Live at The Ram's Head On Stage (at The Ram's Head Tavern)
10 May 2010
The Late Show (9:00 PM)
I am writing this as my wife and two children (both girls, ages six and four) are winging our way south to Walt Disney World for a week of fun in the sun! Fifteen hours ago, my wife and I attended the Chris Botti concert at The Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland. We have previously attended two Botti shows, both in our home state of Pennsylvania - one on 8 April 2009 in Harrisburg, PA, and the second in Hershey PA on 21 November 2009. At the show in Hershey, we brought along our kids for their first concert experience, as well as my wife’s parents. Anyone familiar with my review of that show will already know that it was my father-in-law’s last concert before he passed in February of this year. For this show, we would be returning to my hometown. I was born in Annapolis, but my family moved around a lot during my childhood. When my wife and I married and had our children, we moved to southern Pennsylvania. Luckily, Chris and his band visited our area several times, and we were delighted with the two shows that we saw. So when I found out that Chris would be coming to Annapolis, I was more than excited. The night would not disappoint, and in fact, Chris’s performance at The Ram’s Head On Stage on 10 May 2010 would turn out to be our best Botti concert yet…
10 May 2010 / MORNING: This has been a hectic week. Aside from packing and planning for our Disney trip, we have attended two concerts – both out of town – and had to pack for an overnight stay at my mother-in-law’s house as she would be watching the kids while we attended the Botti show. The week started on 2 May when my wife and I attended the Mark Knopfler concert at The Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. This was followed on 7 May by yet another Knopfler show – this time at The Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Philly show also involved an overnight stay in a fine hotel… and it involved the kids. They were so excited to see Mark Knopfler for the first time, and both remarked how different a show it was from their Chris Botti experience. (Not better or worse, just different.) So it is now the morning of 10 May and we are preparing to leave for Grandmom’s house. Once in the car, we will not be returning home until after our Disney trip, six days and five nights in length. Stress is setting in. It was so much easier to pack for one night in Philly! For this trip we need to pack all of the bags for Disney, plus an overnight bag for the Botti show. The plan is to drop in at Grandmom’s house, leave the kids and head to Annapolis. After the show, we will spend the night at Grandmom’s and leave for BWI Airport in the morning for an 11:15 AM flight to Orlando, Florida. Glancing at my watch, I see that it is almost noon. The Disney bags are packed, most of the overnight bags are ready… only some last minute preparations and we can go. But instead of stressing ourselves further, we decide to simply lay down and take naps. The kids slide into their beds – they are tired from a long week – and my wife and I flop into our bed. And we sleep. Peaceful, restful sleep. For almost two hours! When we wake, we scramble to load the car and head out. On the road by 4:00 PM…
EARLY EVENING: Traffic. Rush hour. We creep along I-695 at a snail’s pace until we finally arrive at Grandmom’s at 6:00 PM. Unload the kids and a few bags, change clothes, and I suddenly realize that Grandmom has hijacked the girls! She is so hungry, she does not wait for us to say goodbye to our little ones. They simply dart out the door for dinner…leaving my wife and I staring at each other. Oh well, we’ll see them soon enough. Our “date night” has finally started.
Back in the car and my wife and I are on our way. We have dinner reservations for 7:00 PM at The Ram’s Head Tavern, located next door and adjacent to The Ram’s Head On Stage. The show starts at 9:00 PM. There will also be a 6:00 PM show this night, and I comment to my wife that I hope we can hear the performance through the walls while we dine, as the two buildings are connected. Annapolis is only a twenty minute drive from Grandmom’s house in Pasadena, Maryland… barely enough time to listen to much Botti music. I plug in the iPod and we listen to a few tracks from LIVE IN BOSTON, and a few tracks from Chris’s 2001 DVD, the audio from which I ripped and put on the iPod for just such occasions. We discuss what Chris will be playing and how intimate the setting will be. Neither my wife nor I have ever attended a show at The Ram’s Head, however, from the looks of the seating chart, there will not be too many people in attendance. We snagged seats at Table 605, very near the stage right side of the stage.
DINNER: We arrive and park only minutes before our reservation. As we walk the brick-lined streets of Annapolis, I am reminded of how much we both love this waterfront town. My wife and I frequently visited downtown Annapolis during our dating years, and it is the most picturesque town one can spend time in, especially if you enjoy boats, beers and fine food. There are literally dozens of taverns and bars lining the streets of downtown Annapolis, but our destination in directly in front of us. We step into the brick building, make our way past the happy hour crowd, and find the hostess table. Our reservations are confirmed and we are led to an intimate table for two in the back corner of the tavern. The restaurant reminds me of the type one would find in Colonial Williamsburg: brick walls, deep hues in the wood, turn of the century photographs lining the walls. In a word: perfect. Our kind of place. We have signed up for the Performance Package this evening, and as such we will receive ten percent off our dinner bill, discounted parking in the garage, and a personal escort to our table for the show. (This may not sound like much, but as our meal progresses I discover that it was a fine choice indeed.) Our waitress arrives in a cheerful mood and I order iced tea and a Fordham Pale Ale brewed right here in the tavern. My wife orders iced tea and we go for the crab dip appetizer. The beer is exceptional – by far better than any other that I have tasted in brew pubs in the past – and I can highly recommend checking out this brand of beer if you can find it. I finish it quickly. The crab dip is even better. I order the sixteen ounce strip steak smothered in melted butter and served with mashed potatoes; my wife gets the Jammin’ Salmon – a succulent dish with a grilled salmon filet, grilled shrimp, lump crab meat and a jalapeño-béarnaise sauce. Each meal comes with a side salad - blue cheese dressing for me, honey mustard for my wife. And yes, the meal is as good as it sounds. More diners file in, and we begin to detect that these too are Botti fans given the nature of their overlapping conversations. We dine leisurely, and for the first time in our concert going experience, we find that we are not the least bit stressed about finishing our meal before show time. The reason for this is a small card on the table addressed to the two of us by name. The card explains that our table for the show is waiting for us, and we are encouraged to take our time eating. The card further explains that a member of the staff will come and retrieve us prior to show time, and we will be personally escorted to our seats. Knowing that the show will not start for two hours, I am confident we will have plenty of time to enjoy our food. I start to pay attention to the pace of the wait staff, and I begin to detect that each serving is timed perfectly to fit into a two hour schedule. I don’t know if I can explain this properly, but the flow of the meal was so perfectly paced that I could just sense that our check would arrive within moments of show time, and we would be on our way. What I mean to say is that most dinners of this variety involve an explanation beforehand to the waiter/waitress that goes something like this:
“We are going to a show tonight, so we need to be finished by such-and-such time…”
Followed by a huff or groan from said server.
None of this tonight. This allows my wife and I to indulge in some “non-kid” time together. My wife looks simply stunning, and I tell her so. She is playing intermittently with her new Droid phone; a Mother’s Day gift for a fabulous mother. I devour my steak and she the salmon. My wife orders a perfect slice of peanut butter pie, and I – despite the fact that I am wearing a white Polo button down shirt - opt for the blueberry cobbler. Both are mouthwatering, and not a drop is spilled. Just as I suspected, our check arrives at 8:45 PM. The bill paid, restroom breaks taken, we are very rapidly approached by a smiling woman who asks:
“Are you ready to be escorted to your table?”
The entire meal has been just delightful, and as we rise to leave, I take one last look. We will definitely be coming back here. A short walk through the dining area and we pass through a swinging door and into the concert area. We are led to our corner table, and as we walk past the partially filled tables, I spy Mr. Billy Kilson’s shiny kit, Billy Child’s gleaming piano, an upright bass and keyboards all crammed onto the smallest possible stage one can imagine. So small in fact, that there is barely enough room to walk from one side to the other without tripping on some piece of equipment. The room is a sort of square with a walkway leading through the center and tables on either side. More tables are pushed right up to the foot of the stage, while some line the back wall of the venue and sides of the stage. We maneuver around the stage and find our table, literally four seats away from the stage right side of the stage. Billy Child’s piano is within feet of where we will be seated for the next one and one half hours. We are only moments away from 9:00 PM. Soon, the show will begin…
SHOWTIME: The show does not start promptly at 9. We wait patiently as more patrons file into the small theatre from both the restaurant area and through the front entrance of the theatre. A good majority of the patrons are in their fifties or older, and my wife and I appear to be the youngest fans in attendance. No matter though, as I know Botti fans are some of the most polite and comfortable around to share a show like this with. As we were escorted to our table, I noticed a line of fans waiting to get into the theatre via the main entrance… and we were being led right past them to our seats. Yet another perk of the Performance Package. I cannot say enough about this deal, and if you ever plan to see a show at The Ram’s Head, I highly recommend it. But as we sit here now, the doors have flung open and the room is filling up. There is a considerable breeze blowing across me from the far too cold air conditioning, but I know once this room fills to capacity, the temperature will rise to an acceptable level. There are seats for approximately one hundred and fifty people, and the room is almost full as the lights dim and the faceless announcer begins to speak over the PA system:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Chris Botti!”
Chris and the band file slowly down the center walkway that we just came down, and turn toward the stage. They file one by one onto the small area from which they will perform. Chris mounts the stage first, smiles to the crowd, and draws his horn to his lips. From this vantage point, I can see that he is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and crisp, dark tie. Botti draws deeply on his horn and proceeds into…
AVE MARIA: So much has been said about this song, especially by me, but I am immediately struck by the difference in Chris’s playing tonight. He seems looser, more relaxed, and definitely more confident. Perhaps it is the size of the venue, perhaps it is that fact that the crowd is so close. Whatever it is, the song takes on a cool vibe as Chris breathes new life into the tune. And of course the note at the end is flawless. Can it be that he holds it even longer than in previous performances? The thought occurs to me that Chris is working on extending the note a little bit more each time he plays it. As Botti draws more and more fire from his horn, the crowd shows their appreciation in full. But on this night, after drawing in a huge breath and extending the note for an infinite amount of time, Botti stops mid-blast and quips:
“Is that all you’ve got?”
Apparently we are not showing the man enough love. This draws an exalted cheer from the crowd, and Botti continues the note for some time more. Once complete, the out of breath performer stands aside as the band launches into…
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE: It is during the first few notes of this tune – my favorite Botti track – that I begin to take notice of the fact that Billy Child’s piano is situated at such and angel that his bench is nearly off the edge of the stage. One wrong move on Childs’ part and off the stage he will tumble. Fortunately, he will not have far to fall as the stage is barely three feet in height. The problem will be that if he does fall, he will tumble directly onto a table full of patron’s beer and wine glasses! The song itself is magical, Child’s tinkering away and Mr. Billy Kilson thundering through the licks. Unfortunately, because of the way the stage is configured, I cannot see more that a few inches of the top of Kilson’s head as he bops up and down on the far left side of the stage, but I am comforted at the fact that I have seen him work his magic a few times before. Let the others here who have not had the chance to enjoy Kilson’s antics partake of the fun. And what fun it is. The relaxed vibe that Botti began on AVE MAIRA continues to grow during WHEN I FALL, and towards the middle of the song, I glance around the venue to see more than a few heads swaying – and more than a few feet taping - to the beat. The sound level is creeping desperately close to unbearable as the band is pounding away and the acoustics in this tight space are amplifying the sound exponentially, but the group never pushes it beyond what is tolerable. As the song builds toward its thunderous conclusion, I catch a glance of a woman at the front table, directly in front of where Botti will stand throughout the show. This woman is easily in her eighties. White haired and slouched slightly forward in her seat, wearing a short-sleeved baggy shirt and glasses, the woman is nonetheless grinning from ear to ear. The ear splitting noise from the band does not seem to be fazing her in the least… in fact; it seems to be energizing her. She bops her head up and down and claps her curled hands together in joyous appreciation throughout the entire song. What a joy it is to see such pleasure being wrought, and Botti smiles to the woman more than once. The song over, the woman makes an attempt to stand but fails. No matter as her joy is obvious. Her attitude seems to infect Botti as he steps to the microphone for the first of many introductions…
CARUSO: Botti takes the mic and welcomes the crowd to the Ram’s Head. He explains that he loves Annapolis so much, and that he and the band love visiting this “postcard” town. He then proceeds into the “Guggenheim Fellowship award winning piano player Billy Childs” introduction, which draws some amazement and large applause from the audience. Botti then plays CARUSO, mentioning his LIVE IN BOSTON CD prior to doing so. Though not my favorite Botti song, on this night – as with the first two songs – Botti infuses the song with a cool vibe that seeps into the audience through our pores. Botti swivels left and right in order to give all in attendance a good view of his finger work, and even he takes notice of the limited space surrounding him. Botti cannot walk more that a few paces and he is at the edge of the stage. This does not deter him from working the song to its fullest potential, however, and as the song ends, half of the crowd stands and cheers… quickly followed by the rest. Botti smiles and grabs the mic once again, explaining the history behind…
FLAMENCO SKETCHES: Botti explains that the band – which will play two shows tomorrow night in addition to the two shows today – are enjoying a day off on either side of the two day stint at this venue, and because of this, they have had time to enjoy the city of Annapolis. He further explains that earlier in the day, he and Childs were walking the streets of Annapolis when they stumbled into a local coffee shop. Once inside, they discovered a young trumpet player who “really has the gift.” Botti describes how he and Childs were so impressed with this newcomer, that they invited the thirty-something kid to join them on stage this very evening! Can you imagine playing for change in a local coffee shop when Chris Botti walks up to you and invites you to play a gig with him? Outstanding! So Botti introduces Justin Kisor, and explains that the man’s older brother is also an accomplished trumpet player. Botti steps aside as the young man walks on stage to a thunderous standing ovation. Botti starts the five chord, no melody song and plays an extended solo before stepping aside to allow bassist Robert Hurst some time in the spotlight. I must admit that I am not a fan of the bass solo, however, as with the previous songs, the relaxed vibe takes over and the solo starts to bump and grind into me. Slapping and thumping his way through the solo, Hurst bops his head along with the elderly woman at the front of the stage. Soon it is time for the newcomer, and when he lifts his horn to his mouth, the kid blows the roof off the joint. I hate to say this, but for his portion of the song, Kisor is actually better than Botti! I say that only in the sense that Kisor sounds more like Miles Davis than Botti does, and for this song the tone is more appropriate. That is not to say that Botti is not rocking the song, but Kisor is the living embodiment of Davis during his turn at the mic. As the newcomer plays through his turn, Botti creeps into the shadows near our table – stepping off the stage to get around Childs and back on stage against the back wall - to watch the fun unfold. When Kisor completes his time out front, the crowd again rises and we cheer as a sea of smiling faces envelopes the young newcomer. Then he and Botti – who has snuck back on stage - share the mic for the final portion of the song, leading the band towards the finish line and matching each other note for note. One final flourish from Kisor brings the house down, and he stands triumphant side by side with Botti. Botti then grabs the mic and begins the introduction for…
EMMANUEL: Botti begins his introduction in the same fashion as always, describing how he and the band flew to Italy for a one night stand at a wedding. He explains the “wine glass through the hand” incident during which Lucia Micarelli injured her hand, and I begin to tune out the story as I have heard it twice before. I am assuming that Botti will introduce one of the “stand in” violinist for this evening’s show, when I suddenly pick up the thread again as Botti is saying something about…
“… and she has had several months of therapy, and when she heard that we were playing here tonight, she insisted that she not miss playing in Annapolis. So she is here tonight to perform with us for the first time since that night! Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back… Lucia Micarelli!”
I am awe struck at the notion that Micarelli is rejoining the band after her huge success on David Simon’s TREME, but lo and behold here she is gliding through the crowd in a glittering maroon sequined gown. I am hit with the fact that she is much more petit in person that I realized; my only other time seeing her was from the back row of the theatre in Harrisburg last April, so I really could not judge her size. She is a small creature, but one with a large stage presence. We rise to our feet, some clearly in the same group of fans as I am, and we welcome the lady back to her rightful place on stage next to Botti. The two then perform the most moving, most intimate, most loving version of the song imaginable. When Botti plays, Micarelli gazes at him intently, and when Micarelli plays, Botti stares at her intensely. I am struck by the thought – crude as I hope this does not sound – that the two have shared more than a stage. There is just something about the way they look at each other. Who knows. Either way, the song is romantic and lustful, tender and caressing. And when it is done, we all applaud as though it were our first time hearing it. Micarelli leaves the stage after a long hug from Botti, and he brings on the next guest… not that any could follow Micarelli. But the next song needs a vocalist, and Botti invites Nicki Richards to the stage to perform…
GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE: The lady slinks on stage and stands slightly shorter than Botti in a black dress and heels. As the song begins, I am not that impressed with her voice. She is certainly no Sy Smith. But as she warms to the crowd – and we to her – Richards belts out some stellar notes, turning HEARTACHE into a jazzy rendition worthy of our appreciation. And we give it in spades. Richards remains on stage after a bit of confusion as to whether she should stay or she should go, and the band uses her again on…
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU: This tune provides Richards with even more opportunity to show off her lung capacity as she belts out soulful notes of love lost and love found, and by the end of the song, I am duly impressed as Richards has won over not only me but the entire Ram’s Head crowd. Botti thanks his guest and announces that he will be singing CD's in the lobby post-show. I smile to my wife and point to the two items which I have had carefully preserved for just that moment. Richards takes her bows and leave quickly so that Botti can introduce the thunderous, pounding, rocking Mr. Billy Kilson on the drums for…
INDIAN SUMMER: Though I cannot see any of what Kilson does on this song, I can feel it. Oh man can I feel it. I am one of many – Grandmom in the front seat included – who begin slapping our thighs, bopping our heads, tapping our fingers or stomping our feet as Mr. Billy Kilson takes control of the song. As his lengthy solo increases in intensity, Botti once again slips around Childs and hangs out at the back wall of the stage in order to enjoy Kilson’s hard work. And on this evening, Kilson works his way through an aerobic workout of epic proportions. Not to be outdone, guitarist Mark Whitefield jumps into the mix and provides some of the best licks I have heard from him to date. And of course, last but not least, it really is Botti’s show to steal. But without stealing any of Kilson’s thunder, Botti plays his heart out until the noise in the tavern is equal parts music and cheers. The song really does bring the house to their feet, and Botti takes a moment to bask in it before re-introducing Lucia Micarelli for…
CINEMA PARIDISO: I am a bit surprised that this song is how Botti chooses to end the evening, but that is not to say I am disappointed. The song is beautiful, with the interplay between Botti and Micarelli as moving as in their previous time together. Although the track is a bit down tempo for a concert-ender, the crowd is relishing in the work that the two artists are putting out, and we show our appreciation once the last notes ring out. The crowd then begins their departure, and I mention to my wife that the show was very short this evening. Botti only played nine songs, and the total running time was less than ninety minutes. But we both agree that with this being the second show of the night, who can blame the guy? Besides, Botti crammed a lot of passion into those nine songs. My wife heads to the ladies room and I jump in the short line for autographs. Most of the patrons are leaving the venue altogether, choosing (for whatever reason) to skip the meet-and-greet session. But a few of us stay behind, and I find myself in a prime spot to meet the man once again. Now if only my wife would hurry up...
THE MEET AND GREET: There is, of course, no need to panic. My only concern is that she will miss the chance to speak to Chris about something that she has wanted to say to him for a few months. As I have mentioned, my father-in-law passed in early February of this year. The Chris Botti concert in November was his last concert, and he raved about it for weeks after. I had asked my wife while driving to the show tonight if she wanted to say anything to Chris about this, and she told me (much to my surprise) that she felt strongly that she would. I say to my surprise because my wife is quite shy around people she does not know (ie: celebrities - not that we have met that many!) and I was sure that she would prefer I speak for her. But as I take a moment to ponder this meeting, up walks my wife from her brief respite. She joins me in line just as Chris appears. He has changed into jeans and a zip-up sweater and looks a bit spent. But he is smiling. On our first two meetings, I was too shy to ask for a picture, but not on this night. Camera ready, items in hand, we approach the man. My wife takes the lead, handing Chris the booklet for his DECEMBER CD, and he takes it and begins to sign. She speaks softly as there are others within earshot, and these words are just for Chris:
"I have to tell you, we went to your show in November in Hershey and we brought my parents..."
Chris is still signing, head down. He completes the CD and I hand him the DVD cover from his 2001 LIVE WITH ORCHESTRA AND SPECIAL GUESTS release. I have brought a silver Sharpie for him to use as his typical black marker will not show up on the DVD cover. My wife pauses as I hand Chris the silver marker and ask:
"Would you mind signing it with this?"
Chris smiles and obliges politely. My wife continues:
"Well, that turned out to be my dad's last concert..."
Chris stops cold and looks up at her.
"I wanted you to know that he raved about that show for weeks after. He said it was the best concert he had ever seen."
Chris looks stunned and - for a moment - speechless. He composes himself and speaks:
"Wow, I am so sorry to hear about your father... but thank you so much for sharing that with me."
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that Chris Botti is nearly crying. His words are short but heartfelt and he pauses for a moment to look at my wife. I take the moment to speak a bit myself:
"It really was his best concert. I wrote about that show on your website Forum."
Chris smiles and hands me the DVD. He makes no comment about the review on his Forum. Perhaps he has seen it, perhaps not. We smile and step to the side to wait our turn for a pic. (The manager with Chris has asked that those wanting pictures please wait until the line thins.) We do not wait long. The manager asks if we are ready, my wife hands him our camera and we move in on either side of Chris. I look at Chris and say:
"We are going to see you again in November at the Meyerhoff. Thank you so much for doing this... it means the world to me."
I am referring to Chris taking in what my wife has said, and taking the time to pose with us. Chris puts his arms around the two of us, leans in close, we smile and...
And then to top off an already stellar night, Chris turns to my wife, looks at her with heartfelt eyes and says:
"Thanks again for sharing that story about your father. Best of luck to both of you."
We walk away arm in arm. Smiling. Behind us, we hear more fans lining up for their chance to meet the man. We hear more laughter, more smiling and more camera clicks. I glance over my shoulder as we depart and see Chris signing more items. Just another night for the world's hardest working jazz man. But not another night for us. This night was our best Botti experience yet.
THE SET LIST:
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE
FLAMENCO SKETCHES – FEATURING JUSTIN KISOR
EMMANUEL – FEATURING LUCIA MICARELLI
GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE-FEATURING NICKI RICHARDS
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU – FEATURING NICKI RICHARDS
CINEMA PARIDISO- FEATUING LUCIA MICARELLI
The signed items: