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A Stormy Return to Normal

A rock concert during the faltering return of New York’s music scene—and a record-breaking downpour—offers a welcome glimpse of pre-pandemic values

by
Armin Rosen
September 14, 2021
Debbie Hickey/Getty Images
Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater Kinney in 2020Debbie Hickey/Getty Images
Debbie Hickey/Getty Images
Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater Kinney in 2020Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

Live music is back! Ah, sorry, just kidding, live music is gone again. It’s back and it’s gone at the same time, just like everything else. On the way to Forest Hills Stadium a few weeks ago, to see the formidable double billing of the Seattle shredders of Sleater-Kinney and the Chicago weepies of Wilco, two of the only American rock icons from the 1990s who stayed dynamic and creatively relevant for their entire subsequent careers, I received word from a ticketing website that the September 2021 edition of Basilica SoundScape, like its abortive predecessor in 2020, had been cancelled. Basilica is usually held in a 19th-century foundry next to the train tracks in Hudson, New York, though an abundance of caution had relocated this year’s festival—always an intimate and brilliantly curated punk, metal, psychedelic, and experimental freakout at which not a few lives have been changed over the years, mine included—to a small amphitheater at a nearby farm.

Whether Basilica was doomed by the moral and legal hazards of hosting an event at which coronavirus infections might conceivably occur, or by the sheer logistical difficulty of organizing even a modest-sized festival under present conditions, I don’t know. I also don’t know why, when I look at the Oh My Rockness listings for New York, so many familiar names are gone. When’s Bowery Ballroom coming back? Supposedly in the fall, but is it really coming back? Is anything? A recovering musician friend with one foot still in the industry, God bless him, told me he gets the sense that touring is likely to turn into a seasonal thing for a while, with bands staying home during anticipated fall and winter viral spikes.

There was a time when I believed that a city was only as good as the live music that took place there, though I’ve had to revise this belief as it’s become clear that things may never quite get back to normal. Whether it was Salzburg, Austin, or Manchester, Tennessee, a place proved its commitment to truth and beauty by making itself a locus for the spontaneous creation of an art form existing beyond word and image. More practically, a range of other creative economies in a modern city revolve around live music in some way or another—it is a harnessing of diverse individual and collective energies, a community builder that draws minds and money together like almost nothing else. A city is soulless without its stages, as we were during the long COVID-19 winter of 2020. Was the Forest Hills double bill, pessimistically, a brief reprieve in the midst of an indefinite spiritual impoverishment? Was it, optimistically, a sign that things had actually and definitely come back? And if Hashem has a vote in the matter, how is one to interpret the monsoon that got dumped on music fans that night, such that a far more massive and star-studded “Homecoming” concert happening concurrently in Central Park was canceled midway through, while in Forest Hills Jeff Tweedy bellowed, “I’m worried, I’m worried, I’m always in love” to a stadium of shivering fans who didn’t have a dry square-inch of underclothes left and were already dreading the hypothermic air-conditioning blast of the subway?

Forest Hills Stadium is a 99-year-old concrete horseshoe that served as center court of the U.S. Open until the mid-1970s. The Beatles and Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan played there in the ’60s, too. Most important to me, the stadium is the site of the 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe, the eventual tournament champion, that is immortalized in John McPhee’s Levels of the Game. The book is a kind of double profile of the trailblazing Ashe and the now almost totally forgotten Graebner, a former Davis Cup champion who is now primarily remembered as a character in a John McPhee book.

Forest Hills Stadium is also an unlikely survivor of the wrecking ball. In 2010, the West Side Tennis Club, owners of the then-ruined facility, made the remarkable decision to renovate it and restore it to its former purpose as a concert and tennis venue instead of selling the land off to developers, thus proving that some tiny glimmer of civilization still occasionally endures in our city. Just like the olden days, concertgoers could look down on the turrets and gables and grass tennis courts of eastern Queens’ sylvan wonderland and ask, Exactly how long is it going to take me to get home from out here?

Entering the stadium grounds for the concert required proof of vaccination and an ID card, these two government documents supposedly being the thin ledge to which New York’s creative arts are clinging in the Delta era, or so the powers that be want us to believe. The crowd felt strangely thin for a bill of this magnitude, held in a venue with this much history and drama. There was a smattering of fun T-shirts sprinkled among the walking museum of Wilco merch—notably, and impressively, a slightly thickening man in his mid-thirties was sporting a T-shirt commemorating the no-hitter thrown by future Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard for Wright State University’s baseball team on May 11, 1978. But the sense of excitement was elusive, like it had all burned itself out during the long train ride. Or maybe the subdued atmosphere reflected the exhaustion of the previous year and a half, as if people finally found themselves at their first big show since, like, 2019, a thing they’d literally dreamed about, and were surprised at how unenthused they were. Maybe they were silently interrogating their lack of enthusiasm—why aren’t I more excited? What doubt still lurks inside me, and why can’t I kill it, or even describe it, even to myself?

Or maybe it’s less existential than all that, and everyone had just checked the forecast.

The touring version of Sleater-Kinney had doubled in size since the last time I saw them, perhaps because its official membership had shrunk by a third. Janet Weiss was, and probably still is, a rhythmic dynamo—even standing in the subway-car-like crawlspace between the bar and the back wall at Manhattan’s Terminal 5, as I did during a sold-out Sleater-Kinney show in 2015, her hammering assault on a drum kit could jolt you into a sudden awareness of the existence of your own bones. There aren’t a lot of rock drummers whom you can physically feel from hundreds of feet away, but Weiss is one of them. The fact that it’s taken a keyboard player and extra guitars to replace her is one of the starkest affirmations of pure musical genius I think I’ve ever witnessed.

Weiss left Sleater-Kinney in late 2019, when, as she put it, “the rules changed within the band,” and she was told she was “just the drummer now.” The split served as one of many pre-pandemic portents of even the most solidly constructed things not being able to last. But, having said that, there was no point at Forest Hills in which you felt lied to: This was Sleater-Kinney, all right. Carrie Brownstein wore a black vest over a glammy gold shirt, tomahawking her fretboard beneath whipping curtains of black hair. She jumped and screeched and high-kicked, a rock star in full glory, the coolest Jewish woman in the entire country or possibly the world. “It’s not the summer we were promised; it’s the summer we deserve,” Brownstein and co-frontwoman Corin Tucker declared to the audience, playing a song released this past June.

A little over 35 minutes in, the band tore into 2015’s “The New Wave,” a song that they haven’t played most nights of this tour. Ever since their ’90s breakthroughs, the key quality in Sleater-Kinney’s work is the contrast between the exuberance of the music and its often poignantly nongrandiose subject matter of their song, which falls away until it becomes a kind of unity. “We’ll make our own kind of obscurity,” Brownstein and Tucker harmonized between high-flying guitar licks, the kind of arrestingly rooted statement of purpose in a shared project that someone might make to somebody they actually cared about or even loved. Human feelings made gigantic, right in front of you—this is why you schlepped out to Queens. This is why a stupid virus and all the panic it has caused could never kill live rock. This is why—

“There is severe weather moving into this area,” someone who was very much not a member of Sleater-Kinney’s touring band announced to the crowd, which seemed to fill a little under half of the 14,000-capacity venue. “We will be sheltering in place for at least 30 minutes under the grandstand.”

Sheltering in place—there, under the arches and stone eagles, we had a chance to chew over the virus’s disfigurement of the language, especially because it wasn’t even raining yet. I think I first heard the phrase “shelter in place” in reference to the city-wide shutdown during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. In early 2020 the whole country sheltered in place, as if some vaguely clinical-sounding and head-splittingly nonliteral synonym for “just stay where you are” was needed to justify the nationwide halt in real life at the outset of the pandemic. Before all that, we sheltered in place against immediate deadly threats: active shooters, that sort of thing. Today this clunky collection of words lifted straight out of a police training manual is meant to communicate not just danger but also one’s obligation to comply with authority. “Take cover” is too colloquial, too redolent of daily life to get the message across. The language of large units of people being told what to do will be everywhere for the rest of our lives.

We chatted with some of our fellow shelterers-in-place. I got a sick thrill out of revealing to people that Forest Hills Stadium, which is in a residential area, has a strict 10 p.m. curfew. “Damn,” one younger couple said. “We hired a babysitter and everything.” The drizzle turned into a steady rain, then back into a drizzle, then into a downpour, which stabilized at a constant patter. Much to my surprise, we were told at 8:40 p.m. that Wilco would be coming on shortly.

Carrie Brownstein is America’s coolest Jewish woman, but no one would ever claim Jeff Tweedy is America’s coolest Jewish man. But that’s why Wilco is so beloved, right? They never aspired to coolness or to being anything other than themselves. Tweedy isn’t performatively mopey or pretentious; he doesn’t seem desperate to impress anyone or overly concerned with whether you feel his pain or not. Wilco is the opposite of an Olympian rock band; they never seem to emphasize the distance between themselves and you. Neither are they overconcerned with being loved: In the spirit of making their own kind of obscurity, Wilco has a unique musical sensibility, which you can take or leave, one that finds the looseness and whimsy within regret, nostalgia, heartbreak, and other things that human beings are built of. The key tension in Wilco comes from the profundity of the subject matter and the almost toy-instrument quality of the music, the Americana played at oddball angles, the emotional depths unlocked by the barroom keyboards, and the squiggles of looped audio. Existence is a big deal, a great Wilco song says, but confronting how big a deal it is doesn’t have to be sad or paralyzing. Sometimes it can be fun.

This is a hard sweet spot for any artist to hit. Not many rock bands can do it. Not many rock bands jam the way Wilco can, either. Like Phish or Ween, there are qualities to Wilco’s show that no other band’s live act has. I know people who have seen them 30 or 40 times. This would be my first.

The band opened with, what else, “Shot in the Arm,” Brownstein and Tucker providing vocals that thrillingly overtook Tweedy’s during the chorus’s long wind-up. Sleater-Kinney had stuck around through the rain delay, making up for their truncated set by giving us something we might not have seen if the weather had cooperated: two great rock bands powering a late ’90s classic. Something like half the hands in the crowd shot up when Tweedy asked if it was anyone’s first show of the pandemic. “We’re honored this is your first night out,” he said, without even a shadow of insincerity.

I guess I really started noticing the rain during the soaring guitar solo to “Everybody Hides,” with Nels Cline practically responding to the pounding heavens. Who could notice something as mundane as a monsoon during “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart?,” which Tweedy sings in an almost transported state, as if he hadn’t sung it a thousand times by now, hadn’t just sung it the night before, and wouldn’t be singing it in a different city the night after? By “Jesus, Etc” there were deep rivulets of rainwater running the length of the floor section. “I think this is the wettest I’ve ever been,” I observed during “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Of course it started raining much, much harder.

Thoughts of freezing to death on the E train entered our minds. But nobody left—the floor section was almost entirely full. A couple thousand fans were still scattered around the seating bowl, in total defiance of self-preservation and common sense. The instinct to shelter in place was gone. Rock had defeated
caution—the need to experience live music during whatever sliver of
time we still have it was deep enough to keep thousands at the mercy of the deluge. Few people had left early, maybe because they were paying the babysitter anyway, maybe because they weren’t sure when they’d be back at something like this.

“We gotta go,” Tweedy said at approximately 9:58 p.m., the pain evident in his voice, as if once the house lights went out he would need a quiet moment to process the betrayal, to both his fans and to himself, of cutting a performance short for any reason, at any time. I had always been under the impression that the local neighborhood association got to publicly execute one member of the West Side Tennis Club board for every minute a show exceeded that 10 p.m. curfew. The real curfew violation costs are likely less biblical than that. Tweedy was probably like, the hell with it, we’ll pay the overage fine, this is just too important. These people need to hear “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m Always in Love.” We need to show this crowd that not everything’s gone—that the values of the former world aren’t totally consigned to fallible and manipulable memory. We need to play these songs for them, and we need to prove there is still integrity and subversion to be found in American rock music. The show wrapped up at a defiant 10:07 p.m.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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