Having heroes opens a body up for disappointment. Those folks we look up to will invariably fall short of our expectations or worse we will fall short of theirs. I have been disappointed by my heroes in the past and I know I probably will be again but this night was not one of those times.
For the second time in as many weeks I actually ventured into downtown Richmond for some live music. These outings are touched with a melancholy which I assume is common for anyone who used to be in a band or at least my conversations with my old band mates lead me to believe this. I am usually on my own in a strange town which compounds these feelings. And this night I was going to see one of my heroes who has paved my way. And I don't drink anymore. Hells bells, I could have ended up on the floor in the fetal position. But not this night.
The Capital Ale House Music Hall has only been open for six weeks or so. The venue is an expansion of the current downtown location. The space is open and clean with just a few tables along the right wall and a built in bench along the left. I assume that the capacity is no more than 400 persons.
The set up of this hall tells one that music is the top priority for this expansion. The floor is not cluttered with tables which usually indicates that the entertainment is an after thought or a loss leader and the establishment is only interested in packing folks in and selling them alcohol and foods. The lack of tables and large double doors added to my feeling of security. If God forbid a fire were to break out all of the patron and the band would be out on the sidewalk in seconds. In addition to the doors a huge window on the front wall next to the doors has the unique feature of accordion shutters. On this summer night the window was wide open which gave the pedestrians a taste of what was inside.
I ordered a Kaliber and was disappointed that they did not have any in stock. I have had Kaliber at the CAH Innsbrook location and was hoping that the downtown location had the same. To my surprise Beck's non-alcoholic was the only no alcohol beer they had. I hope they add a couple more. I think it is a good idea for an establishment to offer a wide selection of non-alcoholic beverages especially when most all of the patrons have to arrive by car.
Even though I may have been disappointed with the selection, I was very pleased with the service. One of the bartenders asked me about the band. It pains me to admit it but the young man could have been my son and was obviously too young to remember the early days of punk. He was all the same very interested in learning about new music or music new to him. He also made it clear he appreciated the tips. Gratitude cannot be overrated.
While waiting I offered my seat to a lady who had come in with her husband and we started to chat. I learned that they were self employed and customers of my wife's company. A discussion of health insurance lead to the our discovery that the lady's mother and my mother are both Polio survivors. I liked these folks because they offered information about themselves. Too often anymore I find that a casual conversation ends up being an inquisition where I am asked a bunch of questions but the other party offers little. Nice bartender and nice fellow patrons so the night was off to a good start.
With the sound checks finally complete the staff opened the doors and I paid my $15 and strolled on into the hall from the restaurant side of the CAH. I have to yet again admit to being a total jackass for not getting the name of the warm up act. He was singer-song writer with an acoustic and an easy going manner. He only did five or so songs to warm up but did the job well. After his set was done, he dutifully headed back to the merchandise table where a number of women were waiting to talk to him. Longish hair, beard and a guitar equals women.
Dead Rock West was the opening act.
With nothing but respect for both bands, Dead Rock West can best be described as X after a shower. The same feel with most of the road grit washed away and a hint of soap hanging in the air. Others will invoke all other manner of alt.country acts to describe DRW and well they should but honestly nothing will be dead on the money. And if you can't make it to a show then you'll have to buy their new CD, Honey & Salt and give it a listen to understand.
Obviously if a band is compared to X there has to be interplay between male and female lead vocals and this comes to us from the throats of Cindy Wasserman and Frankie Lee Drennen who also plays Telecaster. The rhythm section consists of Bryan Head on drums and David J. Carpenter who also helps with backing vocals.
I think I have mentioned that I hate jazz so please believe me when I say that the greatest complement I can pay an artists is to say that his or her music is accessible. DRW does not make you work for it. The music is kind and honest. You can follow a DRW tune from the get go without having to become familiar before you become comfortable. Desert Rose which I would assume is their A side on Honey & Salt is the type of song that is instantly familiar when you hear it the first time.
Frankie Lee and Cindy's vocals are lush but the sound is not tapioca. There is a hard twang and an inescapable sadness. It is hard to put my finger on it but it is like this sound is the grand daughter of that High Lonesome sound that drifts over the holler of Appalachia. This sound lives in L.A., but she is still a lonesome hillbilly at heart. I am pretty certain my wife and I will soon have a new favorite CD.
Photo by Autumn De Wilde
I have read a number of interviews with John Doe but I have never had the pleasure of seeing him live solo or with X. Some folks may not care, but I have a hard time enjoying an artist if I think he is an ass. No worries here. John Doe is definitely of the DIY brand of Punk more than the snarling, anti-social brand. Out of the box John thanks the crowd for coming out on a Thursday night, but noted that even though it was a school night you only had to get through one day tomorrow and if people got on you for being tired, “just tell them, F#*$ you”. He demonstrated the double birded gesture that should accompany this statement. The crowd was his from there on out as if there was any question.
The first half of the set John seemed to concentrate on cuts from his new album, A Year in the Wilderness. This made me very happy that I had purchased the CD last week and had had some time to get familiar with the songs. Like DRW, these tunes are accessible on the first listening but having a few days to live with the songs made them that much more enjoyable live. I respect John for this and as a song writer I know what it is like to have new songs you want to share even though you know that the audience came for the old stuff. The audience of a few hundred who looked to be long time fans, were for their part were accepting of the new material. John knows these folks are his friends and they want to hear his new stuff too even if the are waiting for the oldies.
Of the cuts from the new album, I think that The Golden State is the A side but given that the sound of the record is pretty diverse, I doubt that any group of fans of more than five would come to a consensus. To my ear Unforgiven has a Beatles quality and There's a Hole has a Jeff Lynne/ ELO vibe.
As I looked out at the crowd in front of me I was taken with the diversity of ages. At 44 I was not the oldest person in the hall. Yet among the gray and the thinning hair were folks who were the same age as we were when we first heard X in the 80s. There weren't many punks. Check that, there was only one committed punk who couldn't change her status with a change of clothes. Oh I don't blame them. Being a punk is a full time job and I haven't been up to it since God took my hair to punish me for my vanity.
And we were rewarded with White Girl.
John exchanges his electric for an acoustic. The whole night he talks personally to the audience and introduces and jokes with the band. He introduces this next song by saying. “that song was a sad song but this one is sadder.” He reassures the audience that they will get back to rocking and that they can stage dive, or even stage dive now, “you people on this side be ready,” he teases. They then launch into 4th of July. Yes it is a sadder song. It may be the saddest song in the world and it may just be my favorite. It is one of the more commercial songs that X has ever done and the folks in the audience respond. But so does Frankie Lee and the nameless tour manager with the Exene Cervenka t-shirt. They are standing next to me rocking like any other fans. They have no idea how many times I have banged this song out on my cheap Ibenz acoustic alone and what it means to me, but I guess it means something to all of us separately together.
John finishes the song and acknowledges the crowds response with, “I will tell Dave Alvin you all said hi.” Life if full of irony.
Acoustic or electric, John and the band is rocking. John is pouring everything he has into the show as the sweat pours off him soaking his blue-collar shirt. Given that he is nine years older than I am, I watch with renewed hope that someday again . . . I am standing and bopping and I can't really recall the order of the set. But at some point between songs John implores the audience to vote whenever possible. An enthusiastic fan offers something about impeachment. John reminds the would be Newt Gingrich that we don't have the power to impeach but we can vote and that is a start. Sometime soon after we were treated to a great version of The New World with Cindy doing a terrific job and a rousing but perfectly imitated version of The Beatles' Revolution.
The encore featuring a cover of Gimme Shelter with Frankie Lee joining them back on stage for a harp solo should have drained them all but they came back for a beautiful rendition of See How We Are. And the show was over.
I slid over and asked Frankie Lee who was back by the merchandise table if DRW had a website. He handed me a sticker and said that the name of the band plus a dot com was the url. He introduced himself after and we made some small talk about the tour and how much work went into playing music. He said it was a two month tour or 15k miles by van. That is hard work folks I don't care who you are or what you're doing. I am never sure if the former local musician thing is a good ice breaker. I imagine that they get so many folks who are looking for a favor but I figure I go with something we have in common. So I talk about playing in Columbus, Ohio and Charleston, West by God.
I explained that I ran an Appalachian issues website and that it had a music section where I did intermittent reviews. I said, “I am not a real journalist or anything.” Frankie Lee replied, “who is now-a-days.” Damn he has that right. I gave him an oval APL sticker which he said would put on his guitar case.
Cindy made it back and took her turn at moving the CDs and t-shirts. Cindy kind of reminds you of a kindergarten teacher or one of the pretty and smart girls you went to high school with. The black satin dress and cowboy boots not withstanding, I would never have pegged her as the lead singer of an Americana/cowpunk band. I asked for one of the limited edition posters. Frankie Lee was keen to point out that the poster which is of heavy card stock was hand drawn and hand screen printed. It is a beautiful work that is numbered and signed. 163 out of 200 for only $15. Cindy acted flattered when I asked her to autograph the poster and Frankie Lee asked me if I spelled my name with one “d” or two. I made my usual joke that I spelled it with one “d” because my parents were too poor to afford the extra “d.” That is not too far from the truth actually. I however was flattered that Frankie Lee had remembered my name after only being told once.
With my poster in hand I stood and waited for my hero. John Doe was true to his word on stage. He said he would meet folks over at the bar or by the merchandise table. He must have signed fifty or so CD covers from his new release and ones that folks had brought with them. He didn't seem to mind. He talked to everyone like he had known them for years. He was having an animated conversation with one couple when he noticed that I was waiting patiently. He politely asked the folks if he could sign my poster. The folks started to say their good byes and John said, “no just let me sign this, hang on.” John asked if I wanted it made out to someone. I told him my name and and that it was with a single “d”. As he was autographing the poster he encouraged me to have Frankie Lee and Cindy sign it as well. I assured him that I had and thanked him. My old friend the irresistible thrift queen, Beth Weaver who has the X tattooed on her shoulder would be so envious.
I had had a couple of canned questions about him being an alternative hillbilly icon and if he had an affinity for this culture or if it just happened. But I didn't want to be that guy who was given an inch but then asked for a mile. John went back to talking to the folks he had interrupted to sign my poster. And to be fair they looked to be a few years older than me and perhaps I will get to ask my questions someday. The most important question I had, had already been answered. Is John Doe a nice guy? Yep. Like I said, it may not matter to some folks, but music affects me and I would rather not allow myself to be so influenced by something that is coming from someone who isn't good hearted.
John Doe said and did all the right things. He acknowledged my long held belief that 4th of July is a very sad song and he was quick to give his buddy Dave Alvin credit for it. He asked folks to vote. He doesn't seem to be cynical and he seems to believe in the common sense of his fellow man. John also acted genuinely interested in the regular person and cares about the feeling of others and seems to do a masterful job of juggling those competing needs. He may be an asshole back stage but as far as I can tell he is a good guy.
Before I headed to the truck I asked Bill one of the CAH staff about the new venue. We chatted about the space and the acoustics and the plans for the music hall. The staff seems to be excited about the future of the hall and they should be; it is nice. The size is my main attraction. This size venue draws acts like John Doe and Dead Rock West which is the type of acts that I most enjoy. Cozy venues draw friendly musical legends.
I headed out to the parking garage with
the friendly attendant who had informed me that CAH parking was free
and put my new treasure in my truck. I then remembered that I had a
couple more stickers and some buttons in my glove box so I ran back
to the bar real quick and handed them to Cindy and thanked her again
for the autographs. I pointed out that our url was on one style of
the stickers and that I would be reviewing the show. I asked her if
she had a quote for me. She playful said, “John Doe rocks!”
Yes he does.