Saturday, December 27, 2014

Stories from New Orleans – Parts 1 and 4: Making Friends

The drive from Madison Alabama to New Orleans Louisiana takes anywhere from six to eight hours, depending on how many stops and how long they are. Although the trip is almost 100% highway, portions of it are on decidedly neglected highways. In addition to beat up, old, poorly maintained roads where you take your life in your hands if you go over 60 miles per hour, the state of Mississippi pretty much figures you’re a hillbilly and will pee in the woods anyway, so there are not many rest stops once you enter the state and until you leave the state. That is to say, if you travel to New Orleans from Madison, you will almost certainly end up stopping at the first rest stop in Louisiana, which is the very comfy, cozy, coffee serving New Orleans Welcome Center on I-10.

After Mrs S and I had taken care of business, she started thumbing through the racks of brochures, which, again, is a given. We've done it on every previous trip to New Orleans. I was wandering around, seeing what would catch my eye and I heard one of the greeters say, “Can I help you find something?” I was about 20 feet from the desk, so I didn't think she was talking to me. Then I heard, “Would you sign our guest book?” So, I looked over and sure enough, she was talking to me and the other greeter was watching. “Um, no, and yes,” I said, counting the answers to two questions on my fingers. As I signed the book, the greeter and I were chatting and I happened to mention we were staying at The Monteleone. “Oh, my son is manager of the Carousel Bar there.” I said I’d be happy to say hello to him, as I knew I was going to be spending some time in the bar, and she said, his name is Michael D__. (You can probably Google his name, but I’ll redact it here for privacy.) I repeated his name and she said, “Oh you’re pronunciation is perfect.” (It’s not a hard name, but lazy, non-French people would tend to pronounce this French family name differently.)

Me and one of my drinks. The photo bomber is the bar manager, Michael (keep reading).
On the last day of the trip, following dinner in the hotel, we finally made our way to the bar. I was looking forward to meeting Michael and using the two free drink coupons I got when we checked into the hotel and I told them I was celebrating my birthday with them. Of course, on Christmas Eve, the Carousel Bar was packed and people were jumping on seats as soon as anybody stood up, so Mrs. S and I found two seats in the equally packed lounge adjacent.

Our waitress came over and when she brought our two free drinks, I asked if I Michael was working that night. She said, oh yes, and I said, well, I’m sure he’s quite busy and he doesn't know me, but if he could spare a moment, I’d like to talk to him for a minute. And she said, no problem, and he did come over and I did talk to him. Very nice guy. I told him the story about promising his mom to say hello. We talked about his mom and about the action in the bar, and how many times I’d been to New Orleans, and then I apologized and told him thanks for talking with me and allowing me to make good on my promise to his mom to say hello to him. He said it was his pleasure. So I sit back down and order another drink, and our waitress informs me it’s on the house and so is Mrs. S’s next one. I said, wow, great, and what’s your name and she says, “Tuna.” I look at her and raise an eyebrow, “Tuna?” She smiles and says, yes, just like the fish. Okay, well then let me get a picture with you. And we did.

Me and Tuna.
As it was getting close to midnight, Santa Claus showed up. I’m not sure if it was before his rounds or after his rounds, but I hadn't been all that naughty this year, so he let me take a picture with him. I should have bought him a drink. When we went to sit back down, Tuna was serving guests across from our seats, putting her right between me and Mrs. S. I told Mrs. S to wait a minute or we’d trap our waitress, and then Tuna says, “You’re making a Tuna sandwich!” Funny.

I drew the line on lap sitting, but I was okay with having a picture with Santa, even though it was the first time in years.
And I’m not sure why I didn't take a commemorative photo with Michael, but he photo bombed one of Mrs. S’s other photos anyway, so it all worked out. That’s not all the friends I made while in New Orleans, but those are the ones I made at the start and the finish of the trip.

Don’t worry, there’s more stories (and surprise friends) to come.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What I learned by watching the exact same Tony Bennett concert twice in two nights (Part 2)

If you missed part 1, here it is
Some other things I learned, kind of:

4) If you can sing a song in a four story performance hall that seats 1856 people, without a microphone and still fill the place with sound at the age of 88, you must be Tony Bennett
"Fly Me To The Moon", with guitar, without microphone. Unbelievable.
I don’t think anybody else 88 years or older anywhere can do that. It’s like a Guinness Book level feat, if you think about it.
5) The best seat in the house is the front row
This will be my space for the next two hours, thank you very much. Also, note the person with the black hair and white shirt at the very upper left. That was Mrs. S's seat on Friday night.
You can stretch out your legs (and arms, and hips, and anything else you want). You can walk right up to the stage and lean out over it and pretend you fell off the stage and are trying to climb back on. You can talk to the cello and violin players. You can hear the best. You can see the best. People think you’re important. People know you’re a patron. The ushers remember you and don’t bother you about anything. Pure and simple: If you are not in the front row, you might have good seats, but you don’t have the best seats. Period.
No, really, I'm with the band!
This is the view from our box on Friday night. Same price as front row, waaaayyyy different view.
6) The technology cannot be stopped and everyone has it in their pockets. Soon, there will be no attempt at preventing people from photographing at concerts.
View from front row on Thursday night. Yep, that's better
Note to performers everywhere, I have a high resolution camera, video recorder, and sound recorder. It’s right here, in my pocket. If you tell me I can’t take your picture, I won’t. I actually believe in the rules that keep our society livable. If you tell me I can take photos without flash, then don’t tell me I can only take photos when the house lights are up. And if you aren’t going to stop the people in the third balcony above the stage (who are actually using flash), then guess what? You’re screwed and I’m probably going to take your picture from the front row, regardless of announcements, warnings printed on tickets, or anything else. And anyway, Mrs. S is the concert photographer. I’m going to just sit here and enjoy the show. It’s her you have to worry about. (What I mean is, pretty soon, the entire planet is going to be continually photographed, for any or no reason. Performers need to embrace the technology and let their fans take photos. That’s it.)

What I learned by watching the exact same Tony Bennett concert twice in two nights (Part 1)

It’s not much, but, here goes.
1) The program in the program may or may not be the actual program
My personal concert program always includes a cocktail and wine prior to the show.
The program for the Tony Bennett concert included four pieces by the Nashville Symphony, and those were correct. For Tony’s portion, it said “Selections will be called from the stage”, which is standard jazz lingo for, “We’ll tell you what we’ll play, just as soon as we decide.” The program also listed “Featuring special guest Antonia Bennett”, who is Tony’s up-and-coming daughter. When she wasn’t there on Thursday night, I was sure she’d be there Friday. But no. Friday’s show was the exact same as Thursday’s, mistakes and all. We thought about going to the box office, telling them we came to see Antonia, not Tony, and we want our money back. Then we decided we didn’t want anyone to laugh at us that much, and even more, we didn’t want anybody to think we like Antonia Bennett better than her dad.
2) If you don’t practice out the mistakes, the mistakes don’t go away
The man himself. If you think the crowd didn't go absolutely bananas when this octogenarian strode purposefully to center stage,  you obviously don't appreciate what it means to be in the same room with a living legend. And note the big video screen prompter tilted on the front speaker. That's the one he didn't pay any attention to.
First of all, I’m not bemoaning the fact that an 88-year old guy forgot a few words of a few lines of songs he doesn’t sing all that much. And to be fair, lots of singers much younger use prompts and earphones and whatnot to help their singing and lyrical comprehension. And let’s also be clear: Tony doesn’t need any help with the songs he’s been singing for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years. He’s got those. But on Thursday night, when he sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with “..friends who are near to us, will be dear to us, once more”, you could see him looking at the prompter, trying to squint it out above the spotlight, and then look around to see if the audience caught the problem, and then (no doubt), he thought, (correctly) “they didn’t notice, and if they did, they didn’t care”. But when he made the exact same mistake on Friday, well folks, I’m sorry to call BS on a legend, but that’s just sloppy. 
3) It must be EXTREMELY hard to play the same exact set, night after night
One line that Tony Bennett can never use: "Stop me if you've heard this one before." He sings any song that made him a bajillion dollars at some point in his career, and that's like a bajillion songs.
And by extremely hard, I mean extremely easy, and by extremely easy I mean, it’s easy to hit the notes and cues and hard to make it sound interesting. If you’ve never heard it before (Thursday night), everything is fresh and lively. If you’ve heard it before (Friday night), it starts to sound flat and finished, almost artificial. It’s like the second time you watch a movie you liked and you notice the shadow of a boom mike on one of the characters in the background. From that day forward, every time you watch that movie, you’ll be waiting for the shadow of the microphone. (It also kind of explains why they didn’t practice “Have ... Christmas”, because, who wants to play from the set list when they’re practicing?)
"You're beautiful!"
There are a couple other things I learned, and some better photos coming in part 2.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

How to swing Christmas

Add one freaking awesome singing group, one pair of front row tickets, and a two hour drive through a rainstorm (which was bad, but not quite the tornado level storm we drove through to see WyntonMarsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra). Then sit back and enjoy the show.
The somewhat dated (I thought) Manhattan Grinches on screen behind stage.
Manhattan Transfer has been doing this kind of show for years, but this is the first time I had the opportunity to see and hear it for myself. Despite the recent death of the group’s leader, they had a phenomenal back up who they've been singing with for years in different iterations of this group, and the harmonies were as tight as ever and the one hour forty five minute show just flew by. They sang all the Christmas standards you could want, from Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” to “Frosty the Snowman”. Plus they sang a bunch of their hits and a few New York themed Christmas things (which admittedly, fell dead on the Nashville crowd for the most part).

The set. They didn't even have a band, just what I would call a rhythm section. They were amazing.
Their musical director, Yaron Gershovsky, was pretty much the highlight of the show for me. Playing on a Steinway grand (a smallish one) and an occasional riff on a Korg, Kronos synth, he drove the rhythm section and could pretty much play any style and stylistic solo he had to.

No, we did not take surreptitious pictures during the show. But this is pretty much exactly what they looked like, except Janis was wearing her contacts.
I guess after all is said and done, Janis Siegel is still my favorite. Her solo bits were edgier and more complete than her band mates’, and she at least put on makeup and had her hair done before the show. (Cheryl Bentyne looked like somebody woke her up from a nap just in time for the show.) Anyway, it was a good time, and definitely worth the drive through the pouring rain to hear this legendary group while they are still together and performing.
This was Janis at the Blue Note, again highlighting a Christmas show, when we were in New York three years ago.
Next up is Tony Bennett, which Mrs S this morning informed me will be a two hour (or so) show with an intermission and Tony only singing during the second half of the show. She thought I would be disappointed, but it is pretty much what I expected. The guy’s 88, so if he gives us a good half hour and four or five of his hits, that will work for me.
As close to being on stage at the Schermerhorn as I am likely to get.
Damn, I just realized: I could have put something in the seats next to mine and played some kind of joke on whoever sits there Thursday night. Maybe. Oh well. Better to be inconspicuous down front anyway.