Thursday, April 28, 2022

THROWBACK THURSDAY: My Favorite Concerts (after more than a half century of concert going)

 Warning: This is a LONG post!

In December 2020, my daughter gave me a subscription to a strange service called Storyworth, which basically asks you a question about your life, your history, your philosophy, your complaints,  every week. Each of these becomes a chapter in an actual book. Basically a vanity-press ind of deal. 

I did it. It was fun. And earlier this year, I got my book (as did both of my kids).

No, it's not commercially available. But I've decided to publish my longest chapter here on my music blog. 

Enjoy:

Chapter 29: What are the best concerts you've ever been to?

I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life. I’m pretty sure that my first show was The Beach Boys at Springlake amusement park in Oklahoma City in 1964. I would have been 10 then. Brian Wilson was still touring with them then. (I saw The Beach Boys a year or so later. By that point, Brian was in his sandbox, not touring. His substitute in The Beach Boys was an unknown kid named Glen Campbell.) Later that year I saw The Dave Clark Five. (The Beatles never made it to Oklahoma. But DC5 did, and so did Herman’s Hermits, come to think about it.)

Speaking of British Invasion bands, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen had to be The Rolling Stones in Albuquerque in the summer of 1972. They were touring the Exile on Main Street album then, which I believe was the Stones’ greatest. The concert, which took place at the University of New Mexico Pit, was just a few weeks after the Vietnam protests at the university — at the end of my freshman year of college.

These were terrifying protests. I lost my tear-gas virginity then. A student journalist was shot, non-fatally, by a cop right after we’d blocked I-25 near Central Blvd. And the next night, I was shot at by a cop. I didn’t get hit, but my pal Green Bay Frank took some birdshot in his arm. So when the Stones played “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Mick Jagger sang, “I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse” I started shouting and pounding on whoever was sitting next to me (I think it was Alec Walling) and shouting, “They KNOW! They KNOW!!!!!”

But actually the best part of that show was the opening act, Stevie Wonder. I’d been aware of Stevie back when he was Little Stevie Wonder. He’d had several hits under his belt as a teenager, but in 1972, with the album Music of My Mind, Stevie’s music took a major step in establishing his own sound. He’d gone far beyond the Motown assembly-line sound, growing more funky and introspective at the same time. And live, he was nothing short of astonishing.

One final word about that show. Putting on my old-fart “back in the good old days” hat for a second, it seems amazing now that tickets were only $6 — considering that these days Stones tickets are in the hundreds. But back then, most people I know only begrudgingly bought tickets. We all were grumbling that the Stones were charging $6 while most bands only charged $5. “Who do they think they are?” To be fair, that same year I skipped what would be my only chance to see Elvis Presley (at the wretched Tingley Auditorium at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds) because the King was charging a whopping $15 for his show. 

The Rolling Stones, Austin, Texas 2021

[Update: Nearly 50 years later, in November 2021 while visiting the family in Austin, my pal Alec gave me a ticket to see the Stones there. Turns out they were just as good, if not better, than they were in 1972.]

Here are a few more of my favorite concerts over nearly a half century of concert-going:

* The Everly Brothers at Springlake amusement park in Oklahoma City circa 1965:

I went to this show with my whole family — my brother, my sister, my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather. This was during something of a slump in the Everly’s career, as was the case with so many first-generation rockers in the wake of the British Invasion. But they sounded great that night. 

However, as much as I loved the show, I didn’t love it nearly as much as my grandfather. Like Don and Phil, Papa was born and raised in Kentucky and something about those storied Everly harmonies sounded like home to him. At that point in my life, I wanted to be a lawyer like Papa But after the show, Papa turned to my brother and me and said, “Boys when you grow up, I don’t want you to be lawyers, I want you to play guitar like those Kentucky boys.” 

Jack took that advice more literally than I did, though for me it was a parental permission to let my obsession with music be a major force in my life. And I got a sweet, cosmic affirmation of that a couple of years later, a few months after Papa died. I was listening to the radio and the DJ announced a brand new song by The Everly Brothers. It was what would become a minor hit for the brothers, “Bowling Green” in which every verse contains the line, “A man from Kentucky sure is lucky.” I took that as a message from Papa from the great beyond.

* Steeleye Span at the University of New Mexico Pit, 1973:

Like Stevie Wonder at that Rolling Stones show, Steeleye was the opening act at this show, headlined by Jethro Tull. At the time I’d never heard of Steeleye. In fact, I thought the radio ads for the concert said that Steely Dan would be opening. So I get to the show flying high on an extremely strong marijuana brownie. The lights go out and a group of men, plus one woman take the stage in what looked like Druid robes. One of them had a hand drum as they sang a haunting, minor-key acoustic melody I later learned was titled “Rogues in a Nation.” In bizarre and ancient harmonies the group sang:

But pith and power, till my last hour

I’ll make this declaration

We were bought and sold for English gold:

Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Then, following a pithy and powerful fiddle solo, the group doffed their robes and began rocking in their own peculiar British folk way, singing of elves, witches, doomed greedy kings, stormy seas. My mind was fully blown and after that, Tull seemed kind of tedious.

* The Mahavishnu Orchestra at the UNM Student Union Building Ballroom:

This classic jazz-fusion group featured guitarist John McLaughlin as well as Jan Hammer on keyboards and Billy Cobham on drums. They had just released their first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, and at the time, nothing sounded like it. At one moment it would be wild, screechy and chaotic, then, meditative and peaceful, and sometimes even “jazzy.” No complaints about ticket prices here. It cost $2 to get in.

However, one thing I remember about this show is that I got in trouble. Before the band came on, I heard a knocking behind me. I was sitting on the floor by glass door exit, hidden by a curtain. I looked to see who was knocking. It was a cute hippie girl pointing at the door handle. I decided to help her, so I got up and open the door. She rushed in — followed by about 20 hippie freeloaders, who scattered quickly around the ballroom. A security dude started approaching me I thought, “Oh no, they’re going to kick me out. No Mahavishnu for me …” Turns out I was correct that the guy was angry. But all he did was tell me to move away from that door and don’t do it again. I’m grateful now because it truly was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

* Dave Van Ronk at the Armory for the Arts, Santa Fe, 1980:

Me and Van Ronk

I’ll always remember this show, by the consummate New York folkie, because it was the first concert I was ever assigned to cover for a newspaper (The Santa Fe Reporter) and afterward, the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” became the first actual human I ever interviewed. (Actually, what I remember most was getting drunk with Van Ronk and his local entourage at La Posada.) But the show itself was great too. I’ll never forget Van Ronk’s raspy voice taking the audience into the misty, mystic world of William Butler Yeats’ “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.”


* John Lee Hooker, at The Line Camp, Pojoaque, 1982:

In early 1982, Stevie Wonder came to Santa to shoot a commercial for a recording tape company for Japanese television. He was staying at La Fonda with his mobile recording unit in the parking lot there. One night Stevie played an impromptu set at The Palace. I wasn’t there. Lots of people I know, including my brother were there — though if everyone who claims they were there that night really were, The Palace would have to be bigger than Lobo Stadium.

For the rest of the week, Wonder rumors were flying everywhere. “Stevie’s supposed to be here tonight. Stevie’s going to be there this afternoon …” One of the most compelling was that Wonder would be sitting in with his “old friend” John Lee Hooker, who was playing at the Line Camp north of town that weekend. I don’t think I’d ever seen the Line Camp so packed. Judging by the buzz, most of the crowd was there to see Stevie — who didn’t show. 

But Hooker, backed by a group called The Coast to Coast Blues Band, rose to the occasion. The venerated old bluesman seemed to draw energy from the capacity crowd and proceeded to give one of the most dynamic concerts I’ve ever seen. At one point, as the crowd became transfixed by the boogie spirit generated by the band, Hooker spread his arms and shouted, “Can you feel it? CAN YOU FEEL IT?” I felt it! I later learned that the Stevie Wonder-at-the-Line-Camp rumor was pure Grade-A hucksterism on the part of bar’s owner John Harvey. I always admired him for that.

* Butch Hancock somewhere along the Rio Chama, New Mexico 1995:

Butch Hancock, desparado waiting for the rain

This was not a regular concert by any means. There’s a river rafting company called Far Flung Adventures that organizes musical rafting trips in New Mexico and elsewhere featuring musicians, mostly Texas singer-songwriters. Butch Hancock, who is one of my favorite songwriters from any state, has done several of these. I convinced my editors at the New Mexican that I needed to cover one. (Dang it was nice when local papers had the funds to do things like this!)

 Butch, who is an experience raft pilot would help guide the trip down the Rio Chama during the day and sing us songs by a campfire at night. I believe it was the second night when the clouds above us got serious and began a heavy rain. Luckily the Far Flung staff had anticipated this and had brought a large tarp. When the rain came, several members of the audience, including me, became human tent poles, holding the tarp above Butch and other campers. It was a wonderful hearing Butch singing and playing his guitar as the rain on the tarp provided a soft percussion.

Starting with a trip to Denver with Alec for the 1993 Lollapalooza, I began my career as true rock ’n’ roll tourist. I went to several Lollapaloozas, in Denver and Phoenix. I started attending South by Southwest regularly in the mid ‘90s. Alec, his brother Will and I attended three nights of Grateful Dead shows in Las Vegas the year before Jerry Garcia died. I did a couple of music-based trips to with Molly (Bob Dylan and Paul Simon one year, The Chieftains and Sinead O’Connor another). About a decade later I went to the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and the Hootenanny Festival in California with Anton. The remainder of the shows I talk about here all were on out-of-town trips.

* Tom Waits at the Paramount Theater, Austin, Texas, 1999:

This show, at a grand old theater on Congress Avenue, capped off the 1999 festival. Because seating was so limited, those who wanted a Waits ticket had to get up early the day before and wait in line at the Austin Convention Center. I was drinking back then and getting up early during South by Southwest was no easy task. But I did and the ordeal was worth it. The real show stopper at the concert was a song I’d never heard before, the bizarre and hilarious percussion-driven “Filipino Box Springs Hog.” But the tune that stuck in my head as I left the theater was Waits’ classic, “Innocent When You Dream.” It was the end of the 20th Century and it seemed like a more innocent time then.

* Los Lobos, The Blasters, Reverend Horton Heat and others, at The Hootenanny Festival, near Irvine, Calif. 2009:

Los Lobos-plus!

The festival, which featured several rockabilly, psychobilly and roots-rockers, was on the 4th of July the year I went, accompanied by my son. It was fairly early in the day and I’d heard a couple of inconsequential acts and had gone to a porta-potty. There I heard a loud cheer from the crowd and some familiar guitar riff. The Blasters had taken the stage and had begun their set with their song “American Music.” It was a July 4 miracle! I ran out of the plastic outhouse cheering like a maniac. It felt great to be an American! 

Later, during Los Lobos’ set, the band was joined onstage by Blasters singer Phil Alvin and Rev. Heat (Jim Heath) who’d also played earlier) for several songs. It was a roots-rock supergroup and it was fabulous.

* Question Mark & The Mysterians with Ronnie Spector at The Lincoln Center, New York City, 2010:


This show, called “The Detroit Breakdown,” featured bands from the Motor City: Death, The Gories, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. But the highlight was Michigan’s greatest garage band, Question Mark & The Mysterians. 

Though some might consider them to be a one-hit wonder, those of us who serious dug “96 Tears” and dove deeper into this band realize these guys were monsters. The band that played in New York that day included all the original Mysterians — five Chicano guys who grew up hanging out and playing music with each other. Though they’re from Michigan, I looked at them and saw Santa Fe. They were tight but had an easy way with each other. They’d done all these songs a jillion times, but they still look like they’re having the time of their lives playing them. The Mysterians got a little outside help at this show. Soul singer Louise Murray of the Jaynetts dueted with Question Mark on The Jaynetts’ big hit, “Sally Go Round the Roses.” But the real show stopper was when the one and only Ronnie Spector joined the group on a lengthy, groove version of “96 Tears.” It was nothing short of transcendental.

* The Sonics at the Ponderosa Stomp, Midtown Rock ‘n’ Bowl, New Orleans, 2013:

Gerry Roslie of The Sonics

This Washington State band are woefully under-recognized and under-appreciated by the masses. I’d never even heard them until I was an adult. My beloved WKY radio in OKC never played them for reasons I’ll never know. 

But it’s probably for the best that The Sonics never got to be that famous. They never had the temptation to do anything as embarrassing as Paul Revere & The Raiders’ teen idol period. They never went artsy during the flower-power era. Basically, they broke up, did other things in their lives and reunited decades later when they were old enough not to care about show-biz career pressures. 

The group I saw that night in New Orleans included three members from their glory days — Gary Roslie (who plays keyboards as well as handling about half the vocals), guitarist Larry Parypa and sax man Rob Lind. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but just because Roslie, Parypa and Lind are well into senior citizenship doesn’t mean they don’t rock like crazy. They blazed through their tunes like “”Psycho,” “Strychnine,” “Boss Hoss,” “Have Love Will Travel,” and others with crazed intensity. It seemed that everyone I ran into after The Sonics’ set had wide eyes and dazed grins.

* Negativeland, at The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, Oregon, 2014:

This wasn’t music, but it was a SHOW! There wasn’t a guitar in sight. But it was rock ‘n’ roll. Negativland, a sonic-collage, multi-media, socio-political art collective from San Francisco that’s well into their fourth decade as an entertainment unit, are an unlikely crew of revolutionaries, all four members wearing gray plaid shirts that might have come off the rack at K-Mart. 

But don’t be fooled. They are subversive. Employing sound and video from TV news, radio talk shows, government training movies, commercials, old educational films, all chopped up, manipulated and distorted on top of electronic noises and sound effects, this show the group has named “Content” was thought-provoking, hilarious, incomprehensible, annoying and almost mystical — sometimes all at once. They take all these messages — political, commercial, religious, educational — that we’re bombarded with constantly, throw it into an electronic blender and create new, frequently hilarious art.

* The Mekons at the Mekonville Festival, Suffolk County, the United Kingdom, 2017:

There aren’t that many bands I’d cross an ocean to see. But The Mekons are one of them. This festival was a celebration of the group’s 40th anniversary. About 90 percent of the people I know gave me blank stares when I told them I was going to England for a Mekons festival. That’s not surprising. The group has never had a really big hit. They haven’t even been on a major label in a quarter century or so. How many bands these days have eight members — including three or four lead singers — and feature fiddle, accordion, and oud? 

The Mekons sprang out of the punk world, but they went on to incorporate elements of folk and country music, reggae, and other sounds. Whether they are playing an original rocker, some mutated sea shanty, or a Hank Williams song, The Mekons don’t sound much like anyone else. Besides The Mekons — both the current musicians (a lineup that has been relatively stable since the mid-1980s) and the original 1977 crew — the three-day festival also spotlighted various bands involving Mekons members (Jon Langford’s Men of Gwent was a highlight), solo spots by Mekons Sally Timms and Rico Bell, as well as friends, family, former members and assorted allies of the group. While all The Mekons sets that weekend were amazing, my favorite still was the first night. 

The night before I’d been in Dublin, where I’d hurt my shoulder during a late-night egg roll run. It was still hurting and after a day of lugging my bags through airports and train stations, I was exhausted by the time I got to the festival grounds. But the moment the Mekons took the stage I felt a surge of happiness. And when they launched into their hard-driving battle cry, “Memphis, Egypt” (“Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late / The battles we fought were long and hard / Just not to be consumed by rock n’ roll …”), I knew I was at the exact right place at that moment.

Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late 


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