New York City, Part 3: Hello, Dolly!

On the second night of our trip to New York City we saw “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street. This was the first time I’d seen a play in the Broadway theater district. It struck me that most of the theaters are not actually on Broadway, but instead are located on the cross streets near Times Square.

Around six o’clock in the evening the area is teeming with people trying to get to the theater on time. The show we attended had a sign saying late arrivals will not be seated until intermission, so there is a sense of anxious urgency, especially when you’ve paid a lot of money for your tickets. Some people don’t like cities because they don’t like crowds. If that’s you, avoid Times Square. Myself being someone who likes cities and crowds, getting to the theater was chaotic and invigorating, being among all those thousands of people sharing a similar experience. To me, the place had a warm, joyous energy.

There were two long lines of people waiting to get into the theater and, being new, we didn’t know if which line we were in made any difference. We asked people standing next to us and they said they were wondering the same thing. It turned out there was no difference and once the lines started moving, they moved quickly.

Once inside there is a bit of a jumble in the lobby, which felt cramped. This was ameliorated to a large degree by the excellent staff at the theater, who were very helpful and pleasant. Real pros. I went to coat check and they charge a dollar to hold your stuff. I forgot to bring cash with me and the staff person said I could pay him at the end of the performance. When I went back I still didn’t have any cash and he gave me my stuff anyway, and was nice and understanding. I felt bad because I tip most everyone; I think that’s an important part of the economy.

So now we get to the part of this post where I “review” the play. Reader beware: I consider myself a novice observer of live dramatic arts. I’ve seen about twenty live dramatic performances, including six musicals, so understand this is my subjective opinion as someone who witnessed this particular performance on Saturday, April 1, 2017. I don’t present myself as someone you should take seriously as an expert on Broadway musicals. But maybe you have about the same level of experience. With that in mind…

I’d never seen “Hello, Dolly!” before, except for the film adaptation starring Barbara Streisand, which I own on Blu-Ray. Those who’ve never seen the film or dramatic version of “Hello, Dolly!” might have a meta-level introduction to it, if they’ve seen the Pixar film, “WALL-E,” which cameos scenes from “Hello, Dolly!” via an old video tape that the robot in “WALL-E” plays over and over. In the weeks between when I bought the tickets and when I saw the show, I was wondering how the play would compare to the film I know so well. For the uninitiated, “Hello, Dolly” is a romantic comedy set in early 20th century New York City. The main character, Dolly Levi, is a widowed matchmaker who wants to marry a semi-wealthy bachelor, Horace Vendergelder, owner of a grain and feed store. The comedy revolves around Dolly’s efforts to fix up Horace’s store clerk’s, Cornelius and Barnaby, with two women that work in a hat shop, including one to whom Horace intends to propose marriage.

There was an added level of charm conveyed by the setting of the musical. What could be better than seeing a musical in New York City when the setting is…New York City!

One question in my mind about this performance involves the casting of Bette Midler in the lead role of Dolly Levi. She did a great job, in my opinion. She may not be the best singer, or the best actress, but she is a great entertainer, with loads of star power. Indeed, it was the star power that had me questioning whether the quality of the overall performance relied too much on Midler’s cult of personality. For example, some of the best songs in “Hello, Dolly!” are performed by secondary cast members. I noted that those songs didn’t get the same level of reaction from the audience. In particular, the great love song “It Only Takes A Moment” received what I thought was tepid applause, as did the song “Elegance.” On the other hand, Midler got a standing ovation when she first appeared on the stage, before she sang a note. It would be interesting to see the musical again with the role of Dolly Levi played by the understudy, a woman named Donna Murphy, who will take over the lead role in a limited capacity starting in June.

Aside from Midler, my favorite performance was by David Hyde Pierce in the lead male role of Horace Vandergelder. He managed to wring out every ounce of humor from his lines, with incredible comic timing and physicality. His performance was subtle and I was impressed by his artistry. In fact, the whole cast was great. I also enjoyed the comic interplay of the two bachelors, Cornelius and Barnaby, played by Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch. The Barnaby character did this funny thing where he would imply slyly that he has a man-crush on Cornelius. Like, what are those guys doing down there in the basement of the grain and feed store? And why is Cornelius 30 years old and vows to not go back to Yonkers from New York City “until we kiss a girl?”

Another stand out was Beanie Feldstein in the role of Minnie Faye, the secondary character from the hat shop. Beanie has, shall we say, an atypical “look” for an actress. Short, a bit on the heavy side, etc. Nonetheless, her acting, dancing, and singing were delicate and polished. She stole every seen she was in.

For me, the two highlights were the songs “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By.” The title song, “Hello, Dolly!” was great, as well, but Midler really cut lose on “Parade.” The tone of her vocals on that number exuded a melancholy world weariness at the beginning, then, as though her character was not going to give in to life that easily, built to a rousing finish.

But for me, the best of all was “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Starting with that famous line sung by Cornelius:

Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There’s a slick town, Barnaby!

A had a huge grin plastered on my face through that whole number. The only thing is that I love the show stopping dance sequence from the film. The stage at the Shubert was a bit too small to attempt to replicate that.

Then, of course, the theme song, preceded by the centerpiece dance routine performed by the waiters at the fictional restaurant, Harmonia Gardens. It was over the top, and by the end the dancers were breathing heavily from their exertions.

I recommend seeing “Hello, Dolly!” if you’re in New York. It’s the first Broadway revival of this particular musical since the original run, according to The tickets are expensive if you’re not able to avoid after-market ticketing services, but it’s a throughly entertaining, extremely charming Broadway experience.




Concert Review: Dead & Company with John Mayer, 12/28/15


Dead and Company 2

I went to see this concert with an old friend and fellow veteran of Grateful Dead shows. You know, the ones that occurred when Jerry Garcia was still alive. I had seen several of the post-Jerry lineups over the years and it always seemed more like a party featuring Grateful Dead music than an actual Grateful Dead show. So my expectations for this concert were tame, perhaps in part because it seemed a bit odd to pair John Mayer with the Grateful Dead.

These things can get very subjective, like when you think you’ve just seen an excellent Grateful Dead show and your friend standing right next to you the whole time deems it mediocre. But for me, personally, this was the best post-Jerry show I’ve seen.

John Mayer is a revelation. As a guy who’s best known for radio friendly pop rock, it was weird to see him immersed in Grateful Dead music. And when I say immersed I mean he hasn’t just drunk the Dead cool aid, he’s soaking in the damn vat. Welcome to the club, buddy. John Mayer is a total deadhead. Who knew? Visually, it was like the high school quarterback joined the hippies smoking in the parking lot. Here’s your hot new Grateful Dead guitar hero, but with better hair and pretty boy looks. The thing is, Mayer is so into it, he so “gets” the whole Grateful Dead thing, that it works. He injected a youthful energy that you could sense was picked up on by the rest of the band, especially Bob Weir.

As lead guitarist, Mayer had to perform the trick of filling in for Garcia when old school Grateful Dead fans might feel a bit protective of their Garcia memories and view any attempt to “out do” Garcia as sacrilege. How to give it your all in that role while respecting the original guy? The answer, for me, was the most surprising thing of all. It seemed, at times, like the band was tapping into the cosmic flow that you sometimes got at the best Grateful Dead shows. There were moments where the music seemed to take control away from the individual band members, like they’d all done the Vulcan mind meld and were playing as a single entity and channeling the music in from some transcendental parallel universe. Right out of the gate they played one of my favorite songs, The Music Never Stopped, and went into an extended deep space jam during the rhythm breakdown, then snapped back into the groove so quick you didn’t hear it coming.

Mayer also did a good job on vocals, especially sharing with Bob Weir on fan favorite Franklin’s Tower. John didn’t try to mimic Jerry on his vocal parts, and that is a good thing not only to avoid the sacrilege problem, but also because Mayer is a vocal stylist in his own right and actually added some nice fresh phrasing that honored the music while adding his own signature to it. Also, there was this interesting thing he started to do toward the end where he was scat singing a la Ella Fitzgerald. It complimented the music really well.

There was also quite a bit of humor in the second set on the outro to The Wheel, with Mayer leading the band into a gently mocking melodic parody of the song itself, until it morphed into something like the soundtrack to a gaggle of clowns hamming it up at a circus. And there was also quite a bit of what I call metamigorbickle improvisation, with the soundscapes becoming so abstract that they differentiate the Grateful Dead from all the other so-called jam bands; pure improvisation without any melodic or rhythmic underpinnings to fall back on.

The other guest musicians were bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who also recently performed with the Grateful Dead at their supposed farewell shows. I’d seen Chimenti a few times in other configurations and he was in fine form, but I’d never seen Burbridge. He’s an incredible bass player and filled the void left by original Dead bassist Phil Lesh very well.

The show was so good that it made me wonder what will happen when the rest of the original members retire or pass away. Will this thing actually keep going? With Mayer in the drivers seat I think it’s a real possibility. The question would be whether people would still see the shows, but one interesting thing to consider is that many of the people I spoke with at the show or overheard had never seen the Grateful Dead while Garcia was alive. Think about that a moment. The show was sold out and many of the fans had never even seen Garcia live. The music is still there, coursing through the ether, waiting for someone like Mayer to tap in.





Concert Review: Aerosmith


The first time I saw Aerosmith in concert was on July 23, 1978 at the Oakland Coliseum. They headlined a summer music festival known as Day on the Green, put on by legendary entertainment promoter Bill Graham. The other acts on the bill were, in descending order, Foreigner, Pat Travers, Van Halen, and AC/DC. That’s right: AC/DC opened the show. That’s because they were fairly unknown in the United States at that time. Don’t believe me? Here’s the poster.

Day on the Green 1978

I can still remember Angus Young running onto the stage in a bumble bee schoolboy uniform. As AC/DC rolled through their set the crowd had a collective, dawning realization that we were seeing something great for the first time. That set the stage for the next act, Van Halen. My best friend had just bought the first Van Halen album a few weeks before the concert, but most of the crowd was uninitiated. They came out and played Running With the Devil, then Eddie Van Halen launched into Eruption. It was like a nuclear bomb went off.

I mention this because Aerosmith was a complete disappointment that day. During that period the band was deep into hard drugs and their performance really suffered from it. When juxtaposed against seeing AC/DC and Van Halen for the first time, it made Aerosmith seem like a washed up mess.

Despite that disappointing first experience, I saw Aerosmith seven or eight times over the years, with mixed results. So it was with a bit of skepticism that I decided to start the road trip with an Aerosmith concert at Harvey’s amphitheater on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, July 3, 2015. There was a completely forgettable opening act. No, seriously. I can’t even remember their name, and it’s not even worth looking up.

So the opening band sucked. The good news is that thirty-seven years after seeing Aerosmith for the first time, I finally saw the show of my dreams. It’s not unusual for a band to keep it’s form as the members age. The Eagles come to mind in that regard. This was something different. Aerosmith was better than ever. And not just a little bit better. They completely blew the doors off every other Aerosmith show I’d seen, in person or otherwise.

The first surprise came with the opening song, Let the Music Do the Talking. If someone had asked me to bet a million dollars that they wouldn’t play that song, much less open with it, I would have taken the bet. It’s from the Night in the Ruts album, released in 1979 when the band was at a low point. I remember reading an article at that time and the band’s singer, Steve Tyler, was quoted as saying that even if the album didn’t sell it would someday be considered a classic. You have to give him credit for sticking to his guns.

There were many highlights, but for me the best part was when they played Last Child, the second cut from the Rocks album. That song encapsulates everything I love about Aerosmith: the heavy blues funk, bordering on metal; the clever, southern-fried lyrics; Tyler’s soulful, high pitched vocals; the dual guitar attack of Joe Perry and Brad Whitford on the solo break; the thundering bass and percussion of Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer; all of it synthesized into a potent, intoxicating brew that makes you want to throw your fist in the air and bob your head.

Perhaps the most impressive thing, overall, was that Steven Tyler hit every single note, not just with clarity and assurance, but with a playful, over-the-top expressiveness that you only get from the truly great vocalists. And not just on Last Child, but on every number, especially the explosive segue out of the rhythm breakdown on Draw the Line. At the end of the show, Tyler did a victory lap around the stage, then looked out at the audience and said, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” The man wasn’t lying.

So maybe you’re like me and are skeptical of seeing this band live, thinking that maybe their best days are behind them. I can tell you that the opposite may be true. If the show I saw is any indication, this is the best they’ve ever been and may ever get. See them if you have the chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Set List:

Let the Music Do the Talking
Love in an Elevator
Last Child
Livin’ on the Edge
Toys in the Attic
Drum Solo
Rag Doll
Stop Messin’ Around
(Fleetwood Mac cover)
Mama Kin
I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing
Draw the Line
No More No More
Dude (Looks Like a Lady)
Walk This Way
Dream On
(snippet of “Home Tonight” as intro)
Sweet Emotion

Concert Review: Steve Hackett (Genesis Extended)


I’ve been to hundreds of concerts in the Bay Area, but for some reason I had never seen a concert at the Regency Ballroom, which used to be called the Avalon Ballroom. By the way, when it was called the Avalon Ballroom it hosted many classic rock concerts from the 60’s at the height of psychedelic poster art, like this.


I went to the Regency to see Steve Hackett, who, for the uninitiated, used to be the guitarist for Genesis, back when Peter Grabriel was the band’s vocalist. Hackett has put together a band to play all the Gabriel-era Genesis material that I never really got to see. I saw Genesis a few times during the post-Gabriel era, but they would always package snippets of the older material into a medley instead of playing the whole songs. A rare exception was when I saw them at the Greek Theater and they played Supper’s Ready, from the Foxtrot album.

So I’d been waiting decades to see a gig like this. It seemed like most of the other people in attendance were in the same boat, because the crowd gave the band a standing ovation after every single song. The performance was generally excellent, though my friend was less than thrilled with the vocalist who was standing in for Peter Gabriel. I thought he did a pretty good job. It’s hard, even for a gifted vocalist, to perform someone else’s iconic material.

I was going to post a video clip that I recorded on my phone, but had trouble with the upload to WordPress. So instead I’m linking to youtube if you want a taste.The song is called Firth of Fifth. They played this song at the Regency; an awesome, extended version with an expansive guitar solo that showcased Hackett’s playing.

It’s hard to say which song from the concert I enjoyed most. There were many to choose from because the show clocked in at two and a half hours. I guess I’ll pick Fly on a Windshield, from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway double album. I chose that one because I never in my wildest dreams thought they would play it; I never thought I would see anyone perform that song live. I love the song, too, and they did it justice to say the least, wringing every ounce out of the song’s quirky lyrical energy and angular melodic power.

There were two songs they didn’t play that I really wanted to see, but didn’t expect them to play, so I wasn’t too disappointed. Both songs are from The Lamb: Back in New York City, and The Chamber of 32 Doors (they played the latter on other tour dates). If you’re not a Genesis fan and want to try it out by purchasing one Genesis album (please don’t download free pirated music; a pet peeve.), I would recommend The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. In my opinion, it’s their best album by far, and one of the great art rock albums of all time. Except for the break between discs (it’s a double album), each song flows seamlessly into the next; a neat trick because the songs are all unique and eclectic. In fact, the songwriting and production on the parts between the songs rivals the songs. It’s on a par with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Actually, I think The Lamb is better, but I’m biased, so reach your own conclusion.