Ok, it’s time for a wonderful head scratcher of a puzzle. Which of the following should count as the best concert of my life?
A: Sitting in the second row center, holding the love of my life’s hand while one of “our songs” is played by a man I intended to marry when I was ten, and who then played a request in honor of a dearly departed friend;
B: sitting in the 4th row between two of the best friends I have ever had, listening to the group that brought us together (all of whom I intended to marry when I was ten) play a show that I had dreamed of since before puberty while simultaneously knowing it was all but impossible; or
C: standing 10 feet tops from one of the top 5 artistic influences of my late teens and early 20s (who I, yes, intended to marry when I was ten but the aesthetic relationship deepened substantially the year I read the early Neftoon Zamora drafts and Martin Heidegger simultaneously) as he gave one of the most beautiful concerts/storytelling sessions it has ever been my privilege to witness?
The answer is…
D: Never mind. That alleged story problem suddenly strikes me as more of a weird Fandom Koan anyway. What I AM gonna do is share my impressions of concert C (as well as my blurry iphone pics of the same), which will hopefully be a little more coherent than my moderately stunned reflection on Concert A, and more, er, concise than the Proustian geeksquee review of Concert B. (I have always wanted to use the phrase “Proustian geeksquee” in a sentence but never realized it until this moment…)
There are maybe a half-dozen artists for whom I will brave America’s increasingly dysfunctional airline system. Nez is on that short list. As I sat gnashing my teeth during my second ground delay on the way home to Tulsa, for some reason the alternate meaning of the word “concert” popped into my head. I reflected that not only had we all attended “a concert”, but also, for me at least, there was a distinct perception of feeling and being “in concert” with the performers on stage–an intimacy I’ve only felt a few times during REALLY good marching band performances in high school, a drum circle or two in my Djembe days, and maybe playing T’ai chi with the rest of the class on a day we were really flowing with the chi. I think Sunday night was the closest I’ve come to that sensation as an audience member at a show.
How did that awesome sense of connection happen? Not sure, so I’ll just describe the evening and see if I can tease it out. Somehow, despite being in the middle of the line for the venue, we (Cin, Mich, Mattie, and Cin’s friends Janelle and Shelly) made it to the pit area in front of the stage. I was standing right behind the people who were leaning on the stage, just barely to one side of that now-familiar Mic/ipad stand. I suddenly realized there was a non-zero chance Nez would see me and my “Don’t Panic!” tee shirt, and grabbed a
pan-galactic gargle blaster swig of Cin’s beer to ensure I would actually heed my shirt’s advice. In due time, Nez appeared to thunderous applause. After Papa Gene’s Blues and a quick comment about the vehicle randomly parked out front,
Nez: *Priceless WTF expression*
Crowd: *Mixture of laughter and applause*
he explained the format of the show and got us going on our musical story time. Now, I was drawn to Nez’s solo work primarily due to his lyrics and his other writings, with the tunes themselves a secondary (if potent) draw that lay beyond that initial hook. If nothing else, Michael Nesmith is a master of descriptive writing. In addition, having the opportunity to watch The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora evolve from early website drafts to finished novel was a fascinating view into a good author’s revision process that taught me more than I realized at the time. As a writer and qualitative researcher, I’ve
stolen used some of his tricks in setting scenes for blog posts and interview writeups. For that reason, hearing the pre-song vignettes was nearly as wonderful as experiencing some of my favorite tunes live. I forced myself to not close my eyes and visualize the scenes, but rather to focus on Nez and his face in the moment as he set the scene using a few well-chosen words. The vignettes truly add another layer of meaning and artistry to the songs, and those kinds of spoken intros could be an interesting accompaniment to other songs in his repertoire. (While I don’t know that I could override my personal video for “I am Not That”, I would pay good money to know what in God’s name was going through Nez’s head when he wrote “Tahiti Condo”… -_^)
On to the performances: overall, I think what I witnessed was equal to Live at the Britt, and possibly surpassed it in some ways. Considering I practically had that CD on repeat for most of the final term of my sophomore year, that’s high praise.As always, I must remind you all that I am NOT a Musician. However, as a recovering percussionist, sister to a professional keyboard player (he just does that whole engineering thing to afford better instruments), and friend of an amateur bassist, I’ll venture an uninformed opinion or two about the band. Boh Cooper on keys was a whiz, and a versatile whiz at that. While I have some philosophical issues with electric drum kits akin to my brother’s mildly insane tendency to buy vintage keyboards and speakers and haul them to his gigs and recording sessions in his Mazda hatchback, I grok why one was definitely the best pick for this particular show. In any case, Paul Leim’s drumming was deep in the pocket for the duration of the show. It was seriously nifty to hear Joe Chemay live, and his bass provided a good foundation to the proceedings. My second favorite performance of the night was Chris Scruggs, who was a revelation on backing guitar, mandolin, and steel guitar. His work on Rio through Grand Ennui alone was worth the price of admission. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but I thought I saw a bit of something well up on his face when Nez decreed that the Mantle had been passed from Red Rhodes (I have to admit I got a little misty down in the pit). I’m going to go hunt up some of Chris’s other work as I have time, which says it all really.
Finally, Nez himself. Now, I’ve only seen him live once before (at Concert B above), but I was still pleasantly surprised to see a loose, relaxed, and constantly smiling performer who seemed to be fully present in the moment and rolling with the flow. As a regular public speaker and fellow (at least at one point?) control freak, I know that’s a hard trick to pull off, and I wonder if he was helped in a perverse way by the technical difficulties he related on his facebook page. (And I may just be oblivious, but I hadn’t a clue that things had gone awry from the onstage performances). Vocally, he was better than his mostly impressive performance in Cleveland–Hell, it’s the best I’ve heard him sound in at least a decade. Instrumentally he seemed capable as always, and his guitar melded ably with that shockingly talented backing band. It seems like one of Nez’s talents has always been finding great collaborators who play to his strengths and fill the holes in his skill set, and this evening was a perfect example of that principle in action.
As to the songs themselves, I’m going to keep it short. The show consists of 15 of Nez’s best tunes, selected from (I think?) every decade he’s been actively writing and capturing most of the many faces of his work. The setlist is here, and if you are not familiar with all of these songs and the albums from which they originate, I IMPLORE you to stop reading and pop open Videoranch in a new tab. I’ll wait while you download. Keep in mind that most of the tunes that were played have “evolved” substantially from the original versions. However, instead of a song-by-song dissection, I’ll focus on one song that I had been somewhat meh about and another that I actively disliked that are now two standouts from the night, thanks in large part to their evolution (or in the second case, maybe mine?).
First, let’s consider the “meh” song, “Different Drum”. Now, before any Linda Rondstadt fans get up in my business, let me clarify. I’ve always liked the tune, even before I knew it was one of Nez’s. However, I didn’t adore it the way I did much of what came after. I enjoyed it quite a bit more in its stripped-down Live at the Britt version, but It was always a second tier Nez song for me, unlikely to give my favorites a run for their money. Who knew, then, that it could be revamped into a delightful french bistro waltz that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Ratatouille soundtrack or an Edith Piaf album? Between the delightfully crafted vignette and the song proper I could almost smell the baguettes and hear the putt-putt sound of the motor scooters driving past the cafe tables.
The second song that was a surprise favorite of the night for me was “Rays”. Now, I have had a…hmmm, how do I put this politely…conflicted relationship with that album. Despite the fact that I was smack in the middle of my “busy figuring out how to be a Serious Grownup” phase, I had still heard about the CD and been looking forward to this album a great deal–even preordered it on Videoranch if memory serves. I like good electronica, and I like about 95% of Nez’s work (if you haven’t noticed). From what little scraps of info I heard in advance, it seemed this album had the potential to be epic. Unfortunately the reality of the album was not what I expected. Over half of the tracks were instrumentals (a serious letdown for a gal who is first and foremost a fan of Nez’s wordcraft), and in the few with vocals, Nez had mixed himself so far down I could barely get the lyrics. Worse than that, for some reason I just couldn’t connect with the deeper soul of the album. I played it through twice to give it a fair hearing, then stuck the disc on my shelf to gather dust. However, hearing “Rays” played live after 7 years of semi-momentous personal growth, especially following right after one of the best lead-in stories of the night, was a revelation.
The metaphorical interweaving of light, intelligence, music, and/or the Divine is one of those themes that Nez seems to revisit often in his work. Through some mysterious means, that particular symbolic construct , set to words and/or music, has traveled over and over from Nez to my receptive brain via sound waves from my earbuds or light rays generated by the pixels on a monitor, or most memorably, across the transom of that 10 foot gap in Detroit. On Sunday, as those waves of thought latched on to me and generated visions, thoughts, and emotions in response, each story/song and the concert as a whole became both the means and the message of a tenuous bond.
I strongly suspect the answer to the question I asked myself at the top can be found in that moment when one of those rays of art and love hits home and forms a fleeting connection between artist and fan. With the occasional exception, most humans need to experience some sort of authentic human connection to achieve true happiness. Assuming the relationship is functional and balanced, the stronger the connection you forge, the greater happiness you and your partner gain from your communion. That primal drive is why we make friends, fall in love, and share our gifts with each other in person or through recorded media. However, there’s a catch. With every intimate moment or emotion or creation shared with another, the risk of accidental or deliberate injury by that person’s hand increases, as does the risk of your wounding them. For that reason, almost all of us start performing cost-benefit calculations fairly early in adolescence in order to protect our souls. Eventually, some of us become masters of psychic self-defense. The more you’ve been hurt, the more pain-averse you become, and the stronger your barriers become.
The problem, of course, is that the wall works both ways, and can stifle your creativity and empathy more profoundly than any insult or blow ever could. If I learned nothing else from The Year of Our WTF, it’s that compassion and vulnerability, when employed thoughtfully and in the right context, opens the door to true friendship and beauty in amounts I simply never thought possible in this imperfect and occasionally cruel world. Nez seemed to fearlessly wield that openness on stage with every wide grin, expression of musical bliss, joke, and sincere statement of gratitude. I could sense the gestalt of the audience rising to the occasion in return. I would say that he tore down the 4th wall, but I’m not sure it was really ever erected that night in the first place. The rays and waves of love and laughter and damn good music danced through that hall, and wove themselves together into a masterpiece of an evening that I won’t forget anytime soon.
As I always say in some form to the artist(s) at the end of my reviews in the exceedingly unlikely event they read them, these are merely my reflections, fully and inevitably informed by my positionality. I am not a musician, and have had too much higher education to be more than a mediocre writer. Thanks for the ride(s), and the memories. While I hope that you are able to do a phase two and hit Texas or Oklahoma, if only so I can dance to “Rio” with my husband and try again for a
Meet and Greet conversation, we’ll always have Paris. Or Ferndale. Whatever…
Next time: Not sure yet. Maybe more on meet and greets, but quite probably something completely different. My muse has abandoned me for my final Institutional Research class project, but we’ll see what she says as soon as she jumps back over to the “pop culture dork” side of my psyche. An intersession course and the 1 year anniversary of the event that birthed this blog are coming up, which will either drive me into silence or turn me into a blogging machine. As always, watch Twitter and Tumblr for the latest.
1. As well as numerous less profound symbolic constructions like Marnagritas and wifebeater-wearing skunks.
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