I’ve seen my share of concerts in my life, probably more than my share, really, so I’ve seen many opening acts. Sometimes you get a legend, like when I saw Mavis Staples open for Los Lobos, or Lucinda Williams opening for Neil Young, or an established performer with a following, like Thin Lizzy opening for Queen, or Graham Parker opening for Nick Lowe, or Alejandro Escovedo opening for Nick Lowe (another time). Often, the opening act is an up and comer that is looking for exposure, and occasionally the headliner allows the venue to pick a local artist, such as the mariachi band that opened for The Mavericks.
Usually, it seems, that the opener and the headliner inhabit a similar musical space–because the audience is there for a certain style of music, so it makes sense for the warm up to be in the audience’s wheelhouse. I’ve seen a couple of shows with particularly strange bedfellows–country singer Dwight Yoakam opening for Hüsker Dü and rapper Kurtis Blow confusing the audience for The Clash.
I almost always make the effort to see the opening act. Even if it isn’t someone I’m familiar with, discovering new music is something that I love. Plus, I paid for it, and as my father used to say, “Take what they give you.” I never really understand why so many people eschew the bonus music and show up late. Worst case scenario, generally, is you are underwhelmed for 40 minutes or so. There have only been two times in my life that I walked out of the venue during the warm up act. The first was in 1991, when Sonic Youth opened for Neil Young at Madison Square Garden. I know that cuts into any rock snob cred that I may have, but they were unlistenable. Here’s an excerpt from Confusion is Next, a 1994 book about Sonic Youth, discussing the tour:
The crowd was likely to boo throughout Sonic Youth’s set…. Onstage Young’s set far overpowered Sonic Youth’s (his crew insisted on keeping the opening acts’ volume far below Neil’s); Sonic Youth almost quit after the first few weeks (a particularly tepid mix ruined the 2/4 performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden) in protest of the sonic muzzle until a face-to-face meeting with the hoary headliner rectified the matter.
It was that 2/4/91 “tepid mix” (and harsh, screeching feedback) that chased my wife and I from our seats. Nearly a decade later, my wife and children and I saw Richard Thompson at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, outside of London. Opening was Sandy Dillon. Thompson, whose songs often plumb the darkness of life, stated that he loves having Sandy Dillon on tour with him because she “makes me sound cheerful.” The Guardian‘s review of that show referred to her as:
strange, to say the least. With her straight dark hair, pharaoh make-up and thin, elongated body, she looks as if she haunts grave yards at the witching hour, looking for buried inspiration. Her songs are dark and heavy, not least Too Rough, a cacophony of random noise and ironic rock’n’roll postures. When she sings, her voice swoops unnervingly between Betty Boop and John Lee Hooker.
It was painful to listen to, and all four of us bolted from the auditorium, returning to hear a great set from Thompson.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of seeing three excellent shows at my beloved Tarrytown Music Hall–Son Volt, Richard Thompson and The Jayhawks. All were wonderful (although Jay Farrar could look like he enjoys his work occasionally), but I’m not going to write about them–I’m going to discuss the three opening acts, Anders Parker, Joan Shelley and Johnny Irion, respectively. Because if the worst case scenario is being underwhelmed (usually), the best case scenario is you get to see performers like these, who are incredibly talented and enjoyable.
Let’s start with Anders Parker, who I was aware of from his collaborations with Farrar in both New Multitudes (a project that set new music to Woody Guthrie lyrics which we saw at Newport a few years ago) and Gob Iron. And, I just found out, he was in a band called Varnaline back in the 90s, and I have enjoyed a very good song Parker wrote, called “Northern Lights” which was on a sampler album, for years. Here are New Multitudes at Newport, with Parker on the left, Farrar in the middle, Jim James on the right and Will Johnson on drums:
Parker played a short solo set, showcasing his inventive songwriting and guitar playing, ending with an intense, thrilling solo that looked like it might cause his acoustic guitar to erupt into flames. Here’s Anders:
Opening for Thompson was someone light-years better than Sandy Dillon, singer-songwriter Joan Shelley. Unlike Parker, she has released a handful of albums, with a new one coming in a couple of weeks. That album, by the way, is produced by Jeff Tweedy, putting Shelley into the company of Mavis and Pops Staples and Richard Thompson (and Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie). Shelley’s set, supported by guitarist/singer Nathan Salsburg (also a curator at the Alan Lomax archive), was beautiful folk-rock. Her music reminded me, at times, of Gillian Welch, for its unhurried, leisurely yet confident feel (but with less twang), and her voice was reminiscent of the pure tones of Sally Ellyson of Hem, or Linda Thompson. I was actually hoping that Richard would bring her out to do a duet; instead, we were treated to an encore with Teddy Thompson, which was not too shabby. (I don’t have a picture of Joan and Nathan, because there was a “no pictures” policy at the Music Hall that night.)
Finally, Johnny Irion opened for The Jayhawks. I’ve seen Irion a few times before, but only with his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, at the Music Hall, at Newport, and at the Clearwater Festival. Here are Sarah Lee, Johnny and a bunch of kids at the Newport kids tent:
Irion seemed very close to The Jayhawks–Gary Louris of the band produced one of the couple’s albums and appeared on another–and Irion’s loose, informal set, included cameos from The Jayhawks bassist, Marc Perlman, and keyboard player, Karen Grotberg, and a cover of a song from a Louris solo album. Not to mention, vocals from Guthrie. His enthusiasm, writing and musicianship made the set great fun, and a perfect segue into The Jayhawks’ excellent show. Here are Johnny, Marc and Sarah Lee:
He and Sarah Lee joined the band for a few songs, and it appeared to me that Sarah Lee was having more fun than anyone on stage. I don’t know if it is because she hasn’t been performing, or if, as my wife suggests, it must be fun for someone who generally performs in a small, mostly acoustic setting, to work with a full band, or if she is just a generally enthusiastic person who loves The Jayhawks, but it was fun to see. And Johnny seemed to love sneaking behind Tim O’Reagan’s drum kit and wailing away on the tambourine. As you can see here:
By the way, to tie this up even tighter, I saw Nora Guthrie in the audience. She was the prime mover behind the various projects that invited musicians to use her father’s lyrics to create new songs, including the aforementioned New Multitudes, the Wilco/Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue releases, and others by diverse artists including Dropkick Murphys, Jonatha Brooke, Del McCoury and The Klezmatics.
Today’s featured song is, fittingly, “The Opening Act,” by one of my obvious go-to bands, The Drive-By Truckers. It tells of the plight and despair of the support act, and is based on an incident during a show in which Truckers front man Patterson Hood opened as a solo act for another band, reportedly Drivin’ & Cryin’. As Hood writes:
I’m just the opening act
And it ain’t my crowd and it ain’t my night but I’d be lying if I said I can’t relate
I’m just the opening act and the van is packed and I’m hauling ass to another state
Ironically, the last time I saw the Truckers with my son a few months ago, we missed the opening act, Kyle Craft, because they changed the timing for the show, and I didn’t know. I heard he was good. The Truckers were great.