Concert Reviews Features Q&A

So Long, 2009. Bring on 2010!

Earlier this week I compiled a list of my top five moments of 2009. Well, there were a few more than five in there, but I tried to keep it short. I figured I’d do the same today with my top five concerts and interviews. I’d love to know what you enjoyed reading most this year so I can amp up my coverage in 2010. Happy New Year!

You Sing, I Write’s Top 5 Concerts of 2009

There is nothing I enjoy more than that goosebumps feeling you get when an artist sings a song that particularly strikes you or tells a moving tale about the origin of the song. This year I attended more concerts than any year in my life and while it’s hard to narrow down my single favorite, I compiled five that stand out.

5. Mat Kearney — September 29 at The Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza

I interviewed Mat Kearney back in May when he was on tour opening for Keane at Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey. I hopped on his tour bus and talked with him about his latest album, songwriting process and breaking into the University of Oregon to use their piano to write a song. As an opening band, your set is always cut short so I decided to attend his headlining performance a few months later at Irving Plaza and was blown away. Having had his album, City of Black and White, on rotation over the previous months the songs struck me personally and Kearney put on quite the show. Jumping into the audience mid-set he started his own dance party on the floor with fans. You can bet I’ll be seeing him next time he’s around.

To hear Mat talk about the new album, his writing process and stories behind his songs, click here. For his view on writing about personal relationships, being an opening act and advice to aspiring musicians, click here.

4. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — September 30 at Giants Stadium

He is The Boss. Does much more need to be said? Being a Jersey girl, Bruce Springsteen’s songs are anthems to me. I actually have Mat Kearney to thank of how I came to cover his show at Giants Stadium. The night before Springsteen’s performance I was buying my friend a ticket at will call because Kearney’s show was due to sell out. I recognized a photographer I met earlier that year at Ray LaMontagne’s show and we chatted for a bit. Low and behold, the next day he needed a writer to cover Springsteen’s show for a Web site he shot for and thought of me. Wendy picked up the tickets for me and we headed to Giants Stadium to cover the show for Bumpershine. And, guess who was sitting a few rows in front of me? None other than Mat Kearney himself. A bit serendipitous, don’t you think? For my complete review, click here.

3. Tyrone Wells — October 7 at Highline Ballroom

I recently found Tyrone Wells CD Remain and have been listening non-stop the past few days. Previous album, Hold On is quite striking as well. While compiling my top five list I realized I have witnessed Wells in concert three times this year. I first interviewed him during South By Southwest and caught his showcase with Tori Amos. Later this year, Wells opened for Better Than Ezra where a couple got engaged mid-set before he dedicated and performed “Sea Breeze” for them. I was lucky enough to catch his headlining show at Highline Ballroom in October after interviewing his opening act, Matt Hires. Wells truly blew me away as he mixed his soulful and energetic tracks with his emotion-filled ballads. His onstage banter with the audience and tales behind his songs are always enjoyable and like no artist I have ever witnessed. If you have yet to see Wells live, I highly suggest doing so as I foresee him selling out bigger venues very soon.

2. Coldplay — August 2 at Liberty State Park

I’ve heard only praises about Coldplay’s concerts from friends who have witnessed them firsthand. I really don’t know why I haven’t seen them sooner. Luckily, I caught their phenomenal set at the always memorable All Points West festival this past August at Liberty State Park. The way I described APW to friends was it being Woodstock’s reincarnation if it were around in 2009. Mud wrestling, music and beer gardens was more like it. Sunday’s four-hour rain delay resulted in multiple canceled performances and scaled down sets, but Coldplay managed to save the day.

Always comical, after traipsing through the mud onto a stage in the middle of the field, frontman Chris Martin realized what festivalgoers dealt with the entire weekend. “We have infinite respect for you now that we had to walk through that shit. Wish we had backstage passes for all of you,” he said.

Witnessing Coldplay live and up so close, I have incredible respect for the band. While they played many of their hits, they also performed a moving tribute to Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys, who had to cancel their performance due to member Adam Yauch’s cancer diagnosis. I couldn’t imagine a better band to close the three-day mudfest.

1. The Gaslight Anthem — October 15 at Terminal 5

I’ve been covering The Gaslight Anthem on You Sing, I Write, since last year when I flipped through Rolling Stone to notice drummer Benny Horowitz, former paginator of my college paper, featured as a breaking band. I did a double take and contacted all the people I knew who used to work for Rutgers’ The Daily Targum. Since then, I’ve been trying to cover a show and set up an interview to no avail. You’d think garnering an interview with a rock star you knew would be easy. Think again. After several failed attempts I d
ecided to purchase tickets to their show at Terminal 5 before it sold out. I’m so glad I did. I feel like I reverted back to my high school days of Warped Tour and crowd surfing. Then again, I think the 30-year-olds in the room did as well.

I have never witnessed such an energetic (and frightening) mosh pit in my life. It was like Warped Tour for 30+. No more emo boys, these are grown men dancing in the pit and creating havoc. I’m not going to lie to you, I did fear for my life, but that was the beauty of the concert. From the looks of frontman Brian Fallon’s face, he was just as surprised. By far the most energetic show I’ve been to all year, there is no doubt in my mind that The Gaslight Anthem will be selling out Madison Square Garden. Hopefully, by then I’ll be able to get an interview!

You Sing, I Write’s Top 5 Interviews of 2009

I’ve been trying to cut down on long top 5 posts, but as evident from my concert list above I’ve been a bit verbose. I’ll try to keep it brief with my interviews and post the Q&A; so you can read it for yourselves and see just why I think they’re my top 5 of 2009.

5. Train

They’ve reached worldwide success and many of their songs garnered top spots on memorable songs of the decade. I spoke with guitarist Jimmy Stafford at the start of Train’s tour where he filled me in on Train’s latest release, embracing the Internet and a younger fan base and the reasons behind their longevity. Read it here.

4. Better Than Ezra

After catching BTE live earlier this year, the three-piece band was back in New York for press in August. Unfortunately, I was extremely sick and losing my voice during the interview but didn’t want to cancel. It was 90 degrees in New York and the interview was at a Starbucks that felt just as warm. You know when you’re nervous and feel like you’re sweating, but it’s probably just in your head? Well, it definitely wasn’t in my head…I was dripping wet. Remarkably, the interview turned out much better than I thought. But, I did learn no matter how important the interview, if you’re sick it might be best to postpone it for a later date. Read my interview here. Note my “hottest Starbucks” reference. Clever, huh?

3. Taylor Swift

There is no denying it, Taylor Swift conquered the music world this year. I was so excited to attend her press conference during the CMA Music Festival in Nashville and incredibly determined to get a question in. Luckily, I did. Note the “your music is like writing in a diary” question. I can honestly say, she is as nice and down to earth in real life as she seems onstage. There is no doubt in my mind that Taylor Swift will be around for decades to come. Read my interview here.

2. Joshua Radin

Joshua Radin has accomplished much as an independent artist. He bought himself out of his major label contract to go on to release one of the best selling folk albums of the year. Not to mention, he performed at Ellen DeGeneres’ wedding, toured the globe and remains so humble. Case and point: When asked how he feels about being called this generation’s Bob Dylan he responded, “That’s absolutely ludicrous. Bob Dylan invented music. I just feel like that’s putting a bull’s eye on the back of my head for everyone to be like, ‘No you’re not. You’re not really as good.’ And I’m like, ‘Of course I’m not as good, I wrote my first song four years ago!’ And I probably never will be as good. But, I bet you I’ll be much better at being Joshua Radin than Bob Dylan is. That’s all I can hope for.” Read more here.

1. Third Eye Blind

Not many know this, but Third Eye Blind is how I got my start writing for Marie Claire. I remember getting dinner with my friend and colleague Diana last year and venting to her how I had a great interview with 3eb frontman Stephan Jenkins, but no music publication seemed to care. I reached out to every music magazine and Web site you could think of and they all felt 3eb was a band of the past. Boy did 2009 prove them all wrong. Diana must have seen my frustration and thought they might be a good fit for the Marie Claire audience, being that much of the reader age group grew up listening to 3eb and Stephan Jenkins was always a heartthrob. 2009 proved to be a great year for the band who released their album independently and saw a surge in their fan base. Read my interview here.

What were some of your favorite interviews of 2009? 2010 will bring many more I’m sure. Happy New Year!


Better Than Ezra

No strangers to the music scene, Better Than Ezra have been performing and recording for the past 20 years. While the band admits that it’s their engaging live show more than their record sales that have helped their longevity, latest release, Paper Empire, may change that. Their sixth studio album is a solid album with moving singles, “Just One Day” and “Absolutely Still,” bound for radio airplay.

In perhaps the busiest (and hottest) Starbucks in New York City, I met up with the members of Better Than Ezra, singer-songwriter Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and newest member, drummer Michael Jerome. BTE talked to me about their latest release, communicating with fans, and their live show:

“We really enjoy performing live and you can’t fake that sort of thing. We just have a good time; we try to mix it up every night,” Drummond said. “I’ve been told by fans that a lot of them come to the show for the in-between song banter as much as the actual songs. That’s just who we’ve become over the years. We truly enjoy playing our songs, performing every night and playing live music and I think that’s a big reason why we’re still here.”

How is Paper Empire different from your previous albums?
Kevin: I think every Better Than Ezra album is different because we’re a band that has always put our influences into our music and you can always hear what we’re listening to when you hear a Better Than Ezra album, for better or for worse. Also, a lot of it was done long distance. I’d have a part and send it to Tom, he’d put bass on it and Michael would come in and play drums. It was really using the Interweb, the Internet machine to do a lot of the album. The bulk of the album was done face to face. New influences, different recording process and this was the first time that we had a lot of different players come and play. On a couple of songs, I just told some of my favorite guitarists that I work with what I wanted. So, I got to sit back and produce a song and not have to beat myself up playing a part that a friend of mine could play a lot better and a lot quicker.

You’ve written songs for many artists including Howie Day, David Cook, Blondie. How do you differentiate writing a song for another artist vs. Better Than Ezra? Do you ever wish you kept a song for yourself?
Kevin: That’s interesting. Sometimes it’s easy writing a David Cook song. I know that a song like “Avalanche” is never going to be on a Better Than Ezra album. It’s too David Cook. There’s a song I wrote with Joshua Radin for his last album, (also featured in movie “Adam”) that just wasn’t going to be a Better Than Ezra song. But then there are the ones like, maybe “Collide” for Howie Day, which could have been a Better Than Ezra song, but at the time we were unsigned. We didn’t have any money to put it out and I just think, “Here’s this 22-year-old kid whose got Epic Records behind him, he needs this ballad.” I know they’re going to put all that machinery and pump it behind him.

It takes a lot of belief to get a ballad to happen. A lot of times with a band like us, you need more of an up-tempo song that’s more received as a no brainer by radio people, so you have to make a hard decision like that. There are plenty of times when I’ve got from my band, “Thanks for giving ‘Collide’ away Kevin.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, I know. Sorry.” Most of the time, it’s pretty clear cut, but then there are some songs on this new album, like “Just One Day,” the new single that I wrote with Jeremy Lister. Warner Brothers did a terrible job of promoting that song and I called him up and said, “Hey, we both know that Warner Brothers did a terrible job with your EP. I’d love if Better Than Ezra could do a version of it, change it up and hopefully give it another chance to give it the life we think it should.” That’s happened with a few different co-writers.

I actually wanted to ask you about “Just One Day.” It’s my favorite song on the album. What is the inspiration behind it?
Kevin: It’s in part, just about losing people in your life. I kept coming back to our original guitarist, Joel Rundell, who committed suicide. It was almost 20 years ago. I had never written a song about it and as I was working on the lyrics for “Just One Day,” I kept thinking about Joel and all these things and other people. As you get older you start to lose different people in your life.

It’s basically about all the unresolved things that you have between you. Not only the good things, but the bad things too. It’s saying, if you had one day to spend with them, letting go of the resentment that maybe you have about the way you acted in a relationship or maybe the way you think they did. More, it’s a celebration of a fantasy that you have a moment to share with that person you loved. What I think makes it different than other songs that approach the subject, is that it’s not just about the good, it’s about the bad too. Too many people let resentment and past things really hound them. Carrie Fischer said it best about resentment, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” If you had one day to get rid of that, what would you do?

Do you ever hold back when songwriting? Are you ever afraid someone in the audience will hear and make the connection that the song is about them?
Kevin: I don’t know.

Tom: I’ve always wondered that too actually, Kevin.

Kevin: Really? You know what; I guess I’d only be concerned if that song was about something really bad that someone did. But more times than not, I do have songs that people know are about them on every album. It was girlfriends usually. A song called, “Cry In the Sun” was about this great summer romance as a counselor at a camp in North Carolina. That was on our first album. “Under You” was about moving to LA with another girlfriend. There hasn’t been that many. There have been three serious girlfriends. It was about being broke and eating Ramen noodles and barely staying alive, barely being able to survive. And those people know that. More times than not though, people make a song into whatever they think it is anyway. I’ve had people very happy or very miffed that they think a certain song is about them and I’m like, “It has nothing to do with you.”

Better Than Ezra has been around for 20 years now. Have you noticed a change in your fans over the years?
Tom: I think certainly, we’ve been a band that has been able to have our fans grow with us. Every time we put out a new record, I feel like we get some new fans that come along too. In fact, some of the people are starting to bring their kids. That’s how long we’ve been around I guess. It’s really cool because if the parents are that into the band and they start bringing their young kids
to the show, they truly love
the band. As far as teens go, I think every time you have a new single, that’s who you’re hoping to get. They’re the obvious record downloading crowd so that’s who you’re shooting for. But also, you can’t alienate the crowd you’ve brought with you for 20 years. You have to be true to them too, so that’s what we try to do.

Kevin: This tour, having been off the road for two years, a few times I’ve come off stage and Tom has said, “Man, this is the first time I’ve really noticed that our crowd has gotten a lot older.” It’s a new thing to us too. The experience of being a band, we’ve been around a long time. We have a lot of new fans and that’s refreshing, but I’d say the meat of it are our fans who were fans in the 90s when we started off. It’s just a transition, it’s cool though. These people really support us and feel like we’re part of their lives and come to us and say, “Man, when you play that song it reminds me of me and my girlfriend. We were taking a road trip across the country. I don’t want to bug you about that.” I’m like, “You are not bugging me when you say something like that. That’s the ultimate goal for a musician. To have their song be a part of someone else’s life, like your favorite songs are a part of yours.” It’s fun, but there definitely has been a noticeable change in our demographic.

Social media has a huge role on getting bands noticed today. You use Twitter to hide tickets to the show and backstage passes for fans. That wasn’t around when you first started.
Tom: You’re right. The whole industry has changed, I think four or five times since we’ve been a band. Bands that have the ability to exist for longer than five years, which is generally the lifespan of a band, they’re the bands that are business savvy and they’re hip to the new ways. You have to be able to evolve or you dissolve. You have to be hip to MySpace and Twitter and — that’s the one we’re gonna start.

All the bands that have had longevity, you talk about the Rolling Stones, or anybody like that, they’ve always been on top of their game as far as the business side of things go. We pride ourselves on the fact that not that many bands can stay around as long as we have. It takes consistent songwriting, consistent live shows. It takes having an exciting, fun, live show, which I think is one of the key elements that’s missing in a lot of current bands. It takes all of those things plus being on top of your business to make it and be around for this long.

Kevin: You know, I think this is true. We’ve managed to stay around when a lot of our contemporaries who started with us when we did and sold a lot more albums than us. We’ve been able to stick around because of our live show at the end of the day. Growing up in the south and starting off as a bar band, then a band with a college circuit, you really had to be good to be asked back. We had bands that mentored us who were really just great performers. When people come see our show, they leave having a great time. Those other bands who were our contemporaries, just weren’t good live. They were shoegazers and that just couldn’t cut it. All the great artists put a lot of effort into trying to be the best they can be live. And that’s what we’ve done. I like to think that’s part of the reason for our longevity.

You have a very energetic live show. What’s going through your head while you’re performing?
Tom: I think the honest truth to that is that we really enjoy performing live and you can’t fake that sort of thing. We just have a good time; we try to mix it up every night. Kevin is one of the funniest people I know; he is witty, which is fun. It’s different every night. I’ve been told by fans that a lot of them come to the show for the in-between song banter as much as the actual songs. That’s just who we’ve become over the years. We truly enjoy playing our songs, performing every night and playing live music and I think that’s a big reason why we’re still here.

Kevin: I agree with Tom. We have a lot of fun doing what we do. Having Michael in the band, there’s a big part of Michael that’s a ham. He likes to ham it up.

Michael: Honey ham.

Kevin: He’s more of a honey baked ham. I’m more of a Boar’s Head smoked ham. Tom is more, what would you say you’re like?

Tom: [Laughing]. Why are we talking about ham?

Kevin: Then sometimes you’re onstage and you’re just playing and in your mind is a million . . . like, “Did I put that dark shirt in with the whites when I left the house? ‘Cause my clothes are screwed if I did.” And then Tom’s looking at me playing because I missed the lyric of the song. More times than not, you’re paying attention.

Michael: Being the new guy you take in a lot of new information and you’re trying to realize what has been done for the past 12, 15 years and you’re trying to emit that. The songs, the performance. You’re trying to appease fans that have grown to love what they’ve been watching for the last 15 years and what they’ve seen and what they’ve listened to from recordings and so on. I’m conscious of that. I’m a fan myself. So, if I fall in love with a band and their music, I don’t want it to change usually.

Tom: You get fans who just stare at you the whole show.

Michael: And I love it. The folded arms and the Simon’s out there that are just waiting and the comments you get. The really cool, kind comments that come from a lot of people and a lot of them consist of, “Well, I didn’t want to like you. I was ready to hate you.” For me, playing live is very enjoyable and making records is enjoyable, but it’s also a conscious effort to stay present when I’m playing. I tend to watch the show myself. I start having fun and I forget that I’m actually helping to make the show be what it is.

Tom: It’s a tricky situation because the fact that Travis [McNabb, former drummer now in Sugarland] was in the band for most of what the visibility of the band has been for the last 10 years or maybe a little longer, 12 years. We had to really pick the right guy to come in and not only be able play the parts well, but also fit in personality wise. We tend to go out and meet fans after the show and we could have very easily found somebody who was like, “I’m not doing that.” It’s been a really good fit.

Kevin: Our first couple shows at House of Blues in New Orleans, we have these fans, these two girls who are at every show and I didn’t see them. Normally they’re right in front of Tom, but I didn’t see them. We did two shows in a row and I didn’t see them at either show. Apparently, they were in the back by the bar and they were crying nonstop the whole show.

Michael: I just have to say, these particular girls, they’ve seen hundreds of shows. This was probably the first time they ever stood back side of the show instead of front and center in front of Tom or Kevin. After the show, I hear that they’ve been over in the back side crying, folded arms and they just refused. It was two or three shows later, they still hadn’t come up. I think we were in Baton Rouge and I went and talked to one of them. Folded arms, didn’t want to crack a smile. I tried to pour on the ch

arm and really didn’t know it was them, but ever since that they’ve been letting me know how much they appreciated someone that they didn’t want to like coming in and sharing all this stuff. It was kind of funny to me, but it was also . . . that meant a lot and it makes a difference.

Tom: It just goes to prove that people are really hesitant to change in all aspects of life. Sometimes, if you just let go a little bit, you’ll find that really good things can come out of that. Evolve or dissolve.

You’ve survived the industry for 20 years. What is your advice to aspiring musicians who look up to you and want longevity like Better Than Ezra?
Tom: Currently, the technology that exists today is so different than when we started. There are so many great ways to write and produce your own music now and get it out there for people that before maybe would have never heard because you never got it into the hands of the right person at the right company. Now, you can do it yourself. You just can’t be lazy. Teach yourself about the music business and if you’re behind what you do, you can make it happen.

Kevin: When we started, unless you were in a music center, you really felt like you were in the provinces. You were so dislocated from what was going on. With the accessibility and the immediacy of the Internet, to get your music out where it is being heard by people who make a difference in the business and the ability to record yourself with GarageBand or Logic or Ableton or Pro Tools and make great sounded recordings for very little money. It’s all at your fingertips. It’s about how savvy you want to be, how hard you want to work. At the end of the day, it’s not only the person who is talented, but it’s equal parts talent and then hard work, great work ethic. There are so many good bands and musicians who were way more talented than us and maybe more talented than most of your favorite bands, they just didn’t have everything it takes. The get up and go, the drive, the savvy – you have to have all of that. Don’t think it’s just about chasing some muse through a meadow. It’s about capturing that muse, destroying anything that was good about it to begin with, selling it out, commercializing it and packaging it.

Concert Reviews

Better Than Ezra, Tyrone Wells Bring Surprises At Sold-Out New York Show

A huge sensation in the 90s, Better Than Ezra proved last Friday night at The Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza that they’re far from a nostalgic memory. Playing for nearly two hours, the band had die-hard fans singing along to their old hits as well as some covers and surprise guest appearances.

Tyrone Wells opened the night playing many tracks off his latest album, Remain. Winning over the audience with his soulful covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” and The Police’s “Roxanne,” as well as his captivating storytelling, the night’s surprises started with Wells.

After telling a heartwarming tale of a fan calling him to request Wells’ presence performing at his wedding proposal, Wells’ called out a name in the crowd. “Tara in the balcony, I think you should turn around.” Low and behold, her boyfriend, Steve, kneels on the ground and proposes. Screams and applause erupt throughout the venue as she accepts.

“This song is going out to Tara and Steve,” Wells said before segueing into his hit, “Sea Breeze.” Apparently Wells’ concerts are the place to meet your future significant other. He told the crowd he’ll be playing Highline Ballroom October 7, before ending the night with powerful number and title track off his album, “Remain.”

Shortly before 10:30 Better Than Ezra took the stage to screams. The women around me were still smitten over lead singer Kevin Griffin and could be heard screaming, “He’s so hot! I’d take him home,” continuously throughout the night. Infatuated fans aside, Better Than Ezra put on a pleasing set and showed the crowd that they still know how to rock.

Playing songs off their latest release, Paper Empire, as well as hits off their eight album catalog, Better Than Ezra had all in attendance feeling like they were in college again. “I’m going to be three things to you tonight,” frontman Griffin told the crowd. “A guy, a confidant, and devil’s advocate,” he said before beginning, “A Lifetime.”

Previous hits like 1995’s “Good,” and “Extra Ordinary” mingled with new tracks “Absolutely Still,” the crowd equally receptive. Midway through their set none other than New Orleans’ Manning brothers Peyton and Eli took the stage, before aptly titled track, “King of New Orleans.”

And that was just the first 10 songs. Playing a 23-song set, it was hard to decipher the crowd favorite. “Desperately Wanting” came close as all around me were singing along word for word. “A lot of bands put out a lot of good albums and then it sucks. Not true for us,” Griffin said before playing “I Just Knew,” a moving ballad and last track on their latest release.

The Manning brothers made one last appearance onstage, this time throwing footballs into the crowd before Better Than Ezra began playing AC/DC into which the DJ segued into Black Eyed Peas’ energetic track, “Boom Boom Pow.” Never short on energy, the band pleased the crowd with a five-song encore.

“Thank you guys for so many years,” Griffin said before promising, “We’ll be back around.” From the look of the sold-out venue Friday night, their fans will be waiting.

For more on Better Than Ezra, be sure to visit them on MySpace. To listen to tracks from Tyrone Wells, and catch his current tour dates, check him out on MySpace too.