It’s always odd — a little bit fun and a little bit frustrating — to go to a gig where you don’t know the music the way the real fans do. I’ve done it twice in the last couple of weeks: first with Wilco and then with the Cowboy Junkies. They’re both bands of great magnitude, but I had slightly different reactions to them.
I actually have a bunch of Wilco songs on my iPod, but they don’t mean all that much to me. Watching their Hartford show, I was kicking myself. I really wanted to know the music as well as fans know it, because the live Wilco in a nice big room like the Bushnell’s main hall is just a fabulous tidal wave, with the whole audience swimming around in it. Wilco puts on a great show — they are both tight and loose in all the right ways — and I know I missed out on a lot by not knowing the songs. Next time, I’ll have done my homework.
The CJs were, as I say, a different story. They were at the Infinity in Norfolk Friday night and were part of the live concert series produced by CPTV (which is part of where I work) and aired in major markets all over the country. First things first: I’m increasingly convinced that Infinity is the best music venue of its size for about 75 miles in any direction. Great stage. Great acoustics. Very nice staff. (I mean, the ushers treat every guest like David Bowie just showed up.) If you’ve never caught an act there, go now. People who get all misty about the Iron Horse have never been to Infinity.
The Cowboy Junkies are, in their own way, every bit as amazing as Wilco and little bit easier for the unschooled to enjoy. In fact, it almost helped. Lead singer Margo Timmins announced, with a mixture of apology and defiance, that the first set would be a bald attempt to “sell” a package of four recent releases — albums the band regards as a four-part project. Long time fans would, she said, have to wait for the second set to hear all the stuff they love. With no such burden weighing on me, I liked the first set better. The new stuff seemed bolder and more urgent. And Timmins is riveting. To say she has a presence is kind of an understatement. The band is full of great musicians, especially multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird.
And yet. And yet. The whole thing began to wear on me. The Junkies are famously morose. They take a fiendish pride in it.
There was a lot of on stage whining and kvetching about the additional demands imposed by the filming: the cameras, the lights. How could the Cowboy Junkies possibly be expected to work under these conditions? At a certain point I wanted to say: Be a pro, Ms. Timmins. You agreed to this. It will be very, very good exposure for you. Now suck it up and stop pretending the exigencies were foisted on you without your total consent.
(At one point she had a little fit on stage about a post-concert event — part of the filming schedule — that would interfere with her stated desire to sit in the bar with adoring fans and have them buy her drinks. Grow up.)
The whole alt country diva vibe started getting to me. The requisite vase of flowers on stage and the crew guy running out there three times per set with a fresh mug of hot tea that would be sipped from twice before being exchanged for another.
My mind drifted, trashily and inexplicably, to a line from a biopic about Jan and Dean. Jan informs the draft office that he’s a music sensation and cannot be drafted, and a sergeant says matter-of-factly, “We took in Elvis, and he’s a lot bigger star than you, boy.”
This needs to be said, from time to time, to certain performers.