Meeting Up With Jon Batiste in the Eastman Lobby

Sometimes the action comes to you. 

We were in the balcony of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester when Late Show With Stephen Colbert Music Director Jon Batiste said his band had one more song to play, and they’ll meet us in the lobby. It was Second Line Time!

Batiste had foreshadowed the band’s offstage mobility in their opening number. Four musicians were onstage—Batiste on piano accompanied by bass, drums and percussion—but wasn’t that a horn we were hearing? When a sax player finally emerged from behind the fold of curtains on stage right, the applause he received was surely for his playing, but also expressed relief that we weren’t crazy—we HAD heard a sax. It kicked off a good show of mostly instrumental jazz. 

But now, the show was ending, and the band was filtering offstage while playing their final number. The players emerged in the audience, snaking around in the front rows, each with a mobile form of their instrument. Even the Cowboy-hatted drummer’s tambourine was still sounding in the house PA system. 

Everyone in the balcony was on their feet, but few were moving, so we slipped behind the people standing in front of their chairs and joined the stream of folks headed to the lobby. Descending the second, final flight of stairs the faint acoustic sound of the band seeped into our awareness, and was suddenly louder than what came through the PA. The band was somewhere in the mass of people swirling about in the lobby. We pushed on until we could move no further, hearing, but not seeing them. I pulled out my phone, shooting video from up high, thinking the camera might capture things I was unable to see live.

Then the seas parted, and sure enough, Batiste emerged perfectly framed in my iPhone. Turns out he’s about my height—not as tall as I expected. They circled up in front of us for a solo or two. By then my wife had her iPhone rolling video as well. What a thrill, to have the band cozy up to us that way.

After a few solos, Batiste led the second line right out the door where they camped on the sidewalk under the Eastman Theatre marquis along Gibbs Street. We followed them. What else could you do? Maybe they would march us to an ice cream store and buy everyone a cone.

Well, that didn’t happen. But we weren’t complaining. 

Randy Rainbow Makes Show Tunes Great Again

In the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 20, there was a new twist in the Trump whistleblower scandal. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent phone call the U.S. president pressured the Ukrainian head of state eight times to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s potential 2020 presidential opponent Joe Biden. 

On our way that night to the Kodak Theatre on the Ridge to see Randy Rainbow, who has made a name for himself by posting parody songs about Donald Trump’s crazy ride in the White House, we speculated on whether this latest scandal would be part of the show. No parody song about it yet, we predicted, but probably a mention. 

We were wrong. There was no mention. And frankly, I was disappointed. I’d come to the show straight from riding my exercise bike to the latest breaking news from Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room. Randy’s show felt like when I tuned into the Late Show after a day of wacky Trump revelations only to find that Colbert is on vacation and tonight’s show was filmed three months ago. It’s funny, but it’s not the fix I’m looking for. 

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a show based on whether or not it provides your personal fix. Randy Rainbow’s song parodies were, like his YouTube posts, spot on. “There is nothing like a wall,” sung to the tune of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” Someday we’ll find it, the Russian connection,” to the tune of “The Rainbow Connection.” “Super callous fragile ego extra braggadocios,” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Rudy and the Beast” to “Beauty and the Beast.” They go on and on.

Fittingly for our data-driven era, his show mixed his live performance with big-screen video, sometimes timing voiceovers to work with his live music, sometimes edited to make Randy appear to be interviewing the Orange One. In those, he’s an endearing character with a great sense of comic timing. Onstage he’s also a bit of a whirling dervish, changing his costume frequently from black tie to red sequins to ruby slippers. 

But how do you keep your song parodies current with the never-ending onslaught of misbehaviors and scandals that spew from this real estate magnate turned president? It’s a difficult assignment, but Randy doesn’t back down. In a Q&A session with the audience he said he turns his videos around in 48 hours—all the writing, arranging, recording, editing and posting. Whew! 

Of course, that level of timeliness is pretty much impossible when you’re on the road. Rainbow had a reasonable solution, arranging his parodies in somewhat chronological order to give a sort of history of the Trump presidency, building up to the most recent atrocities. His latest, posted Aug. 29, played on Trump’s Aug, 21 retweet of praise that Israeli Jews “love him like the second coming of God,” set to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar: “Cheeto Christ, Cheeto Christ. He’s like if Jesus was pumpkin spiced.”

It was funny, but my inner Situation Room needed more. Not that I’d given up on finding the Russian connection, it was just that, at this moment, I was hot on the Ukraine. Sorry Randy. You can write that off as my problem. You know, and the nation’s. 

I Saw Brian Wilson at Del Lago

Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 must have been a difficult night for the Brian Wilson tour. Brian and his band the Zombies were performing at the Del Lago Casino, just off the Thruway in Tyre, N.Y., three days after their long-time guitarist, Nicky “Wonder” Walusko, had died in his sleep near Lewiston, N.Y. That was where the band had kicked off its new tour the very day after Walusko died, dedicating that show to him. 

So the del Lago performance was their second without him, and I was there. The stage was still mostly dark as the band filtered on. The scattered applause picked up as Brian appeared, supported on either side by an aide, guiding him to his center stage seat at the piano. Once settled, he announced they were dedicating this night’s show to Nicky, then launched into their first number, “California Girls.” 

“Love and Mercy” might have been a more appropriate tribute, and indeed, an hour and a half later, the band closed with that. But then again, maybe “California Girls” was right. Walusko’s enthusiasm for the Smile recordings is what piqued Brian’s interest in completing them and staging his recent tours. Maybe playing the Beach Boys sound that had captivated Walusko as a kid, the sound he helped recreate for the Smile album and the touring band, maybe that was the best tribute. 

At any rate, when I came to the show, I knew Brian’s one-time guitarist had died, but I didn’t know he was supposed to be in this show. That dawned on me when I noticed the guitar and floral arrangement spotlighted in the group’s back line. A few songs in, the band’s horn player gave a longer tribute to Walusko, filling in some of the gaps of Brian’s abrupt dedication. But it took a search on the Web to fully understood what was going on. 

And that was the show in a nutshell. The music was performed beautifully, the harmonies shimmering in fine pitch above the bedrock rhythms of the 10-piece band, which included original Beach Boy Al Jardine and jumped to 11 pieces when Blondie Chaplin joined in. Brian’s familiar timbre was recognizable when he sang lead, and the occasional missed pitch and shortened phrase was forgiven—I mean, good for him, he’s out there doing it. 

Brian Wilson’s band as seen from the del Lago balcony Aug. 9. The tribute to Nicky “Wonder” Walusko is in the back row on the right, behind the horn player.

But Brian didn’t appear to have full mental fitness—not really a news flash, I suppose—and that infused the show with an odd tentativeness. Brian is much loved and much admired for his catalog of infectious songs that populated his performance, and for the production techniques he pioneered in the 1960s that still inspire today. You could see that in the audience members who got up and danced despite the grip of age and gravity that would normally leave them seated. You could sense it in the band, whose members occasionally leaned down to Brian, perhaps checking on his welfare, perhaps reminding him that he was singing the next song. 

And there was Brian, sitting behind a piano that blocked the view of his hands, rather than sitting sideways as most singing piano players do. On some songs, his arms didn’t move, and with as many as three keyboardists playing on any given number, he didn’t really need to play. His face was consistently expressionless. When Blondie Chaplin sang a few songs, Brian appeared to sit it out, gazing rather vacantly at random points in the audience. Occasionally he spoke before a song, once introducing the next singer, but failing to give the singer’s name! Another band member snuck it in just before the song kicked off. They know how to cover for their boss!

About 30 or 40 minutes in, an inner alarm went off telling me that I pretty much wanted the show to end. I’d now seen Brian Wilson (I’d never seen him before), heard a few of his hits done very credibly, recognized that he was sticking pretty close to the original arrangements, and realized there probably weren’t going to be any more surprises. 

Turns out I was glad to hear the run of fun hits that ended the show. Still, I was left wondering, does Brian even want to do this? What does he get from it? The most excitement he showed all night was moving his slightly raised arms fore and back like an awkward sock puppet trying to find the rhythm to the rocked up solo in “Barbara Ann.” 

Perhaps he’s making up for all the lost time when he didn’t tour. Maybe part of his desired legacy is to see that he sings before as many of his fans as possible. 

Then again, maybe he’s one of those elderly folks who didn’t know how to say, “No” to the high-pressure salesman on the phone. 

Brian didn’t spill his heart at del Lago. He and his band just performed his songs pretty darn well, if somewhat predictably. Yes, if Brian had been more present, the show might have become an outright rally for this rock legend. But that wasn’t the case, and when the two aides took Brian’s arms after the last song to walk him offstage past the Nicky Walusko memorial tribute, we knew there wasn’t going to be an encore.

Brian Wilson and the Zombies Set List

California Girls

I Get Around

Shut Down

My Little Duece Coupe

Little Honda 

You’re My Baby ?

Little Surfer Girl 

Salt Lake City

Wake the World / Add Some Music

Don’t Worry Baby

Darlin’

Feel Flows (By Carl Wilson)

Wild Honey 

Sail On Sailor

Do It Again 

Let Him Run Wild

Wouldn’t it be Nice

Sloop John B

God Only Knows

Good Vibrations

All Summer Long

Help Me Rhonda

Barbara Ann

Surfing’ USA

Fun, Fun, Fun

Love and Mercy