Tuesday, January 29, 2013

heAthens Homecoming

It's called Homecoming, and it comes once a year, during MLK weekend. It's in Athens, but because it's Drive-By Truckers, they call it HeAthens Homecoming. The longer you're there, the more it's home.

I've only been into Drive-By Truckers a short time. Someone put their recent "Birthday Boy" on a mix tape for me in 2010, and it took me another half year to explore a little deeper. Last year in April, I attended my first Rock Show in Atlanta ... and instantly went nuts. (They call their concerts Rock Shows. It's pretty much the coolest ever.) I started collecting Rock Shows like I used to collect Garbage Pail Kids. I went to the August shows at the Georgia theater and the Patterson Hood solo show up here in Boston, and bought tickets to the DC show but then got viruses and couldn't make it. This was my first Homecoming, and I didn't know what to expect. All I knew is that I wanted to get up close to the stage, rock out, and maybe see some familiar faces.

Oh man, did it surpass everything.

That first night was pretty goddamned mind-blowing. The Chitlin Soul Revue was fantastic and it was awesome to sing "Fuck You" with everyone. There was also a longhair lead singer I was powerfully attracted to. Then came Thundercrack, a Springsteen cover band. A Bruce Springsteen cover band, made up of Drive-By Truckers' crew, opening for the band. Guys, Springsteen is the only music I like more than DBT at this point, so Thundercrack was a revelation. Patterson getting up on vocals for "Candy's Room" was like the peanut butter meets chocolate moment, only more righteous. It's what happens when you cross the spiritual with the dirty-down physicality of fucking: transcendent in all the right ways ... and maybe some of the wrong ones.

I won't go too much into the setlist that first night. A guy on my DBT message board, Beantown Bubba, has this way of judging shows, determining by which song he felt he got his money's worth. I was in from the start, but things kicked into high gear with "Mercy Buckets." The song's a game changer. If that wasn't enough, I got "Tornadoes" - I could listen to a whole show of "Tornadoes" - and my inaugural DBT song, "Birthday Boy."

But: I also got to hang out with my friend Paige, who I'd first met at the Georgia Theater. I hung out with Sarah and Luke, who I knew from the Patterson show. I reconnected with the Swamps, hung out with Beth and her husband (whose name keeps escaping me), and millions of others. Danny, whose name should be "So where's your brother?" Then came the big-name fans: I met Jonicont, who runs the message board! I met Clams, for chrissake! It was kind of a big deal for a Boston Yankee like me.

Then the tragedy. We found out early the next morning that merch guy, Thundercrack band member, and longtime friend of DBT (and one-time manager of Patterson Hood) Craig Lieske had died of a heart attack. At first, I thought it couldn't possibly be true. I remember reading it, thinking, "No way, I shook his hand and bought a shirt from him literally eight hours ago." But yes way. This after my friend TC died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, the day before I'd flown down to Georgia. The Homecoming Shows were sort of my way of escaping that for a little while. Tragedy should not strike twice in one damn week. I met Craig only briefly in August and of course he remembered me this time.

The show was intense, the most intense Rock Show or concert to which I'd ever been witness. Some of the choices seemed countercathartic at first, but of course they were exactly right. On my left arm, I've got a Cooley Bird tattooed, and underneath I have the legend "It's Great to Be Alive." When the first strains of "World of Hurt" started up, I almost lost it. Again. For whatever reason, I started crying during "Girls Who Smoke," a song I'd never really liked before last night's show but now loved. Talk about countercathartic.

"People Who Died" ruined us. All of us. Everyone at the front of the stage was either in shock or in tears. Swamp passed around a flash and although I never drink whiskey, I did that night. Patterson holding up the bottle of Maker's Mark, upside-down so it drizzled down his arm: an image that will stay with me forever, although I took almost no pictures that second night. It seemed wrong, somehow.

The final night, I saw Danny ("Where's your brother?") outside again. Inside, Sarah introduced me to the other known gay dudes from the boards. Big Tom - is that right? I suck at names - and his partner. I bought a lot of merch. Like, way more than I probably should have. Up front, I met with all my friends again, and the atmosphere was a little different tonight. Still reverent, but more jubilant, too. It's not that we were getting over, it's that we were getting through. And we were ready to rock, because rocking is how Craig left us.

I didn't know what to expect of the Camp Amped band. It's a band made up of kids from the local rock and roll camp, and DBT's invited them to play with them for the last three years of Homecoming. I was prepared to be supportive of the kids at any cost. It's gotta be scary to be a teenager and get up in front of a paying audience and sing, so my mindset was, "Even if they're not good, cheer for them, because you don't want to ruin them or stop them from pursuing their dreams." But, MAN, were they actually GOOD. I knew that when they launched into a cover of "Rhiannon," but then when they started switching instruments and singing, I was thoroughly impressed. Was the singer playing keyboards? Was the lead guitarist playing bass? Did everyone get a chance at drums?

I shouldn't go too much into Velocirapture, because although the music was good, I had a really prurient reaction to the lead singer and I was very distracted by the flashes of skin through his torn-up T-shirt.

When DBT took the stage, the crowd went NUTS. I think some people expected "Lookout Mountain," but everyone was still thoroughly rocked. It rarely stopped rocking after that, though of course they slowed things down with "Heathens," a super intense "Used to Be a Cop," and a draining "When the Pin Hits the Shell." Clams grabbed me around the shoulders during the explicitly gay "ten fingers and ten toes" part of "Zip City," and that made me so happy. I've never felt ostracized in this community, something I never expected and something I am sincerely grateful for.

There's a moment during "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" when Jay, Patterson, Cooley, and Matt get up on mics and sing the title together. It's like that moment in DBT's cover of "Like a Rolling Stone" when Patterson and former members Jason and Shonna join Cooley on the last chorus - when all the voices mix together in such a wonderful noise that it feels like being delivered into something better. The show the night before was necessarily short - there was no way the band could have encored after "People Who Died" - but this was the even more necessary sequel. The psychobilly end of "Angels & Fuselage" worked as a way to underline the whole weekend, and when EZB slammed his drumstick down once more, it flew into the crowd and someone up front caught it. Then someone else grabbed one of Patterson's guitar picks ... and handed it to me.

There are few words to describe what this band now means to me (which is why I used a lot, ha-ha). I flew down to Georgia knowing this was a weekend I needed. It ended up being a weekend we all needed.

Thanks, everyone, for my first Heathens Homecoming. You made it special.

See you at the Rock Show.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Whiskey and Waffles

Running away from grief has always been my thing
geographic cure, best way to avoid the sting
there were always excuses not to be by your side
I was on a plane searching for silence when you died

Touched down in the middle of a standstill storm
up the road was the music I needed to keep me warm
but tragedy never stops, it just spreads around
there’s no relief from grief in this whole damn town

and the band, they played the necessary sound
and we cried as we passed that flask around
and as the crew broke down, we stood stranded in the dark

We met in the light a little while later
over waffles and sweet tea and mashed potatoes
and as we broke down, we shared that bottle of Maker’s Mark

so rarely do we know what we mean to one another
when strangers are friends and friends become your brothers
you never know the way it’ll hit you inside
sometimes there’s no catharsis when the people you love are the people who died

and the band they played the necessary sound
we wept as we passed that flask around
when the crew broke down, we stood restless in the dark

the light was blinding just an hour later
we never finished our waffles or our mashed potatoes
we just mourned and swapped that bottle of Maker’s Mark

I’d never go so far as to say my grief was unique
but tragedy shouldn’t hit twice in one damn week
the memory of a laugh shouldn’t hold this much sorrow
or that handshake when he said he’d see me tomorrow

I want to be able to deal with this the proper way
instead of framing it in rhymes or running away
if this isn’t the solution, then maybe it’s a start
lose myself in the noise and blow this pain apart

I hope the band plays the necessary sound
and that we pass another flask around
and that we hold it together, together in the dark

whiskey before waffles, deep in the night
I hope that we all find the light
and that we never finish this bottle of Maker’s Mark