JD and the Straight Shot would probably self-identify as an Americana band, but what they really play is something rarer, stranger and more complex: CEO rock.
Strictly judging their work as music, “Americana” is a subgenre anyone watching the band open for Don Henley at the Xcel Energy Center last night would feel comfortable putting them in: twangy guitars, fiddles, songs about the Old Weird America, mandolin solos, and that sort of thing. If you happened across JD and the Straight Shot at the back of Dulono’s on a weekday night, you’d think Well, this is very professionally played Americana music, what with the twangy guitars, fiddles, songs about the Old Weird America, mandolin solos, and that sort of thing. Then you’d get back to your cheese sticks and beer and think nothing more about it.
The thing is, you would never see JD and the Straight Shot in the back of Dulono’s, or indeed in any venue that seats fewer than 15,000 people. JD and the Straight Shot cannot be judged strictly by musical criteria, owing to one major, major, major proviso. “JD” is James Dolan, who was, for many years, the CEO of Cablevision, and is also the longtime Executive Chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the Knicks and the Rangers. He is reputed to be worth $1.5 billion. He has leveraged this enormous wealth to hire the greatest side musicians available to accompany him on a wide-ranging tour around the arenas of the United States, opening for musicians he idolized as a young man, playing songs he’s co-written.
He is, basically, doing the exact same thing you would do if you were a CEO and had $1.5 billion. Yeah, I know, you’d do some great philanthropic work. Me, too. However, I would also hire Lenny Kaye and Janet Weiss and make them tour the country with me playing ’60s garage rock covers in the great American ballparks. You probably would, too. (I mean, not that specifically, but whatever your personal equivalent of hiring Lenny Kaye and Janet Weiss to be your personal live karaoke band is.)
It is with this information in mind that we must judge JD and the Straight Shot by the shakier and more arcane precepts of yet another subgenre, that of CEO rock.
CEO rock -- defined by most music critics as “rock music made by the CEOs of major corporations” -- is perhaps the least-understood sub-genre in the canon. It is perhaps the most arcane in terms of sales: Even Dolan, the most successful CEO rock musician in the world by some measure, sold only 113 copies of his latest record. I knew dudes who played in noise bands back home who burned their albums onto CDs individually and spray-painted handmade cardboard jackets and broke up because their Econoliner van stopped running and their singer got into grad school who sold more than 113 CDs. That’s getting into Jandek territory. That’s getting into a profile so low that, in terms of selling power and radio play, it has more in common with outsider music, Mrs. Miller-style novelty performers, well-known buskers, undergraduate art projects, and mail-order song-poem recordings than Led Zeppelin.
And yet, here we are on a Sunday night, JD and the Straight Shot opening for Don Henley at the Xcel Energy Center for a far-from-capacity and lightly baffled crowd. Thousand upon thousands more people have heard JD and the Straight Shot since 2005 than have heard America’s 60 most essential power pop revival acts combined.
“I heard some guy ask offstage, ‘Who they hell are they?’” Dolan said as he took the stage, pre-empting any smartasses in the audience who might have been asking themselves the same question. For the rest of his set, he’ll do a delicate balancing act, taking cracks at self-deprecation that seem well-intentioned until you realize they only make sense when you know who he is, which is a phenomenally wealthy CEO.
Of course, Dolan is not going to tell you who he is, other than the leader of a band called the Straight Shot. He half-answered his own question: “Well, we don’t expect you to know who we are.” And with that, he and a crack band of Nashville pros played one of his original songs. They sounded great. His drummer, Sean Pelton, has been in the house band at Saturday Night Live for a decade. His bassist, Byron House, played with Robert Plant and Dolly Parton. His fiddle player, Erin Slaver, has played with everybody.
What did Dolan sound like? Well, he sounded a lot like a CEO who wanted to sing roots rock. No better or no worse, perhaps, than whatever name might come up if you randomly opened an issue of Forbes and pointed your finger at the page. William F. Buckley once quipped he’d rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. This is sort of the musical inverse of that: There were at least 200 people in attendance at the Xcel Energy Center last night who could have done an equally acceptable job on vocals.
There’s something almost quaint about a CEO chasing rock stardom in 2017. If you infiltrated the dreams of the wealthiest CEOs in America, you’d find a landscape of TED Talk stages stretching into infinity, each slumbering CEO sipping a bottle of water and pointing at a slide in the depths of their subconscious. Rock bands are off-brand: CEOs are into wellness and philanthropy and free laptops for kids. As for most rock stars – whatever that term means anymore – they’d most likely be happier being CEOs. Like, does Bono sit around thinking of how to write the next “Beautiful Day,” or does he dream about vertical integration and cross-platform synergy?
And Dolan is a sort of charismatic stage presence, in the way you might expect a successful CEO to be. It’s probably the first time at a rock show I thought, “Gee, I’d like to see this dude run a board meeting.” He razzes his underlings. He gives it up for them and everyone gets their moment. He makes boss jokes that seem self-deprecating at first but don’t really hold up to scrutiny. He tells rambling, weird parables that you feel like you’re missing the point of, but had better pay attention to anyway. He runs offstage to “change personas” and re-emerges in a Marc Bolan top hat, sunglasses, and scarf to discourse in a Dr. John rasp about the history of sideshows in rural America. You’ve had bosses like this. Not bad bosses, necessarily. Just the sort of weird, intense ones really wrapped up in their own thing, and you kind of go along, half out of a vague sense of interest, and half out of economic necessity. The bosses who were more Michael Scott than David Brent.
There were a couple of times Dolan made references to movies his songs appeared in – notably, “Violet’s Song” from August Osage County. There must have been people in the audience thinking, “Huh? This guy’s songs were in a Meryl Streep movie?” But he introduced them saying, in a very aw-shucks sort of way, “Sometimes they put our songs in movies.”
The word “they” is very curious here. Dolan knows who “they” are, and maybe you do, too, if you’ve got the full backstory. But there’s a big part of the sentiment banking on the listener not thinking about who “they” are, and why “they” might have used a song in a particular movie, or why “they” have made it possible for this group to play for thousands of people before Don Henley goes on. That’s the essential struggle that animates the CEO rock subgenre. It’s the kind of cognitive dissonance and tortured relationship to authenticity and economic reality that excites the true fans of the genre.
If you’re down for parsing this with the diehards, get in line: You’re #114.