Thursday, 2 April 2015

Jake Clemons in a Bayswater living room, 30 March 2015

After seeing Jake Clemons five times in five nights it would be fair to face the following questions:
a. Are you a stalker?
b. Does Jake owe you a large sum of money you're trying to collect?
c. Whaddayou, a schmuck or somethin'? (NJ only)
While my answers to those questions would be mundane (a. No b. No c. Yes, especially when my wife is overseas for a month) the memories of this mini-adventure would not. Each night featured differing storylines that all included Perth resident and partner in crime Jamie McLellan, who arrived in time for Thursday night's show and headed west only a few hours after the conclusion of Monday night's scheduled tour finale. You can read about all but Thursday's show at Northcote Social Club on this blog. (The corrupting influence of a certain statuesque brunette led to huge swaths of that evening falling through the cracks of my so, so easily corrupted mind.) But you can read about Friday's road trip to San Remo, Saturday's celebratory Flying Saucer Club homecoming and Sunday night's alleyway soulfest in Geelong.

Which leads to what was supposed to be the final show of Jake's 2015 'Bittersweet' tour in Oz*. The show I was least enthused to attend and has proved most difficult to document.

Matt Musty harmonised on 3 songs.
The basics: It was held at the Bayswater home of a notoriously passionate Bruce Springsteen fan named Cathy Potter in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. Like many of Jake's Aussie fans, Cathy submitted an application to his management when it was announced two 'living room' shows like the ones he'd performed in Europe in 2014 would take place in Sydney and Melbourne. Walking into Cathy's lovely home was a bit like entering a Springsteen shrine, but there was a large front room that comfortably held the roughly 50 of us who'd traveled to Bayswater and the vibe was welcoming. Jake and drummer/percussionist Matt Musty arrived in a van driven by Matt a little after 8:00. Matt joined Jake for backing vocals on three songs but otherwise Jake stood in a corner of Cathy's living room and played solo, took questions and posed for photos until nearly 10:30.

There are myriad reasons behind my reticence to attend a living-room show by anyone associated with the music industry but it pretty much comes down to one nasty affliction: Cynicism. If you were born in the '60s you've borne witness to the fluctuating and often profitable efforts to monetise artistic conscientiousness. That plus time spent in the NYC media industry left me believing it's all scripted PR crafted by focus groups and psychopaths.

(Don't worry ... I've been told all my life I take shit waaaaaay too seriously. It's nothing new.)

There are outliers, of course, Springsteen chief among them. Performers who make us believe in spite of the bloodless industry machinery. Then along comes a guy who miraculously filled -- check that, inherited -- the shoes of the Biggest Man Who Ever Lived in a fashion no one could have dreamed. His performances with the E Street Band have cemented his place in Springsteen lore, but the 35-year-old is busy building a legacy for himself. Shows along the east coast of Australia in 2014-15 have revealed a solo performer blessed not only with his uncle's musical chops and charisma but the courage to spill blood stage and send one and all home with a big-ass grin every ... single ... night. I've yet to witness him turn away a fan who wanted an autograph or photo or who felt it necessary to smoke and babble in his face like a child describing in excruciating detail their Christmas wish list to a justifiably exhausted Santa.

And yet ... a living room show? It felt like overkill. Jake already lays everything on stage. How much more could there be? When it was announced I had no interest, but of course Jamie -- who no matter where he is can run for Lord Mayor and win by a landslide -- had secured tickets. I was in, like it or not.

Sunday night in Geelong.
Jump to Sunday night, in a Geelong alleyway, standing beside Jake, who'd come outside to receive gifts from stalwarts Mary and Piera (known to many as Teachers for Tom Morello) and chat to Jamie, a woman named Liz and myself. This was after he'd done a raucous 2-hour show AND greeted a line of autograph-seekers. For reasons I still don't understand Jake asked Simon O'Connor, Jake's Oz manager and a man still levitating after giving a John 'Bonzo' Bonham-like performance behind the drum kit during 'A Little Help My Friends', to snap a photo of all of us together. On HIS phone. Work has brought me within close proximity to many 'famous' people so I think I'm immune to becoming star-struck; but I can't deny being 'decency-struck'. When I expressed a hesitancy to attend the following night's living room show despite Jamie getting me a ticket he looked me square in the eyes -- with an earnestness anyone who's met him can attest to -- and said, 'Go, Joe. Go to the show. I want to see you there.' In that moment this young man from Virginia Beach whittled away a giant chunk of three-decades-worth of cynicism bolted onto me like barnacles on a sunken tugboat.

The juxtaposition of Jake and his uncle was lost on no one.  
And so, Monday night. Jamie and I made the 40-minute ride to Bayswater from Balaclava and arrived to a houseful of familiar faces gathered in Cathy's living room. Folding chairs had been neatly arranged and audience members sat like anxious schoolkids at an assembly. Yes, it was odd to see Jake Clemons walk through the door of a home in the leafy 'burbs of Melbourne, yet he and Matt seemed as comfortable as a couple of blokes there to play Monday night poker with the fellas. Jake set himself up in a corner while Matt nonchalantly hung in the back, which in this case meant a foyer or the kitchen. It was first time I've been at a show where the audience was more nervous than the performers.

Jake started with a trio of new songs -- 'In the Secret', 'Starving' and 'The Burning' -- on acoustic guitar that had everyone spellbound. Heads bobbed to 'All I Need' and the majesty of this intimate performance began to burrow inside all of us. There was no need to cajole his audience -- we all knew where to sing along -- and I imagine that freed Jake to lose himself a little more in each song. Nowhere was this more obvious than at All I Need's conclusion, when Jake practically whispered the chorus over a sparse guitar. I've been to hundreds of shows in my life and can't remember ever hearing someone finish a song so delicately and, strangely, powerfully at once. We were literally holding our collective breath before breaking into applause.

Jake and Lady Liberty.
The familiar clap-and-stomp from his 2014 tour accompanied 'Overshadowed'. With the walls of Cathy's house rattling around us, this night began to take on the joyousness of hoe-downs I've been lucky to attend in the mountains of east Tennessee.

(For Aussie readers: A 'hoe down' is a type of American folk dance usually performed in a country setting. Please ... this is a family website, for fuck's sake.)

A pattern was formed. Jake played acoustic versions of songs we've all now come to know through live performances but each was prefaced with a more personal and less rehearsed intro. Jake mentioned the absence of his 6-year-old daughter, who accompanies him on all tours but Australian ones, before playing what he called her goodnight song. While telling the difficult tale of flying home last year after his dad suffered a mortal accident Jake spoke of Matt accompanying him on the journey from the States to Australia, acknowledging his bandmate and good friend. He attributed the writing of 'Sick, Broke, Broken' to a winding conversation with a friend who frequently leaves him bewildered but in this instance gave him the bones of a song. And, once again, the serendipitous place of Ryan Adams's 'It Takes Two' in Jake's life was reverently described and hauntingly performed.

One intro helped elucidate my puzzlement over Jake's choice of often far-flung venues, including the one we were all standing in. He began by asking in a hushed voice, 'Have you ever been in your car ... turned on the radio ... and heard a perfect song?' {pause} 'And then changed the station ... and there it was ... another perfect song?' {longer pause} 'Changed the station again ... and heard yet another perfect song?' {longest pause} 'Yeah, me neither.' This led to a good-natured lament about how we've 'given music away to the ether' instead of sharing it in person. Other earnest songwriters have expressed similar sentiments from well-lit stages but hearing it among the sounds of kitchen faucets and the occasional flushed toilet drove the point home: Music is most effective when shared person-to-person. He implored us all to open our homes to living room shows, and to support art wherever we find it.

It feels like I'm painting a picture of Jake as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, toiling the soil with a guitar and a saxophone, burnishing apathy into hope one intimate performance at a time. Maybe I am. I'll grant it's a bit over the top, but it beats the hell out of getting weighed down by perpetual cynicism.

After taking questions and tolerating the antics of Broadmeadows' one and only Iain Muir, Jake closed the night with a singalong 'You're a Friend of Mine' followed by the softest sax solo you'll ever hear. We were in a suburban home after all, and it was past 10:00 -- a roaring horn may have brought calls to the police. Jake took his final bows and greeted well-wishers with his usual grace.

As Jamie and I had been last to arrive we took the opportunity to socialise with friends and acquaintances. (An advantage to a living room concert -- when it's over you can immediately transition to a house party, although on Monday it was a booze-free affair.) A brief conversation with a woman I run into at Bruce-related functions and Jake shows but don't know well nearly brought tears. I'll share what she told me but won't divulge her name for the sake of privacy. We'd said hello after Saturday's Flying Saucer Club show, a show to which she'd brought her tall, thin son. She introduced us, and he and I spoke very briefly. During our conversation Monday night she told me her son has high-functioning autism. She then said this: The morning after the show, her son had come up to her and said, 'Mom, it's a new day!' (or words to that effect), a direct result of Jake's reminder the night before of the need to put yesterday behind and embrace each spanking sunrise like a gift. That connection. That connection is genuine. That connection is what drives Jake Clemons. That connection between Jake and this beautiful young man is something I'll never forget.

Safe travels, Jake and Matt.

*Since I began to write this post Jake's posted on Twitter another living room show for Sydney on Thursday 2 April. Couldn't be happier that it's happening at the home of Carly Milina, whom I was lucky to see again at the Northcote and Flying Saucer shows. Folks in Forestville are in for a special night.


Velma Holland said...

Love the story Joe... Apart from Bruce of course it was a really pleasing experience not just Jake but the whole thing including meeting people I hadn't already met and of course the ones I know and love.

Lisa bolger said...

Wonderfully captured a very special night with the gentlest of giants, who is truly earing his place amount the giants. Thanks Cathy and Stephen

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Joe for the wonderful review. You described the experience that we had that night so well.

Russ Barclay said...

Great review Joe really captured essence of the night. Feel so privileged to have been there to experience it.

Jane Smith said...

Wish I could have been there, too, to share the evening ...but then again Joe I felt I almost was - thanks. I could hear the might and magic of Clarence in the gig Jake did in Canberra. His version of'You're a Friend of Mine' would have been special - like Clarence's. Hope there'll be more Jake soon.

kpk1963 said...

Beautiful, thanks for sharing. Just found out that we were chosen to host one of Jake's US living room shows in mid-May and I am beside myself with joy and anticipation!