If you’ve never experienced The Cabin Down Below Band, you quite literally don’t know what you’re missing. My advice? Remedy this error as soon as is possible! This week I got my chance to do just that with a night to remember: Petty Fest’s first ever stop in San Francisco! The evening was hosted by the aforementioned brilliant band, sponsored by the generous Jameson, and boasted a line-up well worth dragging one’s self out on a “school night” for: Boz Scaggs, Nick Valensi of the Strokes, Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, Lucinda Williams, Jon Heder, Aimee Mann, and Matt Sorum, to highlight just a few…
The evening began when The Cabin Down Below Band performed “Cabin Down Below,” naturally. I watched from my perch in the corner of the balcony nearest the stage, awed already by the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at the Fillmore (and I’m no stranger to this venue) – to call it “sold out” seems less than accurate, somehow. Anyway, the place was positively packed. As little clouds of pot smoke began to waft up to me, the night got underway with an introduction from the band, explaining they were from NYC and it was their first San Francisco show, which band member Austin Scaggs (Boz’s son) called a “beautiful thing,” before adding that they had surprise guests in store that would “blow your effing mind.” Up first: Har Mar Superstar joined the band to perform a rockin’ “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Equally impressive was the man’s ability to continue singing while doing a headstand, and then follow it up with an awesome rump-shaking display. That was some entertainment!
The next guest was Jack Dishel from the band Only Son, who played “The Waiting (is the Hardest Part),” followed by Danny Masterson and Adam Busch from the TV show Men at Work. Danny played and Adam sang lead on “Into the Great Wide Open,” after which one of the CDBB members told the crowd, “we hear you guys singing along – it’s music to our ears!” Matt Sorum from Velvet Revolver (previously of Guns N Roses), a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, came out next with fiancee Ace Harper for “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” Forgive me for sounding like such a girl, but what a cute couple these two are: a legendary rocker and the adorable fiancee clad in red patent leather stilettos, tiny tee and leather pants? (She sang back-up too, on nearly every song he played drums on!)
The next guest, we were told, was “on a leave of absence,” while most of his “brethren are in the Vatican city trying to decide the next pope.” The witty and delightful Father Guido Sarducci took to the stage, explaining that he’d planned to show us a whole lovely slideshow of Southern Italy, but that Tom Petty was to bring the slide projector…and somehow, it had never showed. He went on to sing “Southern Accents,” of course, and at one point even pulled a slide from his pocket and tried to describe the picture to the crowd, carrying the joke a bit further. As he left, the band applauded him, joking that he was “the next pope!” Up next came Paul Sprangers from a “great young band” Free Energy for “Learning to Fly,” followed by Ruby & Dakota singing “To Find a Friend.”
An early highlight in the evening (for me, at least) was the next performer: Ewan Currie, the lead singer of the fantastic band The Sheep Dogs was “all the way from Saskatoon!” to sing the shit out of “I Won’t Back Down,” made even better by Matt Sorum on the drums (with Ace Harper again adding to back-up vocals). I admit, I’d forgotten about this band, and now I’m looking forward to checking out their eponymous album later today – they’re phenomenal! At this point, I noted (and I think it’s important enough to share with anyone reading) that I honestly have never heard anyone sound so close to the classic Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers) sound as The Cabin Down Below Band does – they really get it, and the tribute sound is perfect. They’re really great!
Next came another surprise, heralded as an actor in “two of the funniest movies ever made – Blades of Glory and Napoleon Dynamite,” the excellent Jon Heder joined the band for “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” As you might expect, the crowd got into it right away, chanting the “hey!”s before Heder even began singing the song. He pointed to the crowd, and then to himself, a wordless question: would they catch him if attempted to crowdsurf? They cheered, but ultimately the answer was…not exactly. It didn’t work out as it should have, so his fall was broken, but he mostly landed standing among them, and quickly returned to the stage to finish the song. After, the CDBB took a moment to remind us all that we were there for two reasons: 1) to celebrate Tom Petty, and 2) to raise money for a great charity called Sweet Relief, which provides financial assistance to musicians without health insurance. Every penny from the evening was donated to the charity, thanks to the evening’s hospitable sponsor, Jameson Irish Whiskey.
Next came “new friends of the Fest,” Ethan Miller and Isaiah Mitchell from San Francisco’s Howlin’ Rain to cover an “old nasty cut:” “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like it).” What fantastic energy vocalist Ethan Miller had – that’s my kind of performer! After a little breather, the next performer was “kind enough to come up from LA to sing,” and was “the one, the only” Aimee Mann. She sang “You Don’t Know How it Feels” with a great harmonica solo from the band, and as it ended someone explained, “Aimee gets to do two.” The song that followed was “Even the Losers,” and then straight from Noise Pop, Jenny O. took the stage for “Time to Move On.” Austin announced that the “next guest is a bad ass,” and as I saw him walk onstage, I nodded in agreement. “The wonderful and talented” Butch Walker joined the band for a marvelous cover of “Breakdown” – another personal highlight for me of the evening, as Butch is every bit the musical bad ass.
“We only met the next guest a few days ago, but we love him very much,” one of the Cabin Down Below guys explained. As Chuck Prophet joined the band, he told the crowd that he was “trying to remember the first time” he ever heard the song, and was delighted to realize that it had been “right here in this very room!” The song was “Swingin’,” and was wonderful. After pausing again to check on the audience and thank the charity and sponsor, the band welcomed a local talent that “sold out the Fillmore themselves…they don’t need our help!” They were Two Gallants, and I’m still wondering if they were stopping in on their way home from an ugly sweater party. At any rate, they proposed they’d like to “bring it down a little bit,” and make it “nice and romantic,” with both a harmonica and a tambourine. The crowd did even quiet down a little for “A Thing about You,” which was lovely.
I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I caught the name of the next performer. I think it was Jody Porter of Fountains of Wayne, but I might be wrong. (Correct me in the comments if I am!) The song, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” was great, anyway. After taking a moment to introduce the individual members of the Cabin Down Below Band, they were joined by Ryan Miller from Guster who said, “I’m at church, at the Fillmore!” He led the band in a great version of “It’s Good to Be King,” followed by “two of the most talented musicians in San Francisco:” Tim and Nicki Bluhm, whose version of “You Got Lucky” was awesome, and another favorite from the evening. “Pretty good, huh?” Austin Scaggs asked. “Told you!” There were a lot more songs, he explained. “You guys ready? It’s like a Grateful Dead concert in here…endless!” And so it was, but no one seemed to mind.
Next came Catherine Pierce, “half of The Pierces” from LA. Catherine was joined (for part of the song, anyway) by Jenny O., and her cover of “Last Dance with Mary Jane” was one I’d quite like to put on my iPhone to run to…excellent! Matt Sorum returned again to the drum kit, Ace Harper to a back-up mic, and the band was “honored to bring out our next guest,” saying they’d been “listening to him our whole lives” and calling him an “amazing dude.” Without further ado, they brought out Tom Johnston from the Doobie Brothers for “Refugee.” “A Doobie Brother and a Velvet Revolver playing together…” someone remarked from the stage. “How often do you see that?!”
The next guest, we were told, had “been with us through thick and thin, since the start about ten years ago,” from NYC, Jesse Malin. “This is the best! You guys ready to do this right now?” He asked the audience, who cheered in response. “I Need to Know” was his song, and he jumped down into the crowd to rock out with them for a moment – his energy was contagious, and he was definitely fun to watch. “We promised a couple of surprises,” Austin explained. “It is my honor to say the next guest is one of the greatest songwriters alive or dead, male or female… it’s my honor and pleasure to introduce to the Fillmore… Miss Lucinda Williams!!” She took the stage to great applause and fanfare, to which she answered “y’all are so sweet!” (She’s adorable!) “How much talent can you cram into one life?” She asked, and then: “can we give it up, please, for the band?” She then led them in singing “Rebels,” and I couldn’t help but notice that she’s the consummate professional. During the song, she was clearly frustrated over some kind of miscommunication with one of the guitar players, yet she never missed a beat, and her performance was flawless. Between the song and the one that followed, the discussion between the two didn’t seem to soothe her much, but they proceeded to her second song nonetheless. It was a Lucinda song, but it was deemed acceptable “because Tom Petty covered it.” They asked for a little help, and were joined by Austin’s dad Boz Scaggs. The song? “Changed the Locks. Before she left the stage, Lucinda took a moment to profess that she believed in “socialized medicine: everyone has a right to medical care. It shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right!” Her declaration was met by mostly applause, though I definitely heard a few boos as well. Who knew?
Boz remained on stage to sing one as well, “You Wreck Me,” which was a great little “father and son duet,” said one of the other members of the band. “Let’s give it up for Tom Petty! All night long!” Boz stayed for the next song, too, which was sung by Nick Valensi of the Strokes, and was “Honey Bee,” featuring a great jam at the end. As Matt Sorum returned to the drums (sans fiancee this time), Boz Scaggs left the stage amid much applause, but this time Nick stayed for another as well: “American Girl,” with CDBB’s drummer on the tambourine, which was perfect, and featured another great little jam session, and was the end of the regular set. After a final round of thanks to all the sponsors, the charity, the fillmore, the crowd, etc, the band filed off the stage and the cheering and clapping from the crowd who knew what was missing began. I saw a few people head for the doors, but most knew an encore was inevitable, and either way, the rule of thumb is “don’t leave till the lights come on!” Sure enough, the band returned, inviting back all the evening’s guests to do a fantastic version of “Free Fallin'” to end the show and the evening.
What a way to introduce San Francisco to Petty Fest! I’d never had a chance to go before, and now I’m looking forward to the next time. Normally, I get a bit antsy when shows go three hours. Not this time…I left with my ears ringing happily, a list of albums I wanted to check out in my pocket, and a little bit of a light head, likely from an overwhelming night of great tunes and good fun. But of course, it might’ve been a bit of a contact high…