At Girls Just Wanna Weekend 3 Brandi Carlile & Co. jumpstart 4,000 + hearts over 4 days in Mexico

Know this: Several days have passed since I miserably scraped the ice off my car at the bus station after midnight on a Saturday night. I had taken a bus from Boston’s Logan Airport back home to Maine and froze to death, under dressed, as arctic air constricted my lungs which were breathing much easier just hours before while in MEXICO.

Know this: I am still trying to wrap my head around what I just experienced over five picture-perfect days which included four holy-shit-are-you-kidding-me afternoons and nights of music.

Know this: Every party I ever attend for the rest of my life will not top the Friday night hot tub pool party starring Brandi Carlile and Holly and Jess from Lucius. FFS, I didn’t even go in the pool, but I was there until after 2 a.m. and what happened in Mexico ain’t stayin’ in Mexico. It’s just too good not to share. Just ask my friend Hilary who was on the receiving end of Carlile pouring tequila right into her mouth.

And know this: Brandi Carlile herself said the word “epic” doesn’t do the festival justice and she is of course entirely right about that. So let’s ditch that word IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER.

Perhaps the word that does do Girls Just Wanna Weekend 3 justice has yet to be invented? I’m gonna think on that.

In the meantime, let me tell you all about my experience that took place between Feb. 1 and 5, 2022 at the Maya Riviera Hard Rock resort near Cancun, Mexico.

And let me be clear: I am sharing this for a few reasons. First off, DUH, it simply MUST be documented. It must.

But it’s more than that. It is my hope that you’ll walk away from having read this feeling a few embers sparking in your belly. A hunger pang. A thirst.

It is my hope that you’ll want to plan your own music adventure. As of this writing, it has not been announced if there will be a Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival next year but that doesn’t matter, find something else to get excited about and to obsess over and count the days down for. It can be a show in your own city or a multi-day festival halfway ’round the world. Whatever it is. Find it.

It is also my hope that you’ll have restored faith in kindness and generosity. For it was these two things that made the trip possible for me. With about two weeks before the start of the festival, I gently put it out to the universe that maybe there would be a way for me to attend. And look, I’m not claiming for a split second that I don’t live a fairly privileged life because I most certainly do. I just do so on a journalist’s budget.

In fact, I was fortunate to be able to swing a trip to the first Girls Just Wanna Weekend in 2019. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever be able to go again.

Two women I didn’t know named Karen and Sheila reached out to me and made that miracle happen. For a couple of reasons they were unable to attend and sold me their package for a fraction of the cost. I will never forget this. Ever. EVER.

And that’s the thing about Brandi Carlile fans. We would give each other the goddamn shirts off our backs if they were needed. And her fans, known as The Bramily, are the definition of grace and kindheartedness. At this festival, a new world is created and it’s called the Brandi Bubble. I didn’t invent this term, it invented itself a few years ago and no one ever wants to leave it.

Imagine if Carlile is Santa and she swoops down onto the Island of Misfit Toys (an analogy she loves) holding a gold microphone in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other. And she’s got two elves with guitars named Tim and Phil. Imagine if, instead of loading us all up on her sleigh she instead joins us and plays songs all night long.

But that’s not all. A bunch of other sleighs start landing on this island and what to our wondering eyes should appear but a shit ton of jaw-dropping-I-am-gonna-die-right-here-right-now upper level artists.

And HELLO, it’s a tropical paradise on the sea of the Mexican Caribbean. And there’s beaches and gigantic pools and massive amounts of food and drinks. And the huge Iguanas don’t mind if you photograph them because they’re gonna soak up the sun and tell everyone to lighten up AND SO IS SHERYL CROW BECAUSE SHE’S THERE TOO!

I know…I know.. Reel it in, Aimsel. But that’s the thing, I can’t reel it in. I won’t.

Here’s the lineup of artists who performed. Read it and then tell me again that I should reel it the eff in.

I’ll list them in order of appearance (At the Hard Rock Maine Stage and Beach Stage. Note: There was also a second location at Unico Resort where daytime performances took place as part of Girls Just Wanna Weekend).

Margo Price (Main Stage)

Brandi Carlile (Main Stage)

Celisse (Beach Stage)

Allison Russell (Beach Stage)

YOLA (Main Stage)

Tanya Tucker (Main Stage)

Brandi & Friends (and omg, emphasis on the friends) (Main Stage)

Katie Pruitt (Beach Stage)

Brandi-Oke (Beach Stage). This was fans singing Brandi songs with Brandi and the band

Lucius (Main Stage)

Sheryl Crow (Main Stage)

Amythyst Kiah (Beach Stage)

KT Tunstall (Main Stage)

Indigo Girls (Main Stage)

Ladies of the 80’s (Main Stage) {this featured pretty much everyone on the above list playing 80s gems}

Now then, I’ve got a few thoughts to share on these performances but first, a side note: I missed some of the beach shows because I was obsessively and crazily holding my spot up against the railing right up front on all four days. Some days this vigil started at around 2 p.m. and on Friday morning it started at around 9 a.m. because of a couple of hardcore Indigo Girls fans who I realized upon looking out at the stage from my balcony were not messing around. These are my people. So I grabbed my stuff and joined them. I love being up front, I enjoy the show so much more from this spot and I’m willing to go to great lengths to be there. What’s so lovely about my fellow “rail riders” at this festival is that we had each other’s backs, got each other food and drinks and minded the spots during bathroom and shower breaks. It was worth the sunburn (oops) sore feet and back and beach stage FOMO. Zero regrets. Only joy.

And special shout out to my squad of Hilary, Michelle, Angie, Dayna, Marian and Stephanie. WE CRUSHED IT.

Tuesday night opened with a welcoming toast from Brandi and a ritual involving two locals and a conch shell and incense. This magic happened in the photo pit area and it was spellbinding. A blessing of sorts that set the tone for the next four days: Healing, love and redemption. And so much more than that.

Then it was off to the motherfuckin’ races with Margo Price and her crackerjack band. Price brought the fire and the twang because OF COURSE SHE DID and along with about ten originals she destroyed us with her take on Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” The fantastic photographer and videographer Shauna Ireland captured it and you can watch it HERE. YEAH MARGO!

Next up was a set from ringmaster and queen bee Carlile and her holy shit hallelujah band. BCB kicked it off with the Joni Mitchell-inspired “You and Me on the Rock” from the latest album “In These Silent Days” and I think we all sighed in relief that, somehow, we had all made it there and were seeing one of our favorite artists do her thing and do it better than most. “Fulton County Jane” was next and then, OMG, “Dying Day” from the 2009 album “Give Up The Ghost.” A few songs later we were hit with a doubleshot of covers; Joni’s “Woodstock” and Elton John’s “Rocketman.” I’ve heard these before but there was something extra special about hearing them in this setting, with the ocean behind the stage and I’m guessing around 4,000 fans knowing that we were all so, so lucky to be there.

Margo Price at Girls Just Wanna Weekend 2.1.22 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

The 16-song set ended with the one-two punch of “Hold Out Your Hand” and another “Silent” track, “This Time Tomorrow.”

Brandi Carlile at Girls Just Wanna Weekend on 2.1.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

AND THIS WAS JUST THE FIRST DAY.

I made my way back to my room, filled the jacuzzi tub (when in Rome, y’all) and soaked in disbelief as I listened to the happy post-show chatter down in the courtyard.

WEDNESDAY was my one heavy drinking day. I’ve always been a lightweight when it comes to booze but, well, I kinda let loose on this particular day and it began at 8 a.m. with a Bloody Mary at breakfast. Fast forward to noon at the Heaven pool where I was registered for the Lip Sync contest. I moseyed on up to that bar and order two Johnny Walker Black Label scotchs because, ya know, liquid courage. Then, about five minutes before I was due to go on, I ordered one more.

Microphone (not on OBV) in hand, I did my thing for 90 seconds with “Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie which is among my favorite all-time songs. No joke, it was an out of body experience free of insecurity and self-doubt. I loved every moment.

Aimsel in lip-sync action on 2.2.22. Photo by Hilary Cox

Post lip-sync, well TBH, I’m not entirely sure where I wound up, likely at the rail area for a bit but it’s a bit of a blur. I do know that I made a tactical error by missing Celisse’s beach set. SHE IS AMAZING. Like I can’t even amazing…Trust me on this. Thankfully though I saw her during the very next performance.

I did however make it to the beach stage in time for Allison Russell.


Know this: Allison Russell’s “Outside Child” was my FAVORITE ALBUM of 2021. I’m not alone in this. In fact, Russell was nominated for THREE Grammy Awards! “Outside Child” is up for Americana Album of the Year. The song “Nightflyer” is up for American Roots Song and American Roots Performance. Fun fact: Yola is also up for Best American Roots Song for “Diamond Studded Shoes” and best Americana Album for “I Stand for Myself.” I can’t cheer loud enough to express my happiness over this.

Allison Russell at Girls Just Wanna Weekend. 2.2.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

ALSO: SIGNAL BOOST: Allison will be at the State Theatre in Portland, Maine on March 9. Come hang with me and my friends! She’ll also be at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA on March 8.

And while I’m at it, Yola will be at in Boston on Sept. 21. Just sayin’

ANYWAY… back to Allison’s set in Mexico.

She and her band played several tracks from “Outside Child” including “My-Brasil,” “Persephone” (Carlile’s 16-year-old niece Caroline, played banjo on this one!)” “The Runner” and “Nightflyer” during which she was joined by Brandi Carlile and Celisse. Sister Strings were also on stage with Russell. The sun was out, the day was magnificent and Allison Russell held the whole world in her hands and in her heart for that hour.

Allison Russell at Girls Just Wanna Weekend on 2.2.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Know this: A few hours and again two days later Allison Russell’s star would shine in a way that took my breath away..three times. But hold that thought as I continue with the rest of Wednesday.

Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile are all smiles at Girls Just Wanna Weekend on 2.2.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

In the post-glow of Allison’s set, I repaired back to my railing spot where I re-joined some of my squad as we eagerly awaited Yola. Sometime in there I downed a cold Corona in about three sips and a few hours later I saw a woman walk by holding a delicious looking cocktail which she told me was a Sea Breeze. I ended up having two of them. When Yola took the stage at 7:45 I was FEELING GOOD. Not lampshade on my head good but close. Without a care in the world I readied myself for the British GODDESS to start her performance. Brandi introduced her saying “Right now, I don’t think you’re ready for what’s about to hit you. Her album ‘I Stand for Myself’ has been an absolute lightning bolt this year. She has been working so hard. She is absolutely incredible…” Yola lived up to this and started the night off with “Faraway Look.”

Yola at Girls Just Wanna Weekend on 2.2.22. Photo by Hilary Cox

Four days before “Stand for Myself” was released on July 30. Some friends and I were fortunate to score tickets to her album release show at a tiny venue in Newport, Rhode Island. It was a Newport Folk Festival adjacent performance and I’m still carrying with me a feeling of semi disbelief. Celisse, who was one of the surprise stars of Newport, was on stage with Yola for the show.

Months later, here I was in freakin’ Mexico seeing her again, this time with a complete understanding of how every damn song on “Stand for Myself” is 14 karat gold. “Diamond Studded Shoes” is a banger to end all bangers. “Be My Friend” has backing vocals from Carlile on it so OF COURSE Carlile came on stage and sang it with her friend. Glorious!

Yola first came to my attention in 2019 for two reasons: Her debut album “Walk Through Fire” and her mic drop moment with The Highwomen during their first live performance at Newport Folk Festival. She dipped into the “Walk” album in Mexico with “Faraway Look” and her cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” I heard someone in the crowd say to someone else “I think I like YOLA’s version better than Elton’s.” Girlfriend, to you I say: SAMESIES! Yola sings the shit out of it and it’s a whole other thing.

After a set-ending “I Stand For Myself” with Celisse, Yola wasn’t done with us because she had another cover up her sleeve and once I realized what it was, I LOST MY MIND. First off all, I was three seconds years old when I learned that the tune was co-written by Michael McDonald AND Kenny Loggins.

So yeah, Yola sang “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers and echoes of ALL OF US singing “she… had a place in his life/He… never made her think twice” are still crashing ’round those vicious waves behind that stage. This was the encore to end all encores. I mean my god. What is life?

When Yola ended her set I made an executive and wise decision for myself. I gave up my spectacular spot and enjoyed the rest of the show from my balcony. This was a MASSIVE perk of lucking out with a concert courtyard room with a faneffintastic view of the stage. I floated in and out of my room while the legendary Tanya Tucker did her thing and the nostalgia ran deep as I stood out there singing along with “Delta Dawn.” God love this woman.

Wednesday night ended with the Brandi & Friends set and I expected my FOMO for not being right up front to kick it at any second. It never did. The sound was sublime from my balcony and the set started with “Hold Out Your Hand” followed by Tanya Tucker joining BC for “That Wasn’t Me.” On “You and Me on the Rock” from “In These Silent Days,” Holly and Jess from Lucius are on backing vocals and so it only made sense for them to join Carlile and Co. on stage for the song which was all the more sensational live.

And then, holy shit, Katie Pruitt sang “Turpentine” with Carlile and then Margo Price dueted with her on Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five.” I was pretty much jumping up and down at this point. Sisters with Strings accompanied the band on “Dreams” and then Caroline and Jay from Smalltown Strings got their turn on stage followed by Brandi and her sweet daughter Evangeline singing Joni’s “Both Sides Now” together. Every heart in that courtyard melted. Celisse was up next to play “Raise Hell” with the band and that too was a to die for moment. Still in death throes, we were treated to a pair of Highwomen tunes. The namesake track and “Crowded Table” which was the sing-a-long heard ’round the world.

Then. Somehow. It got even better. Because Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers sang “Cannonball” with Brandi and Allison Russell dueted on the single Brandi recorded with Alicia Keys called “A Beautiful Noise.” Voices rang out on that warm Mexican night and I’ll never forget hearing them. Carlile also killed us with “Party of One.” It was all entirely unreal.

AND THERE WERE STILL TWO MORE DAYS OF THIS MADNESS TO GO!

Thursday was the day many of us had been living for. LUCIUS BABY! It’s been a minute since their last album and the new one, “Second Nature” will be out on April 8. To say we’ve been hungry for new tunes is a gargantuan understatement. The first single “Next to Normal” is a tremendous dance-inducing banger that I hope someone remixes the hell out of. The second one, “White Lies,” released earlier this week, is a show-no-mercy to your heart ballad with their signature vocals that will knock your feet right out from under you. Schedule a good cry for this one. Christ…

THEY PLAYED BOTH OF THEM at Girls Just Wanna Weekend. The set opened with “Next to Normal” with Holly and Jess playing hand bedazzled KEYTARS for the absolute win!

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe from Lucius at Girls Just Wanna Weekend. 2.3.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

They also dusted off “Dusty Trails” and no one loves singing it more with them than Brandi Carlile. Twelve billion thumbs up for that one. Lucius also hit us with a different yet ULTRA COOL arrangement of the “Wildewoman” tune “Turn it Around” (a personal favorite) and I’m still reverberating from it a week later.

Lucius is doing a massive tour. GO SEE THEM and also, PRE-ORDER THE NEW ALBUM.

Now then…permit me to GUSH about Sheryl Crow. I’d seen her in the 90s at one of the Lilith Fair shows and again a few years back at Newport Folk Festival. But nothing could have prepared me for the all-out upper level holy guacamole set she and her band turned in that night.

Crow launched into her set with “Maybe Angels,” from her 1996 self-titled album and hit us right back with “A Change Would Do You Good.” It was then I realized in grand fashion just how many hit songs she has and HOW GODDAMN GREAT they all are.

A few songs later I was transported back to 1993 and the debut album to end all debut albums. “Tuesday Night Music Club” will always hold a special place in my heart and somewhere in a box somewhere I still have a promotional cassette of it that wound up at my college radio station. So yeah, it was something to hear “Leaving Las Vegas” live. Quite something. The same can be said for the very next song on the set list, also from the “Tuesday” album. “Strong Enough,” which she was joined by Holly and Jess on. It was a damn near religious experience. The same can be said later in the show with the song that ends “Tuesday Night Music Club.” For “I Shall Believe,” Holly and Jess were also joined by Brandi. Need I say more?

Sheryl Crow at Girls Just Wanna Weekend. 2.3.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I’m gonna. MAD PROPS to “Steve McQueen,” “Everyday is a Winding Road” and “There Goes the Neighborhood.”

Also, you haven’t lived ’till you’ve heard “All I Wanna Do” live. It was like hearing the song for the first time and it sounding like a dose of pure sunlight on a river of butterscotch where the party never ends. All I wanted to do was go to Mexico and have some fun. I’m forever in your debt, Sheryl, for being a significant part of that.

Friday felt different from the moment I woke up because I knew, we all knew, it was the last day of the festival. I rose before the sunrise, like every other morning that week and stealthed my way over to the place with the early morning coffee while Mexico woke up. It was my second to last breakfast outside at Ipanema. I had the same server all week and it pains me that I can’t remember her name. She kept me in coffee and respected my “dias mio, no gracias!” to her suggested morning shots of tequila with a smile.

This was the day that, post-breakfast, I noticed that a small posse had started the rail vigil impossibly early and it’s the day I almost fell down the stairs in my flip flops on my way to frantically joining them.

I send out a bat signal to my squad and they were ace about taking shifts. It was quite welcomed when we were given the boot (but allowed to keep out stuff and hold out spots) from 3 to 5 p.m. for a couple of soundchecks as I was able to hit the Hacienda pool where I floated around for a solid half hour, clutching a can of Corona like the rock star tourist that I was.

When were allowed back into the area, the excitement was ratcheting up and the small legion of fans were joined, slowly, by other ones who were also intent on being right up front. The few, the proud, the rail nerds.

I was not happy about missing Amythyst Kiah’s set at the beach stage but took comfort in knowing that there will be other opportunities because her she’s not going anywhere. I’m still reminded of seeing part of the Our Native Daughters set in 2019 at the Newport Folk Festival. That’s the super group she’s in with with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell.

At 7:30 the last night on the main stage started off on a stupendous note because KT Tunstall strutted out on stage. The previous time I had seen Tunstall, at the inaugural Girls Just Wanna Weekend in 2019, she was a one-woman wrecking machine who slayed with multiple guitars and a looping pedal.

This time around she brought a secret weapon with her in the form of drummer Cat Myers. Whether the crowd knew her hits like “Black Horse And The Cherry Tree” “Suddenly I See” and “Other Side of The World” made little difference because as I looked, everyone was just as into it as I was. Tunstall was engaging, funny and best of all, a first-rate vocalist and musician who owned every inch of that gigantic stage.

KT Tunstall at Girls Just Wanna Weekend. 2.4.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Indigo Girls were next. Lemme say that louder for the folks in the back: INDIGO GIRLS WERE NEXT!

In 1989 I saw them open for R.E.M. and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen them because, although I have a giant glass jar of ticket stubs, I don’t actually keep track of how many times I’ve seen an artist live but I would not be at all surprised if that number was more than 30.

Accompanied by their at this point longtime violinist Lyris Hung, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers played their guts on for a solid hour stacked with tunes like “Chicken Man,” “Power of Two,” “Share The Moon,” “Galileo” and an all-star sing-along of “Closer to Fine.”

But for me there were two songs that were everything. First off, I will never tire of the Amy Ray penned “Kid Fears.” It’s just not possible. Since hearing Michael Stipe himself sing it live with them all those years ago to occasionally catching it on the radio or during an Indigo listening session, the song has never lost any of its hold one me. The Girls had many women to choose from for the Stipe part of the song during the GJWW and it was fun to wonder who it would be and also satisfying to know that it was guaranteed to be freakin’ awesome. Katie Pruitt did not disappoint!

Amy Ray of Indigo Girls at Girls Just Wanna Weekend. 2.4.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Also, OMG, Indigo Girls invited Brandi to join them for Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” AND IT SURE AS SHITFIRE WAS.

The other IG song that is always fresh and enthralling to me is Ray tune and that’s “Go.” And for the love of all that’s holy on this planet, they followed it with Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” I know, I know…Unreal!

Finally, after four days and nights in the sun with old friends and new hearing a world of unforgettable music, it all came down to the final set of the night:

LADIES OF THE 80s.

We collectively buckled up, fer sure like totally, and got ready to be rocked.

I’ve given this some thought and I can’t imagine how it could have started off on a better not than Allison Russell singing Tracy’s Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” I had to pause for a minute just now and just stare at my screen in a dream-like state because it really was that extraordinary. I still can’t believe it. And Ali was just getting warmed up for an even bigger statement later in the show.

Carlile bounced around singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and then it was time for Yola to slay with Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately.” I mean my god…

Katie Pruitt had her way with Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and then, get this, Sheryl Crow sang Belinda Carlile’s “Heaven Is A Place on Earth.”

And then came my favorite moment of the whole goddamn festival.

Allison Russell sang the Prince-penned and made famous by Sinead O’Connor ballad “Nothing Compares 2U.” And before she sang it, she dedicated it to O’Connor who recently lost her 17-year-old son Shane to suicide. And she dedicated to anyone who was struggling. It was raw and real and while Russell poured everything she had into singing that song, I think everyone there felt held tightly. It was sublime. It was healing. It was divine. That’s how it is with Allison Russell, there are no half measures. She goes all-in and boy was I ever there for it.

Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I managed to hold it together for the song and before I realized what was happening, queen Yola was back out there singing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and them Sister Strings earned their place in the annals of GJWW history with their take on Salt -N- Pepa’s “Push it.” They pushed it real good, rest assured.

KT Tunstall had a double-shot for the ages, complete with an on-stage costume change. Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” and The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” ruled. They ruled hard.

Sheryl Crow, who by the way was wearing a dress she wore back in the late 80s when she has a back-up singer for Michael Jackson, got back in the spotlight for a duet of “(I’ve Had) The Time of Life” from “Dirty Dancing” with Solomon Dorsey.

Other 80s smash hits we heard by the all-star team of musicians included “What a Feeling,” “Let’s Hear it for the Boys.” “I’m Coming Out,” “Simply the Best” “Alone” (Heart) and “Like a Prayer.”

Holly and Jess with Lucius and Brandi Carlile during Ladies of the 80s. 2.4.22. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

And then Brandi Carlile held that golden mic and closed out the festival like she’s done twice before and in a way that can’t be topped. She and the Twins and every single person on stage and in that crowd sang Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Bright eyes were turned around and yeah, we lived in a powder keg and gave out sparks like our lives depended on it. BECAUSE OF COURSE WE DID.

My bones are still rattled and my vocal chords are still slightly charred and it’s the BEST FEELING.

However, the night wasn’t over just yet. It was time for the Lucius Hot Tub Time Machine!

With Covid-19 still very much a thing, event organizers were wise to hold it outside at the Heaven pool rather than in the night club of years past so there wasn’t an actual hot tub involved. Did that matter one bit?
HELL NO.

Sometime around 12:30 with hundreds of us either in or around the sides of the pool the after party began with Holly and Jess on a giant inflatable swan being launched into the pool and waiting fans helping to pull them around in the most insane and perfect procession you’ve ever seen. With tunes being blasted from DJ Ben, this party wasn’t ending anytime soon.

And then Brandi Carlile got into the pool, both on the float and then straight-up being carried around on her back by fans. It was a sight to behold and the level of trust was huge.

Brandi Carlile getting ready to turn around and make her leap of faith into the pool 2.4.22 Photo by Aimsel Ponti.

The tequila was flowin’ like a river and Carlile was clearly having a blast as was everyone else who stuck around.

Like I said earlier, I stayed on dry land but was in the thick of it until I finally called it a night at around 2:15 ish. I heard later that this thing went on until after 3 a.m. and even after the sound was turned off. There are clips floating around of everyone singing “Amazing Grace” that give me chills.

Carlile shared on social media the next day that she needed some serious Tylenol but she had zero regrets. I don’t think any of us did. Time kind of stood still for those couple of hours. We were able to hit the pause button on the pandemic (BTW, thankfully only a handful of attendees tested positive while in Mexico and had to quarantine there and they received a ton of love and supplies from other fans) and we were able to just let loose. To me it felt like the mother of all safe spaces and troubles melted away like Judy Garland’s lemon drops. And you know what else? It was really fun! Several times I hugged some of my soaking wet friends and got to wave to queen bee Carlile. Not for one moment was I thinking about work or Covid or anything else other than what has happening outside of that moment. I can’t think of a greater gift than the present tense served up on a gorgeous night by the ocean in Mexico with like-minded fans and friends.

I got three hours of sleep that last night and as I sat at my favorite table outside on Ipanema with my coffee and French toast, I didn’t want for anything.

And as I end this this entirely too long review/essay/streamofconsciousness, I realize all the more how right Brandi Carlile was when she said that “epic” wasn’t the right word to describe the event. I think I now know what the right word might be, at least for me. Being with my friends in paradise seeing our favorite musicians: It felt like my heart was at home.

Ponti out.

Brandi Carlile reaches supernatural high with ‘Blue’ performance at Carnegie Hall

It’s been a handful of days since I walked out of New York City’s historic Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall after seeing Brandi Carlile and her stellar band play Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album along with a handful of other songs.

Maybe I finally do know clouds after all because my head has certainly been in them ever since. I am riding a wave of not knowing what to do with the rest of my life but I’m doing so smiling.

By the way, this all happened on the eve of Mitchell’s 78th birthday and I was one of many voices that sang Happy Birthday to her at the end of the night. Joni herself wasn’t there, but I am certain she heard a recording of us later that evening from her California home.

Before I dive into what went down that night in Manhattan, a quick backstory:

Three years ago, I ventured to California for the Joni 75 birthday celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles where I saw an all-star assemblage of musicians, including Carlile, play Joni songs all night long. I was there on the first night. On the second, Mitchell herself was there as it was her birthday. That’s the closest I’ll ever likely come to being in the same room as Joni.

Back in the 90s I had tickets to see Joni perform in Massachusetts but for reasons I can’t recall, the show was canceled. I’ve never seen her perform live but I am now, finally, OK with this having witnessed what I did at Carnegie Hall. Carlile reminded us to be thankful for the fact that we are indeed living in the time of Mitchell and she’s right. Boy is she right.

I scribbled notes like a woman possessed while also taking in every sacred second of the performance from my entirely righteous seat about a dozen rows from the stage to the left. I can read most of my handwriting but even if I didn’t jot down a single word the show is permanently imprinted on me because YES, SONGS ARE LIKE TATTOOS. At least these songs are. Good god almighty.

The show, sermon, celebration, homage, jubilee, event, ceremony (etc.) started at about 8:15 p.m. with a short film featuring footage from Carlile’s initial Blue show that happened in Los Angeles two years ago. It ends with a champagne toast and Brandi saying out loud that she’s determined to perform the show at Carnegie Hall. In other words, she manifested the hell out of this and let it be a giant life lesson for us all.

And then my friends…the show began and there was our queen, decked out in the sharpest blue velvet suit I ever hope to be in the same room as.

Carlile played “Blue” as the sequencing gods intended which of course means in order. This means the first song was “All I Want” and the second I heard the first few dulcimer notes played by Tim Hanseroth I knew that I was witnessing something truly special. Carlile’s vocals, which have never disappointed in the bazillion times I’ve seen her live, were, somehow, all the more glorious as they sang Mitchell’s words.

“Do you want, do you want, do you wanna dance with me baby? Do you wanna take a chance on maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby, well come on.” I mean HOLY SHIT. What’s more, Carlile did indeed dance a bit around the stage during the interlude. Automatic standing ovation.

Then all the musicians except for pianist and musical director Jon Cowherd left the stage and Carlile proudly proclaimed “Welcome to Blue at Carnegie Hall, my heart is pounding!” Hers wasn’t the only one, that’s for damn sure.

Carlile wondered aloud why in the hell she decided to do this to herself then answered her own question. “Blue is such an important album to all of us. I want to give people a chance to see Blue live. I had no interest in re-inventing the wheel,” she explained. Her goal was to perform the album the way Joni would have back in 1971, the year it was released. (Happy 50th Blue!)

“Blue has been a portal or gateway drug into the music of Joni Mitchell,” said Carlile and I concur. Once I heard “Blue” I became ravenous for the rest of Mitchell’s iconic catalog.

Carlile sang “My Old Man” with Cowherd on the grand piano. And how grand it was. “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true, no my old man, keeping away my blues.” Look, I know we all overuse the word “epic” but GODDAMN IT THIS WAS EPIC. It really was.

This was the moment that I realized if the show ended right then and there I would have been satisfied.

But there were eight more “Blue” songs to come including some serious heavy hitters so I collected myself, and sat transfixed, ready, or so I thought, for “Little Green.”

Carlile has told the tale several times of how she and her wife Catherine Shepherd had their first disagreement when Brandi shunned “Blue” much to Catherine’s dismay. Apparently, Carlile didn’t think Mitchell was tough enough as a songwriter, especially because of the “I wanna shampoo you” line in “All I Want.” Shepherd then told Carlile that the song “Little Green” was about a very young Mitchell giving up her daughter for adoption in 1965. Then Shepherd played the track for her wife. Carlile told us, before singing it herself, that the song changed her life and changed what femininity meant to her. “I think this is the toughest song in the history of rock and roll that I’m about to play.” And play it she did. How any of us held it together that night I’ll never know.

Next up was “Carey” and Carlile’s words of “All right, we need to party now!” With a full band that included guest singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius. There were, of course, The Twins (Carlile’s career-long bandmates and songwriting parners Tim and Phil Hanseroth) and a string section that included her longtime cellist Josh Neumann. All told, the ensemble was 13 musicians strong. Oh and hi there, Matt Chamberlain, rock star drummer!

Carlile invited us to sing along with “Carey” though not all that many did, at least in my area. We were, after all, to hear her golden pipes and there was no need to drown them out with our own. “Carey” was phenomenal.

It was just the piano and string section of two violins and two cellos for “Blue’s” title track. It was breathtaking. To hear Brandi Carlile sing these lines damn near levitated me straight through the ceiling of a hall that was built in the late 1800s. Part of me is still floating in the ether above Seventh Avenue.

‘Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go well
I don’t think so, but I’m
Gonna take a look around it though Blue
I love you’

Transcendental.

It was back to the full band for “California” and Carlile declared “I think we’re all in Laurel Canyon tonight.” Tim Hanseroth’s dulcimer made sure of that. As did the pedal steel guitar I heard.

I think my favorite song of the night was “This Flight Tonight.” Holly and Jess joined Carlile who played an acoustic guitar. Looking at my notes, I see I scribbled five big stars on the page about this song. The sound was, well shit it was almost three-dimensional. This version went well beyond the album’s less than three minutes and every moment was glorious and jaw-dropping.

But there was no time to recover or bask in the afterglow because it was time to pull out one of the big guns. It was time for “River.” This one Carlile handled on her own at the piano. “I got drunk at Joni’s house one night and I tried to play this. It did not go over well. Herbie Hancock was there. It was fucked up,” shared Carlile to much laughter. She went on to say she thinks “River” redefined the way people look at Christmas music. “At some point in every person’s life it’ll be a holiday filled with loneliness or grief. There needed to be a song that embraces it,” said Carlile who is absolutely correct. Then she said the best thing she could have possibly said at that moment before playing the song: “So, Merry Fucking Christmas!”

Carlile destroyed me and everyone else in that hall that night with her rendition of “River.” Her vocals. I don’t think I’ll ever land on quite the right words to describe them.

Now then. I have a declaration. There will NEVER be a stronger one-two punch of an album that “River” into “A Case of You.” It’s just not possible. How these songs exist at all, let alone written by the SAME person on the SAME album right after each other. I can’t even… I know you can’t either. I imagine it’s just one of the reasons why Carlile considers “Blue” to be the greatest album ever made.

So I sit here not really knowing what to even say about Carlile singing “A Case of You.” And I think that’s everything you need to know.

“Blue” closes out with “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” When Carlile and company played it, the song seemed to get bigger as it went along. More cinematic and huge. It was like a cauldron of sounds was being stirred before us. A wild tempest. That finally glided down like a butterfly. I’ve never heard anything like it.

And although that was the final song from “Blue,” the show wasn’t over. Oh hell no.

For the first encore, Carlile visited “Ladies of the Canyon” for “Woodstock.” With Holly and Jess by her side we didn’t just go back to the garden. We were transported there via magic carpet and rocket ship. Jesus Christ. Carlile played her electric guitar and there was a wall of sound that filled every inch of that auditorium. This take on “Woodstock” had fangs. It was spectacular.

Carlile with a Twin on either side of her, took to the edge of the stage without microphones to pay homage to the building itself and the stories it holds. The three of them sang “Cannonball” from Carlile’s breakthrough album “The Story.” I’ve heard them play if this way a few times before but this, this was something entirely different.

On October 1, Carlile released her seventh studio album “In These Silent Days.” She told us that she allowed herself to go full-on Joni for one song, “You and Me on the Rock.” When she played it for Mitchell, Joni told her it “Sounded like a hit.” I”m pretty sure it’s well on its way to being just that. As with on the album, the Carnegie version featured Holly and Jess and wow, they sang the hell out of it.

The last studio album Joni Mitchell released was 2007’s “Shine” and the title track is how Carlile chose to end her unforgettable night in Manhattan. It was she, Holly and Jess and pianist Jon Cowherd. I’d heard the song before but it wouldn’t have mattered. This was the perfect choice to go out on because it’s pure Joni and is a plea to heal the planet and every human and animal on it. Nobody write a song quite like Joni Mitchell and this was no exception. This is why I’m gonna share a bunch of the “Shine” lyrics.

“Oh, let your little light shine
Shine, shine, shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on good humor
Shine on good will
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God’s name
Shine on the pioneers
Those seekers of mental health
Craving simplicity
They traveled inward
Past themselves
Let their little lights shine
May all their little lights shine”

So there it is. Brandi Carlile performing “Blue” at Carnegie Hall. It just doesn’t get any better.

But I am gonna share one more little story from the night because it speaks directly to the kind of person Carlile is.

My friends and I were out at a bar post-show when we got tipped off where the after party was. Still on a high from the performance and with no other particular place to go, ten of us hot-stepped it back a half mile or so to a joint across the street from Carnegie. It was well after midnight at this point but we were having a blast trying to catch a glimpse of Carlile and her celebrity packed party through the curtains. We knew we were silly but we didn’t care. When in Rome, right?

Sure enough, the evening winded down and Carlile came out and chatted, signed autographs and took photos with ALL OF US and by then our numbers had doubled. My selfie is mortifying so I won’t be sharing that here but I did ask Carlile how she was feeling and said she was relieved it was over but was feeling really good. Carlile certainly did not need to take the time to visit with us after one of the longest days of her life but she did it anyway because she loves her fans. This will never be lost on me. She’s a real-deal kind human. She’s also one of the most tremendous artists I’ve ever had the honor of interviewing several times through the years, writing about a whole bunch, seeing live more times that I can remember and most of all, just being a fan of.

REMEMBER:

SONGS ARE LIKE TATTOOS.

Mural on Stanton Street in New York City. 11/6/21. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Yours truly outside Carnegie Hall. Photo by Marian Starkey

Ponti out.

Newport Folk’s ‘Folk On’ reignites live music in dazzling fashion

Hi!

As I sit here and write, it’s been a few weeks since I got home from the 2021 Newport Folk On multi-day extravaganza. I’ve been dragging my feet with writing this because it’s been tricky figuring out exactly what I want to say. Also, I’ve mastered the fine art of procrastination so there’s that…

Here. Let me tell you something funny to kick things off. Margo Price was putting on a hella fine set (as she always does) on the Lawn stage on the first day in Newport. Toward the end of her stellar performance, I started to make my way over to the Quad stage to get ready to photograph Grace Potter.

But then a text from my friend Marian alerted me that Allison Russell (who released my favorite album of 2021 so far, called “Outside Child”) had just joined Price on stage to lend backing vocals to a song. In a smiling panic, I decided to hot step it back from whence I came. But I hot-stepped a bit too quickly and managed to fall. Badly. I mean holy hell, I fell like an anvil dropped from a roof and I don’t even know what I tripped on. Thankfully both cameras that were around my neck weren’t damaged. But my right knee sure was. I’m still grateful that a few fellow festival goers rushed to my aid, helped me back up and made sure I was OK. I took a few steps towards Margo-land then thought better of it and instead ducked into the nearby medical tent. They took one look at me and said “Get in here.” One ice pack, two ibuprofen, one ace bandage and about ten minutes later I limped my way back to that Quad stage just in time to photograph Grace. The festival doctor on duty at the time said I may need to consider going to get x-rayed. Had this happened at home I would have done a MUCH better job of self-care. But I soldiered on and although the knee is better, it’s still not quite fully healed. I give zero shits. This is all really funny to me because it could have been much worse and because I am my mother’s daughter: We fall. A few days later, while shooting a portrait of Allison, I pointed to my knee and jokingly blamed her for it and we shared a laugh.

Little did I know that the fall would be one of the least interesting things to happen over six glorious days in Newport. Little did I know.

And so, it is with a joy-filled heart that I share a few thoughts and photographs about some of what went down between Friday, July 23 and Wednesday, July 28.

Truth be told though, there was A TON of music, and it was impossible to see all of it. But I sure saw a whole bunch.

Wanna know the entire schedule and list of artists? It’s here.

This year wasn’t called The Newport Folk Festival. Instead it was called Folk On with half-capacity crowds of about 6,000 fans per day and it was split into a pair of 3-day sessions. First was the weekend of July 23, 24 and 25. Then there was the second session of Monday to Wednesday, July 26 to 28. I went to all of it. Because. Of course I did.

As a longtime music journalist , I’ve reviewed many shows for the newspaper I work for. Typically I take detailed notes the entire time including what songs were played , interesting things that happened, the vibe of the crowd, etc.

That format, while effective, is not how I’m gonna roll for this. Instead here are my highlights, served up with nerdy enthusiasm. I’m not gonna fret about tiny details. Instead, I’m gonna write from the heart because that’s the least I can do when it comes to offering up my documentation about what I saw, heard and experienced over those six unforgettable days in July.

Every artist that I mention below are worthy of your time and further exploration. Some are big names, others were entirely new to me. They all knocked my socks off one way or another.

Looking back now, it feels like I was granted access to Narnia. Through the back of the wardrobe I entered not into a snowy forest but a wonderland of live music that had a surreal feeling to it given the current status of the pandemic and the shaky ground we’re very much all still standing on.

Perhaps the pandemic is a cyclone and I landed in Oz? (minus crashing a house on anyone).

It’s like the world sort of stopped for those six days and allowed those of us who were there to fully inhale, hold those breaths for a few glorious moments and then exhale again with reinvigorated hearts.

Joni was right. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I didn’t fully realize how badly I have missed live music and in particular the kind of live music experiences one has at Newport. This wasn’t just about live music, it was a community of kind-hearted musicians, staff, volunteers and fans. I felt an unspoken shared sense of tremendous appreciation that we were able to experience what we did.

Maybe that’s the entire point of what I’m trying to say.

Music, and in this case live music, is art. Humans need art. Art gives us access to something divine (however we choose to define that). Art makes us feel things differently. Art can access parts of our hearts and minds that are otherwise inaccessible. Art might not the antidote for what’s wrong in our individual lives or what’s wrong in the world. Or maybe it is? Hmmm.

Art might not be able to mend a broken heart or solve a problem. In fact it might make you feel it all the more. We are capable of feeling multitudes of emotions all at once. Art reminds us of this. Live music is my favorite form of art because when I’m experiencing it. I mean REALLY experiencing it, I’m able to let go of all the stories I tell myself about what life should be and feel like and I can just be present. You never know where a song might take you. You might be dancing one minute and weeping the next. Whatever emotion you’re feeling is exactly the right one even if it hurts. Sometimes it’s moments like “Wow, who is that horn player? They’re amazing!” or “OMG, I freakin’ love this song so much. I can’t wait to buy this album.” You never know where art is going to take you and that’s one of the things that I love so much about it.

Here are some of my favorite Newport moments. I hope to have many more of them in the years to come.

In the meantime, stay safe, please get vaccinated and please support your favorite artists in ways that work for you while also keeping your ears open for new ones to get excited about.

Let’s get to it!

Grace Potter at Newport Folk On. July 24, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

FRIDAY JULY 23

  • Resistance Revival Chorus opening the festival on the Quad stage!
  • Celisse, one of several new artists to me, BLOWING THE DAMN DOORS OF THE PLACE also on the Quad stage.
  • Lucy Freakin’ Dacus on the Quad stage.
  • Margo Price on the Lawn stage!
  • Grace Potter on the Quad stage(for two songs then things ended early because of weather but Grace got another set the next day!)
Lucy Dacus at Newport Folk On. July 24, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

SATURDAY JULY 24

  • Grace Potter starting the day off on the Quad stage. Solo performance. Piano, guitar, vocals. TREMENDOUS. I love her so much. She even hit us with a “White Rabbit” cover. Jesus H. Christ.
  • Yasmin Williams. Another new to me artist. I was MESMERIZED by her instrumental set. Williams is a guitarist phenom and I haven’t been this impressed since seeing Kaki King live.
  • Joy Oladokun on the Lawn stage. I caught part of her SUBLIME set.
  • Natalie Hemby on the Quad stage. Also caught part of the set from the Highwomen member and songwriting superstar.
  • Waxahatchee on the Quad stage. Katie Crutchfield had me transfixed for every moment. I’m a newer fan but OMG.
  • Randy Newman on the Lawn stage. I laid down on the grass far from the stage and caught a few songs. God love that man.
  • Jason Isbell on the lawn stage to close out the night. Isbell can do no wrong. Amirite?
YOLA at Newport Folk On. July 25, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Allison Russell portrait at Fort Adams State Park during Newport Folk On. 7/27/21. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Surprise guest Chaka Khan at Newport Folk On. July 25, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

SUNDAY JULY 25

  • Kevin Morby on the Lawn stage, joined by spouse Katie Crutchfield. Crackerjack set.
  • Devon Gilfillian on the Quad stage. I heard rather than saw part of this set. I regret not being there for the entire thing as he and his band tore through Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album. Holy shit.
  • Billy Strings on the Quad stage. Only caught a few songs but I totally get what all the fuss is about!
  • YOLA on the Lawn stage. I LOVEEEEEEE YOLA! Her new album “I Stand For Myself” is ALL THAT! And for her set at Newport she brought out special guest Brandi Carlile! Plus Celisse was there, Natalie Hemby was there! And she started her set with Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. WHAT A PERFORMANCE! I also saw her special pre-album release show on Monday night at the Newport Blues Cafe. EPIC.
  • Allison Russell’s Once & Future Sounds. This curated set which closed out Sunday night was created and led by Russell was WORTH THE ENTIRE TRIP TO NEWPORT. The focus was on Black women artists and the entire list ( I hope) included Russell, Amythyst Kiah, Joy Oladokum, Yola, Adia Victoria, Sunny War, Daisha “Rap Girl” McBride, Kyshona, Yasmin Williams, Celisse, Kam Franklin and essayist/poet Caroline Randall Williams. Margo Price, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carile were also there. Apologies if I’m left anyone off this list. The entire set was powerful, important and overwhelmingly beautiful. I thought to myself “This could not possibly get any better.” And then it did. Somehow I managed to not hear about it advance because I hadn’t spend much time that day in the media tent so this was a COMPLETE SURPRISE. Seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the set Allison Russell suddenly introduced CHAKA KHAN!!! Before I had even caught my breath “Ain’t Nobody” started, followed by “I”m Every Woman.” It was PHENOMENAL. I still can’t believe it. In fact, I am going to share this image captured by my new friend, photographer Joshua Mellin. This was the EXACT MOMENT after Chaka was introduced. I was losing my mind and that’s my friend Hilary Cox to my right also losing her. Most photos of myself make me flinch but not this one. This one I love because it was one of the purest moments of joy I’ve ever known. It also felt like a pandemic-induced primal scream. And it sure felt good.
Yours truly in the Joni cap on July 25, 2021 at Newport Folk Festival’s “Folk On.” Fort Adams State Park, Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Joshua Mellin
Aoife O’Donovan at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 26, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

MONDAY JULY 26

  • Erin Rae on the Lawn stage. New artist to me! Note to self: Dig in!
  • Aoife O’Donovan on the Quad stage: I’ve been a fan of Aoife’s for many years and she never disappoints.
  • Ben Gibbard on the Quad stage. This is the singer from Death Cab For Cutie. I only caught a few songs of his solo, acoustic set but my oh my…
Allison Russell at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 24, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Sharon Van Etten at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 27, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

TUESDAY JULY 27

  • Emma Swift on the Lawn stage. She played all Bob Dylan covers and I loved ’em all.
  • Allison Russell on the Lawn stage. Again I say: ALBUM OF THE YEAR.
  • Bleachers on the Lawn stage. This was announced on Tuesday morning. Well done, Newport!
  • Sharon Van Etten on the Lawn stage. OMG I GOT TO FINALLY HEAR “SEVENTEEN LIVE” !!! Along with a new song or two. I love every single thing this woman does. 100%.
  • Beck on the Lawn stage. Also a last-minute-ish surprise-ish announcement.
Eric Burton from Black Pumas at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Katie Pruitt at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Julien Baker at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Mike Calabrese and Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. Newport Folk Festival’s “Folk On.” July, 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

WEDNESDAY JULY 28

  • Jake Blount on the Quad stage. New to me. Love this guy.
  • Katie Pruitt on the Quad stage. I’ve heard of Katie and finally listened to her album”Expectations” about a week before heading to Rhode Island. SEEING HER LIVE WAS A WHOLE OTHER THING. What a voice!
  • Black Pumas on the Lawn stage. I seem to recall we found out about this the day before so my friend Marian and I listened to their 2019 self-titled album in our Air B&B on Tuesday night. At that time I only knew one song. But as we listened the more I fell under their spell. The band is led by guitarist Adrian Quesafa and singer (and songwriter) Eric Burton. Holy shit.
  • Julien Baker on the Lawn stage. What a songwriter!
  • Lake Street Dive on the Quad stage. One of the best performances by them I’ve ever seen. Tons of new stuff, older stuff and covers of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” with Akie Bermiss on lead vocals AND Bowie’s “Starman”. OMFG.

Marian and I drove home Wednesday night and I was in a bit of a post-Newport daze for a few days after as my knee continued to recover. Two nights later she and I met up in Portland (Maine, we both live in the area) and BOOM! Right up front for Allison Russell, Marcus King Band and Nathaniel Rateliff, all of whom had crushed their sets at Newport earlier this week. It felt like a reunion.

As I set here now and close my eyes for a moment I can still feel that peaceful, present, calm and joyful feeling. I tend to run kind of anxious and worried. For those six days I wasn’t worried about much, other than remembering sunscreen and my water bottle and to charge my camera batteries. I got to absorb hours and hours and hours of riveting, soul-touching, smile-inducing, jaw-dropping and goddamn spectacular live music. It was unreal. Did that really happen? Did I really scream along with Sharon Van Etten to “Seventeen” and witness greatness in the form of Allison Russell? Did I really have a front row spot for Chaka Khan? Did Grace Potter absolutely SLAY? Did all those things really, truly happen?

Indeed they did. All these things and so many more and all of the other 6,000 fans there each day have their own wondrous list of moments and memories swirling around inside them.

I’ll end by sharing the dates for the 2022 Newport Folk Festival are July 22, 24.

Oh and HEY! Here’s one more photo! Special guest Brandi Carlile showed up right on time to jump on stage with YOLA.

Brandi Carlile on stage with YOLA during the Newport Folk On Festival. July 25, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Your live music joy is out there. Find it!

Ponti out.

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 said before 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. And Mr. Jason Isbell, AKA King of Twitter, was on guitar! Can you even stand it?

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.

 

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


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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 it 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


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.

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.

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.

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.

Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters played several tunes  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.

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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.

First Aid Kit
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.

Cabot
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 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 I 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.

tori amos collage
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.

furs album collage

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.

psychedelic furs
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.

furs four pic collage
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.

 

 

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 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.

Jonathan Russell THATH
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.”

Charity THATH 3.6.17
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.

THATH KENNYHENSLEY 3.6.17
Pianist Kenny Hensley’s sparkly red socks. Snazzy! Photo by Aimsel Ponti