Friday, April 27, 2018
Aura, Portland, Maine
This is somehow a much longer post than I’d meant to write.
I’d wanted to check out Drew Holcomband Josh Garrels for quite a while, so I was really glad to have the opportunity to see both bands together right in Portland. When I saw that Maine Youth Rock Orchestra was playing with both of them, I knew it would be an even better show. I’m a sucker for a string section, and MYRO is so impressive.
I made it to Aura with about ten minutes before showtime. I have to say this–I don’t like Aura, and I try to avoid going to shows there. Primarily, it’s because of the staff at the door. I’ve been there a handful of times, and the folks at the door are never welcoming. In fact, every time I’ve been, the first words someone says to me are “are you drinking tonight?” I’d recommend trying “Hello! Welcome to Aura” instead. I am never drinking at a show, because I’m there for the music, so I bought a ticket and started to head towards the metal detectors. Someone after the ID checker grabbed me and told me I needed a bracelet because I’m over 21. I told her that I wasn’t drinking, but she insisted that I needed to have my ID checked and needed a bracelet. The show was all ages, so I was really confused. The person checking IDs and the woman who stopped me before security disagreed about whether or not I needed to wear a bracelet in front of me. One insisted that they’d received directions to make everyone over 21 wear a bracelet. The other hadn’t gotten the memo. Either way, there shouldn’t be confusion at the door like that, and front of house staff should be on the same page and much friendlier. The whole time this exchange happened, the manager was steps away in the ticket office staring at a computer screen, ignoring all of the patrons he should be working hard to foster a positive impression of Aura with. This ends the constructive criticism portion of this post.
One of my favorite bands is Johnnyswim. They are husband and wife duo Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano from Los Angeles. They were easily the best live show I saw last year, and I’ll see them again this summer in Boston opening for NEEDTOBREATHE. Anyhow, Johnnyswim formed in Nashville, and they’re good friends with Drew Holcomb. Abner, Amanda, and Drew worked together to write some songs and just released an EP together called Goodbye Road. As if that collaboration wasn’t exciting enough, then they asked another of my true favorites, Penny & Sparrow, to work on the EP with them, including a gorgeous cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” that I learned after the fact was recorded last summer a week after Tom Petty’s death. Penny & Sparrow is another favorite band of mine that aren’t mainstream yet, so I hope you will check them out. I also put Penny & Sparrow on my list of top five shows of 2017, coming in right behind Johnnyswim at number two on my list. Both groups are an absolute pleasure to see live, and I hope you will at some point, because they’re both so good for what ails you.
Back to the this show.
Drew Holcomb and his band took the stage soon after I arrived, and they were great live. They were down a bandmate who’d gotten a call from his wife when they arrived in Portland, and hopped a flight home to meet their new baby. Drew’s guitarist decided to play piano to fill the void in sound, and I thought it was beautiful. Drew played “Ring the Bells” early in the set, which is one of the songs he co-wrote on the Goodbye Road EP. Drew chatted with the audience a fair amount during his set, which is the kind of personalized attention I really appreciate as a concert goer. He told us that he fell in love with his wife long before she returned the favor. They met in college and he tried not to be the guy that played music to get the girl, but had to go for it. He wrote “I Like To Be With Me When I’m With You” for her, and he joked that it took her from a “no” to a “maybe.” Someone in the crowd has sent him a message asking him to play “The Wine We Drink,” so he added it to his setlist. The lyrics are beautiful, too–“It’s in the miles we drive, never having to say goodbye/to the things we tell each other without saying a word./You are the one thing that I know.”
The Maine Youth Rock Orchestra joined Drew and the band for “American Beauty” and “Live Forever.” One of my favorite things about seeing MYRO play with bands is that the bands are always enamored with them and they often turn to watch the kids play with huge smiles on their faces. MYRO–y’all are impressive. Your hard work shows. You make the songs richer and more beautiful. It’s such a pleasure to hear you play!
Drew told us that he’s often asked what his favorite song he’s written is. He said “if I had just one song to be proud of” it would be “What Would I Do Without You,” which he said almost didn’t make the cut to be on his 2013 album, Good Light, because the producer and a couple of guys in the band didn’t like the song much. He said he was glad they’d be wrong about it. He also told us a funny story about his all time favorite fan interaction. He’d been at the Austin City Limits Festival when he noticed a guy walking his way wearing a Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors t shirt and carrying a baby in his arms. He thanked Drew for his music and told him the baby had been conceived while listening to his music. Drew said it was the best compliment he’d ever gotten about his music.
I knew nothing about Josh Garrels except that his song “Farther Along” has been popping up on my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist for ages. I didn’t know any of his other music, but liked that one song enough to know I wanted to see him live someday. I had not caught on that Josh is definitely a Christian artist. One of the first songs he played for us was called “Break Bread,” which was my first clue. It got much more evident after “Slip Away,” because Josh spoke for a solid five minutes about redemption. He said, and I am paraphrasing, “Some things that happen can’t be taken back or put back together. There is tragedy and loss, but there is redemption, which is making something new and potentially even more beautiful than it was before. For those of you who believe there is a God, he is in the business of redemption. I know the room. Some of you agree and some roll their eyes. Can there be good made from the awful things around us? I think we’re supposed to be agents of redemption in the world. We are not islands. Our decisions affect others. It’s scary to turn back and face it, though, but that’s called repentance. If you have the courage to turn around and face the wake you’ve created, you can see the things you thought were lost can be transformed.” I went to Seminary for five years and have a Master’s degree in Theology, so I was happy to hear from him about his beliefs, but I was a little surprised that the show turned more church meeting than concert. He acknowledged it, too, because he told us all of that had been “more than I’d planned to share.” He got a lot of amens from the crowd, though, so maybe I was the only one who didn’t know what to expect from him. No matter what I expected, his vibe was genuine and positive. He followed up his short sermon with “Ulysses,” which answers the question in “Slip Away”–can something be done about this? Josh says emphatically yes, there is hope for redemption.
MYRO joined Josh and his band for “Born Again” and “Morning Light.” They played beautifully, and it totally elevated the songs. A bit later in the set, Josh told us that his albums are all inspired by artists. His Home album was inspired by Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky apparently had a condition (Josh called it a “gift”) where he could see sound and hear color. His parents didn’t want him to be an artist, but he walked away from his lucrative job to be a painter and is considered a father of abstract art. Josh said he believes that color is connected to sound and that there’s more than our five senses can comprehend. He introduced “Colors”by asking us to consider “what are we singing and speaking and putting out into the world? Is it corruption, slander, jealousy, or are we speaking life and blessing and singing songs that blossom in the atmosphere and banish corruption?”
I saw Kevin Oates, MYRO’s founder and director, head towards the merch table towards the end of the night, so I skipped the last couple of songs of Josh Garrels’ set to catch up with him about MYRO and to chat about Portland’s summer music landscape. Kevin told me later that one of his MYRO artists came back from college to play that night because she’d been the one who’d asked for them to play with Josh Garrels someday. What an awesome opportunity for these kids to play with artists that mean a lot to them! Kevin is a passionate advocate for his students and for music education and MYRO students and families are lucky to have such a fabulous leader at the helm.
It was time for the encore, so I scooted back over towards the stage in time to enjoy Josh Garrels and his band invite Drew Holcomb and his band to the stage to join them for “Farther Along.” It was uplifting and energetic and a great note to leave the night on. Both bands were warm and conversational with the audience, played beautifully, and left Portland’s music scene a bit better than they found it.