Expectations were toned down, best to not get too excited, right? If we are indeed ‘post’ anything then it’s possible to observe that the post lockdown / Covid / pandemic gig has been a bit of a mixed bag. At turns over eager and childlike in its desire to please, confused and unsure about how to proceed or just downright sombre and unappealing. It did seem that the simple unfettered joy, even abandon of a proper knees up may have been consigned to the history books and wistful reminiscences of the good old days when people used to give themselves up to the music and a gig could be a powerful and moving experience. Then we have Jesse Malin’s recent promo shots that see him staring reflectively past the camera into the distance and reviews of his most recent record noting the “sombre, melancholic tunes” and the “roots rock collection of mellow acoustically based songs”. All of this may have led us to expect a downbeat evening; how wrong we would have been.
Things start well, the room is pretty busy early on, for the arrival of Kris Gruen, a support act almost perfectly suited to the opening spot on a Jesse Malin tour. Gruen’s tender hearted almost poetic songs of family and togetherness are sharpened by a real New Yorkers edge, with some, notably ‘Body in Motion’ from his latest record ‘Welcome Farewell’, sounding like nothing more or less than Malin outtakes in their recorded entity. In the live setting and alone on stage with his acoustic, Gruen offers real depth, resonance and meaning tonight. He maintains the almost rapt attention of the crowd with a short set that is full of a zest for life his storied upbringing must surely have contributed to. His delivery is clear and engaging, with a lovely voice (nicely reverbed) and songs that pack more of a punch in a live setting than the somewhat Mumford’s light (imagine if they came from the East Village not the East End) of his recent recordings. We’re left wanting more and the question exercising us is when can we get to see him for a full show, with his band in tow?
Over the last 18 months Jesse Malin’s Fine Art of Self Distancing live streams from his home in NYC have provided a real balm for the yearning soul, The self-styled “children’s TV show punk rock hootenanny” was a salve for ‘gig free’ times – for us and the irrepressible Manhattanite. As much as they provided a home for many misplaced souls, these digital get-togethers were never going to replace the live experience, which Malin is renowned for providing. So even before he hit the stage with his ever present band there was a tangible energy evident at the Greystones on Sunday evening. If anything it was different to, a notch up, on previous shows by same band at the same venue.
There is always a connection between Malin and his audience but this was something palpable. It felt deeper and more eloquent than a standard show. It was charged with electricity so that the usual felt genuinely special, the standard tropes of the rock n roll show were filled with wonder and spectacle. Regular denizens of the Jesse Malin gig (and let’s face it, there are plenty of them…) may say this is just how they are normally but I would beg to differ, this was something beyond that, we were definitely on a higher plane in the rock n roll firmament.
As a case in point take Malin’s storytelling. This is a fundamental part of his show and something that is quintessentially Malin and New York. Tonight we get old favourites and unaffectedly touching new anecdotes about connection and loss concerning both his father and ex-guitarist, musical compatriot and close confidante Todd Youth. It seems like recent circumstances have made everyone more open to these experiences, less cynical. We seemed more willing to engage and exchange with the stage than ever. When he tells us that “Rock n Roll speaks to us” and that we all listen we are right there with him. It is further evidence of his famous Positive Mental Attitude which on another night or from another mouth might seem dangerously close to naïve/hokey/feelgood cliché. Tonight though they feel more like words of unity, delivered by a blisteringly tight and joyful band of brothers.
There is more than his renowned PMA evident tonight though. Malin seems positively overjoyed to be on stage and able to get right back to doing what he, and his band, do best and we get the real deal, the joy and wonder of the live music experience personified. There is a lot of mention of Punk Rock tonight and a sense of punk heritage hangs heavy over proceedings. The attitude (should that be attitood?) is clear, the energy is manifest and the sense of community is strong. In particular the ghosts of The Clash and Johnny Thunders permeate; from Gruen’s claim that Strummer and co. were “the only band that ever mattered” to versions of ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’ and ‘Rudy Can’t Fail’, which was introduced by Malin with a perfect summation of just what this show was all about “I started out as a fan and I’ll die as one”. Indeed.