Sometime back in 2019, I stumbled upon a video of Jesse Malin’s “Broken Radio” with an able assist by Bruce Springsteen. I was stunned by it. Who is this kid, I wondered? I didn’t know the timeline of it and I had never heard of him. When a new song comes around that rearranges my molecules, I could care less if it’s by someone who has been around for 50 years or 50 minutes. I did what I normally do when this happens. I sample and search to see what else he’s got. Is this a one hit wonder kid or the real deal. I don’t spend a lot of time deciding if I love a song or not. I can sample an entire album in minutes and know if I’m going for the whole thing or just a few songs. Either way is fine with me. I am a lyrically oriented music lover. If the words don’t catch me, all the catchy tunes in the world won’t keep me around. Jesse did not disappoint. That perfectly simple phrase “raised on robbery and rock and roll” from Broken Radio instantly captured my imagination and took me back to the glory or not so glory days of my youth in the Bronx. A picture show of people paraded through my mind; some friends, some lovers, one an ex- husband. I then sent “Broken Radio” to a few of my favorite ears, getting the exact reaction from them I knew I would.
I quickly made my way through the “Fine Art of Self-Destruction” album and forked over my ITUNES Christmas gift card for the proud ownership of “Queen of the Underworld” and “Cigarettes and Violets”, brilliant diamonds amongst the glittering gem of the rest of that perfect album. I do confess to this day I keep calling it Cigarettes and Violence for reasons not quite known. There’s such a poignant cleverness in his songwriting, that in less competent hands would sound contrived. He never does. Jesse can fly between a heartbreaking ballad like “The Dreamers” and a jump pumping rocker like “Turn Up the Mains”, with the greatest of ease. Who is this guy? I have to see him live.
Fast forward to pre-pandemic 2020 and finally Jesse is playing in Los Angeles. Back then my calendar had about a six month horizon of plays and concerts and I just couldn’t make the Hotel Café or the Roxy shows. I was bummed. I knew he was playing Europe after that, but there were already two possible trips on that horizon: Pearl Jam in Paris and a Dylanfest on the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland, all blown away in the wind, of course, thanks to the pandemonial pandemic to come. I started following him on Instagram, where the politics are more polite. He started doing shows from his apartment after the tour interruptus he suffered in England. They were great, but I soon came to dislike anything streamed unless it was a small body of water. I live for live music and this just wasn’t my cup of tea. My little SSSH shows (Sunday Song Story Hours) ended on March 15, 2020 with a few brave souls who came out that night to my house/venue. The rest donated their refunds, making the running joke that night that I was officially Max Bialystock, making more money with this “flop” of a show, even though that last SSSH show was pretty special. Little we did we know it would take over a fourteen months before I could do it again. But I digress.
In the quarantine months to come, Malin moved his show to a really cool basement with a masked band and a new live stream partner named Rolling Live Studios. I bought a ticket and fell in lyrical love all over again. For this I could sit in front of my TV screen and not fidget for 90 minutes. The quality of the RLS crew was top notch and it showed in these broadcasts.
Somewhere along this pandemic paved road, out came his new album Sunset Kids. In these days of dropping a song here and a song there, like some demented musical game of Hansel and Gretel, this album was perfection from start to finish. For me, I don’t care how many chords you play, if you don’t strike the genuine chord, my ears disappear.
Fast forward to March of this year and Jesse announces a European tour and I think, what city can I fly to that won’t kill me? I pick Leeds, a place I wanted to visit and for the sheer of fun of telling folks, I’m seeing him Live at Leeds. Who knew we would be sent back to the COVID bad manners chair again. I cancelled the trip, but not the tickets, when I heard Jesse was coming back to the Hotel Café. I bought two tickets for my Leeds girl in San Diego and I. Happenstance made her cancel on the day before and I was too exhausted to head up there after another day of COVID vaccine pushing. I saw on Instagram that night that he was also doing a special acoustic set with an interview at a record label sort of store called Here We Are in Studio City that would be live streamed by Rolling Live Studios and that you could enter a contest to be in the store live. You had to do two things; tag someone on IG and then do this weird thing about sharing it to your story, which I still don’t have a clue what they are talking about. So I tagged my San Diego girl, since she’s never on IG and Bronx girl that I am, figured it would keep one less person from entering. The next morning, I get a message from Rolling Live that I won. I immediately got on the annoying TEAMS chat at work and told my supervisor that something came up and I had to take the afternoon off. Hey, at least I didn’t pull the “my grandmother died” routine like I did a few times when I worked for Customs.
I was thrilled, and not even the thought of the colossally annoying schlep up the 405 freeway on a Friday afternoon could give me second thoughts. I was so bummed after seeing some video that I had missed the Hotel Café show. This more than made up for that. There are not enough superlatives, without buying a Thesaurus, to say how great a show it was. It was fun seeing Jesse up close and personal first, in an interview with Matt Pinnfield, telling stories of his musical journey and disclosing his age which made my jaw drop. I thought he was a lot younger. Jesse talked about his latest song, “Tall Black Horses” from his new double album, “Sad and Beautiful World” to be released next month. He has carried that song around for years. He said that songs are never born before their time and when the time is right something he wrote years ago can crystalize in a way that says, “now, now I’m ready to make my debut”. And yet, he is just as adept at cranking out a song born of expedient necessity like he did with his single, “Ameri’ Ka”, released on October 28, 2020. It depicts the current state of our fragile republic complete with images of the toppled statutes of our troubled past. Its swaying rhythmic elegance is so subtly beautiful against the backdrop of rejecting that brutal legacy. Another one of my favorites.
It was a night I’ll never forget. Derek Cruz on the piano and guitar is as good accompaniment as you can get. Between the new album coming out and his extended body of work, he treated us to a perfect mix of shiny new song pennies and vintage Jesse. I was in musical heaven getting to see the performance from the de rigueur six feet distance, rather than miles away in the back of a crowded club. Now the question is what to do with my Stone Pony tickets next month?