Saturday, May 27, 2017

The QLine

The QLine approaches the Southern terminus at Woodward and Congress
On New Year's Eve I was in New York City with my family. We went to see "The Mikado" on the Hunter College campus, taking the subway to get there and getting off at a nearby subway stop along Lexington Ave. I might have been the only adult in the audience not aware that the very next day, that same station would be opening up to Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway, served by the Q Line. It was a very big deal in New York; a line was even inserted in to "I've Got a Little List" to note the occasion.

Of course, New York has dozens of subway lines, and nearly 500 subway stations. I looked it up.

Detroit has... The People Mover. A 3 mile elevated one direction loop (it's currently clockwise) around parts of the downtown, a concrete eye-sore used by virtually nobody except during the annual North American International Auto Show and for Red Wings games; with the Red Wings moving to a new arena next season even that will go away. It's a symbol of mass-transit failure.

Earlier this month Detroit's new QLine opened. It's Detroit's first streetcar in more than 60 years. Other than the name similarity, this new rail line bears no resemblance to anything in New York. On first glance, it's easy to see it as "People Mover Part 2." It cost almost $200 million to build, has just 6 cars, and its 12 stops cover only 3 miles up and down Woodward Avenue. Predictable mockery is already available about QLine.

I took my first ride on the QLine last week. And... I really liked it. When I went during lunch hour, the car was packed. Of course, this was still the first week of operation, and the QLine is still free -- as it will be through the end of June. There were many Detroit old-timers with children and grand-children, pointing out the sites. When we passed The Fillmore Detroit, someone exclaimed, "that used to be the Palms Theater, we saw movies there!," recalling a name that hasn't been used in 35 years. The vibe was of an awakening. I tried to pay attention to the businesses and shops and restaurants along the way. We passed a Vietnamese restaurant, and it looked crowded. I looked it up online -- the cars have WiFi -- and saw many positive reviews. I made a note of it.

Packed... for now.
Later the same day, I met my family at Orchestra Hall for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The concert hall is along Woodward, and the QLine was the best way to get there. This time, I was going just minutes before the start of a Detroit Tigers game at Comerica Park, and the car was jammed with people coming in from various pre-game activities elsewhere in downtown.

At the opening ceremony for the QLine, the Congresswoman of my district, Brenda Lawrence, said "the advantage of this line is it brings people to the core of the city."

That... is not true. Most people don't go to New York City for the purpose of riding the Q Line. They go, to go to work. To see plays. To meet people. To eat. The subway is a means to an end. Had we gone to the play one night later, we'd have had an easier way to get there that didn't involve a transfer. But we got there anyway: it was the play that brought us in.

What this QLine does, that I can see, is it opens up a key portion of Detroit for people who are already there, or who are already planning to go to Detroit. It's not a commuter line, it's not long enough for that, not without a significant extension. But that Vietnamese restaurant? It's called Pho Lucky and I'm going to check it out.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Great Tallent - Garry Tallent at the Magic Bag, April 25, 2017

Garry Tallent at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, MI. April 25, 2017
I confess: When I think of Garry Tallent, I am inevitably reminded of Bruce Springsteen's long-time introduction for him: "This man comes from a long line of talents: His mother was a talent! His father was a talent! His great grandfather was a great great talent!"

That's Garry Tallent, sideman, Bruce's longest-term bandmate. Tuesday night, for the first time I got to see Garry step out to sing at the front mic, play lead guitar (who knew?) and lead a band. He's on tour supporting his album "Break Time", and he's pretty darn good in all of those roles.

Garry has put together a first-rate 7 piece band, and he gave each band member space to take lead in spots. If you're hoping to hear a lot of Springsteen covers, forget it; there's only one in the setlist. They weren't missed; by the time of Garry's 3rd song, "Ooh La La," the show had taken off. "Hillbilly Train" (see below) featured Mark Whitaker on stand-up bass.

The setlist of about 2 dozen songs combined Garry's originals with instrumental and rockabilly covers, ranging from Chuck Berry ("Brown-Eyed Handsome Man") to the Ventures ("Walk Don't Run") and Buddy Holly ("Crying, Waiting, Hoping"). Garry introduced the songs, often sprinkling in humorous tidbits. He introduced "Charlene" by noting it had been a "coolest song in the world" on Little Steven's Underground Garage, but that he "had an inside connection." For "From Small Things," he noted that Clarence had routinely requested it, and that Garry wondered if it "was because there was no saxophone, so he got to take a rest." About all the evening could have used, really, was a few more paying customers. This show deserves it.

After the show, Garry graciously signed autographs for whoever wanted; when I presented a copy of Southside Johnny's "Messing With the Blues" album that Garry produced, he exclaimed, "so you're the one who bought it!" He also answered a question my bass-playing son had for him: "Jazz or precision?"

Garry haas 10 more show dates in the northeast US before heading over to England. See it if you can!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bye Bye Johnnie

On September 2, 1995, I went with Lori and my friend Paul to the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We'd bought the "special" tickets that allowed us to tour the museum during the afternoon a few hours before the show. Well, ok, Lori and I had the tickets, and in true rock and roll form we managed to slip Paul in with us. We went downstairs to the museum, stopping first at the Chuck Berry exhibit. That was mandatory.

We eventually found our way to the Springsteen exhibit. I was looking up at Garry Tallent's bass guitar when Paul blurted out, "That's Garry Fucking Tallent!" Yes, it was a nice guitar! "That's Garry Fucking Tallent, right there!" At which point I realized I was, in fact, standing next to Garry Fucking Tallent, under Garry Fucking Tallent's bass guitar.

By this point, I knew that Garry, along with Bruce Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band would be opening up the concert that evening by backing up Chuck Berry for "Johnny B. Goode." Springsteen had told a story in the film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll about a 1973 gig in which the E Street Band had backed Berry. Bruce recalled, "about five minutes before the show was about to start, the door opens, he comes in, he's by himself... and I said, 'Chuck, what songs are we gonna do?' and he said, 'We're gonna do some Chuck Berry songs.'" Bruce went on to describe the show, and how the band was in a panic throughout the show: "What song is it? What key?," and that they were running to Garry, because only Garry knew all the keys that Chuck used.

So here I am, standing with Garry Tallent by Garry Tallent's guitar, and I couldn't resist: "Is it true you're opening the show tonight?" "Yes, me and Chuck!" He was smiling. Then I asked, approximately, "do you have all the keys?," and he gave me a look, like, "that never happened."

Later that night, the opening of "Johnny B. Goode" was fine.
But Garry couldn't save the closer of "Rock and Roll Music," and you're not likely to find a youtube for it. As Nils Lofgren recalled in an interview for the Hall of Fame, "Somehow, a minute or two in, he... shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us... So, we're all like… trying not to make a train wreck, and it's tricky. Okay, what key is he in? Let's start playing there... We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’ At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this... he leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away... I don’t think the two of us [Bruce and Nils] have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14. I didn’t even start playing until I was 14."

I can't find a youtube of that one, and while I'm not sure I can name the best thing I've ever seen from a major act on a rock and roll stage, I'm pretty sure that's the most memorably wretched. Maybe not the worst, definitely the most memorable.

On October 27, 2012, I took my then 15-year old son to the American Music Masters concert in Cleveland, honoring Chuck Berry. Aaron was just learning guitar himself, and this would be an evening with the stars paying tribute to the pioneer. My friend Lauren produced the show, and I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase seats in the front row of the balcony.

This was a great night all the way around. I took only short videos, snippets. Chuck himself came out for a couple songs at the end. His comment that stayed with me was, "I'm 86 years old and I'm happy to be anywhere!"

These late career shows, long after the days of his major hits, almost seem to leave Berry as icon.

But really, Chuck was the father of the music that I know as rock and roll. John Lennon and Keith Richards worshipped Chuck Berry. When I went back to learn the roots, it was in substantial measure by buying -- and more or less memorizing -- The Great Twenty-Eight, hearing the interplay between Berry's guitar and Johnnie Johnson's piano, and trying to learn at least a little of the story.

Berry is remembered for the duck walk, and for the cheesy novelty song that was his only #1 hit. But I don't know that there is a rock song, anywhere, that's better than "Promised Land." Lyrically, musically, and performance. Though there might be some Chuck Berry songs out there that'll qualify.

There will be one last Chuck Berry album, titled simply Chuck. The first single was released for preview today.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Like a Heatwave

Our Maple Tree -- what's left of it after an ice storm -- bloomed.
Michigan, February 22.
The old saying is that, if a frog is put in to a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if the frog is put in to a pot of cold water, and the water is heated only gradually, the frog will sit there, unaware of the danger until it is too late. The metaphor is so obvious that Al Gore used it in An Inconvenient Truth, more than a decade ago.

So here we are. Te GISS data shows that, for the 3rd consecutive year, we had the warmest year since the start of record-keeping in 1880. In January, I wrote, "It took a little longer than I expected, but the final numbers for 2016 were finally posted today. As expected, 2015 is the warmest year on record. As expected, December was warm. Very warm. December is now the warmest month ever, compared to average."

By the end of March, December 2015 was only the 4th warmest month ever. But I also wrote, in that piece: "El Niño returned in 2015, and the temperature records were shattered. Of course, once El Niño ends, we'll likely see a drop in global temperatures for a year or two -- just long enough for the deniers to come out of their foxholes again."

El Niño faded, though 7 of the first 8 months of 2016 still had record-setting heat. January 2017 was only the third warmest January ever.

So the deniers will be back, led by a new EPA Administrator whose mission appears to be to dismantle environmental protections.

Last Friday, a CBS News report included interviews with beach-goers at New York's Jones Beach. As I drove home, I heard someone say, "it's really nice. I'll take it." I just shook my head. "Really nice." The printed article has people saying, "terrific," "great," and "loving it."

Bring on the dipping sauce.