Monday, 23 June 2008

Even though I may not totally agree with his politics, I’ve been a fan of Billy Bragg for many years. His songs are strong mix of punk, worker’s ballads, and the world at large that just have this certain appeal to me. Bragg played The Cedar a couple weeks ago and I took my friend Sherry to the show.

It was actually a pretty busy week: Association meeting on Tuesday, drinks with friends on Wednesday, Aimee Mann at the Zoo with Sherry on Thursday, Billy Bragg at The Cedar on Friday, then Stomp! at the Ordway on Saturday.

In the couple-dozen shows I’ve seen at The Cedar, this has been only the third where there were no chairs.

The first was Hoven Droven, a Celtic punk band at the Nordic Roots festival a couple years ago. The show started with chairs, but as the band got going people got up to dance. At first the chairs were (gently) shoved away from the stage, then quickly a bunch of people helped to stack them and put the chairs away properly. In under 5 minutes the floor was clear.

The second show was Konono No. 1, a percussion and thumb piano band from Africa. (Boy was that show loud!) They started the evening without the chairs so people could dance. The crowd really got hopping in sync with itself and you’d see this mass of heads bobbing into the air and back down again.

And then the Billy Bragg show. It was billed as limited seating, but I was surprised to find no chairs at all. I figured it meant the normal seating arrangement, but that there were more tickets than seats. I wouldn’t call Bragg’s music danceable – indeed, nobody really moved that much the entire show. However, the concert was sold out. With chairs The Cedar holds about 300 people but they must have sold 600+ tickets for this show. Standing room only in the truest sense.

The opening act was a guy named C. R. Avery. He did this beat-box, hip-hop, spoken word thing that was just great. I had to buy his two CDs after the show. If you’ve ever heard Kid Beyond before you’ve got the general idea, but with a bit more focus on the words than the beats and the looping.

Billy came out and it was just him and a couple guitars. One electric and one acoustic. He did several songs from the his latest album, Mr. Love and Justice, with a healthy dose of old stuff interspersed. I got to hear most of my favorites, including “Sexuality” and “The Space Race Is Over.” It was a really good show.

At one point, switching back from acoustic to electric, Bragg made a remark about amplification and apologized that I was getting the brunt of it standing there straight in front of his main stage amp. I just smiled, pointed to my ear plugs, and told him it was no sweat; I was getting a great show and couldn’t have picked a better spot about 6 feet off center right against the stage.

After the show he came out and signed autographs. He took the time to talk with everyone in line and come my turn he apologized again for the amplifier placement. I said he shouldn’t apologize, I knew what I was getting into by standing there. I have earplugs and could still hear every word, it just took the edge off. Sherry had helped me grab the set list from the stage, which he gladly signed and tried to point out the one or two spots where songs got added.

Then I asked him to autograph a couple CDs I had brought with me. As I handed them to him, I remarked that they were two of the old ones (not the oldest, but William Bloke and England, Half-English.) He started signing them, and asked “Who are they?” Confused, I looked and realized what had happened. He had written “To the Old Ones, “ and signed the first one.

Unable to make something up on the spot, I explained that I had said “Two of the old ones,” figuring he would just sign them and be done with it. Completely embarrassed, Billy remarked that after a show there is often no brain filtering information between ears and hands, so he’ll often just write whatever someone says because he’s talking with them at the same he signs stuff. “I’m just as likely to write ‘To the git that makes a terrible cup of coffee’ if someone said at the right time.” We all started riffing on “To the Old Ones” a bit, including my friend Kathy who was next in line, and eventually someone (I think it was Kathy) said “To the Young Ones.” The Young Ones was a British sit-com that played on MTV for a while here in the US. A bit more joking around and that’s what the second CD now says: “To the Young Ones, Billy Bragg.”

It was time to go, but I got a picture with Billy and he apologized again for the autograph mixup. I said it was no trouble at all. In fact it was great! Usually it’s just a signature, or “To Michael” at most – as if anyone would be fooled into thinking Billy and I were drinking buddies. These two CDs, “To the Old Ones” and “To the Young Ones” are now truly special. Not only do they have some good music on them, but I have a story to go with them.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

I first saw Erin McKeown when she was here, opening for Mike Doughty a couple years ago. She put on a great set and I immediately bought her CD after the show. There she was, working her own merch, and I got the chance to meet her. And what a firecracker she was. Cracking jokes and having a great time, it was infectious.

She didn’t have change when I paid for my CD, so I just said to keep the extra $5 and it was no big deal. She wrote a bit extra for my autograph and was happy to pose for a picture — one which she took herself by holding my camera at arm’s length. A couple minutes later, as I was waiting in line to talk with Doughty, she practically tackled me to give make sure I got my change since she had it. The disk was We Will Become Like Birds and, as it happens, I rather enjoy it. It has a near-permanent place on my iPod and gets played quite often.

I was glad to see her coming back to town as a headliner at the Cedar Cultural Center. I would have preferred a bigger venue, but this was good. I didn’t hesitate in buying a ticket and really looked forward to the show.

When I got there, I discovered that she had many more than just the one CD. In addition to Birds there were five others and I bought them all. I simply couldn’t resist.

The opening act was a woman named Haley Bonar. She was O.K., the songs being mostly very simple 4/4 numbers free of any real complication. I ended up passing on her CD. The set just wasn’t good enough to pay $15 for the disk.

One of Erin’s disks turned out to be covers of old Jazz tunes; stuff from the 20’s and 30’s. It’s an era I hold dear to my heart. Much of my favorite music is from that era. It’s the stuff that really sticks with me through the years.

Once Erin came out, things got good. She did a bunch of stuff from the Jazz disk, as well as from Birds and her older releases. The set list went something like this: Thanks for the Boogie Ride; Paper Moon; White City; James!; I Was a Little Too Lonely (You Were A Little Too Late); You Were Right About Everything; The Taste of You; Coucou; Sing You Sinners; Melody; Rhode Island is Famous for You; What Kind of Lover Am I?†; I Will Never Leave You†; To the Stars†; Slung-Lo; Wooden Boat?† (a new song); We Are More; Halleluja…Get Happy; with an encore of: If You a Viper; Blackbirds.

After the show Erin came out for autographs and meet-n-greet. I got to chat with her for a couple minutes and got my photo from the Doughty show signed. She actually remembered the occasion and the $5 thing. I also found out she has been in town nearly a dozen times. I admitted that the Doughty show was the first I had heard of her, and I wish it had been much earlier. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to perhaps the tiniest fanboy crush, so that’s about as far as I got. My brain went to mush because I was talking to a cute girl with a great voice and I completely forgot go get any of the new CDs signed.

You can bet I won’t miss her again and I can’t wait for the next time. If you get the chance, don’t miss it.

† I’m not 100% sure of the song title. Erin didn’t announce them and I can’t seem to pick them out from just looking at the track lists on her CDs.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

I originally wrote this on my BlackBerry at and after the show, but for some reason never posted it. It may have something to do with how the it just dies at the end, but I’m tossing it up anyway.

The Cedar, another former movie theater that has found new life as a concert venue, is a neat little place. With a capacity of about 500, it now plays host to folk and minor rock acts, rather than the latest picture show.

It’s not big on amenities, preferring to bring in quality music and retain the history of the place. And it really works for them. Ic’ve seen such varied music as classical guitar (California Guitar Trio), Swedish rock (Hoven Droven), and even Klezmer music in the form of the Klezmatics.

In truth, The Klezmatics are more a fusion of traditional Klezmer music and more modern, rock sensibilities. Their newest album is all Woody Guthrie lyrics set to up-tempo Klezmer instrumentation.

I thought, at first, that thuds was obscure enough that it wouldn’t be that full. Not was I wrong. The Cedar was packed. Filled to capacity. Standing room only. I’m not sure if it was from the Guthrie fans or the local Jewish community. Either way it was a strong show of support for something other than what we’re force-fed on the radio.

The Klezmatics came out to strong applause and did a 60-minute first set with a good mix of rocked-up traditional influenced music and quite a few song from their most recent CD.

I’m not sure what else to say about the show… I can say, with confidence, that it was great and I enjoyed myself immensely; but somehow that doesn’t feel like it’s enough. Sadly, it will have to do this time.