I couldn’t begin to tell you how many concerts I’ve seen at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but I know it’s a lot. And all of them were Phish concerts. Matter of fact, as of this writing I’ve seen Phish more times there than I’ve seen them at any other venue, tied with Madison Square Garden. Come to think of it, as a guy who keeps meticulous track of these sorts of things I guess I can tell you how many times I’ve been to SPAC: eleven.
And on September 23rd, 2018 I made it a cool dozen, and for once it wasn’t a Phish show.
The Outlaw Music Festival was basically Willie Nelson’s tour (brought to you by Southern Comfort) that ran around the continent with a half-dozen acts on each bill. Van Morrison was on some dates, Tedeschi/Trucks on some others, and some really great lineups all around, but I forsook the Toronto stop for a trip down to beautiful Saratoga Springs, New York because it was the only stop on the tour that had Neil Young on the bill.
And if you don’t know by now that my relationship with Neil is one akin to worship, well you clearly haven’t been paying much attention.
M’lady and I were hoping to finally visit the car museum that is housed in one of the many beautiful brick buildings that surround the venue but alas, we had left Ottawa too late for that. Instead, we arrived at the very cheap and almost worth every penny Hill Top Motel, checked in, paid cash ($69.95+tax), had a quick beer and walked to the excellent barbecue joint next door, where we enjoyed much too much excellent barbecue.
We walked off our stretched bellies strolling a pleasant mile through the pretty Saratoga Spa State Park (home of the Fountain of Youth). When we got to the venue we went straight to our seats in the balcony and caught almost all of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. We had seen them a couple of years before at Osheaga Fest in Montreal and while the band was still pretty great their sound was decidedly not. The low end was way too loud, with a thick, mushy bass and overpowering kick drum dominating the sonic space. That said, almost all of their songs featured obvious boom-boom-boom audience clapalongs, so maybe they pump up the bottom end on purpose. If so, it’s a mistake.
At set break we wandered about and ended up in line for free shots of Southern Comfort and complimentary t-shirts. Grabbed a couple of definitely-not-complimentary beers on our way back inside and sat down for a heck of a set courtesy of Sturgill Simpson. Having never heard of the guy before, he had surprised us at the Bluesfest just a few months before when he tore it up opening for Dave Matthews (or was it Beck?), and man, he tore it up again at SPAC.
The guy has a blistering Tele-centric guitar thing going on that he tosses around between his exceptional vocals, and he has a killer organ/bass/drum trio hanging on his every move. Oh, and the sound had much improved, with an especially crispy snare sound leading the way. This won’t be the last time I see Sturgill Simpson.
We sat still for the next setbreak, save for a quick bathroom run. No way we were missing a moment of Neil Young and I’m glad we didn’t because he opened with Tell Me Why and it was probably my favourite song of the set.
Which is saying something, because there was so much gold in his ninety minute slot (including Heart Of Gold). This was my first time seeing him play with his latest backing band – Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) & the Promise Of The Real – and it was great. Not only did they sound great (except the percussion player – I literally did not hear a single thing he played), but they were really, really fun to watch.
Y’know how Neil does his lurch-and-grind thing whenever it’s jam time, where he turns towards the other musicians and hunkers down low taking long slow strides and bobbing his head up and down? Well, the other three guys up front – bass and two other guitarists – all did the same thing, every time. And they were all dressed in similar grunge-type outfits, so essentially it was The Four Neils up there for every solo. Oh, it was so funny. M’lady was still cracking up an hour into the set, to the point of doubling over.
A couple of show notes: when Neil went over to the upright piano for the only time of the evening he stopped the song after about thirty seconds, complaining that he had no monitors. They got the problem solved and he started again. Good old Neil, always wanting to make sure things go right. Also, the song in question was a debut, probably called Eternity.
Seeing as how every other show I had seen in the venue had been Phish concerts I had never sat down at SPAC before (nobody sits down at a Phish concert), let alone for a whole afternoon/evening of concerts. But when Neil launched into Rockin’ In The Free World for what proved to be the set closer I just had to get up. I thought it was very Canadian of me to immediately head into the aisle for my sole bout of standing in a day full of good sitting music, and luckily everyone let me be.
I was free to rock my own little world and I did just that.
Finally the evening’s host took the stage, and while Willie was well worth seeing again I think his age was finally starting to show. It was the lesser of the previous two acts and if not for the pair of songs when Neil joined him onstage (On The Road Again and I’ll Fly Away) the set would likely not have much reason to stand out in my memory.
Still, it was a pleasant come down from Neil’s raucous set and a fine capper to a great day of music in the woods. And just a short walk through said woods we were back at our motel room, enjoying a cold beer or two and suppressing anger at the note we found from management falsely accusing us of smoking in the room and threatening to charge us an extra $100 because of it. (I worked it out with the owner the next morning but neither of us left the conversation overly happy.)
Before leaving town we almost went to the car museum but arriving at the building I noticed a banner telling me that the original Batmobile had been on display up until just a few days before; we had just missed it. I knew I would be too upset to enjoy the rest of the museum so we decided to save it for next time.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is a great venue (especially if you’re not stuck on the lawn) and I’ve always had a great time there. Now I know it wasn’t just because they were all Phish shows, so there is sure to be a Next Time.