Live Music: Tropicana vs. Tin Angel

The 2011 hippie's guide to rock 'n' roll

Saturday night, my 21-year-old son, Sam, and I headed down the Expressway to A.C. to see the band Yes, music he is passionate for and I once was. Cushy theater seats at the Tropicana suited me just fine, though the pre-concert crowd on display seemed almost uniformly old and notably fat, which—let’s take the high road here—is a testament to vitality and hope. Maybe keyboardist Rick Wakeman has given way to his silky-haired son Oliver, but original lead guitarist Steve Howe, who turns 64 tomorrow, looked up toward and over the crowd, expressionless, through thick glasses, our presence a curiosity as he licked away as if the moment hadn’t passed:

I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day so satisfied I’m on my way …

A seminal Yes line, a seminal line of the era. Sam gets it. Though he’s all over the map, musically: Bob Marley, head-banger stuff I don’t get, Neil Young, Phish. He likes Sinatra. He’s willing to try opera. And Yes. It’s such a strange feeling, to have a child coming of age into this moment.

Sam gets it, that once upon a time, you could roam around the country, that it wasn’t a crazy or dangerous idea to make immediate friends with strangers, that you could, as his old man did, go into a HoJo’s anywhere—hitchhiking somewhere south of Richmond, say—to order a hot-fudge sundae, with no place to stay for the night, and a dishwasher would emerge collecting his tubs of dirty dishes, nodding your way because he’d spied the hair and the backpack, and he’d tell you how to get to his place, that the door was open. Go crash. Sounds crazy and dreamy and romantic. When anything seemed possible.

Sam gets all that, and I get that the world is more dangerous and smaller and in decline. Even as we know that’s silly, in a way—because everyone lands on his own little square, and tills it and does what he does, and some grandiose idea of America’s moment, or century, having dissipated, having blown all to hell, well, what is that?

It’s what you might think about during the broad aural canvas of a Yes concert, with the other fatties. Or at least I did.

The next night I went to the Tin Angel with my wife to see Willy Porter, singer/guitarist extraordinaire. Different vibe. We sat five feet away from him, front and center, as if it was just Willy and us. The singer Tori Amos had it right: “Willy plays rhythms that make me want to crawl inside his guitar and sleep there forever.”

Although it would be a kind of frantic sleep. Willy plays and plays, and plays very fast, and wails. A different canvas from Yes, on which to play out my hope and fear.

Willy’s been hitting the road for two decades, every bit the virtuoso Steve Howe is—and then some—but here he is, eking it out before a couple hundred at the Tin Angel, having to pack up and drive to Cambridge for a show the next night.

He tells stories, within songs and beyond, like this one he once shared with some writer, after playing a winter show in Hallowell, Maine:

“I stayed in a little hotel on the top of a hill and I had this big green Ford Econoline van. I was in such a hurry to get out of there the next day to get home that I put the car in reverse and let it spin on its wheels and then I ran around to the front to try and push it while it was in reverse—and, you know, it never did gain any traction, which is really a good thing, because it probably would’ve backed right into the hotel where I was staying.”

Poor Willy. He was gonna break through to stardom; it hasn’t happened, and probably won’t, but therein is a message, maybe, for both me and Sam. Especially me. Willy sings:

Don’t worry so much
Can you see the stars that are assembled?
When you held love tight remember how it trembled?
So soft to the touch
Don’t hurry so much
It will come as sure as we are bleeding
Let’s groove before the vultures start feeding
Don’t worry so much