On the Road: Going to the Garden

The new Boston Garden opened in 1995 and for ten years it was dubbed the FleetCenter, commonly called the “FleeceCenter” after Fleet Bank’s bait and switch credit card scandal. In 2004 Fleet was swallowed by Bank of America and now the building is officially titled the TD Garden, but nobody calls it that. TD Bank bought the naming rights for 6 million dollars a year, but they aren’t local. TD Bank is a subsidiary of Toronto-Dominion Bank, the largest bank in Canada. The building is actually owned by Delaware North, the food concession group headquartered in Buffalo. Delaware North also owns the Bruins, who share the Garden with the Celtics. So Boston’s major sports arena is owned by people from Buffalo and named after a bank from Toronto. Let’s just call it the Garden in memory of the funky original building that housed Bill Russell and Bobby Orr and stood 9 inches away from this new concrete bunker, until the old hall of memories was torn down in 1998.

“Welcome to TD Garden,” said a friendly young man in uniform as we entered the building. He directed us to our escalator and said in a genuinely hospitable voice, “Enjoy the game.” We did. Our seats were incredible. I haven’t sat this close to a basketball game since I was an usher at the Palestra in Philadelphia in the ‘70s. Just watching the warm-ups was a thrill. Evan Turner was working on his shot, moving around the perimeter sinking an uncanny number of jumpers. TV announcers Mike Gorman and Jackie MacMullan were preparing for their courtside, pre-game segment. We were looking at each other like, “Can you believe we are this close?”

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NBA games can look routine on TV. The point guard brings up the ball, the center sets a pick, a really good basketball player takes a jump shot, the ball swishes through the net and then other team takes the ball out of bounds. Repeat and rinse, back and forth, up and down. TV time-out. Especially during the regular season the players appear to be just traveling professionals doing their jobs. Most of the time viewers at home have the same middle-distance viewpoint looking down on the action like bored eagles.

When you are courtside the game looks fierce, a raging battle of supremely athletic behemoths. The setting of picks is like an alley fight. Defenders fly around trying to stay with their man as opponents position themselves like brick walls blocking their way. Arms grab, bodies collide, players ricochet. The refs make no call. Huge guys are diving like maniacs for loose balls, speed merchants are stealing your dribble, sure lay-ups are blocked from out of nowhere. The quickness is unreal, especially considering the size.

When the starting players walked out for the opening tip-off, 6’3” Pistons guard Reggie Jackson bounded over to the hoop nearest us, jumped up, grabbed the rim and then flung himself higher to slap the backboard with two hands. It was a sign that Reggie was in the house, a place he played as a star for Boston College. Reggie had been buried behind Russell Westbrook at Oklahoma City until a month ago when he was traded to Detroit. He looked like a man on a mission.

At halftime the Celtics led 47-41. My son Chris turned to me and said, “Dad, I see a guy from Northampton sitting over there.” Sure enough there was my buddy Bill with his bushy gray sideburns sitting behind the basket. I venture over to say hi to Bill and his friend Taylor. I can remember bumping into Bill at Fenway in the ‘80s. When I tell Bill about Chris’s comment, Bill says, “I’m sure I stick out, like on the big video screen it would say underneath ‘Guy from Northampton.’” We talk about the game and Taylor says, “It’s a really good match-up.” which is a great point. The best games are always about the match-up, whether it is Bird-Magic or your kids rec team against their biggest rival. The Celtics and the Pistons are both struggling squads with young talent and losing records. The Celtics are on the upswing and battling for a playoff spot, but they are missing three of their best players: Jared Sullinger (fractured foot,) Isaiah Thomas (bruised back) and Marcus Smart (one game suspension for a flagrant foul.)

In the second half Boston held a slim edge but the Pistons closed the gap. Rangey veteran Tayshaun Prince, a Celtic a month ago, hit a pair of threes for Detroit.  The C’s had no answer for Andre Drummond, the Piston’s robust, 7’0”, 280 pound center who ended up with 22 rebounds. At one point Drummond backed over Tyler Zeller, Boston’s skinny center like he wasn’t even there, got the bucket and a foul shot and then lifted his arms to show his mighty muscles. Boos rained down on the villain.

In the last minute Reggie Jackson up-faked the big men and scored inside to make it 88-88. The Celtics had the ball with 13 seconds left. Time for the perfect ending. Turner had the ball, drove right, got pressured by Jackson, lost the handle and we went to OT.  Overtime was a disaster- Boston turnovers, a Detroit tip-in and a three pointer from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (aka KCP) who ended up with 27. Turner led Boston with 21 points on 10 for 21 shooting. Final score Detroit 105, Boston 97.

In spite of the ending we walked out with a smile on our faces. The kids had a ball, as did I. The game was exciting and the Garden experience was immensely entertaining on many levels. For one thing, the place was a visual fiesta. Encircling bands of video screens all lit up at once with colorful messages that bathed the arena in a gorgeous glow. There was hilarious fan dancing on the giant video chandelier as ordinary citizens became dancing fools in hopes of being projected 20 feet high. There was a cool, soul-jazz national anthem played on solo sax and a touching moment to honor a hockey player who had been paralyzed twice. There were foxy dancers, buff acrobats and schlumpy contestants attempting shots from half-court.

The excitement peaked when tee shirts were tossed into the stands and dropped via parachute from the rafters.  It is amazing how people go plum crazy in hopes of catching a free tee shirt. You don’t even know what the tee shirts look like, but there you are on your feet timing your jump. Humans become like golden retrievers going after a tennis ball, trying to claim it for our own. I got this rebound.

Celtics-Pistons – March 22, 2015 – Boston Garden

The Music Post: Junior Brown at the Iron Horse

First song: home run. Second song: home run. Third song: another home run. Fourth song: I swear to god, another home run. The game was over in the first inning. Junior Brown was smoking it right out of the box.

I was sitting with my brother Dan and my brother-in-law Eric at the Iron Horse on a frozen January night. The first tune was “Broke Down South of Dallas.” This is an early Junior Brown classic, a perfectly constructed, truck-driving shuffle complete with Junior’s low E string bending “buh-buh-buh-bow-wow” fills and his matching drop-down baritone-to-bass voice. It is a simple country tune with lyrics so musical and rich, you could eat them with a spoon. Listen to Junior, an unlucky trucker singing about how he is faithful to his suspicious wife: “I’m the king of the road/ She’s the queen of the house/ And it may not be a palace/ But it sure beats a load/ By the side of the road/ Broke down south of Dallas.” Just say those lines out loud. You can almost hear the truck slowing down as it pulls over into the breakdown lane.

Junior’s backing band at the Iron Horse consisted of his actual wife, Tanya Rae Brown, on acoustic rhythm guitar, long, tall Jase Rathman on Fender bass guitar, and young James Gwyn on snare and cymbal. I’ve seen Junior four or five times in the last 20 years and this was his best sounding band yet, especially drummer Gwyn who was spot-on playing that little kit. The whole set-up and presentation was spare and to the point. Junior was dressed, as always, circa 1962 in his white shirt, black coat, black tie and white 10-gallon hat. If the presentation was elegantly simple, Junior’s guitartistry was spectacular. Junior’s trademark double-neck guit-steel sat in a special stand that allowed him to rapidly switch back and forth between electric guitar and pedal steel. (The design of the instrument came to him in a dream.) At the Iron Horse Junior leaned sideways over the guit-steel like he was the Hunchback of Austin, Texas. As he soloed with virtuosic abandon, he made intense, contorted faces in response to his own playing. He seemed more into the music than ever.

The second song was the superb “Party Lights” from the breakthrough album “Guit With It” (1993.) “There’s another kind of party lights that I can’t stand to see/ When there’s a man in that patrol car/ And he don’t want to party with me.” Nobody writes about the police and the American highway like Junior Brown, who looks like he could be a state trooper himself. He later played “Highway Patrol” (cue guitar sirens) and “Hang Up and Drive” a recent one (2012) about drivers and their cellphones. “Party Lights” was followed by one of my all-time favorites, the lesser-known “Lifeguard Larry.” This song is a slight but wonderful ditty about a handsome lifeguard who often performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on girls at the beach. Junior’s sure, wry touch transforms this juvenile topic. “He’s the expert at pullin’ a girl out of the sea/ He’s doin’ his level best/ She’s breathin’ heavy from her chest/ And she don’t look like she’s hurt too bad to me.”

If “Lifeguard Larry” was a charming party-trick, the next song, “Hung it Up” was a sonic tour-de-force. Brief, rapid-fire verses were interspersed with dazzling, ferocious fretwork. Junior is a dyed-in-the-wool country guitarist, but he has big ears for all kinds of music. Well-known for throwing Hendrix quotes into his guitar solos, during “Hung it Up” he magically incorporated Miles Davis’s beautiful melody “Four.” (I had to ask Junior after the show to identify the tune.) Later Junior paid tribute to Albert King with a scorching instrumental blues. Throughout the show Junior demonstrated his delight in making cool sounds with an electric guitar. He strewed homemade confetti full of string-bending, chicken-scratching, wow-wow-swirling, harmonics-ringing, and beyond-the-nut plinking in and around his songs. He used no effects boxes. The way he made his guitar sound like a car horn was a masterpiece of mimickry. You could have sworn somebody was honking at you.

After this amazing start, the concert evened out, which was just as well. I was worn out from Junior’s intensity, plus the sound was too loud and piercing. I had to put napkins in my ears. Later highlights included the jaunty “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” about an old girlfriend who shows up unexpectedly. Between lines like ”It’s good to see you, baby, it’s been a long, long while,” he inserted dapper fills on the lap steel with astounding dexterity. One of the most poignant song was the more recent “Phantom of the Opry.” It is a minor-key lament from the point of view of an out-moded country artist who lives in the basement of the Grand Ole Opry. At one point the singer mentions a dream in which he was discovered in the basement “just like some episode from Scooby Doo. “ Leave it to Junior to work a goofy kids’s cartoon into one of his most personal and forlorn songs. “Am I the phantom of the opry/ Just a relic from another time?” he wonders. Junior Brown’s songwriting, singing and presentation is a relic from another time, the era of people like Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson and all the country greats who followed in the footsteps of Hank Williams. At the same time nobody else has ever, wailed on a double-necked, guit-steel guitar in a style that integrates country licks with surf, psychedelia, Chicago blues and bebop. He is the one and only and no relic, not by a long shot.

During the encore he covered “Better Call Saul,” which the band was going to perform for the Hollywood premiere of a TV show by the same name. The song had faux-Junior Brown lyrics that were funny-ish but lacked his light touch. After a quick “Sugarfoot Rag” Junior waved goodbye and threw guitar picks into the audience. Then as he walked off-stage, he pretended to throw the guit-steel into the audience. Don’t ever do that, Junior.

After the show Junior Brown stood by the front door, taking pictures with fans and talking with anyone who was interested. I told him it was the best show I’d ever seen him do. He said, “I appreciate that.”

January 21, 2015 – Iron Horse Music Hall – Northampton, MA