Category Archives: 2000s

Of Concerts Past: Maria McKee in Philadelphia, 6/10/2003

Our stop at the Boot & Saddle to see Juliana Hatfield two weeks back reminded me of the North Star Bar, where I saw the Absolutely Sweet Maria McKee on her much-anticipated (by me, at least) High Dive tour. The Boot & Saddle, for those who’ve never been there, is your basic bar with a sizable backroom and stage; and the North Star, which closed in October 2015, was your basic bar with a sizable side room and stage. Both fit about the same number of bodies, I think: 150, maybe 200 if the fire marshal’s not looking. The main difference: at the North Star, at least on this night, the sound from the bar bled into the music room.

At the time, the Little Diva and her band were on tour in support of High Dive, her first release since her genre-bending 1996 album Life Is Sweet. Gone, still, was the country-rock overtones of her early days; instead, the CD tempered the glam and glitter of Life with elements of baroque and operatic rock. To quote (and lightly edit) the review I left on Amazon in 2006: “The tracks, in total and apart, have a narcotic-like effect; one listen and you’ll be hooked. ‘In Your Constellation’ has a Neil Young-like vibe, a la ‘Like a Hurricane,’ that sends me flying into the stratosphere and higher; ‘Be My Joy’ is, well, just plain intoxicating; and the dramatic ‘Non Religious Building’ is as potent as songs come. I was hesitant about the remake of ‘Life Is Sweet’/‘Afterlife’ … but, ya know what? It’s as good as the original – and the backing vocals are to die for, both there and elsewhere. My album of the year for 2003.”

As Diane can attest, I played it the way I play most albums I fall for – over and over again. In the month and a half between its April 22nd release and this show…did I listen to anything else? Of my own accord, no. With Diane? Yes. (Such sacrifices are what sustain a marriage, after all.) By the night of the show, I was primed. Bouncing-off-the-walls primed. Maybe Maria’s career hadn’t taken flight in the way she’d hoped since Life Is Sweet, but the new music she was making meant (and still means) as much to me as the alt.country prototype she built with Lone Justice and on her first two solo albums.

Anyway, of the show: Certain memories survive. I remember her guitar soaring through “Absolutely Barking Stars” along with her voice, which – I swear – felt like a ghost inhabiting my body. It was deliciously intense, in other words. Here she is playing it a few months later in Hamburg (from the 2004 Live in Hamburg CD):

“High Dive,” as on album, was brilliant:

“Shelter,” one of my all-time favorite songs, was another highlight. Here she is from a few years later performing it:

“Breathe,” too, was mesmerizing – but when is it not? It was sparse and dramatic, similar to this performance from 10 years earlier…

“In Your Constellation” was simply phenomenal; it swirled like the cosmos through the room. Afterwards, she talked about Bruce Springsteen and his influence on her music, singing a snippet of… “Rosalita,” says Diane…before launching into a dramatic reading of his “Candy’s Room.”

The philosophical “Something Similar” closed the main portion of her set.

Unlike the Boot & Saddle, where the entrance to the stage is basically through the audience, the North Star Bar had stairs with a slight overhang leading off the stage. As Maria and band were leaving, she hit her head – a loud thwack followed by her “ow!” echoed through the room. She returned a few moments later – and sang a song so good she recorded it twice: “Life Is Sweet.” She then left the stage, no doubt making sure to duck before descending the steps.

The (possible) set:

  1. I Can’t Make It Alone
  2. Absolutely Barking Stars
  3. From Our TV Teens to the Tombs
  4. High Dive
  5. Be My Joy
  6. To the Open Spaces
  7. Shelter
  8. Dixie Storms
  9. Breathe
  10. Non Religious Building
  11. I’m Awake
  12. In Your Constellation
  13. Candy’s Room
  14. Something Similar
  15. (Encore) Life Is Sweet

The Essentials: Juliana Hatfield’s Made in China

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once in their life.)

It’s raw and ragged, and best played loud: That, in a nutshell, describes Made in China, Juliana Hatfield’s 2005 followup to the previous year’s in exile deo.

As the picture to the left shows, the album cover is of Juliana’s naval; but the music inside is far from naval-gazing. Instead, the 37 minutes reflect the ugly truths about life and the music biz that Juliana had learned up until this point. Pitchfork, I should mention, hated it. AllMusic, on the other hand, gave it four-and-a-half stars. That, too, says something about the album. Different ears hear the music in different ways. And it’s not just critics. I love it, but Diane… let’s just say it’s not the first Juliana album she’d put on.

As I wrote in Bed, Unmade, I rank it with Juliana’s best – in fact, it was my Album of the Year for 2005. I hear it as her primal-scream moment, a reaction to the music scene writ large circa the mid-2000s. The early ‘90s, for those old enough to remember them, saw a wave of women alternative rockers (both riot grrrl and more mainstream) splash upon the shore of public consciousness. I’m talking Bikini Kill, the Breeders, Belly, Juliana, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and dozens more. The music, for the most part, was front and center. A decade later, however, that era seemed to have been little more than a fad. As Juliana noted on her website at the time of Made in China’s release:

The most talented girl singers have turned themselves into strippers. A notch above porn stars. ‘Cause sex sells. The next step would be for them to actually have sex in their videos. Mariah Carey has implants. Christina Aguilera has implants. Gwen Stefani has implants. Even her. She finally gave in. And Beyoncé is on her hands and knees evoking doggy-style sex in one of her videos. And she has so much (singing) talent! Why, Beyoncé, why? Why, world, why? Why do you demand this of her?

The album, as a result, is littered with lyrics that call out the manufactured vs. the real, and the trajectory of her own career. Witness “What Do I Care?”

At times, too, I hear echoes of ‘90s-era Neil Young and Crazy Horse, most notably on “Rats in the Attic,” which possesses thud-thick chords that reverberate for hours on end despite the song being all of three minutes and 14 seconds on CD. It also delves into a subject that Neil would likely approve of: the corrosive poisons that exist in and around us.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of its tracks on YouTube. But here’s one: “Oh.”

And here’s another: “On Video.”

And here’s “A Doe and Two Fawns.”

And, finally, another live version of one of its songs, “Stay Awake,” from late 2004:

The songs:

  1. “New Waif”
  2. “What Do I Care?”
  3. “Stay Awake”
  4. “On Video”
  5. “Hole in the Sky”
  6. “Oh”
  7. “My Pet Lion”
  8. “Going Blonde”
  9. “Rats in the Attic”
  10. “Digital Penetration”
  11. “A Doe and Two Fawns”
  12. “Send Money”

Albums of the Year, 1978-2016

(An updated/edited version of my original post that adds my 2016 pick.)

“Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom. I started the practice one late-December evening in 1978 on a piece of looseleaf paper, selecting my favorite LP from the dozen or so LPs I owned. In time, I transferred the list to typing paper, entered it into our first computer, saved it to a floppy disc and, in the late 2000s, moved it to an external hard drive. I now have it stored in the Cloud along with all my Pages documents.

And, for the longest time, that’s all it was – a list that I returned to every year to add another line. Even when we had our Old Grey Cat website in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, I never wrote year-end summations of my favorites – I was too busy critiquing Neil Young bootlegs. It wasn’t until 2008 on Facebook that I posted my top picks for the year; and, on and off over the next few years, I followed with missives until launching this blog on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch in 2012. (I’ve since moved to wordpress.com, obviously.)

I think I best explained the way I go about it in this 2010 post: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

That’s not to say that I still feel the same about each of my past selections as I did when I picked them. I was (and am) a major McCartney fan, but London Town and Back to the Egg weren’t his best, let alone the best of their respective years. I know that now, but at the time…I was a kid on a limited budget. More recently, I’d flip my top two picks in both 2010 and 2012 – in 2010, as I wrote at the time, I relegated Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul (one of my all-time favorites) to the second slot because it hadn’t been officially released in the U.S.; and, in 2012, I was simply smitten with Susanna Hoff’s perfect solo effort, Someday – I still am, but Neil’s Psychedelic Pill has received more play in the years since, as I explained in 2014 rumination I titled On Albums of the Year & the Pono Player.

But, in a way, that’s beside the point. The list, as I see it, is less a critical exercise and more a reflection of the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical tastes. At Diane’s urging, I’m sharing it… (and, where possible, I’ve linked to past blog posts about each of the albums or artists).

2016 – Rumer – This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook
2015 – The Staves – If I Was
2014 – First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
2013 – Susanna Hoffs & Matthew Sweet – Under the Covers Vol. III
2012 – Susanna Hoffs – Someday (1); Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2)
2011 – Juliana Hatfield – There’s Always Another Girl
2010 – Tift Merritt – See You on the Moon (1); Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2)
2009 – Diane Birch – Bible Belt
2008 – Juliana Hatfield – How to Walk Away
2007 – Maria McKee – Late December
2006 – The Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way
2005 – Juliana Hatfield – Made in China
2004 – Juliana Hatfield – in exile deo
2003 – Maria McKee – High Dive
2002 – Neil Young – Are You Passionate?
2001 – Natalie Merchant – Motherland
2000 – Juliana Hatfield – Beautiful Creature
1999 – Natalie Merchant – Live in Concert
1998 – Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
1997 – Steve Earle – El Corazon
1996 – Neil Young – Broken Arrow; Maria McKee – Life Is Sweet (tie)
1995 – Natalie Merchant – Tigerlily
1994 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Sleeps with Angels
1993 – Maria McKee – You Gotta Sin to Get Saved
1992 – 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden
1991 – Mary Black – Babes in the Wood
1990 – Rosanne Cash – Interiors
1989 – Neil Young – Freedom
1988 – Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
1987 – 10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe
1986 – Paul Simon – Graceland; Bangles – Different Light (2)
1985 – Lone Justice – self-titled debut; Long Ryders – State of Our Union (2)
1984 – The Go-Go’s – Talk Show; Prince – Purple Rain (2)
1983 – Neil Young – Trans
1982 – Paul McCartney – Tug of War
1981 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse – re*ac*tor (1) / Go-Go’s – Beauty & the Beat (2)
1980 – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
1979 – Wings – Back to the Egg
1978 – Wings – London Town