MANHATTAN — James Dolan stood by the stage wearing a maroon, ill-fitting velvet suit jacket, an untucked white dress shirt, and a pair of black pants. The owner of the New York Knicks, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, and frontman of the blues band JD and the Straight Shot was about to play a show at City Winery, a venue and restaurant in the West Village. It was 7 p.m. Three-and-a-half miles away, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the NBA draft had just started.
“Tonight we’re doing a bunch [of songs] that we haven’t done at all before,” Dolan told me, around the same time the Sixers used their first pick to draft Markelle Fultz. “So I’m very curious to see what the audience reaction is.”
“Nice,” I said. “Are you keeping an eye on the draft?”
“Nope,” he said.
“Nope?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said.
“Do you think you guys are going to trade Porzingis?” I asked. Rumors had been swirling that manager Phil Jackson was entertaining offers for forward Kristaps Porzingis, the best thing to happen to the franchise in years.
“Nope. I don’t know, you know what, if this tells you anything,” Dolan said, gesturing to the room. “Right? Right. It tells you how uninvolved I am with the basketball team.”
Whether it’s by neglect, design, or accident, Dolan and Jackson have seemed to be constructing a funeral pyre for their team in recent years. This season was particularly awful: Dolan had Charles Oakley removed from a Knicks game (security tackled the legendary Knick) and then temporarily banned Oakley from the Garden. Dolan got into it with a fan after a game. Jackson made the highly questionable decision to bring back the triangle offense. The team went 31-51.
Jackson recently began pushing the whole pyre out to sea. The Knicks president reportedly felt slighted when Porzingis skipped his exit interview at the end of the season, and he said that Porzingis is injury prone. Jackson began entertaining offers from other teams. If the Knicks do trade Porzingis, it would be the equivalent of flicking a lit match onto the blue and orange timber.
You can imagine, then, that the news Dolan was playing a show with his passion project in the same city on the same night as the NBA draft felt like one more douse of lighter fluid.
It was also the reason I bought a ticket. On Thursday morning, I secured a seat in the “Premier” section closest to the stage for $25 (“VIP” was also $25, “Reserved” was $22, and “Bar Stool” was $20) and showed up as soon as the doors opened at 6 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. Any closer and I would’ve been sitting on the stage. No one else was there.
After about 45 minutes, people started to straggle in. Most of them appeared to be connected to Dolan in some way, judging by the friendly way they all greeted each other, shook each other’s hands, and patted each other on the back.
But a few people sat apart, farther away from the stage, and looked less business-y. One couple, Michelle and John Sheldon, were there celebrating their wedding anniversary. They’d come from Rochester to see their daughter in the city, heard about this show, and figured they’d check it out after listening to a few of the band’s songs.
Michelle didn’t know that Dolan owned a basketball team.
“Owner of the Knicks, huh?” she said, looking around. “You’d think there'd be more people here.”
A few feet away, Doug Scebelo, a Knicks fan, sat at the bar by himself. He’s been to a few of JD and the Straight Shot’s shows before.
“I won't go out of my way for him,” Scebelo said. “I won't go out of New York or New Jersey. But Dolan’s interesting. He talks during shows. People think he's a terrible owner. My friends think he ruined the Knicks, but I don't know the ins and outs.”
At 8 p.m., the lights went down and I scurried back to my seat. At exactly 8:01, Dolan strode onto the stage, followed by two acoustic guitar players (one was his son), a violinist, a bass player, and a drummer. The room was probably one quarter full. The space filled with applause like a cardboard box that doesn’t have enough packing peanuts in it.
“This is the last show of our June tour,” Dolan said into the mic. He beamed. “City Winery reached out and said they had this date available. We didn't plan to have this concert on the same night as the NBA draft, for those of you wondering.”
He looked in my direction. The band launched into the first song, “Glide.”
Dolan’s voice isn’t terrible, but it’s not terrible the same way the voice of your co-worker — the one who can kind of sing — isn’t terrible after three beers at karaoke. Dolan motioned with his hands a lot as he sang the blues. He smiled often, hammed it up, talked between songs about what each one meant (“I Know You Know I Know,” for example, is a song about forbidden love between next-door neighbors or between a boss and a “worker.”)
He looked like he was having fun:
He continued having fun as he introduced a song called “Under That Hood,” about the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“This song is about a tragedy that happened in Florida,” Dolan said to the crowd, which had grown to fill about half the room. He stopped smiling as he addressed the matter but started smiling again later when he held up some strange-looking tube instrument. “And I get to play this thing!”
The band played the first chords of the song, and Dolan blew into the tube. A windy howling sound came out of the amps. He put the instrument down to sing the lyrics: “There’s no good under that hood.”
The song ended and I checked Twitter. The Knicks were making their first-round pick, selecting French point guard Frank Ntilikina. The internet wondered whether a Porzingis trade was imminent. Dolan started singing, “It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong.”
A few minutes later, during the final chords of another song that sounded the same as all the others, there was a commotion behind me.
“You’re a terrible singer!” yelled two guys in suits and shirts a table away.
“You’re a bad singer!” they continued, louder. “Don’t quit your day job! This is terrible! I want my money back! Who are you? How’d you get a job singing for a band?”
It reminded me of the heckling my friends and I used to do in college at baseball games: If we stuck to straightforward and somewhat devastating statements without any vulgarity, security couldn’t make us leave. But security apparently works differently at James Dolan concerts than at liberal arts college Division III sports games, and two bouncers swiftly arrived to escort the men out of the restaurant. (Neither man was Charles Oakley, for the record.)
Dolan stood on stage smiling the way you smile when you’re trying to pretend you think something is funny. As the men left the building, he laughed into the mic.
"OK,” he said to the crowd. “Let's just keep going. You guys like Johnny Cash?"
The show up to this point — the empty chairs in the audience, the flat singing, the repetitive, grating chords — reminded me of the Men in Tights re-enactments my cousins and I put on when we were little. Our parents had no choice but to sit through them because they didn’t want to crush our dreams, and also because we were cute.
Dolan is a 62-year-old man with more money than God (about $1.5 billion) and an NBA franchise in somewhat of a free fall. He’s not cute, nor is his band good. He’s not a little kid performing for his mom and dad (although his 90-year-old parents were in the audience, and he dedicated a song to them; the lyrics involved “running out of gas in the tank.”)
The thought that kept running through my head as I watched Dolan was: Has anyone ever told this guy no? At one point, Dolan put on a top hat, a pair of aviator sunglasses, and draped a scarf over his blazer. His self-described “carnival master” outfit made him look like the legendary Muppet bandleader, Dr. Teeth. To be fair, the lyrics he was singing did include: “Everybody’s got a freak inside.”
If no one tells Dolan he can’t play NYC venues the night of the draft, they certainly don’t tell him he can’t open for big names: JD and the Straight Shot performs on tour with acts like Don Henley, The Eagles, and the Allman Brothers because of Dolan’s connections to the music industry. During the concert, he kept talking about how his band’s music makes it into films. Madison Square Garden Company is a corporate partner of The Weinstein Company.
Eventually, we made it to the title song off the forthcoming album, Good Luck and Good Night. It’s named after the reverse of “good night and good luck,” which is what Edward R. Murrow, the famous news anchor, would say to end his broadcasts.
Dolan told us he liked the saying better with Luck before Night, and since people say yes to this man, that’s the title of the album. The song, Dolan told the crowd, is a take on the fake news that has polarized our country. I found this interesting, given that most of the fake news during the 2016 was created to make Hillary Clinton look bad, and Dolan gave $300,000 to Trump’s campaign.
The last few songs blended together in a blur of sameness. Candles flickered on the tables; a few of them had burned out over the course of the show. Before the encore, I yelled out, “Play ‘Free Bird!’” and “Play ‘Fix The Knicks!’” (a JD and the Straight Shot classic). Dolan looked at me but played neither, opting for a song about moonshine instead.
The encores (yes, plural) finally ended, and people clapped, but not for long. The lights came up. As I left my table, I passed three young men, two of them in polo shirts, one in a full suit. I asked why they came to the show, and they said they read about it on Barstool Sports, checked out the band’s YouTube page, and decided to buy tickets.
“I came to get drunk, but, yeah,” said one of them. They all laughed. I asked if they lived in the city.
“Yeah, we’re interns,” said another. “We all go to Duke; we’re all interning at banks.”
“You may have heard of the one he works for,” said the guy in the salmon-colored polo, gesturing at the one in the suit. “It’s called Goldman Sachs.” They laughed again.
I asked if they liked the concert.
“It’s a good band,” said the first guy.
The third nodded.
“They’re talented,” he said. “I don’t hate Dolan. I mean, if they trade Porzingis I will. But I liked the show.”