I opened for Suzanne Vega at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on Saturday, March 24th, 2001. The Fillmore holds 1,200 people, which was more than twice the size of any venue I’d played before. In fact, I’d only played for 500 people twice: once at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA with folk legend Tom Paxton, and once at the Knitting Factory Hollywood on March 23rd, 2001, aka the night before. Of course, the “size” of the gig was about more than just capacity: many of my best friends lived in the Bay Area. If that isn’t enough, it was my third date with a new girlfriend, who eventually became my wife.
I got to know Suzanne Vega when she started showing up at Jack Hardy’s Monday night songwriter’s meetings after many years away. She was a big part of the Fast Folk scene in its early days, but gave it up for a career that included Billboard hits in the 1980s and groundbreaking albums in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, music was on the back burner while she raised her daughter; she hadn’t released an album since Nine Objects of Desire in 1996.
Suzanne returned to a festive period for the songwriter’s meeting, whose cast of capital-C characters included Tim Robinson, Jim Allen, Frank Tedesso, Allan Orksi, Ken Beasley, Ina May Wool, Jon Albrink, Michael Veitch, Stephanie Corby, and David Massengill. It was so festive, in fact, that we never wanted the party to end: every Monday night after the meeting, we walked from the corner of Houston St. and 6th Ave. down to the end of Spring St., where my best friend was the bartender at the Ear Inn. Those “field trips” were a lot of fun, even when they degenerated into drunken arguments.
I was starting to get out-of-town gigs with the help of my agent, Sean Laroche, who was connected to many of the popular artists and venues on the folk circuit. Our approach was to track the tour itineraries of certain artists, and ask their agents and the venues if I could open shows for them. This tactic – which turned out to be pretty effective – led to the Paxton gig at the Birchmere, which was amazing. I also played a handful of dates with Dan Bern, including two sold-out shows at the old Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, which was beyond amazing.
It came to my attention that Suzanne was getting back into the game with three dates in California. Suzanne and I had hung out a fair amount – at the meeting and at the Ear – and she’d seen me play a good show at The Living Room, when it was in its original location on the corner of Ludlow St. and Stanton St. What did I have to lose by asking? As it turns out, I had nothing whatsoever to lose: she signed me up for the Los Angeles and San Francisco concerts.
Somebody told me I seemed a little nervous in L.A., which makes perfect sense: it was the first gig with Suzanne, it was in my hometown, and I broke a string during Greenland. San Francisco must have been better, because I got an encore. Also: there was a poster, my dressing room was packed with friends who couldn’t believe we were on the other side of the curtain at the freakin’ Fillmore, there was an after-party that went all night, and it went well with the new girlfriend.
I was back in New York when I came across this review in the San Francisco Examiner, a newspaper that – luckily – no one reads:
Where do I start? Perhaps by noting that the most painful kind of review is the kind that actually gets it right. You know when someone has your number, and they enumerate your flaws in such a way that you can only acknowledge them, and then spiral into a crisis of self-esteem? This review didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem, but the guy definitely did NOT have my number.
First, I was not wearing tan chinos or a white oxford shirt. I was wearing this cowboy-style shirt – which is white but obviously not an oxford – and these pants, which are neither tan nor chinos. In fact, they are olive and made of wool:
Second, my music has never, ever been delivered “without a hint of irony.” My music is suffused with irony. Too Bad For You is not my best song, and it may even be a “pathetic little ditty.” But, it’s ironic as f#&k. And, I rhymed “you” with “milieu,” which should have earned me some points, even with the most cynical listener.
- I was trying to reinvent myself as a folk singer.
- I am a “boy of privilege.”
- I was clean-cut/neatly coiffed.
- My sleeves were rolled up.
- Although I fingerpicked at least one song that night, I do mostly strum “big open major acoustic chords.”
- Most of my songs are in 4/4.
My favorite line is the last one before he stops ranting against me and starts raving about Suzanne: “Oddly enough, he seemed to be appreciated by the crowd at the sold-out show.” Set aside – if you can – his choice of the passive voice. I mean, couldn’t he have insulted me with a less-cumbersome construction such as: “Oddly enough, the crowd at the sold-out show seemed to appreciate him?” There’s also the word “seemed,” which suggests that they only appeared to appreciate me. They appreciated me enough to give me an encore! I had a lot of friends in the audience that night, but not 1,200 of them.
I don’t know why this guy hated me so much. I was not fully formed as a songwriter or performer, but I wasn’t a total piece of shit either. The good news is, Suzanne had a different take: she dragged me around the U.S. and Europe for a year on the Songs in Red and Gray tour.