“Who’s your favorite band?” “Most memorable concert?”
Innocent questions, one posed to me by a young relative, the other posed to readers of Capitol Fax, a great political blog. Should be a simple answer, yet I was flummoxed. My favs in the ‘60s weren’t by the ‘70s. And so many memorable, ear-shattering shows over a half-century of concert-going. Gotta think. Then the kid asks, “Well then, what’s your favorite song?” Oy.
The favorite band dilemma. Stones to Doors to Hendrix to Cream to Tull to Kooper-Bloomfield. Then nothing but jazz: Coltrane, mostly. Along come Bowie, Ramones, Pretenders, Talking Heads. Then darkness until Nirvana. Flirtations with Rosie Ledet, Iguanas, Shakira, Julieta Venegas. All in with Chhom Nimol/Dengue Fever and Li Saumet/Bomba Estéreo.
Who influenced me most? Coltrane shaped my cosmic consciousness as I sat on a stormy Lake Michigan beach with “A Love Supreme” on a tinny cassette player. Ramones & Bomba Estéreo make me a dancin’ fool. When I whistle mindlessly, it’s usually Dengue Fever, Cure or my cover of Hey Joe. My keyboard style reflects Ray Manzarek, Al Kooper, McCoy Tyner. When they hit certain notes in certain songs, Shakira, Julieta Venegas & Chhom Nimol can make me bawl. In Seattle, I visited Hendrix and Cobain landmarks; both hit me hard.
Who have I listened to most? My Life’s Play Count? Hmm. Maybe Stones, Doors, Trane, Ramones, Fugazi, Cure, Dengue Fever. Who have I seen most? Pretenders, Dengue Fever, Bomba Estéreo, Iguanas, Rosie Ledet, Waco Brothers.
OK, most memorable concerts (in chrono order, with juicy details at the end).
1. The Doors at Chicago Coliseum. November 1968.
2. Jethro Tull & Led Zeppelin (opening for Vanilla Fudge!) at Chicago’s Kinetic Playground. February 1969.
3. “Fathers & Sons” (Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield) Super Cosmic Jamboree. Chicago. April 1969.
4. Stevens Point (WI) SummerFest (MC5, Dr. John, Blue Cheer, Paul Butterfield, Ravi Shankar, Siegal-Schwall, Amboy Dukes). July 1970.
5. Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues Fest (Sun Ra, Koko Taylor, Count Basie, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman). August 1972
6. Miles Davis at Paul’s Mall, Boston. August 1974.
7. Devo at Chicago’s Park West. January 1979.
8. Iggy Pop & Pretenders, at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion. March 1984.
9. Lollapalooza #1 (Jane’s Addiction, Chili Peppers, Siouxsie, Ice-T, NIN, Rollins Band). World Music Theater, Tinley Park IL. August 1991.
10. Violent Femmes & B-52s at Illinois State Fair. August 1992.
11. Rosie Ledet at Fitzgerald’s, Berwyn IL. February 1998.
12. Dengue Fever at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. May 2010.
13. Rebirth Brass Band at Maple Leaf, New Orleans. October 2010.
14. Julieta Venegas at Miami’s Olympia Theater. February 2011.
15. Bomba Estéreo at Chicago’s Empty Bottle (January 2012) & Concord Music Hall (July 2015).
I’ve seen giants in giant arenas: Blind Faith (International Amphitheater). Celia Cruz (free show in Chicago’s Humboldt Park). Segovia & Yo-Yo Ma (Chicago Symphony Hall). Bowie (Rosemont Horizon). Elvis Costello (Chicago’s moorish Aragon Ballroom aka “Arrogant Brawlroom”). Stones & Lenny Kravitz (Soldier Field). Shakira (Chicago Stadium). Los Lobos at the Riviera NYE ’97. Springsteen with Eddie Vedder (a Wrigley Field concert which went extra innings).
Giants in intimate spots, too. Howlin’ Wolf & Big Walter Horton in tiny Chicago clubs. Mose Allison & Gato Barbieri at Paul’s in Boston. Sonny Rollins at Village Vanguard. Muhal Richard Abrams & Anthony Braxton in a public library. Hot Tuna in a basement folk club by DePaul. B-52s in a Philly loft (same night we broke into the Philly Zoo). Smashing Pumpkins at HoB Chicago. Trombone Shorty on a street corner. Mojo Nixon (who fed me shots of Jager) at Chicago’s Hideout. Legends at Fitzgerald’s: Sonny Landreth, Marcia Ball, Iguanas, Alejandro Escovedo, Clifton Chenier.
Honorable Mention: Lost Generation at 3 Pines Supper Club, Bensenville (IL) in 1967. My old garage band, playing to an octagenarian dinner crowd. We smell trouble right off. When Randy does his “One-Two-Tree” mic-check and Jimmy tests his snare, oldsters spit out their soup; dentures and toupees go flying. As we rip into "Louie Louie", patrons clutch at their chests. When Randy sings, “We Gotta Go Now”, the restaurant manager is yelling the same thing. Shortest concert ever.
Some memorably bad scenes. Offspring at World Music Theater, when the band invited 20,000 concert-goers to throw their trash at the stage. Feldman & I were upfront, trash raining down upon us. Or “Mayor Byrne’s ChicagoFest” at Navy Pier, when punk/New Wavers enjoying Skafish & Immune System on a floating stage were heckled and shoved by thugs in “Disco Sucks” t-shirts.
Memorable concerts all. But my best musical epiphanies happened 10 years apart - oddly - both in the Yucatán. First,1981, as I strolled Avenida Yaxchilan in downtown Cancún, where a Plaza Garibaldi-style battle of mariachis was waged nightly. I had a good buzz going when I heard a band a block away play the opening of "La Negra", a mariachi classic. The resonant sound, the brassy feel (“timbre?”) of those bars were so physical, visceral. I still get a lump in my throat.
Ten years later, 200 miles down the coast. I’m in a tiny bar in Majahual (before cruise ships wrecked it). Headful of tequila & other stuff. Bartender is spinning vinyl, mostly oldies. He puts on something unlike anything I’d ever heard, revolutionary, like I’ve been waiting for this. I ask the guy what it is. He stops the retro turntable to peer at the label. Something called “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Favorite songs? Let’s start at age 11: "Hello Muddah Hello Faddah". Mom loved Broadway sound-tracks; we kids knew "Maria", "Bali Ha’i" and "The Rain in Spain" by heart.
Then the break. I buy my first .45s (Downtown, Paperback Writer). Oh, I’m off Broadway now. Little Red Riding Hood, Last Time, Monday Monday, Louie Louie, Hey Joe, 96 Tears, Wind Cries Mary, Ball & Chain, Politician, Riders on the Storm, New Day Yesterday, A Love Supreme, Ziggy Stardust, Lobotomy, Big Country, Search and Destroy, Perfect Day, Homicide, Fascination Street, Chihuahua, Add It Up, Buffalo Soldier, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Violet, I Hate Banks, Casa Abandonado, Tiger Phone Card, Fuego. All topped my chart at some point. Lately? Red Stick Ramblers’ hypnotic Les Oiseaux Vont Chanter. Karaoke? House of the Rising Sun. My funeral? Steve Goodman’s A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request, Satchmo’s St. James Infirmary, Dropkick Murphys’ Amazing Grace.
OK, details on the concerts…
1. Doors at Chicago Coliseum. Nov 1968. Took the train from the ‘burbs with my pal Moreth and his sister (a future Alaska Mayor). We hike to the historic cavernous Coliseum, home to national conventions & pro wrestling. On the same stage where William Jennings Bryan vowed “you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”, James Douglas Morrison will declare “our love becomes a funeral pyre”.
We’re in the 2nd level just above the stage. The band is an hour late, but crank out a lively set to a raucous crowd. Fans keep running on stage, causing a near-riot right below us. Rock & roll! At one point between songs, there’s a weird lull in the screaming. I yell “Crystal Ship”, and they go right into “Crystal Ship”. First and only time.
2. Jethro Tull & Led Zeppelin at Chicago’s Kinetic Playground. Feb 1969. Opening for Vanilla Fudge! In a roller rink turned “psychedelic nightclub”. Groovy scene: black-lights, strobes, paisley, owsley. Led Zeppelin I and Tull’s This Was had just come out. I recall exiting the club into an icy night saying “Man, that dude can play a flute!”
3. “Fathers & Sons” (Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield) Super Cosmic Jamboree. Chicago. Apr 1969. I was increasingly drawn to Chicago blues and its melding with rock; this trailblazing concert changed my life.
4. Stevens Point (WI) SummerFest (MC5, Blue Cheer, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Ravi Shankar, Siegal-Schwall Band, Amboy Dukes) July 1970. Just out of HS; Randy & I start to hitchhike to Wisconsin, but an undercover cop busts us. We then borrow Mom’s car. Busted again trying to sneak 2 hippies into the Fest in the trunk. My first big music fest and a foreshadowing of my punk future with Blue Cheer & MC5.
5. Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues Fest (Sun Ra, Koko Taylor, Count Basie, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman) Aug 1972. Hitchhiked with my pal Kevin, with whom I had found jazz. We slept in backyards of locals (unbeknownst to them). I’d seen Koko and the Count before (I have his autograph on a paper plate), but the Sun Ra Solar Arkestra was a revelation.
6. Miles Davis at Paul’s, Boston. Aug 1974. Another concert with Kevin. Miles was in full-blown electro-fusion mode. Afterward, we’re chillin’ in the club when we see Miles at the next table (wearing mirrored sunglasses). I lean over to chat. He sticks out a very pink tongue and throws a wet napkin at me.
This is also memorable for being the first time I’d had a gun pointed at me. We leave the club at 3 a.m. Guy walks up, waves a pistol, says he’s taking our roommate Jenny into the alley for a minute. Kevin calmly says that’s not a good idea and - amazingly - talks the guy out of it. We give the dude a few bucks, then walk all the way to North End for fresh-baked bread at an Italian bakery.
7. Devo at Chicago’s Park West. Jan 1979. From ’76 to’80, the Torrespico sisters, Benham & I hit countless punk/New Wave concerts, not to mention La Mer Vipere, O’Banion’s, Club 950 & other iconic Chicago venues. We hosted raucous “For Madmen Only” New Year’s Eve bashes at our Wicker Park loft which - we believe - helped nurture Chicago’s ‘70s punk scene.
The Devo gig was memorable for my seeing technology in a new light, in the lyrics as well as cordless guitars which enabled the boys to race around the club. Mothersbaugh whipped his yellow jump-suit into the crowd and I snatched it. Still in my basement.
8. Iggy Pop & Pretenders, at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion. March 1984. Iggy opened, but everyone knows it coulda gone the other way. Including Chrissie Hynde, who kisses the stage on which Iggy had just played. The crowd sings-along with Chrissie: I can’t get from the cab to the curb without some little jerk on my back.
9. Lollapalooza #1 (Jane’s Addiction, Chili Peppers, Siouxsie, Ice-T, NIN, Rollins Band). World Music Theater, Tinley Park IL. Aug 1991. The first of 3, still the best. Feldman & I keep inching closer to the stage. “Jane Says” is superb, complete with bongos & steel drums.
10. Violent Femmes & B-52s at Illinois State Fair. Aug1992. Best State Fair twin-bill ever. Plus a Butter Cow! I know this will go down on my permanent record.
11. Rosie Ledet at Fitzgerald’s, Berwyn IL. Feb 1998. Saw the Zydeco Sweetheart many times; this is memorable for having a crowd of about 20, including Rich & me. Raging blizzard outside, ragin’ Cajuns inside. Rosie & the boys play for hours like we’re in a living room, including a spicy “Gonna Take Care of Your Dog”. We drink with the band during and after.
12. Dengue Fever at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. May 2010. One of maybe 10 shows I’ve seen; this venue was ideal and the band was crisp. I’m with several Cambodians; Nimol stops to chat. She’s so cool!
13. Rebirth Brass Band at Maple Leaf, New Orleans. A Tuesday in Oct 2010. Wife & I take a streetcar, buy brats from a guy grilling outside and perch by the stage the whole show. A wall of sweet sound without amps.
14. Julieta Venegas at Miami’s “Olympia”. Feb 2011. In Miami with the wife on business; we hear Julieta’s at an old theater by our hotel that very night! Sold-out; we score from a scalper. I’d just discovered her; she did not disappoint, playing accordion, piano, guitar & drums. Bilingual sing-alongs. Mala Rodríguez came out for a sexy, impish Eres Para Mí duet.
15. Bomba Estéreo at Chicago’s Empty Bottle (Jan 2012) & Concord Music Hall (July 2015). I’ve seen Bomba 7 or 8 times, but these shows stood out. Li Saumet is fierce, funny, electric. Fuego!
More memorable concerts to come, one hopes. - Claude Walker, Jan 2018