Sunday, June 28, 2015

Heaven on the Jersey Shore

In preparation for this past weekend, episodes of MTV's "reality" show Jersey Shore came to mind. Mostly what kept popping into my head was that sound byte from the opening credits where Snooki yells, probably to no one in particular, "We're going to Jersey Shore, BITCH!". What happened this last weekend on the Jersey Shore was restoring and draining, gorgeous and ugly, challenging and easy as pie, or rather, donut.  This is my tale of the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Seaside Heights, NJ.

My tickets for this musical event were purchased with little other thought than 1) I know people in Jersey, 2) Mumford and Sons are playing within a semi-reasonable distance for the first time in 2 years.  I bought two tickets lickety split and the rest fell into place gradually over the next three months. Within about a month, MandS had booked a show at a local venue, albeit one that I hate, but I was still very happy with my decision to drive 4 hours instead of 1 to see them with the rest of the amazing lineup they had assembled. My little bro's in-laws, who live about 30 minutes north of the Stopover location in Seaside Heights, were always saying "come visit any time".  So I decided to take them up on their offer.  DC book club pal Katie and I hit the road on Thursday afternoon, ready to explore the sights and sounds of the Jersey shore in the early part of the season. It was unseasonably chilly and rainy. Slogging through normal traffic up to Baltimore, once we went through the Harbor tunnel it was pretty smooth sailing.  This drive, I even hesitate to admit it, is starting to feel familiar and almost homey. We decided we should head straight to Seaside Heights to get the lay of the land and to see if we could catch the Springsteen cover band scheduled to play on the downtown stage that night.

Our route got us off the Jersey turnpike earlier and led us down a gorgeous road smack through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.  Memories came flooding back again and it was nice to drive that quiet two-lane road of scrub pines and rolling hills with a sense of peace and fondness, even joy.  We were at the beach in less than an hour from there, and found out that the cover band didn't start until 10pm.  We decided to find some unhealthy boardwalk delicacies, walk around, and catch the beginning of the set.  We noticed that the boardwalk and Seaside Heights in general was largely empty.  There were so few people around that it was almost eerie.  I love off-season beach precisely because of its emptiness, but it felt strange the night before such a huge event. We had read that something like 35,000 people were expected to come to this festival and knowing the influx of people expected over the next 24 hours and seeing it so empty with all the structures in place to welcome them was both exciting and a little ominous. It was cold with the sea breeze on the boardwalk.  We stopped in Jimbo's and got fajitas and listened to a local band tear up the stage covering everything from Counting Crows to Sublime.  

After warming up at dinner a bit, we checked out where the festival would be the next day. The stage was directly on the beach.  Barriers for the right side of the stage actually extended into the surf.  It really hit home to me then how great this event would be.  I was thinking what a logistical nightmare that must have been for the engineers to get a stage of that size and complexity set up on sand though.  Sheesh.

After marveling at the location and excitedly chattering (or maybe that was just our teeth from the cold?) about how awesome everything was going to be the next day, we walked over to the Springsteen cover band who had just taken the stage a few blocks away.  They call themselves "Tramps Like Us" and they were fantastic.  The lead singer may have gone a little bit overboard in his Springsteen vocalization, but such a fun time.  There were maybe 50 people there.  And there were some local kids, late teens, early 20s who were hanging out celebrating someone's birthday.  They were absolutely out of their minds, and one of them had this amazing huge tattoo of the state of New Jersey on his arm.  It became my goal to get a picture with him, but, as Katie said, it was like approaching a wild animal. We had no idea what he was actually going to do or if it was safe.

We took a picture of his tattoo from afar, and stayed for 5 songs (Thunder Road, Atlantic City, Radio Nowhere, Prove it All Night, and Because the Night).  We were quite cold and decided to head up to homebase at that point.  We arrived at the pretty little beach house about 20 minutes later after a drive on completely empty streets.  We were greeted by a chalkboard message over the fireplace saying "Welcome to our home Katie and Karla!" and sweetly decorated little bedrooms with warm, soft beds.

As I snuggled down for the night and started to think about the day behind me and the two days ahead, a goodness crept over me. I woke to the sound of a heavy, steady rain in the morning and went back to sleep.  I woke up much later to gray, chilly air and Katie emerged around the same time. We went downstairs to say hello to Chloe the dog and Bruno and Cathy, our hosts.  We chatted for a while and then we ladies went for a long walk down by the ocean.  After returning, Cathy made us breakfast and then Katie and I headed to Asbury Park.  She's a good friend and was kind enough to accompany me on my long-awaited Springsteen pilgrimage.

We got there and I was absolutely giddy. As we walked onto the mostly empty boardwalk I vivdly remembered the view from an episode of The Sopranos (season 2 finale, as it turns out. See video here.). I walked, drinking in all the history and making connections to the places I was seeing to their acknowledgements in cherished Springsteen songs. It felt like the perfect way to enter into the musical spirit of the weekend. Then, we walked a few blocks to the Stone Pony. THE Stone Pony.  Not exactly where Springsteen and Bon Jovi got their starts but certainly integral to their success, and a platform for many others. Stepping inside, empty with the grey light from the door creeping into the dark, storied interior, I was overwhelmed with all the amazing music that must have happened here over the decades.  All the pictures, signed guitars, cymbals, banjo covers that line the walls, each one telling me a story.  The stage wasn't set at all, it was just a blank canvas, dirty and beaten up, ready for greatness.  A musical communion of saints, concerts past and future, surrounded me.

From there, we drove to Point Pleasant for a diner lunch, good conversation and then donuts. It was National Donut Day (NDD), after all. We went to Top That! donuts which are small batch, made to order, and make your own flavor combos  (like those serve your own yogurt places where you get to pick all your toppings). We went a little crazy. At one point, the guy asked Katie: "are you sure you want all that on one donut?" referring to her creation of maple glaze, crumbled bacon, pecans, and bavarian cream filling. I got chocolate glaze, peanut butter chips, MandMs, and mini chocolate chips. The donuts were still hot from the fryer, crispy on the outside, soft, light and cakey on the inside. The guy in the store seemed a little bit overrun. They were offering free donuts to kids under 10 that day due to NDD and they had a lot of business. We even saw the guy's parents come in to help. We know they were his parents because at one point the older woman was making boxes and the proprietor said "Thanks Mom!". The father walked in, went to the back, and immediately came out again with a broom and started sweeping up and doing what he could to help out. It was sweet to see family in action, coming to the rescue when lots of children, promised free donuts, were clambering up to the counter and gleefully shouting their preposterous donut orders (MORE FRUITY PEBBLES!).

After waiting a pretty long time for our donuts, we went back to homebase to regroup and head in to the festival from there. We got to the shuttle area, hopped on a school bus, and entered the festival. They had the gates and all these flags set up to usher us onto the boardwalk and into the festival grounds. We got there around 5pm and walked up a much more crowded and lively boardwalk. Everything was alive, but it was chilly, and the clouds were very, very low.  So low that one of the rides on the boardwalk that spun its riders up about 75 feet was almost lost in the clouds at its highest point.

We staked out a great spot on the sand right at the end of The Very Best's set. They were the first band to play and we only caught a few songs but they brought great energy to kick off the music and amazing beats.  Our spot afforded perfect views of the next musician, Blake Mills. He took the stage and my knees buckled. Just my type. Scruffy, unassuming, absolutely incredible guitar player and he started off with a Les Paul and a glass slide.  I was done in before he had finished the first measure.  He used to play with Dawes, and produces for a bunch of amazing artists while releasing his own solo music. He's a little rough around the edges vocally but writes great songs. Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith (of Dawes) joined Blake on stage. They're still friends and collaborate often.

Dawes' set was next and did not disappoint. Our concert neighbors were getting more and more drunk and stoned around us. Any spaces where blankets had been were being swallowed up by the crowd as more and more people arrived. Dawes mostly played stuff from their newest album of which I am a big fan. Blake Mills came on stage again with them at one point. I couldn't really see the beach at our spot in the crowd, but I could hear the ocean.  The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping, a fog was settling over the festival, and a fine, misty rain was drifting down, adding atmospheric enhancement to an already amazing set. Dawes ended with "All Your favorite Bands" and, as always after hearing them live, I love them even more.

The crowd was pushing forward to position for Alabama Shakes. It was hard for Katie and I to stand our ground and keep our amazing sight line to the stage.  Fortunately, this group of short girls in front of us had put out a blanket so there was a large blank spot in front of us and we could see the whole stage despite being a little bit back from it.  We were up pretty close though.  Alabama Shakes's frontwoman Brittany Howard took the stage in a billowing pink dress and the wind picked up and made it flow out majestically behind her, the stage lights shone out purple into the crowd and the mist over us and reflected beautifully.  Her voice cut through the chilly evening with its energy and power and everyone responded to it. From start to finish their set was awesome.  I liked them much more this time than the first time I saw them at Sweetlife festival two years ago.  I love how personal the songs are, and how Brittany is talking to herself when she sings them in front of tens of thousands of people.    

After their set, we stayed on the boardwalk in search of the perfect decadent fried treat to end the evening with.  We settled on a vintage sweet shop that had long been a fixture on the Seaside Heights Boardwalk, I got a cupcake and Katie got a macaroon.  As we were working our way down the boardwalk in search of the shuttle bus loading area, we ran across our friends from the night before, and that awesome tattoo!  Katie spotted our guy while on the phone and pointed him out to me.  He was in fine form again and so were his friends. They were milling about a decorative piano and dancing with beers in hand.  Katie, now off the phone, said it was destiny and I had to get a picture with the guy and his tattoo. Still too shy to approach the wild animal, Katie thankfully took charge of the situation and approached him.  Drunk as he was, he was only too happy to oblige my request.  Katie started getting her camera ready and the guy lurched towards me, asking if I wanted to see his other tattoos? Without waiting for an answer, he lifted up his wife-beater tank top and said if there was anything else I wanted to see, anything at all, he'd be glad to show me. *blush* Katie was mercifully quick to snap a photo and I have to say that it was 100% worth all the trouble we went to get it, and the drunken advances of a Jersey boy on the boardwalk.  Check out this magnificence:

We then continued trying to find the shuttles back to the parking lot. We were instructed on the way over that the buses would pick up in the same place where we had been dropped off, but inexplicably our bus driver got lost on arrival and dropped us off in the wrong place.  We didn't know where we were supposed to go and it turns out NO ONE else did either. We must have asked at least 7 or 8 different event staff and no one knew.  Finally we got almost to the end of the boardwalk and some cops down there did know.  We made it to the buses, shuttled back and headed home exhausted.

Late the next morning, I woke up feeling woozy from a strange dream about being stuck in a mall.  But the sun was shining and there was a whole day of music in front us! We went for a walk down to the beach and out along the jetty at the south end.  It was a much different walk because everyone was now there for their shore weekend.  People had started to wake up and there were even more people. Families were starting to take to the sand for their beach days (even though the water was 56 degrees, brrrrrrr).  Surfers were out and the ambient temperature was much warmer.  Katie went back to the house and I kept walking up and down the boardwalk a few more times.  I couldn't get enough of the beachy air and people watching. I realized I needed the relative solitude to be able to dive back into such a huge crowd that day.  It was fun watching what I imagine to be many different Saturday morning rituals taking place - looking at the back porches, grills being fired up (it was 10am), the cornhole games starting, people washing their decks, sitting on chairs, and the sights and sounds of a summer weekend unfolding. 

We had a leisurely morning, went to lunch in Toms River, and then we headed back into Seaside Heights.  We beelined for the beach and had brought blankets and set up camp this time. We were right by the surf which was at low-tide. We had missed the first two bands, Little May and Jeff the Brotherhood, but caught almost all of the Maccabees' set.  They were great.  The Vaccines came next and rocked out like the Ramones.  Then Jenny Lewis played. She had an all-woman band and led it well with her great voice. I really enjoyed the stuff she played from her new album and she threw in some Rilo Kiley hits as well.  The Flaming Lips did not disappoint in terms of weirdness but I just don't get them. I can't tell if the reality they live in actually is the video game they make it seem like it is from the stage, or if it's all an act.  Anyway, they certainly don't sound like anyone else and that is always hard to do, so props for that.

Then came Mumford and Sons. Anticipation was riding high since many people had come just to see them.  The crowd stretched almost the entire length of the boardwalk, wall to wall people.  Marcus took the stage and asked for the lights to come up, and bellowed "SIIIIIIIICK" when he saw just how many people were there, gathered and waiting for their music to play.  Many in the crowd, myself included, were somewhat unsure about how their new sound would translate to a live show. They started off with Snake Eyes and Ditmas.  They sounded just as good as they ever did, and I didn't miss the banjos, even though they came back in full force with the next three songs in the set list.  What I've always liked about Mumford and Sons most is their lyrics.  They continue to write penetrating, thought-provoking songs and this album is no different.  This effort has a darker tension to its sound, more conflicted and struggling. You hear about aging, thirst, loneliness, soured love, and rage again and again. But it's never without hope. There's always a maybe, a cry out for more.  I don't think you cry out to things you're not at least hoping are really there.

For me, the concert experience was an answer to a lot of prayers.  I was hearing God in some of the lyrics, talking to me about being upset with him over the cancer battle of a beloved family member, hearing my frustration and comforting me in it.  Everything seemed bigger than me and I felt keenly the agony of being so small and limited and believing in and having to trust a God who is so much greater and can see everything I can't see. I could feel where a lot of the tension in these songs was coming from because it was and is present in me.  I remember when they sang the line "Say something, say something, something like you love me"  And it felt like a dagger of truth piercing me.  What an honest supplication to God! How hard it is to trust especially in those times of doubt and suffering.  How much we just always, all of us, want to hear that we are loved. Lovers Eyes gets me every single time, and so does Lover of the Light. I couldn't believe I was getting to hear those songs, those heavenly songs, being played by the ocean. I gave myself fully over to praise because that is what the moment called for, upward-turned hands and heart.

Watching the sun set behind the boardwalk, the lights of the attractions of Seaside Heights became more vivid, and the passion emitting from the musicians on stage wasn't lost on anyone who was listening,  I hope.  It's the mark of a band that believes in their songs that when they sing them to a crowd, they seem to be feeling them too.  Mumford and Sons, Dawes, Avett Brothers, U2, and a few other bands I have seen live have been the ones to teach me this.  I love them for that.

Katie and I made our way slowly away from the waves, which were coming up within inches of our feet now that the tide was coming in again.  During the encore we worked our way back up onto the boardwalk and then slowly backed our way down the line towards the buses. They brought all the day's bands up on stage for the last song, a cover of Atlantic City.  That's the song they closed the Patriot Center show with a few years ago too.  I've got debts that no honest man can pay. Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line.  I kept hoping that Bruce was going to make a surprise appearance with them.  I don't actually know what would have happened to me if that had been the case. But mercifully, (and also sadly) I didn't have to find out.

Katie and I headed home, closing the chapter on a great weekend full of music, food and memories.  All the things that New Jersey always brings to mind are present with me while I am up there, even a lot of the music played recalls it to my mind as well.  Everything dies baby, that's a fact.  I have been thinking about that a lot.  Thinking about what needs to die so I can grow.  I know pain is coming with those deaths, and I don't look forward to it, but I know I have to face them.  Lord, have mercy, and thank you for the beauty in death and another beautiful weekend in New Jersy, bringing to mind all the good and the bad that lives in every moment, and keeping me mindful that Goodness, Love, you, are the victor.

*Photo Credits to Katie Connolly

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