Sunday, February 14, 2016

FIVE SEMINAL CONCERT MOMENTS ( by artists other than Bruce Springsteen)

I  have been a slave to live music from the moment I donned an iridescent suit at the age of 12 (pretty snappy attire for a 12-year-old but not exactly concert material) and headed off to my very first rock concert at Yale's acoustically perfect Woolsey Hall.
The featured attraction was a local group called, appropriately enough, The Shags (Beatle cuts the order of the day for so many of those early bands). For me, at age 12, they were The Beatles. The whole experience was a sensory overload of sights and sounds, and  what had been a mostly casual interest in the music that my older brother and sister were listening to, transformed immediately into  an obsession.
That obsession was easily fed in my early teens through CYO dances, teen clubs like Bill Miller’s Cheri Shack, and summer block party dances. All of these venues featured  live local bands , groups such as :  The Wild Weeds, NAIF (North Atlantic Invasion Force), The Chosen Few, The Scratch Band, and The Zone of Quiet. These bands remain locked in my memory in much the same way the songs from that era are.
In my later teens and twenties, almost every night of the week, live music could be found in New Haven at clubs like  Toad's Place along with Oxford Ale House, the Great American Music Hall, the Agora Ballroom, and the Foundry Café. It's a dynamic that unfortunately no longer exists,  New Haven has become yuppified to the point where a night out consists mostly of finding the best apple-cranberry-lime-chocolate-mousse fake martini. Quite a few musicians from that era later went on to national fame. Big Al Anderson from The Wild Weeds would later front the very popular NRBQ band and is now a respected songwriter in Nashville. He has written hits for  Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, and Jimmy Buffett, to name just a few. The Scratch Band’s drummer Mickey Curry would later join Hall and Oates during the time when they were having their greatest success, while guitar player G.E. Smith was the long-time leader of the SNL Band. New Haven's Michael Bolton began  his career  locally in a hard rock band called Blackjack.
With that as a backdrop, here is a list of five very important concert moments, not necessarily because they were the best concerts I have ever seen, but mostly because they have remained etched in what at this point is a very fuzzy memory. I mean -- this was the 60s, give me a break, at least I still have my hair.

1. YOU'VE GOT TO KEEP THE FAITHBlind Faith - July 13, 1969 - Kennedy Stadium, Bridgeport, CT
Opening act -- Delaney Bonnie and Friends
In the late 60s, a number of iconic bands began to split up, and out of those ashes rose “supergroups.” The term most likely derived from the 1968 album Super Sessions, which featured Al Kooper, Stephen Stills and Michael Bloomfield -- three artists who had come to prominence playing in some of those early 60s bands. One of the earliest and probably best known of such groups was the short-lived Blind Faith. The band consisted of Steve Winwood, best known as the organist/vocalist in The Spencer Davis Group, and later went on to form Traffic. Guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker had formed two-thirds of the very popular power trio Cream, and prior to forming Cream, Clapton had done stints with The Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, impressing critics and fans alike with his virtuoso guitar playing -- so much so that “Clapton is God” posters were a not-uncommon sight in various parts of England in the 60s. The fourth member of the band was bassist Ric Grech, who previously played with a group called Family, who were neither super nor popular.
Blind Faith was so short-lived that only a handful of people were lucky enough to see them on their one tour. I was one of those lucky ones, front and center at Kennedy Stadium in Bridgeport in the summer of 1969.
The image of two legends, Winwood and Clapton, walking out on stage together, both with guitar in hand remains a vivid memory for me -- and a surprising one, given that most people figured Winwood would be handling the keyboard and vocal duties while Clapton/God did his thing on guitar. Winwood was then and remains to this day one of the great rock vocalists in history, and on that night with the opening notes of the song “Had To Cry Today,” it was easy to hear how he earned the nickname “Little Ray” (in reference to Ray Charles) as a 15-year-old prodigy with the Spencer Davis Group. The set was a short one by today's standards, maybe lasting an hour at most. The band didn't have a huge catalog of songs to choose from, given that their one album consisted of only 6 songs.
In addition to the short set, the sound system wasn't great either, so in terms of this being one of the great concerts I have witnessed, it wasn't. But to be one of the lucky ones to see this band in their short tenure remains an important musical event in my life.

Newport Jazz Festival - July 11, 1970

In 1969  the organizers of the long running Newport Jazz Festival decided to change their usual format and book a few rock acts into what had always been a strictly jazz line-up. But sprinkling bands like Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Sly and The Family Stone, and Ten Years After into the mix was going to transform what usually was a peaceful, calm weekend of mellow  jazz into… well, into a rock festival.
The result was  a rock-festival-size crowd descending  upon a concert venue not equipped to handle a huge amount of people.With  it  came the standard storming of the gates and tearing down of fences,think Braveheart on hallucinogens,  turning it into a free concert for most of the people -- basically Woodstock without the bad acid, at least no bad-acid warning announcements from the stage.
Needless to say, when 1970 rolled around, nary a rock act could be found anywhere in the vicinity of  Rhode Island, but a group of my friends and I decided to roll into Newport anyhow, and roll in we did in a rented U-Haul, two people driving in the front, and the rest of us stuffed into the back like cargo. It was Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, east coast style with an old rented orange and gray  U-Haul replacing the brightly colored psychedelically  painted magic bus, minus the windows.
Unfortunately although the rock acts were gone, the atmosphere surrounding the concert grounds seemed anything but friendly. There had been reports of fights around what was called Festival Field, and early on Saturday, one of our group had a knife pulled on him.
Our vantage point from the hill overlooking the festival grounds did not exactly seem like a safe zone once the night session of the concert began, and for some reason my feeling was that most of the people around us on that hill were not exactly Herbie Mann fans. Jazz flautist Herbie was second on a three-act bill that also featured Nina Simone, whom I had never heard of in 1970, and  The Ike and Tina Turner revue to close the show.
Whether it was cannabis-fueled paranoia, or anxiety from the events of the day, I was not exactly a picture of serenity when Nina Simone hit the stage. I really just wanted to get back into the windowless U-Haul and head home. On the stage, I could see a solitary figure sit down at the piano and in the next minute, this voice, a voice that I had never heard previously, resonated through the night and into my soul. It was deep and soulful in a way that I couldn't describe -- not a Motown Top 40 Diana Ross kind of a soul or even an Aretha Franklin kind of soul. This seemed different, mesmerizing, it's effect forced me to focus on what seemed from a distance the almost frail figure on stage and as she played, the perceived problems surrounding me melted away. Every note she sang rang so clearly through the quiet night, there was pain in her voice, but a serene calmness as well.There was a depth to this performance that went well beyond anything I had experienced musically at that point of my life.
All of the anxiety and fear were washed away , and somewhere  in the middle of the  set , Nina made sure the night was going to be all right. To this point, I had not recognized any of the songs, but now a few familiar notes from the piano and then Nina was telling me, in the words of a current very popular Top 40 hit, “ooh child, things are going to get easier, ooh child, things will be brighter.”
Amazingly Nina was singing “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps -- such a dichotomy to hear Top 40 coming from that voice, yet the effect of recognizing the song, combined with Nina's transcendent voice, turned the lyrics of that song into a reality, and yes, for this night, even in the darkness, things were easier and things were so much brighter. I will forever be grateful to the amazing Nina Simone for that moment.

3. SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK(or never buy concert tickets from a man named Rocky)
Neil Young - January 22, 1971
Shakespeare Theater - Stratford CT

Something seemed amiss from the moment I purchased four highly sought-after tickets to see Neil Young at the very limited-capacity Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Connecticut.
Suspicious: Neil Young was at one of his highest levels of popularity, following the release of his third solo album, After The Gold Rush, and tickets were hard to come by.
Definitely sketchy:  the person selling the tickets. Rocky (whose last name will not be revealed) was a somewhat shady character from my hometown of East Haven who approached me first to tell me he had “come across” some tickets if I was interested in attending. Growing up in a town that was 95% Italian, you come to an understanding pretty early that occasionally items fall off of trucks, and you don't ask questions.
So it was that I, my girlfriend and another couple headed out on a cold January night, excited to see Neil -- despite that fact that he would be performing solo when all three of his albums were recorded with full band.
As we were escorted to our seats, very close to the stage no less, I didn't really pay much attention to the police officer standing off to the side, just figuring he was routine security. But as soon as we got to our seats, we were descended upon by theater staff and the officer.
Turns out the tickets  had been stolen, the four people who they were stolen from were there, waiting to claim their seats, and we were embarrassingly dragged (well not dragged, this wasn't an episode of Cops) out of the theater into the lobby. Pleading my case, I assured them we had not stolen the tickets but had purchased them from Rocky (the  suddenly no longer nameless Rocky). I didn't need to be waterboarded to sing like a canary, and remarkably, not only did they believe my story, but they allowed us to stay. Amazingly enough we were seated in the side balcony, as close to the stage as possible. For the next 90 minutes, we were granted  an up  close view into the musical genius of Neil Young,  as he alternated from guitar to piano, playing songs spanning his whole career, from Buffalo Springfield to his current record. Midway through the set, we were treated to two songs from what would be his next great album, Harvest, as he played back to back “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Heart of Gold.”
What could have been disastrous turned out to be a front-row seat to see a musical legend perform. 
   I'm not sure what became of Rocky, but unsubstantiated rumors place him in a high level position at Stub Hub.

4. WAITING FOR WAITSTom Waits - June 28, 1975
Tanglewood Performing Arts CenterLenox, MA

At least three or four times each summer, in the early 70s, my music loving friends and I would take the very scenic ride up Route 8 in Connecticut into Massachusetts to attend shows at either The Lenox Music Inn or the more formal, normally classical concert venue, Tanglewood Performing Arts Center. In June 1975, the attraction was a solo performance by Stephen Stills (ex-Buffalo Springfield, ex- and future CSN&Y), who had a current hit at the time with “Love the One You’re With” (which if I am being honest, I hated). For me, Neil Young always was the main attraction in any band featuring him and Stills -- but it was a beautiful summer day and Tanglewood was a nice drive, so off we went.
The opening act was someone I had never heard of prior to the show. Out came as disheveled-looking human as I had ever seen: long, shabby coat on what was a hot day, Medusa-like hair going in every direction. Without a word, he began a rhythmic clap and finger snap as he half-talked, half-sang his opening poem/song a capella , while the open beer can in his right pocket continually spilled its contents over the side of his coat.
At first I thought this was a comedian. It wouldn't have been the first time a comedian opened for a rock act. His voice sounded like fresh gravel had been poured down his throat, and although it was obviously some kind of poetry, I was too stunned at what I was witnessing to pay attention to the words. 
The first number ended. Out came the rest of his band, an upright bass and drummer. He sat down at the grand piano and for the next 45 minutes to an hour, half-sang and half-talked his way through a set that had me mesmerized. Yes, this was definitely poetry, and the music behind it was dark and smoky, moody and at times hilariously funny, but it was clear this was no comedian.
At this point, I couldn’t have cared less if Steven Stills ever made an appearance. Despite the fact that the crowd was mostly inattentive and the sound system had an annoying buzz, I could have sat there and listened to Mr. Waits for the next two hours. I was completely enthralled by the music and the poetry and the story-telling before each song. 
I have been a huge Tom Waits fan ever since, and he has written some of the great poetic masterpieces of my time -- among them the Bruce Springsteen classic “Jersey Girl,” which many people mistakenly assume Bruce wrote but sorry, it was Mr. Waits.

The years between 1975 and 1990 were very prolific concert years with lots of great shows, but for some reason they mostly seem to blend together. Elton John closing down the crumbling New Haven Arena in 1972 was a fantastic show. The very early edition of The Eagles at Waterbury's Palace Theater, with Randy Meisner, stands out. Van Morrison in Lenox, Massachusetts on a warm summer day… Joni Mitchell in the same building where I saw my first concert, Woolsey Hall, with the Tom Scott Band… Traffic with Fairport Convention, featuring the great Richard Thompson, at the New York Academy of Music… all of these shows are great memories, but I was going to so many concerts at the time that there didn't leave much time for savoring the shows I did see.
So I will skip ahead to 2009.

Leonard Cohen - May 14, 2009
Palace Theater - Waterbury Ct.
I came to Leonard Cohen's music late in life. I had always known some of his songs, mostly through covers by other artists: Judy Collins and Nina Simone with “Suzanne,” multiple artists with “Bird on a Wire,” and Tori Amos covering Leonard's “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
By the time I became fully immersed in his catalog, mostly through hearing his songs used in the movie Natural Born Killers, Lenny was at an advanced age and hadn't toured in years, so the chance of ever seeing him perform live seemed like an impossibility.
But, unfortunately for poor Lenny -- but fortunately for his many fans -- it came to be that his long-time friend and business manager had been systematically pilfering from Lenny's bank account while the reclusive artist was living the life of a Zen Buddhist Monk on the top of Mt. Baldy in California. When the realization hit that he was literally broke -- and suing his manager was fruitless given the fact that she was also broke -- he was forced to go back out on the road in 2008, to absolutely rave reviews.
In May 2009, again at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut, I did what I often do these days and purchased a single ticket to the show, thereby getting a chance to sit front and center stage, sixth row, as the now-75-year-old Leonard literally skipped onto the stage and performed a three-hour-plus, two-set show filled with every song I would have wanted to hear and then some, to a crowd that obviously felt the same way I did. It was a great gift to get to see this man in person.
Not only was Leonard great, but his band was equally amazing. Every single player seemed to be a virtuoso at their particular instrument, and his three female back-up singers were the perfect complement to Leonard's gruff Waits-like voice. To this day, seeing Lenny live remains the concert event of my life, surpassing even Springsteen.

1 comment:

  1. You should have warned me to wear a seat belt before reading this. I'm still hurtling back in time and space . . . in the best possible way.


SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK(or never buy concert tickets from a man named Rocky) Neil Young - January 22, 1971 Shakespeare Theater - Stratford CT

Something didn't seem quite right  from the moment I purchased four highly sought-after tickets to see Neil Young  at the very limi...