Scheduled to hit the main stage at 1:00 PM Sunday afternoon, the Babies caught a flight from NY to Portland, ME that morning. And that’s where our story starts to unravel: apparently, they took off just ahead (and I mean, like, singe-your-tailfeathers just ahead) of a massive area of thunderstorms that was blasting its way eastward. The folks at the Portland Jetport told Tom Hamilton that the National Weather Service was predicting the mess to slam-crash right up through New England as the afternoon wore on … and all afternoon flights headed back in its path had been grounded.
Well, shit. But that’s rock ‘n’ roll, folks; that’s life on the road – things don’t always go the way they’re meant to. And nobody wants to pull a Buddy Holly, right? So, the Babies went to Plan B, which meant driving a rental car back to NY after the Up North set. Hey – a gig’s a gig. They hit the road for Hiram.
In the meantime, the scene at the festival site was tranquil. The weather at that point was beautiful; the vibes were mellow; the music so far had been great; Umphrey’s McGee had flattened the crowd with their Saturday night set … and people were just plain happy and drained. As Tigger and I strolled through the camping area, we saw the occasional half-hearted game of Frisbee or sleepy-eyed acoustic guitar strummer, but things were pretty quiet. There were no long lines at the vendors’ booths, either … few were ready for all-natural smoothies or a grilled cheese at that point. The batteries needed a little more recharging, maaannnn … RatDog’s tonight.
A few lot lizards crawled out to catch the PBR-soaked alt-country of The Trainwreks, but when the band finished up channeling Uncle Tupelo’s punkier side, most of their small audience stivvered off to reenergize in the sun. By the time the Babies hit the stage to do a quick soundcheck, you could count on your fingers the number of us scattered along the edge of the stage.
So what do you do in a case like that? What do you do when the hair on your arms still tingles from the thrill of turning on a whole new crowd of followers at a setting like the Newport Folk Festival and now you’re looking out at an empty field as you prepare to start your 45-minute – 45-count-‘em-45-_minutes_ – set up in Where Are We Again, ME … and then turn around and drive back to New York?
Well, I don’t know what anybody else would do in that case, but Tommy Hamilton and American Babies played their ever-loving asses off.
I know, I know – it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and the emotion of the music (and the question there being, “Yeah? And your point?”) but check out the recording of that day on the Live Music Archive (with thanks to Smokin’ Joe – and there’s an article that should be written, right there: “Joe Bouchard – The Hardest-Working Taper In The World”). Listen to the music; listen to the energy; listen to the frigging heart. I’d defy you to put your ear to that recording and come away saying, “Well, it’s obvious they were playing to an empty field.” No way. Of course, the giveaway is when the music stops: the few who were there were roaring their approval, blown away by what we were witnessing, but it’s obvious that the audience would all fit in the same microbus.
But no matter: the Babies came to play. Once Joe Russo climbed into the cockpit behind his drums, he was all business – the chief engineer in his element, slamming shovelfuls of coal into the beast’s rhythm boiler. Jonathan Goldberger took his place alongside Russo with a stage presence that bordered on shy but immediately tied the drums and guitars together with a powerful bass voice – no overplaying; yet always playing just enough. Scott Metzger’s Les Paul never left his shoulders, but he coaxed so many different voices out of it that you might’ve thought he was changing axes after every song. If Tom Hamilton was the guy who’d drawn the scenes, Metzger was the guy inking in the colors.
And then there was Tom Hamilton. He was grinning when they hit the stage, and I doubt he was grinning any harder at Newport. He tore into the rocking songs with a fierce energy; he retreated to somewhere inside during the moments of sweetness. He prowled his side of the stage, make guerrilla swipes at Russo with crazy laughter. He wailed on his Telecaster – everything from big, fat walloping chords to searing slide leads. He crooned, he pushed it, he grabbed the mike stand and blew harp like a cross between Dylan when he’s trying and Junior Wells with the devil on his back. To an empty field/to 500,000 … it didn’t matter.
Excerpts from my spiral that day: “Everything Will Be Just Fine” – nobody here, but these guys don’t care … they came to play music … Scott Metzger laying down brilliant Ventura highway solo … Russo never pauses, starts the heartbeat for “Joline” – Tommy Hamilton singing his guts out, whamming out big Tele chords … one gal actually takes a step back from the railing when TH lunges forward – scared her? “Baby Don’t Cry” – Beautiful guitar weaving between TH and SM … Goldberger keeping it sparse, perfect … Russo knows when to be laid-back cool jazzbo … “Blue Skies” – Metzger brilliant in full-stomp country chaos, giving way to big garage punk chords as TH wails on harp … “Brooklyn Bridge” – Gentle “Would you buy the Brooklyn Bridge…” then bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp-WHAM Russo and Goldberger start driving the thing. Metzger chunking away like Johnny Ramone … take it back: no punk ever played like that … wild-arse slide by Tom “Restless Heart” – Metzger sounds like Stones’ “Wild Horses” guitar break times 10 … “Invite All Your Friends” … shit, Tommy – you made us cry. Holding Tigger … Metzger’s mirror shades are off – where did THAT solo come from? … this is what ‘r&r heart’ means … really is.”
And by the time “Invite All Your Friends” glided to a halt, there were a few more people there than when the set began – the ones who’d shown up late realizing they’d missed something wild and powerful and good – but it was time for the Babies to say goodbye. There was a crew standing by to make over the stage for Railroad Earth. The show must go on.
Scott Metzger shared a few minutes off to the side of the stage, a little of that energy that fired the last guitar break still flashing in his eyes. Scott wanted to know how it sounded; how it came across – he asked me as many questions as I did him. And when he spoke about trying to find an older Telecaster (“Oh, yeah – that’s my dream guitar”), it was with all the excitement and passion of a high school freshman who’s just figured out the intro to “Smoke On The Water” and can’t wait to show his girlfriend. The frigging guy is not only great at what he does – he loves it. He absolutely loves it.
We watched the Babies head off to the parking area, guitar cases in hand, knowing they’d just given the fortunate few of us who were there a hell of a show. Now they’d climb into their rental and head back to New York
For you who have been keeping score of the ups and downs in this story, I shouldn’t have to tell you where to put the tally for the Up North portion. You could’ve had a Woodstock-sized audience, but if it wasn’t happening on stage, what’s the point?
What we’d just witnessed was a victory.
There’s supposed to be a new American Babies album out soon. Pay attention. It’s bound to be packed solid with rock ‘n’ roll heart.