Traveling and seeing live music are 2 of my favorite activities. Three Father’s Days ago, I saw Kenny Rogers at Chastain. Last year, we toured Hiroshima. Two years ago, we saw U2 in Philadelphia–combining both loves in a Father’s Day extravaganza. In that vein, we loaded up the Model X and drove a couple hours west to Birmingham, Alabama last Saturday afternoon, pulling into my friend Jim Bob’s Mountain Brook driveway just after 5pm for a holiday weekend of nostalgia and music.
The grownups spent Fathers Eve having an outstanding dinner at Highlands Grill, and I could write what I had and include pictures of it, but the 4 of us sampled each other’s dinners and appetizers, and every single one was amazing, so what’s the point in singling anything out to the disappointment of the others?
After dinner, I wanted to check out a couple of Birmingham’s hidden bars, so we parked by Avondale Park, went up some stairs into a hotdog restaurant, into a blue phone booth, dialed a number, and were let into the Marble Ring for some 1920s-themed cocktails and photo opps in a giant steel bathtub.
After some time there, we went into an alley and under a 100+year old printing press to Pilcrow Cocktail Cellar for some more craft cocktails before returning to Jim Bob’s basement for sleep.
The next morning, we were supposed to get up and go to church with Jim Bob’s family, but he told us before we went to bed late Saturday night that such was not going to be very realistic, so we started Sunday with brunch at Galley & Garden, and I had something involving eggs and pork bellies, and if the day had ended there, it’d have been a perfect Father’s Day.
It did not end there, however, because I’d brought 3 racks of ribs I neglected to smoke the preceding weekend during my birthday party, so we put them on his Kamado Joe and headed to Regions Field for the Birmingham Barons vs. Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp baseball game. The Barons lost, but we had a great time with our 3-rows-behind-the-dugout seats, cold beers, and great company.
After the game we ate the racks of ribs and drank whatever beers were in Jim Bob’s fridge, and all was right with the world on Father’s Day.
Monday morning, we slept in and enjoyed the giant screened-in deck, hot coffee, and conversations with Katie (Jim Bob was at work) while the 6 children played inside. At one point, my bride asked, “Did you ever think your kids and your friend from high school’s kids would play together like this?” And the answer was “Yes. But it was more of a hope than an expectation…and on the way here–on Saturday–right as we went from I-20 to 459, I thought about all the times I had driven that interchange on my way to or from school, and all the things I hoped to have or achieve at the age I am now–they’re here; I’m doing them.”
Around noon, we left Mountain Brook for a loft downtown for a couple days of touring Birmingham. We started by using the supercharger and having delicious hot chicken at Eugene‘s before dropping off suitcases at our AirBnB and heading to Vulcan Park and Museum.
When I was a kid, and we’d visit my grandparents in Birmingham, the statue of Vulcan pierced the skyline with a torch that was either red or green, depending on whether there had been an auto fatality that day. It was the first thing I looked for when we got far enough south on I-65 to start seeing buildings after 3 hours of trees and hills on the drive from Nashville. It’d been at least 35 years since I’d actually seen the statue up close, and luckily for Vulcan, he got a facelift and body wrap in the late ’90s and is much more structurally sound than he used to be. But, they took his torch, which saddened me a bit. Now he just holds an arrow.
I texted my mother and uncle to get their parents’ old address–the house where my mom lived from age 10 until she left for Tuscaloosa, and where my uncle had spent his entire childhood. A few houses down from their old house was a section of Avondale park we called “the Villa,” and it scared me as a kid, because I was told it was where drug dealers went and was a place to be avoided. When I brought my friends Jim Bob and Jody down for an Alabama game our last year of high school, and we stayed with my grandparents, we went beyond the chain link fence into the villa, and I showed them the eerie (to me) “Death to Michael” spray-painted on the wall among the graffiti and broken glass before we climbed up into the tower that provided views of the city lights below.
When I pulled up with my family, however, it was entirely different. The city renovated it at the turn of the century and now it has its own Facebook page so it can be rented out for weddings! I was disappointed that its doors were locked, and we couldn’t explore its tower or insides, but we enjoyed spending 5 minutes walking its grounds, and I was glad to replace my creepy memories of its past with its pleasant current facade.
We drove a few houses down the street to the corner lot where I spent countless Christmases, Thanksgivings, and summer days visiting my grandparents as a child–the house they built in 1956 and stayed in until they died a couple months apart in 1998. I parked on the street and got out; my bride and children followed. I looked for the fig tree we used to pick fruit off of and eat; it was gone. Some of the pecan trees were still there, including a large one my brother and I climbed so that my uncle could take a picture (that he still has). I went up to the door, as I didn’t want to scare the owner with our walking around the driveway and staring; the storm door was open, but no one answered the doorbell.
After a few minutes, an older lady walked toward us from across the street, and I introduced myself and my family, telling them who my grandparents were; she recognized their names from the property record as being the home’s original owners. After a few minutes of talking about the yard and the neighbors who used to be nearby, she asked if we’d like to come inside.
“We’d love to.”
We followed her inside the house I hadn’t visited in > 20 years. I showed the children where the Christmas tree we use every year used to stand when I was a kid. I showed them where we had holiday dinners; where we slept when we’d visit; where my uncle had “Star Wars” curtains on his windows and posters from the 1980 Sugar Bowl on the wall; where my grandparents watched “The Lawrence Welk show” to my brother’s and my annoyance; where there was a trap door from the hall bathroom to the basement for tossing dirty clothes (or toys or food for my brother and me). She showed us some minor changes she’d made in the house, told us about her recent knee replacement surgery and her battle with cancer, and showed us a picture of her son and of the dog she dearly loved that died last December.
It was after 6pm, so we excused ourselves. We asked if we could send the Vulcan postcards we’d bought for our parents from her house, and she graciously agreed. She suggested we get soul food down the street at Saw’s, and we told her we would. I asked if my mom or uncle could come inside and see their childhood homes sometime, too, and she said they could, and she told me her first and last name; I told her mine and shook her hand while thanking her. We walked back to the car and slowly drove down the hill.
We stopped at Avondale Park, and I showed the children where we’d gone to sunrise services on Easter at the small amphitheater. We walked around the pond where the ducks and fish swam; I met a homeless man named Curtis who graduated from Woodlawn High a couple years after my uncle, and I got his wife and him a couple hot dogs and Sprites while he told me about how there used to be a zoo there, and an elephant named Miss Fancy used to escape from time to time and end up in neighbors’ yards. We looked at the spot where there was an old cave that was filled with boulders in the ’70s to keep kids from going inside and where a spring fed a creek that fed the pond.
We went inside the old library where I’d check out books and VHS videos many decades ago during summer visits to my grandparents’ house. We drove a few blocks down the street and had delicious bbq at Saw’s Soul Kitchen. Then we retired to our loft, for the next morning would start early and go late, but our entire reason for coming to this city for this 4-day weekend was the next day’s activity: seeing Twenty One Pilots live.
We arose at 5:45am to get to the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex by 6:30am; I’d received an email saying we could get a wristband at 7am to allow us to line up by number at 4:30pm before doors opened at 6pm for our general admission floor seats (when I bought tickets to the show months ago, the most I could get at a time was 4, so I had to get 4 general admission and then get the 5th via StubHub–also general admission–or else we couldn’t sit/stand together). We got our wristbands about 7:45 and then had a tasty breakfast at Yo’ Mama’s. We explored McWane Science Center and the Civil Rights Institute by 16th Street Baptist Church before meeting my uncle David and aunt Linda for lunch at Pizitz Food Hall. He seemed extraordinarily touched and happy that we’d been able to go inside his childhood home, asking lots of questions about what was the same and what was different.
After our long lunch, we went to our loft to put on our concert garb, affix appropriate amounts of yellow tape to one another, and drive the short distance to the BJCC for the show. The 5 of us sang to the car’s Twenty One Pilots station we’d been listening to for months leading up to this day, with even greater intensity than normal, as the show we’d anticipated for so long was finally upon us.
We got coffee at Octane and learned we’d missed Josh, the band’s drummer, by like 10 minutes. We got in line just after 4:15pm, and we were led near the front of the very long line to wait on doors to open at 6pm as clouds gathered over us, and my phone warned of thunderstorms coming our way. Just over an hour later, we went through the metal detectors and entered (half an hour early!), just missing the storms, running down to the arena floor, arriving on the front row, at stage right.
At 7pm, we got 45 minutes of music from Bear Hands before an hour of changing up the stage; Twenty One Pilots began at 8:40pm. During the time we’d been in line or waiting, both of the girls had cried at some point from exhaustion, asked why we didn’t get seats, asked if we could try and leave the floor to get a seat instead, or claimed to be sick. My bride and I kept assuring them they’d be glad to have our spots when the show started and that the 19,000+ people behind us would love to be where we were instead.
The show was amazing. All 5 of us stayed on the floor afterward, blown away by the energy of the crowd, the proximity of the performers, and the pure joy of singing song after song after song with our family’s favorite performers, live and in person, after months of carpool rehearsals.
We guzzled what was left of the multiple bottles of water the security guys gave us during the show, made our way up to the merchandise table, and finally started the shuffle back to the car so we could go to bed.
As we sat in the car and buckled up, my son asked, “Daddy? I think we just stood for 7 hours straight.”
Me: “We did indeed. And that doesn’t include the time in line at 630 this morning! Was it worth it?”
The concert was unreal and an incredible experience with our family that I will never forget. But what made me feel unexpectedly privileged was seeing you walk through your grandparents’ house and share those memories with our children. That was really, really cool.
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