The richest touring musician in the world is being called to the stage for a soundcheck.
“This,” Jim Dolan tells me before he leaves the dressing room for the rehearsal, “is where I’m happiest.”
In a few hours, his band, JD & The Straight Shot, will open for the singer/songwriter Jewel at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. Dolan’s musical combo is, professionally speaking, his second act. He’s already made more in business than any singer or songwriter ever squeezed out of three chords and the truth.
His sojourn into show biz was made possible by prior successes in his regular biz. So let’s get some of the money stuff out of the way: He has a reported net worth of $1.5 billion. You could almost certainly subtract the combined wealth of everybody else in the nearly sold out 1,225-seat theater on this night—including that of the headliner—from Dolan’s, and he would still have enough cash in the kitty to buy the ornate downtown venue.
Not that Dolan needs another rock room: He already owns Madison Square Garden, as part of a family portfolio that also includes the Beacon Theater, Radio City Music Hall, and the Los Angeles Forum, in addition to the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers.
The world’s second-richest touring musician, some half a billion bucks behind, is Paul McCartney, who as a young man complained that money couldn’t buy him love. Dolan’s demeanor on the way to the soundcheck, however, hints that money can make lots of awesome things happen. It’s allowed him, for example, to hire a fantastic country-rock band and hit the road to sing his own songs.
Dolan has spent the spring in places like Lake Charles, Biloxi, Harrisburg, and Albany, warming up Jewel crowds with tunes from Ballyhoo, his newest and most ambitious recording. In fact, D.C. and Boston are the only cities on the entire 18-show tour that can claim—as Dolan himself can—to have both an NBA and NHL franchise. So he’s performing before lots of people who don’t know of his wealth or give a damn if Kurt Rambis actually gets that head coaching gig or that the Rangers got bounced out in the first round.
“I love playing. I LOVE playing!” Dolan says. “When you get up there and connect with an audience and they love what you’re doing, and you’re playing your own music, not somebody else’s, and you get a great reaction out of that, it’s great. You’re so pumped up you can’t get to sleep!”
Money and business connections have enabled Dolan to work with record producers and music teachers whom hungry up-and-comers with shallower pockets could never retain. (But one example: He shares a vocal coach with Axl Rose.) He’s made worse business decisions than starting up a band—he lost a reported $250 million for Cablevision, for example, after trying to rescue electronics chain The Wiz from bankruptcy in 1998—but JD & The Straight Shot isn’t close to being a break-even financial proposition. Shockingly few listeners have purchased records: A recent report from industry stats keeper Soundscan showed only 113 units of Ballyhoo had been sold since its January release.
The money coming in from performing for Jewel crowds is likely negligible, too. Seth Hurwitz—the local rock magnate whose firm, IMP, promoted the D.C. show—declined to disclose fees paid to opening acts at Lincoln Theater. (A rival area concert promoter estimated that the opener there would get “$150 to $200.”) But Hurwitz, who is also owner of the prestigious 9:30 Club, does confess that the opening slot isn’t a prosperous one. “It’s all over the place,” Hurwitz says, “but what I will tell you is that occasionally we do get asked to find someone for free and we refuse.”
Most traveling bands with an opening-act revenue stream survive on fast food and sleep either on a bus or a friend’s couch.
Dolan’s concerns, at any rate, are about carpe diem, not per diems. He’s going to be 61 years old in May, and knows there’s a limited amount of time to chase the rock and roll fantasies of his youth. So for the Jewel tour, Dolan and his band will travel by private jet, get chauffered in rental limos, grab post-gig meals at the Frenchiest French restaurants they can find—“We’re into souffles,” he says—and stay at the poshest hotels. In D.C., they’re staying at the Dupont Circle Hotel; travel-booking sites price rooms at the inn from $197 - $466, and during Cherry Blossom Festival week, nobody’s giving discounts.
Dolan is risking more than money in hopes of getting an audience for his music. That the historically media-shy media mogul would open up to Deadspin about his mock-friendly mid-life musical moonlighting—Axl’s teacher? Really?—is another indicator of how much he wants his songs to be heard.
“We’re trying to get the music as good as we can get it, all part of the theory that if you keep making it better, then no matter what, you’re going to get recognized. I believe that,” Dolan says. “Right now, I’m pretty proud of it, but if we keep getting better from here, ultimately, it’s going to be undeniable.”
Even hardcore music types who are aware of his financial situation say the effort he’s now putting into his band and the pleasures he’s getting out of it make Dolan easy to root for.
“I get it, you know?” says Rodney Crowell, a Nashville-based mainstream-country star turned alt-country pioneer and the producer of “Find a Church,” Dolan’s recent single. “Providence blesses some and doesn’t bless others. But good for anybody who can do what they want to do.”
In other words: It’s cool to watch a guy make the best out of a wonderful situation.
To hear Dolan tell it, growing up on Long Island, he thought about someday making the Billboard Top 40, not the Fortune 500.
“When I was in 10th grade,” he says, “I was dreaming guitar dreams.”
For a time, he acted on them, too. He says he was 15 when he saw an ad in Pennysaver, the Craigslist of the analog era, where “a guy in Queens” was selling a used Gibson J-50 for $200. He put together earnings from mowing lawns to get it. (As first axes go, that’s a high-cred choice, what with Bob Dylan and James Taylor counted among J-50 users.) That got him invites to join kids in the neighborhood and pals at Cold Spring Harbor High School for jams, where they had a blast playing lousy versions of what he calls “easy to play” songs, such as the Jefferson Airplane’s “Wooden Ships” and Allman Brothers and Neil Young ditties.
His parents, he says, never hid their disapproval of the romance between him and his instrument.
“They didn’t want to to do anything to support it, and kept pushing me toward stricter academics,” he says. “There was no, ‘Here’s a guitar for your birthday!’ or anything like that. My parents never bought me anything musical for either Christmas or my birthday in my entire life.”
Dolan rebelled, and kept jamming with his buddies. And when he headed upstate to attend college at SUNY-New Paltz, he peeved the parents by initially enrolling in the music program. But his lust for that curriculum began waning when he learned that the college had no interest in teaching students the finer points of rock or pop, only classical music. The final straw came when he saw how his off-campus guitar teacher, who he remembers as the best guitarist from Poughkeepsie to Albany, was struggling financially.
“He was great,” says Dolan, “and he was giving me lessons for $5 an hour and not making a living. And I said, ‘I don’t want to work as hard as he is and not have success.’”
So he changed his major to communications. As luck would have it, his family had some ties to the communications world; in fact, they had a burgeoning television empire. Charles Dolan, his father, was the founder of HBO, as well as Cablevision Systems, a behemoth provider of cable TV services in the New York City area. When the younger Dolan got his degree, he went straight into, as he calls it, “the family business.”
Dad detailed the new college grad to Cleveland, where the family owned WKNR, the city’s first sports radio station, the idea being that the kid could manage it while learning the ropes of the telecom realm. Meanwhile, the Dolans’ empire kept expanding: Cablevision bought the Garden, the Knicks, and the Rangers in 1994 for what the New York Times estimated at the time was $1.1 billion. A year later, James replaced his dad atop the family enterprise.
Dolan says the rock and roll bug bit him again beginning in 2001, when he was putting together an in-house conference for all his MSG employees. While planning the shindig, he found some guys on the payroll who also knew a few guitar chords, and they formed an ad hoc rock band to entertain the staff.
“We called ourselves the Off the Wallflowers,” Dolan says. “We rehearsed, took a bunch of rock classics and I rewrote the words with words for our company event. After that was over, I was like, ‘I don’t want to stop doing this!’”
He became the guitar hoarder he would have been as a teenager, if only there had been more mowed lawns.
“I’m like the guy who couldn’t afford a pair of shoes who suddenly can have any shoes he wanted,” Dolan says. “I just went out and bought everything.” He says he now has well over 100 guitars, including that Gibson J-50 from his teens. And he’s still acquiring. His current stage guitar, a McPherson 5.0 XP, is a recent purchase from a boutiquey Wisconsin luthier; it sells for $14,700, a massive price for a non-vintage guitar. (“I played one, and ordered three of them right away,” he says.)
Dolan bugged all his fortysomething friends to play with him until he had enough to start a regular jam session. He noticed the jams quickly meant more to him than others. “Guys were saying it was getting too serious,” he says, laughing. So he started seeking out what he calls “wedding band” musicians—folks who would know how to play every song ever written—just so he could sing them. And for kicks they began playing blues bars on the Island.
He put out a blues album with his new friends, 2005’s Nothing to Hide. The disc got a bland reception from the few critics who noticed it.
“Mash Dr. John, George Thorogood, the Blues Brothers, and Huey Lewis together, and it might sound something like JD & The Straight Shot on Nothing to Hide, which is very much in a snaky, swampy R&B-blues mold,” wrote AllMusic reviewer Richie Unterberger. “Lead singer James Dolan’s functional, raspy vocal style, however doesn’t have the talent or distinction of any of those sort of names. Delivered with the assistance of a decent crack R&B-rock band, it’s not bad; it’s just not special.”
The New York Post noted that Dolan’s “swaggering vocals” were “slightly reminiscent of Tom Waits and Randy Newman,” but was otherwise milquetoasty. “It’s not a groundbreaking album by any stretch, but it’s an enjoyable surprise,” said the reviewer.
Internet users had more fun with the record. The customer reviews on Amazon are hilarious, though the laughs all come at Dolan’s expense. A poster going by “Isiah” gave the disc five out of five stars: “Mr. Dolan has the voice of an angel. I have never heard rhythm guitar played with Mr. Dolan’s level of craftsmanship and passion. Each of Mr. Dolan’s songs has a melody worthy of Mozart and lyrics that would make Shakespeare jealous. Mr. Dolan has truly channeled a lifelong passion for rock ‘n’ roll into a sound and sensibility that will be music to the ears of classic rock fans everywhere. Please don’t fire me.”
Dolan’s review of his debut disc is harsher. “That was really horrible,” he says. “But that was my first time recording, and I was hooked by then.”
Folks he dealt with at his day job, he says, were far kinder about his playing than the critics were, and very supportive when it came to his musical meanderings. And it so happened that many of the people he dealt with at the office were music business titans.
“Irving introduced me to Joe, and Joe invited us to come play with him, which was wild,” Dolan tells me.
I stop Dolan and ask him who this supportive first-names-only duo of “Irving” and “Joe” are.
“Irving Azoff,” he says.
Oh, that guy. At various times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Billboard have described Irving Azoff as the single most powerful person in the music industry. Among the lines on his resume: manager of the Eagles, CEO of Ticketmaster, and chairman of Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the world. “Irving’s groups were playing my venue and we got close,” Dolan says.
And Joe? “Joe Walsh,” he says. Of course it’s Joe Walsh, the rock and roll Hall of Famer known for guitar work with 70's hard rockers the James Gang, the Eagles, and solo smash hits. Dolan and Walsh met through shows at the Garden, and supported each other’s efforts to stay sober. (Dolan has said the “straight shot” in the band’s name is a reference to his being clean and sober for what is now 22 years.)
“He was so encouraging, taught me more guitar,” Dolan says. “He started mentoring me and kept saying, ‘Go! Go! Don’t stop!’ And so I didn’t!”
With validation from the pros, Dolan built a studio in his home and started writing and recording his own songs.
He began to take singing lessons. When you’re Jim Dolan, you don’t take your tutelage from just any putz. He went straight to the vocal coach to the stars, Don Lawrence, whose clients include Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Bono, Axl Rose and other artists Lawrence says are too famous to name.
“It’s not easy to get on my list,” Lawrence says.” I work with all the best singers.”
Lawrence somehow found space to squeeze in Dolan. The instructor insists that Dolan’s standing in New York had nothing to do with his becoming a client, and that he took him on because a friend who he can’t remember asked him to.
“I didn’t know him or who he was,” says Lawrence. “He came in and told me he worked at Madison Square Garden. He was very unpretentious. So I said, ‘What do you at the Garden?’ And he said, ‘I own it.’ I said, ‘Oh ...’”
Dolan still leaves work every Monday afternoon to go to Lawrence’s studio on the Upper West Side for 90-minute sessions, and he always does his homework. “He’s the hardest worker I know,” says Lawrence. “He’s relentless. He doesn’t stop! He is going back to music, and he has the desire to see this through. It’s the most important thing to him. He studies, man. He’s a beautiful singer.”
I ask Lawrence: If you thought the richest touring musician in the world was a lousy singer, would you tell me?
“I don’t say something I don’t mean,” Lawrence says. “You can listen to opera singers, and they have great voices and they’re boring, and you can listen to Joe Cocker, who has no voice and is the greatest singer out there. Jim sings well and he’s getting better and better, when you can bring emotion to what you want to do, and back it up, it’s great. He’s a damn good singer.”
Dolan hit up powerful friends who’d offered to help. Azoff took over management of Dolan’s band. He accepted an invitation from Walsh, an Azoff client, for JD & the Straight Shot to open shows, including a date in August 2007 at the Beacon Theater, which MSG had acquired at the end of the previous year. Don Henley—the drummer and face of the Eagles, and Azoff stablemate—also brought the band on as a warm-up act. While serving as the Eagles’ opener, JD & the Straight Shot got to be the first band to play the refurbished L.A. Forum, which Dolan’s company had acquired two years earlier. The Azoff connection likewise landed JD & the Straight Shot several stadium dates on a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other-ones cavalcade tour in 2010 with the Eagles, Keith Urban, and the Dixie Chicks.
He even played the Garden, hallowed ground in arena rock circles and the site of such legendary shows as the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the 1969 Rolling Stones dates that begat Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, and the 1973 Led Zeppelin shows that gave the world The Song Remains the Same.
“I swore I’d never play the Garden,” Dolan says. “But, yeah, I did.” As he has it, those dates with megabands aren’t as cool in practice as they appear on paper.
“When you open for the Eagles,” he says, “you’re playing for the ushers and security staff.”
Dolan continued writing and recording and releasing records, and continued gettings assists from big-name friends. For his second CD, 2008’s Right on Time, he had Walsh and Robert Randolph, the genius pedal-steel bloozeman from New Jersey, on hand. Slash, guitarist from the Azoff-managed Guns N’ Roses, got JD & the Straight Shot some ink by showing up at an L.A. show the band did with Walsh. Doors were opening for the band’s recorded product, too; Dolan, conveniently, already owned many of those doors. “Can’t Make Tears,” the title track to his 2011 offering, showed up on the soundtrack for Hell on Wheels, a Western series on the AMC network. The Dolan family controls the AMC network. The band’s bio shows that its tunes have appeared in soundtracks for feature films Hurricane Season, Lawless, Butter and August: Osage County. All of those movies were produced by The Weinstein Company, a corporate business partner of MSG. Dolan and Harvey Weinstein are also individual business partners, and Dolan is a former member of the TWC board of directors.
For all the various virtues of Can’t Make Tears, Dolan ranks a tune from the album as his band’s biggest boner. That would be “Fix the Knicks,” the song that also happens to be his most overt melding of his real vocation and musical dream job.
The track makes light of the putrid state of the team, which hasn’t won a title since the early 1970s and has only made it out of the first round of the playoffs once since 2000. The chorus: “Fix the Knicks and make them shine/Get ‘em to win like it’s ’69/Hittin’ all their free throws and no more shooting bricks/Time to get it right and fix the Knicks.”
Fans were peeved that one verse found Dolan boasting about making personnel decisions after he “called Isiah Thomas,” the disastrous former head coach and on-and-off alleged Svengali who was and remains one of the most polarizing folks ever to work for the Knicks. Thomas’s reign with the team was lowlighted by a sexual harassment suit filed against him in 2006 by marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders—Dolan and MSG were named as co-defendants—in which the plaintiff was ultimately awarded $11.6 million. The New York Times concluded that the trial “made the inner workings of the Garden appear dysfunctional, hostile and lewd.” (Guard Stephon Marbury told the court about having sex with an intern “in his truck after a group outing to a strip club.”)
Knicks enthusiasts did not want to be reminded, in song or otherwise, of what is generally considered the low point in franchise history. The New York Post reported that when Dolan debuted the tune for a New York audience at a 2011 Long Island show as his band was opening for Aretha Franklin, the crowd let out “an audible groan” at a mention of Thomas. It didn’t help that Dolan introduced his sarcastic tune just a month after he and his fellow NBA owners had locked out the players as part of a contract dispute.
I ask him how that mess came about. “‘Fix the Knicks!’ Oh, man. ‘Fix the Knicks!’” he says. “Everybody makes mistakes! I make mistakes. That was one of my mistakes. I thought I could appease the hungry masses with it. I was just thinking, well, maybe we could just write a song about it and then it will go away. That was wrong. Fortunately, nobody bought the album.”
It’s not literally true that nobody bought that record. But, as Soundscan will tell you about all this band’s releases, it’s damn close.
Dolan isn’t hanging out with wedding-band guys from the Island anymore.
For the Jewel tour, he’s backed by top-flight Nashville players. Dolan is the only original member of JD & the Straight Shot in the credits for his new CD, Ballyhoo, or the live lineup on the current tour. There aren’t any celebrity cameos or Knicks references on the latest record, either. Guitarist Marc Copely previously played with alternative pop pixie Mary Lou Lord and Rosanne Cash, the urbane country fave, and even wrote a song with Carole King. Fiddler Erin Slaver gigged with arena acts Martina McBride, Eric Church, Keith Urban, and Vince Gill. The biggest catch Dolan fished out of Music City’s peerless talent pool was bassist Byron House, a studio institution and a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, a first-rate Americana outfit that recorded and toured in 2010 and 2011.
“I was asked if I wanted to play with Jim Dolan,” says House. “I said, ‘Sounds great! And who’s Jim Dolan?’ I knew nothing about him except he was a guy with a band.”
By the time Copely filled him in on who Dolan was, House was in that band. Dolan knows music people have a hard time understanding how he got House to play with him, so when asked, he answers, “We stole his dog and we still have it.”
Rodney Crowell, whom Dolan brought in to produce some Nashville studio sessions, says he was trying to recruit House at the same time, only to learn he was overmatched. Crowell, a former son-in-law of Johnny Cash, has enjoyed scads of mainstream and critical success in a music career now in its fifth decade, and adds instant credibility to any project he’s involved with. Crowell says that in 2015, he was putting together a band to go on tour with him and Emmylou Harris. Among the first guys he rang up was House, whom he calls “one of the finest musicians to ever walk down the street.”
“Byron told me he couldn’t make it to play with me and Emmylou,” says Crowell, “but he didn’t say why.”
Around the same time House rejected his offer, Crowell was contacted by Dolan, who wanted him to produce a country-blues tune he’d written with Copely, House, and Slaver called “Better Find a Church.”
At that point, the bassist’s brush-off suddenly made lots of sense.
“I knew about Jim Dolan. He owns everything,” says Crowell, laughing. “I was thinking about how I could make this work. So I said, ‘Jim you’re a man of means, and I happen to have a charity. So how about this: I’ll make this record with you, and next time we have an event I’ll lean on you to be a sponsor?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ So, barter is still in! And so then we do this session with Jim in Nashville, and into the studio walks Byron. So I’m like, ‘Oh! This is why!’”
Crowell, now 65, and Dolan are of similar ages but polar opposite backgrounds. Crowell’s 2011 memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, describes growing up in extreme poverty in East Texas, and tells how his father, J.W. Crowell, pushed him to be a musician; in fact, J.W. bought young Rodney a drum set from a local pawn shop just so his band would have a drummer it didn’t have to pay. Crowell went on to record five chart-topping singles, win a couple Grammys, and gain more credibility in music circles than Dolan ever could. But Dolan, in about the same amount of time, has accrued at least $1.5 billion, and Crowell ain’t shipping his band from town to town by private jet.
“Jewel travels with us,” Dolan says.
When Michael Jordan decided to play baseball late in his sporting life, he won over all the baseball lifers on the Birmingham Barons by showing up with the Jordan Cruiser, the nicest bus in the Southern League. Dolan, with his private jet, similarly provides a different level of comfort than anybody else in the opening-band ranks can offer. And, say members of Dolan’s band, vive la différence. “Yeah, I really wish I could be on a bus smelling 20 other dudes,” Copely tells me.
So Crowell can’t blame Dolan for making House an offer a mercenary musician couldn’t easily refuse. And Crowell insists he came out of Dolan’s session happy for all concerned.
“Jim surrounds himself with very talented people, and he holds his own,” Crowell says. “Producing is mostly just making the right comments and right adjustments at the right time so you don’t halt the flow, and as an actor or performer, sometimes you have to trust the directions you’re getting. Jim really listened to everything I suggested. In sports talk, I guess you could say he allowed himself to be coached. That’s all anybody who is collaborating can ask for. And I think Jim had fun, and was happy with the results.”
“Better Find a Church” got JD & the Straight Shot its best notices ever. Critic Henry Carrigan of No Depression, a quarterly for alt-country fetishists, gushed that the song showcased “the mesmerizing voices of Jim Dolan and violinist Erin Slaver.” “‘Better Find a Church’ promises the funky beauty of things to come,” Carrigan wrote. (Dolan doesn’t own No Depression.)
But as of his current tour, Dolan has apparently finally won over the critics that matter most: “My mother and father came to our show in Fort Pierce,” he says. “Now, they love my music.”
There are other guys who have tried play rock star after striking it rich in business, even some with major league sporting connections. Dolan brought up the example of Paul Allen, the fellow billionaire who co-founded Microsoft and now owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers. Allen often throws corporate parties seemingly just so he can plug in a guitar and jam with his band, called the Underthinkers, in front of a crowd.
But Dolan says the strength of his supporting cast, and the time he’s spending in rehearsal and recording studios in Nashville—the band spent a three-day break in the Jewel tour practicing and writing there—as well as on stages in minor league towns on the road, separates him from Allen and any other affluent weekend warriors.
“I know plenty of guys in corporate bands,” he says in the dressing room, crowded with his band, before the Lincoln Theater show. “But what we’re doing isn’t anything like what Paul does or the other guys do. This is a serious effort. Not that Paul’s not serious about his music, or these other guys aren’t serious. But we’re trying to be recognized, like a lot of other bands who want to be recognised as great artists. They’re having fun playing, but not trying to achieve what we are trying to achieve, and what we’re going to achieve.”
After delivering his mission statement, he says, loudly: “Right?”
Nods fill the room.
“You’re here to see Jewel. We’re not her,” Dolan announces to a half-empty-but-filling Lincoln Theater crowd as his band’s warm-up set kicks off.
Simple joke, for sure, but he delivers the punchline like a pro. The crowd of Jewel hardcores, many of whom have been in the building since her fan club meet-and-greet began two hours earlier, guffaws and claps. Dolan has brought them to his side before singing a note.
His voice is as ready as it’s gonna be. Forty-five minutes before showtime, as he always does, Dolan went through the vocal warmup exercises that Lawrence tells him he must do to keep his voice strong on the road. (“It’s the exact routine I gave to Axl seven years ago, and he’s never had a day’s issue with his voice ever since,” Lawrence says.) Dolan’s booming yet pitchy vocals are the weakest link musically, but he seems aware of his limits and only occasionally overextends his abilities. Besides, the glee he gets from leading his unplugged quintet in front of a crowd more than makes up for the intermittent sharp or flat notes.
He tells the crowd that the idea for “Glide” came last year after watching his five-year-old son (playing a guitar isn’t the only thing Dolan’s continued to do into midlife) run and skip away from him at a school fair exuding not a care in the world, and how that sight made him wish his inner child dictated more of his behaviors. The band delivers a harmony-heavy, The Mamas & The Papas-type arrangement of the tune, whose lyrics could be taken as Dolan’s musical manifesto. (“Why do we get old and cold and grow to lose the child that’s inside?/Exchange it all for fear of being judged undignified/By doing so you lose it all, the parts that made us feel alive/release the brake that’s all it takes and you will feel yourself just glide!”) Dolan looks pretty darn pleased with his lot in life as he bangs out the song’s beat on House’s stand-up bass.
They cover “Nature’s Way,” a non-hit 1971 pro-environment single from Spirit, an L.A. band most remembered for writing the riff that Led Zeppelin stole for the opening bars of “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a high-credibility cover song selection, highlighted by Copely’s solo and delicate chimey fills from percussionist Joe Magistro, a veteran of the Black Crowes. This ain’t a bar band.
The longer he’s onstage, the more Dolan hams it up. Before “Find a Church,” he pokes fun at the band’s commercial irrelevance by disclosing that record industry folks assured him the single would get airplay that has yet to materialize. “If you happen to hear it on the radio, call us!” he booms as the band kicks into the song. “We want to hear it on the radio!” Some portion of the crowd giggles at the self-deprecation; within the first few bars, lots of listeners are snapping their fingers.
During “Ballyhoo,” the new disc’s title track, he puts on a tophat, scarf, and sunglasses and breaks into the carnival barker character spelled out in the lyrics. As Copley and Slaver play the song out with a kinetic guitar/fiddle duel, Dolan steps to the rear of the stage near the drum kit, out of the spotlight, and cheers his bandmates on. This really is where he’s happiest. As Dolan predicted earlier in the day, nobody in the seats is wearing a Knicks or Rangers jersey. There will be no “Fix the Knicks” in the set.
Dolan picks his pricey McPherson guitar off its stand for the first time and strums the band into the closer, “Let It Roll.” That tune was originally recorded by Little Feat, a band that owned D.C. for a time in the 1970s, and whose frontman, Lowell George, died of a drug overdose from partying after a 1979 show at Lisner Auditorium, not too many blocks from the Lincoln Theater.
Some portion of the now almost-full house gives JD & the Straight Shot a standing ovation as Dolan et al leave the stage. They reconvene backstage, beaming, a few minutes later, where everybody’s in a party mood but there’s nothing to OD on, save perhaps the artisanal chocolate treats sitting on a table. Dolan tells me he’s very happy with how the show went, and the audience’s attentiveness and huzzahs give him the confidence to admit he’d love for JD & the Straight Shot to top the bill next time they come to town.
“If we could fill a theater like this, man, I’d be thrilled,” he says. “I can’t imagine anything more than that.”
That’s probably a pipe dream for a band touring behind a record that has, again, sold 113 copies. But, perhaps because it’s coming from the guy who owns Madison Square Garden, headlining the Lincoln Theater sure seems humble.
While members of the Straight Shot start packing up to leave the theater, Dolan puffs on a vape pen and checks his phone for what he says is the first time all night. “There’s a Ranger game going on right now,” he says. “We’re losing, but, that’s okay.” (His hockey team is down 3-0 after two periods of what will be a 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders.)
Dolan then tells the troops it’s time to head out to a restaurant in Georgetown called La Chaumiere, which a young assistant has determined, after the same research she performs during every stop on the tour, has the best souffle in town. Jewel, the headliner and longtime Azoff protégé, can be heard crooning while the richest touring musician in the world and the rest of the opening band exit through a backstage door and pile into two Chevy Suburbans waiting in the gated lot behind the theater. I say goodbye and follow the big black limos into the street, humming “Better Find a Church.”