I should be going to a concert tonight. Should be. I even rearranged my schedule to accommodate it. But this is one of those rare instances where irksome, distasteful adult things – you know, work and responsibility – have taken precedence. I’m disappointed but not too bitter, considering that I’ve seen this particular band before and I have no doubt that I’ll see them again. And I definitely can’t be bitter when I look at my calendar for the next few months and realize that I’m going to be averaging a show a week until October. Can you imagine the kind of damage I’d do if I lived even the tiniest bit closer to the city?
Yeah, you could say that took it to heart when I decided that live music was something I couldn’t do without. It was like a boulder rolling downhill…it took a while to build up momentum, but now, look out, full steam ahead. I went from being content to wait for my favorite bands to play the big cities near me to flying halfway across the country for them. So not only will I be hitting up the local markets this summer, but I’ll be making my way further and further afield and, in one instance, I’ll even need my passport to get where I’m going.
How on earth did I get to this point, where I happily spend hundreds of dollars to get to an event that might only charge twenty dollar entry? Elbow may have given me a nudge in that direction, but it was actually another band, one that not many people have even heard of, that blew the door wide open.
It was about six months prior to the Elbow show, early in the Christmas season in 2013. I was in the midst of my boycott of the radio because I was of the opinion (and I still am) that most new music, especially the stuff they play on the radio, is shit. It was too early to break out the Christmas carols, but I needed something to listen to while I wrapped presents. My husband turned on CMT’s secondary TV station (the one that actually shows music videos), despite the fact that we generally agree that most new country music was (is) hideously bad. But this channel included some old favorites and bands that played more traditional-sounding roots and Americana music, to make watching a little more palatable. I left it on as background noise. I was focused on what I was doing and not paying much attention …until one song came on. The opening notes played, a snappy drumroll, a catchy bassline, and my head snapped up. I whirled around – literally – and gaped at the TV. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was…rock ‘n’ roll? Like, real, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll? And my god, was it good. I can remember asking my husband with some urgency if he’d heard it (if my shocked and excited sputtering didn’t drown it out) and insisting that I had to remember the name of the artist…which turned out to be JD McPherson.
One of the fastest orders I’ve ever placed on Amazon later, his first (and, at the time, only) album, “Signs and Signifiers”, became my soundtrack to Christmas 2013. I was hooked. I couldn’t stop listening to it even if I’d wanted to (I didn’t). His sound was so steeped in tradition, so reminiscent of a different era, but was undeniably new and current. I had no idea that people still made music like that…its familiarity was practically revolutionary. NPR’s endorsement on the album cover was the perfect summation: “engineered to restore your faith in rock and roll.” And it had. I ended up giving a copy to my father as a Christmas present, having a hunch that he would appreciate it. He did. Before long, he told me he’d started taking the CD with him everywhere he went and plugging it in at every opportunity. So, unsurprisingly, we decided that the next time he was in the area, we’d be there.
It seemed like an interminable wait, through that winter and spring, but eventually JD announced a summer concert in a park not twenty minutes from my parents’ house. Which meant that a mere two weeks after seeing Elbow and having my eyes opened to the joy of live music, I got to do it all over again. I made the drive up to Jersey to check out this guy and his slicked-back hair and retro vibe.
For that first show (there would be many subsequent ones), Dad and I took my then-five-year-old niece, Shelby, along. It was open to kids and free for everyone, and Shelby seemed to enjoy JD’s music as much as we did, so we figured why not? And it ended up being one of the most memorable nights of all of our lives. Despite the rather tepid audience reaction, the band put on a stellar show. Shelby was a whirling dervish of overtired, overstimulated excitement, all dancing legs and off-key singing. We enjoyed ourselves so much that, when the show was over and we saw the queue of people waiting to talk to JD, we decided to hang around too. Shelby had been pretty disappointed when, during the show, she saw him give a guitar pick to another kid, so while we waited for our turn to say hi, she (actually I, since she suddenly became very shy) asked the sax player (whose name is Doug, we would find out later) if he could procure one for her. He happily obliged and when we finally made it up to JD, he treated her so kindly, signing her pick with his initials and his trademark drawing of a broken arrow, I could have cried. Actually, I think I did.
After that experience, I knew there was no way I’d be able to wait another six months for their tour schedule to bring them back around. So for the first time, I decided a long-distance trip was in order. Six weeks later, my husband and I trekked five hours to upstate New York to see them play a small club. And they were even better in that kind of setting, exuberant and loud, feeding off the energy of the dancing, singing crowd that had swarmed the dance floor. It took me a long while to come down from that show.
If 2014 was my introduction to them, 2015 was complete overindulgence. I saw them eleven times. Eleven. I took family and friends, and I went solo. I drove a half hour to Baltimore, I drove eight hours to Boston. I saw them at dive bars at the beach and verdant New England parks and grand inner city ballrooms. I celebrated my birthday by following them on a few dates of one tour, which took me from western Massachusetts to Albany, New York, and then all the way across the state to Rochester. I witnessed a pretty momentous occasion when the drummer, Jason’s, son, fourteen-year-old guitar prodigy (and Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood”) McKinley James, opened for them at those shows and then blew the roof off when he played with them.
You know how I keep saying that I flew halfway across the country to see a band? Yup – it was for these guys. Their last date of 2015 was in JD’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the legendary Cain’s Ballroom. Seeing as how Oklahoma was a state neither of us had been to yet, my husband and I figured why not? So we did a banzai two-and-a-half day trip to one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever visited to catch one of the most electrifying shows I’ve ever witnessed.
Apparently, if you show up in the front row at over a dozen shows in such a short period of time, you also establish a passing acquaintance with the band members. Which is really kind of cool. After a show in Philly last winter, as the guys were taking their bows, Jason gave my niece Shelby a setlist (because, yes, Shelby now comes along with us to every local show) and Shelby gave JD a beaded bracelet she’d made for him. Not wanting anyone to feel left out, she presented the rest of the guys with matching bracelets when we saw them over the summer. In that instance, they knew they’d be pressed for time if we caught them during the meet-and-greet, so they had us hang out until the end so we could take a few minutes to visit. My whole family was there and it was an incredibly special moment.
The kindness that these guys showed a smitten little girl speaks volumes. I have so much respect for them on so many levels. They’re artists who managed to unearth the long-buried heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll and breathe life into it again…and on top of such a lofty accomplishment, they’re just good people. After all this, do you really have to wonder why I’m willing to go to such lengths to support them?
There isn’t much in life that brings me the same kind of joy as their music. It’s deep and pure and true. And considering how big a part of my life it is, I’m at a loss when I think of how I existed before I knew about it. While I could listen to it over and over again without tiring, I deliberately avoid it, going weeks or months without listening at all, so that when I finally do tune in again (like I am right now, as I compose this post), those feelings are renewed and sharp and make me smile (like I am right now).
The trickle-down effect has been staggering too. I’ve been to so many amazing places and met so many incredible people and made new friends all across the country, all thanks to this band. And that’s not even going into the world of music that’s been opened to me because of them. The Bellfuries (who’ll get their own post one of these days), Pokey LaFarge, the Cactus Blossoms, Lucius, Parker Millsap, Shovels & Rope, Frank Turner (indirectly. That’s a story for another day too)…all favorites of mine, all unknown to me until JD McPherson came along.
It’s pretty amazing, and more than a little scary, how something as small and mundane as changing the channel on the TV could have such an extraordinary and, quite literally, life-changing impact.
(Oh, and the band I was supposed to see tonight? They’re called Parsonsfield. I first saw them last summer when I drove to Massachusetts for a festival featuring – you guessed it – JD McPherson.)
The JD McPherson band features: JD McPherson – vocals and guitar; Jimmy Sutton – upright and electric bass; Jason Smay – drums; Ray Jacildo – keys; Doug Corcoran – saxophone and guitar.