Friday, October 21, 2016

It'll never be the way it was before

Sunday night capped off a busy little stretch of ten days in which I went to four concerts in four different cities. Each of the four shows carried some special significance to me, so I'll write a bit about each one before reviewing the last and most special of the four: a very memorable Okkervil River concert that was very different from any I'd seen before.

On Friday, October 7 I got to see Madi Diaz down in Newark, Ohio at a new venue called Thirty One West. I've been a big fan of Madi's for almost five years but had never gotten a chance to see her live - in fact on my list of "favorite artists I haven't seen live" she'd have been very close to the top - so I was thrilled to finally attend one of her shows, and she did not disappoint. I was very surprised when I had seen that the L.A.-based singer-songwriter had booked a show in Newark of all places. It turns out she is friends with the guy who runs the venue and he had asked her to play a show for the opening week. Madi can flat out sing and has a real knack for crafting wonderful songs that just have a way of really sticking with you. In addition to a number of her own songs, a fantastic cover of Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" was another highlight of the set. Before playing it she spoke of how she had suggested the song to her band and they had thought she was crazy but she decided to do it anyway. It's indeed a surprising choice but it really worked. After the show I told Madi of how I had been a fan for so long and never gotten to see her before. "Aww! Let me give you a hug," was her genuinely appreciative response.

The following night I was back home in Cleveland and (after dropping off at home the stray kitten I encountered that afternoon in Columbus and decided to adopt!) went to see Kishi Bashi at the Beachland Ballroom.

This was a show that I felt quite emotional about attending, because I had previously tried to get Cara to go see him with me, thinking she'd really enjoy his music, and she had not gone. But then she had later listened to him more and told me that she did want to see him the next time he came to town. And here was that next time. Kishi Bashi put on a great show as always.

Tuesday night brought a relatively short-distance out of town concert excursion as I headed down to Musica in Akron to see the Get Up Kids. Before the show I also enjoyed a great meal at my and Cara's favorite Mexican restaurant, Ranchero's Taqueria (and as a bonus, Tuesday is $3.99 margarita night!). So the significance of this show? The Get Up Kids are a band I'm really just a casual fan of and I don't think Cara listened to them; they've been around for over twenty years now but I had previously seen them just once - and it just so happened that that one previous show took place on March 24, 2015. I'm sure some of you will recognize the significance of that date. When I was at that show at the Grog Shop, having a great time with a really energetic crowd on the band's twentieth anniversary tour, I had absolutely no idea that exactly one month later would be the day my wife died. So it's a fond memory I have, going out to a fun show, and coming home to my beloved Cara, who asked me how the show was when I joined her in bed, and I told her about it. It's something that happened many times (for although Cara did enjoy going to numerous concerts with me, I attended far more than her). That was one of the last such times, and it was on my mind as I enjoyed another fun Get Up Kids show at Musica.

The fourth and most anticipated show in my busy week and a half came at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale, Pennsylvania, a small Pittsburgh suburb. It was my second visit to Mr. Smalls, both coming within the last three months, as I had previously attended an amazing Daughter show there in July. This time around I headed out to Pittsburgh to see my very favorite band in the world, Okkervil River. This would be my ninth time seeing them live.

I recall the first time I ever went to the Beachland Ballroom, to see Sufjan Stevens, and how when one of my friends said she had seen him four times I was amazed, and said, "Wow, you must really like him!" Having been to very few concerts myself, I didn't appreciate then how each concert was its own unique experience, and how you can see an artist you really love many, many times over the years without ever getting tired of their performances. I know much better now.

As it so happened, the very first time I (as well as Cara) saw Okkervil River was almost exactly ten years before Sunday night's show (ten years and five days, to be precise). I've blogged extensively about the significance of Okkervil River to my and Cara's relationship (here and here). I won't cover all that ground again now, but it is worth mentioning that it was after that first Okkervil River show that I finally decided (having already strongly suspected she had a crush on me) that yes, I would like to try being "more than friends" with Cara - and the next time we saw each other in person was when we became a couple.

One of the (many) great things about Okkervil River is that each new album is truly its own distinct entity, not at all a rehash of earlier material, and not only that, but Will Sheff and bandmates have managed to continue to put out great album after great album while always changing things up. This year's Away is the eighth Okkervil LP, and there's not a one of the eight that I don't love. Away is also arguably the biggest departure yet from previous Okkervil albums. It's a sprawling (58 minutes long with only nine tracks), lushly orchestrated work with a contemplative feel to it, basically lacking in the up tempo, high energy songs that would usually make up at least a few tracks on an Okkervil River album. Frontman and sole songwriter Will Sheff has said in interviews that when he wrote the album he wasn't sure whether it was going to be a solo album or an Okkervil River album. The title of the opening track "Okkervil River R.I.P." strongly suggests that this is something of a turning point in his musical career.

In light of this, I was very curious about how this show on the Away tour would compare to all my previous Okkervil River concert experiences.

It turned out to be far more different than I ever would have guessed. In more ways than one.

The band started off their set with gorgeous renditions of the first two tracks on Away. The third song was one I didn't recognize from the intro music, but when Will's vocals came in I realized it was a reworked version of "Plus Ones" from 2007's The Stage Names. I've seen bands do live versions of songs that are very different from the album versions in the past. It's always cool to see an artist reinterpret their past work in this way. Sunday night at Mr. Smalls was something entirely new, though. As the band continued through their setlist I came to realize that every single non-Away song in the main set was a very heavily reworked version of the original song. Somewhat curiously (but I'm not complaining because it's a great album) these included four Stage Names tracks - "Plus Ones," "A Girl in Port," "Unless It's Kicks," and "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" - and just two other tracks, "For Real" from breakout 2005 album Black Sheep Boy and "Down Down the Deep River" from 2013's The Silver Gymnasium. I love all six of those songs. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I'd rate any of the reinterpretations as better than, or even as good as, the original versions. But all of those songs were just sublime in their original versions and it would be very hard to improve on them. Having listened to those original versions over and over, and seen them all performed live in the past, it was a very cool thing to experience these radically different versions in an intimate live setting. The new versions of "Our Life..." and "For Real" in particular were amazing.

As  the concert went on, this continuing stream of strangely familiar yet different music began to take on a sort of symbolism in my mind. All that music is so strongly tied to my memories of the last ten years of my life and my time with Cara. Those memories are very important to keep and hold on to. Yet as time goes by, memories inevitably become distorted, imperfect recreations of the events that happened in our past. We want to keep the happy times in the past with us just the same as they were when they originally happened. But that's impossible. And so the distorted yet still wonderful versions of those familiar songs began to represent for me the distorted yet still wonderful versions in my mind of the familiar past events of my life. (Events that include, of course, the previous times I saw those songs performed live.)

Two of the songs in particular evoked poignant memories. "A Girl in Port" reminded me of how, after Cara had gotten her Mediport surgically installed in June 2014, she wrote a blog post titled A Port in Girl. Obviously that was a reference to the Okkervil River song title, but she didn't mention this fact in her post, so there were undoubtedly very few (if any) people besides her and me who got the reference. But that wasn't important to Cara. God, I love her.

The second of the two songs was "Down Down the Deep River." After making The Silver Gymnasium, Will Sheff created a Kickstarter to make a film inspired by "Down Down the Deep River," the album's lead single and a really wonderful song. I backed the project on Kickstarter.

I just looked at the list of updates on Kickstarter to try to find the exact release date of the film and discovered something I don't remember ever being aware of previously. The very last update, titled "It's here!" and announcing that the project was completed, the Kickstarter rewards were about to be shipped out, and the movie was available for download to backers, was posted... on April 24, 2015. The exact same day that Cara died.


Well, that was rather startling. Especially in light of what I'm about to write next. I received my DVD of the "Down Down the Deep River" film some time in May 2015 but didn't get around to watching it until months later. A Saturday night, July 25, 2015. There I was, relaxing on my sofa in a darkened living room and watching the beautifully shot piece of nostalgic filmmaking, when my phone rang. I paused the movie and grabbed my phone. It was my mother-in-law Joyce, Cara's mother. I answered the phone.

She was calling to tell me that Cara's grandmother had just passed away. Cara's grandmother, the woman who helped Joyce raise Cara, who always called Cara her "favorite birthday present" because they were both born on September 22, and who was one of the most wonderful people I've ever known.

I'm still stunned by the newfound knowledge that that movie I first watched on the same day Cara's grandmother died was released on the same day Cara herself died. Another entry in my list of wild coincidences, I suppose!

Returning to the more recent past, when the band finished their main set on Sunday night I found myself looking at the time on my phone in disbelief, like, already? With the addition of the encore the show hit ninety minutes in length which is somewhat shorter than most Okkervil shows I'd previously attended, but not by a huge amount. In terms of number of songs this one came in a lot lower, though, due to the length of many of the new songs as well as some of the reimagined older ones.

The band returned to the stage for their encore to chants of "Westfall! Westfall!" from the crowd. "Westfall," from debut album Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See, is one of the band's most popular songs and a traditional show closer for them.

To my great surprise, Will went up to his microphone and said, "We're never playing that fucking song again."

He didn't sound angry about it. Exasperated, perhaps. I suppose it's understandable how he might have gotten tired of performing "Westfall" after doing it at almost every show for fifteen years. If he holds true to his word of never playing it again, I realized that the last time I saw "Westfall" performed was also the last time Cara saw it. Which would perhaps be fitting in a way.

"You can tell the Internet," Will added, about them not playing "Westfall." "If you're a woman disappointed about it, I apologize. If you're a man, I don't care," he amusingly concluded.

I briefly considered but rejected the idea of yelling, "War Criminal!" referring to "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," probably my favorite song on probably my favorite ever album (by any band), Down the River of Golden Dreams. It's a song I've only seen performed live a single time, at that wonderful show ten years ago this month. Based on Will's reaction to the "Westfall" chants I gathered he wasn't feeling keen on audience requests.

I went to the Pittsburgh show after considering either it or a Detroit show the previous night. And now looking at the setlist from that Detroit show I see that they actually did play "War Criminal" there. Damn.

The encore concluded, after a stunning performance of Away's beautiful final track "Days Spent Floating (in the Halfbetween)," with Will saying that he would perform another (non-"Westfall") song that someone had requested, "Black" from Black Sheep Boy. So maybe if I had said "War Criminal"? Damn. Damn.

The final song was preceded by Will discovering that the sound on his guitar had totally stopped working, so he did the last song solo and acoustic, his voice and the guitar both picked up by microphones. An amusing moment came when Will began to sing the first verse and a number of audience members loudly (and badly) sang along, nearly drowning out his voice. Will laughed and stopped playing, stepping back from his microphone for a moment before starting the song over. After that the crowd singalong was much more subdued, except at certain appropriate vocal climaxes.

Although heavily stripped down, this rendition of "Black" was not such a drastic departure from the original as the previous old songs in the show. But near the end of the song, at one of those vocal climaxes, the lyrics seemed to reinforce my earlier thoughts about the symbolism of the reworked older songs: "It'll never be the way it was before."

Perhaps Okkervil River shows will never be the way they were before. Very certainly, my life will never be the way it was before. Before Cara got lung cancer and then died of it. But I will always carry that past with me. And the future? It can still be pretty great.

At the end of the show, I knew I had just seen a great show, but I felt a little odd. The experience had been so different from any other Okkervil River show. To be honest, if I were a long-time fan who had never seen the band live before, I would have considered this show disappointing. For me, having already seen them so many times, I could better appreciate getting to hear new versions of some of their classics. Still, I had to process what I had just experienced.

Fortunately, something happened then that ended up making the night just perfect.

I've realized that I really, really enjoy telling people about Cara. On a few occasions when I've been talking to someone about her, they've said, "It's okay if this is too hard to talk about." It's not, I reassure them. It's really good for me to talk about her. I guess that's pretty obvious if you've been following my blog. Something else I've realized is that it's often particularly meaningful for me to talk to musicians about Cara, when those musicians have made music that had special meaning to us or that we enjoyed seeing together.

Almost a month ago I went to another really great concert, by Nada Surf at the Beachland. They were another band that Cara and I really liked, but the most special part of this particular show for me? I'll just copy here what I posted on Facebook last month:
Nada Surf's normal bass player wasn't there, and filling in was none other than Daniel Brummel of Ozma, that is, the band that Cara and I took our first ever trip together to see in Washington D.C., and is probably the number one most important band in the development of our friendship and relationship and therefore in my life. I got to have a really great conversation with Daniel after the show, telling him about Cara and about the times we had seen Ozma and how important his music was to me. I even showed him some pictures of the storybook Cara made for me for Valentine's Day 2007 that contained lots of Ozma references. He seemed very moved to hear about Cara and about how his music had touched our lives. He also showed me a picture of his wife and the baby they had early this year, which he seemed very happy about, and I know Cara would have loved to see. The last time we saw Ozma, in 2007, we briefly talked to Daniel and afterwards a starstruck Cara said, "I can't believe I just talked to Daniel Brummel!" I know she would have been so thrilled to get to see him again, but as Daniel said, I know she was with me in spirit!

Ozma was the number one most important band to my and Cara's relationship, but Okkervil River, they were a close second. I actually think of Ozma as the "band of our friendship" and Okkervil River as the "band of our romance." (The reason Ozma still edges out Okkervil River in importance, then, is that we became the best of friends - Cara, in fact, was already the best friend I'd ever had - before we started dating.) After seeing it announced that Daniel would be performing with Nada Surf, I went to that show determined that I'd get to talk to him. At this Okkervil River show, on the other hand, I went into it thinking it would be cool if I got the chance to talk to Will Sheff, but really having no expectations of doing so. That was because at all the previous times I'd seen them, I can't recall ever having the opportunity to talk to him.

So I was surprised and thrilled when, minutes after the show ended and still hanging around on the venue's floor, I noticed Will emerge from the door next to the stage and walk over to the merch table.

At all eight of the previous Okkervil River shows I'd attended, I can't recall ever seeing Will go to the merch table to talk to fans. Now I can't say for certain that he never did, but I do know that I bought merch at several of those shows (including the first one and the two most recent before Sunday's), and that I had never talked to him.

And so I quickly walked to the merch table myself, stopped in front of the man who has been one of my most admired people for many, many years, and said, "Hey, great show." He thanked me and we shook hands, and I continued, "I've been a big fan for a long time. Actually I was just thinking about the first time I saw you, it was almost exactly ten years ago in Columbus. I was with the girl who would become my wife."

Will smiled at that, so of course I had to add, "She passed away from lung cancer last year."

Cara wrote this on her blog in June of 2014 (in fact, in the post that came just before "A Port in Girl"):
Telling someone that doesn't know you that you have cancer is an interesting experience. The evolution of their facial expressions can be completely awful. The words "I'm so sorry" usually follow. I'm so used to it now, to the apologies and even to having cancer that all I know how to do, is fight.
I could replace "that you have cancer" with "that your wife died" and those words would apply so well to me. And I am so used to it now.

It's worth mentioning that that paragraph on her blog was followed immediately by the two paragraphs that I printed on a collage that I have hanging in my apartment, and also gave as gifts to some close family members:
Today we saw the Neurosurgeon. While we waited, I glanced over at Jeff and noticed he looked worried, so I asked him if he was - and he nodded yes. All I could do is assure him that it's going to be okay, because I am convinced that it will be.
Everything in life is okay, until it isn't. A lot of times, that is all we can ever know. Today, I am not afraid of the future. I cry, but most times it's out of gratitude and awe. I am moved every single day by the kindness of friends, family and total strangers.
Those are my words to live by.

Getting back to my conversation with Will, I told him that his music was very significant to our relationship. I asked if he remembered how three years ago when they played in Cleveland, there was a woman directly in front of him sitting in a wheelchair. He said that he thought he did remember. I'm not sure if he actually did, and I certainly wouldn't hold it against him if he didn't, but I thought it was worth asking since seeing a person in a wheelchair in the front row of the audience undoubtedly doesn't happen often. That show happened about one month after Cara was diagnosed, and only about two weeks after she had major surgery to remove three liters of fluid from around her lungs and put in a pleural tube to drain additional fluid. She was, in fact, capable of walking at that point in time, but only to a limited extent, and would not have had nearly the stamina to stand for an entire concert. So we brought a wheelchair so that I could push her right up in front of the stage where she'd have a perfect view.

"That was her," I explained to Will. "Oh, and another time we saw you was the night before our wedding in Columbus. It was a total coincidence that you were playing there."

Will, like Daniel the previous month, seemed really appreciative and grateful to hear how his music had touched our lives. "Thank you so much for sharing that," he said more than once. We also talked briefly about all the new versions of old songs. "I'm trying to keep it real," he said. "I've been doing this for so long." I can certainly appreciate that perspective, and I have a lot of respect for it. I think it's sometimes easy to forget that the performers who entertain us are real people with the same sorts of feelings and concerns we all have. Having a conversation with someone who has really had an impact on your life, letting them know about it, and seeing their genuine gratitude is a wonderful thing. If you haven't done it, you should give it a try.

Cara just had a way of connecting with people. And she and I connected on a level probably deeper than a lot of people ever connect with anyone. It won't be easy to find that again, but since her death, I've found I really like making those sorts of real connections, even little ones, with the people I meet. And perhaps especially with musicians, because music is so important in my life.

I had thought it funny how Cara had said, "I can't believe I just talked to Daniel Brummel." Because for me, I was able to see Daniel Brummel as basically an ordinary guy who just happened to make music I really loved. Sunday night, though, walking away from Mr. Smalls, I think I felt a little like Cara had felt all those years ago. I can't believe I just talked to Will Sheff. Will Sheff to me had been an almost larger than life figure, and the concept of trying to have a conversation with him had seemed almost scary. Of course, it turned out there was no reason it had to be.

Will Sheff and Daniel Brummel, completely without either of them knowing it, had honestly been two of the most important people in my life, and in Cara's life, and most of all in the life we had together. I didn't know before I got to do it just how impactful talking to them about that would be. Both times there was just a wonderful sense of catharsis. I'm so grateful for those opportunities. Not to mention for the amazing concerts that accompanied them!

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