And midway through a show opening Mighty Apple Tree, there it was, that missing thing over these last few months laced in the misery of an uncertain future and a present taken from our collective lives. The gift of live music, of forgetting everything, if only for a few moments, as the band was back and at their full powers creating that solid foundation onto which guitarist Lyle Brewer could build a tower of sound, bending that sunburst PRS into submission and squeezing every last bit of sound out of those lonely strings.
It had been a long and trying 107 days since the “Fab Four” of Neighbor graced a stage in front of an audience, and what an ardent audience of “Neighbors”. Their base has grown over their 15 months of building a vast catalog of original music on Tuesday nights at Thunder Road in Somerville, MA. The current lineup of Richard James (Keys), Lyle Brewer (Guitar), Dan Kelly (Bass) and the world’s strongest drummer Dean “The Dux” Johnston was solidified in mid July of 2019.
The excitement among the bands community of live music lovers was palpable when this show was announced in early June and it came as no surprise when the show sold out within moments of going on sale 6/9 in a flurry of demand that the venue may have never experienced before. The tremendous buzz only grew in the lead-up to showtime for the audience and band mates alike and it was not unlike Christmas Eve as a child for many on the bands burgeoning Facebook fan page, visions of sugarplums most definitely dancing in the heads of many Neighbors during that last sleep before Thursday came around. With an early showtime of 6PM and the lot opening at 5:15, many in attendance found themselves thrilled to be having to rush to get somewhere for the first time in months.
There had been concern as the show drew closer about the crowd abiding by social distancing rules, as this is a growing and tightly knit music community that has been greeting each other with bear-hugs week after week over the past year. Worries about their getting together for the first time in months was not unwarranted. In the end there may have been a few breaches of proper social distancing, but nothing overly egregious or too widespread to cause alarm. For the most part people stuck close to those they arrived with and may have stopped briefly for a wave, chat, or very brief hug on the way to one of the few port o potty’s placed around the perimeter of the venue. The staff stayed vigilant to ensure the safety and well being of the guests throughout the festivities.
The line of cars began forming to enter the Tupelo Drive-In about an hour before the lot opened on a beautiful early Summer evening, the air dry and the mercury a shade below 80 degrees under a blue and mostly cloudless sky. While entering to a doo-wop soundtrack and having the helpful and masked staff guide you to your home for the night one was struck by all of the smiles, an increasingly rare sight in these darker days. Attendees energetically hauled out their chairs and accoutrements to set up in the adjacent open parking spot provided with every car slot. This allowed room to dance, have dinner ordered via phone app and delivered by venue staff, or to simply enjoy the show. There was also select tent-covered table seating with bar access to the side stage area. Sight-lines were clear throughout as vehicles were staggered and the largest were placed on the back row where the sound would prove powerful.
The start time was near exact with Neighbor being announced and taking the stage at three minutes past the hour to the unique mix of applause and car horns; as Richard James proclaimed, “It’s good to be back everybody.” And they were off, the band taking a minute to stretch out musically before opening the show with the familiar beat of the aforementioned Mighty Apple Tree. To accompany the Drive-In atmospherics the audience was treated to a narration specially crafted for the occasion that would weave its way throughout the show, stitching the song selections deftly into a story of two young lovers, Joe and Katherine, in the turbulent mid 1960’s.
Our tale starts with the two teenagers falling in love on their first date in Joe’s ’65 T-Bird, where the new couple enjoyed milkshakes and burgers before consenting to take a trip to local “parking” spot Jefferson’s Orchard. As they drove off into the night with the promise that it would would change their lives forever the song begins in earnest with the band in lockstep and James’ smooth vocal delivery accented by delicate flourishes from Brewer on this uplifting original.
“Sometimes the universe will split us up and make us feel like ghosts, but it will bring us back together when we need each other most.” Subjected to this new and ever sliding reality there is a remarkable quality to the prescience of many of Neighbors lyrics and this song, which debuted in late September of 2019, is no exception. A credit to the universal sense of community the band fosters and the open hearted writing approach, these are purveyors of the Golden Rule whose inclusivity is a breath of fresh air in the ever more hostile environment we must endure from day to day.
“I never said it’d go away, it might get harder every day, I’m here for you to lean on me, I will be your Mighty Apple Tree.” And from here we have the launchpad being prepared for liftoff and the nights first fretboard fireworks as The Dux and Dan Kelly steady the ground for James to layer a row of ornate piano and organ on top of and giving Brewer license to flutter like a monarch feeding on a flower bed of sound while getting his fill of nectar before taking flight in a volley of notes bounced skyward by the punchy lead line bass flowing out of Kelly and pushed further into orbit by the building pace of Dean Johnston and Richard James’ keys climbing ever higher to a crescendo, before settling back down into the songs groove and coming to a clean stop just shy of 8 minutes. And just like that, captured by the moment, freed from any sense of worry, live music had returned.
“Choose your cards wisely the psychic said,” After a brief pause the band started in on the evening’s theme, the narration picking up with Joe visiting a fortune teller who had an ominous warning for him to return home to his beloved at once. There waiting for him was Katherine, now his wife with their first child on the way, holding a draft letter with tears in her eyes. Joe would be going to Vietnam. Don’t You Cry hits with a plaintive bellow and thrash of guitar full of the drama the song’s title suggests and James showing full command of his vocal force on the heavy R&B title, with Brewer unleashing some ferocious Gilmour-esque licks throughout the songs tidy three and a half minutes.
We are now brought to the desert with Joe and his bunkmate Paul taking a Sunday trip off the base in Paul’s VW Bus to Joshua Tree where they took a little something that was unfamiliar to Joe, which led to the live debut of On A Sunny Sunday Afternoon. Another showcase for James’ singing and observant original songwriting with an anthemic chorus enhanced by Dan Kelly’s added vocal harmonies. After the second chorus, the band being solidly powered down the tracks by the stellar drumming of Dean Johnston immediately took a leap into jam space, allowing Lyle Brewer to begin the charge to a new realm accented by chunky bass and piano before the band revealed a glimpse of a darker side thick with organ and otherworldly bass and some synth work still while being driven ever forward by Johnston and straight into the playful romp of Trippin’ In A Van with a demonstration of some good ol’ guitar pickin’ from the masked Brewer who was also joining in on the vocal harmonies.
The story continuing over driving rhythm, as Joe is being called to duty under the command of Marine Sergeant Harold Parker and his Magic Marble Crew. The Drive-In dance party in full effect as Neighbor digs in to this forceful chapter from their rock opera Silver, loaded with soaring organ and deep space funk. Machine gun hits from The Dux and chopper blade rushes and air raid siren wails from Lyle, as Dan Kelly starts dropping the heavy ordnance summoning the synth lords from Richard James’ side of the stage as the band brought some gut bucket improvisational fury that rippled the air and slid into a space reminiscent of some classic Crusaders b-sides and yet a sound all their own as they ventured farther out into the jungle. The narration continues with the Magic Marble Crew having been ambushed, Joe having to rescue Sgt. Harold Parker as the only survivors and determinedly making his way to a rescue point where they would be saved.
Canopy landing like liberation out of the darkness of that jungle. The structured splendor of this composed instrumentals breezy calypso synchronicity is a timeless piece of music that waltzes through centuries of musical performance with its genre defying dna. The middle section led into another showcase for The World’s Strongest Drummer to take a commanding solo that led to a furious full band tension ascension before arriving back at the Shangri-La of Canopy’s main theme to bring the song and, as we’d soon learn over the unmistakable opening chords of Pine Tree, Joe home to his Katherine as well.
Pine Tree, if judging by the enormous smiles spread across the faces of the Neighbors throughout the Drive-Ins grounds, may be the most beloved of the Neighbor songs. Debuting July 17 of last year, the song is instantly recognizable by its impossibly contagious riff and its ability to conjure sentiment for the simpler and more innocent times of childhood. Also not to be overlooked, the song simply shreds. This version came charging out of the gate and took little time to set itself free with another completely unique solo from Lyle Brewer, who rarely, if ever has played a Neighbor tune the same way twice. Always searching and exploring for a new and different way of telling the audience the musical story, never content to not try finding every conceivable angle of attack within a song and always supported in his endeavors off the easy path by his game bandmates every step of the way. Neighbor is a truly live music experience. Creatively gifted, technically masterful and hard working to always push the boundaries and the music further through performance that never fails to reward those that make it out to see them.
After a fiery 4 minute long solo and with the band bathed in the light of the golden hour the song changed shape and we are reminded of the last line of the narration; as Joe had written to Katherine, “I’ll be home soon, meet me with the T-Bird.” Dan stepped to the forefront of the sound, showcasing his custom Warwick thumb bass and his skills as a guitarist on a funky drum and bass break that led directly into him taking the lead vocal on the evenings only cover, a debut and an apt choice with a straight ahead spirited version of The Beatles Drive My Car that ended with the bedlam of a Beep Jam and laughter provided by many of the Neighbors in attendance and their vehicles.
Planet Silver emerges out of the ruckus like a crystal clear wave washing most mellowly over the crowd. Another selection from the rock opera Silver, this song paints a lasting image of the ideal world at our fingertips, but kept just out of reach. It is beautiful and forlorn, the descending notes that come spiraling out of Lyle Brewers guitar sound like they have been culled from a Lisztian past or from a baroque world on the upswing where great care was paid to the detail of things and there was cooperation in the building of a more advanced world. Something that seems lost from this broken present that we find ourselves trying to make the most of without much help. “Planet Earth will soon be gone if you don’t take what you see here, tell the people make it clear. It’s not too late to change the way you live your lives I hope you see, Planet Silver is where we like to be.”
An emotional end to the planned set that made up the evenings Don’t You Cry theme. In typical improvisational fashion Richard James may have lost the last bit of narration somewhere between the absurd Beep Jam and the profound Planet Silver, leaving the Neighbors wondering the fates of Joe and Katherine, but that only means there will have to be more Neighbor before too long and that is a happy ending that we can all get behind.
The band closed the show with a rocking encore of crowd favorite and the Neighbor tune that started it all, Stranger Part Of Town. A fine selection that included a nice little jam section with a Manteca like groove that passed through Planet Silver and Pine Tree teases before returning back home and closing strong after 90 minutes of live music, sending everyone back on the road feeling better than they had in months. Well, at least that’s how I felt.
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