Saturday, January 31, 2009

There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.
-Duke Ellington

I first heard Shostakovich about 5 years ago when I went to hear Christopher O’Riley perform. O’Riley, of course, is the classical pianist turned Radiohead enthusiast who recorded two albums of their songs for piano. O’Riley was enamored with Radiohead, and in interviews used the word “obsession.” Rumor has it he even met his wife on the message boards of a Radiohead fan site. He played Shostakovich’s Piano Preludes and Fugues; this music blew me away more than the Radiohead covers I’d gone to hear. It was a surprising evening, not only for the Shostakovich discovery, but because here was a classically trained pianist playing songs by Radiohead and another beloved musician, Elliott Smith (whom O’Riley called “the greatest American songwriter since Cole Porter.”) The natural blue hairs in the audience appeared to enjoy this contemporary stuff, while the blue-haired hipsters appeared to really dig the classical stuff.

I’d always thought myself quite an open-minded music lover, but it wasn’t until I came to Baltimore that I realized what a genre devotee (AKA snob) I truly was. I liked my type of music, and was pretty dismissive of everything else. (To be fair, much of today’s music really DOES suck.) Didn’t like country, didn’t like rap (except for old school political stuff like PE), didn’t like anything on the radio, certainly didn’t enjoy classical. But lucky for me, three factors converged which transformed my relationship to music. Firstly, I moved to a great neighborhood within walking distance of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Secondly, the BSO had just received a sizable grant and all tickets for season subscribers would be $25 a show. And lastly, but most importantly, I made a great friend in my colleague, Adrianna (writer, photographer, and musician herself), who introduced me to the world of classical music.

It was when I first heard Juanjo Mena’s conducting of Ravel (Bolero) and Danielpour (a great anti-war piece whose name escapes me) that I first made the connection between classical music and rock ‘n roll. I had a friend (he loved death metal) who insisted that Slayer had more in common with classical music than any other genre. Interesting theory, but I never thought much about it. And while Ravel thankfully isn’t Slayer, the comparison to most of the contemporary music I like is undeniable. I felt exhausted, like I’d just returned from standing neck and neck for hours waiting and listening to a favorite band playing in some smoky club. It was my musical epiphany. Music is music. It doesn’t matter if the composers are alive or dead, or if the musicians are wearing only tube socks or wearing tails. It doesn’t matter what instruments are being played, or if they’re “real” instruments at all. It doesn’t matter if it’s melodic or dissonant or soulful or twangy. All that matters is that it moves you in some way.

That opinion of music has been reinforced time and time again by BSO concerts I’ve attended over the past few years, from Tan Dun and Philip Glass to Copland and John Adams, from Vivaldi and Piazzolla to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. It’s been reinforced by the music I’ve heard all around Baltimore, whether it be the coolest klezmer band in the world I heard at the Creative Alliance, or the intense but strangely melodic sounds from the High Zero fest, or the even more intense Messiaen organ compositions I heard in a gothic cathedral. The Economist (of all places) had an article a few months back about the evolutionary utility of music. Human evolution and music | Why music? | The Economist Theories focus on the relationship between music and sex, social bonding, and a lovely accident--the interplay between biology and culture. But it only touches briefly on the emotional impact of music. Whether we’re hard wired for it or not, music DOES something to us. Perhaps that’s why after a breakup a few years back I totally avoided music. Completely. For months. Music makes you feel- whether it’s joy, anger, or pain. Music is transportive, taking you out of yourself.

I heard Shostakovich again this week. The BSO played with an intense boy-conductor, the phenomenal Vasily Petrenko, and pianist Stephen Hough. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was amazing, and Mr. Hough was stellar, but nothing on the evening’s program was as powerful as Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony. I told my friend who plays with the orchestra that it was bra throwing music. Although he was pleased and amused with that sentiment, I almost regretted it, feeling that it belittled or trivialized this most remarkable of performances. The music was pure fire. I actually had finger prints on my wrist from holding my arm so tightly for the entire 60-minute piece. As I stood and shouted “WOOHOO” at the show’s conclusion (‘Bravo’ would’ve been too much of an understatement), I marveled at the erstwhile incongruity of it all: me, standing there surrounded by blue hairs in long furs coats, acting like I was at a rock show.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Besotted With Hope

President Obama's Inauguration
January 20, 2009

Still can't quite process the experience-- the day we accomplished 2 very different but significant things: swearing in Barack Obama as president, and finally getting rid of Bush.
Noel, Lisa, Kate and I will be reminiscing about this day when we're in our rocking chairs.
Maureen Dowd said it best Op-Ed Columnist - Exit the Boy King -

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In the Name of Love

The Obama Express - 1/17/2009
War Memorial Plaza, Baltimore
19 degrees Fahrenheit

I have never been in such a joyous, beautiful crowd in all my life…marches, protests, music festivals…never experienced anything like the energy in this crowd. Joy is not a vibe that is easily faked, especially in a crowd of 40,000 people. The joy was palpable. And for Baltimore , a city hard to accuse of pretense, the usual rawness was replaced with an infectious up swell of hope and happiness. Hell, I was even dancing to country music, celebrating how “we dream in red, white, and blue…”

The crowd looked very much like Baltimore—predominantly African-American, but completely diverse, with whites, Asians, Latinos, young and old, children, old folks, hipsters, hippies, religious fanatics, PETA pamphleteers, and entrepreneurs selling everything Obama (including hats, buttons, shirts, and, my vote for most creative, Obama cologne, so we could smell like the new prez—no joke!) We got in line (or on line for you Jersey folks!) around 11:20 AM at Calvert & Lexington. We met some lovely women in line, and did some great people watching, until we went through the metal detectors before 1:30 PM . I have to say, I was totally impressed with how organized and how smooth this whole process was: the security, the volunteers, the attendees, were alert, calm, and perfectly helpful. There didn’t appear to be any glitches (although we did see someone turned away at security for having a backpack). A secret service officer from Minnesota checked us in (even she thought it was cold) and there were ample metal detectors and scanners for our bags (yes, this was high tech!). If this is any indication of how Tuesday will go, I am surprisingly optimistic, although I realize that 40,000 is not 3 million.

Once we were in front of the War Memorial, probably 50-75 feet away from the podium where Obama would be speaking, we chatted with folks around us, many from the city, but some from DC. Kathy struck up a conversation with the woman in front of her about Turkey and the divided Cypriot city of Nicosia , and finally the recent turmoil in Gaza . The conversation moved to lighter topics, as we commiserated about the cold, the amazement of this election, and where the sharp shooters were on the rooftops. In a city that understandably has a contentious relationship with its police force, it was interesting to note that all of us felt much better knowing our man Barack was so well protected.

Staying warm was a greater challenge than any of us had anticipated, especially since we counted on the body heat generated by the crowd to warm us. But regardless of how close we got to each other (and believe me, we couldn’t raise our arms we were so close), the wind still cut right through us, and I mostly couldn’t feel my limbs. A nice older woman next to us proceeded to rub my mom’s hands, shoulders, and arms in an attempt to warm her, as if my mom was a little old woman and she wasn’t (they both were, in fact). She was decked out in a purple scarf, several layers of coats and gloves, and my mom helped her zip her coat. It was those kinds of simple, very human interactions that made the day so special. How often do we embrace perfect strangers?

Kath and I had toyed with the idea of going to the Creative Alliance’s “Obama’s IPOD dance party” on Saturday night, but aside from being way too tired, we’d already done enough dancing while waiting for Obama. That’s right—dancing. They played music on the loudspeakers all day— from’s “It’s a New Day” to U2’s “Beautiful Day” to some hip hop I didn’t recognize but everyone around us seemed to know. Crowd favorites were “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “Higher and Higher.” In the section in front of us several young women appeared to have organized a line dance to “Respect.” And it was impossible not to dance—not only because of the cold, but because we were in such close proximity that if one person swayed or shook their hips, well it was a chain reaction.

A personal trainer for the Ravens came out to literally warm up the crowd (twice) by leading us in calisthenics, and reminding us “ Baltimore —drink water, eat vegetables, stay alive.” It was quite remarkable and amusing that the majority of us obeyed his instructions to “work those abs” and “raise the roof.” Jumping rope proved more difficult since we didn’t have the space, but simply jumping helped me regain feeling in my toes.

The official program began sometime after 3/3:30, when the Morgan State University Choir took the stage. I had seen them perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this year (Bernstein’s Mass—it was awesome!), but nothing prepared me for this. Not only were their voices amazing, but the energy of the crowd— the majority of whom appeared to know these spirituals and were singing along—had shifted; no longer were we the increasingly impatient citizens making the best of the cold while waiting for our new leader, we had became this huge, connected group of people, singing, dancing, holding hands. We were moved by these words of struggle, joy, hope, humility. It was then that I realized that I could never even come close to imagining what this moment must be like for the older African-American woman holding my hand. It was enough to make a believer out of a non-believer like me.

“I bet you haven’t been able to see anything down there except for the back of people’s coats. How tall are you, anyway, 5 foot 2?” asked a very big man in front of me. When I replied that I was actually 4’10, he whisked me away from my companions to stand in front of him and get a much better view of the choir, next to a sweet older woman who proceeded to protectively place her arm around my shoulder. I overheard a woman behind us remark “you’re a good brother” to the man, a perfect stranger, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see. The day was filled with such moments of goodwill.

Elijah Cummings and Martin O’Malley made brief remarks, but I really couldn’t hear them. The crowd was restless for Obama and had little interest in what these gentlemen had to say. Sheila Dixon was notably absent, as was appropriate. If you pocket money intended for the poor you really shouldn’t have the privilege of introducing Barack Obama.
Every time the disembodied female voice announced “Ladies and gentleman……please welcome…” the crowd held bated breath which turned to utter disappointment when it wasn’t Barack. So we almost missed it when we heard “Ladies and Gentleman……… Dr. (groans from the crowd)…Jill and Vice President Elect Joe Biden! (followed by rapturous applause). How can you not love Joe Biden, he’s from Greenridge ( Scranton ), and Jill was lovely in her flowing purple scarf. Then we heard “Michelle and President Elect Barack Obama!” I couldn’t see or hear a thing from the stage, for this crowd of 40,000 became electric—screaming, shouting, cheering, waving, jumping up and down, embracing their companions & neighbors, caressing their children, crying. (And I thought the crowd was joyous during the Morgan State University Choir—clearly I had never experienced true jubilance before). Barack made his way to the podium, and I was very pleased to see him wearing gloves. Michelle and the Bidens sat behind him while he spoke. I have to say that Michelle is a beautiful woman—all poise, confidence, and tall, quite stylish in her purple gloves and high boots. I know there’s more to her than that, but what a pleasure it is to have a cool first lady, too!

The teleprompters unfortunately blocked Obama’s face while he spoke, but we could see him on his way to and from the podium. The previously raucous crowd was completely silent. All you could hear was Barack’s voice and the click of digital cameras. We were captivated. Obama spoke carefully and passionately of the struggles past and the struggles ahead, the importance of Baltimore (historically and currently), the importance of unity, hard work, commitment. His remarks were brief (~15 minutes), but he stayed and worked the crowd— shaking hands, posing for pictures, waving to those of us too far away to get close— “I love you back” he shouted. And then he left, leaving the crowd cheering, dancing, shouting “O—Bam—a…!” We kissed and hugged each other and our neighbors in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like it, the true melting pot of America embracing one another in celebration.

It was those moments of human connection that made standing 6 hours in the freezing cold worth it. As Obama said himself, this was never simply about him. Yesterday it was about the experience—being in this joyous, hopeful crowd in my city. A city that he didn’t have to come to either time (he was always guaranteed our vote), but that was symbolically important for him to visit. His visit doesn’t erase the history of slavery, or the racism that still exits, or the 250 murders of young black men in Baltimore in 2008— this election doesn’t change national or global inequities overnight. But it’s not just the historic nature of this election that has everyone excited—it’s the man himself, an unflappable pragmatist, who is exactly what we need right now. It’s such a joy to have hope in one’s leaders again. More than that, it’s a joy to have hope in one’s neighbors again.

I get impatient with friends on the far left who accuse me of drinking the Obama Kool-Aid. No one expects the man to walk on water (except maybe my mother). I think equating hope with naiveté is not only dangerous, but plain wrong. The best McCain bumper sticker I saw said “Nope”—with the Obama symbol being the o. What a huge miscalculation that was, running on the platform of “no hope”! If there’s one thing I’ve learned working at the Kennedy Krieger, it’s that hope is never false. Hope is what gets people out of bed in the morning even if they’re trapped in a completely broken body. There’s nothing naïve or clichéd about that. And it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t expect real change in this country. Obama’s going to piss people off (he already has with Rick Warren— hell folks even got mad about hottie Rahm Emmanuel). I’m sure he’s going to piss ME off. I disagree with the notion that just because we’re hopeful somehow we’ll give him a free pass. On the contrary, as Cornel West said during the election, once he’s elected we’ll be watching carefully to make sure he does what we’ve elected him to.

Over the last 8 years, many of us not only felt beaten down, but horrified and embarrassed by things done in our name. And, most significantly, we felt powerless. I yelled an expletive out loud in a completely silent movie theater while watching Fahrenheit 9/11. I never want to feel that hopeless again. The day was also a reminder of the things we have done right. Our union is imperfect, as Barack says, but it works nonetheless. World reaction to this election was telling—our European neighbors who we find so progressive have been forced to do some soul searching. Could they, too, anytime soon elect a person of color as their leader? The answer appears to be a resounding no. Hell, France has something like 1 person of color in their entire Parliament. And while those in Obama , Japan may be celebrating the election of Barack, the Japanese would rather create robots than open up their borders to immigrants (and they treat their own buraku as second class citizens). We are a very flawed nation, and atonement for Gitmo and Iraq will not come quickly or easily. But yesterday we literally were those tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Listening to the soloist from the Morgan State University Choir sing the national anthem, I felt a completely foreign feeling. Pride.

It was a gift.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on…..

---- U2

I wouldn’t have survived the 2004 election were in not for the special extended edition DVDs of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—an entire world to get lost in. Likewise, I don’t think I would’ve survived the last month of all Sarah Palin news all the time were it not for the exquisite distraction of 3 stellar live shows. I’ve had bits of papers of notes from these shows, and am finally getting around to compiling them. There’s been too much “Obamaphoria” to concentrate on anything else. I read a great Frank Rich column in which he says something to the effect that we’re finally able to recover from our 8 year abusive relationship with our government. I thought it was a brilliant analogy, and helps explain why we’ve all been walking around with our heads in the clouds for days. It’s a new world.


Literary death rock.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – 10/6/2008

9:30 Club, Washington DC

This show was a 68th birthday present for my mother, so my folks came down for a visit and I drove us to DC. Remarkably, they were not the oldest people in the crowd, but they were probably the oldest people there who were not allowed to drink. Yes, that’s right, we were carded (of course!), thanks to their freakish fountain of youth daughter (come on people-- I have wrinkles all across my forehead, and laugh lines, too, I do not look under 21!) And, of course, being the responsible senior citizens they are, they left all of their credit cards, IDs, etc. back in my apartment in Baltimore. So they both got black ink stamped on their hands which FORBADE them from drinking alcohol! It’s a good thing they aren’t drinkers and didn’t care, though my dad was somewhat delighted that he was carded—he’s nearly 70! We should’ve known we were in for an exceptional evening from the start.

The openers were more monotonous than monotonous, and I don’t even remember their name. And then it happened, Nick and company took the stage, looking like a haggard band of pirates/gypsies/Amish settlers—all thin men in weathered suits, with long, straggly hair. And there he was, the ring master of this motley crew, as seedy and sinister as Mack the Knife, and as sinewy as Mick Jagger. He would be the sexiest 51 year old I know were in not for the pedophile mustache (seriously!), but it’s no wonder Polly Jean and the doe-eyed Anita Lane both dug him. (youtube “Nick Cave and PJ Harvey-- Henry Lee.” It’s reportedly one of the first times they met, and is, um, intense.) It’s disappointing that he’s married to a supermodel, but I guess freakishly beautiful and tall women also dig intense, skinny guys. Bummer.

Their 2008 release, “Dig, Lazurus, Dig” dominated the setlist, but they played songs from across their catalogue, including my first of their albums, 1992’s “Henry’s Dream.” It was an evening of pure theater, but at the same time, remarkable music. They are not simply vampiric in style and image, but also play like the undead—beautifully and relentlessly. I’ve never heard so many lyrics about God and dead lovers—but it’s a testament to his skill as a songwriter and the musicianship of the Bad Seeds, that this never dissolves into art school drivel. It completely works, and you’re transported to another world. The evening can be summed up with the chorus from ‘Deanna”: I ain’t down here for your money, I ain’t down here for your love, I’m down here for your soul…

1. Hold On to Yourself
2. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
3. Tupelo
4. The Weeping Song
5. Red Right Hand
6. Midnight Man
7. God is in the House (1st half only, missed the lines, so he just stopped it)
8. Love Letter
9. Today's Lesson
10. The Mercy Seat
11. Moonland
12. Deanna
13. Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
14. More News From Nowhere

15. Your Funeral... My Trial
16. Jesus of the Moon
17. Get Ready for Love
18. Stagger Lee

I was a lover before this war.

TV On the Radio with the Dirtbombs - 10/10/2008

Electric Factory, Philadelphia

I discovered the Brooklyn band TVOTR earlier this year quite by accident. I’d seen their name in Rolling Stone at some point, and just happened across 2 of their CDs at the library. From the opening bars of ‘I Was a Lover’ on 2006’s “Return to Cookie Mountain” I was completely hooked. I don’t remember a time in my adult life feeling so excited about a new record. It was akin to being a kid and hearing “War” or “Synchronicity” or “Louder than Bombs” for the first time. I was completely at a loss, pacing around my apartment, wondering who I could possibly share this momentous news with who would truly UNDERSTAND, and not just say “that’s nice” and go back to their spouse or kids and think me self-indulgent for having the luxury to obsess over a band. So, of course, I called my mom, who listened to me as if I was 17 and describing why “Monkey Gone to Heaven” was the greatest song in the world. (Thanks mom!— I was right, of course, because if there’d been no Pixies, there would’ve been no Nirvana, and kids in small towns across America would’ve never been exposed to indie rock). It was a fortuitous discovery, since late 2008 saw the release of TVOTR’s “Dear Science,” which proved to be a critical and commercial favorite, if not as ground breaking as their 2006 release.

I first heard them live during the summer at Merriweather Post Pavilion outside of Baltimore— a great venue with great acoustics for a band with an expansive sound like TVOTR. There, however, they shared the bill with several other bands (Thievery Corporation, Ladytron, Federico Aubele, and the much-hyped Seu Jorge—who was very disappointing in his 1 song appearance), and I was eager for more TV on the Radio.

The Electric Factory— in newly gentrified northern Philly – is similar to the 9:30 Club. I wanted to be close to the stage, and wasn’t planning on drinking, so I joined the under 21 crowd on the floor. From what I could see, it was your typical indie rock crowd (young, white, predominantly male hipsters), but certainly more racially diverse than Nick Cave’s crowd, whether this was because it’s Philly or because the band members are predominantly African-American I’m not sure. Race is always discussed in regards to TVOTR, and every review/interview describes them as a black rock band, as if that’s an anomaly. The band members are always quick to point out that despite the popularity of hip hop and R&B, rock ‘n roll has historically been black music, so the fuss is much ado about nothing.

TV on the Radio ARE, in fact, an anomaly, but not because of race, but because of their SOUND. Their combination of rock, new wave, and funk is courtesy of their dual frontmen, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, and multi-instrumentalist (and “it” producer, notably of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and (cringe!) Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers) David Andrew Sitek. The band is rounded out by Gerard Smith on bass and Jaleel Bunton on drums. Following Detroit’s hard-rocking and crowd pleasing Dirtbombs, TVOTR opened with ‘Young Liars’ from their 2003 EP. It’s a great song of gradual build-up that just doesn’t work in a small venue with muffled acoustics, but the crowd didn’t care, and neither did I, and I let myself move and sway and dance, which became increasingly easier to do as the set became funkier. Hell, Tunde even sorta raps on ‘Dancing Choose.’ The band’s energy was electric, although the dissonance sometimes overpowered the band’s most original feature—the complement of Tunde’s baritone and Kyp’s falsetto. However, on songs like ‘Province’ and ‘Dreams’ it totally works and you hear two powerful, distinct voices on top of Dave’s grooves. Personal favorites were ‘Wolf Like Me’ (although it was somewhat disconcerting to be in a sea of adolescent hormones at the time), and ‘Blues from Down Here’ which is one of my faves— partly because of Kyp’s voice and partly because it reminds me of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The 4 song encore ended with ‘Staring at the Sun’ from their 2004 debut album, which begins with the line “Cross the street from your storefront cemetery, hear me hailing from inside and realize, I am the conscience clear in pain or ecstasy, we were all weaned, my dear, upon the same fatigue…” All in all it was a great show, although I would’ve loved to hear their killer version of the Pixies’ ‘Mr. Grieves.’

Far from my teenage days of wanting bands only to myself (it was so sad to share beloved bands with the unworthy masses!), I want TV on the Radio to be multi-millionaires who sell records worldwide. I want everyone to know their name. TV on the Radio is not Radiohead (even though their debut EP was named ‘OK Calculator’!). But they have the potential to be.

Set List:
Young Liars
The Wrong Way
Dancing Choose
Golden Age
Wolf Like Me
Halfway Home
Blues From Down Here
Shout Me Out
Love Dog
A Method
Staring at the Sun

Talking to the tax man about poetry.

Billy Bragg with the Watson Twins - 10/28/08

Ram’s Head Live, Baltimore

I first discovered Billy Bragg after hearing my sister’s college radio show when I was in high school, and then saw him live for the first time while living in Seattle in ‘96. (He was touring with Robyn Hitchcock—what a great show!) So even though I’d sort of lost track of what he’d been up to (after Mermaid Avenue), I was psyched to have the chance to see everyone’s favorite socialist in Baltimore, especially 1 week before the election. I figured if Billy couldn’t deliver hope, well then…

I’d never been to Ram’s Head before, and must confess I totally misjudged it. For some reason I was under the impression that that whole area catered to the fake tan and fake nails set, probably because that’s the crowd I spied when waiting for the last Harry Potter book to come out while people watching the kids at the anime convention (they were the cutest alternative kids in the world, if I was born 2 decades later I would’ve so been there as Princess Mononoke!). Anyway, Ram’s Head turned out to be a great place to see a show, and for the first time in 35 years, I was right up against the stage, right under Billy’s microphone. Woohoo! I met a nice couple who first saw Billy in the 80s, and had seen him hundreds of times since. They were also huge Pogues fans. I didn’t tell them my story of seeing Shane in Dublin and being rescued from the drunken youth by the security guards. I felt more like listening than talking, and they were good company.

The Watson Twins—2 pretty sisters with pretty voices from Louisville, KY—opened with a set of pleasant but utterly forgettable acoustic ballads. Billy opened the show with ‘Help Save The Youth Of America,’ a cold-war era song that includes the line “the cities of Europe have burned before and they may burn again, but if they do I hope you understand Washington will burn with them…” Yes, it was that kind of evening. And while Billy didn’t hesitate from addressing a wide range of issues from global warming, to worker’s rights, to Barack Obama, he also addressed more benign issues including the virtues of throat coat tea, and, um, Ingrid Bergman. While there were, surprisingly, some right wing hecklers (yelling about John McCain—how odd), most of the crowd appreciated his musings on politics, the Clash, and getting older. And in fairness, although he is seen as a political singer, he’s written some killer love songs, one of my faves being Brickbat (which he didn’t play): “I used to want to plant bombs at the last night of the proms, but now you’re by me, with the baby, in the bathroom..” And of course ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’ which got more press this year because of Stubbs’ death. He is a true storyteller, and his songs and guitar playing are an added bonus.

One of the evening’s highlights for me--in a monologue about Obama and how 1 person can’t fix everything but can still make a significant difference—was when Billy talked about how disappointed he was in Tony Blair, but how, despite everything—the war, Blair’s support of Bush—he was still partly responsible for peace in Northern Ireland, something Billy never expected to see in his lifetime. Something Billy had to give him credit for. Now, I don’t need to tell you what this meant to me. My jaw and my stomach must’ve both been on the floor. It’s been a great disappointment to me that the left in this country has such an easy time romanticizing the struggles of ‘the other’—why, for instance, Baltimore’s radical bookstore, Red Emma’s, sells Zapatista coffee, but not, say, Irish republican army breakfast tea (!!!)—and not examining conflicts like Northern Ireland. That’s not to say Irish Americans haven’t supported Northern Ireland, they have, for better or for worse, and perhaps THEY have romanticized the struggle. But the left has been notably silent. So it was thrilling to have Billy Bragg discuss how remarkable and really earth shattering is it that the Good Friday agreements have been implemented, that Gerry and Martin were seated in the Northern Ireland Assembly, that the RUC was disbanded. I wanted to cry. I don’t understand why we’re such anglophiles as a culture. I mean, we learned all our Guantanamo tactics from the Brits—they had plenty of practice in Ireland and India and elsewhere, and internment of Irish citizens without being tried or charged was the precursor to our dreaded Patriot Act. Anyway…Way to go, Billy! England Get out of Ireland! (He didn’t quite say that!)

But we just elected an African-American man named Barack Hussein Obama as President, so all things are possible…“I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl…..”

Couldn’t find a setlist online, but he played these songs (in no particular order):

Help Save The Youth Of America
Farm Boy
Shirley (Greetings To The New Brunette)
The Milkman of Human Kindness
A Lover Sings

I Keep Faith
There Is Power In A Union
Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

Levi Stubbs Tears
Sing Their Souls Back Home (with The Watson Twins)
A New England

When I’m at the pearly gates, this’ll be on my videotape.

Radiohead with Grizzly Bear - 8/12/08
Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, NJ

Sound Check - 4:30 PM:
I arrived in Camden 2 + hours before the gates of the venue were scheduled to open. While there were lots of friendly-looking folks tailgating in the parking lot, I decided to head over to the Susquehanna Bank Center, figuring that I’d find a bathroom and a drink of water after my 2 hour drive. As I approached the gates, I could hear Thom’s perfect, pure voice singing “Pull me out of the air crash, pull me out of the lake, for I’m your superhero, we are standing on the edge…” I probably don’t have to tell you what a thrill it was at the moment to hear them playing, seemingly, just for me. I couldn’t see anything, but if I put my face through the bars of the gate and closed my eyes, it really didn’t matter. The SOUND was perfect. It was a rare moment of really truly just listening to a group of amazing musicians-there was no crowd, no cheers, no one talking or singing along in the background-it was just them and me (well ok, 2 or 3 other people were there listening too). There were 2 teenage boys who couldn’t stop smiling—they were in complete awe—and eventually more of a crowd formed and the spell was broken. But for those several minutes of listening quietly to the sound check, it was much harder to think of them as gods- no matter how I would feel later- we were just human beings a few hundred feet away from each other that were momentarily connected.
[Besides ‘Lucky,’ they also played ‘I Might Be Wrong,’ ‘The Gloaming,’ and ‘Go Slowly.’]

The gates opened at 6:30 on the dot. The line stretched down the street. There were groups of teenagers, college kids, parents with children, loners (like me), thirty and forty somethings, even a few white hairs. I only had 2 people in line in front of me, so was one of the first people to enter the venue. Despite being slightly dehydrated and still needing to find a bathroom, I skipped all of the concession stands and walked passed the restrooms. Lawn seating is of course first come first serve, and I was not going to take a chance of getting a bad spot, especially since every spot is a bad spot if you’re as short as me. Luckily, I got a perfect spot, and the closest spot on the lawn. The only thing separating me from Thom were those yuppies in the expensive seats. I plopped my blanket down right against the railing at the bottom of the lawn, slightly right of center, which ensured an unobstructed view. Even if the entire seated crowd stood, or stood on their seats (which they did), I’d be able to see. And thank god – once the show started, the entire lawn stood, so even if I was on the incline, there’s no way I would’ve seen anything. It looked really unbelievable though, a complete sea of people, with no sign of grass anywhere, and 25,000 devoted fans. A nice couple seated to my right offered to watch my blanket while I went for a walk, and after I did the same for them, we talked for much of the night. They weren’t nearly as surprised as I was to learn that we were all from Baltimore (!), and they filled me in on some local bands (Fools and Horses—has anyone heard of them?).

It’s probably a good time to take issue with the recent comments from Liam Gallagher, of the highly overrated British band Oasis, who called Radiohead fans “boring and ugly.” I’d also like to dispute the stereotype that Radiohead fans are predominantly white, middle class, and morose. It was an amazing, beautiful, diverse crowd. My Baltimorean friends were white—he was originally from Philly and looked kind of like Flea—but the audience covered the spectrum. To my left were two Russian supermodel types, I could totally see their thongs when they sat down, and behind me were 2 young Asian students, a brother and sister, who spoke in heavily accented English. It was their first Radiohead show. There were young hipsters wearing brightly colored ties smoking thin cigars and wearing sunglasses after the sun went down, same-sex couples holding hands, the tattooed and pierced, the dreadlocked, and lots of intense looking young men. There were people talking, laughing, reading, dancing, smokin’ up. One of the security guards confiscated a joint from someone next to me, but suspiciously pocketed it. I don’t think he was going to turn it in to his supervisor. Definitely not a boring, ugly, or easy to pigeonhole crowd.

The opening band, the Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear, played a pleasing set, but like most of the crowd, I was anxious for Radiohead. Prior to their last song, the lead singer thanked Radiohead and thanked the audience for listening to them “while waiting to be blown away.” I think that was the general consensus, Grizzly Bear were a good band, but we were all waiting to have our minds blown. And we did.

Shortly before 9 PM, Radiohead took the stage. Hearing and seeing Radiohead last night I felt what it must have been like to see Pink Floyd before Roger Waters left. While Thom is definitely the epicenter, the confluence of these 5 talented men is what’s made Radiohead work. While they’ve done some great things apart (Thom’s “Eraser,” Jonny’s composing), as a band they are preternatural. They opened with ’15 Step,’ the “In Rainbows” opener, to an awesome LED “light show”— energy efficient ‘lighting’ (think Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, but really cool)—and Thom’s wacky dancing, a cross between running in place and religious possession. I’m sorry, but this man is the definition of sexy—all wiry, lazy-eyed 5’5 of him, the author of ‘Fake Plastic Trees,’ with a falsetto that rivals Beth Gibbons’ of Portishead. For the majority of the night, he was playing guitar or playing piano, so had less opportunity to flail, although he was conducting the audience like a deranged maestro during ‘Idioteque.’ Jonny arrived wearing a dark hoodie covering his head which made him look strangely elf-like (I kept picturing Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings), especially with his lanky body, head down, and hair covering his face. I saw a post on a RH fan site recently that asked “does Jonny Greenwood have Asperger’s?” Who knows, but he certainly plays like he’s possessed. He eventually took the hoodie off, looking more human, albeit pretty intense. At first I thought Ed was wearing a suit, looking all dapper and poised and tall. His backing vocals were stellar, especially on Weird Fishes. Colin looked like Colin—happy and wearing a white tee, while it was pretty hard to see Phil, except for the top of his bald head. They were all pretty quiet between songs, with Thom’s occasional “thank yous” and “cheers.” More than that was unnecessary.

They played an amazing set, including 2 encores, lasting over 2 hours. They played every song from “In Rainbows” as well as ’Go Slowly’ from disc 2, which Thom dedicated to “everybody up in the lawn.” But while “In Rainbows” dominated the setlist, they played songs from all of their albums (if you count ‘Morning Bell’ for “Amnesiac”). ‘The National Anthem’ was a killer, followed by ‘Videotape’ which made my eyes well up. They even did ‘Street Spirit’ to end the first encore--the songs from “The Bends” were pleasantly unexpected (they also did ‘Just,’ ‘The Bends,’ & ‘Planet Telex’). During ‘No Surprises’ it was pretty chill inducing to hear 25,000 people sing “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us” and then cheer wildly. There were many other highlights of the night: Thom and Jonny playing ‘Faust Arp’ alone, hearing ‘Lucky’ at sound check and then again during the show—‘Lucky!’, thinking the show was over and then starting the second encore with a brilliant ‘Reckoner.’ The show ended just as it began—with pure theatrics. They played “Everything in Its Right Place”—there’s something right with the world when thousands of people are singing “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”—and ended with each band member leaving the stage while the others continued the song. Thom left first, then Jonny, and so on, with the LED lights finally converging to spell “Everything in Its Right Place.”

It’s difficult for me to describe the experience, just as it’s difficult for me to separate them as a band and individual musicians, from their politics and activism, their totally ‘green tour’ (the LED lights, no plastic, having their equipment shipped, etc), their giving away their album for free on the internet, their other musical accomplishments. When you enter the venue and are immediately handed information about human trafficking, you expect to have a different kind of evening. When Radiohead hired consultants to determine how to reduce their carbon footprint on this tour, they got some flack for being high-brow do-gooders, but were also called hypocrites (Damon Albarn from Blur and Gorillaz criticized them for touring at all). So what does this have to do with music? Well, a lot, I think. Their persona as a band is partly why they have such a devoted following. Let’s face it, if you’re an arch conservative, you probably don’t love Radiohead, despite the fact that they are probably the most talented and groundbreaking band in my lifetime. By definition they do attract a different kind of fan. How else would a band who hasn’t had a “hit” song played on the radio since the early 1990s thrive as one of the world’s most successful and beloved bands? They’ve accomplished this with virtually no mainstream radio play since ‘Creep’ in the early 1990s. Personally I think that’s what’s given them the creative freedom to do an album like ‘Kid A’ – they’ve never been part of the mainstream, so they’ve been able to continue pushing the boundaries musically without any negative repercussions. On the contrary, they are loved because they are fucking amazing musically, and therefore haven’t been accountable to your typical radio listening top 40 audience. Sure, they’re multimillionaires now, but releasing ‘In Rainbows’ on the internet under a “pay what you want” model was a risk, just like everything else they do.
A band like Radiohead is also very freeing for a fan. Sure, everyone has their favorite songs, but since they have no “hits” the people who go to hear them live aren’t waiting for ‘Creep’ (which they do not play anymore, hell they don’t even play ‘High and Dry,’ ‘Paranoid Android’ or ‘Karma Police’). Their fans are there because they know their 7 albums and many of the bootlegs and b-sides. Radiohead can draw on their extensive musical catalogue (as they did last night) and put on an awesome show—there are no limitations.

Strangely, the whole experience felt pretty intimate. Being there with 25,000 people, standing on a small ledge of concrete against a metal railing, I experienced something I haven’t in a long time. I was completely focused on the present. I didn’t think about work, I didn’t think about anyone else, I didn’t even think about myself. I just listened, saw, felt. Happiest I’ve been. Jigsaw falling into place.

Setlist: (thanks to the At Ease website)
01. 15 Step
02. There There
03. Morning Bell
04. All I Need
05. The National Anthem
06. Videotape
07. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
08. The Gloaming
09. Where I End And You Begin
10. Faust Arp (before starting, Thom: “Good evening Jonny. How are you?”)
11. No Surprises
12. Jigsaw (before starting, Thom: “Okay. You ready?” Crowd roars.)
13. The Bends
14. Idioteque
15. Climbing Up The Walls
16. Nude
17. Bodysnatchers
Encore 1
18. House of Cards
19. Lucky (Thom: “Okay”)
20. Go Slowly (Thom: “This one is for everybody. Everybody up in the lawn … This is a slow song for a good reason.”)
21. Just
22. Street Spirit
Encore 2
23. Reckoner
24. Planet Telex
25. Everything In Its Right Place