Brandi Carlile at Madison Square Garden: A review in poem form

On Saturday night, Sept. 14, 2019 I saw Brandi Carlile (with opener Mavis Staples !) at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was a HUGE DEAL as it was Carlile’s first time headlining at this historic venue. What a year she’s having! I love ALL OF IT.

The show has been reviewed several times by several people and several media outlets. I’ve read some of these reviews and they’re fantastic. Look ’em up and have at it.

So what can I say about the show that hasn’t already said?

I decided to venture into uncharted waters and share my thoughts about the show in POEM FORM. And so. Here it is.


The Garden
By Aimsel L. Ponti

On Saturday night I witnessed a supernova in human form
I sat -and stood- among thousands
Together we sang
Together we cheered
Together we celebrated

On Saturday night I saw an epiphany in human form
I sat among thousands
We heard guitars and strings and bass
We heard drums and piano and a horn
We heard a voice from another planet

On Saturday night I experienced a miracle in human form
I sat among thousands
We listened as gratitude was expressed in unprecedented ways
We saw tears wiped away, some of them our own
We took the songs into our hearts, where they’ll stay forever

On Saturday night I understood transcendence in human form
I sat among thousands
We beheld a band at their zenith
We experienced music stripped to its core
We felt our hearts get catapulted up to the hallowed rafters

On Saturday night I realized the magnitude of music in human form
I sat among thousands
We were rapturous during a Joni song
We were beside ourselves with Mavis
We lost our minds with Amanda and Natalie

On Saturday night I saw a show at Madison Square Garden
I sat among thousands
I was awestruck and overwhelmed
I was ripped apart and reassembled
I was thankful, so very thankful for Brandi Carlile

Newport Folk Festival 2019: All about the women & one famous frog

In July of 2018 I attended the Newport Folk Festival for the very first time. When I left that festival I remember thinking to myself that the experience would never be topped. It just wasn’t possible.

Now for a little journalism 101: I am not going to bury the lede!

Instead I will shoot it into the sky like a 100 foot blazing arrow and to further embarrass myself, I’m going to do it in all caps and goddamn bold too. Ready?

DOLLY PARTON AND KERMIT THE FROG WERE SURPRISE GUESTS AT THE 2019 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL.

I still can’t believe it. Dolly Parton AND Kermit the Frog. Both were surprises and both slayed every single person at the festival.  Parton slayed us five times and Kermit did it with one song and a little help from Jim James (My Morning Jacket).

I’ll have more on the country icon and the beloved Muppet shortly. But first, a little unpacking of the rest of the festival.

As I quickly learned at my festival debut last year,  it’s not possible to see all of the performances. There are  a total of four stages and unless I had Orphan Black-esque clones with me, there are always brutal decisions to make. For example, I missed Sheryl Crow’s entire Fort stage set. Ditto for Kacey Musgraves, save for one song. And I foolishly only hung around the Quad stage long enough to see a few songs from Our Native Daughters. I’m still kicking myself over that misstep.Those are but three examples. But I also quickly learned that it’s futile to worry about what you missed, especially when you hear about the surprise guests that jump on stage all weekend long. For example, James Taylor’s boat docked by the fort and he joined Crow on a song. I didn’t see it.

But I sure saw a lot. Some acts I caught the entire sets of, some just a song or two. But everything I saw and heard touched me one way or another. Sometimes I got teary, other times I was spellbound by the music or singing and dancing along with everybody else. Other times I thought my heart was going to beat its way right out of my chest. Like when surprise guest Linda Perry, surrounded and accompanied by an array of extraordinary, mostly female musicians, sang her early 90s anthem “What’s Up?”

I mean for the love of god WATCH THIS:

It’s been more than 25 years since that song was first released and we’re all still trying to get up that great big hill up hope for a destination.

Newport Folk Festival is like spending three days in a place that’s one part Fantasy Island, one part Candy Land and one part heaven, all with a to-die-for live soundtrack and with 10,000 people who are damn happy to be there with you.

If you’re curious and want to see the entire schedule so as to better understand the magnitude of the lineup and why decision making was so rough click HERE.

For the past several days I’ve been thinking that I have to someone qualify this next part or include several disclaimers. But doing that would actually take some of its power away.  Therefore, I’m declaring this as plainly as I can:

THE WOMEN WERE THE STARS OF THE 2019 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL!

That is what I’m going to focus on.

Were the fellas also outstanding? Obviously. In particular J.S. Ondara (do yourself a favor and check him out!) and Jeff Tweedy.

J.S. Ondara
J.S. Ondara on the Harbor Stage of the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.19
Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Jeff Tweedy
Jeff Tweedy on the Fort Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

So not only were the women the superstars of this year’s festival, one in particular led the charge. It would not be a stretch for the unofficial name of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival to be the Newport Brandi Carlile Folk Festival. She likely appeared on more stages than anyone else all weekend long (Amy Ray Band, Hozier, Sheryl Crow, etc. etc. etc) but she was also the leader on what was referred to on the festival schedule only as this:

the collaboration

In fact, it is this collaboration that I’ll spend the most time on because if I live to be 119, I don’t think I’ll ever see anything quite like it again.

It closed out Saturday night and although we had a whole other day of festival left to go, it’s the part of the festival that for me at least, was the most incredible part.

But there were many other moments of the festival that MUST be mentioned and these I’ll mention in the order that I saw them.

It all began on Friday morning.

YOLA. If you don’t know her name you likely will soon enough. Then you’ll listen to her debut album “Walk Through Fire” on repeat. She was the first act I saw at this year’s festival. YOLA is a British country soul singer and if Brandi Carlile was queen of the festival, YOLA was princess, or co-queen, or co-supreme being. She too was on several stages and for good reason, I mean listen to her sing.

YOLA
YOLA on the Harbor Stage of the Newport Folk Festival. 7.26.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Friday afternoon on the Quad stage, I’m With Her performed. They’re the trio of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins. To know them is to love them and even though all three of them have well-established solo careers, what they do as I’m With Her is its own galaxy of musical perfection.

I'm With Her 1
Sara Watkins, Sara Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan of I’m With Her on the Quad Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.26.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I also caught parts of sets by Adia Victoria, Liz Cooper & The Stampede and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. All outstanding.

Amy Ray Band on the Harbor Stage were also  tremendous. It didn’t suck one bit that Brandi Carlile hopped on stage for a handful of songs. Ray released the album “Holler” last year and it’s SO GOOD! 

Amy Ray and Brandi Carlile
Amy Ray with special guest Brandi Carlile during the Amy Ray Band set on the Harbor Stage. 7.26.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

This brings me to what was arguably the most highly-anticipated performance of the entire festival: The world debut performance by The Highwomen.  They’re the new country  supergroup (and I don’t give three shits if you disagree with the use of the term. It’s accurate) of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. Not unlike I’m With Her, all four women of The Highwomen have significant solo careers. They’ve joined forces to turn country music on its ear. The album drops on Sept. 6 and the first single is “Redesigning Women,” which they played twice at Newport because why the hell not right?

When festival director Jay Sweet took the stage to introduce The Highwomen the level of excitement beneath -and well beyond- that Quad stage tent was as palpable. I could barely contain myself. You know who couldn’t either? Brandi Carlile. This is the exact moment when she took to the stage, with her fellow Highwomen right behind her. If this isn’t the world’s most genuine expression of joy, I don’t know what the eff is.

BC smile highwomen walk out on stage
Brandi Carlile walks onto the Quad Stage at Newport Folk Festival as The Highwomen get set to play their first-ever show. 7.26.19
iPhone Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The Highwomen played their entire new album in order, starting with “Highwomen” and ending with “Wheels of Laredo” plus a bonus replay of “Redesigning Women” and if that wasn’t enough, the set also include their take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” from the soundtrack of the film “The Kitchen.”  I never had any intention of breaking the chain when Fleetwood Mac sings it and I sure as hell won’t now having heard Highwomen’s take on it.  Plus they had YOLA and Sheryl Crow join them on  a few songs. I loved every single nano-second of their set. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and their friend Chris Tompkins wrote a gay country love song called “If She Ever Leaves Me.” It’s on the album and the Highwomen played it. Holy Shit. 

In a press release I received a few weeks ago, here’s what Carlile said about The Highwomen:

“Anyone can be a Highwoman,” Carlile notes. “It’s about banding together, abandoning as much ego as humanly possible, holding one another up and amplifying other women every chance we get. Shoulder to shoulder. One push, one love.”

COUNT ME IN!!!

The Highwomen
Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby playing their first show as The Highwomen at Newport Folk Festival. 7.26.19.
Photos by Aimsel Ponti

Now onto Saturday!

Jade Bird was fantastic as was Gregory Alan Isakov and as I said above, Jeff Tweedy. I’m sad I missed Lucy Dacus, Ruston Kelly, Mountain Man and a bunch of other acts but such is festival life.

I did however catch Maggie Rogers’ set on the Fort stage and her performance was dynamic and an absolute blast to see and hear. Despite not playing my two favorite songs, “Alaska” and especially “Dog Years,” her set was fabulous and packed with tunes from “Heard It in a Past Life” along with John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” 

Maggie Rogers
Maggie Rogers on the Fort Stage on 7.27.19
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Soon it became time to gather for the semi-mysterious collaboration. I say semi-mysterious because it was already known that this was Brandi Carlile’s thing. And yes, the rumors about Dolly Parton were also flying around the media tent and the festival on a whole. But let me tell you, there is a HUGE difference between a rumor and actually witnessing something.

I skipped the photo pit for this performance and took up the spot secured to me by my friend and fellow Carlile fanatic Tracy Albernaz. Tracy was to my right and to her right was another friend, Marian Starkey. The three of us all went to Brandi’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend so it only made sense that we ended up together for this performance. To say we had a good spot would be an understatement. We were RIGHT UP against the railing, front and center. And the three of us, along with the other 10,000 fans around us, lost our minds. I may never quite find mine again and I’m entirely OK with that.

There were so many exceptional women on stage that night. SO MANY.  And SO MUCH HAPPENED. Here are some highlights:

Pretty much the entire time, all four Highwomen were on stage along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth (Carlile’s bandmates,)  Jason Isbell and Chris Powell (Carlile’s drummer).

Women of Bluegrass kicked things off. They’re Bonnie Payne, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull and damn it…who am I forgetting? If you know, by all means chime in via the comments. Thanks!

Amy Ray came out and busted out the Indigo Girls’ song “Go” (one of FAVORITE Ray-penned songs!!!) with Lucy Dacus and Carlile. It was a blistering storm of musical thunder. I freaked right out.

Linda Perry
Surprise guest Linda Perry on the Fort Stage at Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Linda Perry (surprise guest) as I already mentioned DESTROYED us all with “What’s Up?”

crow and rogers
Sheryl Crow and and an awestruck Maggie Rogers on the Fort Stage at Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19
iPhone photo by Aimsel Ponti

Sheryl Crow sang “Strong Enough” with Maggie Rogers and YOLA. Oh and she also did “If It Makes You Happy” with Carlile and Maren Morris.

Courtney Marie Andrews and a few friends sang  “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Collins and Carlile USE
Judy Collins with Brandi Carlile on the Fort Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Judy Collins sang “Both Sides Now” with Brandi Carlile. I know. I can’t deal either.

YOLA, Bonnie Payne, Molly Tuttle and a bunch of other fabulous females sang “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves.” They CRUSHED IT!

But nothing could have ever prepared any of us, including and perhaps especially Brandi Carlile for the arrival of Dolly Parton and Carlile’s the one who invited her in the first place. She wasn’t just in on the secret, she made it happen.

Here’s what Carlile before said beforel Parton walked out onto the stage:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Newport Folk Festival. On its 60th anniversary, I bring you one of the greatest surprises ever. The incomparable unicorn legend that is Dolly Parton…” WE ALL WENT BANANAS.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton on the Fort Stage. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Oh heck: WATCH THIS:

Parton sang  an astounding FIVE SONGS!!

“Eagle When She Flies” came first. I have chills even thinking about it. The Highwomen were backing her up on it along with the all-star band. Even if Parton had JUST done that one song it would have been enough.

BUT FOUR MORE CAME.

Next was “Just Because I’m a Woman.” OMG.

AND NEXT WAS “JOLENE.” At this point I’m dead. I mean WTF? I heard Dolly Parton SING ‘JOLENE” live. I can’t even. I just can’t…

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton on the Fort Stage. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

And it wasn’t over yet because next came a live music moment that will always live in the corner of my heart reserved for such moments. I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t believe it now. It will go down as one of the most sublime duets ever performed live.

Here’s Dolly Parton with Brandi Carlile singing Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You”:

I still have no idea how I held it together for this. Same goes for Brandi Carlile. You can tell at the end of the song that Carlile knows this is one of the most significant moments of her life. We all felt it. I still do. As I write this I’m watching the above clip with goosebumps all over. It’s that good. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of and I am sticking by that cliche because it fits.

And…say it with me: IT STILL WASN’T OVER.

Saturday night at Newport Folk Festival ended with a sing-along for the ages with “9 to 5.” Everyone joined in: Yola, Brandi, Linda, Jade, Maggie, Courtney Marie, Amy, Sheryl, Lucy, Natalie, Amanda, Rachael and Bridget (Lake Street Dive) to name some.

My friend Marion and I walked out of there in a dream-like state but also in a bit of a hurry. Despite having just experienced something that we could barely process, we hot-stepped with our festival-worn feet to her car parked a mile and a half away and experienced a Newport miracle: We found a parking spot directly across the street from the Jane Pickens Theatre. Our night wasn’t over because we had managed to snap up a pair of tickets to a festival after-show. These tickets were as hot as a ticket could get. Why?

Because they were for Mavis Staples! She and her crackerjack band put on a hell of a show and her 80th birthday which has been celebrated several times already this year was celebrated once again because of course it was.

Not only was Mavis herself spectacular, the stage was a revolving door of special guests. Lake Street Dive, Milk Carton Kids,  Jeff Tweedy, YOLA, Jason Isbell, Hozier and Brandi Carlile all graced the stage that night during a 14 song set.

After all that you would have thought I would have slept like the dead. Hardly. I was awake until almost 2 a.m. because I could not come down from the high. And yeah, it was a music one. Of course it was! With the exception of a lone whiskey,  water and watermelon seltzer was all this kid consumed all weekend long.

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples played on Saturday night at the Jane Pickens Theater and was part of the If I Had A Song finale on the Fort Stage on Sunday. 7.28.19. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

ONTO SUNDAY!

After two BLISSFUL and long days of festival joy, not to mention the Mavis show on Saturday night, I didn’t have much gas left in the proverbial tank. As I walked into the festival (after a grueling 45 minutes in the blazing sun waiting in line) I thought to myself that I would see what I could see but may need to mostly chillax either in the media tent or in a spot far from the action.

Instead I went pretty much all in and saw as much as  I could. Yeah, I took breaks when I needed to but for the most part, I immersed myself in the music and once I reached a certain point, it didn’t matter how hot (quite) or tired (mf exhausted) I was. I was INTO IT.

I started Sunday off by catching part of Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the Fort stage.  Then I raced over to the Quad stage for part of J.S. Ondara’s riveting set.  Then I zipped back (my Fit Bit damn near exploded it got so much action) to the Fort stage for some of Lake Street Dive’s set because I adore them.

rachael 2
Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. LSD played on the Fort Stage. 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I made it back to the Quad stage in time for the beginning of one of the most talked about sets of the weekend. As I said above, I didn’t see all of it. But I saw enough.

Our Native Daughters is Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell. Google the hell out of them and go down a YouTube rabbit hole. Follow them on every platform. Get a copy of their album. Become a superfan! Trust me on this. Their music is important. Their message is important. And they’re tremendous. Got it?

Rhiannon Giddens Our Native Daughters
Rhiannon Giddens from Our Native Daughters who played on the Quad Stage. 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

After catching the beginning of Hozier’s set (and damn it, I missed it when he brought out Brandi Carlile and sang “The Joke” with her), I ducked into the museum because on that stage is where Judy Collins was playing with Ari Hest. I was there long enough to hear Collins sing Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and the sun poured in like butterscotch all over my heart.

Then it was time for the grand finale of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival over at the Fort stage. It was called If I Had A Song and songbooks were handed out.

While the rumor mill had been buzzing about Dolly Parton, what happened next was out of nowhere. Hats off to all those involved with guarding this secret. It needed to be guarded. I am SO GLAD I had no idea what was about to happen.

And so it came to be that what kicked off If I Had A Song was Kermit the Frog leading us in a sing-along of “The Rainbow Connection.” For the second verse, Kermit brought out Jim James of My Morning Jacket. I cried real tears. This was upper level special and I stood there ( crouched down to not block peoples’ views) and took it all in, doing my best to take photos while keeping my shit together.

BTW, Kermit the Frog duties have been handled masterfully for the past couple of years by puppeteer and singer Matt Vogel who was assisted by puppeteer  Peter Linz at the Newport appearance.

Kermit the Frog
Kermit the Frog on the Fort Stage 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s another photo of Kermit.

Kermit the Frog
Kermit the Frog on the Fort Stage 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The rest of the If I Had  A Song was entirely glorious. The band was guitarist Chris Funk from Decemberists (he also served as bandleader) , Benmont Tench  from the Heartbreakers on keys, John Stirrat from Wilco on bass, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes on guitar and Sleater-Kinney alumnist Janet Weiss on drums.

So much went down. Including this:

Trey Anastastio sang “God Only Knows” with Rachael Price.

Rachael Price and Preservation Hall Jazz Band covered “We Shall Overcome.”

Our Native Daughters played “If You Miss Me at The Back of the Bus”

Alynda Segerra (from Hooray for the Riff Raff!!!!) sang “IF I Had a Hammer” with Brandi Carlile.

Hozier sang “Everyday People” with Lake Street Dive

Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Jason Isbell and Eric D. Johnson played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and halfway through it Judy Collins came on stage and finished it with them. I’m not making this up!

Collins stayed on stage and sang “Turn Turn Turn” with Robin Pecknold.

Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) joined Milk Carton Kids for “This Land is Your Land.”

And the evening ended, as it always does, with “Goodnight Irene” this time led by none other than Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who is still bringin’ it at 88 years old.

I drove home that night, back to Maine, with my eyes on the road and my head in the clouds.

I thought about everything I had seen and heard over the previous 72 hours.

I thought about Brandi Carlile and YOLA. I thought about Linda Perry, Amy Ray and I’m With Her. I thought about Our Native Daughters and Lake Street Dive. I thought about The Highwomen.

I thought about, as you can imagine, a lot of things.

But what I thought about the most was Kermit sang “Rainbow Connection” and that moment when Dolly Parton walked out onto that stage.

The world needs more moments like these. May we all continue to find them.

Thank you, Newport Folk Festival.

THANK YOU.

Ponti out.

 

The transcendent experience of Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend in Mexico

I got back from Mexico a week ago and by now the trip laundry is all done, my suitcase is back up in the garage rafters and I’ve acclimated to being back in the cold Maine winter.

But what I haven’t yet been able to do is  unpack in my heart, soul and mind as to just how extraordinary the experience was of attending Brandi Carlile’s Just Wanna Weekend concert extravaganza at the Hard Rock Hotel in Mexico’s Maya Riviera.

Girls Just Wanna Weekend
Yours truly. Photo on left in front of the main stage by Laurel Goode. Girls Just Wanna Weekend sand sculpture and nerdy selfie snapped by me.

First, a little back story in case the concept of GJWW is unfamiliar to you. Several months ago musician Brandi Carlile had something of an epiphany inspired in part by the social media account Book More Women. Book More Women took it upon themselves (and I’m so glad they did) to post two versions of music festival posters. The first version was the original and the second one is with all of the male acts removed. The end result in just about every case including heavy hitter festivals like Bonnaroo, Bottlerock, Tumbleweed, Coachella and Firefly are sobering and frankly depressing. According to Book More Women’s Twitter account, in 2017 only 26% of acts playing major US music festivals featured at least one female or non-binary act. Pardon my French but what in the actual fuck? The numbers only improved marginally in 2018.

Brandi Carlile, who attended all three  years of Lilith Fair in the 90s as a teenager, got an idea. What if she threw a festival of all female acts and what if she threw it at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico? Would this send a message to the world that an all-female lineup is not only a viable thing but one that people would travel from far and wide to attend and pay a good chuck of money to be able to do so? Could the success of an event like this maybe move the needle a little bit and serve as an agent of change in a music industry that, god damn it, is still dominated (especially  in country music, don’t even get me started…) by men?

In a word: YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

brandi oke friday two smile
Brandi Carlile is all smiles on the Heaven Beach Stage during Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

About three nights ago I was flopped on the couch channel surfing and landed on a old favorite film of mine, “Field of Dreams.” This led me to picturing Brandi Carlile four-wheeling through the Seattle area woods where she lives and hearing the trees whisper to her in the voice of say, Meryl Streep “If you book it, they will come.”  Well we came alright, more than 2,000 of us. And I’m a million percent sure that everyone who was there is now wandering around the planet not knowing what in the hell to do with the rest of our lives, such was the impact of this MAGICAL EVENT.

GJWW METAL SIGN LIT
The happiest lit sign a gal could ever hope to see in the concert courtyard of Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Now then. Shall we get down to brass tacks?

First off, giant shout-out to event organizers Cloud Nine and to the entire staff at the Hard Rock Hotel. This place is GLORIOUS are our needs as attendees were well taken care of at every turn.

Hard Rock Hotel
The Hard Rock Hotel at Maya Riviera, Mexico.
Photos by Aimsel Ponti

Girls Just Wanna Weekend began on Wednesday, January 30 and we said our goodbyes to Mexico on Sunday, Feb. 3. All told there were 15 performances over the course of FOUR PERFECT DAYS AND NIGHTS.

crowd shot 1
A happy crowd cheers, sings and feels all the things.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s a list of what happened when:

Wednesday 1/30
Shawn Colvin: Main Stage
Brandi Carlile: Main Stage

Thursday 1/31
The Secret Sisters: Heaven Beach Stage
KT Tunstall: Main Stage
Brandi & Friends: Songs in the Round (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, KT Tunstall and Shawn Colvin): Main Stage
Indigo Girls: Main Stage

Indigo Girls friday heaven beach stage
Indigo Girls Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Friday 2/1
Indigo Girls Songwriting Workshop: Heaven Beach Stage (this ended up being more of a performance with some Q&A moments. It ruled!)
Brandi-Oke (Brandi and her band backing up several fans singing BC songs and a surprise appearance from Lucius who played “The Story”): Heaven Beach Stage
Lucius: Main Stage
Maren Morris: Main Stage

Maren Morris
Maren Morris Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Saturday 2/2
Sam Rae: Heaven Beach Stage. Sam plays cello in Brandi’s band and is also a solo artist who sings and plays acoustic and electric guitar and cello. She’s the bomb!
Ruby Amanfu: Heaven Beach Stage

Ruby Amanfu
Ruby Amanfu (left) backed by Katie Herzig and Butterfly Boucher.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Mavis Staples: Main Stage

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples on the main stage during Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Brandi Carlile: Main Stage
Ladies of the 80s: Main Stage (Brandi Carlile and band, KT Tunstall, Ruby Amanfu, Lucius, The Secret Sisters, Katie Herzig, Butterfly Boucher).

ruby brandi keytar ladies 80s
Ruby Amanfu with Brandi Guitar and her bitchin’ keytar.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Without hesitation, I can report that every single one of these performances was tremendous and it seemed abundantly evident that every single musician who was on those two stages was damn happy to be there.

Here are some highlights:

Sam Rae made us all cry when she proposed to her girlfriend from the Heaven Beach stage.

Mavis Staples just about ripped a hole in the sky with her performance.

mavis and brandi saturday 1
Mavis Staples was joined by Brandi Carlile for The Band’s classic tune “The Weight”.

Shawn Colvin delivered one of the best performances from her I’ve ever seen and she got the call to come to Mexico about 48 hours before she took the stage after her good friend and fellow musician Patty Griffin had to cancel because her appendix decided it needed to go.

Lucius just about gave us all a heart attack when they took the stage during Brandi-Oke and sang “The Story.”

Yep. I recorded it. Voila!

Special guest Katie Herzig belted out The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” during Ladies of the 80s. Herzig also gave us a dazzling rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heave Is A Place on Earth.”

These are but five examples off the top of my head.

Brandi Carllile Ruby Amanfu
Brandi Carlile and Ruby Amanfu
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Want a few more? Of course you do!

BC and Shawn night one angels
Brandi Carlile and Shawn Colvin.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Shawn Colvin joined Brandi Carlile to sing Jane Siberry’s “Calling All Angels”.

Shawn Colvin also destroyed me with her take on the Tom Waits tune “Ol 55.”

Brandi joined Marren Morris and they dueted on a brand new song called “Common” on Morris’s upcoming album “Girl.”

Indigo Girls started their main stage set off with “Fugitive” and I damn near died such is my love for that song.

There’s not a better cover out there of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” than the one that Mavis Staples and her  band delivered.

I also  can’t forget when KT Tunstall sang Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” with Carlile.

KT Tunstall night two 1
KT Tunstall Photo by Aimsel Ponti

There was also that moment when surprise guest Jeff Tweedy joined Mavis Staples on a song he wrote for her.

Another surprise guest in the person of  Anderson East was brought on stage by Carlile during the Ladies of the 80s show and he sang his ass off during Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”

Then there was Ruby Amanfu’s jaw-dropping version of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.”

Also, Barack Obama’s White House photographer and good friend of Brandi Carlile Pete Souza was there all weekend snapping photos. He let me snap this pic of his Fun Meter button which was turned up to MAX!

pete souza fun meter
(super famous and incredible) Photographer Pete Souza’s fun meter button made by two clever and awesome women named Erin & Becca. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

And for the love of all that is epic on this planet, the festival ending take on Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” sung by Brandi with Phil Hanseroth’s earth-shaking “Turn around” backing vocals was something I’ll never forget. I am euphoric and dizzy thinking about all of this stuff.

And let me be clear, these are just SOME of GJWW’s countless moments.

For a music fan, Girls Just Wanna Weekend was like a trip to Fantasy Island. Except rather than an island, we were at a GORGEOUS resort on the ocean with more pools than I could  count and endless close encounters with huge iguanas who are pre-historic creatures who love the resort as much as we all did and seemed entirely fine posing for all of our photos. If you were looking for  a party with a swim-up bar it was yours for the taking. And if you were looking to find a more quiet spot to chill with your book, that too was available, such was the expansiveness of the resort grounds.

Lucius
Holly and Jess from Lucius on the main stage during Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Another facet of Girls Just Wanna Weekend that was so refreshing was that I can honestly say that over the five days I was there, I didn’t encounter a single person who wasn’t friendly. “Hola!” and “Hey where are you from?” were two catch phrases uttered by pretty much all of us, all of the time.

Imagine being in paradise and then imagine that said paradise also featured performances from a bunch of your favorite bands. This was what Girls Just Wanna Weekend was all about.

On the last day of the festival I heard that Brandi was sitting by one of the pools with her daughter Evangeline. My first thought was to run over there and say Hi. Then I dialed myself down and said “nah, leave them be.” About ten minutes later I put my music journalist hat on – sort of – and decided to walk over there with the goal of asking one simple question.

Here’s the thing, it’s one thing to interview an artist on the phone (I’ve been fortunate enough to have done this on three occasions with Carlile) but it’s something entirely different to approach them “in the wild.”

Being the brilliant journalist that I am, I left my bag with friends and therefore had NOTHING TO WRITE WITH when I walked over to her. This is actually hilarious to me because I ALWAYS have pen and paper with me. Always. To make matters worse my memory isn’t what it used to be. But still I persisted and made my way over to her. I led with “hi, just so you know I won’t be asking for a photograph or autograph.”

Carlile was super nice and she is ALWAYS super nice. I told her briefly who I was and that I would be writing about the entire festival and asked if she wouldn’t mind summing it up for me, what it meant to her, in a sentence or two.

She did just that and in an epic journalist fail, I don’t have a direct quote for you. But I can tell you that she lit up when speaking about how thankful she was that we were all there and how proud she of  Girls Just Wanna Weekend. And she most certainly should be.

Girls Just Wanna Weekend was truly one of the most monumental experiences of my life.  For a handful of days, many miles from home, I took it all in as best I could.

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile bathed in light during the final night of Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I’m  already thinking about next year’s Festival because rumor has it, it will happen! Save your pennies, friends. It’s sooooooo worth it.

Here’s a few lines from a Carlile song that seem to be an appropriate way to capture some of the spirit of Girls Just Wanna Weekend:

Hold out your hand
Take hold of mine now
Round and round we go
Don’t you wanna dance

And now for the video recap with gratitude as always to my tech savvy pal Shamus Alley for letting me send him a shit-ton of clips and creating something truly special.

THANK YOU, Brandi Carlile and everyone involved with making Girls Just Wanna Weekend one of the most enthralling and memorable experiences any music fan can ever hope to have.

Ponti out.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration: All-star artists gather in Los Angeles to say I Love You, Joni, right out loud

There aren’t enough deep breaths in the world to settle me down enough so that I can be calm and properly centered to be able to write this review.

Why?

Because in one of the most unexpected concert experiences of  my life I saw these artists pay tribute to Joni Mitchell in honor of her 75th birthday by performing her songs live:

Brandi Carlile, Glen Hansard, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Diana Krall, Kris Kristofferson, Los Lobos with La Marisoul, Cesar Castro & Xochi Flores, Graham Nash, SEAL, James Taylor and Rufus Wainwright.

For real.

How can I begin to wrap my head around this? A handful of days ago (Tuesday, 11/6/18 to be exact)  I sat in the fourth row of the balcony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and watched and listened as, one by one, all of these artists were introduced and backed by a STELLAR band under the direction of co-musical directors Brian Blade (drums) and Jon Cowherd (piano) performed an eclectic collection of career-spanning Joni Mitchell songs.

It was nothing short of a miracle that I was even at this show to begin with. A California trip with another agenda was already booked when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Tweet telling me that Brandi Carlile and James Taylor had been added to the already stacked lineup and more importantly, a handful of tickets had been released. With my calendar in one hand and my credit card in the other I snagged two tickets in a state of delirium and for the next month leading up the show had to pinch myself because I felt like Charlie Bucket holding the golden ticket.

The stage at the gorgeous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was adorned with an old canoe, wooden skis and other retro, rustic props that gave it a cabin in the woods kind of feel. Couches were on either side and were both put to good use throughout the evening. Nothing quite like seeing Emmylou Harris perched on one watching other artists. I digress.

Throughout the entire show images of Joni were projected on a giant screen behind the stage and we’d also see occasional clips of interviews with her as well as well wishes from Elton John and Peter Gabriel.

And so it began, just after 7:30 p.m. on election night no less.

A voice welcomed us and the first artist was announced. With said announcement came the first of several heart-stopping moments. It was Norah Jones who stood center stage and opened the show with a lovely version of “Court and Spark.” Jones would return to the stage during the second half of the show, this time at the piano where she played “Borderline,” a track from Mitchell’s 1994 Turbulent Indigo album.

When Jones finished with “Court and Spark” I realized that I had an entire evening of moments ahead of me when time would stand still for a few seconds before the next name was announced. If only this kind of exquisite anticipation could be bottled.

Glen Hansard was next with “Coyote” and the dude nailed it, which came as no surprise. With vocals that made me think of Cat Stevens it was a joyous thing to watch Hansard shine with his acoustic guitar.

While I could say something about every single song that was played during the 22 song show, I know you have to get back to your life at some point so instead, I’m referring to my scribbled notes and will share what were my favorite moments of the night. But let me a thousand percent clear before I do. EVERY SINGLE PERFORMER WAS EPIC and it can’t be stated enough how spectacular the band was.

That said, I’m gonna jump to the seventh song of the evening. It was “Help Me” from “Court and Spark” and OMG, Chaka Khan owned it. Immensely. I don’t even know what to say about it so here’s this:

Two songs later came Los Lobos with Marisoul playing “Nothing Can Be Done,” a favorite of mine from 1991’s “Night Ride Home.” Spectacular.

Truly nothing could have prepared me for the song that closed out the first set. I’ve since read that Joni specifically asked SEAL to perform it. I have the chills even thinking about how incredible and vocally tremendous he was on “Both Sides Now.”

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Seal performs onstage at Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Put on some headphones and be prepared to lose your shit. Ready?


As you can imagine, we all went insane at the end of the song and SEAL got a much-deserved standing ovation.

The house lights came back on and I sat there in a daze because I couldn’t believe there was still a second set to come.

And so it was that Graham Nash opened the second set of the show by sitting at the grand piano where he said “I’m honored to be here. Most of the songs you’ll hear tonight will have been written by Joan except this one. I wrote this song for Joni almost 50 years ago.” With that, Nash played “Our House” and I got full-on teary. Halfway through the song he invited us all too sing along. Most did. I was too overwhelmed with emotion to pull it together but everyone else sounded great. I did manage one  “la  la la la la” out  but barely.  And damn it, I’m getting teary again watching the YouTube clip of it even now.

Quick but supreme shout-outs to Diana Krall for “Amelia” and Rufus Waingwright for “All I Want.” Both were exceptional and I have huge love for both artists. My god…

If you’ve ever read any of my other posts here (and I sure hope you have or will) you likely know that I am a MASSIVE BRANDI CARLILE FAN. HUGE. RABID. HARDCORE. She was indeed the artist I was most excited to see and along with SEAL, Carlile was the highlight of the night for me.

First came “A Case Of You” from 1971’s “Blue”  which she sang with Kris Kristofferson who also played an acoustic guitar.  Kristofferson is a living legend. He’s 82 years young. Look, I’ll level with you and you’ll hear it for yourself below, his vocals weren’t so hot but I say this with reverence and respect. The man can do no wrong. Carlile clearly holds him in the same regard as the rest of us and the smile on her face, one of adoration and of realizing the significance of the moment was one of the most genuine goddamn things I’ve ever had the honor to bear witness to. She deferred to him for much of the song but when she sang, and I’m sorry but I HAVE to use profanity, it brought the fucking house down.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Brandi Carlile (L) and Kris Kristofferson perform onstage at Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Then it was time for Carlile to shine on her own as she sang “Down To You,” another track from Court and Spark.  Her performance of that song has been absorbed by my very cells.

Here’s a clip of “Both Sides Now” and “Down To You.” Take note of (and you really don’t need me to say this, it will be quite evident) how tremendous the band is during “Down To You).  When “Down To You” ended I clapped and cheered with everything I had. Part of me is still in Los Angeles in that balcony and I’m still cheering.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Brandi Carlile performs onstage at Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Time for another shout-out. This time to James Taylor for “Woodstock.” It didn’t hurt ONE BIT that SEAL lent some backing vocals to it.

The time had come to land the Joni love plane and I’m awarding high marks to all those involved in the decision of what song to end with. It had to be one that would work with several singers. And it had to be iconic. And upbeat also wouldn’t hurt.

“Big Yellow Taxi” got it done.

I was at the first night of two shows. This clip below is from the second night which fell on the official date of Joni’s 75th birthday. Joni Mitchell was out on the stage for it and everyone sang Happy Birthday to her. A cake was brought out and she’s beaming.  Although I wish I had been there on that night, I will always be thankful for being at night one. I had tickets to see Mitchell in the mid 90s but the show ended up being cancelled (I can’t remember why) so I’ve never seen her live. But that’s OK for obvious reasons: Joni Mitchell’s contribution to music can’t be measured. Her songwriting is something that I’ll always be in awe of. Same goes for her vocals. And if you’ll pardon the tired cliche I’ll say this: the world is very much a better place with Joni Mitchell and her music in it.  I don’t know what else to say about it so I’ll leave it there.

Years from now as I look back on the night of November 6, 2018, I am certain those same feelings will come over me that did as I sat there and took it all in: Ones of sincere wonder and awe. Ones of immense gratitude. And ones of love for all of the artists who performed that night all because of a shared sentiment: Love for Joni Mitchell.

Lastly, I for sure would like to thank my spouse Tracy for dealing with my hysteria over this entire show and for going with me to it. You’re the best!

Here’s the set-list:

1. Court and Spark – Norah Jones
2. Coyote – Glen Hansard
3. For the Roses – Diana Krall
4. Blue – Rufus Wainwright
5. Cold Blue Steel – Emmylou Harris
6. The Magdalene Laundries – Emmylou Harris
7. Help Me – Chaka Khan
8. Dreamland – Los Lobos
9. Nothing Can Be Done – Los Lobos
10. River – James Taylor
11. Both Sides Now – Seal

INTERMISSION

12. Our House – Graham Nash
13. A Strange Boy – Seal
14. All I Want – Rufus Wainwright
15. Borderline – Norah Jones
16. Amelia – Diana Krall
17. The Boho Dance – Glen Hansard
18 A Case of You – Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile
19. Down To You – Brandi Carlile
20. Two Grey Rooms – Chaka Khan
21. Woodstock – James Taylor
22. Big Yellow Taxi – Everyone (!)

And here’s a Spotify Playlist of all of the songs performed, in order!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/eastcoastaimsel/playlist/4hlc1Q2vOsZipr1e2g1cQj

Ponti out.

P.S. Here are a couple of MIGHTY FINE shots from night two. You gotta love how Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones are in the background of the one of Brandi and Kris with Joni.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 07: (L-R) Joni Mitchell, Brandi Carlile and Kris Kristofferson attend Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center
Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 07: James Taylor (L) and Joni Mitchell attend Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Aimsel on the Record is sponsored in part by LB Kitchen in Portland, Maine.

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Please contact me if you’re interested in sponsorship opportunities.

Natalie Merchant turns in stunning performance in 200 seat barn

Natalie Merchant , accompanied by longtime guitarist Erik Della Penna, played two shows at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22 & 23. I was at the Sunday night show and, having been a fan of Merchant’s for more than 30 years, I still can’t believe I saw her in a rustic barn that held a little over 200 people.

Hancock Shaker Village is a wondrous utopia that’s open from April through December. There are 20 buildings ( I went into most of them!), several gardens, farm animals, a fantastic gift shop, countless Shaker artifacts and much more spread over 10 lovely acres. Hancock Shaker Village was founded in the late 1780s and lasted until 1959. The property was sold to a local group that, thankfully, was committed to preserving its heritage. Click here for the whole story.

Natalie Merchant’s performance was held in a barn toward the back of the property. Photography was prohibited, understandably so, however staff did let me pop in during the daytime to snap a few interior shots.  I was also able to take one quick one before the performance started and  got a nice exterior one. I put them together in the collage below to hopefully capture just how small and intimate the space was. When I first made my way over to in at midday, I was quickly surrounded by dozens and dozens of chickens who were clearly living their best lives . They were making a bit of a racquet with their assorted squawks and it was a joyful noise, especially when combined with an orchestra of animal sounds coming from the back of the nearby Round Stone Barn.

Natalie Merchant
Here are four shots of the barn Merchant performed in. Photos by Aimsel Ponti

The first time I ever saw Natalie Merchant live was on July 23, 1988 at what was then called Great Woods in Mansfield, MA. This was the 10,000 Maniacs “In My Tribe” tour. Robyn Hitchcock was the opening act! I had become a fan earlier that year when the album was released. And when I say fan I mean HUGE FAN. This entire album is still sacred to me. I damn near wore my vinyl copy of it out. I remember discovering the previous album “The Wishing Chair” and also managing to track down a copy of their 1983 debut record “Secrets of the I Ching.”  I had never heard a voice quite like Merchant’s and over the next several years saw 10,000 Maniacs several times on tours for “In My Tribe, “Blind Man’s Zoo” and “Our Time In Eden.”  One of the things I specifically remember about a Maniacs show at Smith College in Northampton, MA ( I went to Keene State in NH an hour away) is that it was on a cold, snowy night and upon seeing several fans without tickets to the sold out show pressed against the windows outside, Merchant asked security let them inside.

When Merchant parted ways with the 10,000 Maniacs, I remember experiencing a moment of worry because I couldn’t bear the thought of no longer hearing new material from one of the greatest singers, not to mention songwriters, of my lifetime. This worry was of course  short-lived. On June 20, 1995 Natalie Merchant released her debut solo album, “Tigerlily” and I was indeed hypnotized and mesmerized by its first single “Carnival.” The follow-up was “Wonder” and it remains one of the most hopeful songs you’ll ever want to hear about overcoming obstacles.  The third track that was all over the radio was “Jealousy.” All three of these tracks are solid tunes that have stood the test of time but it’s the rest of the album that spin my spurs even more beginning with “San Andreas Fault” and going all the way through to the closing track “Seven Years.”

And now I’m gonna say something that some Merchant fans might consider sacrilegious. Ready? In 2015 Merchant released “Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings.” Every track on the album was stripped down and strings were added to others, including “Beloved Wife.”  The first time I listened to this new take on “Tigerlily” was on a long drive and I do declare….I like it better than the original. Now one could argue, quite well in fact, the the two versions are the proverbial apples and oranges and they wouldn’t be wrong. It’s all so subjective isn’t it? All I know is that I was moved almost to tears a few times listening to the stripped down versions of songs like “River” and “I May Know the Word.”

But I digress. This is after all a concert review. But wait, for those of you who aren’t as hardcore of a Merchant fan as I am, permit me to briefly mention her discography after 1995’s “Tigerlily.” In 1998 Merchant released the incredible “Ophelia” album and to this day, I still love the entire thing. This is the album that gave us “Life is Sweet” and “Kind & Generous.” And it’s also home to “My Skin” and “Effigy.”

“Motherland” with the single “Just Can’t Last” came next in 2001. “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” was released in 2003, “Leave Your Sleep” in 2010 and a self-titled album in 2014. When she toured for that album I interviewed her in advance of her performance here in Portland, Maine. After all those years of being a fan, I was finally able to wear my journalist hat. Merchant was lovely to chat with. Read it HERE. I also reviewed that show and you can read that HERE.

OK. Back to the day of the show at Hancock Shaker Village. I had such a perfect time roaming the grounds and seeing historical preservation up close and personal.  Several sheep and goats and cows posed for photos for me and the entire afternoon was picture-perfect. I think the most compelling part of the village is the Round Stone Barn.  Every inch of it held so much history.

Hancock Shaker Village
The incredible Round Stone Barn at Hancock Shaker Village. Just one of the many must-see features of the spot that lies a stone’s throw from the New York border. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Night started to fall on Pittsfield as we stood in line awaiting the 7 p.m. opening of the barn where the show was happening.  The moment came and I secured my aisle seat, about halfway back. In a space as small as the barn, this meant I was 30-something feet from the small stage.

I quickly made a few concert friends (I’m looking at you, Daina and Sven) and the magic hour of 8 p.m. arrived and after a welcome from a few Hancock Shaker Village staffers, the show began with “Weeping Pilgrim.” A few things became immediately evident: Natalie Merchant’s vocals were pristine, Erik Della Penna’s guitar sublime and the acoustics were damn near perfect as the duo made their way through the gentle, traditional tune with the lines “I weep and I moan and I move slowly, I’m a poor mourning pilgrim bound for Canaan Land.”

Merchant was charming,   mischievous and hilarious throughout the entire show. Her first order of business was moving a couple of fans who were behind some of the barn’s support pillars to unobstructed seats.  Throughout the 19-song performance she offered historical notes about The Shakers and told us how when her daughter was young she used to love hearing Shaker hymns sung to her by her mother.

Merchant also surprised many of us by including three tracks from the iconic 10,000 Maniacs album “In My Tribe” in the set. After a few lines of Jim Croce’s “Operator,” Merchant sang “Don’t Talk” and “Hey Jack Kerouac”  back to back then she took an audience request later in the show and sang “What’s the Matter Here?” At the end of the evening she teased out a few lines of “Verdi Cries” (I died a little) and a bit of  “Ophelia’s” “My Skin” before launching into the “Tigerlily” hit “Wonder.”

Here’s another funny thing that happened at this show. Most of the songs were played with Merchant singing and  Della Penna on guitar. However for a handful of them Merchant sat behind a Korg electric piano and incredibly, gave it away at the end of the night. She told us she never liked the thing and showed off the many sounds it was capable of making. Without fanfare she asked if anyone wanted it and a fan up front immediately said yes and the matter was settled.  When the show ended with  “Kind  & Generous,” Merchant unplugged the Korg, picked it up and handed it to the lucky guy who now owns a piece of musical history. At first I thought this was odd but then I realized that sometimes when you’re truly done with having something in your life you sometimes need the damn thing gone…immediately.

Natalie Merchant also told us something that most of us already know: She doesn’t play too many shows anymore. What I for one didn’t know is that she teaches music to kids in what she described as inner-city schools and clearly extracts tremendous joy from this. You know how you can tell when somebody really loves something because their face lights up when they’re talking about it? It was like that.

Natalie Merchant has been a favorite musician of mine for more than 30 years. She’s got a voice like none other and her songwriting is equally incredible. As a fan I’ve been fortunate enough to have met Merchant “in real life” I think four or five times thanks to college radio connections that got me backstage passes to a “Blind Man’s Zoo” show, a chance meeting on the street after a show in Boston and a pre-show meet and greet experience at a 1997  Lilith Fair show among a few other random times. She’s always been so kind and generous with her time.

The show at Hancock Shaker Village in that chilly barn was really something extra special. I hope to see Merchant again some time but for now, I will treasure the memories of this intimate show because I literally sat there the entire time almost in disbelief.  That’s how good she was and that’s how awestruck I was to be seeing her there.

Here’s the set list from the 9/23 show along with where you can find the songs:

  1. “Weeping Pilgrim” (The House Carpenter’s Daughter, 2003)
  2. “Motherland” (Motherland, 2001)
  3. “Life if Sweet” (Ophelia, 1998)
  4. “If No One Ever Marries Me” (Leave Your Sleep, 2010)
  5. “Cowboy Romance” (Tigerlily, 1995)
  6. “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” (Leave Your Sleep, 2010)
  7. “Sally Ann” (The House Carpenter’s Daughter, 2003)
  8. “Build A Levee” (Motherland, 2001)
  9. “Golden Boy” (Motherland, 2001)
  10. “Don’t Talk” (10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe, 1987. Preceded by a few lines of Jim Croce’s “Operator”)
  11. “Hey Jack Kerouac” (10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe, 1987.
  12. “Carnival” (Tigerlily, 1995)
  13. “Break Your Heart” (Ophelia, 1998)
  14. “Saint Judas” (Motherland, 2001)
  15. “What’s The Matter Here?” (10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe, 1987)
  16. “The Bonny Light Horseman”( She sung this one acapella . Song is on the 2018 Lúnasa album Cas. Natalie is a guest vocalist on this track).
  17. “Maggie Said” (Natalie Merchant, 2014)
  18. Natalie sat at the piano for these. She played a few lines of “Verdi Cries” and then a bit of “My Skin” and finally all of “Wonder” (Tigerlily 1995)
  19. “Kind & Generous” (Ophelia, 1998)

Ponti Out


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Transformative show from Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks 8.12.18

Let me ask you something. Has there been a place you’ve wanted to go to for pretty much your entire life? As a live music fan, there are venues around the globe that I still haven’t been to but the one that’s been on the top of my list since the 80s is  the one  I FINALLY saw a show at in August.

What you’re about to read is a review of a recent Brandi Carlile concert.  (Spoiler alert, I LOVED the show). But that’s not where the story begins, it begins with the band U2.

I’m in my 40s and have been a fan of U2 for as long as I can remember.  On June 3, 1983 U2 played, in the cold rain no less, at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. It was the only time they’ve ever played there and several of the songs from that show were released on the “Under A Blood Red Sky” EP. This was the first U2 thing I ever bought. The show was released on video in 1984  (I still have a VHS copy somewhere) but initially, I saw it  on MTV as individual clips. These clips are what made me a fan of U2.

This  brings me to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” This was the first performance footage I saw of U2 and to this day I can’t watch it without getting the chills and without being reminded of how much I love this band. But the main reason this footage has stayed so close to my heart for so long is where it was filmed.  To me, Red Rocks has never quite been a real place. It’s been a dreamscape, an alternate reality, a musical nirvana and a sacred locale that surely can’t actually exist.  And yet performances have been happening there for more than 100 years. I don’t have a good answer to the question of why it took me so long to finally bridge the gap between fantasy and the real world. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Maybe I was afraid that if I actually stood in that place of my dreams that it would somehow shift its place in my heart. I’m still not sure. But what I can tell you is this: I can’t imagine a better act for my first visit to the hallowed ground that is Red Rocks than Brandi Carlile.

But first, in case you haven’t seen this, here’s the “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” footage that I used to stand in front of the TV and imitate Bono’s moves to and lip sync the lyrics to. Here’s the video that put its hooks into me decades ago and that has kept my desire to see a show at Red Rocks a constant pull in my heart for so, so long:

OK so onto the evening of Sunday, August 12. Whew…
I kept going in and out of almost a dreamlike state as the four us (my gal Tracy and our local pals Jodi and Jen) arrived on the grounds of Red Rocks and it got all the more real when we stopped at the box office and I was handed tickets. I had an all out Charlie Bucket Golden Ticket moment as I stood there with the pair of killer seats I had bought for Tracy and I months and months ago.

Fast forward to securing a parking spot and beginning the march to one of the entrances where the line moved along at a respectable pace and I took in the breathtaking scenery around me, all the while coming to terms with the fact that within a few minutes I would cross the proverbial threshold and would be standing inside Red Rocks.

As for that first moment, it’s hard to put into words. Something you’ve visualized for decades is never quite what you imagined it would be. But I have to say,  when the full view of the venue lay before me two worlds collided; the younger version of myself watching Bono hold up that white flag and the present day version of myself finally standing in a musical version of the promised land.

The first order of business was to climb to the top and take it all in while also loving the hell out of The Secret Sisters set.

Red Rocks
Standing at the top of Red Rocks on 8/12/18 while The Secret Sisters played a stellar set.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

It took a moment for my brain and heart to sync up such was the poignancy of the moment.

From there we spent a little time in the visitor’s center which you simply must do because the Performer’s Hall of Fame documents hundreds of shows that have taken place at Red Rocks including, of course, that legendary U2 one.

Next up was a set from Shovels & Rope.  They’re the duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent and I’m a huge fan. The fact that they were on this bill was another layer of frosting on the concert cake.

By this time Tra and I were in our 7th row seats ( off to the side a bit but entirely fabulous) which were none too shabby! From there I snapped a few more photos so as to try and capture to scope of Red Rocks’ natural magnificence.

Red Rocks long shot side view
Another view of heaven, aka Red Rocks. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The last bit of sunlight faded and the time for Brandi Carlile and her nothing less than 100% dynamite band to take the stage was drawing near.  This was my sixth time seeing her this summer and the final show of my incredible #summerofbrandi2018.

Previously in 2018 I had seen BC twice in Boston, once in Portland, Maine, once at the Newport Folk Festival and the night before the Red Rocks show at a private fan performance in Boulder.  My love for her music is as deep as the ocean and it grew all the more after the release  of her latest album “By The Way, I Forgive You.”

Brandi Carlile
Yours truly nerding out just before Carlile took the stage.

And then it happened. The show started by way of a string trio medley that I’d heard at previous shows this year. It was all the more riveting because this was happening at RED ROCKS! I had chills that were multiplying more than Sandy and Danny combined and they didn’t stop until well after the last song about two hours later.

Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks
Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth twins at Red Rocks on 8.12.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

What followed were no less than 20 songs. It began with “Every Time I Hear That Song” and ended with the lights out all being turned off and thousands of us holding up our phones while Brandi and Laura and Lydia of the Secret Sisters sang ‘Amazing Grace” in what was one of the most memorable endings to a concert I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

In between Carlile and company delivered a tremendous set of tunes that included Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” which was sung by Brandi’s niece Caroline in advance of an upcoming talent show competition. The kid nailed it.

Shovels & Rope were invited to play their song “Cleanup Hitter” with Carlile and holy shit, it was fantastic.

Red Rocks LIT night Looking Back
Red Rocks at night. Divine! Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The Secret Sisters sang backup on one of my favorite “By The Way” songs, “Sugartooth” and then stayed put for a rendition of their song “Mississippi” from their Grammy-nominated album “You Don’t Own Me Anymore.” And yeah, it was goddamn great.

Back to back covers  late in the set just about put me over the edge, despite having seen Carlile sing them both at previous shows this year. It didn’t matter. This was Red Rocks and Brandi Carlile sang Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” and for the love of all that is holy in this universe, it was one of those moments that was a reminder of why the live music experience means so much to me. Hearing Carlile’s voice ring out in that Colorado night against a backdrop of piano and strings was everything.

No sooner did the Mitchell song end did Carlile and the band break into “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”  I always like to remind people, in the interest of given songwriting credit where it’s due, that the song was written in the late 50s by a woman named Anne Bredon and the first famous recording of it was by Joan Baez in 1962. The version however that is arguably best known and most revered is the one recorded by Led Zeppelin in 1969 on their debut album.

Carlile made the song her own and I think the world might have damn well stopped spinning for a few minutes while she sang it.  Here’s a great clip of her singing it on July 21 in Portland, Maine (where I live) with gratitude to the fan who captured this and posted it.

Hearing “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” at Red Rocks elevated the song to yet another level of rock perfection and is one of about 12 bazillion examples of Carlile’s vocal capabilities.

Brandi Carlile
Here’s a shot of Carlile as projected on a giant video monitor to the right of the stage.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The last song they played before the encores was one I still can’t make it through without crying and that’s “Party of One” from “By The Way,  I Forgive You.” I always think I’m going to survive and then the strings come in like a wave and I lose it. But at least I can say I’ve cried in four different states during the same song this summer.

Here’s a decent video  by a YouTuber named Annalie Benjamin of the song being played at Red Rocks.

I dried my eyes and we were all rewarded with the return of the band to the stage for three encore songs beginning with a  when-in-rome esque medley of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine on my Shoulders.” It didn’t suck one bit that the band’s former fiddler Jeb Bows joined them for this little slice of magic.  Hell even I sang along.

Next up was the sing-along of the ages with the song “Hold Out Your Hand” during which every kid of the band came out on stage not to mention former White House (when we had a sane POTUS named Obama) photographer and friend of the Carlile clan, Pete Souza. And so did Shovels & Rope and The Secret Sisters. The devil sure as shit wasn’t getting our souls that night. We were in the throes of redemption in the form of a glorious song.

But perhaps what gave me the biggest chills of the night was “Amazing Grace.” I’d been to shows before when fans were asked to shine their phones. But this was something altogether different and I think everyone there knew it.

Shout-out of gratitude to YouTuber RESphoto for capturing this:

It was perhaps the finest example of how pristine the acoustics are in the natural wonder of Red Rocks , a place that took more than 200 million years to form.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful” said Carlile at the end of the song and she was absolutely right. This was one time that the prevalence of technology at a concert made for an unforgettable live music moment full of wonder, full of angelic vocals and full of upwards of 9,000 fans who knew this was something special.

I’ll always be thankful that I was one of them.

I’ll end with seven words that you’ ll just have to trust me on:

GO SEE A SHOW AT RED ROCKS

Ponti out.


Aimsel on the Record in sponsored in part by LB Kitchen in Portland, Maine.

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Please contact me if you’re interested in sponsorship opportunities.

Worth the wait: Thoughts on the 2018 Newport Folk Festival

I don’t really know why it took me this long to finally realize the dream of attending the Newport Folk Festival. I’m reminded of a favorite line from writer Gail Godwin: “Some things arrive in their own mysterious hour, on their own terms and not yours, to be seized or relinquished forever.” OK so that’s a bit dramatic but the point is… I FINALLY WENT.

There’s a piece of my heart still out there at Fort Adams Park and  likely will be forever, such was the impact of this storied festival.

I scribbled a few notes here and there in my reporter’s notebook but I’m not looking at them now. Instead, I’m gonna just write from the heart because after thinking about the experience three plus weeks later, I already know there’s no way this can be a traditional “review.” Maybe it’s an essay or a love letter or a journal entry.

Let me start by saying that walking into this festival on that Friday morning, July 27, I felt like Dorothy Gale stepping into Technicolor, Charlie Bucket walking into the Wonka factory , Edmund Pevensie stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia and Alice descending into the rabbit hole.  Remove all scary or challenging parts of those stories and that may give you some idea of what it felt like for this music fan to be at this festival.

Before I unpack anything about what I saw and heard over the next three days, I think it’s important to mention that I’ve wanted to attend this festival since 1992. This is the year this compilation album below was released and I still have it. Before that I had heard of the festival but didn’t have a full understanding of just how special it is. But when I heard Indigo Girls singing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” I lost my mind. I knew that someday I would make it to Newport. Little did I know it wouldn’t happen until 2018. But let me say, in no uncertain terms and hell yes in all caps: IT WAS WORTH THE WAIT!!!

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So there I was on a Friday morning on what was my first time in Newport and probably only my second or third time in the state of Rhode Island.

Upon arriving to the entrance to Fort Adams I saw a sign that told me everything I needed to know. It wasn’t a sign from God or a sign from the universe. It was literally a sign. This sign:

welcome sign
iPhone photo happily shot from my car window after I said Hi to the police officers by the entrance and told them I was a first-timer and made one of them high-five me.

I parked my car, gathered up my stuff and began the seaside stroll to the front gates where I picked up my media pass and photo pass.  I had purchased my actual tickets last November the second they went on sale in what was one of the most nail-biting ticket buying experiences of my life. I reached out to festival people a few weeks before the opening day requesting the photo pass and they graciously provided me with one and I’ll always be thankful for that because even though I am a complete rookie when it comes to photography, it was awesome to be in the photo pit all weekend where every single photographer I spoke to was incredibly kind.  Early on I had a problem with my camera (which, TBH, I barely know how to use) and asked one of them for help and I was feeling quite embarrassed about it. Turns out it’s always a good idea to make sure ones lens is actually on properly. This guy, I wish I could remember his name, was amazing and didn’t make me feel foolish. I mention this because that’s what it was like the entire weekend. Every person I spoke to, rubbed shoulders with, asked questions to, hung out with and watched performances with was kind, in a good mood and super happy to be there. Said another way: there were no assholes at the Newport Folk Festival.

If you’ve never been to the Newport Folk Festival you may not know that when tickets go on sale in November, the lineup isn’t  announced. That comes months later on a rolling basis and every announcement feels like the moment in “A Christmas Story” when  Ralphie’s Dad tells him to look behind the desk because Santa left one more present there.

Even when acts I wasn’t familiar with were announced it sent a shiver of excitement down my spine because I knew that I’d end up loving some of them. (I’m looking at you, The War And Treaty, Bedouine and Beneath The Sacred Mountain to name a few).

The first announcement came on January 31 and it was Courtney Barnett!!  Then every couple of days or weeks other ones would appear and every single time I smiled and it was like kernels of popcorn exploding inside my heart. Rachael & Vilray? YEP! Darlingside? YEP! Passenger? YEP! Phoebe Bridgers? YEP! The Lone Bellow? YEP! Jason Isbell? YEP!

On March 21 things took a turn for the even more exciting when my favorite name of 2018 was announced: Brandi Carlile!

Five days later another bomb was dropped: Lucius!

Three days later: Amanda Shires!

Then the floodgates opened with announcements of Margo Price, Tuck and Patti, Jenny Lewis, Glen Hansard and OMFG St. Vincent among many others.

For a complete list of 2018 performers click here.

Anyway….back to that Friday morning, July 27. I joined the ever-growing line of festival goers and we excitedly awaited for the 10 a.m. opening of the gates. About 15 minutes before that magic moment, festival producer Jay Sweet appeared and made some enthusiastic, cheer-inducing announcements most of which I couldn’t hear but I’m quite certain included a welcome and a promise of good times ahead.

And then it happened. The gates opened and I watched as several hardcore fans made their way as quickly yet calmly as possible to the Fort Stage to secure a good spot for their blankets and chairs.

BTW, the festival has four stages: Quad, Harbor, Museum and the almighty Fort Stage.

I was immediately overwhelmed but not in a bad way, more of in a “Oh my God, I’m finally here! way.” But I also had a mission and that was to see the first act of the day on the Quad Stage, Tuck and Patti. Tuck is one of the most incredible jazz guitarists you’ll ever want to see and Patti is one of the most incredible vocalists on the planet. They’ve been playing together (and have been married) for many years and have a ton of albums out. I had only seem them once, in the mid 90s in Portland, Maine. It came as no surprise that they put on a sensational show and I can’t imagine starting off my first festival experience any other way.  Also, about a week or so before the show, I Tweeted a request to them for the song “Takes my Breath Away” from the album “Tears of Joy.”  Not only did they end their set with the song,  they thanked me (not by name but that hardly matters) for the “sweet request.” I felt like Rudolph when Clarice called him cute.

Tuck and Patti
Tuck and Patti at the Newport Folk Festival 7.27.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s the part of this Newport tale where I tell you that many brutal decisions had to be made all weekend long because with the four stages, acts overlap and some acts that I love I only saw a little bit of and some I missed entirely. (My apologies, Glen Hansard).

Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

It was torture, for example, leaving Jenny Lewis’ set early but the reward was Courtney Barnett. If only all problems could be like this one.

Amanda Shires
Amanda Shires at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I also only caught a few songs of the AMAZING Amanda Shires as I made a mad dash to the photo pit for Margo Price.  (BTW, OMG, Amanda’s new album…get it!) I had seen Price earlier in the year here in Maine and knew she was not to be missed. It was during her set that I experienced my first legendary Newport moment. The festival is FAMOUS for guest appearances and this year was no exception. When Margo Price played the John Prine song “In Spite of Ourselves,” she was joined by JOHN PRINE!

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Margo Price with John Prine at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Yeah, that happened. Three songs later, one of my favorite moments of the entire three days went down and I still can’t believe it happened. Not only did  Price sing  Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”, she was joined by BRANDI CARLILE. I lost my mind and still haven’t quite found it. I have loved this song forever (I’m old af and saw the movie in the freakin’ theater) and seeing a duet by Price and Carlile was, if you’ll pardon the over-used but entirely justified word, EPIC!

Thanks to the fella named Chad for getting the whole song. Dude! Owe you one.

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Margo Price with Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Still on a musical high from Margo Price, I readied myself for another band that I’m ALL ABOUT. This time it was Lucius who were joined by a trio of  mesmerizing dancers called The Seaweed Sisters.

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Lucius with the Seaweed Sisters at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

They opened their set with the arresting and vocally over the moon “Go Home”  (from 2013’s debut album “Wildewoman”) and then went right into the Gerry Rafferty tune “Right Down the Line” (from the 2018 album “Nudes.) Their 12-song set was sheer bliss for every single second and when they played “Dusty Trails” (from 2016’s “Good Grief” another spectacular Newport moment happened. They brought out Brandi Carlile to sing it with them. I’m still feeling the afterglow of this. Holy shit.

Lucius also played tribute to musician and producer Richard Swift who passed away on July 3 at the age of 41 by playing his song “Most of What I Know.”  Swift is sorely missed by many and his name was mentioned a number of times over the course of the weekend.

Lucius
Lucius at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Friday wasn’t nearly done with slaying me though, not by a longshot. I managed to catch a few songs by Rachael & Vilray (LOVE THEM) and while cooling my heels for a bit in the media tent (they needed cooling, it was blazing hot out all weekend) I listened to Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite who tore it up on the nearby Quad Stage. I also mourned missing sets by Darlingside (LOVE THEM) and This Is The Kit (newish band to me and love them too).

Rachael and Vilray
Rachael and Vilray at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

At 5:40 however I was all business as I hit the Quad state for the entire St. Vincent set. For this performance she didn’t play guitar (she’s a goddamn brilliant guitarist) but rather was accompanied by pianist Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett for a 13 song set that included “Los Ageless, “Pills, “Slow Disco” and “New York.”

St. Vincent
St. Vincent at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

She changed the first line of “New York” and sang “Newport isn’t Newport without you love.” As you imagine, we all went crazy. Annie Clark also pulled out an unexpected cover that I melted over. She sang Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” and it was a tender and beautiful and  true “Newport” moment if ever there was one.

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St. Vincent Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Friday night was closed out on the Fort Stage by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I had just seen them a week before at Thompson’s Point in Portland with co-headliner Brandi Carlile where they put on a hell of a great show.  Little did I know that another giant Newport surprise was coming at the end of their set Jason Isbell introduced surprise guest DAVID CROSBY and before I had time to even catch my breath they tore into “Wooden Ships” and then “Ohio” and again…I lost my mind.

Jason Isbell David Crosby
Jason Isbell with David Crosby at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I’m pretty sure all 10,000 of us did. Then Isbell ended with the tear-my-heart-wide open “If We Were Vampires” and I walked out of day one delirious.

When I went to bed on Friday night at my friend Judy’s house about 40 minutes away I was as exhausted as a person could be. I had gotten too much sun and not enough water. I had also experienced one of the best days of my life in terms of live music. My last thought before drifting off that night was “Oh my god, there are TWO MORE DAYS!”

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Lukas Nelson at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
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Holly and Jess from Lucius on stage with Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Saturday brought with it another round of live music thrills and chills that only the Newport Folk Festival can provide. My first order of business after some wandering around from stage to stage for a bit was Lukas Nelson & Promise of Real. Newport moments kept happening and every one was joyous. Holly and Jess from Lucius joined Nelson for “Die Alone” which make perfect sense as they’re on five songs on the album he put out last year.

Tank & The Bangas
Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank & The Bangas at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Then it was off to the Quad Stage where I caught the first few songs of a performance that will long be talked about by the earth-shattering Tank & The Bangas.  I should have stayed for their entire set because their take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was one for the ages.

Other Saturday highlights for me were Phoebe Bridgers, Jenny Lewis and Courtney Barnett.

Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.Photo by Aimsel Ponti

But there was one other act on Saturday night. It was the unannounced one to close out the day on the Fort Stage. Speculation had been running wild all day on Friday with guesses including Neil Young. But by my arrival on Saturday morning, the cat had been let out of the bag and word had gotten out that the Saturday night surprise was Mumford & Sons.  When they first broke out in 2009 with “Sigh No More” I was an instant fan thanks to songs like “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man.”  In 2012 I still felt the love with “Babel” with the track “Lover of the Light” and the bonus track cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” Heck Mumford even brought their Gentlemen of the Road tour to Portland, Maine in the summer of 2015 and 15,000 of us attended the Munjoy Hill show.  But then I sort of lost track of the band and still haven’t really listened to 2015’s “Wilder Mind” album. So when I heard they were the surprise act I’ll be honest, I was underwhelmed. Guess what? I WAS DEAD WRONG AND I ADMIT IT.

Mumford and Sons
Marcus Mumford or Mumford and Sons at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Jay Sweet himself came out on stage to introduce them and from the moment the four of them took the stage to the moment the show ended in glorious fashion (I’ll get to that) I was 100 % all-in and screaming along with the “You really fucked it up this time” refrain of “Little Lion Man” just like everyone else there that night.  Marcus and company sounded fantastic and I immediately fell back in love with them.

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Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers joined Mumford and Sons on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

It didn’t hurt one bit that they set was jam-packed with guests including -you guessed it- Brandi Carlile who sang “The Boxer” with them. She was one of many surprises. Jerry Douglass was also out on that stage. Phoebe Bridgers sang Radiohead’s “All I Need” with Mumford ans Sons and it was to-die-for. But there were two other surprises during the Mumford set that I still can’t believe. Maggie Rogers, who was not one of the weekend’s scheduled performers, was introduced and sang her enchanting tune “Alaska” with the band.  I LOVE this song and hearing it in this context was an unexpected joyful moment.

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Maggie Rogers on stage with Mumford and Sons at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The Mumford and Sons set could have ended right then and there and I would have left that night elated. Little did I know that another Newport moment was about to happen and even as I write this I can’t believe I witnessed it.

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples with Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers perform with Mumford and Sons (among others) at the closing Saturday night set of the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Mavis Staples was introduced and she sang,  with her glorious voice, The Band’s “The Weight” with Mumford and company. Phoebe, Maggie and Brandi were also there to sing it. When Mavis took lead on the second voice I could barely process it.

I walked out of the festival on Saturday night even more delirious then I had been on Friday night.

And then came Sunday.

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A happy crowd, including Marian Starkey, get ready for Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I’m going to start by saying that I didn’t stay for the final performance of the night, the Change is Gonna Come set led by Jon Batiste with the Dap-Kings. The set featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Rachael Price (Rachael & Vilray, Lake Street Dive), Valerie June, surprise guests Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes),  Chris Thile, Leon Bridges, Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile and several other Newport luminaries. The 2018 Newport Folk Festival ended with an all-star jam of the Staple Singers “Freedom Highway.”

I had given all I had to give by the time Brandi Carlile finished her set just before 6 p.m. and walked to my car all smiles. Sunday had been the hottest of the three days and I stood under that sun with my new pal Marian for hours upon hours with no regrets so that we could be right up front for Carlile’s set. I missed my gal and my dog and as I made the three hour drive home on Sunday night back to Maine, I knew I had experienced something I will never forget. So that’s why I had no regrets about my early departure.

BUT HERE’S WHAT I DID SEE ON SUNDAY!

Sunday was the day I spent just about all of my time parked at The Fort Stage. I did catch a few songs on other stages by The War and Treaty (SO GREAT!) and Jen Cloher (SO GREAT!) but Fort Stage was my Sunday destiny. This was my first time seeing Passenger (Michael Rosenberg) and his solo acoustic set was outstanding. I only knew the radio singles “Let Her Go,” “Scare Away the Dark” and the new one “Hell or High Water” but truly enjoyed the entire set. His voice is exceptional and I did indeed sing at the top of my voice during “Scare Away the Dark.” That song’s damn near perfect.

Passenger
Passenger at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

After Passenger it was the magnificent act The Lone Bellow. Holy bananas. I experienced just about every emotion one can experience during their set and experienced temporarily straightness, such was the handsomeness of Zach Williams.  Looks aside, my oh my, those harmonies, those lyrics, all of it…

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The Lone Bellow at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The Lone Bellow paid tribute to Scott Hutchinson from Frightened Rabbit with the new song “There Is Love All Around You” and it was beautiful.

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Zach Williams from The Lone Bellow at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

After The Lone Bellow it was Gary Clark Jr. I had heard the name but was otherwise fairly unfamiliar with Clark other than knowing he was known to be a hell of a guitarist from Texas. Despite not knowing any of the songs, I thoroughly enjoyed -and rocked out to- the entire set by Clark and his band. Standing near a mega-fan who was more into the performance than just about anyone I had ever seen at a show added to the experience.

By the time Clark finished his set at 4:15, I was hotter than hot and had drained the last of my water, which had been heroically been procured by my friend Marian who braved the crowd to keep us fed and hydrated. No, I will not loan her out for future festivals so don’t ask.  She’s the festival friend everyone needs and I also applaud what a huge Lucius fan she is and how she hilariously described herself as a “heat-seeking missile” when it came to being at the right stages at the right times for the many Holly and Jess surprise moments during other acts’ sets.

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Brandi Carlile front and center at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

When Brandi Carlile and her band hit the stage at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, July 29, I was a live-wire, a whirling-sun-baked dervish. I didn’t bother using my photo pass for entry to the pit, I stayed right where I was, right up front with Marian and a throng of fellow Brandi fans who shared water, snacks and love for Carlile and the performance we were all about to lose ourselves in.

At this point in 2018, I had already seen Carlile three times; twice in Boston and once in Portland and since the Newport show I’ve seen her at a private fan club show in Boulder and at another bucket list location: Red Rocks Ampitheater (review coming soon!)

I see Carlile as much as I do because she and her band put on one of the best live shows you’ll ever want to see.  They’re THAT GOOD. Carlile’s latest album “By The Way, I Forgive You” is my favorite album of 2018 with songs like “Sugar Tooth” and “Party of One,” not to mention the single to end all singles, “The Joke.” Plus she and twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth chose covers like nobody’s business. The entire band is at the top of their games and every Carlile show is a goddamn spiritual experience. Festival sets are never as long as regular show ones but Carlile demolished the 11 songs with every fiber of her being, as did the band.  They came out swinging with “Raise Hell” from 2012’s “Bear Creek” and then hit us with the song that for many of us, started it all. The title track from her 2007 second album “The Story.”

Next it was Carlile with twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth for the three-part harmony vocal supremacy with the song “The Eye.”

“The Mother” from “By The Way” tells of the birth of Carlile’s first daughter Evangeline and the emotional roller-coaster that ensued for Carlile. She and her wife Catherine welcome a second daughter, Elijah, a few months ago.

Then Carlile played “The Joke” and almost in a daze, I cheered my heart and soul out. The Lone Bellow joined Carlile for “Sugartooth,” a song about losing a friend to drug addiction and what came next was a one-two punch of covers that just about leveled me. Between the two songs I pretty much screamed out something along the lines of “you’re killing me!” and it made Carlile laugh for a few seconds. (I was right the eff up front ).

First she sang Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” I had never heard her sing this before and to say she nailed it would be the biggest understatement of my entire writing career. Even now, a few weeks later, I’m struggling to find the words to capture to gravity of the performance. At this point I was feeling this performance more than I had felt just about any other show I have been to (and trust me when I say, I’ve seen thousands). That’s when Carlile and company busted out with a tune that although I had seen a couple of times before, was all the more intense on the Newport stage. If Wikipedia is to be believed (and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt on this one) the song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was written in the late 50s by a woman  named Anne Bredon while she was a student at University of California, Berkeley. It ended up being recorded by none other than Joan Baez on her 1962 “Joan Baez in Concert, Part I” album. Seven years later, Led Zeppelin recorded it for their 1969 debut self-titled album. Fun fact: I saw Robert Plant in Boston earlier this year and he sang it. A few month laters, on that same stage, was when I first heard Carlile’s version. The Newport version was one of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever witnessed.

Then Carlile sat at the piano and played a song I have yet to make it through yet without crying. That song is “Party of One”and it’s the closing track on “By The Way, I Forgive You.” Every time I think I’m going to make it through I always fall apart when the strings come in, especially live.

Brandi Carlile ended the Newport set with the spirited anthem “Hold Out Your Hand” and was joined by The Lone Bellow, The War and The Treaty, The Watson Twins as well as little Evangeline and a couple of the twins’ adorable kids.

She gave it everything she had and so did the band and so did us fans.

Not only will I never forget all of the music I saw and heard at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, I will never forget the 100% positive vibe. It may sound cliche but it’s entirely true. From the musicians joining each other on stage all weekend long to the enthusiastic open-hearted fans, I now understand why this festival is so well loved and respected. It also explains why tickets vanish moments after they go on sale.

Parting thoughts:

If you’re going to attend this festival here are my four pieces of advice:

  1. Be ready when tickets go on sale in the fall. I mean REALLY ready.
  2. Bring a reusable water bottle and put serious thought into getting one of those little hand-held +fans/water misters. I saw two elderly women with them and I won’t hit this festival again without one of them.
  3. Don’t try to see everything. It’s not possible. See what you can and enjoy every moment.
  4. Expect the unexpected. Fort Adams becomes a field of dreams (by the ocean) during this festival.

Thank you Newport Folk Festival for being so welcoming, so memorable, so magical and such an authentic live music experience. I’ll be back. You can count on it.

Oh and hey, here’s this! (with gratitude as always to my tech hero Shamus Alley)

Ponti out.


Aimsel on the Record is sponsored in part by LB Kitchen in Portland, Maine.

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Please contact me if you’re interested in sponsorship opportunities!

What it was like to meet U2’s Bono & Edge

On Friday, June 22, 2018, I met Bono and The Edge from U2 on a sidewalk (of sorts) in Boston.

This is a moment I never thought would happen and one that I still can’t believe actually did.

Know that I’m coming it this from the perspective of a GIANT U2 fan and I’m sharing this story because it’s a lesson in never giving on your dreams.  I’m also sharing it because I think it’s amazing that Bono and Edge did this  (meet fans before a show) because they certainly didn’t have to.

How did I come to meet U2 on this particular day? Well in part thanks to Instagram. But hold that thought for just a moment and let me tell you, briefly, about my love for U2 and how it all began.

A thousand years ago in the early-ish days of MTV I saw this video and couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. I immediately bought a copy of the “Under a Blood Red Sky” EP and soon after “War,” “October” and “Boy.” My love for this band was instantaneous and immense. There’s a handful of junior high friends out there that might remember the sleepover when this clip came on MTV and I acted out Bono’s flag-raising and lip-synced along like it was the most important moment of my entire life.

The first time I saw U2 live was on “The Unforgettable Fire” tour. To this day, that first time seeing U2 live was one of the greatest night of my life. Since then I’ve seen thousands of concerts and I’ve seen U2 about a dozen times through the years. But that first time…my oh my.

Then of course there was last summer when I saw them on the 30th anniversary tour for “The Joshua Tree.” That too was one of the greatest nights of my life. You can read about it here.

OK so getting back to that moment in Boston on June 22 of this year. I got wind of the fact that members of U2 would sometimes come out and say hi to fans before shows by way of Instagram Stories. An ember started burning in my mind and since my buddy Colin and I were already going in early to Boston to secure a “good number” in the general admission floor seats line, I mentioned to him about what I had seen on social media and said something along the lines of  “Um, maybe we should see if this is happening when we go to Boston.” He was of course totally on board.

On the day of the show we arrived in Boston via the Amtrak Downeaster at around 11 a.m. and immediately acquired the all-important numbered bracelets. Then we were able to establish where to go to wait in case the miracle of the band actually stopping to say hello was going to happen.

In a medium-sized paved area by what I’ll call the “artist entrance” to the colossal TD Garden we came across about 25 fellow U2 fans. They were all very friendly and helpful and they included Rebecca from San Francisco, Maggie from Rhode Island,  Leah from Australia and Josie from The  Netherlands.

It was a bit of a downer to hear that the day before (night one of the two nights of Boston shows) that the make-shift meet & greet didn’t happen because the band was running late. But still we persisted because a. today was a new day and b. what else we were doing ? Colin and I had packed water and snacks and it was really fun trading stories with other huge fans about previous shows and such.

And the hours passed…

A few fans knew the deal from previous stops on the tour and told us that the first thing we needed to keep an eye out for was U2’s head security guy who, if this thing was going to happen, could at some point appear to survey the scene.

Somewhere around 3 p.m. he did indeed appear and this was the first moment I experienced a massive rush of nervous excitement and the first moment that I thought to myself “holy shit, this might actually happen.”

From there it was a lot of “hurry up and wait” and as the minutes ticked on I went in and out of losing hope and just staying calm and present.

More and more security personnel started assembling and some barriers were put up on either end of the  line of fans and a black rope was stretched in front of us .

And now it’s 4:45 going on 5 p.m. and there are maybe 200 of us out there. I can’t deal at all.  My new pal Rebecca and I both enabled one other’s stress and talked ourselves out of it and reminded ourselves that no matter what happens, we were going to see a spectacular concert in a few hours and all would be OK.

Then right around 5 p.m. two miracles occurred. A pair of huge black Escalades pulled up, doors were opened and out popped Edge and Bono.

As you can only imagine, I am beside myself at this point.

Here’s the moment of Bono’s arrival:

Bono
Bono arrives to say hello to fans in Boston on 6.22.18
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Bono walked right by me and made his way to the far right side of the line and Edge made his way to the far left. I was pretty much smack dab in the middle.

Everything was happening pretty quickly at this point and yet time also stood still.

I looked to my left and saw Edge approaching and I looked to the right and Bono was getting closer. With my heart in my throat I started snapping photos and here’s a collage of the scene unfolding right in front of me of their approaches as well as some pics I snapped when they were literally RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME along with a”I couldn’t help myself” selfie once I had had my moment with them:

u2 and me collage
U2’s Bono and Edge in Boston on 6.22.18
Photos by a very excited Aimsel Ponti

If I never take another photo for the rest of my life I think I’ll be OK because I managed to get this one:

Edge and Bono
U2’s Edge and Bono are all smiles as they greet fans in Boston, MA on 6.22.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Colin and my new friends and I all shared photos with one another and I’m very thankful because otherwise I wouldn’t have these two to share. The first one is the moment I shook Bono’s hand. I knew full well that if I was able to speak with him at all it would be very brief. I also knew that an autograph wasn’t something I needed to ask for. Honestly, I just wanted to shake his hand.

And so the moment came and I said hello and asked if I could shake his hand. He said hello and something like “of course” and we did indeed shake hands. I had not planned what I was going to say to him. What came out was “Thank you. I guess I’ve waited for this moment for 35 years.” This was for me all I needed to say to one of my heroes. I also got to say thanks and get a handshake with Edge.

bono handshake with ALP
The moment of shaking hands with Bono after just doing the same with Edge in Boston on 6.22.18.
Photo by a fellow U2 fan

This other photo I couldn’t believe when it was texted to me. Someone (was it you, Colin?) managed to get this shot of the back of me with Edge and Bono smiling at me and honestly, I can hardly look at this without my heart growing about 1,000 times bigger and I get a little teary too, such was the gravity of the moment.

Edge and Bono
Edge and Bono smiling at yours truly in Boston, MA on 6.22.18.

A few minutes after all these photos were taken I called my spouse Tracy back in Maine and told her, with my voice shaking, that I had just met Edge and Bono and then, for real, I started crying.

I thought about it later and realized the tears came from many places but were mostly because I have loved this band so much for so long that it was almost an existential moment to actually meet them. Along with David Bowie, they are a primary reason that my life has centered around music for so long. They’re one of the reasons why I am a music writer. They’re one of the reasons that music is essential to both my happiness and sanity.

So in as much as Edge and Bono are just humans like the rest of us, for me they’re also something else. They represent  what it feels like as a 14 year old kid to love a band’s music so much that you know  that you’re going to feel that way forever.

When I stood there in Boston and shook their hands I was 14 again. But I was also 40-something me. And as I sit here and finish this post nine days after the moment happened, I’m again overcome with emotions. And that’s the crux of it isn’t it? Feeling that emotion, acknowledging that despite years of being a writer, at the end of the day I’m still a fan who loves music and really loves the band from Dublin, Ireland called U2.

As for the concert later that night,  it proved that they’re still the best live band out there.

U2
Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 performing live in Boston at the TD Garden on 6.22.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Thanks for taking the time to relive this moment with me. It truly meant everything to me and if you’re a music fan at all, I know you get it.

Ponti out

Rickie Lee Jones delivers in Portland, Maine

When I walked into the Rickie Lee Jones show the other night at AURA in Portland, Maine and plunked myself down in my front row (to the left a bit) seat I had no intentions of writing about it. I was there strictly as a fan.  I had bought the tickets months ago the moment they went on sale and had been quietly feeling the slow burn of anticipation for the show. But 47 seconds into “Weasel and the White Boys Cool” I couldn’t help myself, I pulled out my notebook and pen and started scribbling notes because my jaw was on the floor by how fantastic Jones and her two band-mates sounded.

Rickie Lee Jones is a national treasure as far as I’m concerned. She’s one of our songwriting greats and her vocals are unique in that no one sounds quite like RLJ. Her voice is clear and bright but also jazzy and moody, depending on the song.

Some people think of Jones simply in terms of the  1979 track “Chuck E’s in Love” from her debut self-titled album. OK. Fine. The song’s terrific and all. But man alive, there’s SO MUCH more to her career than that.  In fact, on that very same album is where you’ll find the song she closed out her show with in Portland the other night called “Coolsville.”

“And now a hungry night you want more and more/And you chip in your little kiss/Well I jumped all his jokers/But he trumped all my tricks” is just a tiny bit of the spellbinding lyrics. At times her vocals sink so low you swear she’s shaking hands with the devil.

Rickie Lee Jones
Rickie Lee Jones performing at AURA in Portland, Maine on 3.27.18
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Jones played acoustic guitar most of the night but did sit at a baby grand piano for a couple of songs. She was  accompanied by a terrific electric guitarist named Cliff Hines  and a sensational percussionist named Mike Dillon.

She did hit us with “Chuck E.’s In Love” early on but no complaints because, again, it’s a damn good song and this was version was a stripped down chilled out one.

Jones’ third song of the night is one of her finest lyrical moments and it’s another one from that famous first album that is just shy of celebrating its 40th anniversary.

RLJ
Warner Bros. Records

“Last Chance Texaco” is straight-up one of the best songs out there by anyone. When Jones started playing I  for real got the chills and came damn close to having to pinch myself.

“A long stretch of headlights bends into I-9/Tiptoe into truck stops/And sleepy diesel eyes/Volcanoes rumble in the taxi and glow in the dark/Camels in the driver’s seat/A slow, easy mark.”

Jones sounded as good -if not better- on this night in Portland than perhaps I’ve ever heard her before. This was about my 5th time seeing her live.

The show continued along its riveting course with “Love Is Gonna Bring Us Back Alive.” It’s from the 1989 Jones album “Flying Cowboys” which is nothing less than sacred to me.  The album was my gateway into knowing and loving the music of Jones.

With an easy smile, sparkling eyes, blue dress and black beret, Rickie Lee Jones looked genuinely happy up on that stage  and although I wish the show had been maybe two or three songs longer, every second was captivating and it reminded me SO MUCH of why I love her music.

Other holy-bananas-this-is-so-great moments from the show included “We Belong Together” and “Living It Up” from her 1981 “Pirates” album,  her interpretation of the  Arthur Hamilton penned standard “Cry Me A River” which Jones told us was made famous by Julie London in the 50s,  “Mink Coat at the Bus Stop” from 2003’s “The Evening of My Best Day” and “Cloud of Unknowing” from 2003’s “Ghostyhead.” Oh and  especially “Eucalyptus Trail” from 2009’s “Balm in Gilead” with the lines “All my old friends have gone underground/They fall so hard, I am the last of my kind in this town.” This seems like the perfect line to end with because Rickie Lee Jones has always felt like an old friend and I’m glad  sure glad she resurfaced to put on such an extraordinary mid-week show in Maine.

Here’s a clip someone shot in Paris, France last month of Jones playing “We Belong Together” which I’m sharing so you can hear for yourself how goddamn glorious Jones still is live.

Ponti out

K.D. Lang revisits Ingenue in stunning Boston performance

Orpheum Theatre, K.D. Lang
The Orpheum Theatre in Boston, MA marquee Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Let me say this right out of the gate: K.D. Lang is one of the greatest singers on the planet as far as I’m concerned. I put her vocals right up there with Judy Garland in terms of sheer excellence. Her version of  Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from her 2004 album “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” is the only one I care about.  And her take on “Black Coffee” from 1988’s “Shadowland” and  Cole Porter’s “So in Love” from the 1990 benefit album “Red Hot + Blue” will forever kill me. I love this woman’s voice SO MUCH. Oh and right, then there’s her take on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Good God in heaven.

I hadn’t seen Lang live in years. Like since the 90s if memory serves. And so I found myself  filled with a sense of longing and joy when I heard she was on the road celebrating the 25th anniversary of her 1992 “Ingenue” album. (the tour started last year for those of you doing math out there.)

Fast forward to last Thursday night in Boston where I sat about 15 rows back in a not sold-out but damn close crowd entirely enraptured with Lang and her STELLAR seven-piece band as they served up all ten tracks of “Ingenue” like a fine wine.

Before I spill my heart out about how much I loved this show, let me quickly say that I LOVE it when artists mark anniversaries of albums by taking them out on the road and playing them in their entirety. I’m looking at you, Brandi Carlile and Shawn Colvin and U2 as a few recent examples.  We live in a shuffle play world but I immensely appreciate hearing an album performed in the order in which it was originally sequenced. And this is especially true with “Ingenue” because this album is like a fantastic voyage of climbing a ladder that leads straight to the core of the human heart beginning with “Save Me” and ending with one of the 90s’ finest musical moments: “Constant Craving.”

After a scintillating opening set from Australian guitar duo the Grigoryan Brothers the house lights dimmed and the stage lights lit up to the sounds of “Save Me” and then Lang’s vocals started and it was downright spiritual because, and I can’t emphasize this enough, SHE SOUNDED AMAZING. I looked at my friend Jen with my jaw dropped and settled in for what proved to be a luxurious and musically spellbinding performance of a divine album which, by the way, Nonesuch Records has released a 25th Anniversary edition of which includes a second disc of “MTV Unplugged Tracks.”

After the first three tracks of “Save Me,” “The Mind of Love” and “Miss Chatelaine” Lang told us they were going to play the rest of the album pretty much without stopping and this proved to be an excellent decision because the album flows so well and banter between songs wasn’t needed.

“Outside Myself” with the lines “I have been in a storm of the sun/Basking, senseless to what I’ve become/A fool to worship just light/When after all it, follows night” is my favorite track on the album and I will forever bow to Lang and Benjamin Mink for writing it.

But for sure the rightful moment when we all lost our minds (in a subdued but none-the-less thrilled manner) was then Lang and company closed out  “Ingenue” with the Grammy-winning tune ““Constant Craving.”  What a way to end an album.

lang two hands up square
K.D. Lang at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on March 22, 2018. Mediocre but enthusiastic iPhone photo by Aimsel Ponti

When “Ingenue” ended the show was far from over and Lang’s next tune was “Honey and Smoke” from the 2016 album “case/lang/veirs” that she made with Neko Case and Laura Veirs. If you don’t have the album GET IT. Trust me on this.

K.D. Lang
K.D. Lang in Boston. 3.22.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Then we heard “I Dream of Spring” from Lang’s 2008 “Watershed” album during which she played an acoustic guitar. The song is slow and moody and like everything else we heard in Boston at this show, it sounded goddamn glorious.

This brings me to what I’m calling the “H3” part of the show. Lang sang three covers all starting with the letter H and all written by her fellow Canadians.

First was Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”, next was Neil Young’s “Helpless” and finally Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which you already know how I feel about.

Needing to catch a bus back home I had to dash after “Hallelujah” but from what I gather, Lang and her band closed out the show with “Sing it Loud,” the title track from the 2011 album “K.D. Lang and the Siss Boom Bang: Sing it Loud” album. It’s a breezy, charming tune and next time I won’t miss it. The last song of the night is one that Lang’s never recorded but has sung a number of times through the years. It’s called “Sleeping Alone” and the song is honey sweet, sexy and a perfect way to say goodnight with. Damn me for not being there for it. Sleep is, after all, over-rated.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? I’ll repeat my opening sentence:

K.D. Lang is one of the greatest singers on the planet as far as I’m concerned.

Ponti out.

Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters brilliant in Boston 2.16.18

Last night I had front row seats to see Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters play a sold-out show at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. A few weeks ago I was ticketless but planned on hopping on a bus to Boston with the hopes of scoring a last-minute ticket on the street but then a friend swooped in and invited me to join her. It wasn’t quite clear to either of us just how good the seats were until the usher escorted us as far down front as one could ever hope to go.

Robert Plant
Robert Plant at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. 2.16.18
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

In the weeks leading up to this show I listened to the hell out of Plant’s latest album, the tremendous  “Carry Fire,” released last fall and assorted other tracks from the 10 previous albums that he’s released since 1982. Through this process I was able to answer an important question before stepping foot into that theater:

Would I be able to be fully present seeing the 2018 Robert Plant and in a sense, meet him where he was today? Or in my mind would I be the 13-year-old version of myself who stood alone at the end of junior high dances listening to what was always the last song of the night? Of course the song I’m referring to is “Stairway to Heaven.” Would I be able to reconcile in my head that I would be seeing the dude who I still hear ALL THE TIME on two different classic rock stations here in Maine singing songs that still kill me like “All My Love” and “Going to California?”  Could I leave 13-year-old me and the Zeppelin version of Plant back in that happy nostalgic rock vault of my mind and be 100% present in the here and now knowing that I would be seeing someone who I’ve never quite considered to be entirely human but rather  a musical deity?

The answer was a resounding YES.

Robert Plant
Robert Plant in Boston 2.16.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

It became clear to me within the first few notes of the show’s opening song  “New World” from “Carry Fire” that this was going to be an entirely brilliant show by Plant and his spectacular band.

Look, I’ll level with you: Having seats that close and having Robert Plant standing about a dozen feet away from me for sure hit me in the proverbial feels. I’m only human and I had several flashes of  “Holy God! That’s Robert Plant!!!” I mean for the love of God, Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands that ever was and not unlike when I saw Roger Waters last fall, I almost had to pinch myself a few times. But not often because most of the time I was too busy rocking out and enjoying the show and the damn near overwhelming artistry of the band. In fact, the Sensational Space Shifters are so good l need to take a moment to tell you who they all are:

Justin Adams on electric and acoustic guitar, oud, and percussion, John Baggott on keyboards, moog, loops and percussion, bassist Billy Fuller, drummer Dave Smith, Liam “Skin” Tyson  on dobro, electric and acoustic guitar, and opening act and newest Space Shifter Seth Lakeman on fiddle.

All told, Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters played 15 songs. Several were from “Carry Fire,” a few from previous albums and I’ll end the suspense now by saying, yep, they did indeed play a handful of Led Zeppelin songs. Different arrangements of course but still with the bones of the original takes.

Vocally, Plant’s voice has evolved.   At 69, he’s still got those legendary pipes, he just uses them differently.  His voice has a texture and depth to it that doesn’t need to howl like he did in the Zeppelin heyday.  His is a voice that carries the songs down a bluesy, rootsy, Americana river. He digs deep when he needs to but doesn’t try to burn houses down with it. It’s another finely-tuned instrument amongst the others in his exceptional band.

So let’s get down the nuts and bolts of this show. All told Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters played 15 songs including “New World,” “The May Queen” and “Carry Fire” from the new record.  The rest of the set was a melange of tracks from “Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar,” “Mighty ReArranger,” “Raising Sand” (the album he made with Alison Krauss,) “Dreamland” and “The Principle of Moments.”  I’ll tell you about the Zeppelin tunes in a minute because these aforementioned songs need some serious accolades dropped on them.

2005’s “The Mighty Rearranger” is home to one of my absolute favorite Plant songs. “All The King’s Horses” is a a delicately gorgeous song.  Hearing it live was profound.

“Swift and true straight to my heart,
Love has come calling and I’m back here again
I pour myself a brand new start
Glad to be falling for the beauty within”

In 2002, Plant released the “Dreamland” album with a cover of a Bukka White song called “Fixin’ to Die.” This was a song played in Boston with its teeth bared.

“In the Mood” from 1983’s “The Principle of Moments” was the show’s first encore and Plant exuberantly exclaimed “I’m in the mood, Boston!” during it. And so were we.

“Rainbow” from 2014’s “Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar” was another standout Boston moment.

“I’m reachin’ for the stars
In the sky above
Oh, I will bring their beauty home
The colors of my love
And I will be a rainbow
Now your storm is gone”

Sheer perfection.

As for the Led Zeppelin songs. I was hoping that Plant and his band would play at least one but I never expected to hear an astounding five.

The first one was “That’s the Way” from Led Zeppelin III, released in 1970.  It’s one of the most stirring and lovely songs I’ve ever heard. Sitting here writing this review a little over 12 hours after the show ended I frankly can’t believe I heard him sing it live. With acoustic guitar, standup bass and some kind of tiny mandolin, the song was transcendent.

From that same album comes the traditional tune “Gallows Pole.”  The Boston performance of it turned into an all-out hootenanny with foot-stomping and hand clapping.

On Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album they covered a tune penned by Anne Bredon in the 50s and recorded by Joan Baez on her 1962 live album.  When Plant and company launched into “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” the crowd went crazy and that certainly includes me. There was a massive acoustic guitar interlude in the middle of it that was jaw-dropping from Liam Tyson and it just about had me on the floor. The entire song clocked in somewhere in the neighborhood of ten minutes and every second was spellbinding. Plant’s vocals were on fire, the band was on fire and the entire room was on fire.

It took a few moments for it to sink in, because it was different from the 1971 original, that “Misty Mountain Hop” was happening. But once Plant sang the lines “Walkin’ in the park just the other day, baby/ What do you what do you think I saw?,” I really don’t know how it could have gotten any better. Mad props to Lakeman’s soaring fiddle on this one.

The evening ended on, upon reflection, the best possible way it could have ended. After a trippy, psychedelic intro far removed from the 1969 original, Liam Tyson played one of the most significant guitar riffs a music fan could ever hope to hear.

I thought I was gonna have a heart attack when his guitar screamed out with “Whole Lotta Love,” soon joined with Plant singing “You need cooling/Baby I’m not fooling.”

I caught myself a few times during it hearing the original version in my head but set those thoughts aside to fully absorb this 2018 interpretation which was interspersed with parts of the traditional sea shanty “Santy Anno.”

This was the moment where two worlds collided; mini-me growing up hearing Led Zeppelin songs on the radio and coming from my brother’s stereo and present day music lover me who walked out of this show with a profound appreciation of present day Robert Plant and his out of this world band.

Robert Plant
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at The Orpheum Theatre in Boston. 2.16.18
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters tour continues and if you have a way of catching one of the shows by all means DO SO. Even if I had absolutely no idea who Plant was and hadn’t known a single song I would have loved this show immensely. True musicianship across a wide range of material led by guy who is indeed mostly human but will always be something of that fabled deity who has meant so much to so many for so long.

Here’s a few glimpses of what I saw last night. Video editing props as always to Shamus Alley.

Ponti out.

Concert Review: Healing powers of First Aid Kit shine brightly in Boston. 2.7.18

When you’ve been waiting far too long to see a band you love, I say go all in! Which is exactly what my friend Kathryn and I did at the First Aid Kit show at the House of Blues in Boston.

When tickets went on sale last October we bought general admission floor seats and also kicked in an extra $20 each for pre-show access to The Foundation Room which is attached to the House of Blues. This was a damn good decision because I never wanted to leave said room because it was like being in a far flung corner of heaven that looked like a Zen lounge with Buddhas and couches and little rooms and built-into the wall tables and incredible art and an all around calming vibe. And proper, low lighting too!

What’s more, we got to enter the venue when the doors opened through a special entrance. When the clock struck seven we were able to make the proverbial “mad dash” and snagged a spot right up front.  And when I say right up front I mean RIGHT up front. My arms were draped over the barrier between the photo pit and stage. I thought to myself “why not?” and it ended up being the right decision because the show was a thousand perfect spectacular and although sometimes the sound can be not as good when right up front, such was not the case at this show; it was PERFECT.

First Aid Kit
Klara Söderberg
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

After an outstanding opening set from Van William, Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg  took the stage at 9 p.m. sharp along with a keys player/trombonist, drummer and pedal steel player/guitarist/mandolinist; all of whom were first-rate players.  Johanna plays bass and Klara plays guitar and together they’re a force of nature; especially when the vocals start.

From my spot  Klara was right in front of me and her sister Johanna was about a dozen feet away. They opened the show with “Rebel Heart,” the first track from their latest album “Ruins.” Side note; If you haven’t listened to “Ruins” yet, for the love of all that is holy, make that a priority. The album’s a damn masterpiece. “Rebel Heart” is moody and emotional and I can’t think of a better one to set the tone for the entire show.  Vocally, the song is like Jack climbing the beanstalk in that it goes higher and higher and ultimately reaches high into the heavens. Hearing it live also brought with it a sigh of relief for me. I was FINALLY seeing First Aid Kit live and holy shit, it was amazing. “It’s a Shame” came next and it’s another favorite  “Ruins” track.

First Aid Kit
Johanna Söderberg
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Rather than give you a blow by blow of the entire setlist I’ll instead tell a few of the standout moments as long as you promise to believe me when I say that every nano second of this show was spot-on perfect. First Aid Kit really is THAT GOOD. A few times I turned around to look at the thousand people behind and above me and knew that we were all witnessing something special.

One of these special moments was the title track to their “Stay Gold” album. Hearing it live gave me happy chills that I’m still feeling days later.

This brings me to perhaps the most potent song of the night and it’s one they released as a single last year on International Women’s Day.  The song was written in response to hearing about a lenient sentence of a convicted rapist. Klara and Johanna were fucking pissed and wrote a fierce, truth-bomby song about it. And this was months before the #metoo and #timesup movement. “You Are The Problem Here” has these lyrics: (and I’m including several lines because this is important.)

“I am so sick and tired of this world
All these women with their dreams shattered
From some man’s sweaty, desperate touch
God damn it, I’ve had enough
When did you come to think refusal was sexy?
Can’t you see the tears in her eyes?
How did you ever think you had the right to
Put your entitled hands up her thighs?

You are the problem here
You are the problem here
No one made you do anything
You are the problem here
You are the problem here
No one made you do anything

And I
And I hope you fucking suffer”

Suffice to say it brought the house down.  When it ended Klara and Johanna told us “Ladies, we have your backs and we love you.”

I had barely caught my breath when First Aid Kid played my favorite song from “Ruins” called “To Live a Life.” Sharing lyrics again because I love them SO VERY MUCH.

“I wrote you a letter
To make myself feel better
To redeem some part of me
I thought I had lost
And we were a lost cause
Long before we fell apart
‘Cause honey, I was too eager
And you were too smart
Yet I look for you
In these empty rooms
You’re a phone call away
I’m on the interstate
And I’ve been drinking cheap wine
Just to pass the time
I’m falling behind
And it doesn’t matter
Who you are to me”

The song is slow and the pedal steel guitar was played  just enough along with acoustic guitar. When Klara and Johanna’s voices collided it was like music was showing me the face of God.

And there there was the dreamy “Fireworks” and the oh-my-god-are-you-kidding-me cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” that I pretty much lost my mind during. And there was “EmmyLou” and, well, you get the idea.

During the encore, Van William came out and sang his song “Revolution” with First Aid Kit. I found myself singing along as it’s something of a radio hit and since Klara and Johanna are on the album with William it made sense for them to sing it with him during the live show. Damn fine song.  After “Master Pretender” from the 2014 album “Stay Gold” it was time to close out the show with another song from that album. “Silver Lining” is the first song I ever heard from First Aid Kit and it’s been a personal anthem for me and I suspects thousands upon thousands of other fans. It’s a song that never grows old and one that always does its job of inspiring me, lifting me out of a dark space and helping me to do just what it tells me to do; keep on keepin’ on. Hearing it live by a band that stood just a few feet away from me in a room of other adoring fans was a moment I won’t soon forget.  Klara and Johanna are still in their mid 20s and I can’t wait to see what comes next for them.  “Ruins” is their 5th album and in three weeks since it’s been out has received high praise and understandably so. They’ve struck a nerve with their lyrics, their harmonies, their playing and their message. I absolutely bow to them.

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First Aid Kit live at The House of Blues in Boston on 2.7.18
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s a few quick segments I shot from my to-die-for spot. With huge appreciation as always to my pal Shamus Alley who will always have way more technical skills and patience then I ever hope to possess.

THANK YOU First Aid Kit for making my first time seeing you so memorable and moving.

KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON…

Ponti out.

Dresden Dolls achieve nirvana at The Paradise

I’ll start by saying that the Saturday night Dresden Dolls show at the Paradise Rock Club was one of the best nights of my life.

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Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione AKA The Dresden Dolls at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, MA 11.4.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

So yes, this is my  review of The Dresden Dolls show in Boston on November 4, 2017.

The story however begins back in February of 2005 because that was the first time I saw The Dresden Dolls live. It was at the tiny Space Gallery in Portland, Maine.  The entire show, professionally shot, lives on YouTube. Sometime when you have an hour and a half, click here and enjoy. I was right up front and it was glorious.

Here’s the thing; I could write thousands upon thousands of words and hit you with a zillion clips, etc. and it still wouldn’t be enough to sing the praises of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione of the punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls. It’s a long, long story.  But if you’re unfamiliar with them and are curious, do some googling and clicking and when you come up for air, you just might find yourself as spellbound as I am over them.

I am however going to tell you why the show,  which was the middle one of three sold-out nights at The Paradise Rock Club was so significant, so memorable, so satisfying and so completely overwhelming.

It begins with a fellow Dolls fan named Jessica who posted on the show’s Facebook event page something along the lines of  “hey I’m going solo, anyone want to hang out by the stage with me?” I responded with “I’ll be there, let’s hang!” A bit later a Brit named Toby commented that he too would be alone and could he also join us? Of course he could. A few other people chimed in as well. It was hours before the show and I was already having a good time. That’s the thing with Dresden Dolls shows, we all kind of love each other, at least for one night. We’ve got each other’s backs. It’s special. I know that might sound silly but it’s true, it always has been.

And so I joined Toby -who had flown in from London just to go to this show – in the line outside the Paradise about an hour before the doors opened. He was chatting with a woman named Jacque, here from Manhattan for all three shows.  Soon after Jessica joined us.  The sidewalk bonding had begun, a nip of Dr. McGillicuddy’s Mentholmint schnapps was handed to me which I promptly downed (my first one and I dare say it was tasty) and when the doors opened at 7 p.m. the four of us managed to secure spots at the far left of the stage, pretty much in front of Amanda Palmer and with a perfect view of Brian Viglione and his studded Chuck Taylors that I’m very envious of.

Our posse immediately grew by several more people and the show began at twenty past eight when Amanda and Brian took the stage to much hysteria from the crowd and started us off with “Girl Anachronism.” Holy fuck.  My new friends and I started to properly freak out and the freak out continued for just under three hours. The thousand other people who were packed into The Paradise also rode the Dresden wave of ecstasy.  I imagine we all love them for different reasons. First, there’s Brian Viglione. He’s a drumming deity who can play a bunch of other instruments. Watching him play is like watching a kid running wild in a candy store and his skill is without end. Speaking of candy, here he is tossing Starburst into the crowd.

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Dresden Dolls drummer and official madman Brian Viglione. Candy throwing action shot by Aimsel Ponti

And here’s Brian doing his thing. He plays with a level of animation and passion that is joyful to watch and listen to. He also has an exceptional sense of fashion. That jacket  kills me. Be sure to check out his other band Scarlet Sails.

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And then there’s Amanda Palmer.  Palmer is probably the most out there musician I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a fan of. And I mean “out there” as a massive compliment. She shares more of herself than most and has a heart the size of a small planet. I’ve interviewed her a couple of times through the years for the Portland Press Herald (Maine) and she’s genuine, kind and will pretty much talk about anything and everything.

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Here are six photos of Amanda Palmer because I had a really good spot. Taken with my iPhone so they’re not exactly amazeballs but she most certainly is.

Palmer engages with her fans on social media regularly, is willing to be bold in the face of adversity and there’s an unspoken level of trust between she and her fans. She keeps what needs to be kept private and has boundaries like the rest of us, but there’s very little she won’t talk about and if you haven’t read her book “The Art of Asking” yet consider yourself very much nudged. But the thing I love most about Amanda Palmer is her songwriting. No topic is off-limits; abortion, masturbation, sex, love, life, death and anything else you can think of. She’s also an accomplished pianist and when she sings nothing else that’s going on matters much.

The songs she and and Brian recorded for the Dolls’ handful of albums are sacred to me. They’re sacred to many people. This is why they sold out three shows at The Paradise. This is why every time they reunite to play shows we all freak the fuck out and scramble to get tickets.

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you may have noticed a running theme, which is the fact that I have a very difficult time sometimes being truly present. It’s complicated. But there are times, like on Saturday night, that I’m able to let go of my worries and be the version of myself that I like the most, the version who is in the moment down to her bones. And OK, fine, I wasn’t driving that night so I may have had a few too many whiskeys thanks to both close proximity to the bar and the generosity of some of my new friends. And also because the show felt like a celebration. Jesus H. Jamesons. Jesus H. Jack Daniels. I had an absolute blast soaking in the show – and the booze – with my friends, singing along, screaming our heads off. And here’s a fun fact; if you were at that show let it be known that it was yours truly who handed Amanda a Jamesons. I mean why wouldn’t I? I was having a hell of a good time and she looked thirsty. Fan to artist moment of appreciation. All good.

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The Dresden Dolls’ setlist was 21 songs (give or take) long and I’ll include it below. From album cuts to b-sides to exquisitely well-chosen covers, they chose well (despite not playing my beloved “Jeep Song.”).

As I mentioned, the Dolls hit the ground running with “Girl Anachronism” and kept it up song after song. My personal favorites of the night were “Missed Me,” “Mrs. O,” “Half Jack,” “Backstabber” and “Gravity.” But if I’m going to really nerd out, I’ll say that I loved every song and couldn’t believe how intense, wild, fun and crazy this show was.

They ended with a hardcore super deluxe favorite of mine and I’ll reveal that momentarily.

Now about those covers. Dresden Dolls OWNED Madonna’s “Material Girl” and played the hell out of the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Pop. They invited fans to dance on stage while Brian played guitar, Amanda played drums and everyone in the room sang along with The Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right.” They’re take on PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” was also spectacular. But the cover that really, really killed me at this show was Ani DiFranco’s “Napoleon,” one of many brilliant songs from Ani’s “Dilate” album from 1996. Hearing one of my favorite bands play one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists off of one of my favorite albums was EVERYTHING.  And then some. Oh and then there’s Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” a song I first discovered by way of David Bowie in the 80s. They’ve been playing this one for years and I hope they never stop. It’s a passionate tale of a song and Amanda walked off the stage, up across the balcony and back onto the stage while singing it.  I mean why wouldn’t she?

The first encore song was “Amsterdam” followed by another audience singing every note one; Coin-Operated Boy. And then it was time. I crossed my fingers and held my breath and was rewarded with – we all were rewarded with- “Sing.” This song touches me on almost a molecular level.

These lyrics have never rung more true than they do RIGHT NOW:

“There is thing keeping everyone’s lungs and lips locked
It is called fear and it’s seeing a great renaissance
After the show you can not sing wherever you want
But for now lets all pretend that we’re gonna get bombed
So sing”

And you bet we sang. It was beautiful and human and powerful. It was the PERFECT song to end with. When the show was over my new friends and I said our goodbyes knowing we had just shared something profound. I hope that feeling never wears off.

Here’s my montage of clips shot from my amazing spot. Editing props to Shamus Alley.

Thank you, Brian and Amanda for giving us everything you had last night. Thank you to my fellow fans for being cool and mindful and kind and so into it like I was.

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Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione sharing an end of show hug at the Paradise.
Emotionally drained but happily taken photo by Dresden Dolls fan and nerdy writer, Aimsel Ponti

Here’s the setlist that is based on my notes and one I found online. I’m not 100% sure that this is 100% accurate but it’s pretty close.

Dresden Dolls. Paradise Rock Club. 11.4.17
Girl Anachronism, Dirty Business, Missed Me, Ultima Esperanza, Pirate Jenny, Mandy Goes to Med School, Shores of California, Mrs. O, Gravity, Glass Slipper, Thirty Whacks, Victim, Material Girl (Madonna), Blitzkrieg Bop (Ramones), “Fight For Your Right” (Beastie Boys), Rid of Me (PJ Harvey), Napoleon (Ani DiFranco), Bank of Boston Beauty Queen, Backstabber, Half Jack, Amsterdam (Jacques Brel), Coin-Operated Boy, Sing.

Ponti out.

Shawn Colvin performs “A Few Small Repairs” 20 years later in fantastic show

Shawn Colvin  first knocked my socks off in 1992 upon releasing “Fat City.” It’s an album I still consider to be perfect in every sense of the word. It also made me an instant; committed Colvin fan. From there I  went backwards into her debut album from 1989 , the dare I say iconic “Steady On.”

In 1994 Colvin released Cover Girl” and the “Live in ’88” album the following year.  Sometime around then was when I first saw her perform live and this further made me realize what an extraordinary talent she is because along with being so damn good with her guitar and vocals, she’s a hilarious and witty storyteller with stage presence to spare.

Since then I’ve seen Colvin three or four more times and most recently was Friday night at The Cabot in Beverly, MA. The show was originally scheduled to happen at City Winery in Boston however construction delays (they hope to be open very soon) made a venue change necessary.  My disappointment was short-lived because the Cabot is a classic old theater and it won me over the second I saw the retro marquis.

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Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Between the downstairs and balcony, the Cabot has a capacity of about 800 and it was probably 2/3 of the way full.  I call this a win for both The Cabot and City Winery because it was a bit of a schlep for people to get there who had originally planned on Boston but based on the audience responses I witnessed during the show, no one seemed to mind. And the theater itself is gorgeous and classic in that old theater way that can never quite be replicated with new buildings.

Colvin’s longtime friends and sometimes bandmates Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell opened the show with a terrific 40 minute set and retook the stage with Colvin and the rest of her band for a sensational two hour show. Michael Ramos played keys, fluegelhorn and melodica, Glenn Fukunaga was on bass and the drummer was Mike Meadows.  Campbell played guitar (and violin on one song) and Williams was on backing vocals. All five of them are longtime pros who have played , recorded  and toured with an encyclopedic list of big-time musicians.  It was only fitting that these five were the musicians in Colvin’s band on this tour.

The reason for the tour was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “A Few Small Repairs.” The album technically came out in ’96 but “Sunny Came Home” wasn’t released as a single until the summer of ’97 and became a very big damn deal winning a Grammy for Record of the Year and Song of the Year along with a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

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I love it when acts do these kind of album anniversary tours and play entire albums. I saw Peter Gabriel do this a few years ago with “So” and Paula Cole last year with “This Fire.” Earlier this year I saw Brandi Carlile perform the entire “The Story” album at The Ryman as part of a handful of shows marking that record’s decade mark. It’s “a thing” to do these tours and I for one think the concept is great. Plus the artists always play more than just the album and it makes for a very engaging show.  “A Few Small Repairs” is a tremendous album and I think it was a damn fine idea for Colvin to take it on the road two decades later.

At 9 p.m. the show began not with something from “A Few Small Repairs” but rather a sublime tribute to Tom Petty (I still can’t believe he’s gone, can you?) in the form of “Wildflowers.” Well done, Colvin and company, very well done.

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Shawn Colvin at The Cabot in Beverly, MA on 11/3/17. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

And then it was off to the “A Few Small Repairs” races, in sequential order, beginning with the aforementioned hit “Sunny Came Home.”  Colvin’s voice sounded clear, strong and captivating and the sound in The Cabot was spot on.  The blistering “Get Out Of This House” came next and although she told us the story about writing the song later in the show, I’ll share it now. Colvin said it was born out of frustration  of not being able to actually write in the writing room she had created in the first house she had ever bought. “I couldn’t think of a damn thing in that room and I looked out the window and I said ‘go jump in the lake, go ride up the hill, get out of this house.” A song was born. She also told us that an earlier draft had included “Go piss up a rope” and something about the Pope.

“The Facts About Jimmy,” Colvin explained,  was based on a true story with names changed. “He would not have me. I was not happy about that at all,” she said to much laughter adding that “it goes to show you how little you have to do to get into one of my songs.”

“I Want It Back,”  was another product of the “dreaded writing room,” adding that she was wrote it at a time that she was frustrated with certain 90s celebrities including the likes of OJ Simpson and Tori Spelling.

About halfway though the album the band left the stage and Colvin took a seat at a piano for what I consider to be the saddest, most poignant song from “A Few Small Repairs.” Said another way; it’s my favorite.  The song is “If I Were Brave”  and this was the first time I had heard her play it live.

“How could it be that I was born without a clue to carry on
And still it is the same now I am older
Armed with just a will and then this love for singing songs
And minding less and less if I am colder”

The song’s been killing me for 20 years. I love it.

Now here’s the part of the review where I pause for the briefest moment to do something I don’t normally do; call out a member of the audience member for something.

Colvin was in the middle of playing the songs from “A Few Small Repairs,” which is the reason she was on tour in the first place and some guy yelled out “Fat City” in between songs. Let me be clear, “Fat City” is sacred to me,  so sacred that my next tattoo is likely going to be a lyric from one of its songs. But I thought it was profoundly disrespectful to yell that out, especially since Colvin had already told us she’d be playing some other stuff later in the show. Rant over. Now where was I?

Ah yes, the poetic perfection of “Wichita Skyline.” Colvin told us she had hoped to use a place in her home state of South Dakota but “no town sang as well as Wichita.”  She makes a good point, the town does indeed “sing well,” especially when sung by her.

After “Wichita,” Colvin took a moment to tell us that “A Few Small Repairs” is now available on vinyl. “It’s fucking amazing if you play it on double speed backwards with the DVD of The Wizard of Oz.”  She’s a riot without even trying.  I love that about her.

“A Few Small Repairs” ends with another sad one, “New Thing Now” and then the hopeful and bright “Nothin on Me” after which Colvin and the band took their bows and left the stage to a standing ovation.

They came back out for a four song encore starting with “I’ll Be Back,” the Beatles tune on the “Cover Girl” album. Colvin’s version is slow and moody AF.

From there it was onto one of Colvin’s most beloved tunes, the title track to “Steady On.” This is the kind of song that is always fresh, always meaningful and always so damn good. “I’m gonna keep my head on straight” is a line I’ll be singing for the rest of my life.

Next was the Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon penned “Tenderness on the Block” which Colvin recorded for “Fat City.” The “find true love” backing vocals from Campell, Williams a couple of the other guys in the band were perfect.

Shawn Colvin ended the show two hours after it started with another “Steady On” track. “Diamond in the Rough” is another Colvin classic and it was the ideal bookend to an excellent night.

Ponti out.

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Photo by Aimsel Ponti

A resplendent show from Tori Amos in Boston: 11/2/17 Orpheum Theatre

Tori Amos has been making me feel all the things since before feeling all the things was even a thing.

My first time seeing her was at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA on April 27, 1992. This was of course the “Little Earthquakes” tour. The Iron Horse is a tiny, historic venue and my friends and I were the last ones in and because the place was already packed the three of us were seated on a bench just off the the side of the stage. In other words; insane seating that I’ll never forget. The 1992 version of myself sat there in awe of what transpired for the next hour and a half. From “Crucify,” “Precious Things,” “Silent All These Years” and the other-worldly title track it was a transfixing show from a woman who straddled her piano bench in a acrobatic way and who held my heart in her hand with every note sung and played. I’ll especially never forget when she hit us with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The wind was knocked out of me and I’ve been gasping for breath ever since. After the show my two friends and I tapped on the dressing room door and she opened it and welcomed us in where we sat and chatted for about 15 minutes. She was lovely. I’ve been a hardcore fan ever since and used to be a rabid collector or every Tori related thing I could get my hands on; mostly import CD singles with b-sides, live tracks, etc.  Because that’s how it was being a Tori fan. I was all in. I still am.

Since that first show in 1992 I would estimate I’ve seen Amos live about a dozen times.  Sometimes solo, sometimes with a band and always magnificent. I don’t mean to hit you with such a profound cliche but I’m goddamn going to. There is truly no one quite like her. Like many of her fans, I literally can’t imagine my life without the “Little Earthquakes,” album. Not to mention “Under the Pink,” “Boys for Pele,” etc etc etc. She writes from a place that not everyone can access. It’s like her brain and heart and soul all converge and the songs arrive from the sky on umbrella clasping pixies. Or something like that. We may never know. What I do know is that Tori Amos is one part goddess, one part genius, one part sorceress and one part tender-hearted human.  Listening to her music is is like visiting an astral plane. And it’s like therapy because she goes places with her songs that will rip your guts out and make you  weep like you’ve just discovered what crying is and you’re not sure if you’ll be able to stop.

Which brings me to last night’s show in at one my favorite spots on earth, the Orpheum Theatre in the heart of Boston.  It has been six years since my last Tori show and my fellow hardcore Tori fan and friend Laura and practically genuflected before walking in. This was, somehow perfectly, soon after walking right by another goddess outside the venue by the name of Amanda Palmer. But that’s a WHOLE other story.  My immediate reaction was to stop and talk to her but we kept on walking because, I don’t know, it seemed like the right thing  to do at that moment. I’ll be seeing Amanda’s band Dresden Dolls on Saturday night at The Paradise, also in Boston, so look for that review soon. But know this: I am almost surprised that the earth didn’t stop spinning for a few moments when both of these women were in the same room at the same time. Jesus. H. Christ.

Laura and I repaired to entirely wonderful seats about seven rows back in the center section of the balcony and enjoyed a nifty set from openers Scars on 45.

And then it happened. At about twenty past eight. The house lights dimmed and out walked Tori Amos dressed in a turquoise blue(ish) silk blouse, black leggings and her beloved high-heels. She gave us a wave and took her spot on the 18 inch high rectangular platform where she sat between two pianos, including her signature Bosendorfer grand. It was time for the Boston stop on her “Native Invader” tour to begin.

Despite still recovering from one of the world’s worst colds of my life, I for real stood up and screamed for joy. It could not be helped. Many of us did. Tori joy cannot and should not be contained.

Tori started the show off with “Ileee” from her 1998 album “From the Choir Girl Hotel” and a feeling of pure bliss overcame me. Nothing else in the world mattered other than this exact moment. This is rare for me, more rare than you can possibly know.

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Entirely unimpressive but none-the-less enthusiastically shot iPhone photos by yours truly, Aimsel Ponti.

And then Tori Amos played the second song of her show and Laura and I both had tears in our eyes.  For me, it was like 25 years of my life flashed before me. Emotions stabbed at me, old demons visited,  my heart felt like a pinata being shown no mercy. And I loved EVERY second of it. The song? “Little Earthquakes” with these lines:

Oh these little earthquakes
Here we go again
These little earthquakes
Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces

And these lines: Give me life, give me pain, give me myself again.

The song ended and I turned to Laura and said “the show could end now and that would be OK.”

Tori, however, was just getting started. She played another 15 songs spanning several albums including “Reindeer King” from the mesmerizing  “Native Invader.”

Tori pivoted on her stool back and forth from one piano to the other, never missing a beat.  On more than one occasion she played both pianos simultaneously.

I had several heart attacks during the show, especially during “Cooling,” “Northern Lad,” Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” and “Honey.”

She ended with “Beauty of Speed” but we knew she’s be back for an encore. A minute or so later, Tori walked back out on stage and stood before us. I did the only thing I knew how to do at that moment. I screamed “Precious Things” in the loudest voice I’ve probably ever used in my  entire life. And while I am not taking credit for it, I all but collapsed in a Tori Amos induced fever when she launched into the song.

Tori closed out the night with “A Sorta Fairytale.” I love the  song and although I may have chosen a different one to end with it did not detract from what was was a truly enthralling night of songs from one of my favorite artists. BTW, vocally, she’s sounding as strong, vibrant and well, Tori-esque as she ever has.

Tori Amos has 15 studio albums and about a zillion b-sides and such out in the world. It’s never too late to start your own voyage of discovery. Start with the new one “Native Invader” and work your way back. Or start somewhere in the middle. Or start with “Y Kant Tori Read” or the sacred “Little Earthquakes.” But prepare yourself for an emotional journey like none other.

And if you ever get the chance to see her live, either on this tour or the next one, GO SEE HER.

Ponti out.

 

 

 

 

 

Psychedelic Furs shine in Boston on the Singles tour

Ah yes, The Psychedelic Furs. My love for them dates back to the 80s and centers around their first four, magnificent, albums.

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These four albums are still perfect and songs like “Sister Europe,” “Imitation of Christ,” “India,” “Mr. Jones,” “Dumb Waiters,” “She is Mine,” “Into You Like a Train,” “All of This and Nothing,” “President Gas,” Love My Way, ” “Sleep Comes Down,” “No Easy Street,” “The Ghost in You,” “Heaven,” “Here Comes Cowboys,” “My Time” and “Highwire Days” (among others) still kill me.  They released three other albums after these; “Midnight to Midnight” in 1987, “Book of Days” in 1989″ and “World Outside” in 1991 but I’m less familiar with those save for the singles “Heartbreak Beat,” “Angels Don’t Cry,” “Shine” and “Until She Comes.” I don’t know why I haven’t fully embraced these “later” albums. Perhaps I’ll get there. But the fact remains, those first four are sacred parts of my record collection and they always will be.

As a gal in her 40s, I’m fortunate that I saw the Furs a few times in the 80s and have very fond memories of shows at the Orpheum in Boston as well as the Boston Common and a show at what was then called Great Woods in Mansfield, MA.

But I hadn’t seen them since then. That was until four years ago when , much to my heart attack worthy delight, a tour brought them through Portland (ME). A posse of us old Furs fans went and the show at what was then The Asylum was incredible.

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Richard Butler performing in Portland, Maine at The Asylum. 6.23.13 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

YouTube, you sure do come in handy. Here’s  a clip I just found from that night in Maine of The Furs playing “Highwire Days.”

As you can see and hear, they sounded FANTASTIC. I saw them two more times after that, once more in Portland at Port City Music Hall and then during the summer of 2016 (with The Church no less!) at Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. And those shows were also stellar.

But there was something extra special about seeing them in Boston, the city I first saw them in when parents had to drive my friends Becky and Sue and I into the city. We all grew up in Andover, MA and I’ll never take it for granted how great it was having easy access to Boston.

This time around I met up with two college friends from Keene State. Nancy, Melissa and I all knew each other because we were all involved in some capacity with our college’s radio station WKNH.

Nancy hadn’t seen the Furs since 1992 and Melissa had never seen them. I was just as excited to reunite with them and share their excitement as I was to experience the show myself. I love that feeling. Don’t you?

So there I was, sitting outside at T’s Pub on Saturday afternoon, the 14th of October waiting for my friends to show up. I happened to choose the seat facing the street and facing the Furs tour bus. Alone, I sat there, looking at my phone as one does, sipping a beer and spacing out when what to my wondering eyes should appear walking by me was none other than Furs lead singer Richard Butler. 40 something me played it cool. 15 year old me called out his name. He was only a few feet away walking by so in an even-toned, casual voice I just said “Richard Butler.” He turned, smiled, waved and said hi and continued on his way. I returned the wave and smile and that was that. It’s a funny thing to have an encounter like this. Through the years I’ve been fortunate as both a fan and as a music journalist to have met  some of my favorite musicians. A few have even become friends. But it’s an entirely other thing to say hello to a singer you’ve been a fan of since high school. I nerded out immediately and shared the news on social media because the day I become too jaded to do just that is a day I don’t want to ever experience.

There was no opening act that night for The Furs and the doors opened at seven with an initial wave of hardcore fans filing in. Nancy, Melissa and I entered about a half hour later or so and found good enough spots in the balcony area. The Paradise is a tricky venue because unless you’re right up front it can be tough to see so the balcony was our best bet.

A round of drinks and much nostalgia later, the clock struck nine and holy shit, I just about shrieked when David Bowie’s “Warzawa” started playing. We heard maybe the first two minutes. David Bowie’s my freaking life and I can’t believe this was their “walk out” song. WELL PLAYED!!! Jesus.

Here’s a clip someone shot of “Warzawa” into “Dumb Waiters”

The Furs established right out of the gate that they are still a fantastic band. Richard Butler’s vocals were sensational, Mars Williams is still an absolutely incredible sax player, Tim Butler still has his bass chops  and the rest of the band  as far as I’m concerned, are absolutely perfect. What’s more, the entire night had Butler jumping around with more energy than I ever hope to have. And the dude’s 61. My theory, he’s a yoga-practicing health nut and is reaping the benefits of a healthy lifestyle but that’s just a guess. Either way, he looked dashing in a tailcoat, black trousers and sunglasses and sang the hell out of an hour and a half worth of classic Furs tunes.

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Psychedelic Furs at the Paradise Rock Club. 10.14.17 Photos by Aimsel Ponti

Every single person (about 1,000) of us at that sold-out show felt all the things during “The Ghost In You” and “Love My Way.”  “Heaven” was heavenly, ” “Pretty in Pink” was a nostalgic romp back into the land of John Hughes and Molly Ringwald (though us purists prefer the original version better) and “All That Money Wants” was, well, right on the money.

This brings me to the encore. The Furs could not have chosen two better songs to say goodnight with. Both from their first album, both absolutely divine and such a part of the 80s alternative fabric forever part of my musical DNA.

The first one was “Sister Europe” and then the show ended with “India.”

There was minimal banter between songs throughout the entire concert but it didn’t matter. What mattered is that The Psychedelic Furs were tremendous some 40 years after first forming in 1977. They are not a nostalgia act. They’re too good to be relegated to that pigeonhole. Art rock, post-punk, new wave,  alternative. Whatevs. Call it what you will. I call it glorious and still relevant and as for their Saturday night show in Boston, I loved every single minute of it and so did my friends. I hope the Furs keep right on touring. I’ll be there.

 

 

Anatomy of an unexpected 7th row experience at the Boston Roger Waters show

So I saw Roger Waters in Boston on Sept. 28, 2017 at the TD Garden.  It was the second night of his Beantown visit and a stop on his Us + Them Tour which began in May. The concert was insane and I’ll tell you more about it in a minute but first this story deserves a moment of backstory which begins with my love for the band Lucius. They’re a four-piece indie-pop quartet with I’ve been all about since their debut full-length album from 2013 called “Wildewoman.  Last year’s “Good Grief” is also tremendous and so is their latest single “Million Dollar Secret.” Lucius is vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig,  guitarist Peter Lalish and drummer Dan Molad.  When you’re done reading this, go check them out. Trust me on this. But what does my love for Lucius have to do with Roger Waters? As it turns out… everything!

I got wind of the fact that Jess and Holly would be touring with Waters  several months ago and have been following the Lucius posts on Instagram  (in particular Instagram stories since rehearsals started and especially since the tour began in May. BTW, do yourselves a favor and follow them post haste @Ilovelucius because their Instagram stories are pure gold. Lots of backstage footage and quick looks into what it must be like to be part of a monumental tour such as this. And once the tour started and I knew there was a Boston date on it, the embers started burning in the back of my mind. But the tickets went fast and ones being sold by scalpers were way gross amounts of money.  Plus, I’m a bit of a seat snob and knew I wouldn’t be happy in nosebleeds at the cavernous Boston Garden. I decided it was OK to miss the show. I was fine with it. But still the embers burned, especially after footage became readily available and I saw JUST HOW BRILLIANT Holly and Jess were singing with Rogers. Again though, I let it go. I just can’t go to EVERY show.

Fast forward to the morning of September 28th. This was a particularly unusual morning as it was the first time I decided to walk to my recently moved office at the Portland Press Herald (day job). It was just under seven miles. For the first half hour or so I had a headlamp on and a bunch of reflective gear. About six miles into my walk and a lifetime later, the sound of a text momentarily interrupted my music. I looked at my phone to see a message from my friend Mary Allen (correct spelling, I know you’re wondering) Lindemann. She had two tickets to the Waters show THAT NIGHT and did I know anyone who might be interested? I didn’t really off the top of my head  but did offer to help her sell them. The tickets were WAY out of my price range (like WAY WAY WAY out).  But then something entirely unexpected happened. She told me she didn’t want them to go to waste. She GAVE them to me. I am going to pay her something soon for them but she took a HUGE loss on these. But that’s just how she is; kind and generous. It was more important to her that the tickets weren’t wasted then to recoup what she paid. I’ll forever be in her debt. I scampered the rest of the way to work, in a state of shock, and reached out to my friend Lee. And when I say “reached out” that means I basically told her she HAD TO go to this show with me.  She realized that resistance was futile and later that day, off we went to Boston.
There’s a difference between seeing on your ticket that your seats are good and actually having an usher bring you to them. At a venue as large as the Garden, which can hold just under 20,000 people for concerts, having a seventh row seat that was, and I’m not making this up -dead center- is insane. It’s incredible. It’s other-worldly. Lee and I looked at other and didn’t really know what to say.  How did this happen? Said more succinctly; What in the actual fuck?

And when the clock struck eight and the show started, Lee and I experienced a concert that, two weeks later as I sit here and finally write, I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It was stupendous. It was powerful. It was everything. Roger Waters was RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. Holly and Jess were RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. Songs like “Time,” “Welcome to the Machine,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Pigs” “Dogs,” “Money,” “Another Brick In the Wall (Part II & Part III,” “Us and Them,” “Mother” and god almighty, “Comfortably Numb” were performed RIGHT IN FRONT OF US.

RW hand on heart
Roger Waters in Boston on 9.28.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s a montage of the clips I shot put together by my tech savvy pal Shamus:

It was one jaw-dropping moment after another all night long for two long sets of music.

The giant, remote controlled inflatable pig that hovered above the crowd and circled the arena during “Pigs” was amazing. The local kids who were on stage during “Another Brick in the Wall” were amazing. The entire band- including guitarist Jonathan Wilson who sang lead on a number of tunes- was amazing. Holly and Jess were amazing. Their vocals blew the roof off the building.

Oh and Waters’ hatred of Donald Trump; that too was amazing. Here’s a collage of photos I snapped of Trump quotes projected onto a massive screen behind the stage with the words “Trump is a Pig” as the finale. I might add that Rogers also took a knee eliciting a wave of boos but an even bigger wave of approval.

trump collage

And when the show ended at 11 p.m. with “Comfortably Numb” we were all showered with pink confetti with one vital word printed on it:

Resist confetti.JPG

I don’t know if I’ll ever really believe that I went to this show. Many of these songs are ones I’ve known and loved most of my life. I mean who doesn’t love “Comfortably Numb?” Who doesn’t love pretty much the entire “Dark Side of the Moon” album? Who didn’t, at one point or another, go through a phase with the soundtrack to “The Wall?” Who hasn’t sung “WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION!” at the top of their lungs?  Who isn’t a lost soul swimming in a fish bowl for god’s sake?

As a music lover and writer, this was a night that left me fairly speechless. I had pretty much no time to even get excited about it because it all happened so quickly. There was no build-up. Somehow I woke up extra early that morning, walked to work in the dark, got the text to end all texts and ended up getting home at 2 a.m. after one of the most tremendous concerts I’ve ever seen. It took me three days to fully recover.

Holly & Jess show start
Holly Laessing and Jess Wolfe blowing my mind with Roger Waters in Boston on 9.28.17. Mediocre iPhone photo by Aimsel Ponti

You just never know what’s going to happen. I’m sad my friend couldn’t make the show herself and had to sacrifice her tickets. But I’m sure glad I was the lucky recipient because this show was on a scale I’ve rarely seen. If you’re able to catch a future date of this tour RUN, RABBIT RUN to it.

As for Holly and Jess, they should probably write a book about their experience at some point when their time on the tour is over. And maybe someone’s been shooting a documentary? Here’s hoping. Congratulations to them both for CRUSHING this gig, a truly great gig here on earth.

Ponti out.

Review: 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival

The 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival ended a week ago and part of my head, heart and soul are still at the glorious Planet Bluegrass site along  the St. Vrain River. My toes are still feeling the water of this river run over them, my ears are still hearing the sounds of Elephant Revival, SHEL, Lake Street Dive, Dave Rawlings Machine and so many other incredible acts and my heart is still skipping beats when I think about how breathtaking my first trip to Colorado was and how just about every moment of the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival was damn near perfect.

festival crowd collage
Various shots of the Planet Bluegrass grounds at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photos by Aimsel Ponti

This is a festival that cares about the environment (incredible recycling efforts) cares about people’s bellies (incredible food vendors…omg the dumplings!) and cares SO MUCH about an incredible line up.

Here’s that beautiful river that festival folks were hanging out in all weekend long.

River good
The lovely, mellow, chilly and absolutely perfect St. Vrain River.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

This is what me and about 5,000 other music lovers  took in over the course of three magical days:

Schedule
The pocket schedule perked on the knees of yours truly in my happy spot.

For the first few hours on Friday I flitted about checking out everything, stood in the river a few times and paid a visit to the General Store (merch tent) where I promptly bought an official festival t-shirt and a super cool Rhiannon Giddens one.

The first order of business for me started Friday afternoon with Mary Gauthier in the Wildwood Pavilion. It’s a barn-like structure on the festival grounds that was a beehive of music all weekend long. I’ve seen Gauthier a few times through the years and she’s one heck of a compelling songwriter, to say the very least. She played the tender, hopeful, compassionate and frankly important song “Mercy Now” and led us in a sing-along of a freshly-written satirical take on “Na Na Na Na Na…Hey Hey Goodbye,” during which she name-dropped the likes of Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and several other former yahoos of the Trump administration. It was awesome.

Mary Gauthier
Mary Gauthier in the Wildwood Pavilion during the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Gauthier also brought sixteen-year old Bella Betts from the songwriting school (this happens in the week before festival kick-off) on stage along with several other students and teachers to sing the song Betts wrote called “We Are All The Same.” Gauthier urged people to record it and thankfully several did because this song blew us all away. For real. Tears streamed down my face.

Watch this:

After wiping away of tears and joy from Mary Gauthier  & company, I made my way to a grassy spot I had staked out earlier and settled in for The Weepies. They’re  the duo of married couple Deb Talan and Steve Tannen and they’re a pair of indie-folk firecrackers. And even though I’m still schooling myself on their tunes, their set was tremendous and it included “Not Your Year,” so near and dear to my heart.

Thirty minutes after The Weepies ended, Rhiannon Giddens and her band were on stage. I was bummed to have missed her show in Maine a few weeks before the festival but was SO HAPPY to finally be seeing her.  Her band Caroline Chocolate Drops is excellent and so is her solo work, especially the new album “Freedom Highway.”

Rhiannon ONE
Rhiannon Giddens at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The song “At the Purchaser’s Option” was inspired by a print advertisement in the 1800s for a 22 year old slave woman that Giddens saw in a book. The woman also had with her a nine-month-old baby who was “at the purchaser’s option.”

Rhiannon TWO
Rhiannon Giddens at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Giddens channeled her sadness in thinking about what that woman’s life must have been like into a powerful, searing song. Her voice is a mountain of glory.  Giddens plays banjo and violin (and I suspect a number of other instruments) and her set was jaw-dropping at the festival. “You take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul.”  I won’t be missing her next time she comes to Maine.

Closing out the first night was a guy that I’ve been a from-a-distance fan of for a few years but am WAY INTO; Gregory Alan Isakov.

Gregory Alan Isakov
Gregory Alan Isakov at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I mean honestly, what’s better than his song “Liars?” In fact, that entire live album he recorded with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is excruciatingly magnificent.  Isakov and his band ended the first day of the festival in brilliant fashion.  After his set,  I made my way back home to my temporary home, climbed the ladder up to my sleeping loft and fell into a deep slumber, in a state of disbelief that there were still two more days ahead.

Saturday morning kicked off with a set by someone new to me: Korby Lenker. He’s a singer-songwriter out of Nashville and he charmed the pants off of me with his tune “My Little Life.” Lenker was the winner of the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest Songwriters Showcase 2016, earning him a spot on the main stage at this year’s festival. Hey Korby, come to Maine. Let’s hang.

The happy voyage of new music discovery continued with the very next act; Australia’s The Mae Trio. They’re sisters Maggie Rigby, Elsie Rigby along with  Anita Hillman and they’ve been out on the road in support of their latest release, “Take Care Take Cover.” Facebook tells me that  “They perform an insightful collection of original songs arranged for ukulele, banjo, guitar, fiddle, cello, bass and superb three part vocal harmony. ” I can tell you all that’s true! Check them out when you get a minute.

I had to retreat to my  loft for a brief recharge but heard great things about Ben Sollee & Kentucky Native and  Mandolin Orange. But I made it back in time for a fun set from the legendary Loudon Wainwright III. He’s got a hilarious song about prescription medications and really got the crowd going.

The second to last band to play on Saturday was one that completely dazzled me and I became a HUGE and INSTANT fan of. Elephant Revival!!! They’re based in Nederland, CO and are a six piece “experimental/folk/Americana” act. All I know is that I could listen to Bonnie Paine sing tax returns and it would be awesome. She also plays washboard, djembe, musical-saw and the stomp-box. Holy bananas. The other singer is Daniel Rodriguez who also plays guitar, banjo and bass. Where has this band been all my life?

Their set was effing awesome, their originals are to die for and then they put me into absolute orbit with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” Holy smokes. There’s even a clip of it someone shot at the festival. 

Elephant Revival
The Elephant Revival at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The Revivalists out of New Orleans closed out the festival on Saturday night and they were yet another band I didn’t know anything about who were absolutely fantastic.  I did however find myself singing along to the last song, “Wish I Knew You” which I realized I had heard a bunch on the radio. Great song. Great band.  Singer David Shaw is the perfect frontman. I’m gonna HAVE TO see this band again.

I awoke on Sunday morning both ecstatic and kind of sad because on the one hand, the lineup was for the day was almost too good to be true, but on the other hand, it was the last day.

I got there at by ten, grabbed a tasty breakfast burrito from the food area and enjoyed sets by Egyptian singer-songwriter (and superhero, look this guy up) Ramy Essam and then Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore.

Then at 1:30 the primary reason I came to Colorado took the stage. I’ve been ALL ABOUT SHEL for a little over a year ever since they came to Portland (ME) in July of 2016. When I came up with a list of my favorite songs of 2016, one of their songs was at the top. The last time I saw them was in a Tennessee cave. This festival was the sixth time I’ve seen them play live and each time I am pretty much at a loss for words because they’re THAT GOOD. SHEL is an acronym for the four sisters in the band; Sarah (violin, guitar), Hannah (keys, piano, accordion, vocals), Eva (vocals, mandolin, guitar) and Liza (drums, beatbox, percussion, vocals). Click on the cave link above for a ton more background on the band. The only thing that frustrates me about SHEL is that they make me feel like a lousy writer because I always struggle to find just the right string of words to express how over-the-moon talented they are. They’ve been at it since they were kids and make it look easy. They’re the kind of band that belong on a stage. At present they have two full-length albums, a holiday EP and a few other odds and ends out there. Expect a covers EP soonish. In the meantime, feed your ears with what’s out there because SHEL is a really special band.  And follow them on Facebook, etc. And join their mailing list at shelmusic.com because you don’t want to miss them if they come anywhere near you. Dig?

SHEL
Upper left= Eva, upper right = Liza, lower middle = Sarah, lower right = Hannah
SHEL photos by Aimsel Ponti

Listening to them – especially live – is an experience that is many things at once; uplifting, riveting, emotional, immensely satisfying and most certainly one that sends shafts of light zooming through every corner of my heart. Their performance at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival was all this and more. With songs like “When the Dragon Came Down,” “Stained” and “Is the Doctor in Today,” not to mention their homage to Led Zeppelin with “The Battle of Evermore” they nailed it and as I looked around I could see the crowd was very much into it. I’ve noticed this every time I’ve seen them.  Judging by the length of the line of fans in the merch area afterwards, it’s safe to say they made a lasting impression. In fact, after their set it I realized I didn’t have a proper photo and so I properly fangirled and a helpful stranger was kind enough to snap a few pics, including this one: (yeah, I look nerdy as hell {per usual}but the band all look fab and smiley).

SHEL with ALP.JPG

And the festival could have ended right then and there and I would have walked away feeling tremendous gratitude.

But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. In fact, the very next act was The Wailin’ Jennys.

The Wailin' Jennys
Heather Masse, Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody. AKA The Wailin’ Jennys
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

To know the Jennys is to love the Jennys. Close harmonies for days. P.S. Heather Masse is FROM MAINE. If you aren’t hip to the Jennys, get hip. Trust me! A fellow festival goer shot this clip of them playing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and it’s brutally great.

Again, the festival could have ended and I would been entirely fulfilled. But nope, it wasn’t over yet. Not only was it not over, the next act was one of my favorites of the past couple of years. Three words: LAKE STREET DIVE!!!!!

Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive photos by Aimsel Ponti

I think this was my third time seeing them and I’ll keep coming back because Mike Calabrese, Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney and Mike “McDuck” Olson are absolutely electrifying. They’ve cornered the market on a throwback sound that’s also, somehow, 100% modern. “Side Pony” is their latest record. Jump into Lake Street Dive pronto! One last thing, Dear Lake Street Dive, please record that “Jameson” song. I love it so much. Thanks. Love, Aim.

All good things must come to an end, even the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. But boy did it end on an indelible note. I had seen Gillian Welch several years ago so already knew how great she was, but this was the first time seeing Dave Rawlings Machine. The lineup, and I *think* I’ve got this right, is Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Willie Watson, Paul Kowert and Brittany Haas.

Rawlings Machine group
Dave Rawlings Machine
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I almost lost it several times during their set. I didn’t really recognize the songs but it didn’t matter AT ALL. Take this one for example. I sat there dying inside.

 

It was just after ten when Dave Rawlings Machine closed out the 2017 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on the best note possible: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Final thoughts:

Thank you to Brian Eyster from Planet Bluegrass to responding when this writer gal from Maine reached out with an “So I’m thinkin’ ’bout comin’ to Colorado” email.

Thank you to my friend Lal for welcoming me with chilled Prosecco and a place to lay my head at night.  Up for a guest in 2018?

Thank you to all of the festival staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly.

And perhaps most of all,  THANK YOU to all of the musicians who poured your hearts and souls into your performances. I’ll never forget it.

To my fellow music fans, if you’ve never been to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival,  let it be known that the 2018 dates are August 19 – 19. Keep your eye HERE for details.  Oh and if you’re a camper, that’s a HUGE dealio at this festival.

I left a little bit of my heart in that river, on that grass and on the side of the stage in Lyons, Colorado. That’s the highest praise I know how to give this festival. Thinking about it now,  my heart swells, my eyes get misty and I know I’ll often think back to those three days.

I’ll leave you with this very special montage. Thanks, Shamus Alley, for having the mad video editing skills that maybe someday I’ll learn.

Ponti out.

Creating intimacy with 50,000 fans: The brilliance of U2 on the 2017 Joshua Tree tour

It’s been 48 hours since I saw U2 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA on June 25, 2017.

Still tired yet still smiling, I’m sitting at my kitchen table in my newly purchased U2 t-shirt and hoodie and have finally figured out what I want to say about the concert experience of Sunday night.

So much has already been said about this band and about this tour that’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of their magnificent album, The Joshua Tree. So much has already been said about how U2 is one of the greatest bands that the world’s ever known. So much has already been said about how their live shows are pretty much a religious/spiritual experience. So much has been said about Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry.

So what can I add to the conversation? First I’ll mention some cool technical stuff that I received from the band’s publicists and then I’ll talk about the personal impact the show had on me.

But first, here’s a collage of photographs that I shot during the show with my iPhone. My friend Colin and I are hardcore fans and we had field seats.  We got to the show before noon and spent a heck of a lot of time standing in assorted lines. But the end result is we were just a few feet from the “tree” stage that extended out from the main stage. Said another way; holy shit we were right up front.

U2 at Gillette Stadium on June 25, 2017Photos by Aimsel Ponti
Photos by Aimsel Ponti of U2 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA. 6.25.17.

So back to the cool technical stats that I think are worth sharing:

The stat: Dutch photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn whose iconic photos are part of the original “Joshua Tree” album went back to Death Valley and Zabriskie  Point among other spots to produce a new series of films that are projected behind the band in jaw-dropping 8K resolution on a 200 x 45 foot screen behind the band as they played.

My comment: I’ve never seen anything so massive and so spectacular. It added a whole other layer of depth and meaning to the show.

The stat: A specially commissioned film by French artist J.R. accompanied “Miss Syria” (originally titled “Miss Sarajevo”) was shot at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. This is home to 80,000 Syrians who were forced to flee their country.

My comment: To see such devastation on such a large scale was overwhelming. The film was shown while the band played “Miss Syria” and what’s more, a giant tapestry of a refugee woman that was probably 50 square feet was passed over and among the crowd on one side of the stadium. Incredible. Moving. Real.

The stat: Creative director for the tour is Willie Williams and he has been U2’s show designer on every tour since 1983.

My comment: Willie, you’re a genius. My first U2 show was at the end of 1984 and this most recent one was my 7th. They’ve all had different layers of brilliance.

The stat: The Joshua Tree tour stage is 200 x 40 ft and it is almost the full width of a stadium

My comment: Holy bananas. It was huge and it was perfect, especially with the backdrop.

The stat: The stage set features the largest un-obscured and highest resolution LED video screen ever used in a touring show.

My comment: Leave it to U2 to take it to a whole other level of multi-media awesomeness. This screen was from another planet. Incredible.

The stat: The screen is make up of 1,040 individual video panels. The 200 x 45 ft custom built screen is painted to look like a golden piece of cardboard and features a silver Joshua Tree. The tree extends above the screen and becomes the visual centerpiece of the show.

My comment: A feat or artistic and engineering mastery. I can’t even…

The stat: The B stage that extends into the audience from the main state is a perfect shadow of the tree that’s part of the screen.

My comment:  Yep, they did that.

The amount of thought, design work, carpentry, electronic wizardy and all around technical magic is awe-inspiring. It’s not over the top, it’s not too much, it’s perfect and glorious. U2 doesn’t need any of this stuff. The first time I saw them was on the “Unforgettable Fire” tour and I don’t remember anything other than maybe a simple video screen. But they are all about being on the cutting edge of what can be done. And they do it so well. And what’s more, in the context of a giant stadium show, it very much added to the experience.

So how was the show? Actually, that’s not the right question I should be asking myself. Because yes, the show was INCREDIBLE. And being right up front was all the more special. The show was transcendent. The show brought me to tears. The show made me dance and made me sing and shout and feel just about every emotion a human can feel.

The right question came to me a few hours ago. Actually a slew of questions and  here they are:

Did this show make me feel the way I felt when I first saw U2 as a teenager? Did it make me feel the way I did all those years ago when U2 were to me essentially larger than life gods? Did the show remind me of why I’m a music writer? Did the show remind me of why there are few things more important to me than music? Did the show keep me in the moment and out of my own often tormented head? Did the show reach right inside my heart? Did the show make me feel connected to everyone else there? Did the show make me genuinely care about the welfare of others? And when the show started with Larry Mullen Jr. walking over to his B stage drum kit and launching into “Sunday Bloody Sunday” did I feel a tremendous wave of love for this band crash over me that it was all I could to do hold myself together?

Did it do all that?

Here’s my one word review of the entire show:

yes
Here’s the set-list: Sunday Bloody Sunday,  New Year’s Day, Bad, Pride (In the Name of Love), Where the Street Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,  With Or Without You, Bullet The Blue Sky, Running to Stand Still, Red Hill Mining Town, In God’s Country,  Trip Through Your Wires, One Tree Hill, Exit, Mothers of the Disappeared, Miss Sarajevo (Syria), Beautiful Day, Elevation, Vertigo, Ultraviolet (Light My Way), One, The Little Things That Give You Away (new)

I’ll end with a compilation video of several song clips I shot from my to-die-for spot on the field. Editing props as always to my pal Shamus Alley.

 

Final thoughts:

THANK YOU U2 for a night I’ll never forgot. When you sang “Where the Streets Have No Name” I thought of my late father-in law. When you sang “Bad” I thought about a lot of things; both painful and beautiful. And when you sang “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” which is my favorite Achtung Baby song while images of powerful women who have made history in so many ways scrolled across that giant screen I cheered with everything I had.

Yeah, you sure do keep me hanging on.

 

 

 

 

 

Mesmerizing show from SHEL way below the ground in Tennessee

I realized a longtime dream recently with my first ever trip to Nashville, Tennessee. It was pure magic to finally visit Music City and  I crammed a lot into four days including a visit to the storied Bluebird Cafe, the famous Studio B, the super cool Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum and two consecutive nights at Ryman Auditorium seeing Brandi Carlile.

But the trip really began in a cave where I saw one of my super deluxe for life favorite bands called SHEL.  Soon after my plane landed on April 22, my buddy Dave collected me at the airport and we drove about two hours to McMinnville, home of Cumberland Caverns. It’s there where Bluegrass Underground has been putting on shows for several years in an other-worldly spot called The Volcano Room.  And it’s an honest-to-god cave. I’ve never seen anything like it and to see a show there by a band that I adore is an experience that’s forever etched in my heart and mind.

First I’m going to talk about SHEL then we’ll head down into that cave. SHEL is four Holbrook sisters from Fort Collins, Colorado and the name’s an acronym for their names. Sarah’s on violin, Hannah (pronounced Hahna) plays keys, Eva’s on lead vocals, mandolin and electric guitar and Liza plays drums, percussion and does this beatbox thing that’ll knock your socks off.  They all sing , they’re all the their 20s and they’ve all been playing music most of their lives. Said another way, they’re all SENSATIONAL musicians.

I got hip to them last summer when they came to Portland. Since that late July night I’ve seen them perform four times, most recently in that Tennessee cave.  Their one year anniversary of releasing their second album “Just Crazy Enough” is on May 13 and I’ll be raising a glass of Prosecco in their honor because they really are so very good. How good? At the end of 2016 I came up with my  14 favorite songs of the year and their tune “Hello is the Doctor in Today”   is in the number one spot.

And if that’s not enough, their spellbinding cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” just surpassed the million view mark on YouTube. Not only is their take on it enthralling, Sarah’s got quite a knack for videography and they shot this while in Alaska last year.

 

I’m already counting the days until I see SHEL again which will be in August at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado. Know who else is on that bill? NBD. Just Gregory Alan Isakov, Lake Street Dive, Rhiannon Giddens, Dave Rawlings Machine and The Wailin’ Jennys among others.  Whomever booked SHEL at this festival gets a high-five from me. Smart decision. Speaking of smart, Amos Lee also made a wise call last fall when he invited SHEL to open SIX shows for him. How cool is that? THIS COOL:

Now let’s get into that cave shall we?
After swinging through the gift shop/box-office building we were led down a dirt path and waited in groups outside this opening:

Cumberland Caverns
The entrance to Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, TN. 4.22.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

We wound our way  through and down into the depths and it was one jaw-dropping moment after another. I mean this cave even had a waterfall in it. It is wired with electricity but they kept the lights on low which added to the intrigue. You had to watch your step but I can’t stress enough HOW COOL IT WAS.

Cumberland Caverns
En route to The Volcano Room at Cumberland Caverns. 4.22.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

After maybe five minutes or so and after descending just under 350 feet there it was; The Volcano Room. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Cumberland Caverns
Interior of The Volcano Room at Cumberland Caverns. Photo shot just before SHEL took the stage. 4.22.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I thought I had seen a few things in my life and God knows I’ve been to a least 87 zillion concerts but never had I seen anything quite like this. Just to see this place was breathtaking. But to see SHEL perform it in. It’s hard to put into words.

But then there they were.

the fab four 2
Hannah, Eva, Sarah and Liza Holbrook of SHEL. 04.22.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I mean seriously…

SHEL
SHEL performing in The Volcano Room at Cumberland Caverns. 04.22.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The sound was GLORIOUS in that cave and for about an hour, SHEL CRUSHED IT. They played songs from both of their records, “Just Crazy Enough” from last year and 2012’s self-titled album.  I shot a few clips and my skillful friend Shamus Alley put this together:

 

The encore song was “Enter Sandman” which was perfect for three reasons: Their interpretation of it is beautifully eerie and lovely and I’ll never tire of it, it was my first time hearing them play it live and the line “we’re off to never never land” was most certainly true in that cave.

The cave’s got snacks, restrooms and comfortable enough seats. But most of all, in case this hasn’t been made 100% clear: IT’S SOOOOOOOOOOO COOL.

Go see a show there. Check their schedule and just make it happen. Figure it out. Get a pal or 12 to go with you. You’ll never see anything like it. Trust me. I didn’t even know this place existed until a few months ago and I’m SO GLAD my first trip to Tennessee including seeing a band I love in a venue I’ll never forget.

 

 

Review: Brandi Carlile at Ryman Auditorium, April 2017

Brandi Carlile

How far would you go to realize a musical dream? For me the answer was just about 1200 miles; the distance from my driveway to Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN.

Until a few days ago I had never been to Tennessee, let alone Nashville, let alone the Mother Church of music that is Ryman Auditorium.

I guess I was waiting for just the right moment and that moment came in January when a friend here in Maine told me that Brandi Carlile was doing a handful of dates to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her incredible album “The Story” and The Ryman was one of those dates.  The show was going to be Carlile and her band playing, in order, every song on that album and some of those tracks  I’ve never heard live before.

And so I bought a ticket, booked a flight, found an Airb&b, sat back and smiled on a cold winter’s day. A few days later the smile grew larger as a second show was added and a ticket to that show was also secured.

Fast forward to Monday, April 24.  I laid my head against the side of the Mother Church and had a moment of reflection and reverence for the historic building  and then I had myself a whiskey in the attached Cafe Lula and waited for the doors to open for the 7:30 show.

I found my seat, about a dozen pews (yes pews, this is the Mother Church after all) back and to the left and sat in contained enthusiasm along with my fellow pew-mates and Brandi fans.

And soon after 7:30 on that Monday night in Nashville night one of two of the greatest nights of my life began as Brandi, the twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth and cellist/pianist Josh Neumann took to the stage and opened with “The Story’s” first track, “Late Morning Lullaby.”

I realized immediately the first reason why this was going to be such a special evening because I dare say the sound at Ryman Auditorium is the best I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been to at least 87 million concerts (give or take).

BC with twins use this one
Phil Hanseroth, Brandi Carlile and Tim Hanseroth Ryman Auditorium 4.25.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

And there I was, in an entirely decent seat taking it all in, remembering to breathe and wearing a Nashville-sized smile.
They played the album in order and so the Phil Hanseroth penned title track was next and it was the first Brandi Carlile song I ever heard and it STILL kills me every time I hear it, whether it be live, on the radio or with headphones on walking.

“I climbed across the mountain tops. SWAM ALL ACROSS THE OCEAN BLUE.” It was all the more poignant and insane and beautiful and goddamn glorious at Ryman. Every single one of us in that audience on both nights lost our minds. I still don’t have mine back and I’m fine with that. Oh so fine.

“Turpentine” was next and again, such songwriting. This one Carlile wrote herself and it’s been an Aimsel theme song for the decade that I’ve known it.

Now’s as good a time as any to show you some video clips from these two shows. Know that I only shot short ones and did them as non-obtrusively as humanly possible. I promise, I wasn’t the annoying chick with the phone.  These are from both nights and editing credit goes to my pal Shamus Alley.

The show continued on its path of “The Story” album and every song was an emotional groundswell of love, music and perfection.

About halfway through “The Story” tracks, Carlile shared with us the existential crisis-of-sorts she experienced three years ago when her daughter Evangeline was born. Carlile started thinking about the global refugee crisis, especially when it came to children.  It was during this time that her wife Catherine Shepherd told her about War Child, based in the UK.  Their mission is to protect, educate and stand up for the rights of children caught up in war. That’s when an idea was born…a big one. “The Story is the biggest rock we’ve got to launch at Goliath,” said Carlile and the end result is “Cover Stories.” All proceeds go to War Child UK.  The album is all 14 songs of “The Story” covered by other artists including Dolly Parton, Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam, The Avett Brothers, Kris Kristofferson and even Adele. It’s available on May 5th but this fan pre-ordered it a while back and can’t wait for it to arrive.

Cover Stories
Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile celebrates 10 Years of The Story. An album to benefit War Child.

Carlile surprised everyone by announcing that the album would be for sale during intermission and by the looks of it afterward, they sold just about every single copy they brought with them on CD and vinyl. WHICH IS AWESOME. She told us that they have a goal of raising a million dollars for War Child. I have every confidence they’ll do this…and then some.

A few more notes on “The Story” songs live at Ryman on both nights:

“Have you Ever” was a foot-stompin’, hand-clapping party with exceptional cello from Josh Neumann

“Cannonball” was performed at the front edge of the stage without microphones or amps and it further demonstrated how incredible the sound is at Ryman. “The Ryman is one of a kind,” explained Carlile and she proved the point quite well.

“Losing Heart” had only ever been played two or three times before this run of shows. It was awesome.

“Again Today” was my favorite of “The Story” tracks on both nights because Carlile sang it with a level of unfettered abandonment it just about made me cry.

Carlile, the Hanseroth Twins and Neumann closed out the set with “Hiding My Heart” and if the show had ended there I would have been more than OK because spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe what I had just seen and heard.

BUT THE SHOW WAS ONLY HALF OVER!

We got about another TEN songs on both nights, including several audience requests that got voted on by cheering.

Night one’s second set looked like this:

  1. The Things I Regret
  2. The Eye
  3. That Wasn’t Me (by request)
  4. Jolene (hell yes, the Dolly Parton song)
  5. Raise Hell
  6. Most Of All (brand new, absolutely gorgeous, heartbreaking song)
  7. Beginning to Feel the Years (Brandi and the Twins performed this from the corner of the balcony. Amazing!)
  8. Goin to California’ ( as in Led Zeppelin. I’ve heard Brandi sing this before but to hear it at Ryman. All words fail…)
  9. Amazing Grace (with special guest The Secret Sisters!!!)  We were all invited to sing along and many did. As for me, I stood there spellbound.

Night two’s requests were Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which I’ve long said too many people have covered but I ate my words when I heard Carlile sing it.  She also hit us with “Keep Your Heart Young”  and “The Mother,” another new one and three-year-old sweet-as-pie little Evangeline wandered over to Brandi for a visit before the song. Priceless.

Night two was also closed out with “Amazing Grace” sans Secret Sisters but no less wondrous.

Sidebar: During the day on Tuesday I decided to take the self-guided tour of Ryman Auditorium which was really great as it included a multi-media presentation explaining the building’s jaw-dropping musical history. During this tour I plunked down in the balcony and decided I wanted to sit there for night two instead of the first floor towards the back seat I had. As luck would have it, I scored a front-row almost center balcony seat and after snapping my first-three songs photos on that second night, and yeah, OK after sitting for another three songs in a temporarily unclaimed second row seat I took my balcony seat and it was like sitting on the edge of heaven. The sound was even better from there and the view pristine. Yeah for spontaneity!

And there you have it, the story of “The Story” and this fan and writer’s trip, or better yet, pilgrimage to the Mother Church that is Ryman Auditorium in Music City, USA.

It has  been almost 72 hours since that second show ended but part of my heart and soul are still there. As they should be.

Thank you, Brandi, Tim, Phil and Josh.

Thank you, Nashville for welcoming me with open arms.

Thank you, readers of this post for letting me share an experience that will always be part of me.

“But these stories don’t mean anything. When you’ve got no one to tell them to”

BC with twins night two
Two Hanseroths and Carlile and a Neumann bringing the house down in Nashville. 4.25.17 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The experience of a lifetime: Being in the Saturday Night Live studio audience with host Scarlett Johannson & musical guest Lorde and…the after-party. 3.11.17

Last weekend I had one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. This one goes into the “memorable experiences hall of fame.” It is something I’ll never forgot and something I’m unlikely to ever experience again.

On Saturday, March 11, 2017, I got to go to Saturday Night Live. As in the NBC show. As in LIVE. As in I was in the studio audience. And what’s more, I also got to go to the private after-party.

If I’m going to tell this story, I’m going to tell it right so I’m going to start where it all began: With a Tweet.

PART I: How it all happened

On Thursday, February 23 I hopped on Twitter to see what’s what as one often does. When what to my wondering eyes should appear but this AMAZING Tweet

SNL original tweet Feb 23

It was a two-fold heart-stopping moment because I love Scarlet Johansson immensely and am also a GIANT Lorde fan.

Without hesitation I replied to SNL’s Tweet with a full-scale five-alarm gushing declaration of my joy that BOTH of these women were going to be on the SAME episode.

Then I got on with my day.

A little while later that same day, I got a Twitter notification. The standard ones we all get when someone either likes or reTweets you. NBD normally right?
Except this wasn’t just ANY notification. This one told me that SNL had freaking RETWEETED me!

SNL 2017 tweet.jpg

Call me cynical, but one of the first things I did was to check to see if they ReTweet everyone. Nope. Kind of a rarity in fact.

So I did what one does in these situations. Screen-snapped it and posted it on Facebook telling people that I would allow myself to feel some semblance of cool for about five minutes. And it did feel cool. They have about two million followers.

Later that day, SNL Tweeted that they were giving away tickets to upcoming shows. You had to email them why you’re they’re biggest fan. Whatever. I’d never win so I had no intention of entering.

But then a few days later, on Tuesday, February 28th the SNL thing came back into my mind and I decided, on an absolute whim, to enter their contest. Someone had to win right?
Here’s an excerpt from the email I sent them:

“SNL is my Northern Star. It’s my rock. It makes me laugh likes nothing else and even, when it’s necesary, makes me cry (Sandy Hook “Silent Night” tribute not to mention Kate McKinnon’s Leonard Cohen moment).
SNL has been the one consistent, reliable thread throughout my entire life. I’ve celebrated with you, laughed myself senseless during opening monologues, mourned the loss of some of your cast members (Gilda, Phil, Chris…etc). I’ve cheered my heart out for some of the musical guests throughout the years. (the 1979 Bowie performance, The Replacements in ’86, St. Vincent in 2014, ETC ETC ETC.
Through every milestone in my life, every celebration, every sorrowful moment, ALL OF IT, Saturday Night Live has been there. I truly love you and I’ll be watching. Forever.
Did I mention I’m free on March 11th?”
About four hours later I was away from my office on an assignment and, because I’m glued to my phone, checked my Yahoo email.
AND THIS HAD ARRIVED:
SNL 2017 Win Notification

It had instructions on what to do, where to go and when. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. When I couldn’t reach my gal Tracy I called my parents and almost hyper-ventilating told them the news. Then I called -and reached- my three older siblings and told them. They all freaked out. I still can’t believe they had chosen me.

Fast-forward to the morning of Saturday, March 11. Tracy and I got on the 6:30 direct bus from Portland to Manhattan and were on our way. Our friend Maayan let us crash with her and after meeting her for lunch, we repaired to her place for what I referred to as a massive Scarlett Johnappson because we knew it was going to be a late night.

PART II: Going to the show

The confirmation email instructed us to arrive by ten o’clock at the latest with I.D. and a print-out of said confirmation.

Although I’d been to New York City many times, I’m not sure if I’d ever made it down to  30 Rockefeller Plaza before. Super fun seeing the skating rink. Super fun seeing the marquis for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

I of course was a nervous, anxious and excited wreck so we got there at 9 and figured out where the “Grand Stair” was. The guy at that, for lack of a better term, security checkpoint was super friendly and admired my purple velvet motorcycle jacket. He suggested we take a stroll around and come back in a bit. So we did but it was downright freezing out at this point so we didn’t stray too far.

By 9:45 we were let in and ascended the “Grand Stair” and came upon another “checkpoint” were I had to show my confirmation letter. From there it was onto a check-in area where they checked my I.D. , looked at the letter, and put dated SNL wristbands on both of us.  Then I was handed a tiny, numbered envelope containing the two tickets and was told to be sure to keep the envelope. Let me just say that this is a very well buttoned-up operation. No one who isn’t supposed to be there will be let in. It’s a huge dealio, that was made abundantly clear.

We were sent into a large, lobby-like area and were told the general area to sit in. It was segregated into three sections, according to what your envelope said. I soon starting chatting with a mother and daughter from Atlanta. The daughter had also won tix via the Twitter contest and we all bonded and obsessed over what the numbers on the envelope meant. Well the three of us did, Tracy was as cool as a cucumber, but I was spazz enough for both of us. There were numerous signs, along with sporadic announcements, that photos weren’t allowed from this point forward. Not even in that lobby area. The space was comfortable with large screens showing classic SNL clips.

What came next was a bit of “hurry up and wait” but at least we knew that it was going to start on time. (haha)

The first group of “envelopes” were called at about 10:30. The next a little after that. And so on. My “group” was summoned at about 10:50 and we were sent to another line to await word to board the elevators. While in that line, I spotted St. Vincent milling around and then she waltzed by us into what I can only assume was “cool peopleville.”  BTW, I love St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and seeing her out in the world was one of many noteable moments.

Time marched on. It was just about 11 when we were ushered in groups of about 15 into the elevators. By this time my excitement was at such a fever pitch I could barely function. It was kind of an out-of-body experience knowing that I was about to witness Saturday Night Live in the flesh. I mean WTF? What was I doing there? This was bananas.

I have no idea what floor we went to, I was too wired to take note of that. But soon enough we were out in a hallway and shit was getting very real in a hurry.

I do remember passing a sign that said the capacity of the studio was 398 persons. This sounds about right because the actual seats were probably around 250 if I had to guess. Plus those 20 or so right-up front ones. BTW, people in those seats are the ones you see the most during the opening monologue. I assume they have upper level hardcore VIP friends.

And just like that…we were in the studio and I felt like a cross Charlie Bucket when he arrived at Willy Wonka’s factory and Dorothy when she landed in Oz. There it was. The set one of my my favorite shows. The set of one of the most well-loved, longest-running and most famous shows in the history of television. And I was about to see how all the magic happened.

The Saturday Night Live Band was already playing and sounded spectacular. A few minutes later Keenan Thompson walked out on stage with three back-up singers including Kate McKinnon. I’m mortified to admit that I can’t remember who the other two of them were,though they were for sure cast members. Keep in mind, that at this point I’m completely overwhelmed by pretty much everything. The sets, the crew members, the cameras, the lights. All of it. Speaking of lights…one thing that I didn’t expect but that makes complete sense is that the studio was an absolute ice-box. I mean it was effing freezing  in there. I’m assuming this is because the stage lights are so hot that if they had the actual heat on, the cast, band and anyone else under those lights would pretty much melt. So where was I? Oh yes, Keenan Thompson busted out into The Knack’s “My Sharona” and as you can imagine, he and the band and the ladies all sounded dynamite.

Then Michael Che, Weekend Update co-anchor came out and slayed us for a couple of minutes. When you’re not on the air, f-bombs can fly freely and they sure  did and he was hilarious.

I kept checking my Fitbit for the time (phone was long shut off by this point) and as it got closer to 11:30 I started smiling. I still am.

As for the seats, there are about six or so rows that more or less stretch across the studio and off to one side. There aren’t any “bad” seats but at any given time you might not be able to see everything because the sketches happen all over the place. But you can hear everything and there are also several monitors. It was very surreal to one minute be looking at the monitor, as if I was home watching the show and then looking over to see the not-ready-for Primetime Players actually there. Again I say…holy bananas.

When I got home on Sunday I played the recorded show and snapped a pic during the opening. This pic is weird for sure, but it does show you where we were. Tracy on the left and yours truly on the right.

SNL Seats 2017.jpg

It got very quiet just before it went live. But there was also a countdown that started at the 30-second mark and whoever was doing it made it fun and a little silly.

And then BOOM! We were live. The show opened with a sketch led by Keenan Thompson about an alien invasion. It was set on a military base. And oh my god…Alec Baldwin was on as Trump. We had NO IDEA this was happening until the moment it happened and I think I screamed louder than Tippi Hedren in “Psycho.”  There he was. Alec freaking Baldwin. It’s been reported that he won’t be portraying Trump for much longer. Was this his swan song? Let’s hope not.

Here’s the clip:

I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time. When the sketch ended it gave way to the intro. Everyone cheered as each cast member’s name was said aloud.

And then came this line… “Ladies and Gentlemen…Scarlett Johansson!”
Again, I screamed bloody murder and then just like that…there she was. Clear as day.

She was charming and funny and the opening was classic SNL. ICYMI, here’s the clip:

After her opening the show went to commercial and it was like a hive of bees had been released. Backdrops were rolled in, props brought out and set up, lights and boom mics were moved all about. It was one of the most well-orchestrated and exciting things I’ve ever witnesses and it happened during every break.

BTW, Lorne Michaels was there the entire time. Sharply dressed and looking so fine, he walked around and mostly just observed without much interaction with anyone. The man’s a living legend. He can do whatever the hell he wants and it was clear that the respect for this man was without end.

More sketches followed and of course the now famous “Complicit”commercial starring Johansson as Ivanka Trump.  It just doesn’t get much funnier than this.

Behold:

Weekend Update was, as always, completely on point with anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che. The SNL writers are some of the most brilliant, hilarious, sharp-witted and creative minds on this planet.

AND THEN IT WAS TIME FOR LORDE! (damn right I’m using bolded caps for this)

At 20-years-old New Zealand singer Lorde is a force of nature. Her voice is so unique and her songs are , and I have to use profanity here, fucking brilliant. But you already know this. As I write this, her new single “Green Light” has racked up more than 25 million YouTube plays in less than two weeks. I love the song and was SO EXCITED to hear her play it live. But I wondered, how would it sound in the studio? I’ll tell you how it sounded and again, sorry for the profanity, it sounded fucking awesome! I was beside myself. Jaw dropped, ears and eyes as open as they could possibly be. The song was co-written by Lorde, Joel Little and a fella named Jack Antonoff. (um, hello, Jack’s in Bleachers (they’re awesome, saw ’em in 2014 at Boston Calling and also he’s also in a tiny little band called fun.) More on Jack in a minute.

I still can’t believe I was THERE FOR THIS:

Right before Lorde was introduced, after 50ish people were brought in. Likely some cast members but also some others who were granted access for the performance. This happened with both songs. Although I didn’t see her, I suspect St. Vincent was among them. It was actually great to have the extra people in there for the songs. It added to the excitement.

So the show continued, some sketches were funnier than others and the entire show sensational.

THEN LORDE DID HER SECOND SONG. “Liability” is even newer and what a heart-breaker. In other words, I LOVE IT. Gorgeous, sad, emotional. All the things. And that voice..

AND…Jack Antanoff accompanied Lorde on piano. 

“So I guess I’ll go home
Into the arms of the girl that I love
The only love I haven’t screwed up
She’s so hard to please
But she’s a forest fire
I do my best to meet her demands
Play at romance, we slow dance
In the living room, but all that a stranger would see
Is one girl swaying alone
Stroking her cheek”

I mention these lyrics because they come up later. Hold that thought and watch this!

The show ended on its usual note with Scarlett, Lorde and the entire cast on the main stage waving and hugging and we were soon told it was time to vamoose.

We were brought back to the elevators and taken back from whence we came. At one point I looked at Tracy and said something to the effect of “Did that all just really happen?”

Unsure of which door to go out, we made our way through the 30 Rock maze and emerged at apparently the door the cast uses because once we got outside there were barriers with excited fans behind them (about 50 or so on each side of the entrance) along with a row of running cars and limos. Michael Che had mentioned that some of the cast would come out afterwards to meet people. But it was bitter cold out there and we knew he had somewhere to be which brings me to the third and final act of this story…

PART III: The After-Party

The Saturday Night Live after-parties have been happening pretty much since the show began in 1975. They’re the stuff of legends. Just read this New York Times story and you’ll get an idea.

They’re in a different secret location every week and getting into them is apparently harder then breaking into Fort Knox. You have to know where they’re happening, but more importantly, your name HAS TO BE ON THE LIST. Well I mean that’s not entirely true, I don’t think Scarlett Johannson’s name was on the list. But for anyone not directly involved with the show, if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in. It’s that simple.

Here’s where my friend Dinah Minot comes in. Dinah and I met about a year and a half ago. She and her husband Whip Hubley (super deluxe fun fact: Whip played “Hollywood” in “Top Gun” moved to Maine a couple of years ago and she’s now the Executive Director of Creative Portland. More on that here.

But Dinah had another really great job. She worked for Lorne Michaels for a dozen years. She started as a talent coordinator than associate producer then co-producer at Saturday Night Live and was a co-producer at Paramount Pictures. She  worked on “Wayne’s World” and “Wayne’s World II” for pete’s sake. She and Michaels are still close friends.

Here’s how awesome Dinah is. When she was my Facebook post telling everyone that I had won tickets to the show, she reached out to Lorne’s assistant. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

The day before we left, I had pulled into the CVS parking lot to grab a few last minute things for the trip when my phone chirped with a text. It was a text from Dinah with word from Lorne’s assistant that Tracy and I were on the after-party list. It also told me the location of the restaurant with instructions not to share it with anyone.

Back to post-show out in the freezing cold. We walked to the corner, hailed a cab, gave the driver the name and cross streets of the place and were off.

There was part of me that fully expected our names not to be on the list. These things happen. And I knew I was going to be totally OK with this because I just been at THE SHOW and that was enough. It really was. But sure enough, we were on the list.

The restaurant, a Mexican place, was classy. The lighting (low) was perfect and the music was more or less blaring. We did a quick walk through. Reserved signs were on many of the tables. Some were labelled “Cast” others “Writers” and others “Producers” and many just straight-up “reserved.”

We ponied up the bar and I ordered the rare margarita and we devoured some chips and salsa (it was 1:30 a.m. or so at this point and we were starving). That’s when Beck Bennett showed up. He’s the cast member who portrays the bare-chested Putin so very well. He’s super handsome and very friendly, though I didn’t talk to him. He was with people he knew. It was all good.

Then a parade of stars started. Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Bobby Moynihan were there. They all landed at their own big, round tables in the back part of the restaurant. A few other SNLers were there as well. I knew I wasn’t going to talk to them unless something random like running into one of them in the bathroom happened.

Then Scarlett Johansson arrived. She’s drop-dead gorgeous. There are no two ways about it. She headed to the back part as well and sat with a small group of friends. I also knew I wasn’t going to talk to her. I didn’t need to. Do I adore her as actor? Hell yes. But I just didn’t need to have a conversation with her. It wouldn’t have meant anything and that would have felt weird to me.

There was really one person there that night that I truly hoped to chat with and that was Lorde. She showed up in a funky red dress with Jack Antanoff and a few other people. By then Tra and I had found a perch , I had downed another margarita and with the spring forward time thing, it was suddenly an hour later.
I sat there and just observed. It was, and  I know I’ve used this word already, surreal in an almost unprecedented way.

Finally I decided to just walk over to Lorde’s table and say hello. Was I nervous? Of course. But music’s my favorite thing and her music is fucking spectacular and I was so moved by her performance and  I just wanted to tell her that. I didn’t want or need a selfie, I certainly didn’t need or want an autograph, I just wanted to say “hey.”

And so I did. Jack was off somewhere else but she was sitting with two other guys. I walked over, careful to not interrupt anyone mid-sentence and said “Hi.” She said Hi back with a smile and  I explained (calmly, y’all would have been proud of me) that despite my presence at this party that I was not any kind of VIP. I told her I was a music writer from Maine who had very nerdily replied to an SNL Tweet and then had been re-Tweeted and by some bizarre lightning bolt of luck, had  won tickets to the show. And then wound up at the party thanks to a friend with connections. I told her that “Green Light” was spectacular, that I had seen her incredible performance at Boston Calling in 2014 and was so thankful that her slot hadn’t been cancelled because of the monsoon-esque storm that had caused a two-hour evacuation of the festival. She remembered that as well. Then I said to she and one of the guys she was with (the other guy was talking to someone else) that I would soon be out of their hair. I shook her friend’s hand and asked his name then I shook her hand and told her my name. She told me she loved it. (!!!) Then I asked her about “Liability.”  I said something like “the girl’s totally alone isn’t she, there’s no one in that room?” Lorde said yes she was indeed all by her lonesome. I told her the song was devastating and gorgeous (or something to that effect). Then I said my goodbyes, she said bye as well and that was that. I can’t say enough how INCREDIBLY kind and humble she was. I didn’t feel humored or patronized to,  I felt genuinely heard. I can’t wait to hear the rest of her “Melodrama” album when it comes out later this year.

After the Lorde chat, I knew it was time to go. I was just a visitor on this strange after-party planet. The planet was fun and weird and magical but I was happy to go back to my own little corner of it.

And so there you have it. As I sit here and write this all down less than 48-hours later it still all seems like a dream.

Thanks, NBC for the tickets. Thanks, Dinah for the after-party access and thanks Tracy for remaining 100 % calm 100% of the time during my many moments of freaking the fuck out.

We had to turn in the tickets but that wristband is now in my ticket stub jar where it will swirl around with all of the other souvenirs of experiences that I’m so thankful for.

Live from New York it’s Saturday Night!

And live from my kitchen table, it’s a still sleep-deprived but still smiling Aimsel Ponti.

The Head and the Heart dazzle Maine audience

You would have never known it was a Monday night by the enthusiasm and energy of the sold-out crowd at The State Theatre. The vibe started strong with outstanding opener Springtime Carnivore and stayed that way all night long with Seattle’s much-adored indie-folk band The Head and the Heart.

It had been a couple of years since The Head and the Heart last played here and we welcomed them back with arms open wider than Steve Perry’s.

This was the second leg of the tour for their third album, “Signs of Light” which was released last fall.  “Signs of Light,” by the way, is their first album on Warner Bros. Nice!  The two that came before it are “Let’s Be Still” (2013) and their 2011 self-titled debut. Quick sidebar, “Lost in My Mind” from that first record is truly one of my favorite songs of the past several years. Right?

God I love that song. Now where was I? Ah yes, The State Theatre in Portland, Maine on Monday night, March 6. 2017.

So who’s in the band? 
The Head and the Heart is Jonathan Russell (vocals, guitar), Charity Rose Thielen (violin, vocals), Chris Zasche (bass), Kenny Hensley (piano), Tyler Williams (drums) and Matt Gervais (guitar). If you’re a fan of the band than you already know that Gervais, married to Thielen, is filling in for Josiah Johnson who’s on hiatus from the band as he is in treatment for drug addiction. Suffice to say, all the love to Johnson.

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Jonathan Russell on stage at The State Theatre in Portland, ME Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Stage Notes
I don’t always mention the stage when writing reviews but I will for this one because it was simple yet classy, adorned with several large plants (possibly fake but that’s OK) and several white hanging globe lights along with some basketball sized orange ones around the stage. Kind of Pier One Importey, and I mean that in a good way. There was also a big disco ball above the stage that did its job in casting white spots  of light around the theatre in a way that wasn’t overbearing. I also totally dug the white neon “Signs of Light” sign hanging behind them.

The Show
The Head and the Heart played for an hour and a half, including encores and the show included songs from all three albums, many of which the very happy crowd was none too shy about singing along with. They opened with “All We Ever Knew” from the latest record and in no uncertain terms, it’s a damn fine tune.   Harmonies for days.

This went right into another new one, “City of Angels,” driven by piano and guitar. Breezy song, entirely enjoyable live. The rest of show was, understandably so,  heavy with “Signs of Light” tunes including “”Take a Walk,” and “I Don’t Mind.”

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The Head and the Heart’s Charity Rose Thielen Photo by Aimsel Ponti

We got to hear Thielen sing lead a few times which was lovely as was her violin. As for the rest of the band, they were completely on-point. They’ve been at this for a while and it showed. There wasn’t  much in the way of spontaneity but otherwise, they sounded as good as a band can sound in a theater with very old bones but a heart of gold.

As for my favorite “Signs of Light” song, that came during the encore with the gorgeous tune “Library Magic.”  The song is dreamy and full of magical lyrics like this:

Makin’ music is what we do
Tryin’ to weave the patterns for me and you
Tryin’ to make the grasses breathe and a grown man cry
Truth and life is where I gleam
Tangled up in a funnel’s wind
Tryin’ to come out walkin’
Understand it’s beyond me talkin’
Tryin’ to come out walkin’
Understand it’s beyond me talkin’

Damn near perfect song.

The Head and the Heart ended the night with “Rivers and Roads” from their first record and we filed out of the theatre listening to Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which reminds me, the band took the stage to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Five bonus points awarded for that.

I don’t have any honest-to-god criticism for the band or the show other than to say, and this could be from being on the road for so long- there wasn’t much in the way of audience engagement other than the obligatory telling us about the fabulous lobster rolls they had from Eventide.

But what I will say is that I looked around a lot during this show and people were INTO IT. Lots of smiling faces, singing along and roof-rattling applause and cheering. This is because The Head and the Heart write damn good songs and sing and play them incredibly well.

And lastly, Kenny Hensley’s socks.

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Pianist Kenny Hensley’s sparkly red socks. Snazzy! Photo by Aimsel Ponti