One week ago today, I was on a plane hurtling through tailwinds and contending with an endlessly shrieking three-year old on my way to Walt Disney World, where I celebrated my friend Joe’s birthday in our customary style: Disneying the shit out of it. Our friends Robert and Brad and Kay and Ricky joined us incrementally, but mostly it was just me and my buddy Joe. We dined. I got drunk in a tiki bar. Like super drunk. Somewhere in there, I found time to head out to downtown Orlando and take in what was probably my last Drive-By Truckers show of the year. They rocked my face off, and Patterson Hood not only dedicated a song to me, he also mentioned me on Facebook, so my life in rock and roll was already soaring.
A day after I got back from Disney, I headed out to the Sinclair in Harvard Square to take in my third Blitzen Trapper show ever. Third. That seems insane to me, because much of the last year and a half has been spent immersed in their music. I became the fan that wrote their Wikipedia page and got permission to write a book about them. Half-measures don’t suit me. When my friend Ian and I caught them last year in DC, we only did it because they were opening for the Truckers; I knew “Furr” and “Black River Killer” and that was where my knowledge of Blitzen Trapper ended. The day after the first show, Ian and I went out and bought three more albums. We were hooked. I was nuts hooked.
So now I was at the Sinclair and, look, I don’t know how these things work. My approach to Truckers shows is showing up an hour or more early so I can make sure to hug the rail with my DBT buddies. When I go to Springsteen shows that are general admission … well, I’ve been known to hang out for sixteen hours and read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because waiting most of a day to get into the pit at a Springsteen show is a surefire cure for not reading Pulitzer Prize winners. I was completely unprepared for how a Blitzen Trapper show functions. I got in line a half hour before almost anyone else. I got to the front and grabbed the stage. No one else was copying me. Maybe it was the Cambridge hipster thing. People wanted to be there, but, like, didn’t want to seem excited to be there? Screw it. I’m a lone wolf. I’ve got enthusiasm in buckets.
Seeing my first full Trapper concert on my home turf was the circumstance of some cruel fate. Last year, I’d been able to see them and the Truckers on the same bill. Now, they were playing in New York City on the same day as the Truckers’ Orlando show, and as much as I love NYC, any excuse I can make to go to Disney with some of my best friends is an excuse I will make. Besides, I think I prefer the more dramatic, narrative feel of them showing up in my hometown. My first show after becoming a megafan, and it’s right here in my backyard. Dig it.
Two Red Bulls in and eyes wide and nerves jangling, I watched opening band, The Domestics – also from Portland – take the stage. Assessment: good stuff. Steeped in classic Britpop sounds; they seemed to have studied at the feet of The Kinks and The Turtles. Also two of five band members were foxy beyond. In the parlance I tend to use on Twitter: hotness game on fleek, trill af. On night three, I let the drummer know where he stood on my yum-o-meter and he was real Portland about it. I bought their album, I get to have an ogle.
Blitzen Trapper took the stage and the uncritical, overwhelming bliss gripped me at once. My interest in this band has been on a steep and steady grade ever since discovering them and this moment – stopped in time, steeped in importance – served as both a culmination and a reward. Before even playing a note, the band’s camaraderie and charisma flowed off the stage in palpable waves. Their new album, All Across This Land, had come out the week prior, and it was The Ghost of Tom Joad and it was English Oceans and it was Stunt: the first new studio album since I got into a band. I’d been careful to listen enough to let it seep into me but not so much that I got sick of the new songs. Plus, I needed to be open enough to their live interpretations. Everything was launching.
Eric Earley, lead singer, stood at the microphone and let a low rrrrr sound drag out: part growl, part engine revving up. Then he opened up and the band did too, as the guttural precursor ramped into “Rock and Roll Was Made For You.” Its deceptively happy music and somewhat generic title belied its darker lyrics, saturated with addiction terminology – rock is for blacking out, rock leaves its own track marks up and down your arm. It starts out midtempo and then explodes into a full-out rocker; it was a mission statement for the album and it is for the show. Rock and roll will take no prisoners, will offer no quarter. It will rule you, it will wreck you, it will make you travel to three different cities and stand in the front and scream until you’re hoarse.
The set list that first night oscillated between folk and country funk and rock so 70s it would pulse only in sepia for people with synesthesia. They made room for my two favorite songs, “Love the Way You Walk Away” and “Big Black Bird,” which served as the big rollicking closer. Along the way, not one but two Beatles covers: “Come Together” and “You Never Give Me Your Money,” both of which traded off verses between Earley, keyboardist and guitarist Marty Marquis, and drummer Brian Koch. I can’t be aloof about this: bands trading verses is one of my weaknesses, even more so than hot drummers. Not only were they swapping vocals, but they have a way with three-part harmony that will make your heart burst and your knees weak. In the encore, Earley, Brian, and Marty stood at the front of the stage and took on a half-acoustic, half a capella cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Sweet country sounds, right here in the midst of Harvard Square.
After the show, I met with delightful bassist Michael Van Pelt, who has been my primary contact in my journey through Blitzen Trapper’s past and present. All I can say is that I’m getting better talking to people I admire; I didn’t fall down or palpitate once, unlike the time I met Bernie Wrightson at ComicCon and felt compelled to show him my Cycle of the Werewolf tattoo and point at it and be all, “You made this! Look, this is something you made!” I’m an embarrassment to humans. Mike and I gave each other a hug and I told him how much the band rocked, because I’m way more articulate on paper than in real life. I bought a shirt and took it home and tried to sleep because I had to be up early to fly to Philadelphia for Night Two.
Philadelphia is … well, let’s just say that my Air BNB was very nice, and I was more amused at the cow pelt on the wall than disturbed. Also, I was the only customer in the Indian restaurant next door, so I self-consciously read my 33/13 book on Neil Young’s Harvest as I made the entire kitchen staff cater to just me. To give you an idea of my neighborhood: I had to walk forty minutes to find a Starbucks. It was fucking worth it.
The thing about the Sinclair in Cambridge is that it’s fairly new and modern. Big stage, fairly expansive room, great little bar. All the good parts of hip without any of the drawbacks, like a hot guy with a funky mustache who likes stuff sincerely. In contrast, Johnny Brenda’s in Philly is as old school as possible. It’s a little bar and tavern, in which I ran into Eric Earley and also, insanely, had a normal conversation with him. What was happening with me? I may have also told him that the band rocked the night before, because I’m a dork. Can I point out how nice everyone in the band is, by the way?
My friend Clams, aka David, a Drive-By Truckers buddy, joined me for a drink or two (it was two and it was ill-advised, but Johnny Brenda’s had no Red Bulls which … I mean, come on, Philly. I need caffeine.) and then we headed upstairs to the concert room. Good lord. If the band wanted vintage verisimilitude, here it was. Tiny stage, tiny room, ample balcony, beads on the walls; it was like walking into a time machine to a time when clubs all looked like your cool uncle’s rec room. I loved everything about it.
The band leaned more heavily on newer stuff, and it was awesome to hear some of that airing out. The snaky, brooding “Love Grow Cold” pops live, its almost sensual desperation alive and bitter. “Nights Were Made For Love” has become one of my new live favorites, Earley’s vocal jumping in just as the instruments crash together, nostalgic urgency shaking those beads on the walls and the feet on the floor. Someone drunkenly shouted, “Don’t play your new stuff, play your old stuff.” The crowd laughed it off and the band seemed to understand that Drunky McSadlife didn’t speak for the rest of us. We were here for “Furr” and “Black River Killer,” sure, but we kept coming back for the new stuff. And hey, we got “American Goldwing,” and I could have been happy with just that. Someone else requested “Gold for Bread,” and Earley said, “Oh man, I forgot that one. We’ll have to rehearse that for a later show.”
The later show was the next night. I took a train down to Washington DC, my whole Blitzen Trapper live experience coming full circle. I met my buddy Ian and we spent the afternoon working (this whole telecommuting thing allows me to live a rock star lifestyle and still have an office drone job) and then made our way to the Black Cat. Again we were among the first there, and it almost didn’t matter: the floor was huge. We ran into another fan at the front of the stage and he was just as stoked as we were, but he didn’t like the Beatles so as it turned out he couldn’t be fully trusted. Ian had been beside me when we first heard Blitzen Trapper live; they started off with “Fletcher” then, and they brought it back tonight. Again, I shut my critical functions off early and just let myself get lost in the music. We got “Gold for Bread.” We got “Big Black Bird” (absent from the night before). We got “Heart Attack” in an extended jam to close out the night. And then it was over.
I hung around after the show like a super creep, but Erik Menteer and Marty Marquis came up to me and thanked me for coming out to all these shows and supporting the band. I thanked them for, I think I said, “being so awesome,” because DOOOOOORK. Then there was Mike, bassist extraordinaire, and we talked a little more and said bye for now, because it’s gonna be awhile before I see them again.
Of course today’s a little bit hollow. I mean, sure, I’m staging a big comedy show tonight and seeing Rocky Horror at midnight, but there’s no rock show. They’re way down in North Carolina today and I’m back in Boston, leading my normal life. The normal life that includes writing novels and putting on comedy shows and getting tattoos. I may not have a normal life.
Rock and roll was made for me. It's an important thing, like breathing and love. It’s a salvation and an addiction. It’s sin and it’s heaven. It lifts me up and keeps me internal. There’s little that’s more exhilarating than seeing a band you love play new music live, seeing it with friends sometimes, sharing the experience with dozens or hundreds of others there to try to get the same bliss as you. Blitzen Trapper never shirked their duty, never wavered in their stated intent to rock my world.
In other words: you don’t need rock and roll to live, but without it, is it really living? Three different nights, three different cities, and hell yes was I alive.