It's been another one of those weeks. The worst part was that on Thursday, after countless vet appointments over the last two years trying to treat some kind of a respiratory ailment, our family had to say goodbye to the oldest of our three cats, Noodles.
Noodles was a stray who adopted us. He came to us right after my kids first moved in, when my daughter was 13 and my son only 10. The kids fed him once, and he moved into our front yard and never left. According to the rules of our adoption agency, we weren't supposed to bring a new pet into the house until we had all completed our adoption steps, the idea being that it's unfair to let children get attached to a pet until you have made the final commitment that you will all become a solid forever-family together. But Noodles was unplanned.
The night another cat tried to steal Noodles' food, and my 10-year-old charged out of the house screaming, "Hey you, get away from MY cat!" I knew we were done. We took him to the vet (Noodles, not my son), and moved him into the house shortly after that. Then we all learned to be a family together, Noodles as much as any of us. (To date, Noodles is the only cat to graduate our agency's steps program -- every time my son presented evidence to move up an adoption step, he gave evidence on Noodles' behalf as well.) He's been with us these past ten years, and he was no spring chicken when he first came to us -- we think he was already eight or so then.
In any event, we've been trying to take care of him, but this week, we finally ran out of options. He wasn't feeling well, and the vets couldn't do any more to make him better. So on Thursday night, the five of us (My wife and I, my two young adult kids, and my daughter's boyfriend) made the sad drive to the vet to give him some peace. We all cried -- a lot -- and said goodbye to our beloved friend. He was maybe the sweetest and gentlest cat I ever knew. It was a heartbreaking night.
Unfortunately, Denise and I had tickets to see Renaissance on their 50th Anniversary Tour the next night. It wasn't the best timing.
Friday was a bizarre day. I started by getting up at 7 to drive my daughter to her job training in Huntington. We've been doing this for five weeks now, and it's kind of crushing my soul. Saturday was supposed to be the last day for a few weeks. Unfortunately, before I even got home, my daughter texted to tell me she had to work in Huntington for one more week. Sigh.
Then, on the way home, I had something happen that had never happened to me in 35 years of driving. It was an exceptionally windy day, and as I pulled off of Sunrise Highway at the Hospital Road exit, I noticed a flock of birds overhead. They were whirling back and forth crazily, as if they were all being buffeted by the wind. And as I entered the service road, they started spiraling downward, lower and lower, until I suddenly realized they were going to shoot right in front of me. There was no time to brake -- I could only grip the wheel tightly as birds pounded into my car, smashing off of the roof and the windshield. I thought the windshield was going to break, but luckily it didn't. I looked in my rear view mirror, and didn't see any bodies on the road. But I must have taken out about eight of them, because there was bird grue on several parts of my car, even the driver's side window. It was like the Hitchcock film The Birds, or a frightening, Biblical event.
There were other weird things that happened on Friday, too, but I won't go into all of them, or you and I will never get to the damned concert. Suffice it to say that the day really didn't make my mood any better. As for Denise -- well, she's a cat person. She was devastated by Thursday night, to the point that she took off from work on Friday to avoid going into her office and crying all day. She's usually more of an upbeat person (by far) than I am, so I think she was looking forward to the concert to take her mind off of things. Here's what I was looking forward to.
As my regular readers know, I always like to print out the probable playlist for a show beforehand. I like to know what's coming. And most of the time, bands (especially older ones), tend to keep to pretty much the same setlist from one night to the next.
Denise and I, and Rich Da Drumma (who had accompanied us when we saw Renaissance in the Boulton Center last year, and was going to come with us again tonight) had seen the band play a 12-song set the last time, and the set they had performed in Annapolis on Thursday night looked to be very similar. In fact, there were only three songs that were different -- "Midas Man", which is a decent song, "Ashes Are Burning", which is one of their best, and my favorite song of all, "Mother Russia". (When they had played the Boulton Center, someone called out, requesting "Mother Russia", and Annie Haslam had laughingly suggested that they should "get stuffed.") So I was looking forward to hearing the band play my favorite Renaissance song.
The traffic heading into the city was, as you'd expect, fairly heavy. We'd picked up Rich on the way, and he gave us a shortcut to get onto the Cross Island Parkway, which probably cut twenty minutes or so off of our trip. By 7:15, we were close to Town Hall, where the show was taking place. But the crosstown traffic was ridiculous as we approached the theater district, and we unfortunately accidentally bypassed the parking garage where Denise had made a reservation. By then it was 7:30, and it was clear that if we had to circle the block to get back to that garage, we'd miss the opening of the show. So we called an audible, and decided to eat that parking fee and pull into a different garage up the street ahead of us. It was kind of a pain in the butt, but under the circumstances, I think it was the right choice. We made it into the theater with twenty minutes to spare, giving us enough time to use the facilities, get some waters (and for Rich to grab a snack, since he hadn't eaten anything beforehand) and get to our seats.
The one major difference between this year's tour and the one I had seen last year at the Boulton Center (besides my having to haul my sorry ass into Manhattan for this one) was that for this tour, Renaissance was playing alongside what Haslam would later refer to as a chamber orchestra. And as we stepped out onto the mezzanine of the theater, we could see that not only was Frank Pagano's drum kit once again enclosed inside of a 3-sided plexiglass wall, but so was the whole back of the stage where the orchestra would sit (in a straight row across).
One curious (and kind of disappointing thing) was the attendance for this show. When Denise and I had been in this venue in the beginning of the year to see Joe Jackson, it was pretty much a sellout. But tonight, while I think the downstairs area was completely sold out, the upstairs area where we were was only a little more than half full. We had purchased the extra seat for tonight, but as it turned out, we didn't really need it -- Our whole row was empty, save for Denise, Rich and myself.
Before too long, the lights went down, and the orchestra filed out, followed by the band. There were eleven players in the orchestra, and Renaissance themselves played as a six-piece (including Annie). This included drums, bass, (usually acoustic) guitar, and two keyboards.
Now I had been listening to Renaissance all week, specifically the Ashes Are Burning album. (I was under the erroneous impression that the concert was supposed to feature the band playing this LP from front to back). I rank their top three studio albums as Turn of the Cards, Ashes Are Burning and Scheherazade in that order, but others might disagree, and some might even throw Prologue or Novella in the mix. In any event, listening to Ashes reminded me of all the things I love about this band. The most important are:
1. Annie Haslam's ridiculous five-octave-ranged voice. There weren't a lot of '70s rock bands out there with female lead singers, and most of the female leads who did exist had voices more of the harsh, hard-rock variety. (Think Ann Wilson of Heart, Janis Joplin or even Gracie Slick.) Few had Haslam's vocal beauty, and none that I can think of came anywhere near her almost-freakish range.
2. The use of keyboards, especially piano. I love the piano. It's one of my favorite instruments. And Renaissance inserted a lot of piano (and even some harpsichord) into their music. And
3. The way they mixed both folk and classical music into their songs. Yeah, sometimes they lifted whole pieces of classical music (such as Mussorgsky's Pictures From an Exhibition) and inserted it into their material (not too cool, I admit). But I still loved their style of prog rock. King Crimson, for example, was more brilliant, but they and many other prog rock groups inserted too much jazz into the mix for me to fully embrace them, and others (like Procol Harum) maybe relied a little too much on basic blues. Renaissance had just the right mix for me.
If they followed the previous night's setlist (and I was pretty sure they would, as this was only the second show of this particular tour), they would be playing two sets, of six and five songs respectively, and performing "Ashes Are Burning" as an encore.
They started out with three of their best, "Carpet of the Sun", "Ocean Gypsy" and "Running Hard", all in a row. And they sounded great, except ...
It was clear from the beginning of the evening that Annie was having some vocal problems tonight. When I'd seen her last year, she was having some control issues in her lower range, but tonight, they were more pronounced. It could have been because this was only the band's second show since last December, so she was still a little rusty. Or maybe she was under the weather -- a lot of people I know are dealing with colds, etc., due to the recent change in temperature. (Even my son is coughing it up today, and talking in what I like to call his "FM Radio Voice".)
Annie was trying gamely, and she seemed to be having a reasonably good time in spite of whatever was ailing her, but even she made a reference at one point to the notion that they loved still being able to go out and play this material to the best of their current ability. (And in spite of her good spirits, she seemed a little less interactive between songs than she had last year, although that could have just been because the Boulton Center is a more intimate venue than is Town Hall.) It's also worth noting that Annie is 72 years old now, so it's not surprising if she's lost a step.
They continued through the first set with "Midas Man" (which they apparently haven't played live since 2012 prior to this tour). Annie then had her strongest number of the night, "Symphony of Light", a song about the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, from their 2013 LP Grandine il Vento. This song finds her singing much of the time in her very highest range, and the power and exquisiteness of her voice on this one brought the crowd to their feet in a standing ovation.
(And the crowd was pretty well behaved tonight. Yeah, the guy behind me was singing off key for a lot of the night, and at one point, a guy who looked like Bernie Sanders plopped himself down in the row in front of us, blocking Rich's view and annoying him for a song or two before he moved on. But in general, they were less irritating than the usual concert audience.)
Renaissance closed the set with a nice moment, inviting founding ex-member Jim McCarty onto the stage to join them for the set closer, "Island", from the band's first (pre-Annie Haslam) self-titled album. (McCarty would accompany them again for the last song of the night, "Ashes Are Burning".)
I was having a pretty pleasant night in spite of the events of the previous week, and I was in a pretty philosophical mood. You see, there's a chance this might be my last Manhattan concert ever. I've decided to take a bit of a break from live shows for awhile (once our current set of tickets runs out), and if my current state of mind lasts, I've gotten to hate the hassle of going into the city so much that I'm intending to cancel Manhattan from my life forever.
Denise has been trying to tempt me with some pretty cool bands playing in the city in the upcoming months, including The Fixx and Dead Can Dance. Last year, I would have jumped at them, or at least agreed to them. But for right now, my mindset is that unless they want to play on Long Island, I'm out. The combination of the physical and mental stress of going into the city, plus the disgusting condition of the city itself, make me just not want to go there again. If Madison Square Garden was a little more physically comfortable, I'd be inclined to consider shows there, since it would involve a simple LIRR trip into the venue's basement. But the physical discomfort of MSG, and the venue's crappy attitude, has led me to eliminate them from my concert life as well.
Never say never, because things can change. Maybe in a few months, when I'm not driving to Huntington four days a week, I'll feel differently. But for right now, I'm so tired, physically and emotionally. So I need to believe that I'm done with Manhattan.
The band opened their second set, and for me, the first few songs themselves were less impressive -- "Opening Out", "Day of the Dreamer" and "The Mystic and the Muse". They were well played by the band and the orchestra -- and I would single out Rave Tesar's piano as being especially impressive throughout the night. But Annie's voice was flagging, and the songs just aren't among my favorites from the band's repertoire. But I steeled myself. "Mother Russia" was next. After all, the band had been following the previous night's setlist song-for-song up until this point.
So you guys can guess what's coming, right? I sat back, waiting to hear that delicate intro to the band's musical tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an intro that always elicited a very physical reaction of pure joy from me. Wikipedia describes it as "a sparse, string-driven introduction marked by occasional piano crescendos". I'd describe it as orgasmic. Haslam announced it thusly: "Our next song is called 'A Song for All Seasons'".
Damned straight! Wait ... What?! ... Noooooooooooooooooo!!!
Yes. They skipped over "Mother Russia"'s spot in the setlist, and went straight on to the next song. It should be noted that "Song for All Seasons" was probably Haslam's worst number of the night. Her voice was flat as hell for much of the song. I don't know if "Mother Russia" is, for some reason especially hard for her to sing these days. I wouldn't know, because I've never heard her try to sing the fucking thing! But she might have known she didn't have many songs left in her for the night, and decided to cut down the setlist. I'll never know for sure.
I tried to hold onto hope. But in my heart, I think I knew it was over. After "Song for All Seasons", they called McCarty back to the stage ("Maybe they were waiting until McCarty could join them for "Mother Russia!" I told myself.) "This one is called 'Ashes Are Burning'". Grrrrr!
Still, ridiculously, I kept trying to delude myself. "Last night, they did 'Ashes Are Burning' as an encore," I told myself desperately. "Maybe they've switched the order! 'Mother Russia' would be a great encore!" After all, as "Ashes" wound down, it was still only 10:15PM.
"Well, thank you for that!" Annie told the audience, beaming. "We'll see you all next time."
The lights came on, and the crowd began to file out.
Now, I still have at least some sanity left. (Not much. But some.) The logical me recognizes that Renaissance has no idea who I am, and that they doubtlessly cut the song for some reason relating to whatever was going on with Annie's voice last night. There couldn't possibly be anything personal towards me.
But let me tell you, it felt personal. I felt like a little boy whose favorite toy had just been crushed by a bus, or like my delicious slice of chocolate cake had been knocked onto the ground by a bully. Where I am mentally right now, hearing "Mother Russia" live would have been like a soothing balm, even if Haslam had had to croak the damned thing. (Because it's one Renaissance song where it's more about the music itself for me than it is about Annie's vocal, anyway.) In the grand scheme of things, not hearing "Mother Russia" is clearly a tiny bump in the road, what some would rightly call a first-world problem. Still, it was just one more shit sandwich to choke down this week. Thanks, life.
We worked our way out of the city, and ate dinner at a diner somewhere near Rich's house. Then we dropped him off and headed home. By the time we got there (after waiting on line at the Taco Bell drive-thru at my son's request for about a half an hour) it was after 2AM. (It could have turned out to be even later. We just missed hitting three deer that came dashing out in front of us on South Country Road, which might have held us up for another hour or two waiting for the police so we could file an accident report. Like I said earlier, Biblical. But 2AM still sucked.) By the time I got to bed, it was almost three. And as you might guess, I was tremendously excited to know I'd be getting up at seven the next morning to drive my daughter to Huntington again.
So there it is ... the story of what I hope will be my last Manhattan show ever. The setlist for the concert is up at setlist.fm, at www.ICantBelieveTheyScrewedMeAgain.com. You'll see that whoever posted the setlist was kind enough to post this little comment at the bottom: "Note: 'Mother Russia' was on the printed setlist, but not played." Thanks for that.
Renaissance played again on Saturday night in Glenside, PA, but I have no idea if they played the song there, because no one has yet posted the setlist for that show. They probably did, though.
Fuck you, Renaissance.
But more importantly, Rest in Peace, Noodles. We love you, buddy. And we always will.