Sunday, July 1, 2018

Tesla, Styx and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

I've had Styx on my list of bands to finally see live for the last few years. I was going to see them at Citi Field in a concert after a Mets game two years ago, but I couldn't drum up any interest from my family. I could have gone on my own, but I assumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that they'd probably only play a few songs, since the show would be coming at the end of a full nine-inning baseball game. As it turns out, I remember that day was stiflingly hot, so I was just as glad I didn't.

Last summer, I caught up with another band I'd wanted to see for a while that I've always associated with Styx, Kansas. This made me more determined than ever to see Styx. They were playing Jones Beach last summer, but two things decided me against getting tickets. The first was that the opening band was REO Speedwagon, who I have no interest in whatsoever. The second was that when I looked up the setlist the band was playing last summer, for whatever reason, they weren't playing "Mr. Roboto". I'm willing to compromise on other songs, but if I go and see Styx, the three must-hear songs for me are "Come Sail Away", "Fooling Yourself", and "Mr. Roboto". So I didn't buy the tickets, and my family wound up going upstate that week anyway.

So this summer, when the Jones Beach schedule started coming out, I immediately looked for Styx, and sure enough, there they were. And better yet, this year, the opening act was Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Now I'm not the biggest Joan Jett fan, but she definitely has some songs I like, and for my taste, she was a huge step up over REO Speedwagon. And as a bonus, there was a third act on the  bill, Tesla, who I'd heard of, although I wasn't really familiar with them. I asked Denise if she had any interest in going, but I wasn't surprised that the answer was no. But the tickets were inexpensive, so I bought a pair, so I'd have a little room to manuever.

Flash forward to this past Friday night. It was a hot day, 87 degrees. I tried to tempt my daughter into going with me, even if using the extra ticket would make my space tighter. (I know that at least she likes "Mr. Roboto" and "Come Sail Away".)

"Guess where I'm going tonight?" I asked her. She ignored me entirely, and went back to her room. Later, I reminded her, "Hey, you never guessed where I'm going tonight."

"That's because I don't care," she responded.

My enthusiasm unhampered, I continued, "I'm going to see Styx!"

"Wow!" my daughter answered. "That's incredibly lame!"

"Come on," I pleaded. "Domo Arigoto, Mr. Roboto!"

She shook her head sadly, and went back to her room.

OK, I was on my own then.

I left the house at about 5 o'clock, picked up a hero from TJ's (my favorite hero shop), and headed for Ocean Parkway.

I reached the parking lot at around 6PM. All around me, people were having tailgate parties. It was a weird crowd -- definitely older, and several people were wearing the paraphernalia of bands like Motley Crue. I assumed they were there for Tesla. I quietly ate my hero and listened to music until 6:30. Then I headed in.

I soon found my seats, four rows from the top of the stadium. I pulled out my mountain climbing equipment, and climbed up the stairs. The stadium was still mostly empty.

I texted my daughter: "Nice breeze up here. Beautiful night. Up a little high for my taste, though."

She texted back: "I hope a bird dookies on your head."

Hmm. Families might just be wildly overrated.

I was comfortable enough. However, I was dead in the middle of the row, and all I could think of was if I had to get out to use the restroom once the stadium was full, I was going to wind up tumbling down the rows when I tried to climb over people. Down by the landing was a lovely handicapped section. So I took a chance and climbed down the steps again (desperately hoping I wouldn't have to climb back up), and happily enough, they let me trade in my two tickets for a cushioned pull-out chair below.

Soon enough, Tesla came on. The only song I was familiar with of theirs was "Signs". (You know it: "Signs, signs, everywhere a sign!"). I discovered that they were sort of a mix of '80s hair band meets southern rock band -- kind of Cinderella meets Lynyrd Skynyrd -- not really my thing. Truthfully, I was pretty bored for most of their set, although to be fair, being that opening band while the stadium is still empty is a pretty thankless position. They had their contingent of fans in front of the stage, but in a large venue like that, they got lost. They worked hard, although I found their lead singer's voice pretty annoying. Their best number was their closer, a decent rock anthem called "Modern Western."

During the set change, I paid little attention, texting back and forth with my wife about my son's upcoming eighteenth birthday. Then the lights dimmed, and I heard the first strains of -- Styx!!!?

It was true, though. Apparently, Styx and Joan Jett are co-headlining this tour, and at least for tonight (maybe because Joan is a hometown Long Island girl), Styx was going on first. All I could think of was how pissed I'd have been if I'd have come late, and missed Styx, or missed half of their set.

Unfortunately -- and it pains me to say this -- while I did enjoy Styx's set, they had the absolute worst sound mix I've ever heard at Jones Beach. Not only was it muddy, but it seemed to pulsate. I'd also have liked for the synthesizers to have been much higher in the mix -- on some of Styx's songs, like "Fooling Yourself," the synth should absolutely slice right through you, and it was so damned low in the mix that it was lost behind the guitars.

Nevertheless, I was glad to be there. Styx played the three songs I wanted, plus a lot of other good ones like "Blue Collar Man", "The Grand Illusion", "Lady", and "Renegade". The only other ones I can think of I'd have loved to heard were "Babe" (which they play surprisingly rarely in concert, considering what a popular song it was), and "Locomotive" (which I knew they wouldn't play. It's my favorite song from their 2017 album The Mission, but it's very low-key, not really a big live number). Still, I wish the sound had been better. I don't know if it was entirely the venue's fault, or if some of it was the band's equipment, but regardless, it was a disappointment.

When their set ended, I had a decision to make. I'd already seen the band I really came to see. I thought about how nice it might be to escape the stadium early, and avoid all of that traffic at the end of the night.

I also had some concerns that Joan was going to get political. Like much of America, I'm pretty burnt out by the constant political noise going on in the country 24/7, and in my head, I thought Joan was a bit of an activist. (Might have been wrong about that, as it turns out.) But it was a beautiful night. It was comfortable and cool, and now that it was dark, there was gorgeous blood moon hanging low in the sky over Ocean Parkway. So I decided to stay, although I was secretly hoping that Joan would open up with "Bad Reputation", my favorite song of hers, so that if she did start preaching and I decided to walk out, at least I'd have heard that one.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Joan's style is to focus entirely on the music, with a bare minimum of stage banter of any kind, which I found to be quite a relief (and rather admirable on her part).

It didn't all go smoothly, though. Here's what happened.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts opened with a song I wasn't familiar with, "Victim of Circumstance". Unlike with Styx, this time, the sound was perfect. Then she busted out a trifecta of rock classics right in a row, "Cherry Bomb," "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)" and "Bad Reputation," and the stadium was on fire. People were dancing and hitting beach balls around. Unfortunately, that was the high point.

Here's the problem: Joan is a rock goddess. However, she simply doesn't have enough A-list material to headline a show like this. She pulled out another obscure Runaways song, played "Light of Day," from the film she made with Michael J. Fox (A Springsteen song, but one I think he banged out in about five minutes while he was sitting on the toilet), the Blackhearts' first hit single, something  from her most recent (2013) album, etc. And all the while, more and more of the energy was sucked out of the arena.

As I watched the line of cars start pulling out of the parking lot halfway through her set, I started thinking about the fact that even some of Joan's biggest hits were actually covers, so it makes sense that she has a limited number of truly great songs.

Joan and the band played 21 songs in all, including the encore, but they never got back the momentum they had in that three-song spread from "Cherry Bomb" to "Reputation". The weird thing is they did have some popular songs left, but they held them in reserve until the very end of Joan's regular set, then, bang-bang-bang!, she reeled off "I Love Rock and Roll", "Crimson and Clover" and "I Hate Myself for Loving You" all in a row again. It was good, but at this point, the audience had had the life sucked out them, and they never fully got back in the groove.

At this point, a mass exodus occurred in between the end of the set and the encore, so that when the lights came back up on stage, only about a third of the audience remained. This was unfortunate, because while the first two songs of the encore ("Hard to Grow Up" and "Make It Back") were pretty basic and boring, she closed with a nice cover of Sly & The Family Stone's "Everyday People". Meantime, the only song in the set between "Bad Reputation" and "I Love Rock and Roll" that I found at all engaging was a number called "Fresh Start", which is apparently going to be a single from a documentary about Joan's career coming out later this year (fittingly called Bad Reputation).

I felt bad for Joan and the band. They deserved better. But, 1. Styx should have been the headliner, local gal or not. I've seen them on dvd hold a crowd's attention just by playing all of the songs from The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight from start to finish. Joan's set as a headliner was just too long. And, 2. whoever put together Joan's setlist made a huge error by clumping all of her biggest songs into those two groups of three instead of spreading them out more. They wouldn't have had as much excitement early in the set, but they also wouldn't have had that long dead spot in the middle.

That's the story of one of the weirder nights of music I've ever experienced at Jones Beach. I know it wasn't just me, because as I walked down the ten thousand flights of steps to exit the stadium, I heard other people talking about how they'd never seen a Jones Beach show clear out like that before the end.

So the show wasn't perfect, by any means. The bill was made up of three bands who really don't belong together, the sound for Styx was lousy, and Joan's set was way too long for her material to sustain it. But it was also a beautiful night, and I was really conscious of how lucky I was to spend such a night, comfortable and happy and listening to three bands all of whom have created fine careers for themselves. (And for once, because so many people had left early, I was out of the parking lot and back on ocean Parkway in a jiffy). And a bird didn't dookie on my head.

So while it could been better, it was still pretty great.