Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Magic Numbers At Joe's Pub -- I Was There

The Magic Numbers are the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

It was 24 hours ago that the Magic Numbers began their second show at Joe's Pub. I've finally calmed down enough to write about it. I almost began blogging at two in the morning, but I was afraid I'd write hyperbolic comments like, "I've seen the future of rock and roll and its name is The Magic Numbers" or some such thing. Now that I've stopped hyperventilating, I think I can restrain my enthusiasm to saying something more modest like, "The Magic Numbers are the greatest rock and roll band in the world."

The Magic Numbers are the greatest rock and roll band in the world. Maybe that's the biggest surprise of the show for me: how rock and roll they really are. The buzz for The Magic Numbers began two years ago -- in the British music press, modest praise for a new band that has yet to even release a single would be, "They're likely to be the most important group since the Smiths, if not the Beatles."

But the press for the Numbers was intriguing; not many new bands get compared to the Mamas & the Papas. Then I heard a gentle, acoustic song on a giveaway CD from Q Magazine. Wonderful, lovely stuff and I made a note to get their album on import. But the Mamas & The Papas tag (while not crazy) was mostly a family thing. Journalists couldn't get over the fact that the band was composed of two sets of siblings, a brother and a sister and another brother and sister. They certainly had some cool vocals on the first single and there was a definite Sixties vibe to them.

When the album arrived, that gentle acoustic track proved a red herring. This was terrific pop, but not quite what was expected. I thought of Lovin' Spoonful, the Beach Boys and so on; but none of the comparisons quite fit and the songs were nicely off-kilter. They'd start in an incredibly catchy manner, stop abruptly and veer away into some quiet ruminative section and then THAT would start to become insistently hypnotic and just as you started to groove to it that would stop and the original melody would pop back into view. Five minute tunes were the norm and once you stopped complaining that it wasn't what you had pre-ordained it to be, the music became addictive. By the end of the year, it vied for the top spot on my Best CDs of 2005 list.

So now they were in New York playing at Joe's Pub. The 9:30 p.m. show sold out immediately and I kicked myself for not buying the $20 tickets. When they added an 11:30 p.m. show, I knew it would be a fun gig and said what the hell, buying two tickets with what was at the time literally the last $40 in my bank account. (This is not an exaggeration; I had to go out the next day and sell used books to put some cash in my pocket.) I didn't know anyone who would necessarily be willing to head to a concert that started at 11:30 p.m. on a school night, but so what.

Wednesday turned out to be a crazy day. Directorboy said he'd go to the show and I gave him a copy of their debut just one day before. He listened to it maybe twice but was happily pleased; the album was already starting to sink its hooks into him. In the morning, I had to get up at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m. to transcribe some interviews and write a story about the re-opening of the Apollo Theater. Then at 10 a.m. I did a 50 minute interview with actor Delroy Lindo. (I was up till 3 a.m. the night before watching the pilot of his TV series "Kidnapped" -- pretty fun, actually -- and the TV movie "Lackawanna Blues," one of his most recent projects. Lindo has an extended cameo where he delivers a very good monologue about how his character lost an arm.) Then I filed my Apollo story, spoke to my editor at length about it and other stories and then rushed off to meet directorboy at the US Open.

We spent the entire day camped out at Court 11, watching some nine hours of tennis, including an almost-upset of David Nalbandian, promising young Scottish star Andy Murray (his coach Brad Gilbert was a few seats away from us for that one) and a nightcap at the Grandstand with Robby Ginepri soundly beating a Frenchman when we had to leave for the concert. I was tired, a little punch-drunk from sitting outside all day watching a sporting event and wondering why I was now standing in line to go to a concert that wouldn't even begin until almost midnight.

Still, we soldiered on and went inside and the pre-show happenings were auspicious. I went to the bathroom, which at Joe's Pub means snaking through the narrow kitchen and then going sort of backstage where you climb stairs up a flight to the men's room. On my way up, I saw the lead singer (Romeo Stodart) chatting with a few guys. I almost said something but would have felt the fool and didn't. On the way back down, the group around him had grown and my way was blocked. I tried to slip between Romeo and the wall but couldn't quite make it and finally tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Pardon me, Magic Number," (since I couldn't remember his name and he smiled and let me by.

Then my friend and I staked out excellent spots towards the front and on the side. Joe's Pub is a tiny, upscale venue and they recently added lots of assigned seating, unfortunately, but a spot right by the DJ/sound board got you within ten feet of the stage with no chance of someone blocking your view. It was ideal, since you don't really want to sit down for a rock show. Of course, Joe's Pub is really meant for mellow folk or jazz or world music where you DO in fact want to sit. But this show was not to be one of them.

The band came out to swirling lights and the bass player Michelle Stodart was so cool and so very Janis Joplin that I loved her immediately. (We locked eyes a dozen times during the show as I sang quietly along to the background parts that she was singing as well. She smiled; I smiled; it was groovy.) The band dug into their opening number...and it was great. Like I said before, the CD is a great pop album with all sorts of Sixties influences in it, though it's clearly not retro and definitely sophisticated in its arrangements and lyrics. But the CD is more pop-ish than rock. As they dug into more tunes, I was struck by how rock and roll, how muscular, how loud they really were. The vocals weren't as crystalline as on the album; they were rawer and more exciting.

As song after song piled up, I was searching for comparisons again. Lovin' Spoonful? Definitely. The Beach Boys? Yeah, but more rock-ish. The Band? No, not at all -- the Magic Numbers are clearly urban and not in the least rustic. But a certain timeless yearning they have in common comes through. Supergrass? There's a definite link. Completely unappreciated in the US, that band claims ties to everyone from Led Zeppelin to Cream and the Beatles with terrific songs that build and build and build until you can't believe how catchy and euphoric they are. The Grateful Dead? A crazy comparison, until the Magic Numbers started reeling out extended jams that went on for five or ten minutes. Big Brother and the Holding Company? The Numbers weren't that raw. But suddenly it struck me: their music IS the Sixties in spirit and accomplishment -- that freedom to explore and celebrate and take in anything and everything and offer it back to you with a smile.

It was certainly the Summer of Love at Joe's Pub. The crowd was intensely focused on the band, almost completely quiet during the soft moments and no chit-chatting. I'd take quick peeks around and virtually everyone was singing along with every word to every song. No concert experience is perfect any more, of course. Next to me was a nice young guy and we both effectively blocked any tall people from trying to move in front of us. But behind us were two girls: one of them thought every quiet passage was an excellent time to whoop and she had a very piercing scream. Her saving grace was that she knew every word to every song (much more than me) and was completely into the show. Indeed, every song tended to have several distinct parts and at the end of each section, the crowd would applaud its approval the way a jazz club audience would applaud a solo.

Don't ask me which number came first or who did what when. I can't imagine taking notes at a show like this and songs quickly began to blur. What I remember is Michelle Stodart parading her bass like a torch and striding the tinier than tiny stage like a true rock star; I remember Angela Gannon playing her tambourine like a woman possessed; I remember the three of them carried away by the music, their backs to the crowd, staring down drummer Sean Gannon as they all burrowed deeper and deeper into a groove; I remember one reason why I love the Magic Numbers so much -- they have lots of songs with clapping-along bits and I love clapping along, clapping happens to be a special gift of mine (seriously, I have great rhythm and I'm really loud; at Yankee Stadium, with 45,000 people clapping and cheering like crazy, fans will still turn around because they hear one guy clapping incredibly loudly and that would be me); I remember Romeo saying they'd recorded their new album and it was coming out in November in the UK and we could get it on import or if we left a really nice note on their message board they'd just send it to us and then he giggled; I remember the sheer joy of the music glowing in the faces of the band; I remember a woman in the crowd shouting out at one moment that Michelle was HOT! and Romeo saying he was glad it was a woman who said that because Michelle is his sister and I remember thinking why, does he think it's cool for a woman to ravage his sister but not a guy?; I remember thinking I wanted to shout out "I'm gay and I think your sister is hot, too, is that okay?" but I didn't; I remember dancing more and more and more and clapping along more and more; I remember the house deejay slipping into his booth (right in front of me, but a little to the side so my view wasn't blocked) and how he was yelping with delight and I remember wishing I could ask him for a copy of the bootleg I knew he'd be a fool NOT to be recording off the sound board; I remember everyone singing along to lines like "It won't hurt to find love in the wrong place" which seemed deep and true and like it meant everything in the world and was far more meaningful than any book or film or work of philosophy because that's what pop music can do -- it's just the right words with the right melody and everyone is singing along with you; I remember glancing around and realizing people were literally standing on their chairs and hooting and hollering and ROARING the way people do at a stadium concert for a really great band like U2 or Springsteen but not the way people do at Joe's Pub, which usually has a very sophisticated and mellow vibe; I remember Michelle and Angela intently playing their xylophones and it was so cool and fun I thought maybe I had traveled back in time to the actual Sixties and I was always so glad I HADN'T come of age in the Sixties because my hair looks terrible long and I have no patience for hippie-dippie New Age stuff and I probably would have rebelled against my peers instead of my parents and gotten a buzz cut and joined the ROTC and campaigned for Nixon but what I'd forgotten about the Sixties and the early Seventies was the MUSIC, the music that was pouring out from San Francisco and London and New York for the very first time and you could see all those bands perform live and it would have been just like this; I remember Romeo asking the manager if he could play some more songs and saying they'd be happy to play all night long and I remember thinking he just might do it; and then I remember my head exploding because just when I thought it was so tremendous it couldn't get better the band pulled out two of their catchiest songs for the finale and I remembered it had been so long since I'd really listened to the album that I'd forgotten about them, every number I heard was great and like an old friend so it wasn't like I was waiting for the big hit single (not that they have one) but then they dove into "Morning's Eleven" and that ridiculously catchy first line of "You're in denial/ You're in denial/ And I know" and the crowd literally levitated with joy and then during that song or the next one they just kept going on and on, returning to one section after the other again and again and building to a climax and then cutting to that plaintive refrain "I would die for you" but it was the entire crowd belting it out and we meant it and if I asked the nice young guy next to me to sleep with me he would have even if he weren't gay because we were all so happy and sex is half the point of rock and roll anyway but it would have been superfluous since we were united in pleasure already and then they PLUNGED back into the song and the mania started all over again; and I remember a final, final song (after an encore or two and after they played two new songs that were great and I was singing along with the lyrics even though of course I'd never heard the songs before because that's what can happen when you're under the spell of a great band -- they can take you anywhere) and before that final, final song they said it was the song they always ended with and there were lyrics about how in every hallway there's a bar and so on and I have absolutely no idea what song it was but I was singing along and it built to a climax and then morphed into covers of two or three other songs (I think) and then it built and built and built until all the band members were huddled around the drummer, standing inches apart from each other and playing their instruments for all they were worth and the drummer went into some crazy psychedelic solo that built and built and built...and then they went off on some other tangent and the song went on FOR ANOTHER TEN MINUTES and it all built up again until I was laughing and clapping along and almost delirious with delight and praying, literally praying, it would never end and then it ended.

Whew. An hour and forty minutes of music from a band with one album about 50 minutes long (that's a pretty good spot of magic right there). My friend and I left with the crowd (I hadn't heard Romeo say they were gonna hang out and have a beer or we might have hung around like crazed groupies, which we were) and I didn't say anything for a minute as we walked to the subway. We hadn't really looked at each other much during the show (he was behind me and up one stair) and so other than a few pleased glances and a quick word we were basically on our own for the concert. The music was still sinking in for me and I was thinking crazed thoughts like "Springsteen at the Bottom Line" and so on and I didn't want to kill my buzz by hearing anything out of sync with what I was feeling but finally I said in what I imagined was a rather low-key and discrete manner, "I don't know what that was like for you, since you only got to listen to their album once or twice, but I was kind of whigging out in there" and he paused and then said, "That has to be one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen in my LIFE, if not THE greatest!"

And then we talked in a rush about Springsteen (a great show we'd just seen at Madison Square Garden) and how nothing beats seeing a band up close in a tiny club and how the crowd was just ecstatic for the group and how cool the bassist sister was and how it felt like one of those seminal concerts you'd read about years later (the Ramones at CBGBs, the Talking Heads in their prime, U2 tearing it up in tiny clubs on the "Boy" tour and most pertinently of all, the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury scene with the Dead and Janis and Jefferson Airplane) and how it was a little crazy to say it and we didn't want to burden them with world-beating expectations but damnit that show was unbelievable.

And we talked on and on in gushing terms and we both went home and I couldn't watch any TV and I couldn't read anything and I couldn't listen to any music -- not even their music -- because it would pale in comparison to the show I'd seen and I just sat there and eventually went to bed trying to remember every detail and wondering if it could have really been that good and was there a difference between thinking it was that good and knowing it was that good and did I care and when would they come back to town and when could I see them again and how could it ever be that good again and then I went to sleep and I'm not sure but I think I dreamed about them, too.


Daryl Chin said...

WOW, that was great, an example of terrific criticism, i.e., if you can make someone feel like rushing out and getting the CD so they can experience something like that... "you've got it made" (as they sing in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER).

Michael in New York said...

Thanks. And now I feel the need to pop in that DVD of "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter." Their CD, by the way, is a slow burner -- it takes a while to sink in. And I'm certain their new album in November will be much tougher and more rock than the first.