Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gary Louris at the Metro

Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, as you read earlier, played the Metro on Friday night. It was a good show, where he showcased a lot of material off his new record (understandable) and played just enough Jayhawks to satisfy the diehard fans (although I'm guessing most Jayhawks fans would've preferred a little more old material).

The setlist opened with "Omaha Nights," and I gotta say, now that I'm listening to Vagabonds for the first time as I write this, it's a classic Louris pop-rock song. The second tune was "I'd Run Away" off Tomorrow the Green Grass, which was nice to hear live, but I felt it really needed keyboards to reach its full effectiveness, and a female backing vocal (Grotberg or Gunderman, I don't care) would have ideal.*

At the beginning of the show, Gary couldn't get any sound out of his guitar. Instead of standing there helpless like an amateur while the techs worked on it, he told the crowd the band would go backstage for a minute while the problem got fixed. It was a veteran move, and reminded one that he was not a typical "first album solo artist."

Of course, a minute later Gary and the band returned: it wasn't a problem with pickups or cables, the volume was just turned down on the guitar itself. He cracked a self-deprecating joke about how he was new to this whole music thing. It was funny, because he's not. (The Jayhawks self-titled record came out in 1986. That's right. The year before the world heard "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley.)

The encore was a particularly tasty selection of old and new, with (to the best of my memory) two Smog tunes and two off Rainy Day Music: "Listen Joe" and "Angelyne" solo acoustic, then "All the Right Reasons" acoustic with opener Chris Stills, the title track of the new record with the full band, and ending the night with "Until You Came Along."

These two photos, from the Metro show, were taken by a Jayhawks fan from my hometown. How odd is that?

During a seated, acoustic stint, he played "Steppin' Out," a song he wrote for the Dixie Chicks. Another highlight: "Everybody Gets By," a rare Jayhawks song never recorded. The Jayhawks' two biggest hits, "Waiting for the Sun" and "Blue," were slowed down and rocked up with a swagger. The whole night he was backed by opener Vetiver, which ably moved from their lo-fi drone to the rootsy sounds of Louris. (Also, Vetiver's lead singer looks like Kyle Orton.)

During the Terri Himmert interview Friday (see below), the word "troubadour" was used. I tend to agree: in 10 years, Gary Louris could be considered a world class songwriter, not necessarily a household name like Dylan or Springsteen but in a class with John Prine, Tom Waits and Paul Westerberg. The Vagabonds record and tour make the case that he can succeed outside the band environment.

A big part of this show was not the songs, or the artist, or the venue, but the audience. Tickets for this show went on sale on a Saturday when TM and I were driving to Wisconsin (state motto: "Illinois' Playground") for a winter getaway. We thought an artist like Gary Louris would sell out pretty quickly. After all, the Hold Steady at the Metro, was a sellout, and the Jayhawks have a much longer history in the city. Add in the Jeff Tweedy/Golden Smog connection, and a quick sellout seemed obvious to us. We were so concerned, we investigated TicketMaster outlets in Madison (on the route to our destination), and whether we'd be to Madison by noon, when the tix went on sale. The last time I saw the Jayhawks at the Metro, I was up in the balcony, off on the side, cause it was so packed.

We got our tix a couple days later when we got back in town. The night of the show, we showed up towards the end of the first opener, Chris Stills. After his set we migrated to the middle of the floor, maybe 15 feet back from the stage. And it never really got crowded--near us or overall. All night we commented on the lack of audience, why this didn't sell out, given how Chicago had supported the Jayhawks in the past, and how XRT had failed to promote this show.

It's not like XRT doesn't know how to hype a show...I can't count how many commercials I heard for Warpaint, the new record for the Black Crowes, a band that hasn't had a meaningful song in 18 years. (That's right, I'm counting from 1990's Shake Your Money Maker, on Def American Records.) By the way, the producer of Vagabonds? Chris Robinson. So it's not like XRT decided to blackball Louris...it was an XRT show, just in name only.

Part of my complaint is with the promotion. XRT's Terri Hemmert did a Live From Studio X with Louris the day of the show...but they didn't send out the email until 10 minutes before the noon start. Likewise, TM got an email from Jam Productions offering free tickets to the show...which came in about 30 minutes before the show started.

But then, while researching details for this album/show review, I read the following on the official Gary Louris website. The actual text is in Flash, and because I'm a dork and I thought it was that important, I transcribed it verbatim below, with some hard returns to make it more legible.

Dear Friends,
By now some of you are aware that the westcoast portion of my tour has been cancelled. Let me explain why.

Late last week I made inquiries into presale ticket numbers and found them to be quite disappointing. I discussed the realities with management who then took it to the promoters, booking agent and record company.

It was decided that if I ever wanted to work again with any of the promoters then I should cancel the west coast before I lost them large amounts of money. I hope to make it up to those who did support me and I understand that it throws a wrench in the works for some who have made plans. As always life is a chain and one person's action causes a reaction...wonderful at times, bummer at others. This one is definitely a bummer.

I don't know why but I can venture some guesses as to why the support wasn't there. The West Coast has been historically tough for the Jayhawks, although we had some amazing nights, especially in SF and Seattle. But the climate of the music business has changed. Less people are buying music, listening to music, and apparently in my case, going to see live music. On top of this there is the impending "recession" (maybe ticket prices were too high?) and of course the big one....breaking off from a band and trying to establish oneself as a solo artist. No one was getting rich on this tour....I was not going to be paid so it was not a matter of greed...just business, and wanting to be able to be able to continure (sic) working with people without losing them money...

I may have to downscale the presentation and come back solo or in smaller rooms with smaller bands. I have already decided that unfortunately I will not be able to bring along a keyboard player. But I am still very excited about the remainder of the tour and playing with such a great band as Vetiver. I continually try to pry

At this point the text cuts off and a different entry with a different font continues--could be my browser, I don't know. I am not going to blame Gary's webmaster or the faltering economy for not being able to read the rest of the sentence.

This is a great press photo. The guy in it looks way too cool to whine.

I don't know where to begin with this petulant, "it's not my fault" blame-fest. Probably 90% of solo artists started in a band and had to make the transition, from George Michael to Gwen Stefani, from Paul Simon to Susanna Hoffs, from Neil Young to Will Kimbrough (if you're thinking: "who?" ... exactly my point) to Mark Olson to Jay Farrar and on and on. It's not incumbent upon us the listening audience to support your solo record just because you were in a cool band for 20 years. You need to give us a reason to come out and see your new effort, whether it's a supergroup or a duo or a solo record. The fact that people have iPods doesn't mean they won't come see you live.

Compare that with this interview in The Onion's AV Club, where he's asked about similarities between this record and the first post-Olson Jayhawks record:
It was a little bit gutsy and some may say stupid, but I felt like I needed to do it. And I remember my mindset was basically "Fuck it." That was it. "If they like it, cool. If they don't, fuck it. What can I do?" You know, am I going to go home and hide in my room? I want to do this, the band wants to play, and we have a lot of songs we believe in. And I think that's a similar feeling to what I have now. Not so much as in fuck you, it's more like fuck it. I can only do what feels right. If I try to figure out what people want and give it to them, it's a failure. ...

So I think that's a similar point between Sound Of Lies and this record. I'm trying to honestly do what I want to do, in the most honest way, and not worry about the consequences, because what's the worst thing that can happen? People don't like it, I go home. I'm not going to get hung by my thumbs. And as long as I don't read the reviews or care about what people say on a website or worry about those kind of things, then I'll probably be very happy.

I'd love to say that the first was an accidental, off-the-cuff remark and the latter was a thought-out response. Unfortunately, the first was a post on his own blog; the second was in an interview.
Gary Louris is an incredibly talented songwriter and guitarist. He wrote the song that TM and I danced to at our wedding. He name-dropped my friend Sarah into a Jayhawks song because she went to Spain to see the band on tour there. He's too veteran, too savvy, too talented to lay the blame at others' feet.

As you yourself said, Gar: "It's my game to win; it's my game to lose."

Finally (this feels a little like "Buckets of Rain" at the end of Blood on the Tracks, and ten bonus points to you if you get that)...

Two things you (and I) didn't know about Gary Louris before the show:
1) He is from Toledo, Ohio.
2) His nieces go to Notre Dame.

* foreshadowing. Not intentional. That was my reaction before I read his blog.


Anonymous said...

You stay up late!

Anonymous said...

I agree that at least part of the blame for the disappointing numbers is lack of WXRT promotion. I have been to shows that were supposedly XRT shows that were not promoted AT ALL on the air or even via emails. Why sponsor a show in name only?