One of the driving forces behind creating this blog was to share, discuss and discover live music. From your first concert, to the best, to the one you wished you would have made but missed, talking about live music is the next best thing to being there.
Everyone has a story to share about certain performances that were noteworthy for one reason or another. And future posts will explore some of those in more detail. But this time we here at “tailgates and substitutes” are looking at what elevates a specific live music experience to a higher plane, creating a show or moment that will stick with you long after your ears have stopped ringing and you’ve lost the ticket stub.
When thinking back over my 27 years of concert-going, some of the most meaningful memories came not just from what was happening on stage, but how it interacted with what was going on with me or the wider world. That only reinforces that what we get from music, or any art form for that matter, is greatly influenced by other outside forces, most significantly what we bring to the experience.
So, here are some of my favorite live music moments. These may not be the best concerts I ever saw, or even my favorite. These are just the most transcendent. What are yours?
Blues Traveler, the street outside of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, sometime in the fall of 1990: Unlike today — when nearly every second of music played by any band is documented, recorded, reported and cataloged online — before the Internet shit just happened and if you missed it, too bad. Given the lack of documentation, sometimes I question whether this concert ever really occurred. But I don’t need proof. I was there.
It was my freshman year, and as can sometimes happen on college campuses, a rumor spread like wildfire that Blues Traveler, the band with that cool new song “But Anyway,” was playing a fraternity party for free and anyone could show up. The story, at least as it filtered its way down to me in the freshman dorm hallways of Stanton Hall, was that guys in the band were friends with ATOs who sprang for the $2,000 necessary to hire them to play for one night.
What the hell, it was worth checking out. So I went. And it was true. There were hundreds of people in the street surrounding the makeshift stage on the side of the house. A professional lighting rig was set up and the band was fully amplified. They kicked into “But Anyway,” complete with harmonica solos, scorching guitars and thumping bass. The crowd went nuts. But so did the cops. They pulled the plug after one song.
You won’t find the show, for what it was worth, anywhere on this list of Blues Traveler performances.
My guess is it fell somewhere between the Oct. 31 concert in New York and the Nov. 6 show in Chicago. A one-night gig in southwestern Ohio would have been on their way.
A year later Blues Traveler returned to Miami to play Millett Hall. That Oct. 16, 1991, performance is logged on the fan site. This time they played to thousands of students, including me. But unlike that serendipitous night the year before, for a show that lasted about five minutes, I can’t remember anything from the 2-hour arena concert.
Grateful Dead, Soldier Field, Chicago, June 19, 1993: Anyone fortunate enough to see the Grateful Dead live will attest, there was nothing like a Grateful Dead show. Widely mocked by detractors as nothing but a drug-fueled hippie fest, with bad music and directionless jams, Dead shows clearly weren’t for everyone. But that’s an argument for a different day.
This wasn’t the best of the Dead shows I saw, but it stands out because of one single moment. And it had as much to do with me as it did the band.
Just two months earlier, I started dating this cute chick (as I used to say back then) from Oberlin. She was literally all I could think about, and leaving for the summer just as we were starting to go out was wrenching. I was, and still am, madly in love. I spent that summer living in Chicago with my brother, making it oh, so easy to hop on the train and catch the Dead when they were in town. And that’s exactly what happened this warm June night.
I had seats on the floor, as the ticket stub bears out. I don’t remember who I was with, but there was always a big group for these shows and we almost never all sat together. It was an above-average show, from what I remember, but I will spare the non-Grateful Dead fans a recitation of how great it was to see a China-Rider second set opener.
The standout moment came deep in the second set, after the Drums and Space jam. This spot in the concert was always the most magical part of late-era, or really any era, Dead show. There on the stage, in front of about 55,000 people, Jerry broke into “Standing On the Moon.” It’s a slow ballad, first released in 1989 on the Dead’s final studio album, “Built to Last.”
It’s a love song. And as Jerry sang the words, “A lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you,” I looked up into the sky and wished more than anything that I was with Lisa, and not at the concert. That was the first time, in all the years of seeing the Dead, that I ever wished to be anyplace other than right there in the venue, taking in the music. At that moment, Soldier Field became an intimate club, just me and the band, and I felt that connection, that transcendent moment, that happens only rarely, but that keeps you coming back for more.
Bob Dylan, Orpheum Theater, Sioux City, Iowa, Oct. 23, 2001: Just five weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I remember being somewhat nervous about sitting in a theater with a couple thousand other people to see a concert, even if it was in the middle of Iowa on a Tuesday night. That fear and anxiety definitely hung in the air back then.
Coincidentally, Dylan also released his record “Love and Theft” on Sept. 11, 2001. So that night, many in the audience had never heard those songs before. There was definitely an electricity in the air, as the review I wrote at the time describes. I posted it to the Dylan newsgroup 13 years ago, and it’s archived here:
As I said in the review at the time, “The crowd responded, hanging on his every word and even shushing those who made the slightest noise. For most of the show audience members remained seated, more out of reverence than lack of enthusiasm. The acoustics allowed for every guitar note, every brush of the drums and every syllable to fill the space within the 2,500-seat theater. The music seemed to embed itself in every crevice, weave its way into the carpet and walls, and soak into the bones of each audience member, making them a part of the musical canvas.”
The moment that stands out to me is when Dylan sang “Sugar Baby,” a song from “Love and Theft.” As I said then, “The crowd applauded at lines about love, women and pain, and the band wrapped itself around the lyrics, allowing them to breathe on their own while at the same time being inexorably tied to the music.”
It was a moment that gave me goosebumps at the time and still does now just thinking back on it. More often than not it seems that the most moving moments in rock shows aren’t when the instruments are being destroyed and your ear drums are bleeding.
Wilco, Overture Center, Madison, Wis., Feb. 20, 2010: I should have never gone to this concert, even though it was on my birthday. But I went as an escape from the utter pain that had enveloped me and my loved ones as my father-in-law was dying from cancer hundreds of miles away in Ohio. I needed to escape from it all. So I went to the show. It wasn’t a party. I was running away into the embrace of a band I love.
Every song seemed to hold even deeper meaning giving what my family was going through. Much of the show was an out of body experience for me. It was like I wasn’t even there. I remember closing my eyes for much of it. But on “Jesus, etc.,” when the band turned over the singing to the audience, I couldn’t hold it together any longer, as I sang along with everyone else: “Jesus, don’t cry. You can rely on me honey.”
On that happy note, we’ve come to the end. There are many more concert experiences to explore, but those will have to wait for another day. Thanks for reading, and be sure to subscribe to the blog so you can get email messages every time something new is posted.