A night with The Weepies

Dreams came true last night.

Kates and I saw The Weepies play. Live. In concert. Finally.

Needless to say they've held a special place in our hearts for almost a decade.

Some background. The Weepies entered our consciousness around 2006 after “World Spins Madly On” appeared in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” – back when it was the show to watch, kicking off our weeks every Sunday night. Then, there was a conversation with some close friends about The Weepies’ so-great sound. I downloaded “Say I Am You.” And “Happiness.” Kates and I played the albums almost non-stop that winter of 2007-2008 while we were expecting Phoebe.

We played the music to soothe Kates, too, as Phoebe was preparing to enter the world. I had downloaded “Hideaway” just weeks earlier as a pre-release single in anticipation of the album of the same name – which was released a couple weeks after Phoebe’s birth – and it was an instant favorite. More than any of the others, the memory of that song playing during Kates’ labor is embedded in my mind. In an interesting twist, we realized later that the song includes a lyric, “Hear a phoebe sing his only song.”

Be My Thrill” was the soundtrack for and conjures up memories of our anything-but-easy transition to Missouri. At the same time, the upbeat title track and “Sunny Days” are two of my favorites in the band's entire catalog. They will never cease to cheer me.

Finally, “Sirens” arrived in April, after months of anticipation and teasers on The Weepies’ Facebook page. And, like its two predecessors, I downloaded it the day it was available. And also like its two predecessors, it took me a few listens to warm up to it. Several of the songs I ranked as threes during that first run-through were upgraded to fours and fives by that evening. A couple weeks ago, Kates and I were playing the album as we cleaned up dinner in our kitchen, and Kates marveled, “I like all of these songs. Of course, I do. It's The Weepies.”

Read up on The Weepies – the duo formed by singer-songwriters Deb Talan and Steve Tannen – and you’ll learn the storylines behind each of their albums, and “Sirens,” like the others, is packed with emotion. “Sirens” was created on the backdrop of Deb’s battle with with Stage 3 breast cancer.
This is from their current bio …
“… At 16 songs and almost an hour long, SIRENS shows a band at the height of its powers.
… The prophetic ‘No Trouble’ was written prior to learning Deb’s diagnosis. ‘I don’t need no trouble, but sometimes trouble needs me,” sings Steve; Deb’s vocals were recorded during her first weeks of chemo. The couple continued to write and record throughout treatment, with Deb providing several key vocals far into the year, including title track “Sirens,” captured in one take on a day where Deb really only had one take in her; her vulnerability is tangible. “We just kept going,” says Deb. “We also have 3 small children, and were homeschooling, and the effects of chemo blew whole days out of the water.” The band was able to use their limited studio time as an escape, leading to some of their most joyful tracks ever, including the genre-bending “Fancy Things” and the upbeat “Early Morning Riser,” aided mightily by a fantastic rhythm section and horns. There’s plenty of heart and comfort for long time Weepies fans too – the deceptively simple “My Little Love,” the gorgeous “Brand New Pair of Wings” and the straight ahead poetry of “River From the Sky.”

After The Weepies had officially finished the album, and Deb was in recovery, they continued to record remotely with their phenomenal backing musicians for fun, eventually adding a cover of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” and a version of Irish balladeer Mark Geary’s “Volunteer” to the final album. “No one song could capture that year,” says Steve. “16 seems like a lot to release at once, but each song reflects a different angle of that long, suspended moment. They hang together like a bunch of photographs from a certain time. It was intense, but there was beauty and inspiration, too. Deb made it back. And we’re still here.”
Through the years, The Weepies had risen to the top of our concert bucket list, but their tours are rare and short, and they haven't come to Kansas City. If not for our move, we might have seen them two or three times by now as they often have hit Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. … But, this past spring, after the band released yet another tour schedule that didn’t quite come close enough to us, Kates suggested we go to them, as part of our summer excursion to Wisconsin.

It happened that their last stop of the tour was a Homecoming concert in Iowa City. We’d be at The Farm, so Kates and I worked it out to leave the girls with her parents while we drove the three hours south to Iowa City, attended the show, spent the night there and returned to The Farm the next day. We bought the tickets, made a reservation for a one-night stay at a bed and breakfast in Iowa City and did just that.

*     *     *

We arrived in Iowa City about 3:30 yesterday afternoon, and found our overnight spot, The Brown Street Inn. It was the first bed and breakfast to show up when Kates searched the internet and it appealed enough to us that we booked a room. Initially, I had reserved the Yellow Room, but when we checked in, the innkeeper asked if he could move us to another room because they were having some plumbing issues. Kates and I didn’t mind, and he led us to the Red Room, a spacious and elegant room -- painted in red, of course -- at the end of the hallway on the house’s second floor. I was thrilled because it was the room I was most interested in booking, but it was unavailable when I made my initial call to the place.

The innkeeper also was quick to pull out a map of Iowa City's downtown and recommend all sorts of dining options within walking distance of the house and the concert venue. … Around 6 p.m. we headed downtown. Gifted with a cool but beautiful evening, we walked the five blocks or so to Iowa City’s downtown, along the picturesque, history-filled, brick-paved streets. All along, Kates and I fantasized about walking through The Weepies’ neighborhood and wondered, if any, what house belonged to them.

We walked through a part of the University of Iowa campus and ended up at Oasis, a highly-recommended Mediterranean joint for supper. I had a beef kafta in pita bread, and Kates had a chicken skewer. The service was slow, but the food was worth the wait … I should also add here that I ate more than my share of beef for the day. Shortly into our drive down, Kates and I grabbed lunch at a convenience store food mart and I bought a cheeseburger that came with a patty so big I joked I was eating a whole cow.

*     *     *

After dinner, we made the short walk to The Englert Theatre, where the show was scheduled to begin at 8. A crowd was gathered outside, the marquee proclaimed The Weepies were performing and we were indeed at the right place.

The theater was a historic and intimate venue with just more than 1,000 seats. As the story goes, the theater opened in 1912 and survived the deaths of its two earliest operators and a massive fire, all before 1926. By the 1990s, like so many other venues of its kind, the theater was divided and retrofitted for two small movie screens, fell into disrepair and was eventually shutdown. A community group rallied, though, and raised enough funding to rehabilitate the theater and reopen it in 2004 – for its first live performance in more than 60 years. Pretty cool.

Lucy Wainwright Roche provided the opening act and proved herself worthy. She delivered a handful of soft folksy songs that were a welcome prelude to The Weepies music. Even better, she wasted no time charming the audience were engaging and hilarious stage banter. After performing her first song, she proceeded to share that she had been touring almost non-stop for years and driving in her car, alone – so she had “a lot to talk about.” She shared funny observations about serving on grand jury duty and her dog, and answered every random question any audience member shouted at her. She also led a wonderful singalong on a cover of Bruce Springsteen's “Hungry Heart.”

The Weepies took the stage around 9 – with a powerful backing band that we later learned included Elvis Costello’s drummer and Joshua Radin’s bassist Jonny Flaugher! – packed everything they could into a set that last about an hour and 45 minutes.

At a couple points during the show they joked with the audience about the number of songs they could play. Deb joked they had about 125 on their list, and later added that the concert could last two days long. In our minds, Kates and I were saying, Yes! Yes! Keep going! After all, I had been thinking along those lines as I listened to the albums again during these last couple days leading up to the show – that they could play any collection of their songs, and I would have been pleased.

To our delight, they opened with “Gotta Have You” – arguably Kates’ favorite from their catalog. And they followed it with the aforementioned favorites “Hideaway” and “Be My Thrill.” “My Little Love,” accompanied by some audience hand-clapping, was the first of a whopping 11 tracks from the “Sirens” album, and all of them only raised my admiration for the new album.

While the set was filled with our favorites, I did leave a little sad about the absence of other gems like “Sunflower,” “Orbiting,” “Please Speak Well of Me,” “Add My Effort,” “Be My Honeypie,” “Hard to Please,” “How You Survived the War,” “Riga Girls,” “Suicide Blonde,” “Living in Twilight,” “Stars,” “Somebody Loved” or “Keep It There.” Indeed, the concert could have gone on for two days. … I also had hoped they might throw in their cover of “Learning to Fly,” but it was not to be.

Their songs are so simple and so sweet with acoustic guitars, luscious harmonies and Deb's beautiful and unique voice being the hallmark of their sound. Playing guitars that were about as big as her small frame, Deb’s voice sounded as crisp and strong as ever, and it was especially fun to see Steve rock out on faster-paced jams like “Vegas Baby” and “Never Let You Down” – a love song, he told the audience, he wrote and then handed to Deb who “edited the hell out of it.” Together they showed the same synergy and chemistry we’ve always heard on their albums. … There’s a reason so many of their songs rank at or near the top of my iTunes library’s most played count. They could sing the phonebook and we’d listen.

“World Spins Madly On” – which I might say was the one song I wanted to hear more than any other – and “Volunteer,” with Steve singing the lead vocals on both, were just as beautiful and compelling live as they sounds on their respective records. And Deb punctuated the first part of the set with her lead vocals on the equally somber but lovely “Just Blue” and “Somebody Loved.”

They could have easily left the stage for good at that point, and – unlike a lot of bands I’ve seen through the years – actually had me believing they might be done when Deb introduced “Somebody Loved” as their last song. But the crowd wouldn’t let them go, and the house lights didn’t come on. … When they did come out for an encore, Deb stepped to the mic and said the band decided they wanted to leave us with a little skip in their step. So they doled out a great jam of “Early Morning Riser,” backed with a rousing trumpet, and then “I Was Made For Sunny Days.” I got so excited when I heard the opening guitar strums of “Sunny Days” that I nearly leaped out of my seat.

If I have any beefs about the show … The percussion was overpowering at times and didn’t lend itself well to the intimate setting and acoustics of the theater; there were several times I thought the loud punch of the drums took away the charm or tone of some of the more mellow tunes. There also were times that Steve’s harmonizing vocals – which help make The Weepies’ sound so intoxicating – seemed to get lost among the noise of the instruments.

Those beefs were minor things, though. Kates and I had an amazing night together, and we can finally cross The Weepies from our concert bucket list.

So the question now is: Who takes over the top spot on our concert bucket list? The answer: Sara Bareilles.

Here’s the setlist …
1. Gotta Have You
2. Hideaway
3. Be My Thrill
4. My Little Love
5. Fancy Things
6. Can’t Go Back Now
7. Vegas Baby
8. Painting By Chagall
9. Crooked Smile
10. Sirens
11. River from the Sky
12. Wild Boy
13. Brand New Pair of Wings
14. Never Let You Down
15. Antarctica
16. World Spins Madly On
17. Same Changes
18. Ever Said Goodbye
19. You Are Unraveling
20. Nobody Knows Me At All
21. Volunteer
22. No Trouble
23. Just Blue
24. Somebody Loved

25. Early Morning Riser
26. I Was Made for Sunny Days

Good reads ...

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