One of Dante’s seven circles of Hell has to be the Oldies concerts that PBS dusts off each time they want to raise money. On stage you have the remains of ’50s icons, the Coasters, followed by the mummified McGuire Sisters, And John Sebastian sprinkling hippie fairy dust on My Lai and other Oldies-unfriendly memories. And in the audience, blue-haired ladies and bald, paunchy husbands sway back and forth to fragile melodies of their youth, glazed smiles and aching joints (no real joints, mind you). And then the songs play back again, an endless loop of ersatz happiness. Heaven help us from music Hell.
Given my jaundiced view of Oldies Shows, I was bit trepidatious when my old friend Jim, who had driven out with me to the site of the original Sky River Rock Festival the night before and dropped me off the day of, invited me spend the day at Sky River Redux, the first day of a three-day music festival sponsored by the Stilliguamish Tribe at River Meadow Park, south of Arlington. The first day was an homage to what would become the blueprint for festivals like Woodstock. The featured groups had all played at Sky River in 1968: Big Brother and the Holding Company, It’s A Beautiful Day, Jesse Colin Young (representing the Youngbloods, Canned Heat and Buffy St. Marie. Without Janis what did Big Brother ever bring to the party, and with Al Wilson and Bob Hite equally long gone, what was left of Canned Heat. Jesse Colin Young was the frontman for the Youngbloods, but his solo work hadn’t come close to capturing the wacky goodness of the Bloods. And, frankly, I never liked It’s a Beautiful Day, which left Buffy St. Marie, and I was thinking, she had to be ancient. But the concert was free, good companions, Jim and his wife Sandy, and the day was finally the summer we had been waiting so long for.
We had no problem finding a great spot to plop our lawn chairs, which everyone seemed to have, and it was never a problem wandering up to the stage for a close look. The crowd of a few thousand was an AARP dream. The largest parking section was given over to Handicap stickered cars, and though the hair was long, it was whiter and thinner.
Jesse Colin Young hit the stage first, and he had grayed and balded, but he looked healthy. His voice has become breathier and when he reached for the higher notes he used to reach so effortlessly, he went into hyper-whisper. We got “Darkness Darkness,” “Riding on a Ridgetop,” a few others from Elephant Mountain and he closed the set, as we all knew he would, with “Come Together.” There were two new songs, but they sounded sort of old, the themes firmly rooted in the ’60s, peace and love, but ultimately corn-ball and vapid. He even pulled out the hip instrument of the day, the ukelele. Not even Eddie Vedder can pull off the uke (perhaps only Merrill Garbus of TuneYards can). He has lived, or still does live, on one of the Hawaiian Islands, so I cut him some slack for that, but he dedicated the song to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and, no surprise, it was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But, ya know, it wasn’t too bad.
Jessie Colin Young in 2009
Youngbloods, Darkness Darkness
It’s a Beautiful Day was another matter. I had always sensed in that group an off-putting pretentiousness, and since everyone loved them, I felt obligated to hate them. David LaFlamme took the stage and announced that he was 70, and while he didn’t look bad at all, he did look like your Uncle Fud. It took him forever to introduce his wife Linda, who looked much better than her hubby. The group was tight and ran through a greatest hits before leaving. Oddly, when LaFlamme introduced the group, he left out his wife, and when they came back for an encore, she stayed backstage. The announcer came on to give Linda some props and bring her back on stage. That was just odd.
It’s A Beautiful Day, White Bird
White Bird, 2008
As I had done for the two other sets, I figured I’d wander up at some point to get a closer look at Buffy St. Marie, but when I saw her stride out in a black studded motorcycle jacket, backed by a powerful trio of young dudes sporting Fauxhawks, and absolutely blast off, I rushed to the stage and I didn’t retreat until she had finished. I have a couple of Buffy St. Marie albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her quavery, yet strident and yodely Native American chanty voice was definitely an acquired taste, but I had acquired it for a while. I expected folk but got instead some sock-it-to-you power-First Nation punkpop and roll, infectious and riveting. At 70, Ms. Marie looked mahvalous! And she owned the stage. And she is still political and doesn’t mince words. And her voice did not back down to the ka-thunking base, screaming guitar, and rolling drums. I was enthralled and so so surprised. She also threw in some of her greatest hits, all of them for other people: “Up Where We Belong,” for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warren, “Universal Soldier,” for Donovan, and “Until It’s Time For You to Go” for almost everybody. There was some native tunes and rock-a-billy thrown into the mix. She had 90 minutes and I was jumping (okay, mostly in my mind) with every song. Check out Buffy St. Marie. Do it!
Up Where We Belong
Cho Cho Fire
I had seen the Youngbloods a couple of times, Canned Heat once, but it was Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis Joplin, that stayed with me. I adored Janis and at that concert I boldly declared my love for her as did my Brother Andy. You had to. She destroyed her voice for her audience at every concert. And more than Jimi, certainly more than Morrison, her death took the wind right out of my music-loving self. Without her, Big Brother was eminently ignorable and I did just that. But I was curious to see what the leftovers, Andrew, Goetz and Albin, had in them. And, frankly, there wasn’t much. Rather than stand on their own three sets of legs, they found a Janis sound-alike and reverted to back-up band status. The young lady possessed Janis-like pipes and she knew every gravelly wail and every pregnant pause, every screech that Janis made her own. And it was sort of creepy to see those senior citizen rockers up on the stage with that young woman. It was Kareoke night at the concert and she was damn good. Of course they finished with “Ball and Chain,” and encored with “Mercedes Benz.” And it was just the young woman, and I thought, “That’s perfect.” I get why Big Brother needs the ghost of Janis, but it was a little bit sad. And, of course, the audience loved it–a PBS moment.
Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis
Big Brother 2011
The Beautiful day became frightfully cold for me in shorts and sandals as the dewy darkness arrived, and it took Canned Heat to for-fuckin’ ever to set up. I was shivering and whining to Jim, but he was made of hardier stuff. When finally the opening chords to “On the Road Again” started a thunk-a-thunking I was falling asleep. And I groaned when the lead singer, the drummer, I believe, tried to sound like Al Wilson, and it was gaggable. This ship was sinking fast, and this rat was ready to go home. But things picked up when Harvey Mandel took center stage. He was a bluesy rock-n-roller I remembered from the ’60s, who, I guess, had been a member of Canned Heat since Woodstock. He was good, and when Jim finally gave in to the not only my complaining, but his wife’s as well, they were sound pretty good.
Canned Heat at Woodstock
Canned Heat, 2010
As we picked up the lawn chairs and walked through the wet grass, I had to admit that I had had a great time. Yeah, I know, my critique might indicate otherwise, but there were a few moments, when the music evoked some pretty sweet memories. I was with old friends. Jim and I have shared so many experiences in the mountains; there is no one I would rather slog up a trail with, and blast tunes in his 1970s VW van with, and drink beer with. I even went to see Canned Heat with his wife-to-be Sandra in 1968, not in the Seattle Coliseum, but just outside, so there was so much history between the three of us. And thank Ma Nature, the weather was great, and people were groovin’, doing the hippie dance, and forgetting for a second or two that they were in their 60s or 70s or they simply embraced aging and sang “I Love you years.” And when the full moon announced its presence like just one more rock star, I locked my age in a big bear hug and said silently, “Fuck you inexorable march of fucking time, I am going to enjoy the moment. Back off!!