooms to talk with arts students about music.

As it turns out, my best local pal and go-to plus-one music-loving buddy, Sally, is a high school English teacher and her journalism class is now studying interviewing techniques. I told her about STW’s offer and, the road to hell being paved with good intentions, not only will Sally and her teenage charges be talking with the band this Wednesday, but I will be visiting the class to talk about my so-called music journalism career, a.k.a. dancing about architecture. (TM: Steve Martin)

There was a time, Back In The Day, when most of my interviews were done live-and-in-person. Music magazines – in print! – had a valued place, just below TV and radio broadcasts, as an exposure tool for new music. But now that anyone with access to Spotify can pretty much hear whatever whenever they want and formulate an opinion, is printed advice on what to seek out even needed? If anything, my role now, if I still have one, is to act as a filter to the firehose of material that gushes forth in the age of information overload, traffic-directing people to sounds they may like.

It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I did a face-to-face interview, phoners being the modern way-to-go, or maybe a Skype call (see above) which at least allows for some facial recognition, and the need to wear pants. The last two interviews I did were email interviews. (Kirstin Hersh, once of Throwing Muses, and A/J Jackson, lead singer of Saint Motel) for the AXS.com site.

Email interviews are, to be honest, a great way to avoid the bane of an interviewer’s existence – transcribing! – since you need only cut-and- paste, with minimal corrections and proof-reading, text from your correspondence. If I were being paid real money for these stories, I would prefer to have a real conversation and really dive into the Getting To Know You business. But when you’re paid by the click for articles that are little more than intro to a list of tour dates (buy tickets here!), and the major effort is not finding the perfect phrase but negotiating a CMS (content management system), the email process is the cost-efficient way to go for all concerned.

My favorite pieces to do these days are concert reviews. I get to move close to the music in the photo pit, play/learn with my camera, enjoy the show, and share the memories. I did that recently, covering a concert by AJR, a trio of NYC-based brothers who opened for Ingrid Michaelson’s tour last year (I shot that, too), and are now on their own headlining club jaunt.

Still, it’s a long ways away from those heady days back in New York, when I lived in Brooklyn (before it was BKLYN) and rode the subway into Manhattan to meet Dire Straits in the studio, putting the finishing touches on their Making Movies album. I heard the amazing “Romeo and Juliet” in an early mix, booming from awesome professional studio speakers and chatted with frontman Mark Knopfler. I’ll always remember him as one of the nicest gents I ever encountered during a period when I actually made my living as a freelancer.

My recorder malfunctioned during the interview and, when I discovered that much of the tape was destroyed, he graciously repeated much of our conversation with a smile and genuine sympathy. His producer, on the other hand, dripped disdain, seemingly irked to have a writer (and a girl one at that!) in his sacred space.

I’m reminded of this interview in particular because the magazine I was writing for at the time, Trouser Press, recently posted a link on its Facebook feed, to the Dire Straits article I wrote for the November 1980 (ye gods!) issue. I read it now and remember a time when I felt I was really Writing a Story.

knopfler.jpg

In contrast, when I sent off my email questions to the frontman for Saint Motel, I had no chance for follow-up when he dodged a question about touring with Panic! At the Disco.

I wrote: How has the tour with Panic! been going? Can you tell us a funny – or strange – story from the road?

He answered: It’s been amazing!  These rooms are huge.  Funny story so far…    

and left it at that.  I checked with the publicist to see if something had been dropped from his message, but was told it was complete as is. It made little sense to me and drove home the sterility of such electronic conversations, so  I left the exchange out altogether. And yet, that article has been one of the most liked/shared I’ve written for the site in ages.

Since this little confessional has included a bunch of links to Recent Stuff I Wrote, I might as well end with my latest, hot-off-the-pixels article, a few words – and clickable links, of course! – on the subject of a new favorite of mine, Father John Misty, and the lust-worthy deluxe vinyl edition of his upcoming album, Pure Comedy.

It ain’t Pulitzer material, but it was fun to research and easy to write. I do what I do as best I can.

P.S. Speaking of research, if any of Sally’s students bothered to visit this site to find out more about me before Wednesday’s meeting, I have two things to say to you:

  1. Good luck with the journalism thing. You’ll need it. And we need you now more than ever.
  2. Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Say the secret word (“penultimate”) and I’ll tell Ms. Toner to give you extra credit.

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