This past June was an odd month for me. As the annual early-summer gloom set upon the Pacific coast, so too did it come and go over my life, showing up whenever it felt like being there, disappearing oftentimes quicker than it arrived. It was weird, as some of my posts on this very blog might indicate. The first week of the month was one of the most emotionally draining and mentally challenging stretches of my life. No question. However, the end of that week stands as one of the brightest spots of the year, an absolutely fantastic, complete day punctuated by an experience I’ll treasure forever.
Bear with me a moment, because it’s about to get lame. The day I’m referring to was June 7th, a Saturday. As the week closed, I was exhausted from my mind being elsewhere all the time. I didn’t really feel like doing much. But I got myself out of the house, hopped onto several forms of mass transportation, and came to cloudy Golden Gate Park for the Chipotle Cultivate Festival. Yeah, that Chipotle. I went to it last year; it was okay. Lots of farm-fresh propaganda, people out to collect a free burrito, and some live music from bands I’d never heard of. I wouldn’t have gone back this year if it wasn’t for one man, one of my heroes and frequent topic on this blog, Andrew McMahon.
He was playing a free 45 minute set as part of the festival. There was no way I was going to miss it. I took the BART from my apartment to downtown SF, hopped onto the MUNI light rail for the first time, and rolled on toward the Sunset. I arrived at the festival gate before it opened. What else is new? The day went fast. I walked around the exhibits, many of which were the same as last year, got my card stamped four times, and received my free burrito voucher within the first half hour. One of my buddies came out a bit later and I ended up running through them all again with him. As the morning transitioned into afternoon, the sun decided to break through the thick cloud layer. As my friend soon took off for downtown for a soccer match, I crept toward the music stage. The crowd was decent, watching indie rockers Smallpools play their most well known songs. Then, as they finished their set, the audience began to trickle away. Sensing opportunity, I braved against the current and nestled in even closer.
Alone there in the crowd, the hour between sets felt like an eternity. The bipolar weather flipped between moderately cold, gusty and unbearably sunny. I passed my time doing the only thing I could think of, the timeless activity of watching technicians and stagehands set up the next band’s equipment. I also snapped a few photos of the mob that had gathered behind me. It seemed like just a few minutes ago I’d been weaving my way up to the front through scattered folks sitting on blankets and stray bystanders lollygagging about. Turns out I was suddenly hemmed in by a total sea of humanity. I’m not really super comfortable among crowds, but this was a pretty awesome sight.
Up next on the stage was another band I’d never heard of, Charli XCX, a synthpop act from the United Kingdom. I didn’t think I would be very much into her sound. I was wrong. She and her band put on a hell of a show. In contrast to her electronic, synth-driven album material, her live act is straight rebellious, youthful, punk rock. Her energy on stage was contagious, dancing and strutting around whilst her bandmates powered through their instrumentals. With her in-your-face lyrics and punching rhythms (driven by a very talented drummer), she practically melted my face off. I’m very much looking forward to her new material, especially if it’s with this band. A talented group of young women, they are.
The next hour was a cool-off period from the excitement of Charli XCX. The DJ on stage kept the crowd busy by throwing out random merchandise into the sea of people to hilarious result (ie, people falling over themselves for cheap sunglasses and shirts). As time went on, I watched eagerly as the concert staff rolled a grand piano out to center stage. Anticipation built as I spotted Andrew and the band off stage right.
I previously described Andrew McMahon’s live show as being like a religious experience for me. This show, however, was something else. From the first sliding bass note of “Holiday From Real”, I was on another plane of existence. Perhaps it was due to the placement of the song at the beginning of one of my all-time favorite albums Everything In Transit. Maybe that’s just hindsight talking. You see, after the band broke into their set with “Holiday,” they immediately segued into my favorite track in Jack’s Mannequin’s catalog, “The Mixed Tape.” Now, this was starting to form a pattern. Leaping off from the piano, Andrew tore through the melodies like he had on record nine long years ago, absolutely crushing the vocals and rocking the ivories through the song’s energetic verses. And as that concluded, the next song he began to sing was “Bruised,” third track from Everything In Transit…
Holy shit. Were they going to play the whole album!? Outwardly I expressed my shock for what was happening; inwardly, I was exploding with every emotion I’d ever felt. I’ve come a long way with these songs, and here they were, being performed for me, one by one, by the man himself. And you might be thinking, “wow, that’s a lot of reverence for a piano punk rock album from 2005.” and in a way you’re right, it’s just really hard to put into words what this work means to me. I’m sure you understand. But as usual I digress. I was locked into the zone. Despite the thousands of strangers there in the field surrounding me on all sides it felt like I was alone with the band.
Before playing the inevitable next song “I’m Ready,” Andrew took the mic to confirm what I’d been expecting. Just for fun, they felt like making the show special, and what better way to fill a 45 minute set than with a 45 minute album. Oh my god. They were actually going to play the entirety of Everything in Transit! Even though I’d already figured as much, just hearing him say so blew my mind (again). This really was something else. I felt like I was seeing history, for Andrew McMahon, Jack’s Mannequin, and myself, namely the last seven years of my life I’ve lived along side these songs, unfolding right in front of me.
As the album continued through “La La Lie” (featuring Andrew killing it on harmonica) and fan favorite “Dark Blue,” I realized that I would get the chance to see the catalyst to all of my Jack’s Mannequin fandom, the song “Miss Delaney“ (whose origin story in my life is described here) performed live. I didn’t miss the opportunity to capture this performance for posterity.
What more can I say about the show? Andrew’s obviously still got the energy and enthusiasm to enthrall a crowd. He kicks serious ass on the piano and for the times when he’s not playing his instrument, he’s meandering around the stage, singing out to the audience from the edge. The closing few songs of the album mellow out a bit from the rock of the first seven, from the up and down “Kill the Messenger,” to the relaxing “Rescued,” closing with the epic two-parter “MFEO.” As the repeated second-half chorus of “you can breathe” floated over me, I once again found myself swept up in the sound. I’d been singing along to the whole record, but when the reality of the set’s impending end fell upon me, I just sat back and watched, soaking it all in for the last time. This was special. I’ll probably never have an experience anything like this again.
Now, the real headliner for the Chipotle Cultivate Festival was Neon Trees. I know them best for their hit song “Animal,” which I first heard on the radio in 2010, and subsequently heard almost every day during my internship’s travels thanks to a modern-rock station that loved to drive the summer’s most popular songs into the ground through repeated daily plays. I strongly dislike it for a number of reasons, many stemming from the worst facets of that summer’s experience. I’m sure they’re a fine live act, but I had seen what I came to see (and so much more) and I was completely fulfilled. The second Andrew McMahon and his band left the stage, I pushed my way backward through the crowd out to the festival gate. I briskly walked around toward the area behind the stage, having no doubt Andrew would be making an appearance at the musician’s entrance. Within two minutes, there was a line out of nowhere. It took me a second to realize that he was already out there, at the head of the queue entertaining fans. Naturally I jumped in line and waited excitedly.
Once at the front of the line, I immediately gave Andrew a handshake-hug and spouted heartfelt thanks for what he’d just done. Everything in Transit. THANK YOU. It was something I didn’t even know I needed until it happened. I almost felt like crying I was so happy. And being the great guy he is, he expressed nothing but genuine gratitude at my words. I don’t understand how he’s so awesome. I want to be like that. As I grew more comfortable and less starstruck, we had a quick chat about things. I asked him if he’d ever played a whole album before; he said they’d done it once previously (though it seems everyone on the internet thinks Cultivate was the first time for some reason). He mentioned this was his first show in a few months to which I inquired the occasion of his last one. Of course, it was the Dear Jack show. I told him I was there and in fact had seen him (and met him each time) in three different cities in California in the previous sixteen months. He seemed happy to hear that, though clearly he didn’t recognize me (which is understandable, given that he meets everyone who wants to meet him after every show). Before I left I shot him a question about an upcoming solo record. His response: yes, there’s one coming! Fantastic! And like always, I got a picture with him, thanked him profusely for being awesome, and headed on home.
The whole walk out of the park, the ride to downtown on the MUNI, I was beaming with happiness. It seems lately every time I’ve run into Andrew I’ve been down in the dumps or having an otherwise rough go of things and every time I leave feeling on top of the world. That’s why this guy is my hero.
They say never meet your heroes, because they can only disappoint. To that I say, what kind of shitty heroes do you have?
I finished the day between the bars in downtown San Francisco. I enjoyed a scotch in the place I’d spent part of my amazing birthday evening, transcending the difficult nostalgia that lingered given recent events. I was alone in the city where I’d left my heart only a week earlier. I thought it would be hard to return– it was for a few minutes, but the greatness of the day still in progress plowed my troubles away. Plus, hockey! As I overcame that sense of emptiness, I retreated across the street to a pub to watch the hockey game. Kings vs. Rangers, game two. I’d expected to miss it because of the festival; I caught nearly half of it thanks to a marathon of overtimes. It was a really great game, tons of fun to watch. By the time I got home, I was physically exhausted, having gotten up wicked early, stood in a crowd for what felt like days, and with a mind that had been so rocketed around emotionally. I was drained, but content. It didn’t take long to pass out in my bed once I staggered into my apartment.
The first thing I did the next morning after I awoke was play through Everything In Transit on my piano along with the record. The whole thing. By ear. I didn’t know the chords to half of the songs, but channeling inspiration, I figured them out on the fly. I was in the zone. It’s a great place to be; I hope one day I’ll find myself perpetually in such a state-of-mind.