My friend David has always said that my life is a literary conceit and while this is a heavy burden to bear (I don’t want my life to line up in themes and leitmotifs) it is amusing sometimes to notice it. Sometimes this just has to do with coincidence, it is true. I don’t go much for “oooh, look at how everything MAKES. SENSE” but sometimes there does come a moment when I have to say: “Okay. This is totes bizarre.”
So here are the facts:
1. I have been a big fan of the singer/songwriter for Bleu for about 5 years. Some of his songs really helped me get thru some rough times in 2009.
2. His rousing number “Get Up” was a huge part of the inspiration pushing me on to complete my script. If I didn’t feel like working on it, “Get Up” was one of the songs that helped me keep going.
3. In the last three, four days, which have been wretched beyond belief, wretched even by my standards, I have been listening to him nonstop.
4. I put up a Bleu video on FB on Tuesday of one of my current favorites, “Save Me”, a song I’ve been listening to repeatedly. “Why don’t you save me? Save me from myself?” That is the question.
5. I follow him on Twitter and after I Tweeted about him on Tuesday, he responded, Retweeted my Tweet to his followers, and then “followed” me. I was excited.
6. On Wednesday, I suddenly thought: “Huh. Let me check out his schedule.” (I’m not a big “go out and hear music” or “go to concerts” person – not for any real reason, seriously, I’m just a moron.) So I go to his website and see that he is currently touring, and he’s all over the place – Virginia, Pennsylvania, California – but I saw that the next day – the very next day – he was playing in NYC. (Normally, in the way things usually go, I’d check the website and see that he had played the day before in NYC and I would have a moment of shame wishing I had known about it.)
I bought a ticket.
So while I don’t go for being all “isn’t that amazeballs” over coincidences, this was a particularly nice one, and I like how it all went down.
New York is still deep in the throes of recovery. Businesses and schools have been thrown into chaos. There are those who have lost their homes, who are now living in shelters, and waiting to rebuild. It’s getting cold out. It’s a very tense time and New York and New Jersey still need help. Bleu does work with Why Hunger which, in partnership with FEMA, have been helping get food to those who need it, and Bleu’s show last night, at Rockwood Music Hall was a fundraiser for Why Hunger. It’s a very good organization and are really working in the nuts and bolts of the catastrophe here, so if you are looking for a way to help (and we still need help), consider donating to Why Hunger.
Rockwood Music Hall is a small venue (my sister Siobhan played there once), with a dark cozy beautiful vibe. There is a tiny balcony running around the upper level, with tall bar tables and bar stools. There are windows right out onto the street. I got myself a seat up front. The band Air Traffic Controller (Bleu produced their last album) opened for Bleu. It’s a small stage, and the band members were: Lead guitarist, bassist (who also played the mandolin on occasion), stand-up bass guy, drums, viola player, violin player, and cellist. No shit. They were all on top of each other, and the cords covered the stage floor, and it filled my heart with happiness: Musicians doing their thing, being awesome, living the dream. They were terrific, and I loved Casey Sullivan’s voice (she was the bassist). She wore a little black derby and was totally awesome.
At one point, I saw Bleu walk into the bar from the back. Instantly recognizable with the huge muttonchops. He was wearing a pink jacket. It’s a funny thing, listening to someone’s songs on eternal repeat for an entire wretched week. You start to identify, you start to relate, this person feels real to you, he is speaking directly to you. This is the thing that musicians have with their fans that can’t be manufactured, although many try. Bleu has a devoted fan base. He was an early devotee of Kickstarter campaigns and has financed one entire album and publicity campaign with donations from fans, and is currently in the middle of another campaign. His journey has been an interesting one, with a major label CD (Redhead, an awesome album), a bunch of side projects (many with Mike Viola, a musician I have written about before – and – dovetail – my sister Siobhan O’Malley opened for Mike Viola once!), and a voice that slides right into my subconscious. His songs are often quite funny, but he can also lay his heart bare. He’s clever, but not self-consciously so. There’s a certain goofy pop-star aspect to Bleu (I think I read an article once where he said he loved Britney Spears and felt no shame about it), and it makes his performance-style extroverted and generous. He’s a showman, basically. An old-school showman, with muttonchops, sneakers, and a pink jacket. And boy can he sing. There are many different voices in his repertoire. He can scream hard and loud and macho (and on tune) like Dave Grohl. And he has a falsetto to die for (many of his songs are almost entirely in his falsetto). His range is impressive. His influences vast. Sometimes I hear almost a melancholy dance-hall influence in his stuff, other times it is clear that he adores Cheap Trick. But most of all: he is himself. He is an authentic artist, and I get that from his CDs, but it was even more clear to me seeing him in person.
He took the stage. He’s such a giant to me that it was wonderful to see him so close, on a small stage, with a crowd of maybe 50 people there. This is the test of a talent, ultimately. This is what was so incredible and riveting about Elvis’ “sit-down sessions” in the 1968 NBC special. Elvis was so huge, so otherworldly almost, that to see him in a casual informal jam, and still be as good as anyone has ever been on the planet ever … is still startling today. Elvis always loved the bells and whistles, from the get-go. He wore a gold lame suit. He had his name painted on his car, and etched on his guitar, as a 21-year-old man. Later, he went in for capes and jumpsuits and melodramatic crescendoes of the theme from 2001 to announce his entrance to the stage. But the 1968 special proved that although Elvis’ tastes may have run in that direction (and they did), he didn’t need them to “show up”. And I mean “show up” in the way Ellen Burstyn uses the term. “Show up” means to be present, with all your talent, fears, hopes, dreams, yearnings, anger, everything … and to be able to do it … in front of people. Years ago, I saw a special about Madonna (she was in England, living with Guy Ritchie at the time), and to promote her new album she went to a Virgin Records Store and did an acoustic set and it was painful to watch. Painful. I am a fan of Madonna, but without the trappings, without the sound and lights, she was completely defenseless. She had nothing to rely on. I actually felt bad for her. I didn’t judge her or anything like that. I just felt that she was not equipped to do … what Elvis did in 1968.
Bleu, of course, is not as famous as Elvis or Madonna, but that is part of the point I am trying to make. He’s huge to me, and he is huge to his fans. At a certain point, the level of fame is irrelevant. You either can “show up” or you can’t. I’ve been to tiny shows with small audiences and felt the singer couldn’t “show up”, and you know it on a gut-check level: “This person doesn’t have it.” Talent like that shows up whether you’re playing for 50,000 or 50, but the real test is the 50. Bleu communicates with his devoted fan base through social media (he is very active on all fronts), and you get the sense that although he is the Star, we are all in this together. We, the devotees, are a part of his success. He does not take that for granted. He is in the middle of another fan fundraising campaign, and he said that the response left him “emotional”, and you could feel the truth of that in his body language and in the look on his face. It’s a beautiful thing: to feel like you are a part of someone’s well-deserved success.
The first song he launched into was “No Such Thing as Love”. It was on the short list of songs I hoped he would play, but still somehow I was not prepared for the wave of emotion that came over me at the first chord. The lyrics are deeply poignant and relevant to me: “There’s no such thing as love … but all the same I wish there was…” Hearing it live though was a whole different ballgame than hearing it on the one recorded version I have. Bleu is interesting: he has this control panel at his feet, and he sings into an old-school mike (very like this one. Hm.) which records his voice, and then, through a deft tap-tapping of his feet on various levers and buttons on the control panel, plays his voice back, so it becomes his own back-up singers. This is used to brilliant effect in “No Such Thing as Love” (as you can see in the clip at the bottom of the post, from another show). I had seen clips of Bleu use this control panel, it’s quite a sight (tap-tap-tapping feet, creating this rich huge sound that makes it seem like there are 10 people onstage rather than one or two), but to see him in person was strangely emotional and I am still trying to figure out why.
I think it has to do with “showing up”.
In my life, in my career, in my friendships, and in my love life, I am only interested in people who are able to “show up”. You know it when you see it. It has the unmistakable stamp of authenticity. And it doesn’t look a certain way. It could be someone laughing uproariously, clutching their stomach, unafraid of making a scene, or looking foolish. It could be someone obsessing over the details of their painting, and focusing in on the angle of her shoulder, the light on the side of her cheek. It could be the way someone listens. They’re present, they are wholly involved in listening, they are not focused on self. All of this encompasses the vastness of “showing up”.
And that’s a bit of what I felt was going on as Bleu started his show, in his eerie floating falsetto, and the tap-tapping of feet on the control board, launching the harmonized echo. This is a man so freely in the zone of his work that I felt like I was in the presence of something pure. Work is always pure to me, when it is pursued freely and single-mindedly. That’s what I saw. It pierced my heart. And that’s all even before I succumbed to the story the song was telling, a story of yearning, of beyond-the-pale yearning, of hurt looking for hope, of a determination to still believe, all evidence to the contrary.
He sang some new songs, ones I hadn’t heard before, which was thrilling, and he sang many that I knew. At times I looked around at the rapt crowd. There were tons of people standing before the stage, and there were those up on the balcony, and those on the sideline like me. A couple of people were taking pictures (myself included, obviously) but I didn’t see any of that obnoxious “let me just hold my phone up in the air for the entirety of the concert so I can capture the moment which I am not even fully experiencing because I am so busy trying to capture it” behavior. Bleu was so present that we became present. People were in the room with him.
Bleu is a light-hearted and available presence. His songs can be quite dark, and a couple of them have an almost stalker vibe (the man understands sexual obsession), but his persona is natural and open and funny. He drank apple juice. He mentioned his “two ornery cats”. He thanked the fans in a heartfelt manner for supporting him. He talked about Why Hunger. There was a flow, between the chatter and the songs, and I felt that this was a man in the zone. I know he has his struggles like anybody else, but when he is “at work”, he is perfect.
He sang “Dead in the Morning”, off his last album, which is a joyous and macabre anthem (“I’ll be dead, I’ll be dead, I’ll be dead, I’ll be dead, I’ll be -de-eh-ead …”), and he had onstage with him a standup bass player (Bleu, glancing at it: “I tried playing that once and it was like trying to play my couch”), a viola player, and a cellist, and all other sound came from himself and his maneuvering of the control board at his feet. It was a MASSIVE sound. The place rocked out. It was like we in the crowd became one organism. I don’t even know what the hell happened. The song was a force of energy and it was big enough to take over the entire space and pour out into the streets.
At some unspoken cue, all the lights went out and he clicked one of his magic buttons somewhere, on the ground or elsewhere, and this happened to his guitar.
It was so goofy, surreal and sweet.
See what I mean about showman? It’s the same thing as Elvis painting his name on his car and wearing gold lame. You want to be in front of people? You had better be willing to “show up”. Being extroverted can often be just a matter of being willing to let the inside of you come out. An interior-directed person can sometimes be self-conscious about the “big gesture”. This is true of actors and certainly true of musicians. Bleu obviously takes great joy from technology, and uses it to its fullest capacity in his career. He is an inquisitive spirit, and tenacious. He is coming into his prime in the internet age. He had a record deal. He is now out in the wilds, unprotected, on his own. But honestly, that is the best place for him to be. He seems to feel that way too. Watch him working his own sound board while he is performing. It’s profound. It’s the wave of the future.
Oh yeah, and sometimes the lights on his guitar would go red. This was so pleasing to me, so funny. Pointless, really. But it’s my favorite kind of humor: pointless, wrapped up in the joy of doing whatever you want to do.
The last two songs he sang he sang with no mike. The place was small enough. He sang “How Blue” (you can see a clip of him singing it below), and it is one of his best songs. He sings it almost entirely in his falsetto, which gives an eerie and emotional effect. All of the lights were off, and he sang, un-miked, with his blue-lit guitar and we were all silent and still, and it’s one of those special moments of connection that doesn’t happen often in live shows.
But that was just the beginning. The last song he sang was “Searching for the Satellites”, off his Redhead album, a highly-produced (but no less effective than his others) album. On the recorded version, there’s a huge chorus backing him up, and his voice soars and roars over it. It sweeps up into his high falsetto and then comes roaring back down into his chest register. He has great control. But last night’s show was a different version. The song lives, no matter the trappings. He stepped off the stage, blue-lit guitar strapped around him, and stood on the floor with the crowd. Behind him the cellist accompanied him, the viola, and he sang the song straight up and unadorned. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. People were swaying, as if in a trance. He conducted us in the back-up parts, which, by the end of the song, we could add without being prompted by him. We were soft and open and sweet, singing softly, together. It was unbelievable. A unique experience. I couldn’t help but think about the horrible month our city has had, and how we are barely coming up for air. Every person in that room was affected by Sandy in some way. Sandy was acknowledged multiple times from the stage: it was the Event that needed to be talked about. To ignore it would be to ignore the energy in the room: a group of New Yorkers needing like hell to have a night out and be normal. And, with Bleu conducting, we sang together. It’s a quiet song, not a rousing foot-stamping number: an elegiac ballad about lying on your back looking at the stars, searching for the satellites. It seemed, at times, that Bleu could not get any quieter … but then he did. And we got quieter in our listening. Our energy pulled down and in, focusing in on him without any distractions. There was nothing else in the world other than what was happening in that space, between us. We were creating it together.
Amazingly, I just searched online for a clip of Searching for the Satellites, and someone up in the balcony last night recorded the song, and has already placed it on Youtube.
I was down on the floor, in the darkness behind the people swaying in the front row. You can see the tiny glow of the candles on the small bar I was leaning up against. At times I get a glimpse of myself back there, and I can also hear my big laugh at something he says in the beginning. While it is great to have the clip, and I just watched it again, the memory of the moment does not reside in the clip. The moment was larger than can be represented in a video clip: the space in that room was vast, undulating, and yet we all felt connected. I am certain we all felt connected. Although a Youtube clip cannot capture the feeling of a moment, I can hear that feeling in our voices singing in unison. I can feel it again. There it is. The softness, the availability, of human beings at their best.
It’s Bleu who brings that out. And he does it with confidence, joy, and ease. You never feel him reach. It’s there at his fingertips, whenever he needs it.
I know I needed it last night. That’s why I was there. I was so blue (“soooooo blue”, to quote his song). And in that weird goofy open space he created, the blue-ness was okay. The man’s name is Bleu. It’s a literary conceit. My blue mood was what I brought to the show. We all brought something. And there was something perfect about the show ending in a glow of blue light, shimmering off of his everyday guitar, turning it into something magical and talismanic, lighting up his muttonchops, lighting up the space around him which, although small, was actually so so huge.
“No Such Thing As Love”