For the last several days, I have been listening to my monthly mix CDs again, trying to decide what I thought were the best songs of the year. When I got to some from Juliana Hatfield’s latest album, I had to eliminate her from consideration because the songs were good, but not quite good enough for a “Best Of 2009” mix. That’s not to say she isn’t a great songwriter or hasn’t had some phenomenal songs before, but none of those recorded tracks got played over and over on the car’s CD player on my way into work. They were a bit wan and too mellow and I didn’t find myself humming any of them late at night and wondering why that song was stuck in my head. For instance, right now I have “Stand Or Fall” by The Fixx running through my head because I just heard it a few minutes ago plus it’s an awesome song. Earlier in the day, I kept repeating the lyrics “Take just a little of my mind, subtract it from my soul, add a fraction of your half and you see it makes me whole. Nothing can divide a heart plus a heart.” At first I didn’t even know what song I was singing but then I realized it was “Mathematics” from Little Boots, a song I’d been listening to three days ago. The chorus was catchy enough that it rose from my subconscious to create my current earworm. Oddly enough, that isn’t even the song that is going on the yearly compilation. So you can see why Juliana didn’t make the cut this year. She had nothing as memorable as some of her past greats My Pet Lion or Houseboy or even Dumb Fun.
What was unusual though was how my thoughts drifted back to her concert in February. For days after that show, I was actually humming one of her songs but it was all because of the concert, not the album she was promoting. At the time, I hadn’t been to a concert in awhile and I hadn’t been to a great concert in an even longer time. I was beginning to think I was over the whole idea of concerts. Why pay $50 or more and waste a whole evening just to hear some self-absorbed rock star perform lackluster versions of songs over a bad sound system? I can stay home and play the album on my stereo and have a better, cheaper experience. Then I went to Juliana’s show and it reminded me of everything I love about concerts.
I sometimes forget how good a live music show can be. In this case, the whole experience was inspiring and out of the ordinary. The surprises started long before the show did. I happened to check Juliana’s website to see what she was up to and saw that she was performing two shows, opening for Bob Mould. One was someplace near Boston, where she lives and the other was at the Birchmere, about 5 miles from where I work. That got me wondering. First of all, it has been quite awhile since Juliana was an opening act. Also, if you were only going to do two shows, why would one of them be here? Did Bob Mould need an opening act at the last minute? Were they friends and she was doing him a favor? Did she just really like playing in this area? Was she coming here for me, despite the fact that we’ve never met and she doesn’t know who I am? Okay, I ruled that last one out pretty quickly but I did enjoy the coincidence that brought her to a venue so close and convenient for me.
Tickets for the show were $40, a bit pricey since I only wanted to see Juliana. Still, I bought a ticket because I owed it to her. For whatever reason she was playing her, I felt that I needed to support her since she is no longer on some big record label that pays all her expenses and supports her career. She was either doing this because she needed the money or she was helping a friend or she wanted to play for an audience. Regardless, I was in. As an added bonus, I would get to hear some Bob Mould, an underground favorite from the bands Husker Du, Sugar and his own solo work.
The day of the show I got there early so I could claim my table because the Birchmere is an open seating, food-serving venue. I got a space pretty close to the stage and with good sightlines. I ordered a cheeseburger and read my book while waiting for her to go on. A bit later, s solitary person wandered up on stage and plugged in a guitar. No, it wasn’t a roadie or a tech. It was Juliana. She did a minute or two of sound check and then launched into her part of the show. She opened with “Shining On”, a respectable but not fantastic song from the new album “How To Walk Away” then moved on to one I didn’t recognize- something with lyrics like “Never go back” and “I did a stupid thing.” Next was “Slow Motion” from a few albums ago then she stated that she was currently recording a new album and these next two songs would be on it. The album would be acoustic, recorded in her house and she was trying them out tonight. She launched into “I Picked You Up” after that intro. Juliana came up with the idea for the second song, Butterflies, when she had a dream about walking into a field full of butterflies. She wondered what it would be like to be flying around freely like a butterfly, without a care, enjoying their short life.
I wasn’t knocked out by either song but they had glimmers of something interesting so I’ll wait for that album (“Peace And Love”) to come out before passing final judgment. What I did love though, was the way she engaged the audience in the show, giving us background about the songs and trying out new things. She didn’t just stroll onstage with a band and limp through some well-worn songs. She was here by herself, playing new stuff that hadn’t come out yet, recasting stuff from “How To Walk Away” in a semi-acoustic mode, going back to previous albums, not for hits but rather for things that fit in with her solo theme for the night. The next five minutes really brought home the things I love about Juliana and how concerts should be entertaining and unpredictable. After “Butterflies” Juliana said she had a cold and she apologized for her voice. In her little girlish voice, she croaked out “I’m usually a better singer.” The crowd gave her a big “Aww.” Yes, her voice was a bit off but she was still delivering the goods, despite her protestations. Then to drive the point home, she dives into “Cover Me”, doing a pleading, longing take on the Bruce Springsteen song.
Next was a plaintive, wrenching version of “So Alone” from the current album. At one point, it was almost a shriek. You knew that she felt so alone and didn’t know how to handle the feeling. I still didn’t like the song but it was a powerful delivery. In fact, much of this night Juliana wasn’t playing any of my favorites of hers. I don’t mean hits, because she hasn’t had official hits in a decade, but I was looking for some of my favorites from her recent and under-appreciated albums. For instance, I would have loved to hear “Sneaking Around”, “Dirty Dog”, “My Pet Lion”, “New Waif” or hopefully “Just Lust”- my favorite from the current album. Instead, she was playing the songs I usually skipped over once I’ve absorbed the album but somehow Juliana made me enjoy and appreciate these mongrel songs of hers. She did it again with the next two songs, a concert cover staple called “Baby Gets High” by Madder Rose and then her own “Law Of Nature”, a supposed highlight from “How To Walk Away.” I still don’t know what she did on “Law Of Nature”, but that is the song I was humming to myself for several days afterwards. It was mostly just a repetitious chorus but whatever spin she stuck on it got lodged in my brain. Playing the album again doesn’t cause the ditty to stick in my head. It was just the show that did it. One thing that may have contributed to my enjoyment of the song was how she got this look partway through the song and interjected a comment “Oh wait, I have to do something” right before she broke into a couple choruses of “Take the Skinheads Bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven. She is definitely a music fan as much as she is a musician.
I was also highly amused by some other little touches she added to the night’s experience. After she finished playing “So Alone”, she talked to the audience for a couple minutes. She said the song was from her new album. That comment got some enthusiastic claps. She said she also had a book out, which garnered some more clapping but not as much as before. Then she said she did her first Twitter today, which caused a massive silence. I swear you could have heard crickets chirping. Apparently, absolutely no one knew she had tweeted. The next day, I signed up on Twitter and followed her feed which turned out to also be very entertaining and enlightening. She’s a fascinating woman. Her first tweet was about a train conductor. Proving what I said earlier, she is not a cog in a record company machine. To get to the show, she grabbed her guitar case and hopped on the train from Boston to Washington DC. The train conductor saw the guitar case and asked her if she was a musician. She confirmed that she was and they started talking about guitars. The conductor said that he had 88 guitars. Juliana wondered how you would respond to that. Do you ask him where he keeps them? She said that she only has 10 guitars and she’s even thinking of getting rid of some of those.
After that diversion, she gets back to playing and pops out a song called “Sunshine” from the “In Exile Deo” album. It has lyrics about how “white chocolate is my drug of choice.” What an adorable thought. It’s those offbeat things that make me love going to her shows. It turns out that was the last song of her set so she thanks the crowd, unplugs the guitar and walks off stage. She played for about 40 minutes and it cost me $40 to attend so it was roughly a dollar a minute for the show. She played none of my favorite songs, had no other band members with her onstage and sang with a cold so she had a diminished voice yet I can’t think of any minute that wasn’t worth the dollar I paid for it. She made it a great show solely by her performance. She rekindled my appreciation for live music in the span of 40 minutes. I remembered that it’s about the performance as much as it is about the songs.
This point was driven home a few months later when I saw a 1980’s nostalgia type tour. Crowded House opened with a short, modest but competent set, followed by Wang Chung- one of my favorite groups in college. They played all their hits but only got interesting when they changed things up a bit and got a bit jazzy. Then Berlin blitzes the stage. They play their hits, they play their new songs and they play some unusual covers (“Somebody To Love”?) Terri Nunn, the only original member left in the band, mesmerizes the crowd. She draws them in through her voice, her sincerity, her commitment and even, later on, by walking around the aisles while singing. She absolutely owns the stage until she finally concedes it ABC. They are a band I really liked as well. They played their hits, some new things and some covers. They sucked though. They were missing the vital ingredient that Juliana Hatfield and Terri Nunn had. They didn’t bring anything to a live venue that made it worth going out for. ABC put on a show but didn’t create an experience. So even though Juliana didn’t make the year-end compilation CD, she contributed something more important to my enjoyment of music this year. She made me appreciate the alchemy it takes to make great music.