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Folk-rock and folk shlock

November 26, 2010

I've never been a musician, including, if not featuring, during the three years I tried the trombone (and everyone's patience) in the high school band. Still, I've always loved music.

I was a hardcore rocker from the moment Elvis hit the scene. Later I got into folk, soul and blues. And in 1965, when Dylan broke the mold (and the hearts of the "purist" folkies), I got into folk-rock.

I wasn't the only one, as other folk-rock groups immediately sprang up: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, CSN, the Eagles and the rest. Maybe all times are great times to be young, but those were sure great from me, and a lot of their greatness was due to all the new music and new groups, who I thought formed only to serenade me personally.

But as fondly as I remember those times, I've no urge to relive them. Moreover, I really don't want to witness pathetic attempts to turn back the clock. One of the worst is concerts featuring the "Great Stars Of Yesteryear." They're labeled "revivals," but from what I've seen, a more accurate label is "exhumations."

Let's face it: Not only are those performers' heydays in the distant past, but so are their looks, voices, moves and creativity. Oh yeah, sure, Joan Baez still has a gorgeous voice, and Mick Jagger can rock anyone's socks off, but as for the rest of them? Fergit it.

I've been to a few of the GSOY shows, and they all had some things in common. Their voices were shot; their movements were stilted; their energy was diminished if not dissipated. On top of that, since they'd gone though the motions so many countless times, they'd lost the performer's Most Vital Skill - the ability to pretend they actually care about their audience, when in fact they only care about the gate receipts. They're the ones who, when they say, "You're beautiful, and I love you," which they inevitably do, it's enough to make me hurl.

Plus - and here's the real kicker - since the GSOY greatest fan base is Baby Boomers, and since the Boomers have major ca-ching, ca-ching, the ticket prices to see those relics are through the roof.

And thus, on principle, I've avoided every recent rock, folk and folk-rock disinterment that's come down the pike. Which is why, when my pal Kookie called to ask if I wanted to see a show of one of the old folk-rock stalwarts who was going to be in her neck of the Vermont woods, I was shocked to find myself saying yes. I was even more shocked to find myself saying I'd pay for our tickets.

I still don't know why I agreed to go (especially since each ticket was $50), but I assume I overrode my Inner Cynic and believed that, unlike his peers, this performer had held onto most of his skills and all his ideals. This only shows I should always listen to my Inner Cynic.


Notes of disinterest

As for the show itself?

My first shock was the audience. They ranged in age from about 55 to 65, with a few outliers on either end. Of course, they're the only ones who knew the guy Way Back When and have the money, so who else did I expect? Still, I don't recall being in a room with so many people my age since my draft physical.

Plus, it wasn't just their age. They were a muy alternativo bunch. Bald guys with tiny ponytails, gals of a certain age in Guatemalan ponchos or Icelandic sweaters, a few old cats in bell bottoms, some others in embroidered denim shirts. I checked the date on my watch before I realized it only told the day, not the year.

My second shock was the performer himself. I had a bunch of his albums and played them a lot, so I'd seen his photos hundreds of times. He was startlingly handsome - long black hair, drooping black mustache, bright eyes, strong chin - the whole bit.

After they announced him and his band, five people stepped on stage, but none was him. OK, so I knew he wasn't the fiddler, since the fiddler was a she. But the only way I figured he was one of the others was he was the only one the right age. He was also the only one who was bald, myopic and had two hearing aids.

But those things are superficialities. The real issue was how was his performance?

As I'd expected, his vocal range was limited and his repertoire was almost exclusively his old songs. What I didn't expect was that his new songs sounded just like his old ones, so much so that after five or six numbers, they all ran together.

Admittedly, there were clear differences in the lyrics: The old songs were all about the joys of peace, love, rainbows and dancing naked in the rain. The new ones were all about the joys of grandfatherhood. Nonetheless, given the similarities in rhythm and melody, the only way I could distinguish one from another was if he announced it.

As for the music itself? It was a major disappointment. I figured, hey, if you've played the same song for the past 40 years, you'd become a virtuoso on it. Sadly, I figured wrong. Being charitable, I'd say the group was adequate. The exception was the fiddler, who at best was humdrum. In fact, her performance was so mediocre, I figured she had to be the leader's girlfriend. She wasn't - she's his wife.


The show within the show

The show had two highlights - both inadvertent.

One was during the intermission. I went on the porch to get some fresh air, and in the far corner was an old hipster in a cracked leather motorcycle jacket, hunched over, giving furtive looks at the rest of us while smoking a cigarette like it was The Crime of The Century. Which in these politically correct and precious climes, it apparently is: Everyone else on the porch made a big deal of fanning the air, scrunching up their faces in distaste and giving The Lone Smoker the most disgusted of looks. Of course, at a concert 40 years ago, almost everyone would've been smoking inside the room. And if any non-smoker had suggested we not smoke, we would've told the poor pud to get a life, never understanding either the effects of second-hand smoke or the irony of the statement.

The second highlight came in the middle of the first set when the acoustic guitarist gave a spiel with all the breathless enthusiasm of someone who'd just found the Holy Grail at a flea market. It was about their CDs they had for sale ("Now all digitally remastered!" he trilled), plus the star's personalized line of dreck, among which were travel mugs, T-shirts, hats and hoodies - everything but tie-dyed trusses and autographed thunder mugs. It was shameless hucksterism - in other words, the American ideal.

Finally, after what seemed like sitting underwater for two hours, the show lumbered on to its predictable conclusion: They played their last song and then left the stage. Then everyone (or in our case almost everyone) stood, teary-eyed and applauding madly till the band came out for the inevitable encore.

It was one of his old signature songs played so robotically I felt that instead of being in a groovy coffee house, I was in an elevator.

After that, the leader told us we were beautiful and they loved us. My gorge rose.

So was it worth my hard-earned C-note?

As an evening of music and entertainment, no.

As a learning experience, it was worth every penny.



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