Life-Changing Concerts

The subject of concerts has come up.  I've been fortunate to have performed in front of many thousands of folks over the years.  I've also attended a ton of concerts, well over five hundred at this point.  Until recently, big name shows in large venues weren't that expensive, and I happened to be living in an ideal part of the world to see a lot of them.  The mid-Atlantic US has so many venues within driving distance! 

Even after seeing so many shows, there are always some that stand out.

My first big rock concert was Bruce Springsteen at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia.  The River had just come out.  It was a high-energy marathon that introduced me to the Rock 'n Roll Preacher act of his.  I'm not a fan of everything he does, but there's no denying that he knows how to put on a great show.  The entire audience sang Hungry Heart.  I also recall Backstreets being way better live; it's still one of my favorite Bruce songs.  The Big Man was the coolest, too.

The next year I was back at the old Spectrum for The Police, who had just put out Ghost In the Machine.  Nothing like seeing one of the top acts of their time, at their peak.  It was the first time I ever heard a truly stereo guitar rig, and I proceeded to go out and buy a flanger afterwards to get that Andy Summers sound.  Stewart Copeland is one of the most fun drummers to watch live; his ability to play slightly in front of the beat with that energy of his is so cool.  The Go Go's opened up, too, and what more could a high school guy ask for?  That was a fun night.

Fast forward a few years, and by this point The Grateful Dead became one of the bigger acts out there.  The first few shows that I saw in Philly & New York were just so different than anything else that I had seen.  Nobody else was playing venues that large and truly improvising & jamming like that.  And the scene was pretty unbelievable, too. 

Before it got too big, one could camp out in the parking lot for a run of shows and drop out of regular society into this other world that was the genesis of the jam bands as we know it.  At times I felt like Garcia was actually communicating with the crowd in an advanced manner, using the band.  Every show was unique, of course.

And I think their commitment to having the absolute best sound system in the world, no matter the expense, was really impressive.  It's only recently that I've felt other bands have even come close to the high quality sound that the Dead had.  It really helped create that effect that Garcia was intimately singing just to you, despite being in a stadium with 80,000 others.  They were also the first stadium band I saw using gigantic video screens, which really made the large venues feel smaller. 

As Garcia and the Boys were winding down in the '90's, the band Phish was just moving up to the big leagues.  They took some of the psychedelia and improv of the Dead and added in that quirky Zappa-esque sense of humor of theirs.  After all, the drummer wearing a dress playing a vacuum cleaner solo was certainly unique!  I especially remember a Merriweather Post Pavilion show in 2000 that stood out, with a Curtain that blew my mind.  Their lights are the standard in jam bands, and have been for decades.

Also have to give special mention to the U2 Zoo TV tour at Hershey.  The band reinvented themselves into something much darker and edgier than what they had been doing, and the set design was something I've never seen since.  Cars suspended over the audience with headlights, huge video screens everywhere, and the whole concept of watching TV at a big rock concert made quite a statement.  Bono played different characers, too.  The information overload that the show pushed out was years ahead of its time.  And they still try to push the envelope with live shows.

The Pink Floyd concerts in Philly also stand out, if nothing else because of the quad sound that nobody else did.  Their use of video projections during the shows was a big influence on me, of course.  Their light show was probably the best at the time, and how can we forget the lasers?  They had pyro, and even crashed a plane into the stage during a song.  Nothing like it.

I have to mention Neil Young.  I have seen him in a number of configurations over the years, but what I was really impressed with was the way that he could hold the attention of an entire stadium just by himself, with his acoustic guitar.  Even with Crazy Horse, he usually had a few songs completely solo, and that's very hard to pull off.  Only a few folks I can think of can do that.  His solo version of Cortez The Killer was transformative, every time.

Can't forget the time I saw David Bowie play at the Star Pavilion in Hershey.  Probably one of the smaller shows he ever did later on, and he did every thing one could ask for.  All of the hits, and some deep cuts.  I still can't believe he played there, such a small place.

After my divorce I started going out to local clubs more, and stumbled across the electronica jam band Quagmire Swim Team.  For a few years, this band was the biggest band around the area, and I got to know the folks in the band and their scene.  I was building up the concert lighting in shows I was doing with Greg Naylor (I was one of the first to get LED lights in this country), and started doing lights for Quag more and more. 

I knew their jams well, and was able to build things up along with their songs and get things in sync nicely.  It's a shame they never put any studio stuff out; they had some unique material and could do the group improv thing better than most.  But the scene got a little crazy towards the end.

Then there's Nels Cline.  I had seen him in Wilco, but it was his solo shows with the Nels Cline Singers as well as his annual run of shows at the old Stone in NYC that really changed my ideas of what a jazz/rock guitarist could try to do.  Once a year at The Stone, he would do a week of shows, with two entirely different BANDS every night.  Naturally, most of this was improvised. 

To see show after show, with all of the looping and weirdness being eaten up by sold-out crowds was really inspiring!  And the range of compositions with the Singers is something I've seen very few guitarists do.  His unusual techniques and gadgets are always entertaining.  

But even given that, my first time seeing just him and Julian Lage do their duo show with no effects at all was mind-blowing.  Just the two of them, and they could create these intertwining runs of notes between them that made it impossible to keep up.  It was overwhelming in a great way.  Amazing chemistry.

Other recent shows that stand out are David Byrne (his show with nothing on the stage is really creative) and Kraftwerk (3D glasses were handed out as you come in, and they had videos behind them that jumped out at you at times).

I'm not even mentioning hundreds and hundreds of other shows.  There are the numerous times that I saw R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Tame Impala,  Medeski Martin & Wood, Tom Petty, Dr. John, Leo Kottke, Courtney Barnett, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, Lucinda Williams, The Allman Brothers, John Scofield, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Derek Trucks, Richard Thompson, 10,000 Maniacs, the local band FRICTION, as well as Michael Hedges, Sonic Youth, The Wallflowers, Black Flag, The Rolling Stones and Public Enemy. 

I really miss the nomadic lifestyle that one could lead before Clear Channel/Live Nation came along and started creating this monopoly that could jack up prices across the board.  The big shows really shouldn't be much more expensive than a movie. 

Which ones stand out for you?  Let me know in the comments below.