Monday, August 12, 2019

Femme Schmidt, Bryan Ferry

In the past, some of you have accused me of being just a tad ... grumpy? ... in some of my live show reviews. Spoiler Alert: You ain't seen nuthin' yet!

So, Bryan Ferry. Where to begin? I guess the best place would be in the beginning, a few months back, when Denise came home and happily announced that Bryan Ferry was playing in the city this summer, and that she'd just bought us some tickets. Regular readers of this blog can tell you that when I hear about shows in Manhattan these days, my first emotion is usually one of caution instead of one of excitement. But OK. I like Bryan Ferry. Could be fun.

The next thing she related was that she'd been able to score some great tickets, in the first row of the balcony. I felt a twist in my stomach. "Sweetie," I said slowly, knowing I was about to be in a world of trouble. "You know I can't sit in the first row of the balcony."

I talked a little about this in my Jon Anderson write-up two weeks ago. I suffer from really bad acrophobia. Or rather, I very rarely suffer from it, as I usually manage to never put myself in the position to have to deal with it. But I can't handle any kind of heights, especially anything that's going to put me close to a rail. I get an actual physical reaction from it, like an electrical jolt that starts in the soles of my feet and shoots up my entire body. And this is just from seeing anyone else get close to a rail they could fall over. Sometimes, I even get it from watching a film or a TV show, if they show a camera shot of someone looking down from a height. Second row of a balcony? Not my favorite place to be, but if worse comes to worse, I can handle it. But first row? Absolutely undoable for me. (I once had to exchange a great seat at the Metropolitan Opera for a metal folding chair in the last row of the orchestra because it was too close to the front of one of those side boxes. And, in fact, the first apartment Denise and I ever lived in together had a balcony, and the only way I could go out on it at all was to position my chair so I could literally feel my back against the wall of the building.)

So I started the Ferry show in trouble.

A day or so later, Denise came home and told me rather unhappily that she'd managed to exchange our balcony tickets for much crappier seats on the floor. I thanked her. When Denise was a teenager, as the oldest of four children, she was often asked to babysit for her siblings. And when they got out of line, she would threaten them with the ultimate of punishments -- she would put them on "the list". This would elicit immediate fear and remorse from the offender, as going on "the list" would mean she'd tell her parents who had dared to misbehave on their night out, and woe betide them! ("No! Please! I'll be good! Don't put me on the list!") As some of you have probably already guessed, I live much of my life on the list. (By the time we were driving to this show, I hadn't actually remembered that this was the show I'd made Denise trade in her good balcony tickets for. But Denise reminded me. So goes life on the list.)

There were also some other aspects of the show that also made me uneasy. Instead of it being in one of the more familiar clubs in midtown Manhattan (or even a little uptown at the Beacon Theater), it was set at someplace all the way uptown in Washington Heights, near Columbia University. And the venue, the United Palace Theatre, didn't make it easy to find information about the show. I couldn't find anything about an opening band, I couldn't find a start time for the show, etc. Eventually, I found something online that said it was a 7PM showtime. Since there was no info anywhere about an opening act, I figured probably there was none.

I did my due diligence before the show -- I looked up the setlist Ferry was playing a few days earlier, printed it out, and even made a YouTube playlist out of it so I'd be more familiar with some of the more obscure songs. (I'm a fairly casual fan of Bryan Ferry. I always felt that if I owned a copy of Avalon, and owned a Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music Greatest Hits album, that was pretty much all I needed.)

By the day of the show, I was pretty psyched. I'm always a little uneasy heading into the city, especially if I'm going to a venue I'm not familiar with, but this time, I wasn't too worried about arriving late. Even with no opening act, the first song he was playing that I really felt I couldn't miss didn't happen until six songs into the set, where he was playing "Slave to Love".

Unfortunately, I made one key error in my show prep. I didn't eat lunch. And much of what happened thereafter stemmed from that poor decision. But in my defense, I had my reasons, as you'll see. (Well, I'll explain it, anyway. You might still think I was a moron, and it's a fair point.)

Here's the deal. I'm a diabetic. I'm not on insulin, but my blood sugar isn't very well controlled these days, and I'm trying to bring it down with diet, exercise and oral medications. (And also a weekly injectable.) When I'm hungry, and my blood sugar gets low, I'm not much fun to be around. (Whereas normally, I'm a barrel of laughs. Ask Denise!) However, the other side of the coin is that at age 62, I also often get stomach and digestion problems. And I've found if I eat too much before a show, it puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to use a bathroom that might not be the most pleasant (or most private) at the venue, a situation I hate to be in. So I didn't really really eat before Denise and I left the house because my stomach had been bothering me earlier. My plan was to eat a protein bar as were leaving (to hold me over for the drive into the city), then grab a frank or something from a street vendor outside before I went into the theater. And if worse came to worst, I figured I'd just grab a small bag of chips or a candy bar inside the theater, then eat dinner after the show.

We left the house a little before four. Instead of using her regular car GPS, which doesn't always account for traffic, Denise decided to use this new app she'd downloaded on her phone that everyone had been raving about. As we reached the corner, an unfamiliar male voice with a somewhat effeminate British accent ordered us to "Go left". (Sounded sort of northern England, like Christopher Eccleston. I only know that because of the Doctor Who episode where someone called him on his accent and he explained, "Lots of planets have a north.").

"What the hell was that?" I asked. I'd been looking down at my setlist, and the voice had made me jump. That's when Denise told me about the app. I promptly named him Percy.

Before long, we were on the LIE, and as you'd expect for a summer Friday in the late afternoon, there was traffic. However, we were able to beat it for a while by driving in the HOV lane. It was fun driving past all the people stuck in the regular lanes and waving as we zipped by. At least it was until the HOV lane got bogged down, too.

"Police presence has been reported ahead," Percy the GPS informed us helpfully. (I thought this was a pretty great feature, until we passed several other hidden police cars that the GPS hadn't informed us about. It seems that you'd better not rely on the app too much, as it only bothers to mention about one out of every three speed traps.)

Before long, the GPS instructed us, "Exit the highway in one quarter mile."

"How the hell are we supposed to do that?" I asked. By this time we were in bumper to bumper traffic in the far left line, and even if there had been room to go right, we weren't legally allowed to exit the HOV lane for another two miles.

All in all, Percy seemed to be very confused, trying route after route as the accidents piled up along various possible paths into the city. He also seemed a little flustered that we kept ignoring his (illegal) attempts to change our choice of routes.

We wound up following his original plan, which involved taking the Clearview to the Whitestone Bridge, then guiding us into upper Manhattan though the Bronx.

But the route was a nightmare. Every time we were stuck in the right lane, he inevitably wanted us to make the next left, and when we were in the left lane, it was all "Go right." I could see that Denise, who was driving (as is usual for us) was starting to get flustered, as several times, we had no choice but to circle back to a turn that he'd told us to make too late. I mostly kept quiet, as I didn't want to be in any further trouble. (There are different levels of "the list", much like the different circles of hell in Dante's Inferno.)

We had quite a little sightseeing expedition, as Percy led us around in circles on blocks that wouldn't have been out of place in Beirut. At one point, we stopped dead for several minutes in front of a seedy topless bar that I'm certain employed some of the sexiest toothless, one-armed dancers you could possibly find. For a long while, I had no idea where we were. But eventually, I realized that we must have passed through the Bronx and into upper Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Percy took us on the most circuitous, Monty Python-type route you could ask for. He'd order us to make a left off of a given street, then make a few more turns, and a minute later, we'd be back on the street we'd started on in the first place. I swear it had us on St. Nicholas Avenue three or four different times. I was sure that somewhere in Northern England, there was a table full of men sitting around and laughing their asses off that we kept doing what they told us.

Miraculously, even after all of the winds and turns (and after Percy had tried to talk us into getting onto the Bruckner Expressway which was overhead while we were stuck on the service row below!), we still made it to the theater in plenty of time. We eventually parked at the world's slowest parking garage, paid the extra fee for an oversized vehicle (even though Denise was fairly sure she had already paid for it online), and walked the block over to the theater, making it onto the line by 6:45PM.

By this time I was starving. I also had to pee something fierce. Unfortunately, although I could smell the aroma of meat cooking somewhere in the distance, there were no street vendors anywhere to be found. There were some tables selling things over to the side of the theater, but the only food items that were available were various raw fruits, which I really never eat.

Screw it, I figured. I know most of these Manhattan theaters don't sell actual food. But there's generally some kind of junk for sale -- chips, candy, something like that. And right at that moment, the need to relieve myself overrode the need to eat.

As we passed the front of the theater, we were waved around all the way to the other side of the block, to stand in a (very short) line. At this point, it started to slowly sink in to my dim, famished little brain that it couldn't be a 7PM start time. It was after 6:30, they still weren't letting people in, and the line was way too short for it to be less than a half hour until show time. I was a little panicky that they weren't going to let us in until 7, as I wasn't sure my bladder would make it. But at about 6:45, they started moving things out of the way, and we made our way back around the block and into the theater. As we trudged back towards the front door, a recorded voice warned us over and over that were not allowed to bring outside food or beverages into the theater. This reassured me that there must be, in fact, inside food and beverages.

There were metal detectors to go through, but the entry process was still pretty quick, because there were still so few people there. I vaguely noticed that the workers looked more church members than ushers and the like, but at the time I was too focused on the pangs in my stomach and the pressure in my bladder to think about it. I also notice the words "Spiritual Center" somewhere or other, and as we entered, I saw a big poster promoting an appearance by Deepak Chopra in October.

The inside of the (fairly large) building was all faded red carpets, and I later learned that this was one of those old, lavish movie theaters from the 1930's that had been refurbished and turned into a venue for religious leaders, and occasionally musical artists. (The theater was bought out by the TV evangelist Reverend Ike in 1969, and it's his church that still owns it today.)

As we entered, the young woman who took out tickets tried to show us where to enter the auditorium. "Where are your bathrooms?" I asked, completely ignoring the info about the seats.

"Upstairs," she answered. Of course.

We made our way up the huge flight of stairs, as there were no elevators in sight. (Denise found one later, but it didn't seem to have any buttons to make the doors open, so it was basically useless to us anyway.) After mountain climbing up the stairs, I headed down the hallway to the Men's Room, stepped up to the full-sized urinal, and did my business. Ahhhh! Sweet relief.

I stepped out into the hall. Denise was still in the Ladies' Room. I walked up to the completely empty bar, ordered us two bottles of water, and asked what they had to eat.

"Nothing, I'm afraid," the girl said with a smile, shattering my spirit with a single word. "Plenty of drinks, though."

"No chips or anything? Anywhere in the building?" I asked incredulously. She checked with the man working next to her, who verified that they weren't selling a single scrap of food in the whole building. My spirits dropped below the floor.

Denise was sympathetic, but there wasn't much she could do. I didn't think they'd let us leave the building and get back in again, and I didn't think I'd be able to do much if they did. I wasn't going to go wondering all over Washington Heights. I might have chanced it by myself if I'd have had a ticket stub. But our "tickets" where on Denise's phone. (And it probably won't surprise you to learn that I have as much of a chance of successfully landing the space shuttle as I would of figuring out how to work Denise's Smartphone.)

They showed us to our seats, which were typically tight, hip-hugging old movie theater seats with wooden armrests. (As I write this two days later, my legs are still a little sore where the sides of the chair pressed into me, and I have a big bruise on one hip. Thanks, blood thinning meds.) I did have leg room, at least, as there was no chair in front of me. Nevertheless, I sat there feeling miserable, and completely sorry for myself. All I could think of was with an eight o'clock start, Ferry would play until 10 or 10:30, so it was going to be over three hours before I could put some food in my stomach.

So I sat there in the still-mostly-empty theater, all gloomy and mean. The workers all seemed to be volunteers for the church that owned the building. They were all happy, and exceedingly polite. (And a little bit insane cultish.) I just wanted to slap them. I killed the time by texting bitterly with my son, telling him what had happened.

"Where are you?" he asked.

I told him. I asked if he thought he could find a way to deliver a pizza to me. He stopped responding.

Over the next hour, from time to time, I texted him the random thoughts that popped into my head. "I'd hack up my grandmother for a Fig Newton," I told him. He continued to ignore me.

Next to me, Denise whiled away the time by texting with friends from her WLIR Facebook group who were on their way to the show. "Tim and Mandy are stuck in traffic," she informed me.

"Tell them to bring food!" I begged. I might as well have been a ghost.

"Oh, Mandy said there is an opening act tonight."

Swell, I thought. That's another half hour between me and some food.

"They probably have good seats right up front," Denise speculated, doubtlessly brooding over the good balcony seats she'd given up that would have allowed her see the stage clearly without being blocked by the crowd.

A moment later she corrected herself. "Oh, they're sitting in the balcony tonight."

"Ask them to lower down a Snickerdoodle on a rope," I pleaded hopefully. "Does Tim have a fishing pole in his trunk?"

That's pretty much the way it went, as the theater filled out.

By the time it was almost eight, even though I was still pretty dejected, I had started to feel a little better physically, probably because I hadn't been walking all over the place expending energy. Still, I was in a pretty lousy mood for an opening band I didn't know, and I'd have loved to have slapped Bryan Ferry silly for picking such a dipsy doodle venue to play in.

"The Paramount sells food," I thought, sourly, thinking about all of the other places I go to see live music shows. "The Space sells food. Jones Beach sells food. I can't afford any of it, but they do sell food."

The canned music wasn't making my mood any better. For some reason, Manhattan venues play the worst music before shows.

At the front of the stage, there was a sign made up of red lights. Denise asked if I could read it, but the middle of it was blocked. She stood up, and discovered that it said "Femme Schmidt." We both guessed (correctly) that that must be the name of the opening act.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the lights went out, and a young looking duo took the stage. (At first, I thought it was a trio. But Bryan Ferry had his drummer surrounded by what looked like Maxwell Smart's "Cone of Silence", and what I thought was a third band member was actually the guitarist's reflection off of the fiberglass.

Sure enough, the woman announced that they were Femme Schmidt, and they were there from Berlin. They were thrilled to be playing their first ever show in the United States, and even more thrilled to be opening for the great Bryan Ferry. ("Eff Bryan Ferry!" I thought viciously.)

They then began playing. I think I can sum them up for you in three words: "German Mazzy Star". They played a very low-key set along to canned bass and canned percussion.

Now I've been seeing this phenomenon lately of opening acts that feature one or two musicians playing over backing tracks, and here's my message to promoters: "Stop it! (Hitting them with a rolled up newspaper:) Bad! Bad! What did you do?"

Seriously. This is a godawful trend. If you're too damned cheap to pay for the whole band to be there, then don't even bother. I guarantee there are hundreds of local bands who'd be thrilled to show up and play at a show like this with the whole band. I don't blame the artist. It's expensive to fly your bass player and drummer over from Germany. I blame the promoter. Just cut it out!

Anyway, Femme Scmidt, who I really think should change their name to "Frau Blucher" if they want to make it in the States ("Brrrrr!"), were OK, but kind of boring. They played a bunch of original songs off of a new forthcoming album, plus a somewhat mediocre cover of "Landslide". As I listened to them, these were the thoughts that floated through my head: "Bratwurst!" "Black Forest Ham!" "Strudel!"

They got an OK reaction from the crowd. Not exuberant, but not totally indifferent either.

By this point, the building was pretty filled out. The people sitting next to Denise arrived and squeezed in, and both Denise and the lady sitting next to her were squashed. Got to love those old theaters. (We didn't buy the extra seat for this particular show, as we sometimes do, because these were expensive tickets).

As we waited between sets, a huge man who seemed like he might have been developmentally disabled came along without an usher, and hesitantly told the group of four sitting in front of us that he thought the two innermost seats they were sitting in belonged to him and his friend. After some confusion, they left. Denise thought they'd probably come back with an usher just in time to stand in our way at the beginning of Bryan Ferry's set, but we never saw them again. The fellow's friend, a much shorter man in a David Bowie shirt, sat in the inner seat. As soon as there was some stirring on he stage, the shorter man let out with a "Wooo!"

"Uh oh," Denise said to me. "He's a 'woo' guy."

"He won't be when these lights go out and I jab him through the temple with my pen," I thought, darkly.

Linda from the WLIR group briefly stopped over to say hello. This was her last show in the U.S. before she'd be flying home to Israel. She was sitting in the balcony near Tim and Mandy.

A moment later, the lights did go out. Immediately, the couple next to Denise moved over one seat, as there was an unclaimed seat on the other side of them. At the same time, the huge man in the row in front moved over one chair (to a seat that wasn't his), completely blocking Denise's view, and eclipsing most of the known universe. Denise frowned, and then moved a seat over to her left, which I'm sure didn't thrill the lady sitting next to her. But without me on her other side, Denise was now able to lean to her right, so everybody looked considerably more comfortable than they previously had been.

Bryan Ferry and his 9-piece backing band then took the stage, to much applause, as the instrumental song "India" from the Avalon album played over the speakers. The theme for the tour was some sort of anniversary or other of Avalon (I'm not really sure how that worked, as the album was released in 1982), and the intention was to play every song from that LP over the course of the night, as well as most of Ferry's solo and Roxy Music's best songs.

The whole crowd stood for Ferry's first song, "The Main Thing." When it was over, everyone sat. Everyone except for the young girl two rows in front of me, who stood there happily recording on her phone, as if to say, "I'm a millennial! I'm made of glass! Aren't I cute?" Luckily, she settled down after a song or so (I swear, that blow dart didn't come from me!), and I was able to see the show.

So what do I want to tell you about this concert? Well, several things. Firstly, about Ferry himself. On the way there, Denise asked me if I'd watched any recent YouTube videos of Ferry, and I admitted I hadn't. This can be a little risky with some of these older musicians (he's 73 years old). Some of them can still sing, and some of them, not so much.

I'd say for the most part, Bryan Ferry's voice has held up pretty well. It might be just a tad weaker than it used to be, and there were a few songs (unfortunately, some of his best) that he had some trouble with later in the night. These included "Dance Away", "Take a Chance on Me", "To Turn You On", and "More Than This". Maybe he was just getting tired by then.

It's also possible that some of this could have been due to difficulties hearing his own voice on the stage. At several points, I noticed him pressing on his headphones, as if he was trying to hear more clearly. The plexiglass surrounding the drummer makes me suspect that he's probably suffered some hearing loss over the years, and that the Cone of Silence was there so he could better hear himself over the percussion.

Nevertheless, he still sounds like Bryan Ferry, and that's a good thing. I always thought that he had one of the more romantic croons in all of rock music. If I wasn't a married man, and I was trying to seduce a young lady, I might well enlist some Bryan Ferry music to help me in my quest.

The other thing I'll say is that Ferry doesn't waste a lot of time on stage patter. He introduced the band at one point, and said a few Thank You's here and there. But by and large, he kept the show all about the music, which I appreciated. (And even more so because less talk meant I'd get some food sooner.)

And speaking of the band, they were just excellent, maybe one of the best touring bands I've heard ever. As I said earlier, there were nine of them, plus Ferry himself. But if I compare this concert to the Jon Anderson show I saw a few weeks ago, where at times there was too much sound on the stage and his band kind of played over one another, here the sound was crystal clear throughout the night. I was particularly impressed with the older guitarist, whose name I think was Chris Spedding (I had to pull that up from another Ferry review by a guy from New Zealand, but fortunately, he was impressed with the same musicians that I was); with the little female sax player Jorja Chalmers (who looked like she would have been right at home on the old Saturday Night Live skit, "Sprockets"); and with the female backup singer Hannah, who blew the crowd away with her solo at the end of "Avalon". Also, I have no idea who the drummer was, but Ferry always has interesting percussion on his music, and this guy played it all to a tee. But as I said, the whole band was top notch.

I was a little bummed that the setlist didn't include "Virginia Plain". They had been playing it up until a few days earlier, but then they dropped it out of the setlist for some reason or other. (It might just be that they play it when they have a little extra  time near the end of the set, and for the last few nights they haven't. Who knows?) I can't say it's my favorite Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music song. But it has a sentimental attachment, as it was the first Ferry song I ever heard, on WNEW-FM's Friday afternoon Things From England show with Scott Muni. But overall, I couldn't complain. He played almost anything I could have hoped for.

By the time the show let out, I had to use the facilities again, but I wasn't about to climb back up those stairs. (Denise had run up there during two of the weaker songs of the set. I won't say what they were, because guaranteed some of you will say they're your favorite songs, and give me a thumbs down. Bastards!)

I also knew that it was going to be slower than Heinz ketchup getting our car back from that bush-league parking garage. So instead, we ducked into the Mexican restaurant down the block, a place called Rincon Mexicano, which was almost, but not quite, ready to close. I emptied my pathetic bladder once again (in their rest room, of course, you barbarians!) and ordered some steak tacos. The angels blew trumpets from on high, as I enjoyed some amazingly good Mexican food.

Tim and Mandy joined us briefly as our food was delivered. The conversation went something like this:

Tim: I thought he sounded great tonight.

Me: (Munch, munch, slobber, chomp chomp!) Me too! (Crunch, crunch, slurp!)

But by the time Gwen from WUSB showed up, they had already locked the doors of the restaurant, so Tim, Mandy and Gwen left to try to find someplace to get a drink together.

Denise and I finished up and left shortly thereafter (but not before I had also gobbled down Denise's ridiculously tasty beans and rice). There was still a pretty long line for the car. But having eaten and answered nature's other call, I was in much better shape to deal with it. The car came out more quickly than I expected (and I think ahead of some the cars of some other people who had been waiting longer. Tough break, suckers!), and we headed home.

Obviously, I would have enjoyed the show more if I'd been in better physical shape for it. But actually, it was still one of the better concerts I've seen this year.

You can find Bryan Ferry's full setlist at