Today was the day for many, as this show was as highly anticipated as any on this first leg of the ARENA tour. Todd was returning to the town where he lived and worked for a dozen years in the prime of his career, an area that is something of an epicenter for many longtime fans, and the currently home of guitarist Jesse Gress. The Bearsville Theater is an old red barnhouse that was renovated in 1989 into a wonderful acoustic space by former TR manager Albert Grossman’s widow, Sally Grossman. Since Todd moved westward in the late 80’s, he never played this gem of a venue – until now.
I arrived early in the afternoon with my brother John, and a new friend Mott who needed a ride from a nearby airport. Mott had attended Toddstock and three Texas shows on this tour, so it was fun to hear her war stories from the road. We strolled through Woodstock, a artist’s haven of a town still waiting for its first traffic light. We had lunch and a few beers at an outside café and started to guess who else might be going to the show. I pointed to a couple and Mott agreed they would be there… easy, since it was bandmates Matt Bolton and Rachel Haden. This went on for a bit until we saw two more familiar faces crossing the street heading our way… Todd and Prairie Prince. Mott flagged them down for a quick meet and greet. Sweet. As we paid our bill our spacey waitress asked “Who was that tall guy with the streaked hair?” After we told her, she remembered… “Oh yeah, my mom used to babysit for Rex and Randy.”
We checked into our B&B, the Woodstock Inn at the Millstream, and took a look at the stream that bears its name. We soon realized we had to jump in, and what a rush – cold, cold water that shocks the skin but is so full of air and motion from a heavy waterfall that it was totally exhilarating. A great way to recharge before heading to the show.
Many of us gathered at the Little Bear Café next door, my favorite Chinese restaurant, period. But this gathering was not about the food. More than a dozen of us ate and drank while Todd gave an interview next door at radio station WDST, which sits in Todd’s old Utopia Video studio. Soon enough we were wandering out into line, and I found fellow TRC’er Dennis D. who had put some of my Yuenglings on ice. Nice.
Opening the show was local singer Joey Eppard, who in addition to a solo act plays in the band “3,” and has also played in P-Funk and Bad Brains. Joey was a crowd pleaser, as people got off on his intense hammer-strumming approach. He’s found his own voice and has a great attitude, even if his songs need some more work.
Todd and the band came out about 9:20 to an impatient crowd beginning to feel the heat. “Hello Woodstock!” he said. “Don’t eat the brown acid.” They were all dressed in black, with everyone but bassist Rachel Haden wearing shades. Jesse smiled wide behind his blinking neon rainbow frames.
The sound was faultless as I stood about 10 feet back from center stage. A nice balance, and suprisingly most of the drum sound I got was right from the stage, not the PA. It was great to hear loud arena rock given a musical treatment and not simply turned to mush by cranking the volume. No need for earplugs.
Most everyone reading this knows the set list by now. They opened with a six-pack appetizer of familiar songs, including one old hit and two covers. I have heard many people complain about the cover songs, “Walls Came Down” and “Lunatic Fringe,” wishing he would stick to his own deep catalog. But if you were dropped on the planet, or rushed in as some foreign correspondent, you would never be able to tell which of the songs were not written by him. Todd sang them as his own, as if he’d wished he’d written them. They fit well sonically into the arena mold, and topically as well with the call-to-action theme of the new material.
Todd reopened a finger wound on his right hand from the get-go, and it bothered him throughout the opening numbers. A band-aid didn’t last, but you could tell no difference during the songs. He came to play, and took command of the stage, at one point warning those in front that any drinks or belongings left on the lip were in danger. It was not a huge stage – the venue held about 400 – and he needed whatever room he could get.
With the appetizer platter out of the way, Todd got down to business with the new ARENA material, and immediately you could sense a shift in attitude. Much more focused intensity, with the finger gash driving him through the opening tune, “Mad,” which had him bristling in between lyrics. (He even went around to each band member to offer a drop of blood before one song, giving Prairie a touch of war paint.)
The band was confident and solid throughout the set. Matt Bolton doubled Jesse’s arpeggio lines in the opening of “Mad,” in the bridge of “Mercenary” and elsewhere, and otherwise held down a heavy rhythm, allowing Todd room to focus on singing. Rachel was a treat to watch, with her beaming smile and shock of short blond hair. She kept it simple, true to the arena approach of find-yer-hook-and-hammer-it-home. But she really stood out with her vocals, and Jesse did as well on the other side of the stage as they worked their Utopian harmonies to a full shine.
Jesse Gress continues to impress… every time I see him I hear something new. Tonight what stuck me was his impeccable rhythm playing on “Black Maria.” Not the solo, but the upstroke quarter notes on the verse that just made the tune sit perfectly. Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference, an approach that is not lost on him. Prairie Prince seemed a little bit bugged tonight… maybe his way of channeling anger into the material. Rock solid as usual, and it was great to hear him nail tunes like “Love in Action” and “Open My Eyes,” the latter of which had only been played live recently by other replacement drummers. Many tunes on ARENA would plod along under the heavy foot of a lesser drummer, but Prairie makes even the grungiest tunes like “Mercenary” sway and groove.
Todd hit a nostalgic note at one point, wistfully recalling the days when he first bought his place on Mink Hollow Road. “It was a breezy summer day… ah no, it was rainy and cool in the fall. One day we were awoken to these loud sounds of “Bam! Bang!” He was remembering hunting season, and then shouted about another guy who bought a place nearby to use for target practice. Mister Sentimental then kicked it into “Gun.”
I enjoyed “Pissin” and “Panic” because they got us moving, breaking up the heat. “Courage” showed off his melodic side, and “Weakness” and “Bardo” had Todd working his bluesy soul, the latter bringing back memories of “The Last Ride.” But the absolute zenith of this set, tonight and in the other recordings I’ve heard, comes midway in a song called “Today.”
Todd made it clear that this new record is a call to action – a wake-up war-cry to motivate his audience to get out and do something/anything to change things. It starts with a synth loop and a loping offbeat wrapped around a recurring one word “Time…” refrain that sort of lulls you into a spin. Then it spirals down into a quiet bridge, with Todd crying up out of a well with echoing lines like “The same old fears, a different venue…” The bridge slowly builds until Todd comes up for air, looks around and asks “Why not here? Why not now?” And then screams… “Why not… TODAY?!?” and chills go up the back of every spine as the room jumps into a frenzy, seizing the moment. TODAY’S THE DAY!
Message received, loud and clear. The set came to a close, ending with two servings of dessert, first “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” with 4 guitarists doing leg kicks in the out-chorus, and a very soulful “Just One Victory.” Audience handclaps on the bridge were no problem tonight for this satisfied audience. Afterward I wandered over to TRC buddy Veggiegurl, who smiled and said softly “I like that song.” I asked myself if I could ever recall a more understated statement.
Gradually we mulled about and began to wander outside for some fresh air. I wandered back in to see Jesse Gress packing up his gear. A fan asked him how he felt about the show, and without hesitation he said it was the best gig of the tour. When asked why, he stood looking out from the stage, held his arms out wide, and was speechless. There’s nothing like playing in your hometown, especially in a place as nice as the beloved Bearsville.
We hung around the venue for a bit, then went back and chilled by the old mill stream into the wee hours. The next morning was almost as much fun, as nine of us staying at the Millstream B&B had some bagels, blueberries and coffee, then took a long celebratory dip in that wonderful waterfall swimming hole. A few more beers, some Toddstock pics, more stories and recollections of the night before with friends who get it. It doesn’t get much better, so thanks to Julie and John, Margy, Diane, Susan and Ed, and our English Rose Laura.
We said goodbyes and went off to waste the day in Woodstock, with plenty to enjoy and savor, like the Woodstock Music Shop, ending with one more trip to the Little Bear Café, this time to savor the food before heading back on the road. Today’s the day indeed.