Thursday, March 9, 2017

You Got Your Limits, Baby, I Got Mine

A man can change a lot in three years.

So even if you were crazy about him in 2014, there are no guarantees for how well he'll hold up come 2017...or even whether you'll still react to him as you did originally.

You have to go see him to find out.

When I first saw that St. Paul and the Broken Bones were playing the National, I did nothing. My fabulous first experience seeing the band on a sweaty late June day in 2014 outside on Brown's Island had set a high bar for what this soulful group from Alabama was capable of and I wasn't entirely sure it would translate to a larger stage indoors.

But then Mac wanted to go and she's never been to the National, so one night after we were leaving the Gypsy Room next door, we stopped by the National's box office and scored two tickets.

Okay, then, I was going to see what St. Paul had become with three more revolutions of the sun. I'm probably not exactly the same, so why should he be?

Then she messaged me today saying she was feeling poorly but was still hoping to attend. By the time she picked me up, she had rallied a bit but was nowhere near 100%, so we kept things simple.

Smart concert-goers know to park once and party twice, so after stashing her car in my usual parking space (I have one for every venue I frequent), we moseyed over to Greenleaf's Pool Room (also a first for her) for supper amid the manicured pool-playing masses.

Without conferring, we chose the exact same order: housemade tomato soup, bar toast oiled and grilled, then layered with chimichurri, grilled mushrooms and garlicky sauteed greens, washed down by pomegranate lemonade and followed by today's dessert du jour: a plump cognac truffle in a honeycomb sugar nest with raspberry puree and toffee brittle.

She saw the meal as a good source of Vitamin C along with the immunity-boosting powers of garlic and pomegranate, while I saw it as an ideal simple supper. Win/win.

The music wasn't just to my liking, it might well have been a mix tape of bands I've seen in concert as one after another - Keane, the Killers, the Fray, Muse - played, an aural document to my show-going history.

I still can't seem to remember to allow enough extra time to go through all the new security precautions - metal detectors, X-ray machines, bag checks - at the National, meaning we arrived after Aaron Lee Tasjan and his band had begun playing.

Mac and I have a history with Aaron because he was the opening band when we saw Lydia Loveless in Charlottesville in November and we both liked his droll humor, smart songwriting and killer guitar chops, but little did we know that we were going to hear most of the same stage banter (the blotter acid incident that produced four folk-rock songs) we'd heard four months ago.

No matter, the songs are still solid.

His humor was most definitely still in evidence, like when he introduced himself as, "Aaron Lee Tasjan. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly." Or after announcing the next song would be "Success," saying, "Gotta write what you know."

One story new to me was about being at a female-heavy Cat Power show and one of the few other men besides Aaron yelled out, "The bitch can't sing," causing other women in the audience to look at Aaron to see if he was going to deal with the offender.

"No, I'm not gonna deal with him, but I will go home and write a folk-rock revenge song," he told them before playing us, "You Know, the Bitch Can't Sing" with such tongue-in-cheek lyrics as, "She had a tattoo that was meaningful."

Aren't they all, assuming you ask the tattooed person?

After his set ended, a guy standing behind me asked about seeing me writing in a notebook, perplexed at why I was using such an analog method and to what purpose. I soon learned that the foursome he was with was from Harrisonburg, all worked at JMU and were in town for the night for the show, having already been to Lucy's and Hardywood.

Unlike me, none of them had seen St. Paul and the Broken Bones, which I would guess was also the case for 95% of the people in the room.

At one point, singer Paul told the wildly enthusiastic crowd that they'd only played here once "and none of you were at that show, were you?" I raised my hand to differ and the guy I'd just met pointed and said, "She was!"

How quickly they forget.

Their set began with Paul in a purple choir robe which he threw off James Brown-style to kick off their set of soulful songs matched by assured yet controlled dance moves.

When last I'd seen him, he'd worn a dark blue suit with white shirt with French cuffs and white shoes, but tonight's ensemble was a dusty mauve blazer with a green pattern ("looks like my Grandma's couch," he said) and I was nowhere close enough to see if his cuffs were French or otherwise.

Another change was that the former septet had added a sax/flute player to the horn duo of trombone and trumpet. Paul's ease with the microphone as prop - the cord in his teeth, for cryin' out loud - was even more polished, if that's possible, than last time.

Barely a third of the way into their set, Mac looked at me and said she felt so lousy she was leaving. I didn't mind walking home, but I was terribly sorry she was going to miss the rest of their set.

Because the stage was bigger, Paul spent more time prowling it as he sang or maybe he's just cut back on his dance moves after so much touring. Oh, they're still there, but a tad less frequently and now a dramatic hand or arm gesture subs for full-on grooving.

Not so yours truly, although by that time, the sold-out crowd was shoulder to shoulder and every other move resulted in brushing up against a stranger. If someone begrudges me a little honest dancing in place, the problem is theirs, not mine.

Things got slow and sexy for a while and if there'd been room, there might've been slow dancing, but instead we made do with swaying.

Now that the band has a second album, they no longer need to cover Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding like they did 3 years ago, but even newer material still carries that retro soul vibe of a Muscle Shoals session with blaring horns, organ-sounding keys and a killer rhythm section driving it all.

Was tonight's show as magical as that $5 June night had been?

How could it be? Besides that the band is more polished and confident now, we weren't outside on a humid, sticky night listening to soul music accompanied by the sounds of the James river and a passing train. When you lose the sweat, you lose something.

Not saying I didn't enjoy tonight's show plenty, but there's something to be said for a girl's first experience with a band or a man. That's all I'm saying.

I can't sing and I have no meaningful tattoos. I'm saying it because you gotta write what you know.


  1. It was a pleasure meeting you and getting your recommendation for 821, delicious! Thoroughly enjoyed the show, The National, and Richmond. Hope to be back for more! PS: We're all in Harrisonburg at JMU, but close enough ;)

  2. Duly noted (and corrected). Don't hesitate to ask for more recommendations next time you're coming...I'm full of them!