About Jon Chaisson

Writer, obsessed music listener and collector, okay bassist and guitarist, hoopy frood. Questionable logical circuits, but he gets by.

Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra (Part IV)

The official reformation of ELO came in 2000 when Jeff Lynne worked on creating the box set Flashback, a three-disc retrospective covering the entirety of their career and including a number of unreleased rarities. It also included a new version of the song “Xanadu”, formerly a 1980 single with Olivia Newton-John on vocals. This is the one you want if you’re looking for a great selection with the addition of excellent deep cuts as well.

Lynne would follow this up in 2001 with the first new ELO album proper since 1986 entitled Zoom. This was essentially an all-new lineup (although original keyboardist Richard Tandy does show up on a track) and included many guest musicians, including Ringo Starr and George Harrison. Though it was not a chart hit, their fans did indeed welcome them back, especially as they did tour for this record. Also in 2001, Lynne worked again with Harrison on his final album recorded shortly before his death, Brainwashed. He would honor his friend’s passing in November 2002 at the Concert for George.

Lynne however went quiet for the rest of the decade, focusing instead on a major remaster/rerelease project of all of ELO’s studio albums via the Harvest and Epic Legacy labels. Many of these contained extra tracks, including outtakes, b-sides, and unreleased songs. Several best-of compilations were also released over the years, many of them unfortunately so similar in tracking to the point of redundancy that they’re interchangeable.

But in 2012, Lynne okayed a new collection called Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, in which his best songs have been rerecorded mostly on his own. While this could have been a throwaway, or done as a song ownership/copyright measure, this was purely done out of Lynne listening to some of his own classics and realizing he improve on them, now that he had better technology. The end result is a twelve-track curio that might not be essential, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

This led to several live shows and a new interest in ELO’s music, and a few years later in 2015, Lynne reformed the band once more, this time under the moniker Jeff Lynne’s ELO, and set about recording completely new music. The result was the absolutely stellar Alone in the Universe, a record that perfectly captures their late 70s heyday with dreamy melodies, smart songwriting and even the occasional ‘Beatlesque’ hook. The preview single “When I Was a Boy”, a song (and video) that essentially tells his life’s musical story, and would fit perfectly on Out of the Blue. The album was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and paved the way for a major tour.

The tour itself would include a stay at the Wembley Arena in London, and its June 2017 show would be filmed and recorded for the film and live album Wembley Or Bust. While live albums and films can be hit or miss, this one’s very entertaining and well worth checking out. [NOTE: This live album was another on heavy rotation during my writing sessions for In My Blue World, and its version of “Xanadu” was the impetus for the story itself.]

Two years later in late 2019, he would follow up with a second album, From Out of Nowhere. This was to be followed up by another world tour, but was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. The record may not have had as much of the lasting strength as the previous studio record had because of that, but it did gain favorable reviews and did hit the top of the charts in the UK.

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ELO has received many honors over the years including their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017; and in 2020, Jeff Lynne himself was honored an OBE for his contribution to music. And now in 2021, many online streaming services are celebrating the band’s fiftieth anniversary with several new unique playlists to enjoy (including one playful set featuring songs that use the vocoder!) and rereleases to buy.

This band may sometimes be dismissed as cheesy and dated, too much of a late-era Beatles clone, or worse, but they have a long and extremely broad legacy to back them up. Their songs have been covered, sampled, riffed, used in soundtracks, and their classical-meets-pop style has inspired many other bands past and present. And the Birmingham boy with the guitar, the shades, the falsetto, and the unruly poof of dark and curly hair is instantly recognizable to everyone. They’ve inspired so many musicians that critics will describe some songs as having an “ELO style”. They’ve been around for a lifetime, but their songs are ageless and amazing.

Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra (Part III)

ELO effectively broke up in July of 1986 once Jeff Lynne’s contractual obligations were over, and he spent the next several years working closely with many of his musical friends as a producer. His biggest project was with ex-Beatle George Harrison on his 1987 comeback album Cloud Nine. George himself hadn’t released a record in five years (the last being 1982’s meandering Gone Troppo) and what better than to introduce his new sound with someone who knew exactly how his former band sounded? It definitely has Lynne’s signature sound all over it, but it only complements Harrison’s new fresh sound. It was a huge hit and remains a favorite — and its first single “Got My Mind Set On You” still gets occasional airplay. Its second single, a nod to Harrison’s younger years in the Beatles, is a perfect mix of Harrison psychedelia and Lynne dreaminess.

Harrison enjoyed the success of his album and had been planning to record a b-side with a few of his musician friends, including Lynne, but the end result was so fun and radio-friendly that they made a full album together under the name The Traveling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. Lynne and Petty were the youngest in the group and it must have blown their minds to be working so closely with their musical heroes. They would record two records together.

But Lynne was only getting started. He’d also worked with Orbison solo on his Mystery Girl album, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and wrote several songs for others. And in 1990 he released his first solo album, Armchair Theatre, and in 1991 he worked with Petty again with the Heartbreakers album Into the Great Wide Open, which became one of the band’s biggest sellers.

And then he got to work with the Beatles, his favorite band ever.

In 1994, when Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr reconvened to work on the Anthology project, they’d had in mind that they’d record some new music under the hallowed name — the first new music by the band in twenty-five years — and Lynne was a perfect choice. He knew and understood their sound and could co-produce it without stepping on anyone’s shoes, history or egos. The plan was to take three songs that John Lennon had written and recorded in rough demo form in the late 70s, with Yoko Ono’s blessings. Two songs were recorded, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”, and both were huge hits and added to the official discography.

Lynne would keep busy through the rest of the decade continuing his production and songwriting work, with the likes of Tom Jones, Roger McGuinn, Joe Cocker, and Paul McCartney on his Flaming Pie record.

Meanwhile…the rest of the band did not disappear from view. Drummer Bev Bevan, bassist Kelly Groucutt and violintist Mik Kaminski created their own version of the ELO brand with Electric Light Orchestra Part II, with vocals provided by Eric Troyer. While not exactly a chart success, they did retain the classic pop-with-strings ELO sound, and the albums are worth checking out. Bevan would leave the line-up after the second album, but Troyer and Kaminski have continued the project under its new name, The Orchestra, which is still alive and thriving as a touring band.

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Coming soon: Part IV, in which Lynne revives the ELO name once again, with several compilations and new recordings!

Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra (Part II)

…not to be confused with the Lynne-less ELO Part II, led by longtime drummer Bev Bevan, of course…more on that in a few. ANYWAY!

After the middling success of Discovery — while a strong and solid album, many critics felt it was a bit too poppy and dance-friendly — Jeff Lynne and the band were asked to write several songs for what was initially a lower-budget roller-disco movie somewhat inspired by an old classic called Down to Earth, about an otherworldly muse that comes down from the heavens to inspire a down-on-his-luck artist. After several rewrites, the addition of Olivia Newton-John in the muse role and Gene Kelly as the artist’s mentor and friend, Xanadu dropped in late June 1980 as a fun cheeseball summer flick. The movie bombed severely for many reasons (an extremely wobbly script for one, and supremely cheesy effects for another), but its soundtrack, featuring ONJ songs on one side and ELO songs on the other, remains a classic. And yes, it is considered a so-bad-it’s-great cult classic. You’ve got to love the terrible 80s-ness of it all:

…although there is the saving grace of a wonderful Don Bluth-animated sequence!

Regardless of its utter cheesiness, nine-year-old me was utterly obsessed with the movie and the soundtrack. Its magical-girl-from-another-world story fascinated me and even then inspired me to want to write a story like that. It would take me multiple decades to do so, of course, but that was one of the many movies that jumpstarted my interest in writing fiction.

So. What do you do to follow up something like that? Well, you return to your classic prog tendencies and write another concept album, of course! Time was Lynne’s foray into pure science fiction, about a man wakes up to find himself over a hundred years into the future with no way of returning, and trying to make sense of the world he’s been sent to. It’s not a weird album compared to other ELO records, but it definitely stuck out from most other records of the era. It’s not the most popular, but it’s universally loved by many fans. And if anything, it’s got a hell of a great rockin’ first single, “Hold On Tight”.

Its second single, “Twilight”, stalled in the mid-30s on the UK and US charts, but two years later it would reach cult status as the unauthorised soundtrack for the opening animation for DAICON IV, a science fiction convention in Osaka, Japan. [The fledgling animators themselves, including Hideaki Anno of Evangelion fame, would soon create the well-known anime studio Gainax.] This film has become so iconic and popular that in 2005 for the TV version of the popular Densha Otoko (Train Man), the animated opening credits is a nod to the original.

[As I’ve mentioned before, both Xanadu and Time were a major influence and inspiration for my novel In My Blue World. Part of the idea for it came from my melding the two album’s themes together — the magical girl changing fate and the mental strain of time travel — and both albums got significant play while I wrote it. If you are interested, the e-book is available at Smashwords.]

In 1983, Lynne wished to release a double album, but the US label (CBS) nixed the idea and released the one-disc Secret Messages instead. This is a very underrated album in that it doesn’t get nearly as much love as most of ELO’s earlier albums, but it is extremely enjoyable and contains quite a few strong tunes such as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King” and the title song. I highly suggest checking out the 2018 reissue that returns the album to its double-disc original idea and gives it an even stronger flow.

Lynne would then spend the next couple of years working as a producer for other musicians and bands, including Dave Edmunds (including his surprise hit “Slipping Away”), the Everly Brothers and ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, as well as providing music for another quirky film called Electric Dreams, before reconvening with ELO on 1986’s Balance of Power. Essentially a contractual obligation album for his label, it’s not one of their strongest records and is often overlooked due to its slick sound and lack of popular singles, but it does contain the catchy single “Calling America”, which did get considerable airplay regardless.

ELO, for all intents and purposes, disbanded at the end of 1986 after a minor tour. Lynne jumped full-time into music production…and unexpected major success working with one of his childhood heroes on not one but three projects!

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Coming next Tuesday: post-ELO solo and production work, revisiting old classics, and rebuilding the band – twice!

Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra (Part I)

I’ve spoken about this band many times before and I’m sure I’ll do it again, but ELO remains one of my favorite bands from my childhood that Wasn’t The Beatles (well, almost not the Beatles, anyway…heh). And while its singer Jeff Lynne celebrates the band’s 50th anniversary with multiple Apple and Spotify playlists, it’s interesting to see how this band evolved over its long career. And since it is a long career, it’s gonna take a few posts to check it all out!

The idea of ELO was actually not Lynne’s but of singer Roy Wood, who at the time was the leader of The Move. He’d been the one to come up with the idea of mixing strings and classical elements with the rock format, and Lynne was more than delighted to join in on this project. As it happened, Wood only remained for the band’s self-titled 1971 debut (renamed ‘No Answer’ in the US due to a communication misunderstanding) and the mood seems very proggy here, but you can already hear the seeds of Lynne’s ‘Beatlesque’ pop style of songwriting.

Their second album, simply entitled Electric Light Orchestra II and released in 1973 after a significant lineup change, suffered from similar prog meanderings, though it did score a surprise hit with a rocking cover of “Roll Over Beethoven”, featuring a clever insertion of the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Album three, On the Third Day (also from 1973), showed they were almost there. The extended prog ideas were slowly phased out to focus more on tighter and shorter melodies (but not without a few fun forays into classical, including an interesting take on Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”). The single “Showdown”, added to the US editions of the album, ended up breaking them towards a wider mainstream audience.

Now album four, 1974’s Eldorado, was where they really hit their stride. An odd yet extremely entertaining concept album about a daydreamer with an eye-catching cover still from The Wizard of Oz, it features their next big single, “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” which became a rock and pop radio staple. I distinctly remember hearing this on the local AM pop station as a kid. [Also worth checking out is one of my favorite ELO deep cuts, “Mister Kingdom”, which ended up being the song I used as Krozarr’s theme in In My Blue World.]

They followed it up one year later with Face the Music in 1975, and by this time Lynne and the band had perfected their odd hybrid and started having numerous hit singles and radio hits through the rest of the decade.

In 1976 they dropped A New World Record, which sounded even more Beatlesque than anything else they’d done previously. Gorgeous ballads like “Telephone Line” hinted at McCartney’s best on Abbey Road, “Livin’ Thing” hinted at the complex experimentation of Sgt Pepper, and the silly yet fun “Rockaria!” harkened back to the hard-rocking covers of Beatles for Sale.

And then, in 1977, they dropped their double album opus, Out of the Blue, which many still consider to be their crowning achievement. It featured several hit singles, it was a multi-platinum seller, and it even features a weather-themed four-song concerto! There are so many famous and well-loved songs on this one that if you had to buy only one ELO record, this would definitely be the one. [This was one of two of their albums that influenced and inspired my novel In My Blue World. The title of the novel itself comes from the single and opening track “Turn to Stone”.]

And of course, the massive hit single and fan favorite “Mr. Blue Sky” was used to absolutely hilarious effect as the opening credits for 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

They’d bring the seventies to a close with a bright and shimmery album called Discovery in 1979. It was by far their most commercial sounding record, with the strings mostly sliding into the background and the danceable rock melodies coming to the fore, including radio favorites “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Shine a Little Love”. Interestingly, the band created promotional videos for every single track on the album, which are available on YouTube.

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So what would the 80s bring this band…? More hits, a killer half-soundtrack to a lemon of a movie, a cult-classic concept album about time travel, and eventually dissolution. But Lynne didn’t necessarily stop there, nor did he drop off the face of the earth! Stay tuned!

Favorite Albums: Nation of Language, ‘A Way Forward’

Yeah, I know…it’s not often I label a brand spankin’ new album a favorite, but I’m willing to make exceptions. Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights, Failure’s Fantastic Planet, Beck’s Morning Phase, and so on…they’re the records where every single song captures my attention in that whoa what am I hearing?? sort of way.

Nation of Language is a Brooklyn trio that has been getting some serious airplay on KEXP and I’m sure is capturing the attention of Spotify listeners as well. Their influence is obvious: early Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (we’re talking way before “If You Leave” here). They capture OMD’s fragile synth melodies and moods perfectly while bring their own spirit into the mix. Their debut album Introduction, Presence came out in May of last year, and they’ve just dropped their new one, A Way Forward, earlier this month.

Every track on this album is well worth checking out, as are their low-budget yet enjoyable videos!

On the Shopping List: The Clockworks

I’ve been hearing songs from this band on KEXP for a while now and I know almost nothing about them other than they’re originally from Galway, Ireland but relocated to London, and that they were signed to Alan McGee’s Creation23 Records a short while back. And hot damn if I REALLY want them to come out with an album soon!!

They definitely check a hell of a lot of my favorite alt-rock tick-boxes when it comes to their style: bright and jangly sound, intelligent yet often witty lyrics, catchy-as-hell melodies, and a consistently driving energy behind the songs that makes you believe they’d kick all kinds of ass live.

As far as I know, they’ve dropped a handful of singles — they only have one listed in Discogs, but Amazon does carry some their tracks — but yeah, I need an album from this band as soon as possible.

Go check them out!

Spare Oom Playlist, October 2021 Edition, Part II

Here’s the second half of October’s playlist as promised! Only two all-caps names this time, heh. Have fun and enjoy!

FINNEAS, Optimist, released 15 October. Billie Eilish’s brother comes out from behind the instruments and laptops and releases his own solo album. Like Billie, he’s a super-soft singer, but it works with the ballads and ponderings he’s featured here. As I’d hoped, his songwriting is just like on his sister’s album: the closer you listen to it, the more creative it is.

Deerhoof, Actually, You Can, released 22 October. They’re definitely your classic weirdo alt-rock band on par with Liars and Animal Collective that aren’t always easy on the ears, yet somehow you can’t stop listening to them. You never quite know where the songs are going to go next.

Clinic, Fantasy Island, released 22 October. This is another odd band, this time with one foot firmly entrenched in a Silver Apples-like motorik synthesizer sound. They’re definitely a ‘critic fave’ sort of band that never gets airplay, but they’re worth checking out.

Black Marble, Fast Idol, released 22 October. They’re part of the current wave of synth bands recapturing that UK synthpop sound (think super early OMD, well before their hit song), and they’re so much fun to listen to, especially for a GenXer like me. It’s like listening to college radio again!

Duran Duran, Future Past, released 22 October. This album is definitely a change from their previous record, 2015’s Paper Gods, in that they’ve moved slightly away from the dance grooves and headed towards inventive rock territory — sort of like 1988’s Big Thing in a way, come to think of it. It’s got some truly odd moments but it’s a a super fascinating listen.

La Luz, La Luz, released 22 October. Quirky lofi-ish indie pop that hints at garagey surf rock with maybe even a pinch of Stereolab. Bouncy, light fun.

RUFUS DU SOL, Surrender, released 22 October. I do loves me some epic-sounding moody electronica, especially for writing sessions! This is a relatively new band find for me, and I’m quite digging this record.

Parquet Courts, Sympathy for Life, released 22 October. This is another one of those weirdo bands I didn’t think I’d get into, but they keep coming out with great alt-rock gems that get stuck in my brain for hours at a time. They never really take themselves all that seriously, which makes their songs even more fun!

The The, The Comeback Special, released 29 October. Matt Johnson surprised everyone a while back by staging a comeback tour (including a stop in San Francisco, which I was able to catch!) in addition to releasing several of his Radio Cineola projects and soundtracks for his brother’s films. This record is pretty much a single entire show from start to finish, and it just shows how many amazing songs he’s written over the last several decades.

Billy Bragg, The Million Things That Never Happened, released 29 October. Still going strong since the 80s, he still writes the great troubador folk songs (now in the form of catchy alternapop these days) that are intelligent, catchy, and quite often amusing. And it sounds like he’s not going to quit any time soon.

Tori Amos, Ocean to Ocean, released 29 October. Another great songwriter releases a quiet and moody lockdown album inspired in part by her Cornwall surroundings and also the US Capitol riots.

Geese, Projector, released 29 October. This NYC band sounds like they dug deep in their local inspirations, as they definitely have that arch No-Wave sound similar to Television. There’s a hint of grooviness, a hint of jam-band meandering, and college radio moodiness on this record that really makes this band fascinating.

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Whew! That was a lot for the last half of October, and it looks like November’s going to have an overflow of great records as well! Not going to complain, of course…

Spare Oom Playlist, October 2021 Edition, Part I

It’s been one hell of a busy October musicwise here in Spare Oom. Not only did we have the long-awaited return of Outside Lands, but there was all sorts of great music that dropped, and this is only the first half of it!

POND, 9, released 1 October. I jumped in on this one unheard essentially due to having heard about them and reading rave reviews, and I wasn’t let down. It’s got that early 00s alt-dance-rock thing going with a bit of post-punk skitteriness to it as well. A really fun listen!

Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days, released 1 October. I’ve been meaning to listen to more of Brandi’s stuff because she’s a musician that all the critics love but nobody (apart from KEXP) ever seems to play her stuff. And this is an absolutely lovely album worth checking out.

JOHN, Nocturnal Manoeuvres, released 8 October. Also known as JOHN (TIMESTWO), this is yet another band I found thanks to KEXP during one of their music festival broadcasts a few years back. Loud and growly (and indeed played by two guys named John), they’re up there with Idles as a band that’s really fun to listen to loud.

BADBADNOTGOOD, Talk Memory, released 8 October. Yet another capitalized band name! You may know them as the band behind the super-groovy remix of Future Islands’ “Seasons” a few years back, their new record is a fun album of funky and poppy jazz.

Johnny Marr, Fever Dreams Pt 1 EP, released 15 October. Marr drops the first of multiple EPs that will create a full album that’ll be released later in 2022. This particular EP sounds a lot like his work with Bernard Sumner in Electronic.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Georgia Blue, released 15 October. During the November Presidential election last year, Isbell tweeted that if Biden won the state of Georgia, he’d record a full album of songs from bands from that state. Biden won, and Isbell made good on it, releasing an absolutely amazing record of songs from REM, Cat Power, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Indigo Girls, The Black Crowes, and more. Highly recommended!

The Beatles, Let It Be Super Deluxe, released 15 October. This had to have been the toughest Beatles album for Giles Martin to work on, considering its source material and its history as a solid but admittedly spotty-sounding record. Still, he manages to improve on the Spectorized flourishes (dialing back the schmaltz a bit and making it less muddy) and even include the original Glyn Johns attempt when it was still known as Get Back. He did a fine job and of course we’re going to get Disney+ just so I can watch the Peter Jackson documentary!

Coldplay, Music of the Spheres, released 15 October. Their 2019 album Everyday Life was a huge favorite of mine and a very dark and inventive record for them, so I was expecting they’d follow their usual pattern of following it up with a radio-friendly poppy album. I didn’t quite expect…a space-themed concept album? It’s definitely a bit odd and weird in places, but it actually expands on the experimentation of Everyday Life, and that’s definitely a plus in my book.

ONETWOTHREE, ONETWOTHREE, released 15 October. This was one of those records I checked out purely because of the AllMusic review. It’s a fascinating record featuring three female bassists from three separate Swiss post-punk bands (Klaudia Schifferle from Kleenex/LiLiPUT, Madlaina Peer from Noknows and Sara Schaer from TNT/Souldawn) and it certainly sounds like a record that came out in 1981 and loved by college radio deejays. It’s a really fun listen.

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More to come!

No Longer Riding On the Merry-Go-Round

This past weekend was the twice-postponed Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park, and we managed to get through all three days with somewhat reasonable weather enjoyed, lots of local food eaten and around a dozen bands seen. We walked around thirteen miles over those days total (we live less than a mile away so we walked home at the end of the day), so it was probably for the best that we took Monday off to rest.

And, we seem to have both come to the conclusion that that was probably our last music festival.

Why, you say? Well, a few reasons. We admit we’re getting on in years (I am the ripe old age of 50, after all) and it’s just getting too exhausting. Then there are the crowds. We’ll also admit that though most of the festival goers are chill and fine and don’t bother us in the least, there are those who are just the most irritating people imaginable. These are usually the college/post-college kids who stand/sit either behind us or in front of us and proceed to entirely ignore the band we’d been wanting to see, talking super loud about getting wasted in the SOMA Tent before leaving three songs later. Or the vapers and the pot smokers that decide that smoking right beside and upwind of us is totes fine. Or the frat bros. Or the “I have no concept of walking around others” people, which I swear is a California thing. [And then there was the woman behind me at The HU show that, I kid you not, said “I would enjoy them better if they sang in English.” This is a band that sings in Mongolian, mind you.] [I could go on, but I’m veering very close to Get Off My Lawn territory here, so I’ll stop.]

Anyhoo — we’re calling it, at least for now. We’ve finally accepted that both of us can only people for so long before it gets irritating and exhausting and we need to back away. And getting from one stage to another while trying to navigate shifting crowds is starting to wear on us.

Am I bummed out about this? Maybe, but not really all that much. Before we went to our first Outside Lands in 2012, the last festival I’d gone to was Curiosa in 2004. And even then I’d bailed near the end of The Cure because I had a long-ass drive home. Anyway, I’ve made my peace with it. We find we prefer streaming the festivals these days. It’s a lot more fun and so much cheaper.

That’s not to say we’ll never go to rock shows again. We’ll be seeing Motion City Soundtrack in Berkeley in February — interestingly, the very same band we saw live just a few months before the pandemic kicked in — and one of these days I’d like to see a band at the Fillmore or the Independent, both places I can easily get to via public transportation. (And of course we’ll still be going to see the symphony and the opera.)

I just don’t think I can handle another year of super large crowds and losing energy before the sun goes down.