I’ve been lucky enough to see Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson twice each. Exactly how lucky is that? I don’t know. They’ve all toured non-stop, but Destination Florida is always up in the air. There are some artists, though, that I’m thankful I’ve had the chance to see just the once, and that one show encompasses everything I hold dear about live music: the surprise, the intimacy, the times when you get so absorbed in the band, deciphering drumbeats and riding pedal steel riffs, that you finally stop worrying about people judging both of your dance moves. Perfect, untouchable nights, in the moment and in the memory. But at the same time, I’m always lustful for an encore show. These are the best one night stands I can think of:
5) Alejandro Escovedo — I saw the Austin TX stalwart in Austin the one weekend I’d happened to be visiting my sister and her new daughter. The best show I’ve ever seen with a full stable of background singers. He’s the man, total professional. Gun. Slinger.
4) Neil Young — Duh. It was the most recent tour, for Le Noise. He’s been spooky on his own, acoustically, and he’s been spooky with Crazy Horse, but this tour was him being spooky all on his lonesome, electrically. Neil and his echoes, which is what he’s been all along anyway. Allan Toussaint opened. Nothing like the smell of weed wafting through the Hard Rock Casino. Rock on, sexagenarians.
3) Ruby Coast — 3pm on a Friday, the very first show of the very first Harvest of Hope Festival in Elkton. Besides me, the only people there seemed to be the folks from the To Write Love on Her Arms booth trying to give me stickers. Ruby Coast played great songs, coming out of nowhere, in the middle of a fairgrounds in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me that afternoons can be fun. There are others whom I’ve only seen at Festivals like this: Glossary, Billy Bragg, The National, Hot New Mexicans, Avail. But, Ruby Coast was the show that made me felt like I’d earned it. They were all in high school at the time.
2) The Pack A.D. — Not to be too incestuous about it, but the only time I had a chance to see Canadian duo The Pack A.D. was at the NineBullets 4th Anniversary Party. And they blew my face off. And I don’t even miss my face. Just guitar by Becky Black and drums by Maya Miller. It was all sweaty screaming hammering effort. Lots of interaction between Black and Miller, jumping on the drum kit, windmills. Not unlike a Two Cow Garage show. They put everything they had into a show where they were the oddball on the bill. Plus, Miller was willing to humor me a conversation about Star Wars and Sleater-Kinney afterwards. (By the way, the Pack has a new album on the way.)
1) Jonathan Richman — Slow as I am, I found out about Jonathan Richman coincidentally one week before he came to town because he was mentioned in Carolyn Mark’s years-old cookbook (she spelled his name Jonathan Richmond), from which I was preparing a delicious whiskey cake. Going into the show I knew only one song, “Dancing at the Lesbian Bar,” so everything was new to me. Richman had the whole bill to himself that night, and he played two sets, just him and his drummer Tommy Larkins. As each song passed I couldn’t believe how tight every lyric was, how complete of a grasp he had over his words, every one was so exact and so rightly chosen. I didn’t know lyricists were capable of that precision. The only people who even come close are Leonard Cohen, David Berman, Branden Barnett, and Franz Nicolay. What I needed was not so much to be loved, as to love, Richman sang. It was the first time I’d heard that, but it’s simple and true enough that it beats with familiarity. Songs he sang in Spanish, French, and Italian all hit as heavy. He sang about Vermeer and Picaso and Van Gogh and driving through suburbia at night out of boredom. He knows how to eschew all the false angles of approaching an emotion and doesn’t settle for a lyric until he finds the absolute core of what he’s trying to say. It felt like I was being serenaded, and I’d never been serenaded, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what it felt like, but I didn’t care. Favorite line of the night: We don’t want the past, we want the moment, just like bread, it’s gotta be fresh, even a day old is getting to be…too much.