26 June 2007

(Almost) Missed The Boat

No, this is not about the Steinways; it's about what almost happened to me on Friday night when I unwisely relied upon New York City's public transportation network to get me to the Weakerthans boat cruise/gig on time.

Not that I had a lot of alternatives: driving/cabbing it would probably have taken twice as long, being that it was the height of rush hour, and apart from persuading a helicopter to pick me up at my house, walking was about the only other choice.

So I trustingly showed up at my local station, allowing 45 minutes to make a trip that might amount to three miles or so. At that hour of the day, trains usually come every 2-4 minutes, so I wasn't anticipating any difficulty until I noticed that the entire platform was clogged with people, many of whom looked as though they'd been standing there for a very long time. The overhead indicator said the next train wouldn't be for another 14 minutes, by which time I figured members of the crowd would be getting shoved onto the tracks by new arrivals trying to force their way onto the platform. Which of course would only delay things further as the train would have to wait while they scraped up the bodies.

On top of that, I reckoned, if every station along the line had a similar number of people waiting to board, the train would be so full by the time it got to us that nobody would be able to get on anyway (this happens quite often during the morning commute, which, thankfully, I don't participate in). But, lo and behold, the train showed up a mere 12 minutes later, rather than 14, and even more wondrously, was only about half full. In fact there were even a few seats available.

Not that they'd do us (or the cause of getting to the Weakerthans show before the ship sailed) any good: the train just ROLLED ON THROUGH THE STATION WITHOUT STOPPING. I suppose the reasoning (assuming any was involved) was that they needed to get trains to Manhattan as quickly as possible so evening commuters could get home. Fine for them, but now there was serious doubt about whether I was going to see the Weakerthans. A few hours earlier, disconsolate because I hadn't been able to find anyone to go with me, I'd been grousing that I might not bother going myself, but suddenly I was filled with rage and regret at the image of the boat fully of happy revelers sailing away while I stood on the dock with my mouth hanging open at the injustice of it all.

When a train finally did show up that also deigned to stop for us, it was completely packed, but I forced my way on board nonetheless. But then it proceeded to crawl into Manhattan, and because there were so many people entering and exiting, each station stop took a small lifetime. I reckoned that at this rate the only way I'd have even a remote chance of making it on time was if the uptown A train arrived almost in the same instant that my train arrived at 8th Avenue, and even then, I'd have somewhere between five and seven minutes to make it from the Port Authority at 8th and 42nd down to the river. Possibly doable if I ran all the way.

Amazingly enough, the A did show up just as I hit the platform, and got me to the Port Authority with a couple extra minutes to spare. But I'd overestimated my running skills, with respect to both endurance and to what amounted to broken field running through rush hour pedestrian and vehicular traffic. By the time I'd got to 10th Avenue I had come close to knocking two people over and being knocked over myself by a speeding cab, and was panting with exhaustion. I got out my phone and tried to dial while running, thinking if I could reach Frank Unlovable, who was waiting in line, that perhaps I could get him to beg the ship's captain to hold back the sailing time for a few more minutes.

But for the longest time nothing came through on my phone except static, and when Frank finally did answer, I was in sight of my destination. A few stragglers were still boarding, and after all my panic and frustration, the boat didn't end up leaving till something like a quarter to seven anyway.

I had been looking forward to watching the skylines of New York and New Jersey (all right, I'm taking some poetic license in the latter case) glide by as I enjoyed the music of the Weakerthans, but the way things were set up, you pretty much had to be confined to a cramped indoor space if you wanted a good look at the band. Oh well, I said to Frank, if it was just a boat ride I was after, there was always the Staten Island Ferry.

The Weakerthans were as sensational as ever, not perhaps in quite the same lean and hungry way they were when I first chanced upon them (actually I was dragged to see them by Grant Lawrence) some nine years ago this month, but what they may have lost in youthful spontaneity was more than made up for by supremely self-assured musicianship and John Samson's inimitable way of combining passion, grace and profundity with his down home/aw shucks manner.

I'd never seen John enjoying himself so much on stage before, and he seemed equally relaxed when he stopped by for a chat afterwards, despite having to field requests for autographs or photos on an average of every 15 seconds. This feeding frenzy of fandom only intensified a few minutes later when Blake Schwarzenbach joined the party. Because of the East Bay/Gilman Street connection, people always assume I know Blake, but in actuality I've only met him twice previous to this, and only briefly at that. So it was a real treat getting a chance to talk with him in a little greater depth, and to discover our mutual love for the Weakerthans.

The one thing about the show that struck a slightly discordant note (literally) was the way the fans tended to drown out the band on some of the quieter songs. I've often remarked at how I've never seen another band where the fans not only know the lyrics so thoroughly (and in the case of the Weakerthans, there are rather a lot of lyrics to know), but also sing them so loudly that at times John could go out for a beer and many people wouldn't even notice. In the past I've found this quite charming, but this time the fans, at least where I stood, resembled a pack of drunken frat boys baying somewhat tunelessly at the moon, which tended to clash with the delicate imagery and melody of songs like "My Favorite Chords" or "Left And Leaving."

Oh well, no live show is ever perfect, and if I want flawless harmonies, I'll just put the records on at home and sing along by myself. No doubt those beer-sozzled vocalists surrounding me at the show felt similarly about their own efforts.

Anyway, that's the Weakerthans, and that was my Friday night. Too bad it took me until late Tuesday to write about it. They're back in New York this autumn, with a brand new record to follow shortly.

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