Amusical Review

At some point, I could have enumerated every concert I'd been to in my life. They were signal events, dating back to the first one I wanted to go to, but of course couldn't because I was only 9, and before I was old enough to go, the Beatles weren't doing that sort of thing any more ever again. I was still too young to go to Woodstock, too. But I did get to see and hear John Prine, Randy Newman, the Dead (in Milwaukee, Reno, and eventually Boise), Pink Floyd, must've been 1975, at the old Milwaukee County Stadium where I'd watched the Braves from the bleachers.

I swam through life in music on vinyl, mostly, bought my first significant stereo gear well before my first car. I guess I got too busy working after a while, and then found out that opera was not just a weird taste of my mother's, but something I loved, too, and spent a decade or so being part of the show instead of part of the audience. Now dust settles on the turntable, the tape deck needs work, CDs and a few MP3s eddy out in odd corners of the house and gadgets. There were smaller acts, smaller venues, friends and friends of friends, lots of choirs and the wonderful talent assembled in the Unitarian Universalist Musician's Network.

Last night, after The Milk Carton Kids had finished their charming and delightful warm-up act, I reflected on some of the unexpected pleasures those had brought over the years. Pure Prairie League ahead of John Prine was a good one; Ry Cooder starting before Randy Newman was probably the best. Two for the price of one! Last night's acoustic duo seemed to fit perfectly in the old Egyptian Theater and as a fairly low-key appetizer for a (locally) Big Name and a (small) stage full of instruments. Two guys picking acoustic guitars and singing with lovely harmonies, more intro-patter than I thought I'd like, but entertaining throughout, and they didn't play too long, recognizing their role in the proceedings. (You can find out if you might like 'em, with their first two albums free for downloading from their website.)

Then, our headliner, Josh Ritter, born in little Moscow, Idaho while I was at the university there, and who Wikipedia says "is known for his distinctive Americana style and narrative lyrics." Woot. Just him with an acoustic guitar and Sam Kassirer on a keyboard to start, not counting the roadie who haunted the side of the stage, inexplicably, apparently tuning a guitar that might be used later. The sound level was a tetch high, and the treble way too hot, the organ coming in at times slightly dissonant, piercing, and annoying, as the other musicians wandered in during the first song, as if... I don't know, they'd had some other business they were looking after? It seemed random, but after the drummer had completed the quintet, it was clear this was a regular part of the act. Building excitement.

The show in Sun Valley the night before had been "burned out," cancelled as a victim of smoke from Idaho's raging fire season, which was a disappointment, I'm sure, for both patrons and unpaid musicians. (At least the MCKs said they missed their check.) Ritter promised to "leave it all out here" for the Boise fans, and woot, they turned it up to 11 and jumped and shouted and clapped and got the diehards on the main floor standing up and dancing and we'd put in ear plugs the moment all five of them were playing together because OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING THAT'S HEARING DAMAGE LEVEL.

Not as if that's never happened before, but I wasn't expecting, didn't know, had gone on the strong recommendation of a friend, the quirky Moscow connection and a brief sample of clever lyrics and something well-produced at a pleasing volume. It's not the first time a concert has been too loud, they pretty much all have been, forever, because the sound men are all half-deaf (I'm convinced). But still, it wasn't musical, and the physical experience of seeing how long I could endure sonic abuse was not the sort of entertainment I was after.

There were lyrics, I'm sure, and I heard a few. Much of the audience was familiar enough with them to carry quite a bit of the singing. Were there melodies? I kept hoping. And I kept hoping for some chord progressions, something, to break the monotony of what felt like being inside a stamp mill tuned for just one component of a possibly beautiful machine, but a machine above all else. None of that stuff I hoped for ever seemed to come.

It was a special occasion, our anniversary, and a live concert which we hardly ever go to any more, and not terribly expensive, but yes, far more expensive than our usual entertainment, and we were hoping... it would get better, maybe there'd be an acoustic set that featured some distinctive Americana style and narrative lyrics and pleasing music, and who knows, maybe there was, but we did not stay to find out.

Four or six songs (run together in excitement!) was about all we could handle. On the way out from the balcony, the quieter start of the next song caught our ear and we listened from the entrance behind the main floor and it was kind of nice, quite a bit better acoustics, if still too loud, and of course that fear of when the other three guys would pound in to make it loud and exciting. I was distracted by the electronic display of the sound board, the sliders all well below the midpoint. This is 3 or 4? Are you kidding me?

The other 700 or so attendees all seemed happy enough, and we left them to it. Not seeing a local review, but here's one from neighboring Salt Lake City this month, and a venue less than half the size of the Egyptian:

"Up close, the grins of Ritter get bigger, his pogo-stick style of jumping gets higher, and his unbridled whoops and hollers get louder and more exuberant. Frequently throughout his set, he would exclaim, 'This is so cool,' and 'This is awesome,' and while I get tired of hearing it from other acts who force the sentiment, I can't help but believe it when it comes from Ritter's mouth."

Um, ok. Ritter had the pogo-stick thing and whooping and hollering going, exuberant and GET LOUDER for sure, maybe he even exclaimed "This is so cool" and I did notice what a great time he seemed to be having ("looks as he if he having the best night of his life every time you see him"), I was not so much tired of the awesomeness as in another universe. There were bells, on a hill, and birds, in the sky.

August 16, 2013