At about the midway point on his month-long tour, we saw Joe Jackson at the Michigan Theater this past Saturday night. It was probably the fourth time we’ve seen him. Some middle-aged fanboys in the row behind us were trying to top one another with shows they’d seen. One said the last time he saw Jackson was in Royal Oak eight years ago, which is conceivably the last time we saw him.
Then, he was playing what was once a movie theater. And the Michigan Theater still shows movies when it doesn’t have live performances on its stage.
The Joe Jackson tour seems to be of places of approximately that size. Not small. Not large. The Michigan Theater seats 1,700 and it seemed as if most, if not all, of the seats were occupied. After the visit to Ann Arbor, it was off to the Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines and the Club Brady in Tulsa, OK, with a few stops in between.
No opening act. Just him solo for several numbers, then joined by bass, Graham Maby, guitar, Teddy Kumpel, and drums, Doug Yowell.
For the last encore number they did “A Slow Song” from Night and Day, which allowed the musicians to leave the stage one by one, which is a fine approach–and one used lo those years ago Royal Oak. Some things remain.
When I was growing up, there was this 3-on-3 basketball tournament held in the streets of Lowell, Michigan, called Gus Macker. The weekend of the tournament was like Christmas for those of us who loved basketball. It didn’t matter whether you got a team together and entered or you just went to spectate, it was a weekend of pure basketball, played and watched for the love of the game. While there is still a great basketball tournament with that name – it’s actually a whole bunch of tournaments in over a dozen different cities now – anyone who ever dribbled one of those signature red, white and blue balls on a neighborhood street in Mackerville can tell you it hasn’t really been the same since it got too big for its birthplace.
But for a brief moment in the mid-1980’s, Gus Macker was basketball, the spirit of the sport stripped down to its essence. The entry fee wasn’t so steep that a four-man team of middle schoolers couldn’t scrape together the cash, and since the tournament was run mostly by volunteers, it was free to watch. Neighbors would sell lemonade and not worry too much about all the grass in their yard getting trampled. Everyone was courteous about where they set up their lawn chairs, and despite the fierce rivalries and competition that existed on the courts, the people at Gus Macker – men, women and children, young and old, alike – seemed to recognize that they were part of a community, no matter how brief and ad hoc.
Now I hadn’t thought about playing in Gus Macker in over 15 years, until I spent the afternoon at Ann Arbor’s second annual Water Hill Music Fest. This is unlike any other music festival I’ve experienced, not because it takes place in myriad locations about the west-side neighborhood all at the same time, but because the performance spaces are people’s porches, backyards, stoops, and living rooms, usually belonging to the musicians themselves. The event is free, parking is free, and while there’s a schedule and some rules about who can play (at least one member of each performance group must live in the neighborhood), the rest is joyously unorganized. The streets are not shut down, cars are parked here and there and everywhere, and though there are signs in yards indicating who is playing when, that’s about the extent of it.
But this is not unprofessional music – far from it. The highlight of my day was the Brennan Andes Family Band, made up of members of local jam band The Macpodz with some special guests, including a music teacher at my daughter’s school. They played in bass player Andes’ parents backyard, which gave the performance the feeling of a summer barbecue. I also saw Ann Arbor legend George Bedard rocking with Khalid Hanifi on the grand front porch of a historic and beautiful brick home and heard another local favorite, Chris Buhalis, sing a set of Woody Guthrie tunes from his own front yard, celebrating what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday this year. Several other well known musicians also played, including guitarist Dick Siegel, and Ron Brooks, the jazz bassist and former owner of the Bird of Paradise nightclub.
Audio Gallery: Water Hill Music Fest 2012
Part of the charm of Water Hill, however, is that it’s open to performers of all sorts. I watched a trio of elementary school kids play Bach on two violins and a classical guitar, sat through a set of funny children’s songs with scads of other parents while the kids who should have been listening went down the zip line in the guitar player’s back yard, and stood in the street blocking traffic to hear a middle-aged couple sing 100-year-old show tunes. The community spirit at the event was amazing. I went into one house to use the bathroom, as facilities were provided by generous neighbors at well-spaced locations around the festival. My daughter bought refreshments from one of her schoolmates who had set up a stand in her front yard and we stopped by at another of her classmates later to wash up. While we were there, we caught a few songs by a group playing legitimate swing-era big band music on their back patio, complete with a bombshell singer dressed in period getup.
While I attended the festival with my family, Water Hill didn’t bear any resemblance to the sort of canned entertainment that’s passed off in our society as “family friendly.” This was legitimate music, played in earnest by people who had invited the city into their homes to entertain them. The crowds included plenty of hipsters, old hippies, dogs, teenagers, old people, and just about every other demographic you could dream up. That they were all wandering the streets of Water Hill was fitting, as it’s a neighborhood that’s perhaps more economically and socially diverse than any other in our city.
What I didn’t see is worth noting: No drugs, no drunks, no cops and no self-absorbed idiots making a scene that ruins it for everyone else. Nobody seemed to be trying to cash in on the crowds either, save for a guy selling $1 records in his garage and another who put a “For Sale By Owner” sign in his front yard. (Somebody should buy his house, by the way, as it’s in a great location.) This is surprising, because the crowds were tremendous. Hundreds packed the yards of the performers who had name recognition, and kids and amateurs were pulling in crowds of fifty or more. The music was universally great, and even without huge PA’s and megawatt sound systems, it was easy to hear because people who wanted to chat were polite enough to just move down the street.
I had the best time at Water Hill, and I got a vibe that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid hanging out in Lowell in my high top Nikes. I looked around the neighborhood and saw a whole community of people enjoying themselves, being cool, united in the love of one simple thing. Then it was hoops, today it was music.
As fun as Water Hill was, however, it’s with a bit of concern that I write this article, knowing that publicizing the festival could lead to problems in the years to come.
By the time I played in Gus Macker in 1986, things were already changing. After spectating for a few years and watching the crowds grow, I finally got the nerve to form my own team in eighth grade, and I played in the final tournament that was held in Lowell. Neighbors had started to complain and the tournament was no longer just a small local affair. National exposure in Sports Illustrated had led to huge numbers of entries and lots more spectators, and even more big name players began entering. Gus Macker was still great fun, but it wasn’t the same once it moved to another nearby town and dramatically expanded, including going on the road and traveling to other cities.
Nothing this good, this pure and perfect tends to last.
The Levon Helm Band at The Michigan Theater Ann Arbor, MI, March 19, 2012
Me and Levon go way back. Waaaay back. All the way back to… 1985 or so. I was in my early teens, the Bob Dylan box set Biograph had just come out, and I was listening to that a lot. My dad’s copy of Dylan and The Band‘s Before The Flood was getting a lot of airplay, too. It documents their 1974 American tour together, and includes Dylan songs and songs by The Band. Double album. Gatefold. I’d also seen Scorcese’s The Last Waltz a couple of times, which documents The Band’s “farewell concert appearance.”
Collectively, these were some of the most formative rock and roll recordings for me. Just starting high school at the time, I became a bit of a Dylan freak for a while. The Band was still part of the picture, but I didn’t get crazy obsessed with them until 2000, when Capitol re-released the first part of their catalog, all re-mastered with bonus tracks. I scooped those up, and listened to them repeatedly. They were like brand new discoveries. I also read a few books about The Band, including Levon’s autobiography. I was steeped in it.
Living in Brooklyn at the time, my then wife and I had already decided to take a long weekend to visit Woodstock. It’s a quaint, beautiful town in upstate New York, whose name everyone knows from the music festival that was almost there. It also happens to be where Bob Dylan and The Band created some of the most amazing and lasting music that any American artist has ever created, then or since. There are interesting, musically historic spots all over the Woodstock area, including the house where The Band wrote the songs for their first record, Music From Big Pink, and where they recorded The Basement Tapes with Dylan. That’s the one I wanted to see. The house. Big Pink.
I found a Web page with some directions written out. It involved unmarked roads and warned against trespassing. Local people had gotten tired of the Dylan freaks. The hunt for the house did send us down a number of unmarked roads with lots of no trespassing signs along the way, but we did eventually find it. It was underwhelming. And why wouldn’t it be? Just an old house in the middle of nowhere. Some really big things happened here, yes, but they aren’t reflected in the structure itself. I dashed off a few photos with my camera, and we got back in the car. There wasn’t anyone around, but it still felt like we shouldn’t be there. It was time to go.
So you might understand how excited I was when I saw the Levon Helm Band was coming to Ann Arbor, just a few miles from me at The Michigan Theater. Levon Helm. The most recognizable voice in The Band. The only Southerner in the bunch — the only American (the rest were… Canadians!). Throat cancer survivor, road warrior, and three time Grammy winner. Drummer extraordinaire. Bringing his well seasoned 13 piece band (yes, that’s thirteen) to town. I had to go.
And it was great. What we saw wasn’t a run through a selection of The Band’s greatest hits (which everyone would have loved, by the way, myself included). It was a journey through the rich and varied landscape of American roots music — the music that forms the bedrock of rock and roll.
Which isn’t to say that there weren’t any songs by The Band in the setlist. The show started with “This Wheel’s On Fire”, followed a few songs later by “Ophelia”. Later there was a fantastic “Chest Fever”, starting with a guitar-driven “Genetic Method” from bandleader Larry Campbell. The finale was “The Weight” with Joe Pug (opener) and his bandmates.
In the spaces sandwiched between these classics by The Band, we heard country, bluegrass, folk, R&B, and more. A kind of late 60s heavy rock number, too. With two drummers, three multi-instrumental vocalists, a guitar player, keyboard/vocalist, bass player/vocalist, and a five piece horn section, the band was able to traverse any musical territory it wanted. On a few occasions, the horn section stepped off stage for a song or two. On other songs they were featured — like in their strut around stage during the cover of Wild Tchoupitoulas‘ “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront”. The crowd went nuts for it.
By contrast, another song, “Little Birds,” featured just one guitar, a mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and two vocalists. Still another changed the configuration to an an accordion, 3 guitars, bass, two drummers. And, of course, a trombone, for the trombone solo.
Larry Campbell is the bandleader, a well respected multi-instrumentalist who sings and mostly plays guitar, with some fiddle and mandolin thrown in. Teresa Williams, his wife, and Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, are both artists in their own right, bringing amazing vocals and more multi-instrumental awesomeness to the band. Brian Mitchell, the keyboard player, brings a New Orleans flare to the band, singing all the Cajun influenced tracks, including “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront.”
The five person horn section was the largest of any band I’ve seen. Those guys are awesome. One of them — Howard Johnson — played in the horn section The Band used for The Last Waltz. He’s a legendary tuba and baritone sax player. We were treated to a tuba solo in “The Weight.”
So the concert was absolutely fantastic. I didn’t know most of the non-Band songs they played, but each one really grabbed me. All for different reasons. Larry, Teresa, and Amy all have tremendous stage presence and the entire band has great chemistry on stage. They weren’t only fun to listen to — they were fun to watch (see the 2010 audience recording of “The Weight” below).
Unfortunately, I was also reminded of why I generally don’t get excited about rock shows at The Michigan Theater (except the Earth moving ones like this one). It’s a great place to see a movie with my kid, but a pretty stifling atmosphere for a rock and roll concert. The seats are bolted into the ground, and rows run all the way up to the stage. Standing up in your seat is generally frowned upon and there’s no where to stand up and dance. Sound is generally good, though, and site lines are pretty good wherever you are. Still, there’s just no rocking out. Despite that, the show really did blow me away.
The one thing that leaves me scratching my head is, why no tapers at the show? And why no option to buy a recording of the concert? Why not sell copies? There’s gold in them hills! They’re already taping the shows, I imagine. Run off some copies, sell them at $25 a pop. Instant memories for the fans. A little extra cash for the band. The band would benefit if they let tapers record and upload recordings to the Live Music Archive. It builds exposure, rewards the fans, and preserves their live work for future generations to hear.
Since I can’t link to any MP3s on the Live Music Archive, you’re going to have to see the Levon Helm Band for yourself. Which you should do anyway. It’s a great show, and you’ll probably get caught up in the energy of it. Check out this audience recording from 2010 to see what I mean.
I don’t care if I ever see Elvis Costello in concert again.
No, not because of some huffiness, but because the performance that he and the Imposters put on at a sold-out Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor was so good that it is the kind of thing that can stand as a defining one. Having seen Costello severaltimes through the years, I must admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in attending this concert. In recent years, either solo or with the band, it almost seemed as if he was always experimenting more than performing. This, one might argue, is what has made the body of work during the past 30 or so years so vital and relevant. But whereas you can listen to a disc and skip it or repeat it, shows are real-time events, and even though the price Costello commands is nowhere near some of the lesser luminaries on tour who demand astronomical sums, the commitment to attend a concert—financial and otherwise—for me overcomes, by and large, the desire to walk out. As good a song as “Allison” may be, how many more times do you need to hear it performed live? In my case, it seems, at least once more (with the other Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” layered in before the final repetitions of the ironic phrase, “My aim is true.”)