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Renaissance & Steve Hackett, Rockefeller Park, NYC: Music by the Hudson June 23, 2010

Posted by Anton A in British music.
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This one’s going to be more about the journey than the destination.

One reason I enjoy living in our town, 8 miles west of Manhattan, is that we’re on a New Jersey Transit railway line. In fact that’s how I found this town 20 years ago, when we were living in the West Village and toying with the idea of moving a bit further west, right across the Hudson to Jersey. I got a highway map, one of the folding paper kind that you used to get for free at gas stations, hopped in my clunky VW Rabbit and drove through the Holland Tunnel. I found the NJT train station in Hoboken and literally followed the tracks west. Our town is an early stop on one line that runs out from Hoboken; I got off the busy highway, hung a right at the top of the ramp, and presto! I’d been transported to another place and time. Up there on the first ridge beyond the Jersey Meadowlands, I was suddenly driving past a long row of turn-of-the-century houses (and at that point that meant the 19th century), shadowed by ancient trees arching over the roadway. I knew instantly that this was where I wanted to live.

We looked at other towns, and a lot of houses, over the next year. To me, for its location and atmostphere, nothing beat the place I’d found. We eventually found something approximating the right house and here we are, two decades on.

When we first moved out to Jersey, the train would take you only to Hoboken; from there, you coud take the PATH subway line to lower Manhattan or through the Village and into Midtown. After a few years, New York Waterways sprang up and resurrected ferriy service across the Hudson. This was revolutionary to me, being able to hop on a train and then ride a boat across the water.

I’ve always been fascinated by trains; maybe it’s one of the positive things that I inherited from my dad. As a kid growing up in St. Louis, I marveled at the fact that we could drive into University City, just a few miles in from our little subrban town, and find the small Delmar Station where you could walk down the stairs to a pair of tracks that ran, unbroken, all the way to California. We actually made that trip several times. I recall sitting in the dome car that each train had back then, stunned by the forests and cliffs as the train wound through the Royal Gorge; then, later, gazing across the western deserts while we clacked ever closer to the far edge of the continent. Trains opened up the country for me like nothing else.

While we’ve been in Jersey, the trains have also opened up this region. In 2003, NJ Transit opened the magnificent Secaucus Junction, which linked, for the first time, all of their lines that run from northern & northwestern Jersey with the separate network running from central & southern areas of the state into NYC’s Penn Station at the one spot where the tracks cross. Now, I look at the tracks at the station in my town and see a network of rails that will take me anywhere in the country. I can step onto a train there and, taking a total of three trains, be in Philadelphia in a couple of hours. I can ride four trains and be back in St. Louis the next day, if I want. It’s still a marvel to me.

This is a long preamble to explain how I came to be on the deck of a ferryboat, chugging across the Hudson on a beautiful June afternoon…

…to see Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett’s band and 1970s art-folk rockers Renaissance play a free concert in a lower Manhattan park at the river’s edge.

Hackett’s set was good but seemed a bit unfocused. There’s no question that he’s playing with a group of skilled musicians; they delivered some intricate, quirky and well crafted prog rock. There was also a long slow blues number, where Hackett got to show off his blues chops; placed between the more upbeat prog numbers, the song seemed to pull the set down. For their encore, they played a nice prog tune that featured an extended drum solo in the middle; it was an odd way to end the show. I was left with the feeling that I’d seen an ensemble of great talents who didn’t quite know how to construct a set that would really keep the audience engaged.

 

Between sets, anyone who turned their eyes to the west was treated to a lovely evening sky over the Hudson and the Jersey City skyline.

Renaissance were terrific on every level. When I’d first read about the show, it wasn’t clear who was headlining. I’d assumed it would be Hackett, since not much seems to have been heaard from Renaissance lately. Apart from their biggest hit, Mother Russia, I remembered them vaguely as a band that I’d liked and respected back in the 1970s. I didn’t know what they’d been up to since then; a free show in such a fabulous setting seemed the perfect way to find out.

It didn’t take long for me to see why they had the headline slot. They were tight and well focused; they quickly established their distinctive folk-tinged sound with a driving beat and marvelous textures. Annie Haslam’s voice, always the centerpiece of the various editions of the group, soared and rang out to the waters; she can still send one chiill after another right down your spine.

They played an excellent set that included two fine new songs from their recent LP, The Mystic and The Muse, which I bought after the show and have been enjoying since. I won’t hesitate to see Renaissance again when I have the chance. Count me as a born-again fan.

(NOTE TO MY READERS: This post has been severely delayed by many things, not the least of which was learning to cope with the maddening software for inserting and aligning photos.  This is as good as it’s going to get, I think.

You can enlarge the images by clicking on them if you wish.)

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Living Colour, Mexicali Blues Cafe, Teaneck, NJ: We’re still here, you’re still there June 2, 2010

Posted by Anton A in American music.
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I drove up to Teaneck this Wednesday night to see Living Colour at Mexicali Blues Café. I’d been wanting to get to Mexicali for several years; friends had told me that it’s a great small club and a fine place to see a band, but the right artist has never been there at the right time for me. It also seemed a bit tricky to get to, and the directions on their website only complicated things, but I finally figured it out.

Last year we discovered the Teaneck Kebab House, a mysterious little Afghan restaurant that seems to float behind a beaded curtain on a wall inside a pizza joint in Lower Teaneck. (You eventually find out that they use the pizza oven to bake their wonderful Afghan breads.) There’s something quintessentially Jersey about all this. You go through the curtain and find yourself in a room full of colored lights, Afghan carpets, wall hangings, and brassware, with the scents of exotic spices in the air. It’s like walking through a gateway to a magical land. Isn’t what that we’re all looking for sometimes?

Sorry, I’ve digressed. I finally realized that, to get to Mexicali, you go to the Teaneck Kebab House, turn left at the next corner, drive north for a few more miles and zap! you’re there. Once I got that, the route was easy.

As for Living Colour: back in 1988, when their first album came out, I persuaded a good friend to go with me to see what was hyped to be their breakout New York gig at a new club in Times Square that was supposed to herald the revitalization of that area. Times Square did get better, but otherwise the hype could not have been more wrong; afterwards, we agreed that this had been the worst experience of our concert-going lives.

Twenty-two years later, the show stands as the third worst I’ve seen by a professional band that had garnered critical respect. The venue remains the worst ever; I was glad to hear that it failed within a year. The club staff was rude and abusive. The drums were miked so loud that they turned the rest of the sound to mush. Vernon Reid, in those rare moments when you could hear him, seemed to be off in his own universe, playing fantastically fast lead lines that bore no relationship to what the rest of the band was doing. You couldn’t hear Corey Glover at all. It was an awful night to be a rock fan.

I didn’t give much attention to Living Colour after that, though I found myself liking them whenever I heard one of their songs on the radio. I thought that Glover was a great singer; they had a tightness and clartity of sound on record that had been sorely lacking that night on Times Square.

The years spun by. You couldn’t help reading about Vernon Reid in the local press from time to time and you had to give him some respect. Heck, he lived & recorded in a funky old mansion guarded by gargolyes on Staten Island; he had to have something going on to get to that sort of place in life.

In October 2007, I ran into Head>>Fake, the Living Colour rhythm duo of Doug Wimbish on bass and Will Calhoun on drums, opening for Porcupine Tree at New York’s Beacon Theater. I liked their set; they used a raft of electronics to create a rich palette of sonic textures. They also conveyed a strong sense of fun, in contrast with the headline act who were hugely talented but oh so serious.  I thought then that it might be conceivable to see Living Colour again at some point. When I got an email about their Mexicali gig, everything snapped into place.

I arrived late. The directions I’d mapped out were on target, there was plenty of parking, but an 8:00 show that actuallly starts on time isn’t always easy even when it’s just a handful of miles up the back roads of Jersey.

There was a short break going on when I arrived; the band was standing around on stage and a tech was fussing with the drum kit. I asked at the door; they’d already played two songs. Vernon Reid was sipping from a mug of coffee and carrying on about how good it was. Eventually they got the drums adjusted. Wimbish laid into a long, effects-heavy bass solo, the kind of thing I’d seen him do with Head>>Fake. It eventually morphed into Middleman.

Calhoun’s drums were still seriously miked, you could feel the air in the room whoosh past you whenever he kicked the bass drum. Certain notes on Wimbish’s bass could rattle your breastbone. But their sound engineer really understands the concept of balance; you could hear Reid’s guitar and Glover’s soulful voice clearly all night. Nobody overwhelmed anybody else. In spite of the apparent loudness, the sound levels were comfortable; there must have been some skillful tweaking of the EQ on the high end.

They played for just under two hours, including the songs I’d missed.  I enjoyed every bit of what I saw. Reid’s playing seemed aimed at making the music work; he soared off into a lot of solos that never lost their relationship to the ensemble effort. Wimbish and Calhoun were even more impressive on Living Colour’s well crafted songs.  Glover delivered the vocals masterfully. This is a band that seems to have coalesced and found their focus over the years. I wish I’d picked up on them again sooner, but that disaster of a night in 1988 had cast a long shadow.

Mexicali Blues was as fine a venue as folks had said; it’s a nice small room that holds maybe 200, with comfortable sound levels and good sight lines from almost any point. There’s swath of tables in the middle of the floor, and more tables up on a little balcony, for people who want to be seated; the more energetic fans stand in front or behind.

After the show I hung about for a few minutes, finishing the drink I’d just ordered and watching the crew dismantle the band’s fascinating array of equipment. I’ve never seen such rows of stomp boxes and pedals for both guitar and bass; these guys are seriously into crafting their sound. Then I noticed that Doug Wimbish was hanging out with the fans; I strolled over and asked him quickly if there was a spare copy of the set list kicking around. He kindly said “Just a minute,” hopped back up on stage, tore off the one that had been taped to his amps and handed it to to me. So, with my thanks to Mr. Wimbish, here is the full set list:

Ignorance Is Bliss
Desperate People
Middleman
Decadence
Funnyvibe
Burned Bridges
Memories Can’t Wait
The Chair
Go Away
Behind The Sun
Love Rears Its Ugly Head
Glamour Boys
Bless Those
Type
Cult Of Personality
Time’s Up