At the end of the 22nd Mighty Mighty Bosstones Hometown Throwdown in Boston, Massachusetts, I had a brief moment to speak with Dicky Barrett, the band’s lead singer. I had earlier purchased a piece of that year’s set, a tree, and the band was nice enough to autograph it after the show. I thanked him for signing it and for putting on such a great show, year after year. He was nice, as he always is, and signed. I’ve been a huge fan of the band for a very long time and have heard them play almost their entire catalog live, except for a handful of songs. I took this small opportunity to ask about one of them, “Go Big,” off of their album “A Jackknife to a Swan.” He paused for a moment and grimaced in a very familiar way, and responded, “It’s a tough one to play live. There’s a lot of changes. I’ll tell you what we’ll play it next year.” I said something to the effect of “That would be awesome,” shook his hand, and wandered off.
I should have known right then that this year was going to be a mess.
I’m writing this on a cold and rainy December 20th, the day mentioned in the Bosstones cover of the Dogmatics “X-Mas Time (Sure Don’t Feel Like).” The chorus of the song sings, “It sure doesn’t feel like Christmas Time,” and those words ring very true this year. Covid-19 is still rampaging across the world, infecting and killing thousands a day, as it has done all year. There are reasons for hope as the first doses of the vaccine are being injected in nurses, doctors, and politicians across the country, but even that hope feels frail and distant as of yet. It will take months before it reaches enough people for us to resume anything resembling normalcy. Between now and that day, when we can put away our masks, more tragedy will unfold everywhere. It’s going to be a hard winter for everyone, even if the promises of spring are a bit more hopeful this time around.
In the midst of that, it feels small to talk about being sad about missing a concert. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly important, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing. For me and a lot of people who make the annual pilgrimage to the House of Blues in Boston, it’s more than just a couple of shows from our favorite band. For me, and I suspect many others, it’s the real holiday.
I’ve written before about how much the Bosstones have changed my life, and the Throwdown is a big part of that. More than a series of concerts, it’s a reunion, a connection to the past and the future.
We started out going every year for one night. It was hard to find the time at first. Stressful jobs that demanded ever-increasing amounts of our time and energy were hard to get away from. I live in Delaware, which is a good seven or eight-hour drive away from Kingston, Massachusetts, where my brother lives. For Leon in Seattle, it’s a much longer trip. Matt and Ben in Connecticut have the shortest drive, but also kids. Obligations around the Holidays tend to increase along with the size of your family.
That first Throwdown actually was a reunion for us. We hadn’t all gotten together in years and years. We had lost contact before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else. We made the decision to get together at Game On, a sports bar around the corner from the House of Blues. It was an amazing night of friendship renewed, and after sharing a significant number of drinks, a great Bosstones show. We made a promise to do the same the next year, and we did, and the year after that. Eventually, we decided that one night wasn’t enough. My brother and I started getting tickets for all three shows. Ben, Matt, and Leon started coming to a couple of nights and eventually all three too. What started out as a fun night on the town became a fully-fledged getaway with days spent wandering Boston and nights spent in happy lunacy on the floor of the House of Blues, in the sweaty crush of hundreds of other Bosstones fans.
For me, the annual trip became an oasis from job stress, obligations, and life in general. It was a couple of days to just get out of the world and be in a place I have loved since attending Boston University more years ago than I care to admit. I got to see friends I never saw and spend time with my brother. Over the years of attending these shows, I’ve met a lot of cool people and have come to recognize what feels like 75% of the crowd year in and year out. I’ve gotten to meet and occasionally drink with the members of the band at the center of all this.
In 2015 while eating a late-night bowl of ramen at Hojoko in the Verb Hotel where we usually stayed, Kevin Lenear, a former member of the band, came over and introduced himself to us. It was a nice moment for us sweaty animals. One year while hanging outside Dicky wandered by and then doubled back to see if we wanted to take a picture with him. He gave us calendars after and thanked us for turning up every year as if we’d be anywhere else.
I suspect everyone who goes to these shows has similar stories about the generosity of time and spirit that the band has with its fans. I’ve met plenty of musicians after shows, and often it’s easy to see that they’d rather be anywhere else. Not so with the Bosstones. They know what the show means to the fans, and I imagine it means almost as much to them. They live all over the country and don’t see each other as much as they would like, I’d guess.
The biggest part of the Throwdown, of course, is the shows themselves. It’s three nights of pure Bosstones energy. They always have a fun theme and find great support bands. A pretty sizable portion of the music I listen to comes from bands I first saw performing at these shows. The Interrupters, The Street Dogs, Big D and the Kids Table, The Skints, and many more.
Despite how great the openers are, the Bosstones always managed to blow them out of the water. The house lights go down, a light comes up, and someone comes out and plays a song in the corner of the stage, then the lights go down again, and a slice of 70’s R&B or funk plays, be it Backstabbers, Ball of Confusion, or What the World Needs Now, followed by an explosion sound and then out come the Mighty Mighty Bosstones from Boston Massachusetts.
There is a Japanese movie called “After Life” where the premise is simple. When you die, you go to a place, and they explain that what the afterlife is, is you get to live one moment from your life for all eternity. This would be a hard choice, but I can say without hyperbole that I might choose that moment when “Ball of Confusion” stops, the stage floods with light, and the Bosstones come charging out.
Each show is different. If you go over to Setlist.fm and lookup Throwdown setlists, that’s the first thing that will catch your eye. It’s not the same collection of songs every night. Sure they have a bit in the middle where Dicky introduces the band, and they play a cover (my favorite might be the year they did Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da). But every night, the encore is different. It’s always fun speculating what they’ll play each night.
One thing that stays the same most years is the last song played on the third night is Pirate Ship. It’s a non-album track from the “Let’s Face It” era. It’s also the only Bosstones song I don’t own in some fashion or other. I could track it down quickly enough, but I like only hearing it once a year, at the end.
That’s what the Throwdown is always about. It’s how those of us that go close the book on each year. We mark another trip around the sun with a massive celebration of music, love, and friendship. We get together with this band that is so important to so many of us, and with friends old and new.
Except this year, we won’t be doing that. There’s no Throwdown because there’s no anything really. It’s been a terrible year, defined by big tragedies. The loss of a few days trip and a couple of concerts doesn’t really amount to anything. But for those of us pilgrims, it’s a loss nonetheless. It feels like the whole thing in a microcosm, no light, no friendship, no togetherness.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and better things coming. If it means that no one is missing next year when we all get together again, then it’s worth it. Maybe the Bosstones will even play “Go Big.”
I guess I’ll wrap up by leaving you with the last words of “Pirate Ship” because even though there’s no Throwdown this year, they still ring true.
Travel, travel We're starting to unravel As we travel down the road We're ready to explode Keep the spirits up with a smile As we walk another mile Cause when the journey ends We'll still be the best of friends