Wednesday, 22 March 2017

1,028 BOSTON STANDS WITH THE ACLU, featuring NADA SURF, JULIANA HATFIELD, BELLY, EVAN DANDO, THE SHEILA DIVINE, THE GRAVEL PIT, BILL JANOVITZ, The Paradise Rock Club, Boston MA, USA, Saturday 18th March 2017; 1029 THE GRAVEL PIT, Kevin Stephenson, Atwood’s Tavern, Cambridge MA, USA, Sunday 19th March 2017

Yup, that’s Boston…!

Damn, it’s been a long time since I’ve ventured over to “The Hub”, almost a second home to myself and Rachel in the early 2000’s, with 9 trips over 9 years, before a 9 year absence… Even with the kids a little older now, and with time and a little bit of redundancy money on my hands, it would still have taken Something Very Special Indeed to justify such a jaunt. And such proved to be the case, in part “thanks” to Donald Trump…

I don’t profess to be an expert in politics, yet alone the convoluted machinations of the US political machine, yet I hope I’m a decent enough human being to recognise when fundamental human rights are being breached. Number 45 has taken office and launched swathes of attacks on the civil liberties of minority groups, in the process putting a national focus on the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, a non-profit body set up with the express purpose of defending those rights. Many right-minded people seem to be looking to the ACLU as a rallying banner to oppose Trump’s policies and defend their rights, and it was within this climate that folks within the Boston music scene, most notably my good friends in The Gravel Pit, initiated the concept of “Boston Stands With The ACLU”, an intended series of events to raise money for this eminently worthwhile and currently much-needed cause. And, not wishing to ease themselves in, the line-up for their first event was an utter corker, a jaw-droppingly awesome collection of Boston Rock Royalty from the 90’s and early 00’s, topped with NYC’s Nada Surf, not only a band with a huge affinity for “The Hub” but, along with The Hold Steady, my consistently favourite music makers of the past 10 years or so. Not a surprise then, that this event sold out within 2 days, but luckily enough, following “permission to fly” being given by my dear wife, a quick message to TGP’s bassist and old friend Ed Valauskas resulted in my securing a ticket on the door. A similar facebook shout out to my Boston friends resulted in my good friend Corin Ashley (formerly of The Pills, the band who provided the soundtrack to my proposal to Rachel, back in gig 634) offering his studio futon for my short stay, and it was all systems go!

A visit from Winter Storm Stella earlier in the week, dumping a foot of snow on the Greater Boston area, briefly threatened to throw my visit into chaos, but the USA know how to handle such things, rather than in the UK, where a single snowflake shuts schools and cancels train journeys. So I had a bumpy flight in on a chilly Thursday evening, arriving to piles of snow on the sidewalks, but a very navigable city, so easily made it over to Corin’s place. Friday was shopping at Harvard and Davis, a quick trip to Q Division for catch-ups with Jon Lupfer and EdV, and the Boston Red Sox Fenway Tour! Saturday saw more shopping and lunch with Boston-domiciled old school friend Richard Wood, before I headed over to the Paradise, killing time in nearby “In Your Ear” before a quick chat with Nada Surf’s Ira Elliott outside the venue.

Michael Creamer turned up at 5 and ushered me in for the soundcheck, and I took a watching brief and tried to stay out of the way whilst saying “hey” to various folks as they arrived. EdV had suggested that soundchecks might be done by 5, but they were still in full swing, and I watched Belly, The Gravel Pit, Juliana Hatfield (along with Matt Caws of Nada Surf, on a Minor Alps song - Juliana and Matt’s excellent 2013 collaboration – which sounded verrry promising…) and Bill Janovitz all soundcheck. Wandered out to the Paradise Lounge as door-time approached, being greeted with a fulsome bearhug by an arriving Pete “The Peach” Stone and being introduced to his lovely fiancée Meghan. We wandered around trying to sort out wristband passes, eventually hanging in the upstairs “backstage” area with tonight’s performers as the venue filled up (luckily the lady manning the backstage entrance took my “VIP list” status at face value, and let me come and go throughout the night with impunity) and ultimately running into Creamer again, who advised he’d sort me one later – “got to see to the artists first”. Fair enough, totally understandable, I felt, whilst hoping this wouldn’t come back to bite me on the bum – which it subsequently almost did…

Met up with Corin before the witching hour became due, and I took to the already well-attended floor for Buffalo Tom frontman BILL JANOVITZ, kicking off with a solo acoustic set at 7.30. Sounds like a nice, understated way to ease into the evening, right? Hell’s teeth, no! Bill was absolutely on fire from note one, sparing us none of his passion, ire and bleeding raw intensity with a frankly awesome reading of the Tom’s finest moment “Larry”, followed in quick succession with “I’m Allowed”, both so strident and stunning that even Peach (who got, “to see Bill play guitar every week for the last 20 years…!”) was impressed. Bill commented, “[tonight] is like a post-college reunion for me!” and gave props to the ACLU and their work, before “Summer” featured a modified “where’ve my heroes gone today...” lyric reference to Chuck Berry, news of whose death earlier that day at 90 had been filtering through backstage. Typically, Bill turned this into a celebration of one of his personal icons and one of rock’s root metaphors, with an upbeat, inclusive and audience singalong run-through of “30 Days” which earned the comment, “that was wicked good, Boston!” and would have had the great man smiling down from up high.

A stellar “Taillights Fade” brought us back to the Tom’s usual brooding oeuvre, before the final number, a cover of New Order’s classic “Age Of Consent” was slowed to a hushed yet no less potent ballad, ending a stunning opening set. Wow Bill, you totally killed it… and this was only for starters!

I then took a loo trip in the downstairs gents (which I didn’t realise was shared between the club and the front lounge), then had my bum-bite, as the steward stationed by the bar wouldn’t let me back into the club as I didn’t have a pass – despite the fact he’d seen me walk past him to go to the loo in the first place! This just before THE GRAVEL PIT were due on, too… he was having none of my stammered and increasingly angry arguments, yet fortuitously Creamer popped up as if by divine providence, with a, “he’s alright” comment and a precious blue wristband. Thus freed of the nimby steward, I was able to squirm down the front for the Pit’s arrival, being introduced onstage by co-host Angie C Shaw. My first time seeing The Pit since 2003, when for me they were the most overtly dynamic, visceral and immersive “live” rock’n’roll act on Planet Earth (a position likely currently occupied by the mighty Titus Andronicus), and also likely the first time they’d played together for a number of years themselves, it was inevitable that their raw power and seething fire would be diminished with the passing years. Nonetheless, this merely gave their virtuoso musicianship, band chemistry and Jed’s songwriting prowess space to shine instead; opener “Where The Flying Things Go” and the bouncy, modish “Baby Gap” sounded excellent, crystal clear, before ceding to newie and more showtune-esque “Mr. Baby”, before “Why”, darker and more brooding.

A plug for tomorrow’s Pit matinee show at Atwood’s Tavern followed (“that show’s a benefit for The Gravel Pit!” announced a playful Jed) before a couple of other newies followed, the galloping “Wreck Of The Triple One” a highlight. A timecheck for the already late-running schedule (Jed, “what’s the time?”; EdV, “don’t care!”) preceded a jaunty “Bucket” with EdV’s bass solo and Jed’s cod-reggae guitar licks a duelling feature, then closer and set highlight “Something’s Growing Inside”, grungy and growling, left us with a taste of the “old” Pit, a vignette to finish a superbly judged, low-key yet wonderfully sounding set.

I popped up backstage to offer congrats to the Pit boys just as Evan Dando arrived, so took a quick opportunity for a pic but didn’t hold him up as he was due onstage next. Just as I’d thanked him and was making my way out, however, I heard the slash of a familiar “live” guitar riff and an unmistakable strident voice from downstairs… fuck me, that’s Aaron Perrino’s voice!! And sure enough; Angie C Shaw had announced to the crowd, “it wouldn’t be a 90’s celebration without THE SHEILA DIVINE!” and there they were… well, two thirds, anyway… turned out that Creamer had gotten wind that Evan might be a late arrival or even a no-show, and primed Aaron and TSD bassist Jim Gilbert that they might be needed as short notice stand-ins, then apparently told Gravel Pit drummer Pete Caldes (who’d drummed one tour for the Sheilas back in 2000, between drummers Shawn Sears and Ryan Dolan) to stay put after the Pit set! A powerful, screamingly emotive run-through TSD classics “Like A Criminal” and “Hum” in front of a frantic and incredulous audience ensued, Jim as usual owning it, looking 10 feet tall on the Paradise stage, and Aaron cheekily slipping in a “Rudderless” lyrical reference (Angie told me at Atwoods that Evan, preparing backstage, had noticed this, prompting him to get a hurry-on!). Following “Hum”, Aaron announced, “here’s Evan!” and EVAN DANDO took the stage, bearded and dishevelled and with Bill Janovitz’ guitar on hasty loan, opening with a sweet “Being Around”. As this finished, I briefly popped backstage to greet Jim and Aaron, chatting for a couple of minutes only, before decamping to catch the rest of Evan’s set… which comprised a further 1 ½ numbers; a half of “Down About It” which was then abandoned in favour of a cover of country act Florida Georgia Line’s “Round Here,” which he’d introduced as, “a JA Happ number” – hang about, isn’t he a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays? Anyway, that was that… very short and a little frustrating, but hey, it’s Evan… what else do we expect?!

The place was proper old school rammed by this point, and I was also re-acquainted with the Boston gig-goer habit of simply not moving an inch when someone wants to squeeze through (usually offering a pithy or irate comment in the process), so I abandoned my attempts of getting towards the stage and instead pitched up in the VIP viewing area on the balcony next to the mixing desk (where I overheard a passing Creamer comment, “so Evan did 4 numbers and now we’re back on schedule!”). This actually afforded me an excellent view of BELLY’s superb and clearly recent road-tested set; from the off their patented dreampop/ college rock collision sounded tough, tight and together, their reunion tour clearly re-igniting the spark of band chemistry between Tanya, Gail and the Gorman brothers. A plangent “Gepetto”, a frantic “Dusted” and a creepy “Super-Connected” (preceded by Gail initiating an, “A-C-L-U!” chant and announcing, “[The ACLU is] the only thing that’s standing between this administration and the end of civilisation as we know it!”) rocketed by, Gail all leant-back Ramones rock poses, Tanya stomping the stage in her stilettoed boots, totally owning it. It wouldn’t be Belly of late without some technical issues, though, and sure enough, Gail’s onstage monitor threatened to give up the ghost before “Feed The Tree”, the roadie’s remedial work perhaps affecting the sound slightly during this and the subsequent “Now They’ll Sleep”, the latter particularly sounding ragged. Nonetheless, Belly powered through, and a feisty, frantic and effervescent “Slow Dog”, my set highlight, preceded the band introducing Tanya’s husband Dean Fisher onstage, to provide subtle bongo accompaniment for an excellent newie “Shiny One”, a woozy sway-along with an anthemic chorus. Nice! Techy hiccups notwithstanding, Belly smashed it tonight!

A bit more backstage hanging out, joining Corin who was happily handing out cards advertising his “protest song!” (a ditty called “Vulgar Stain” which still retains his trademark Beatle-esque love of melody), meeting facebook friend and fellow Sky Heroes aficionado Steve Latham, and grabbing selfies with the artistes (who all seemed to take my pestering in good humour, thankfully…) before hitting the VIP balcony again for JULIANA HATFIELD. The sole performer tonight whom I didn’t grab for a selfie and the one whom I’d lost touch with about 5 or 6 albums ago, I confess I wasn’t anticipating her set with as much relish as the rest of this stacked bill. However, backed up with the Pit’s rhythm section of EdV and Pete Caldes, you’re not going to go too far wrong, and I’m pleased to report she put me in my place with a damn fine performance of material which was largely unfamiliar to me, but which still retained an easy, laconic and melodic college pop sensibility. EdV had been bigging up her forthcoming album “Pussycat”, and newies “Wonder Why”, a slow burner with a big soaring chorus, and “Touch You Again”, a balls-out rocker, were standout tracks, boding well for the new release, and were, along with the older chugger “Candy Wrapper”, delivered with urgency and potency. We then had the promised Minor Alps interlude; Juliana introduced Matt Caws onstage, and the subsequent “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands” was superb, brilliantly smooth yet eerie, followed by a more relaxed cover of the old standard “Bad Moon Rising”. A few more of Juliana’s own numbers convinced me at least to hunt down the new CD, as overall this set was a pleasant surprise.

A lawyer from the ACLU then took the stage and gave a fire-breathing rallying cry for her organisation, shouting out the benefits they’ve provided and emphasising the work left to do, whilst also announcing tonight had raised $22K! Yikes! A fantastic effort (which would ultimately rise to close to $25K), which I was proud of my ticket/ merch contribution of $100 or so… This bumped us up to 11 and the floor thinned out slightly, so I risked the dancefloor, squirming forward for a vantage point stage left for NADA SURF. A racy “Cold To See Clear” opened, gorgeous and bouncy as a whole field of Spring lambs, then the plaintive yet pointed “Whose Authority” followed, Matt Caws’ yearning vocals already a feature. By the growling, galloping “High Speed Soul”, I’d pitched up at the front, in perfect view of the kinetic Daniel Lorca’s splendid menacing bass work and low-slung rock star poses, rocking out for all I was worth.

Matt Caws is one of those rare performers with the talent of making you feel as if you’re the only person in the room, that he’s addressing you directly, making the surrounding large hall melt away and giving the performance a personal, almost intimate feel. Tonight he let the music and lyrics primarily do the talking, so this gift was most effective on the likes of the touching, lovelorn “Rushing” and the penultimate “Always Love”. In between, a double of the incendiary, almost punk rock “Way You Wear Your Head” and the slow build to massive crashing crescendo of a stunning “See These Bones” ensured I’d be waking up tomorrow with sore knees. Then, all too soon, set finale “Blankest Year” saw a shout out from Matt to organiser EdV, and the modified hook of, “fuck it, we’re going to have a benefit!” featured 2 false finishes before the final denouement, each more raggedly cacophonous than the last, stretched and elongated, as if they never wanted this party to end. Further proof of that, if needed, was the encore; I’d caught a glimpse of Da Surf rehearsing “I Fought The Law” backstage, and the work proved fruitful, Tanya Donelly and Jed Parish joining the boys on backing vocals for a rambunctious rendition of which The Clash would have been proud. An utterly appropriate and all-inclusive way to end a quite epic night!

Headed off with Corin for my last night in Boston; then the following morning saw a splendid late breakfast in a Greek restaurant, my treat as a “thank you” to my gracious hosts, and a trip to Staples for a packing tube for my signed ACLU Benefit poster, before I bade farewell and headed over to Atwood’s Tavern, scene of the last act of my Boston weekend!

Hit the quiet early doors venue at 2.15, a small long bar with a stage set up at the far end, so I took a table nearest to the stage to the left, watching the place fill up and spotting and greeting familiar faces Jim Haggarty of The Gravy, and Matt Burwell, who’d been the Pills drummer during their UK jaunt (gig 634, again!). I also introduced myself to The Rationales’ mainman David Mirabella, a facebook friend since my pledging on their very fine “The Distance In Between” CD a few years back. The Pit turned up, as did last night’s co-host Angie C Shaw, who joined me at my front table, with her partner Dave and friends Dennis and Michelle, for some buoyant and entertaining rock chat. Kevin Stephenson played a short set to the assemblage at 4pm, a couple of blues standards interspersed with his own, vintage rock’n’roll influenced compositions, which dovetailed well together and provided good background music to the rock chat.

The Pit took the cramped stage at 4.30, Jed welcoming with a, “good afternoon!” and easing into “Bolt Of Light”, Pete Caldes’ rocksteady drums and Jed’s intricate farfisa organ tampering a feature. By a groovy “Favorite”, they were in their stride, yet, as last night, this was not the growling rock behemoth Pit of old, probably a good thing too given the size of the venue and the proliferation of children of all ages at this matinee performance. An easy, relaxed performance, picking and choosing as the mood took it, rendering the set-list pretty much useless, chatting and interacting with the crowd of mainly friends and family.

A galloping “Triple One” saw Jed move off the keys; “I get to play the guitar [this time], it’s an exciting instrument especially when electrified!”, and, following some teasing from Jed (“Ezra Messenger”! Remember that one? Well, keep remembering it…”), an unexpected “Rise Of Abimelech DuMont” (“part 4 of the fear trilogy!” quipped Jed) was as overtly “rock” as it got this afternoon, Jed nonetheless still reining in the big smoky voice during the strident denouement. “Mosquito” featured a lengthy stripped back middle 8, “Favorite Scar” was muted and slower than usual but still fun and “Tangled” was surprisingly rocking; then Ted Taylor’s 60’s standard “Love Is Like A Rambling Rose” ended this entertaining, relaxed and, dare I even say it, “mature” 1 ½ hour performance. A celebration of The Gravel Pit!

(The list ended up as: Bolt Of Light, Mr. Baby, Favorite, Bucket, Triple One, Stingray, Crybaby Vampire, Flying Things, Baby Gap, Don’t Do What You’re Dying To Do, I See Red, Abimelech DuMont, Mosquito, Favorite Scar, Why, Tangled, Something’s Growing Inside, Rambling Rose)

Fond farewells all round, then David Mirabella very kindly dropped me off at the airport, enjoying a chat about his band, Nada Surf and REM in the process; then an on-time and much smoother red-eye flight home got me back to Blighty at 7 a.m. UK time. National Express wouldn’t let me board an earlier coach home without a transfer charge, though, so waited for my scheduled 9.50 bus, home at 11.15 to be greeted by my lovely wife at the bus station. Thus ended my return to Boston; that was indeed Something Very Special!

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