Sunday, October 20, 2013

Live to See the Morning Come--Chuck Berry's Birthday and the Del Lords in St. Louis

Born in 1963, I'm just finishing my 50th year. That's a big number. There's no way to call yourself a young man once you've been here half a century. Last night, a dear friend asked me to say three things about this birthday, and I struggled to come up with anything else except that...I can no longer deny my age.

But my second one was "I'm glad I'm still here." I almost left 7 years ago, had a close call, had some last thoughts. In some ways I was happier with myself then than I've often been since. It's been a tough time. Aside from a list of heroes I don't want to count, I've lost a number of important friends over those 7 years, including 7 extraordinary women--most to illness but some by their own hand. It's made me wonder why I outlived them, or whether I should have.

But, of course, there are many more reasons I'm glad I'm here. I got to be in my oldest daughter's wedding this year, and I saw her baby boy in a sonogram at the first of this month. My wife and I adopted a daughter three years ago, and we're all blessed to have her in our lives. I've got great friends....That was the third thing, how thankful I am for the loved ones in my life.

Two of them took me to St. Louis Friday, October 18th, to see the Del Lords, a band I first heard when I was 21, on a cassette I played on a drive home from a record buying trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma. If my buddy Terry and I wanted anything good that wasn't going to be at Walmart, we had to drive the 50 miles to Tulsa. That trip was the best. We came home with Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive and the Del Lords' Frontier Days, two records that changed both of our lives.

Despite having recorded that first album with Springfield, Missouri producer Lou Whitney, the Del Lords were a New York band, and the closest I ever knew of them coming to anyplace I lived was St. Louis in the 80s. I never saw them in that first decade they were together. They had to get back together after 22 years, record what I think is my favorite of their albums, The Elvis Club, and play last Friday night in the shadow of the Lemp Brewery. On top of that, my buddy Billy Chin, Del Lords fan extraordinaire, had to be paying close attention to the tour and nab tickets for me and another of our close friends or I probably wouldn't have seen them this time.

When I think of hearing the encore Friday, The Del Lords' drummer Frank Funaro singing "I Play the Drums," I remember how lucky I felt to finally have that catharsis live. I had similar out-of-body-by-being-fully-in-it experiences hearing the one-two punch of the Del Lords' great cover of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" followed by "Get Tough," the righteous, high energy assault that introduced their first album. As lead singer Scott Kempner gritted his teeth and railed against all the world does to harden our hearts, every muscle in my body wound tight, and I kicked at the floor. The years between 21 and 50 collapsed. If anything, I only know those emotions better now than I did when I used to shout along with those lyrics all those years ago.

But it's not just about connecting with your 21-year-old self again....Here's why you stick around, if you have a choice in the matter...

The band followed "Get Tough" with what may be my favorite song off the new album, "Me and the Lord Blues." It's a blues, for sure, a song about the ability to dream your way through a shit life if only when you go to sleep at night. But the song's bigger than that sounds. The sound is free form, almost psychedelic, and its explosive rolls of guitar and drum Friday night transcended what is already some amazing studio work on the recorded version.

Eric Ambel's quiet, careful delivery picked up on the liberating (against all odds, including those lyrical) tone from a song he'd sung earlier, "Flying." When he asserted, "I hear freedom/I smell justice," he defined what bound him to Kempner and what continues to bind this audience to this great band. The Del Lords make rock and roll for true believers, and that vision almost 30 years down the road is even more powerful than it ever could have been in our youth. It has so many new miles of depth and substance.

Of course, the whole night had been a tribute to those many ties that keep pulling us back together. The great Bottle Rockets frontman/guitarist Brian Henneman led the crack ensemble Diesel Island (that night featuring wonderful lead guitar work from Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges and Son Volt) through a series of gorgeous covers, including Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" and the Band's "The Weight."

At the end of the night, the Del Lords had Henneman come back out to join them. Before playing Berry's bittersweet "Johnny B. Goode" sequel "Bye Bye Johnny," Kempner called out, "To Chuck Berry on his birthday! Without him, none of us would be here!"

Truer words were never said.

The fact that a band like the Del Lords is here with us?

One damn fine reason to be glad you're alive.