Great gigs I’ve known
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes for a great concert. Unlike a record, where you have the actual artifact to return to, a great live performance exists only in your memory, mere moments after it actually happened. Even if there’s someone videotaping and posting those moments on Youtube, it can’t capture the constellation of sounds and sights and circumstances that make up memorable moments in music. Here’s a few of mine.
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (Bottom Line, New York, 1991)
It’s funny the things that spring immediately to mind when you recall a memorable gig. In this particular case, I remember Penn and Oldham being introduced onstage as part of a songwriters’ series, and when they emerged from the wings they were carrying what appeared to be mugs of coffee. As if they were settling in behind their desks to get down to work. No fanfare, no fuss. Just two dignified, consummate professionals plying their trade. Only for them, work was (and is) creating some sublime soul music. Although I was familiar with Penn and Oldham’s songwriting for everyone from the Box Tops to Aretha Franklin, the truth is just about every one of those classic recordings was dashed by their reinterpretation this night, using nothing more than Penn’s acoustic guitar and Oldham’s electric piano. Some of the lightning of that evening’s performances of “Cry Like a Baby,” “Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet” and “Do Right Woman” was captured on a subsequent live album, Moments From This Theatre. But to quote another soul song, ain’t nothing like the real thing.
Neil Young (Massey Hall, Nov. 26 and 29, 2007)
During the opening acoustic set, Young performed “Ambulance Blues” and I turned to my friend and said “this may be the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” The next day, I was embarrassed over my hyperbole. Something about the night and the venue and its history in Young’s canon (the song explicitly references Young’s difficult early days in Toronto and Young had recently released his archival Massey Hall recording) inspired me to go a little over the top. And then three nights later, I was back and from the opening notes of this song, I was again under the spell. I doubt the anticipated concert movie from this tour could do justice to it, but I’m willing to keep an open mind.
Prince (Paisley Park Minneapolis. Sept 14, 1988)
I’d traveled by bus from my hometown of Winnipeg to watch Prince open his North American Lovesexy tour in his hometown. It’s a long story, but mostly through dumb luck, I ended up with a pass to get in to the after-party at Prince’s studio complex. I recall that Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, George Michael and Pee Wee Herman were in the throng inside a big circus tent erected on the property. I made a beeline for a stage full of equipment set up in a separate tent. I was told that some new act Prince had signed to his label were to entertain, but I was certain that – despite having just performed a three-hour arena show opus — His Royal Badness would entertain his guests. I had to wait about three hours, but around 2 am he and his band took the stage and performed covers and jammed (guests onstage included George Clinton and Mavis Staples). Highlights included a beautiful, falsetto treatment of “Just My Imagination” and an audacious funk stab at Bruce’s “Born In The USA.” A camera crew was recording the whole show, but I’ve never seen evidence of it surfacing anywhere commercially.
Echo & The Bunnymen (Hammersmith Palais, London, winter 1983)
During my post high school Euro backpacking trip, I insisted on including London in the itinerary on the off-chance I might get to see what was then my musical obsession. Upon arrival, we learned that their tour of mid-sized venues was completely sold out, but the show at the Palais (famed from the Clash’s song “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”) was added as an end-of-tour event. They exceeded my own wild expectations. They were dark, cool, wryly funny, musically inventive, smart, mysterious, sometimes almost terrifying in their intensity. I remember being crushed into the mob at the front of the stage and being carried skyward by the mass pogoing. Having worshipped the group privately as a teen, it was remarkable to be suddenly surrounded by other acolytes. I emerged into the street after, shivering as the sweat froze to my skin, and was nearly hit by a cab. I would have died with a smile on my face. About 15 years later, I would meet bassist Les Pattinson and we talked about that show, which was a memorable one for him, too.
George Clinton and the P. Funk All-Stars (Parc de L’Isle, Montreal, Lollapalooza summer 1994)
Great musical theatre is not always (okay, almost never) about flashpots or rear screen projections or choreographed dance moves. That summer’s Lollapalooza featured Beastie Boys, Breeders, Nick Cave and Smashing Pumpkins. Clinton and company were a welcome party edition, but despite their flamboyant appearance, what I remember is a middle-aged Caucasian gent standing off to the side of the stage for the full set, a backstage laminate bouncing on his ample belly, sweat glistening off his balding pate. He just stood there dancing as part of Clinton’s show for the entire performance. I thought: What the hell is the tour accountant doing onstage? And then, during the climax of the show, a microphone was in his hand and the unnamed accountant delivered a blistering, neck bulging rap that brought the house down. Then he dropped the mic and went back to doing his notably un-groovy dancing at the back of the stage. What the hell just happened? That’s what I mean by great theatre.
Richard Thompson (Barrymore’s, Ottawa, 1985)
Thompson was touring Across A Crowded Room, and as an unannounced bonus for this Ottawa show, a film crew recorded the event. Although there was some modest disruption with the cameras swooping around the stage, the lighting and sound quality (Al Kooper produced the audio) was spectacular and Thompson was never more commanding as a performer. The show was eventually released as a home video. The promo clip for “When The Spell Is Broken” – cheesy visuals and all – was compiled with live footage from this show. I can recognize the back of my head in the front row.
Television (The Penguin, Ottawa, 1992)
Great shows can come down to mere moments. I was too young to have had a chance to see Television in their heyday, but I had come to value their two albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure, for many years. When they reunited in 1992 and played this tiny club, it seemed too good to be true. When the house lights dimmed and the quartet walked onstage, they began what sounded like a typical pre-set tune-up. But without the lights ever coming up, the sound morphed into some kind of modal raga freak out guitar duel between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca fell in as Verlaine and Lloyd built up their guitar noodling into bursts of melodic gunfire. The style of their playing was so distinctive – Verlaine all slinky and snaky, Lloyd bullish and aggressive – they kept coming at each other until it exploded in a galloping instrumental free-for-all. It was like two prizefighters that just couldn’t wait for the bell to go and went straight from the stare down into full-on brawl. The rest of the show was pretty good, but a bit of an anticlimax.
Yo La Tengo (Lee’s Palace, Toronto, 1993)
I had come out to see Teenage Fanclub, who were touring on the strength of their then-new album Thirteen. So eager I was to see the headliners, I was slightly annoyed at the prospect of having to endure an opening act. Until about three seconds into YLT’s opener, “Big Day Coming.” I was an instant fan. I can’t think of another act that has managed to find the knife’s edge between noise and intimacy. It’s something that defies easy description, but it was embodied in that night’s closing performance of the instrumental “I Heard You Looking.” I evidently wasn’t alone in my admiration for that performance. Teenage Fanclub would go on to record their own cover of “I Heard You Looking”for the b-side of their single “Neil Jung.” At the end of the night, I still wanted to stay and see Teenage Fanclub. But I wanted to run away and join Yo La Tengo.
Aztec Camera (Porter Hall, Ottawa 1984)
Through a quirk of very bad concert promoting, Roddy Frame’s band was booked to play Canada’s capital on the very same night U2 swung through town on their Unforgettable Fire tour. To accommodate concertgoers eager to see both gigs, the start time for Aztec Camera’s show was pushed very late, which allowed revelers fueled on Bono’s white-flag planting we-can-change-the-world act time to stream in to what would have been a very intimate, largely acoustic performance. After Frame’s literate, complex songs were interrupted several times with nascent chants for U2, you could see the young singer-songwriter was getting steamed. He gave as good as he got, delivering some witty putdowns of the U2 partisans and their heroes. When he sang “Down The Dip” and got to that line “I’ve been hanging with the hollow men who never got the groove,” let’s just say there was a little extra pepper on it. Finally, sufficiently pissed at the indifference or rudeness of the audience, Frame performed a sarcastic cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” which built into a Velvet Underground-like squall of noise. Then Frame smashed his guitar and stalked off. The lesson I took from this is it is much more rewarding to witness a righteously angry performer than a self-righteous one (yes, I’m talking to you, Bono).