Getting to the faded Spectrum went really smoothly. We made our public transit connections without much wait time and the trolley operator wouldn't even take our tokens for some reason, so we got a free ride. The last stop on the southbound Broad Street subway line puts you about 200 feet from the Spectrum, and by luck, the "floor tickets only" entrance was the closest one to the subway exit. Nick, my companion for the show, realized that he had a slice of carrot cake in his jacket pocket that of course he couldn't bring inside. So we split it and got all sugared up on the the cake with cinnamon frosting before waltzing right in with no line and a very gentle pat down.
The tickets looked laughably like second-rate counterfeits: smudgy printing and only a barely perceptible "Comcast" watermark. But they scanned in fine. If I hadn't bought them right from the box office I would've thought they were fake. And yes, the tickets were really "$19.67" There was a very limited special first-day-of-sale deal in celebration of the Spectrum's final year (it was opened in 1967.)
Walking in the hall and on the floor I tried to soak in all its dingy outdated glory, thinking "this could be the last time I'm at the Spectrum." Though I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Phish will pay it a visit in 2009 before the building's implosion. I've only been there for concerts a handful of times, but I know its music history and have heard a lot of the shows through bootlegs. Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Springsteen, and most prominently the Grateful Dead. The old dingy brick of the place makes me think, this is about the same as what it looked like when the rock giants played here in their 1970s heyday. I'm reminded of that grainy picture on the back of the Kiss "Alive" record, with two shaggy headed teens on an arena floor. There are lots of benevolent ghosts still hanging around in the rafters of the Spectrum. Looking up, I smiled at the sight of the "Grateful Dead 53 Spectrum Sell-Outs" banner done like a Flyers hockey championship banner in black and orange, except the "53" was in tie-dye.
The ticket said show time was 7pm, so at exactly 7, Everest, the first opener, took the stage. And played for exactly 30 minutes to an arena that was no more than a third full. I really enjoyed their set. With their big-guitar country-tinged sound and reverbed vocals, they sounded very similar to My Morning Jacket (who in turn have been compared to Neil Young.) And I really like MMJ so I found myself head-bopping. And they got a surprisingly positive reaction from the crowd: moderate cheers after each song and only a single shout of "where's Neil?" Everest was arrayed in attire that looked as if it had been swiped from Neil's early 70s closet and one of the guitarists wore a poncho that looked liked it belonged to Stephen Stills a long time ago.
I thought about what carefree fun it might be to be the opening band in a situation like this. There's no pressure. No one is there to see you in particular, except a handful of guestlist friends, who probably love you no matter what you do. And the people shuffling into the arena aren't expecting much so it's hard to really let them down. And even though a band like Everest aren't rock stars and will probably never reach the popularity needed to headline a venue like the Spectrum, as the openers they can pretend to be rock stars. They were all smiles on stage. They seemed happy to be there. And if they messed up a solo or a verse, no one was gonna notice because no one knew what the songs wee supposed to sound like anyway. And maybe, just maybe they'd play a little something that'd grab the ears of some of the folks in the crowd; and this is exactly what happened in one of their last songs when one of the guitarists played a jangley outro figure that made me smile wide.
Everest set the mood for things to come.
Wilco was next and it was clear they had some fans in the steadily-filling arena. I've always enjoyed their music. I only have one of their early, more straightforward albums but have liked everything I've heard on the radio and from friends. And I enjoyed their performance even more than I expected. They started their 50 minute set with, "Via Chicago" a song that balanced a country pedal-steel and acoustic sound with a couple breaks of noisy chaos. During the racket the band didn't let on that all hell seemed to be breaking loose. Jeff Tweedy's vocals continued understated and sweet through the racket and the whole band snapped back together back into the melody right on cue.
The star of Wilco's set was lead guitarist Nels Cline. Kinda funny that he had a similar first name to the guitar god headliner, but there was never a Nels vs. Neil dual for ax-weilder supremacy during the show. Nels played everything from clear cleaning ringing tones, echoing shimmers, countryish lap steel and blips and distorted noise, processing his guitar through an effects board. When he soloed, a white spot light shone on him and often reflected off his shiny pick guard, sending a beam of light straight out onto the floor, hitting me right in the eyes; the perfect visual accompaniment to his sonic wizardry.
It was curious seeing Nels Cline in a huge arena on a high stage. The other time I saw him perform was in the Avant Gentlemen's Lodge* warehouse in West Philly where he played in a different ensemble as part of an evening of experimental music. The warehouse stage was about two feet high. That show was $5 at the door and I got to chat with Nels after the show as he milled about in the middle of the crowd.
The second Wilco tune featured harmonizing dual-lead guitars by Nels and Tweedy that worked the crowd into a froth and got people hooting and hollering. Their fourth tune had a Krautrock "motorik" beat to it that sounded like something from Can or Neu! I was dancing, smiling, floating on the sounds. Their music definitely tapped into a similar vein as Neil's but they could never be confused. They both sound very distinct but complementary. And by all the whoops and calling out of song titles it was obvious there were a lot of Neil/Wilco crossover fans in attendance. By the excited noise they made during Wilco's set, I figured the guys right behind me were teenagers. But when I looked back, I was truly surprised to see that they were approaching middle age, older than some of the guys in the band.
Wilco's set had a really warm positive feel to it, and by the time Neil came out I was really warmed up and ready to go. And Neil and his 5 piece band delivered. I've never heard Neil "phone it in" in the live setting. The sound and sightlines were excellent from my perspective, about 30 feet straight back from center stage. There was none of the boom and garbled echo that can come with arena shows.
It was difficult not to compare this show to seeing Neil last year. That show was definitely a cut above because of the beautiful old 2000-seat theatre venue (the Tower), the rarity-filled setlist, the solo acoustic set and the fact that it was my first time seeing Neil after being a fan for 15 years.
This 2 hour Spectrum set had a "greatest hits" focused list, but every single note seemed to be delivered with passion. And Neil's hits are hits for a reason: they're damn good.
"Hey Hey My My" may have been played to death on classic rock radio but I was bowled over by its power on stage. Neil convulsed with guitar in hands, struggling with it as if he were trying to wring the neck of some wild fowl. He was never still for a moment as he squeezed out growling, choking, crunching, heaviness.
"Powderfinger" is one of my favorite Neil songs of all time and it was great to sing along to it shouting passionately, "Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing!" even though I've never figured out just what that means.
"Spirit Road" from the most recent LP fit in well with the old noisy guitar-jam classics and this seemed an even stronger performance than when I saw the song played last year.
"Cortez the Killer" was played very slow and heavy with mournful guitar leads sailing above the ominous sea that the rest of the band created. The instrumental section wandered, but never lost its way or intensity.
My experience listening to "Oh Lonesome, Me" and the solo pump-organ version of "Mother Earth" were marred somewhat by the Blah-blah cellphone man behind me (read the addendum "Rant" for more on this) but were still very moving to hear.
The new, acoustic "Light a Candle" was elevated by an unexpected and delicate pedal steel line by Ben Keith who continued his high lonesome moans on "Unknown Legend," and "Heart of Gold." He also played on the original classic sessions of these song. For "Old Man" a brief and precisely timed spotlight was shone on the mustachioed guitar tech Larry Cragg, so he could bust out the song's signature banjo line.
"Get Back to the Country" was a raucous pedal-steeled affair, much more lively and enjoyable than on the mediocre mid 80s "Old Ways" album. At less than 3 minutes though, it was all too brief.
Then Neil delivered a trio of new, unreleased rockers all about social change. For me, jury's still out on the first two. Neil is very prolific. He continues to release a new album almost every year, but his output is real hit or miss. It's rare that he puts out a truly bad song, but I think the first two of these new songs were just "OK." Maybe I'll get more into them as I hear them more. The last of the trio, "When Worlds Collide" was the strongest, with an ominous funk feel and minor key (intentionally?) strained chorus.
To close out the set, "Rockin' in the Free World" invoked the spirits of nearly 20 years of garage bands. The song is simple on a technical level so I've heard a lot of amateurs play it, but it's difficult to play and sing it with as much angry conviction as Neil. And though it's become a cliche, it still felt great to shout along to the chorus with fist in the air.
The encore was a very fresh take on the Beatles' classic/oddity, "A Day in the Life." I loved the sleighbells during the "Ahh-ahhh- ah-ahhhhh" break after "and I fell into a dream." And the echoing chord at the end of the Beatles' version became a noisefest in the Neil version. Neil sounded like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (himself influenced greatly by Neil's distorted proto-grunge.) Neil ended the noise by literally ripping the strings off his guitar and then leaning it up against an amp.
I thought this would be it, but after it quieted down Neil walked to the back of the stage to the raised platform with vibraphone that his wife and back-up singer Pegi Young had been playing earlier in the song. He picked up the mallets, looked mischievously at the crowd and then hit a single clean ringing note.
He then walked off the stage, signaling the true end of the show. I just had to laugh.
As the lights came up and we filed out of the arena, I again tried to soak in the ambiance of the venue, knowing I might not be there again.
Love And Only Love
Hey Hey, My My
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Cortez The Killer
Oh, Lonesome Me
The Needle And The Damage Done
Light A Candle
Heart Of Gold
Get Back To The Country
Just Singing A Song
When Worlds Collide
Cowgirl In The Sand
Rockin' In The Free World
e) A Day In The Life
Addendum: the Rant
Him (gray hair, black shirt, black device held to ear) [loudly]: "blah blah, blah-blah, blah, blah"
Neil [somewhat distant]: "Oh-oh lonesome me."
Me [to black device blah-blah man]: "Hey, why don't you go out into the hall with that conversation. Your friend will hear you better and I'll hear Neil better."
Blah-blah man: "Fuck you!"
Me: "Why don't you ask the people around you 'Hey is ok if I talk on my cell through an entire song?'"
Blah-blah man: "Fuck you!"
I then turned around because the counter productivity was evident. I didn't want to argue. I didn't really care about winning a fight I just wanted mannerless Blah-blah man to shut up. It was certainly not every night I get to see Neil. By continuing to talk to him, I was just making matters worse.
He continued to make some rude comments directed towards my back, culminating in the ultimate comeback, "Hey why don't you stand in the back because you're so tall. You're blocking people's view. It's all about consideration." His prior comments negated any weight in this statement.
Throughout this incident, I felt a shaky tight feeling overtake me. It was the fight-or-flight feeling that I remember from the handful of schoolyard fights I've been in. I had this fear that at one point this guy's fist was gonna fly out and connect with my head or that he be waiting after the show to verbally assault me when the lights came up.
And funny, during the 2nd part of this incident, Neil was performing a solo take on "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," a song about respecting the environment. But how could we respect the Earth when we couldn't even respect our fellow concert goers and I was getting showered by "Fuck You's"?
Thankfully nothing bad happened after the initial shouts. Blah-blah stopped blah-blah-ing and the ragged glory of the Neil concert overtook my senses once again.
Still, though, the memory lingers. In hindsight it's kinda funny, but it makes me angry that people would even consider holding a cellphone conversation in the middle of a rock concert.
At any sort of seated orchestral event, red-jacketed ushers would be pulling Blah-blah out towards the exits before he even got out the first sentence. But somehow it'dsOK to get all chatty with an off-site friend just 'cause there's an increased volume and some pot-smoke in the air? I don't buy that.
I can accept having to make an emergency call and I know it's difficult to extract one's self from a packed general admission crowd. I'll give cell talkers a one minute grace period before I get angry. But Blah-blah man was really chatting it up for 2,3,4 minutes of one of the quieter songs of the show.
I can also accept the "hey buddy I wish you were here with me. Neil's playing your song" At this point the caller holds his cell in the air so some distant friend can hear a snippet of the concert in very low audio quality. Heck, I might even do that if I had more minutes on my phone. But that doesn't really involve much talking. And I enjoy the feeling of overflowing excitement that it brings. The "Oh my God, this show is so good I just have to share it with someone right now!" For any extended exchange of information, though, there's a silent little thing called TEXT MESSAGING. I believe some of these new-fangled cellphones have this feature now, though maybe Blah-blah's Blackberry didn't have this option...
*The Avant Gentlemen's Lodge ceased doing shows on a regular basis apparently after some fans, looking for the unmarked warehouse knocked on the wrong door, asking the surprised residents of a nearby house "Is this the Gentlemen's Lodge?" The residents heard "Gentlemen's Lodge" and thought, oh so there's an unlicensed strip club that those scruffy kids are running across the street. The police were called and busted through the door, but were surprised to find an unheated room full of a hundred or so kids in coats twitching to some non-melodic noise coming from some hunched over guys on stage and not a single nude woman. But since there were gross fire code violations and the building was not licensed as a performing venue the police had to shut thegood clean fun down anyway.
Or at least that's how I think it happened.