Concert Review: Stones Fest at Bowery Ballroom: 05/22/2013
That was better than the actual Stones show I went to last year at Prudential.
— My friend Chuck, at approximately 1:00am outside Bowery Ballroom after Stones Fest this past Wednesday night
Upon reading that statement, is there any wonder then about What’s Making Me Happy This Week? Of all the gigs I’ve gone to or plan to attend this year, I must admit that this tribute to the Rolling Stones was not high on my anticipation scale. I guess sometimes the best nights come when and where you least expect it.
I’m not an especially big fan of the Stones. Given where they stand historically and my affinity for rock music, it’s a little hard to believe, and for a while was even hard for me to accept. 2bitMonkeyDad, who was the strongest influence over my musical tastes growing up, has long maintained that the Stones are the greatest rock band of all time. Not “were”, but “are”, as in still today the best band going. And so I’ve tried to get into them over the years but always to no avail. I’m impressed by their longevity and by Mick Jagger’s ability to remain not only relevant, but legitimately entertaining well past his prime, but that admiration has not translated into actual enjoyment of the music. Like anyone else, I can rock out to “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Gimme Shelter,” but beyond the big hits I’m underwhelmed and admittedly uninformed. I’ve often felt that the Stones, and especially Jagger, were a parody of themselves, not to be taken seriously as musicians. Thus my only reasons for attending Stones Fest were (1) to hear some good musicians whose music I don’t ordinarily listen to tackle some well-worn favorites (I’m looking at you Norah Jones) and (2) to treat 2bitMonkeyDad to a night of reliving his youth, spent in small music venues, with music I know he loves. Mission accomplished on both fronts. And then some.
The show began at about 9:15pm, and having never previously gone to a Best Fest production I didn’t know what to expect. One thing I noted for 2bitMonkeyDad was how different it would be for me and him, what with him knowing all the music and so having Jagger & Richards ingrained in his mind while hearing these tributes, while I’d be hearing a lot of the music unencumbered by any previous conceptions. I wondered who would enjoy it more – it’s proven that familiarity with music increases enjoyment of it, but I was without the impossibly high measuring stick that he brought with him. Sure enough, the first song was a generally popular one but still I didn’t know it – “Monkey Man.” It was performed by the Cabin Down Below Band, with band leader (and Rolling Stone contributor (the magazine, not the band)) Austin Scaggs on vocals. As I learned Wednesday night, the Cabin Down Below Band – which in addition to Scaggs includes Alex Levy (guitar) and Mike Romano (drums) – are the guys behind the Best Fests – Dylan Fest, Petty Fest and Stones Fest. The events are sponsored (last night’s by Jameson) which allows all proceeds to be donated to charity. This night’s proceeds were going to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which “provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems.” Scaggs (moving over to bass after “Monkey Man”), Levy and Romano would stay on stage for the rest of the night (with a brief two-song exception), backing an array of vocalists and additional musicians.
Before another actual musician would take the mic, Scaggs introduced comedian Seth Herzog, who did his best Jagger impersonation as he sang “Start Me Up.” Herzog – in a purple v-neck t-shirt that accentuated his gut and drawstring yellow pants – moved and sang like a perfect caricature of Mick.
I wondered at that point whether the night would disappoint 2bitMonkeyDad, who was there for the music, not a send-up of his favorite band. I also feared that though Herzog was really good, a night featuring too many comedians and other gimmicks would be pretty hit and miss. After Herzog, a short balding Danny Devito looking character wearing a “WHO THE FUCK IS MICK JAGGER” t-shirt took the stage and sang “Satisfaction.” With this character rocking out to another Stones classic, my panic began to set in. Fortunately, Devito turned out to be an actual singer, Har Mar Superstar, and it was for this song that the first of the night’s A-list performers would take the stage as Patrick Carney (of the Black Keys) lent a hand (or two) on drums. Har Mar looked ridiculous performing his Jagger-esque moves, but as a singer he absolutely pulled it off. During “Satisfaction” 2bitMonkeyDad said, “Don’t look at the guy, just listen to him sing. He’s great. This is amazing.” With that, I adjusted my panic meter down to near zero and let the next several hours of excellent music take over.
Sammy James, Jr. was next up with “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and he was followed by the first female vocalist of the evening, Ruby Amanfu, who in addition to being the first female performer sang the first ballad, “Angie.” Before last night I’d never heard of Amanfu; it’s likely that you, the reader, haven’t either. I have a feeling that we’ll be hearing a lot from her in the future. The Nashville-based singer was one of the stars of the night, and having already connected with Jack White – Ruby sings on “Love Interruption,” a single off of White’s 2012 solo album Blunderbuss – she is on a track to stardom. Amanfu was the first singer to stay on stage after her song (she’d wind up on stage quite a bit), moving to background vocals with Nicole Atkins while Jamie Burke and Mikki James took lead on “Tumbling Dice.” Six songs in, and the crowded stage now had four singers, the Uptown Horns (“all the way from uptown!”), and the full Cabin Down Below Band. You could really feel the momentum of the show picking up … now we were jamming!! The horns stayed on while Petter (of Alberta Cross) sang “Bitch,” and then gave way when country singer Jason Isbell took the stage.
Isbell went acoustic for “Moonlight Mile,” which gave the crowd its first chance to catch its collective breath. In the sweltering, packed Bowery Ballroom, many went straight to the bar (sponsored by Jameson!) for their liquid breather. By the time Isbell plugged back in and revved things up for “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the crowd was refreshed, drinks in hand, and ready to rock again. There could be no better time for our first appearance of Norah Jones. Jones took the stage first to provide backing vocals (along with Ruby and Adriel Denae, and Jason Roberts on guitar) for Cory Chisel, who electrified the crowd with “Dead Flowers.” Right before the song began, from my spot about 15 feet from the stage and in direct line to Norah, I could swear that I made eye contact with her and she smiled at me. Doubt me all you want, but no one can tell me that it didn’t happen. Cory, Norah, Ruby, Nicole, and Jason all stayed on stage as Norah and Cory each grabbed a drink and sang a duet of “Salt of the Earth.” The singers raised their drinks high in the air, as did the crowd, each time the lyrics of this beautiful song called for it. Under normal circumstances, this could have been the closing song of a terrific set. On this night, it wasn’t even the halfway point.
Ruby and Nicole moved from background to lead vocals and performed a rousing duet of “Gimme Shelter.” Whereas a moment ago I thought that the crowd-pleasing “Salt of the Earth” was the night’s highlight, this hard-rocking rendition of a Stones classic managed to eclipse it. The two women really let loose. Ruby showed a side of her that was completely different from what we saw in “Angie” and Nicole matched her note for note and move for move. Steve Schiltz was next up performing “Happy,” and then the Cabin Down Below Band left the stage for the first time all night, giving it over to indie-rockers Delta Spirit. The Brooklyn-based band is known for its intensity on stage and they brought it here too, although for just one song (“Live With Me”). Lead singer Matt Vasquez gave everything he had and though his performance was for many in the crowd a bit manic, it continued the escalation of the rock and roll atmosphere at Bowery.
High-flying Delta Spirit handed the stage over to the more mellow and cool Tangiers Blues Band. The band played what seemed like at least a 10-minute version of “Midnight Rambler,” with most of the band moving to the bluesy rhythm in their black suits and skinny ties while lead singer King (yes, that’s his name) kept his arms crossed, a pained look on his face while he stood there, nearly motionless, in a red zip-up jacket, sunglasses, fedora and plaid (possibly pajama) pants. King sings like a man who knows he’s the coolest cat in the room. Eventually, as the song builds, he slowly removes his jacket, then his hat, and lets his long hair fly. This doesn’t happen until “Midnight Rambler” has taken over everyone in the room, as if King has allowed it to take him over too, but he had to be the last. I know nothing about the blues, but I’d be happy to take in a night of the Tangiers Blues Band perform a set on their own. (Seriously, look at these guys. How cool are they?)
The Cabin Down Below Band returned to the stage, with Carney again on drums and Har Mar singing “Under My Thumb” followed by Nicole singing “Shattered.” The band then declared that it was “time for more disco!” bringing Jesse Malin out to sing “Miss You,” the closest thing the Stones have to a disco song. Malin surprised us all by stepping off the stage and into the crowd, where he implored us all to get down on the floor (as he did), proceeding to sing from his back with the Bowery crowd kneeling all around him. It was an odd scene and despite the good intentions, if anyone was wondering why disco is dead, this served as a good reminder. Malin was more parody than Herzog was hours before. Fortunately hard rocking Butch Walker quickly reinvigorated the show with “Honky Tonk Blues,” followed by Parker Gispert (of the Whigs) and Carney playing “The Last Time.” Walker really seemed to be enjoying himself; whether it was him or Ruby or Nicole or Cory, the artists that were having the best time out there consistently got the best crowd reaction. All night long the crowd fed off the energy of the performer, and Walker was one of the many whose enthusiasm felt genuine.
Next up was the next big surprise, as Jack Dishel was joined on stage by Dishel’s wife, the wonderful Regina Spektor and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers (sadly without Tom Petty) for “Jumping Jack Flash.” All night the big rumor had been that Petty would be the big surprise, especially since they played in NYC for five out six night between May 20 and May 25 (with this night being the only night off), but he didn’t appear. At least not on stage. In the bar downstairs I thought I saw Petty hidden beneath a large Japanese-style hat, and later that evening another person told me that he thought that was Petty as well. Oh well. With surprise guests like Spektor, Jakob Dylan, and one more huge one to come, it would be pretty lame of me to complain.
Speaking of Dylan, he came back out on stage next, joined first by Norah and then by Ruby for “Lovin Cup” and “Goodbye Ruby Tuesday,” respectively. At this point the crowd was singing along loudly with every song, and the women were cementing their status as the stars of the night. Just when it seemed like nothing could top Dylan and Ruby’s “Goodbye Ruby Tuesday,” Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction) emerged to a stunned crowd.
Farrell pranced around as only he can – his voice is long gone, but his signature style remains – and led a group that included just about everyone – Delta Spirit, Nicole, Cory, Jesse – in “Sympathy for the Devil.” If one were measuring by number of iPhone camera shots taken, Farrell was the biggest star to appear by a landslide. He then introduced his wife to join him in “Time is on My Side” because “for two and a half years she wouldn’t f**k me. I mean, what’s wrong with me?” The duet ended with Farrell declaring, “The moral of the story is, I got the girl.”
Once again Norah came back out on stage (she probably got the most stage time of anyone other than the Cabin Down Below guys), joined first by Adriel for a gorgeous slow turn through “Wild Horses,” then Cory and Jason Isbell for “Shine a Light.” Finally, it was time for the grand finale. Butch Walker – chugging directly from a bottle of Jameson’s whom he thanked for “keeping us fucked up and dignified!!” – was given the honor of lead vocals, joined first by Nicole and Ruby, and eventually by just about everyone else who appeared on stage that night, for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
“Fucked up and dignified.” I wouldn’t have expected Butch Walker to sum up the night so eloquently, but with very few exceptions (Jason Isbell wasn’t sufficiently fucked up; Jesse Malin wasn’t very dignified) his description was spot on. After the show, a number of the performers hung around at the bar, where I had a chance to meet Matt and Jon of Delta Spirit, Ruby, Nicole and Petter. I thanked Ruby for a great show by buying her a drink, and may have inadvertently insulted Matt by toasting him with an empty hand. Sometime around 1am, the party spilled over to the Cabin Down Below bar, but for me it was time to call it a night. A glorious night. A celebration of music as it was meant to be enjoyed. I couldn’t have been happier, or more impressed with 2bitMonkeyDad for making it through the long gig, his first show in years. A man who loved the Stones had the time of his life. I didn’t know half of the songs and enjoyed it just as much. It turns out that this was a party everyone could appreciate. They call it the “Best Fest Ever.” They may be right.
And that’s what’s making me (very) happy this week.