Friday, April 12, 2013
Sorry to break the three-year silence on this blog by shamelessly cribbing Lou Gehrig's farewell speech. But that's truly how I feel right now.
I never got a chance to be on that London rooftop when the Fab Four were jamming with Billy Preston on "Get Back;" hang out at Ardent Studios in Memphis when Alex Chilton first started making musical magic with Chris Bell and the rest of Big Star; or even watch while Tim Davis, Steve Miller and Nicky Hopkins put the finishing touches on my all-time favorite song, "Your Saving Grace."
But at least I can say I was in a small second-floor room on Ann Arbor's South University Avenue with only about two dozen others, watching one of my favorite musicians Vienna Teng play a solo set that was so intimate and warm that I feel like I was invited to her private party.
I've written about Vienna in the past. But the truth is, I haven't seen her perform in a few years – partly out of life getting in the way and partly because Teng decided a few years ago to nearly shelf music and become a graduate student at the University of Michigan's relatively new Erb Institute, a collaborative effort of the school's business and natural resources school to develop sustainable technology that also makes economic sense. For the last few years, Teng has lived just a few miles from me in my adopted hometown.
Tonight, just three weeks before graduating, Teng performed a show that she quietly announced on her Facebook page as a benefit for the institute's new collaborative space – the spot where she performed with just her Yamaha electric keyboard and her inimitable self.
In a few earlier blog posts, I've described myself as a kind of real-life version of "High Fidelity"'s Rob Gordon: Someone whose "glory days" in music have long since passed, but still manages to keep an ear out for the newest things – and yes, make mix CD after mix CD.
I don't know if I've made a mix CD in the last few years for a new or old friend that hasn't included a Vienna Teng song.
"You've got to hear this woman," I'll usually say. "No one else sound like her. She's amazing."
Tonight was a rare opportunity to worship at the altar of Vienna Teng in a way that few others have had the privilege of doing.
Vienna is a story singer in the sense that almost everything she writes has a fascinating backstory to it. So we got to hear how "Whatever You Want" was inspired by Milton of "Office Space" fame. Or how she endlessly listened to Dolly Parton records so that she could make "City Hall," her ode to California's legalization of same-sex marriage, a semi-country song to thumb her nose at the genre's homophobic tendencies. Or how the "Grandmother Song," which she had us stand up and do with her (see left), was written to both pay homage and gently poke fun at a woman who fled from mainland China to Taiwan to escape the Maoist revolution.
She even responded to comments and questions from the audience – including, ahem, one loud-mouth
who wondered about her beautiful dress in the "Gravity" video (watch it below) or what she thought in retrospect about her 2008 love song to Barack Obama, "Stray Italian Greyhound." (For the record, despite some of the president's loudest left-leaning critics belonging to Teng's green community, she still things he's a good person trying to do his best. But then again, she admitted, she would probably say the same thing about Mitt Romney if he had won)
For years, I've wallowed in Teng's music. Tonight allowed me to take that wallowing to a whole new level. The smallness of the crowd, the intimacy of the space and the warmth of Teng's own personality made the evening truly magical.
Vienna even thanked me for coming afterwards. For years, I've wondered what would happen if I came face-to-face with Paul McCartney, Steve Miller or Suzanne Vega.
I think I now have my answer. I'd act like a bumbling fool, stumble over my words and not know quite what to say.
Ironically, Teng tonight did a combined cover of "Ain't No Sunshine"/"Lose Yourself." I didn't quite throw up like Rabbit from "8 Mile," but sadly nothing even remotely Christgau-eaque spewed forth from my mouth.
That said, if you read this Vienna while you're Googling your name (something you admitted to doing tonight as part of grad-school procrastination. Let me just say: Been there, done that), I'm hopefully better expressing how much tonight truly meant to me.
I was a pretty lucky guy.