By Adam Waldman
Photo by Michael Bloom – Bethel Woods Center for the Arts
To do a typical concert review of John Waite’s recent show at the Event Gallery at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts would be doing an injustice to a story that began around 1980…
Just before my teenage years began, rock and roll was already an important part of my life. Long before compilation albums were common, I purchased The Rock Album on cassette tape. I will never forget the distinct green album cover, or the bands that I discovered on a tape that I virtually wore out. One of my favorite tracks on the compilation was “Isn’t It Time” (by The Babys). That was my introduction to John Waite.
Just a few years later, MTV had become the gathering place for an entire generation. Now pursuing a solo career, Waite’s “Change” was all over the airwaves. As was “Missing You” a couple of years later. And, in 1989, Bad English’s “When I See You Smile” was one of my favorite songs.
I loved Waite’s music, but to be honest, I kind of lost track of him for a number of years. It wasn’t until 2013 when Live – All Access was released that I rediscovered the artist that was a big part of my youth. Hard Rock Daddy was still in its infancy when his publicist reached out to me to ask if I wanted to do an interview. I jumped at the opportunity.
John and I had a great conversation that went way beyond his music. We spent a decent portion of the interview talking about his love of New York City (a place that has always been near and dear to me). Although he isn’t from NYC, he told me that it was the only place where he ever felt truly at home. He was not just paying lip service. As we discussed “the city” (which is what natives call it), it felt like I was talking to an old friend. We even talked about going out for pizza at some point in the future.
At the end of the interview, we exchanged contact information. I fully intended to keep in touch, especially to share the interview with him when it was published on the site. It never happened…
A few days after our interview, my mom had multiple emergency surgeries over the course of a week before unexpectedly passing away. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the interview that featured so much NYC talk. It’s the place where my parents grew up, where my mom suddenly passed away, and where my dad tragically died years earlier. I knew that listening back to the interview to transcribe it would just be too painful.
Fast forward to 2018…
Earlier this month, I saw that Waite was going to be playing at the Event Gallery at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Not only is it the closest venue to me, but Bethel Woods is one of my favorite places to be in the world. I go there often to just walk the grounds. I’ve seen a number of shows in the outdoor amphitheater, but none in the more intimate setting of the Event Gallery.
I decided that enough time had passed, and I went back and listened to the interview that we did in 2013. It brought back some great memories, albeit bittersweet ones. I certainly didn’t expect John to remember me or the interview five years later, but I reached out to him just the same on the anniversary of my mom’s passing. I shared some details of the interview, and told him that I’d be interested in reviewing the show.
Since this is not the typical concert review, I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit on the process of press passes. Often times, there is confusion between the publicists and venues, and it takes some coordinating on site to find the tickets and/or passes for the show. Dealing directly with the star of the show, I was fully prepared for some possible confusion, but that was not the case. I gave my name, showed my ID, and was on my way instantly.
The people at Bethel Woods could not possibly be any more accommodating. Even if it wasn’t a top notch venue (which it is), just dealing with the people there would make doing my job a pleasure. With their help, I was brought down to where the meet and greet was taking place. I had originally planned on introducing myself after the show, but given that it was a Sunday night, I was just as happy to meet beforehand.
When I got down to the meet and greet area, John was already talking to some diehard fans that had driven a long distance to see the show. Unlike many meet and greets, where you are ushered through quickly, this one was different. Every fan got to spend quality time with the man that they idolize. There was no rushing the photos, the signing of multiple items, or the sharing of stories. It was a pleasure to witness genuine gratitude. Not that I expected anything less based on my interactions with him.
When I finally got in to introduce myself, John and I exchanged some stories. It was like reuniting with an old friend, even though we had only spoken once five years ago. He just has that way about him. I was happy to finally meet the man whose music has been in my life for nearly four decades.
He offered me a personalized autographed copy of a lyric sheet for “Missing You.” It wasn’t any sort of bribe to make sure that I wrote a good review, although he jokingly asked me to be kind given that this was the last night of a long two weeks on the road. I told him that I’m sure that the review would be positive because I’ve heard his live performances before.
I appreciated the gesture of the autographed lyric sheet, but it was the guitar pick that he placed in my hand that really made an impression. Not so much because of what it is, but because of the heartfelt message that he gave to me as he did it…
“Keep this with you… hopefully it will bring you good luck.”
Though we’re basically strangers, I truly believed that he wanted the best for me (and for all of his other appreciative fans as well). He’s a rock star that has dealt with the ugly side of the music business, but he is not jaded in the slightest. Quite the opposite actually. Whereas many musicians bemoan the state of the music business today, Waite is truly grateful for the chance to make a good living doing what he loves. It comes across in his performance.
Allow me to set the scene…
The Event Gallery is not your typical concert venue. It has a warm, unique elegance about it, like a cross between an enormous rustic cabin and an upscale theater. With a massive fireplace as the backdrop, and cozy lighting, it felt like the audience was being treated to a private concert.
Typically, you would expect an opening act that is in the same realm as the headliner, but once again, this show was not typical. The opener was an outstanding folk pop singer named Leslie DiNicola, who performed with just an acoustic guitar player. The beauty in her voice mixed with the setting was ideal for a cold Sunday night in a cozy room. Classy is the best way to describe the performance.
For rock fans, the highlight of her set was an inspired interpretation of Journey’s “Separate Ways.” It wasn’t until that evening that I ever thought of the sadness of the lyrics of the song. DiNicola took the song in an entirely different direction than expected, making it her own in a beautiful way.
The stage was set for the man that I had waited nearly forty years to see in a live setting. He opened with an acoustic performance of “When I See You Smile.” It gave the song a whole new perspective. Throughout the evening, Waite would seamlessly go back and forth between acoustic performances and rockers. Regardless of the song, the tempo, or the accompaniment, the one thing that stood out was just how unique his voice is to this day. Time has not diminished his talent whatsoever.
Waite is a talented singer/songwriter, but what really set him apart in this performance was his personality. I loved hearing the stories behind the songs as much as the songs themselves (which is saying a lot). He has an approachable, comedic persona that makes you believe that he could do stand-up comedy if he so desired. Not so much in the joke sort of way, but the type of comedian whose show changes each night depending on the audience interaction.
His wit is quick. His stories are fascinating. His personality is engaging. His singing takes you back in time in a brilliantly nostalgic way. His classic songs were a big part of the soundtrack of the youth of the entire audience. That being said, it wasn’t the classics that hit home for me as much as a lesser known song that nearly brought me to tears.
October is still a difficult time for me. It’s the month of my mom’s birthday and the anniversary of her passing. No matter where she lived, she was always a city girl at heart. If New York City is a part of you, “Downtown” is a song that touches your soul, especially if the city represents a chapter of your life that is now closed.
The mental picture painted by the lyrics of “Downtown” is vivid even if you don’t have connections to the city. If you do, the song goes that much deeper. Hearing the inspiration behind the lyrics made it unlike any other song that I’ve experienced in a live setting. Powerful and emotional are the words that come to mind.
Downtown NYC has always been a part of my life. I live in the moment when I’m there, but I suspect that when I go there next time, this incredible song will be playing in my head.
The show ended with a rousing rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which had the crowd up and dancing. It was a fun way to end an extremely memorable evening. This was my first time seeing John Waite perform live, but it most certainly will not be my last. If you get the chance to see this show, do not miss it!