Friday, September 23, 2011

"The picture in reverse": a farewell to R.E.M.

"On the scale of human accomplishments, turning out a classic album ought to rank up there with climbing Mount Everest. Stoned. With one leg. And no oxygen. Given the infinite potential for obnoxious excess within the Rock genre, it's no small feat to assemble an album that's so well phrased, so deftly stated, that its impact extends far beyond the realm of the audible. Turn out two or more such albums and you're headed for legendary status. Turn out five or six and you're R.E.M."

-Matt LeMay; May 14, 2001 (for

The above excerpt, which introduced a review for the 2001 record Reveal, has always been one of the first things I think of whenever I hear an R.E.M. song. The band, which consisted of frontman Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry (who left over a decade ago after he had a brain aneurysm during a show and collapsed onstage), announced that they were calling it quits today, writing on their website, "We walk away with a sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished." The band have been a prevalent force in the music industry for over three decades, have released 15 albums, many of them considered classics, and almost single-handedly created indie and alternative rock. 

I can't really remember the first time R.E.M. resonated for me in a personal way. I remember hearing the slew of hits from their 1992 masterwork Automatic For The People pretty much all throughout my childhood, as well as laughing a few times at the video for "Shiny Happy People," but I think the first time R.E.M. really pinged my radar was when they released their "best-of" (well, there have been a few of those...) entitled In Time: The Best of R.E.M.: 1988-2003. Back then I remember thinking that this band sounded vaguely like the Counting Crows (which they really don't at all), and enjoying songs like "Man on the Moon" and "Losing My Religion"  on a purely nostalgic level, but very little of the music on that collection really hit me. My first full length R.E.M. album was Around the Sun, which I got for Christmas in 2004 alongside U2's How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, and which was the second album I ever put on my iPod. I really liked Around the Sun a lot, and I still do, even though most R.E.M. fans tend to rank that one at the bottom of their discography. I still don't quite understand that, since I love pretty much every song on that record, and a few, like lead-single "Leaving New York," the heartbreaking "Make It All Okay" or the sweeping title track, are probably still among my favorite R.E.M. songs, but at the time I had no point of reference for the band (and wouldn't really gain one for another six years or so).

It wasn't really until this past winter that I started delving deeper into their catalog, and when I did, I was a bit overwhelmed. R.E.M., I believe, hasn't made a single "bad" or even "mediocre" album. This is a band that makes masterpieces, great albums and good albums, but they rarely dip in quality below that, which means I suddenly had roughly 20 albums worth of material to dig through. In the R.E.M. catalog, depending on who you ask, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life's Rich Pageant, Document, Green, Out of Time, Automatic For The People, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi are all essential listening, while you're bound to find a fan who will extoll the virtues of something like Monster (which Stipe described, back in the day, as the band's "big, dumb rock album") or wax poetic about the gorgeous pop of Up, rave about the comeback record that was 2008's Accelerate, or explain to you why Around the Sun is actually a great record (well, I suppose I'm that one). Most Springsteen fans will tell you his best album is Born to Run, most U2 fans will pull out The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, hell, even most Beatles fans would rally around one of five records, but every R.E.M. fan seems to have a different answer to that question. It's because R.E.M. have been such a consistent band, have made so many great records and so many different kinds of great records; because they have changed their sound around half a dozen times and gone in so many different sonic directions over the years, while almost always remaining true to what made them special in the first place. In a way, I think that's also why they decided to call it quits.

It seems like it's impossible for a band that has been around for a long time to live up to their own high standards. You stick around for long enough, your records become classics, and no matter how good your latest project is, it's impossible for it to live up to the albums that made people fall in love with you in the first place. Perhaps it's that the artists in question really are running out of ideas. Maybe they don't have another masterpiece in the them, but even if they did, would we recognize it as such? It's as much our problem as it is the band's. We forge personal connections to things, and they become something immortal in our minds, something that cannot be replicated or toppled by anything, least of all the artist that created it in the first place. In the break-up announcement, Michael Stipe wrote: "A wise man once said--'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it." They made a slew of great albums, they set a bar that they could no longer reach (at least in the eyes of the vast majority of listeners, and probably their own), and they didn't want to be the kind of band who overstayed their welcome. Like he said, they built something they can really be proud of, and now, they can walk away from it. Their legacy is one of the greatest of any band in the history of music.

It's perhaps appropriate that the band goes out with an album titled Collapse Into Now (released earlier this year), and more specifically, with that album's closing track, the dark and confusing "Blue," which ends the record with a resounding sense of finality, reprising the album's first cut, "Discoverer" in it's final two minutes, and seeming to bring everything full circle before it all crashes away. For me, and for many other fans, though, the R.E.M. story begins and ends with their 1992 masterpiece Automatic For The People, perhaps my favorite of all of their great albums. That album's hit singles, "Drive," "Everybody Hurts," (still regarded by many as the definitive break-up ballad), "Man On The Moon" and "Nightswimming," along with "Losing My Religion" from 1991's Out of Time, were the songs that introduced me (and probably many others) to this band in the first place, and they're also some of my favorites to this day. In the pantheon of truly perfect songs, I don't think there are many better than "Nightswimming," a track of such striking beauty that it moves me every time I hear it. The piano line shimmers and rotates around you as Michael Stipe delivers some of his finest lyrics, and the melody immediately attaches itself to your brain. The song is yearning, nostalgic, evocative, gorgeous, unforgettable, perfect. From first note to last, it sounds like a summer night, like youth fading away, and every time I hear it, each moment, each lyrical image, brings me back to a moment from my own personal experience. Only the best songs do that, and this one does it better than almost any other: that 's why it's one of my favorite songs of all time. On Automatic For The People it functions as the penultimate track, flowing perfectly into the almost equally gorgeous "Find The River," and it's these two tracks that I'm listening to right now, as I lay this band to rest. It's a farewell: I don't expect that there will be a reunion; this feels final. I'm sad to see them go, I'm sad that they will never make another record and I'm sad I'll never get to see them live, but one thing is for certain: I'll be listening to a lot of R.E.M. in the coming week. From the Chronic Town EP and Murmur all the way to Collapse Into Now, I've got a lot of ground to cover, and I'm looking forward to it. 

As a wise man once wrote, "It's the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"My City of Ruins": September 11th, ten years later

"In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang "We Shall Overcome". Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From this experience, I have come to understand that music is not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds."

-Dr. Karl Paulnack, Boston Conservatory, during his welcome address in 2004.

Few things have ever given me more assurance that I am in the right field than the above excerpt. When I tell people I'm studying music, I often get the incredibly frustrating question: "What are you going to do with that?" Well, I'm going to make music, I'm going to perform in any way that I can, and hopefully, I'll be able to reach at least one person in the way Karl Paulnack describes above. I do believe that would be worth it. Today, the above segment hits home the hardest. It's hard to believe that ten years have passed since that day, that day that is scorched into the memories of every person who was old enough to register what was going on. And ten years later, much like the citizens of New York City on that first night, I'm still searching for answers, for healing, and for refuge in music.

Legend has it that a few days after September 11th, 2001, a fan pulled up next to Bruce Springsteen on the street, rolled down his window and said: "We need you now." Springsteen hadn't been absent from music, but it could easily have been said that his glory days were behind him. He'd disbanded the E-Street band after their limited role on 1987's Tunnel of Love (and given them all rumored seven-figure severance checks) and had spent the next decade making relatively unremarkable records, ranging from his worst (Human Touch) to an unfairly maligned gem (Lucky Town) and an attempt to recreate Nebraska, with mixed results (The Ghost of Tom Joad). The 9/11 attacks gave Springsteen the inspiration for a comeback though: he reassembled the E-Street band, wrote a bunch of songs, and, almost exactly a year after the attacks, released The Rising

The Rising is both a heartbreaking farewell, and a resurrection. It's notable that the Boss opens his September 11th ruminations with an anthem: "Lonesome Day" is instantly everything that was missing from Bruce's music without the E-street band, and opens the album on an immensely hopeful note, ending the song with a refrain of the phrase "it's alright."  Throughout the rest of the album's 15 cuts, Springsteen and his characters wrestle through pain, confusion, anger, hopelessness and anxiety before they finally find their way back to hope and begin to move on. The final four songs undoubtedly hit the hardest, covering a plethora of emotions to close out the record. "You're Missing" describes, flawlessly, the unendurable pain of losing a loved one and feeling unable to move on in a world without them, in a world where everything feels wrong. The title track is a gorgeous mid-tempo rocker with a heavenly violin line which tells the story of a firefighter climbing through the smoke on 9/11 and, in the bridge, finding his way into heaven as the tower collapses around him. "Paradise" is a stark, hopeless song written from the point-of-view of a suicide bomber, a man who knows he only has limited time left, but seems unsure that what he is about to do will get him to heaven. The song hits hard and is one of Springsteen's most heartbreaking, entrancing and atmospheric compositions ever. Once again though, Bruce saves the best for last: "My City of Ruins" is a gospel-tinged ode that, I think, is the definitive 9/11 song. It doesn't matter at all that it was originally written about the decline of Asbury Park, Bruce's hometown. The song, despite being written before the attacks, took on a new meaning after them, and resonates here like few songs ever do. Everything about the song, from the backing choir, to Bruce's impassioned vocals, to the gorgeous piano line that backs it, is perfect. And somehow, after all the heartbreak and pain, Bruce manages to find hope in the final refrain, repeating the words, "Come on rise up!" amidst a series of prayers and images, and posing the question, "How do I begin again?"  By the time everything fades away, leaving only a mournful piano line to close out the album, it nearly brings me to tears.

Some of the music that came to define the post-9/11 world (indeed, some of the most notable contributions) were written and released well before the disastrous events of that day, but came to mean so much more in the aftermath. "My City of Ruins" is one example of that, as is U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, another return to form from artists who had spent the better part of the 90's experimenting with their sound and wandering further and further from what had made them spectacular in the first place. For those reasons and for many more, All That You Can't Leave Behind is a companion album to The Rising. Many people sought refuge and looked for answers in these songs, and it's not hard to see why: songs like "Walk On" and "Stuck in a Moment" expressed perfectly the stifling confusion that had been left in the wake of tragedy, but gave hope that life could somehow return to normal when the dust finally cleared. "Peace on Earth" hit even harder, as Bono made a plea for a world without violence, even as the United States suffered one of the harshest blows in history. And "Kite," "When I Look At The World" and "In A Little While" found U2 writing some of their best material since Achtung Baby and before. "Beautiful Day" was their opener when they played the Super Bowl halftime show the following winter, and when Bono took the stage for that song, there was immense anticipation all over the country and all over the world. The U.S. was still reeling from the attacks, and many expected Bono and company to make a statement. As Bono sang the pensive "MLK," a banner with the names of every 9/11 victim rose behind him until finally, the song gave way to the Edge's massive opening guitar riff to "Where The Streets Have No Name." Bono ran a lap around the stage, belted his heart out, and formed a heart with his hands before revealing the American flag he had sewn into the inside of his jacket as the song ended. It was somewhat typical U2: a grand statement that had the potential to come off as a bit cheesy or heavy-handed, but I think it hit just right, thanks mostly to the power their three song set brought to what is usually an extremely light-hearted and forgettable show between halves. Despite the fact that the decade since then has brought numerous greats to that stage, including the Boss himself, I think that halftime show will always remain the greatest ever.

Those two records are my go-to playlist for every 9/11, but there are countless other examples of music that was written in response to the attacks, or became something more in their wake. There's Ryan Adams' record Gold, who's opening track "New York, New York" and it's refrain of "Hell, I still love you New York" became something of a rallying cry in the weeks following the attacks. The video for "New York" was filmed just four days before and contains some of the last footage of the World Trade Center towers before their fall. Athlete's heart-shattering track "Best Not To Think About It," off their 2007 release Beyond the Neighborhood tells the story of a pair of people who were high up in the towers when they were attacked, and chose to jump out the tower windows rather than go down with them. Jimmy Eat World changed the name of their album Bleed American to self-titled following the attacks, and the album's centerpiece, the acoustic eulogy that is "Hear You Me," became even more resonant in the months that followed. These were just a few of the countless number of musical responses or rebirths, the kind that Karl Paulnack spoke of in his speech. I myself didn't seek refuge in music then: even at 10 years old, I think I was still too young to grasp the gravity of the situation, and my music listening was limited to radio airplay and whatever was coming out of my brother's stereo, but in the years since, these songs and these albums have come to mean something to me in relation to that day. It's one of the true beauties of music that it can both convey emotions that words can never quite find themselves and that it can come to mean something different to every person, depending on the events going on in their lives. On that Tuesday in September of 2001 (and in the months afterward), that transformative, symbolic power came to the forefront, providing healing to people who couldn't find it anywhere else. Some will ask for a moment of silence today to honor those who lost their lives ten years ago. I ask instead for a moment of music and a moment of thought. After all, the bars of a song are more powerful than silence could ever be: that's how I would want to be remembered.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"Can I go back to when I was a winner?"

Butch Walker & The Black Widows - The Spade
Dangerbird Records, 2011
Four and a half stars

Almost everyone knows that Butch Walker is and always will be my favorite artist: he's one of the guys who got me into music in the first place, has a slew of near-perfect albums, and puts on the most fun live show I've ever seen. He also will never make the same album twice, and The Spade, his sixth full length solo album, proves that yet again. It's a short burst of a record, running for just over 36 minutes, and it hardly slows down for a single one of those, delivering big guitars, huge hooks and a ton of old fashioned rock and roll charisma in each of the album's ten tracks. The result is, if not one of Walker's best, still a very good album, and one that will almost certainly earn a place in my top 5 albums of the year.

 I'm of the mind that Butch is at his best when he's at his most introspective: Letters and Sycamore Meadows, two of his best records, dealt with a rough break-up and a wildfire that destroyed everything he ever owned, respectively, and both of those records found him turning inward and delivering more serious, emotional material than he's generally known for writing. Walker is a pop-music God, a go-to producer and songwriter for some of today's biggest acts, and it's not hard to figure out why: the guy can write a hook like almost no one else in the industry these days, and that, along with his playful, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, has become his trademark, but that's not what made me a fan in the first place. What got me originally were his ballads, where his earnest lyrics and his raw, emotional vocal delivery just cut right through me. That's not to say Walker's more common persona bothers me: on the contrary, it's always nice to hear an album like the glammed-up party record that was 2006's The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites!, because it means Walker's had a great couple of years. And that album is probably my second favorite of his anyway: a slew of terrific songs, ranging from big rock and roll to introspective piano balladry.

If The Spade has a cousin in the Walker discography, it's almost certainly The Rise & Fall..., as that record's cornerstones of glam-rock and alt-country both reappear here (the country influence was also expanded on with last year's I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart). It's apparent from the beginning of opener "Bodegas and Blood," where a loud guitar breaks the silence for the first time, that this is going to be a big, carefree, summer rock and roll album. The massive single "Summer of '89," with it's "woah-oh" hook, big chorus and Bryan Adams references, is probably the best realization of that, and it makes me wonder why Walker didn't choose to drop the album earlier in the season rather than at the tail end of it. Still, the single is one of the finest tracks here, and I'm glad he at least released that in June, since it found it's way onto just about every mix I made all summer. "Day Drunk" is classic Butch Walker, and features him pushing his vocals to the limit, while the "Come on Eileen"-rewrite that is "Synthesizers" has a irresistable sing-along chorus and pays tribute to his love of 80's pop music.


"Dublin Crow," a bizarre cross between alt-country and Irish-folk music, kicks off the record's incredibly strong closing stretch, and is one of my personal favorite songs on the album. In addition, the song, with it's handclaps and gang vocal harmonies, sounds like it will be a welcome addition to the Walker live set on his upcoming tour. "Closest Thing to You I'm Gonna Find," with Chris Unck's nostalgic lap steel complimenting the guitar lines and Walker's vocal perfectly, is arguably the best song on the album, an alt-country track that, much like the twangy "Don't You Think Someone Should Take You Home" off the last record, has me convinced that Walker should make a full album of country music and roots rock. It's also the closest this album gets to a ballad, which gives a nice break from the big pop and rock songs that populate the rest of it, and grants Walker's voice room to really soar. The song, which is reminiscent of both "Take You Home" and The Rise and Fall's "When the Canyons Ruled the City" (my favorite songs on both releases) is where Walker sounds the most relaxed and at home on this record: in his songwriting, his singing and his own frontman persona, which is all the more reason that it's a direction he should explore more than with just a track or two on future releases.
The respite doesn't last long though, as the final two tracks find the Black Widows turning the amps up to 11 and Walker rocking harder than he has since The Rise and Fall. "Bullet Belt" has arguably the album's biggest hook and a band that is clearly letting loose: Jake Sinclair's booming bass forms the foundation as Chris Unck and Fran Capitanelli duel on their guitars and Walker leads them all to the song's massive chorus. It's a song meant only to be played at maximum volume, and is one of the very best things I've heard all year, something that should absolutely become a Butch Walker live staple and one that I'll be furious at him for if he doesn't play it live on the upcoming tour (preferably at or near the end of the main set). This is the kind of song meant to set fire to a small club. "Sucker Punch," the album's closer, is in the same vein: a freewheelin', full band party of a rock song that provides a fitting end for the album, even if it's an anomaly for a guy who usually ends albums on a much more subdued note.

Overall, The Spade isn't going to end up being one of my favorite Walker releases, but it has a fantastic electricity and sponteneity about it that I really dig, something that I feel has been missing from Walker's music since The Rise and Fall. One of my only gripes with Sycamore Meadows was that I felt like Walker had fussed over it too much in the studio and had ended up overproducing it a bit, which is why I still prefer a handful of those songs in their live or demo versions. I felt the same way with a good portion of I Liked It Better..., but Walker didn't play much of that album's material on his tour last year, and I think that had a lot to do with me never growing to love it like I had loved the rest of his stuff. The Spade sounds like it could have been recorded live, from the rougher vocals to the band chatting and laughing in the studio between songs, and that's something I immediately loved about it. That said, there are no songs here that sit among his best, but for a guy who has set such a high standard for himself over the past ten years, I guess I can't fault him too much for that. The Spade is the best thing Walker has done since Sycamore Meadows and one of the best albums of the year. It could also be the basis for his best live set since the Rise and Fall... days, so here's hoping he plays most of it when I see him next month (more on that later). It's a shame that the album released so late and I missed out on this as a summer soundtrack, but chances are I'll be playing it all through the fall, and chances are better than I'll be pulling this thing out to herald the summer when the weather starts to warm up next year. Because I'm certain there's no better way to listen to this loud, fast, house-party of a record than in the hottest months of the year.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"If you left it up to me, every day would be a holiday from real..."

Jack's Mannequin and Guster
Live at the Frederik Meijer Gardens
Grand Rapids, MI, 8/31/11

Andrew McMahon, the mind and voice behind the project Jack's Mannequin, has been one of my favorite songwriters ever since my brother bought a used copy of Something Corporate's North off Amazon at the end of 2005. I instantly loved that band's emotional brand of piano pop, with it's big hooks and McMahon's soaring vocals, and I quickly picked up their other full length, the even better Leaving Through the Window It wasn't until the following summer, however, when I finally checked out Everything in Transit, the first record from McMahon's side project, Jack's Mannequin. The record was born out of a few songs that McMahon had written that he felt didn't fit with the style of SoCo, so he wrote and recorded a complete, semi-autobiographical album apart from his band. That record, to this day, remains my definitive summer album and one of my top five favorites of all time, but until last night, I'd never seen McMahon live, either as a part of Jack's Mannequin or Something Corporate.

Needless to say, finally getting to see one of my favorite bands in concert was a dream come true, and the setting was nearly perfect: the last night of August at an outdoor amphitheater, on a warm night, the perfect way to close out what has been a tremendous summer. McMahon and co. were proceeded by openers Lady Danville, a talented group of musicians with vocal harmonies reminiscent of Band of Horses and a set of killer songs to boot: I hadn't heard of the band before this week, but after their excellent opening set, I will certainly be checking out their EP and watching for them in the future. 

By the time Jack's Mannequin took the stage, I was in high anticipation, and they certainly didn't disappoint. The sound quality in the amphitheater was excellent, and I knew it was going to be a great evening as soon as the synth opening of "My Racing Thoughts", the first single off of McMahon's new album People and Things (due out October 4th) echoed through the summer evening. Next was "Holiday From Real", the anthemic opening track from Everything in Transit, which started off with just McMahon on piano but quickly built into a showstopper. The slow piano lines and soft harmonies of "Annie Use Your Telescope" brought a lovely autumn vibe to the proceedings before McMahon rocketed into a pair of hook-filled, upbeat numbers ("Crashing" and "The Mixed Tape").

Next up was "Amy I", the second and last track McMahon would play from his upcoming record. The song was lovely, sounding even better in it's live setting than it's studio one, and it made me wish he'd delve a little further into his new material, since People and Things is probably my most anticipated release for the remainder of the year, but it's hard to complain with a set of songs as solid as the one the band played. "Last Straw," a b-side from the Everything in Transit sessions, was a concert highlight, and made me wonder once again why the song didn't make that first album, whereas "Swim," a track from 2008's The Glass Passenger, was one of the night's most emotional moments. "Bloodshot" was another highlight, featuring McMahon climbing on top of his piano during the song's intro, only to jump off as it exploded into it's first verse. The song, which has never been a favorite of mine on record, reached exciting new heights in it's live format, justifying it's spot on the setlist in favor of superior songs. 


By this point in the night, I was getting a bit restless. McMahon was giving his all onstage, but the setlist wasn't wowing me so far, and the crowd was quite possibly the worst and least responsive group of people I've ever been a part of at a concert, remaining seated in their lawn chairs despite McMahon's best efforts, and getting up to go get more beer every two or three songs. Thankfully, the end of McMahon's set was the highlight of the night: five straight songs from Everything in Transit, and finally, this concert felt like what I had hoped it would be. Hearing these songs that had defined my summers for years at the tail end of a particularly great one felt like a perfect bookend. The two-part track "Made For Each Other" went on for over ten minutes, but not a single one of those was wasted. The song, which functions as the penultimate track on Everything in Transit, used to be my least favorite song on the record, but has grown on me immensely over the years, from the supremely catchy first half to the more subdued "You Can Breathe" section that leads the song out. The segue into the second half also supplied McMahon's best piano playing of the night: the man has a terrific songwriting talent and has a great voice (proven even more so in a live setting), but his piano playing has always been the thing about his musicianship that has set him apart from so many other "pop-punk" or pop-rock bands, and that held true last night, especially on this song.

McMahon forgot the intro and the first words to "Bruised," but recovered in time to deliver the enormous chorus, still one his best, which rang through the theater like almost nothing else did all night. Afterward, he wondered aloud how he could forget the words to a song that he's played "almost every night of his life for the past six years." It didn't matter though, as the gorgeous "Rescued" came next. That song, perhaps the most subdued ballad in his discography, is also one of his very best, and it resonated particularly well with me last night. It's always been a song I associated with the end of summers: something about that line "hiding at the bottom of your swimming pool, some September", and hearing it as the light dimmed on my one last hurrah of the season chilled me to the bone. The stadium-ready "Dark Blue" began to tie up the set, and it brought me to my feet, even if most of the audience did not extend the same courtesy to the band. That song's bridge has always been one of my favorite moments of Everything in Transit, and it was certainly one of the most moving moments of the set. I expected "Dark Blue" would close out the set for Jack's Mannequin, but they remained for one more number: a rousing take on "La La Lie," where members of Lady Danville and Guster joined Andrew and his band onstage to close out the set.


Guster, the other co-headliner, is a band that I've known for years, ever since they had a pair of hit singles on the radio back in 2003, and I'd even seen them live before (at Interlochen during my summer there), but I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of theirs the way I am for Jack's Mannequin. Still, I was excited to see them again, and their live show was just as great as I remember it being. They took the stage with "Barrel of a Gun," a catchy track from their 1999 release (and still their best), Lost and Gone Forever. "Architects and Engineers" was the first of six cuts the band played from their latest album, Easy Wonderful, a record that I haven't given much time to yet, but one I plan to listen to a lot more after seeing this concert, as the tracks they played from it were the kind of breezy summer pop this band has been churning out for almost twenty years now. "Demons," one of the band's most well known songs, was a highlight for me, bringing back memories of when I sang it with one of my buddies at a high school back at the end of junior year. Singer Ryan Miller sounded better than I've ever heard him sound on that song, suggesting that he may have gained some vocal range since I last saw the band. "Center of Attention," another track from Lost and Gone Forever and another favorite of mine, was also a welcome addition to the set.

A breezy acoustic guitar and an eerie synth line heralded the arrival of "Satellite," a single from 2006's Ganging Up On the Sun, another great record I haven't given enough time to. The song sounded massive as it cut through the night air, and became one of my favorite moments of the concert. Another cut from Sun, the soaring closer "Hang On" marked the beginning of the best segment of the set, providing a terrific showcase for Miller's vocal prowess before launching into "Come Downstairs and Say Hello," a slow build of a song that sits among my personal favorites from the band, and the song's massive climactic moment was one of my favorite parts of any show I've seen this year. "Do You Love Me," the lead single from Easy Wonderful, has arguably one of the biggest hooks the band has ever written, and was probably the best part of their entire set: my girlfriend and I got on our feet and danced and sang along, and it felt like a perfect summer concert moment.

"Amsterdam," the band's biggest hit from the Keep it Together record from 2003, was a big crowd-pleaser: the chorus remains one of the band's best, and it's no big wonder that the song was a hit, it just makes me wonder why they haven't been able to score any big singles since that record (or why they weren't ever able to break into the mainstream before that, for that matter). "Happier," the last track from Lost that would appear in the setlist, closed the main set, and was undoubtedly a highlight, providing a showcase for the harmonies between Ryan Miller and guitarist Adam Gardner, something that was a cornerstone to the band's sound on the first few albums, but has faded with their most recent work. "Happier" sounded great though, with layered vocal lines and harmonies locking perfectly, and it made me wish for a few more old classic to make an appearance in the encore: "Two Points For Honesty" or "Either Way," perhaps. They didn't.

The band dispensed with the tradition of leaving the stage for the encore, instead opting just to dim the lights so they could switch instruments. They played through "This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart," another cut from their latest, where Ryan Miller put a disco ball on his head,  an exercise that seemed rather pointless, but was hilarious nonetheless. Sadly, I wasn't able to get a good picture of it. Andrew McMahon joined the band onstage for "Careful," the band's other hit from Keep it Together, playing piano and singing the choruses. He also joined them for their cover of Peter Bjorn & John's song "Young Folks," the strangest choice for a show closer I've seen at any concert I've ever attended. I was hoping that the band would play "Parachute," the title track and closer from their first album, and probably still their best song. As the band approaches the end of their summer tour, I can't figure out why the idea to play that song hasn't come up: it would be a treat for fans to hear something off the debut (which almost never gets any representation in their live sets), and would work perfectly as an end-of-summer closing track. It would have worked particularly well in the outdoor environment the band was presented with last night, but alas, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied by their encore.

Guster is a band known for their live shows, and despite my gripes over their set encore, it's not at all hard to see why: Miller is a great singer and a charismatic frontman, while Gardner and Luke Reynolds (who recently joined the band) are both multi-instrumentalists who augmented the band's songs with everything from banjo to trumpet last night. And then of course there's drummer Brian Rosenworcel, who's always fun to watch, if only because he plays most of the band's songs with his bare hands. And on top of all of that, the band has six good to great albums to draw material from: it's no wonder that they have so many die hard fans. On the other hand, Jack's Mannequin is essentially Andrew McMahon, who's prowess and a singer, songwriter, frontman and pianist makes the music, and all though he didn't have many die-hard fans in the audience last night, he still, in my opinion, put on the better show. In my perfect world, Guster would have gone first and Jack's Mannequin would have closed things out (and gotten to do a few more songs), but that's a small complaint for what was a great evening of music. Either way, I'm glad I finally got to see Jack's Mannequin, and I'm glad it was with a pair of acts as good as Lady Danville and Guster. Bring on that new album, Andrew.

People and Things drops on October 4th.

Jack's Mannequin

1. My Racing Thoughts
2. Holiday From Real
3. Annie Use Your Telescope
4. Crashing
5. The Mixed Tape
6. Amy, I
7. Last Straw
8. Swim
9. Bloodshot
10. Made For Each Other/You Can Breathe
11. Bruised
12. Rescued
13. Dark Blue
14. La La Lie

1. Barrel of a Gun
2. Architects & Engineers
3. The Captain
4.Center of Attention
5. On the Ocean
6. Airport Song
8. This Could All Be Yours
9. Hang On
10. Come Downstairs and Say Hello
11. Do You Love Me
12. Ramona
13. Manifest Destiny
14. What You Call Love
15. Amsterdam
16. Happier

17. This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart
18. Careful
19. Young Folks (Peter Bjorn & John Cover)