Music To My Ears (Part 2) — The Worst Pop-Rock Shows I’ve Ever Seen
I’m a changed man.
Moments ago, I thought I knew what to write today.
I thought I knew what to say, and how to say it.
Then, via Facebook, my longtime friend Scott Byron tuned me onto Lee Jones’ personal website and his narrative remembrance of seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert for the very first time. Whatever illusions I had about writing amatuerish music commentary and reviewing concerts has now been shattered.
Check out Lee Jones’ very moving and heartfelt reflections after seeing Bruce Springsteen perform in London a few months ago. It’s an awesome recollection and just as good a written report of the experience. Perhaps I identified with his review more than others, since (like Lee) I’ve never actually seen Springsteen perform live — which I’m told automatically disqualifies me from even thinking about creating a “best of” list. LINK: LEE JONES’ REVIEW OF BRUCE SPINRGSTEEN CONCERT IN LONDON (2012)
Admitedly humbled by Lee’s impressions of that seemingly legendary performance, allow me now to launch into something completely different. As pomised, today I’ll be sharing my most disappointing concert experiences. This list applies exclusively to pop/rock acts. I shall cover lesser-known performers, international music, and Las Vegas shows at another time. You won’t want to miss my “best and worst” of the Las Vegas shows. In fact, I can’t write to write that one.
But first — before proceeding, I’d like to ammend yesterday’s “BEST SHOWS” list with a few additions. That list was created in a few hours. Inevitably, I knew I’d forget at least a show or two when I looked at the list again the next day — which is precisely what happened.
Overlooked from that list was Stevie Ray Vaughn, the late blues guitarist from Dallas. I’ve seen Vaughn perform with his band Double Trouble on three occasions — twice at the Wintergarten in Dallas and once in Washington, D.C. That show in the nation’s capital was special. In 1986, he played at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Hall located on Constitution Avenue, right next to the monuments. Perhaps it was the surreal backdrop — the venue where all the military bands perform. But Stevie Ray took the stage and put on a set that was magical. One image comes to mind. You know how every concert there are police officers working security. I had bad seats to that show and was situated next to a crowd of D.C. police officers (needless to say, given the setting, this was probably the only drug-free rock concert ever). The cops couldn’t help themselves — they were jamming to the music. I’ve never seen that before — not for U2, not for The Who. But D.C.’s finest were enjoying that performance every bit as much as the crowd. If you love blues guitar as I do, this was one of the best concerts ever made even more memorable by the intimate setting.
Oh, and one more. Carole King. I’m partial to singer-songwriters, and King is a maestro. I saw her perform once here in Las Vegas. She sat at a piano and played for two uninterrupted hours — mostly by herself. In between the songs she had written, she told stories — about her life, about her loves, and about her losses and memories. It was very personal, which is what made it special. She was herself and she was beautiful. I think she was 65-years-old when I saw her. Hers might not be the “best” show I’ve ever seen, but she’s no doubt one of the best at what she does. King also might be the most sincere performer I have ever seen take a stage and sing to an audience. She is truly special.
So, what makes a bad show?
Beyond the obvious things — poor song selection, light and sound problems, too short a performance, lack of effort — I’d say above all else what makes a bad show is a disinterested performer (or performers). So, what annoys me? (1) A singer or band who demonstrates little regard for the audience. (2) A singer or band that disrespects its audience. (3) A singer or band that rushes though the material.
What then, makes a horrible show. What kinds of things would anger an audience so much that it might even cause the most faithful fans to storm out of the show in a fit of rage? These are the kinds of performances I’m talking about — and will be writing about today.
Before proceeding, I must warn you. Thinking back now on the list I am about to compile in my mind (I’ve only got a few in my head at this instant — which are the worst three – I am sure a few more will come to me), I am probably going to lose it and launch in a temper tantrum. You have been warned.
One more disclaimer: A bad act or a bad performance does not necessarily qualify as a “bad show.” That might sound strange, so let me explain.
I’ve seen Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band a few times. No doubt, the former Beatles drummer won a first-class ticket on the most storied train in rock music history and went along for the ride. Since the most successful band in music history broke up in 1970, following a few scattered hits riding those coattails, Ringo’s been pretty much a traveling and temporary a lounge act. Fact is — he’s terrible.
But when you see Ringo and his band of burnouts and rock n’ roll has-beens, even though you know they are pretty much awful, they don’t take themselves too seriously. No one expects to hear the Abbey Road sessions when they take the stage. Everyone is simply there to have a good time – and that includes the band as well as the audience. I’ve heard much the same thing of the Jimmy Buffet experience, but have never attended one of those shows.
I just want to make it clear that a performer might not be particularly talented or lacks the ability to play great music. But as long as they seem to give a good show and have fun, I’ll go along. That said, let’s now get to the worst shows I’ve ever seen. Drum roll please (not you, Ringo):
LEON RUSSELL (TUNICA, MISSISSIPPI) – 2005: It pains me to write this. Leon Russell is an extraordinary songwriter. At one time, he was also a thrilling performer. He stole the show away from George Harrison and Bob Dylan at the famed 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh” in Madison Square Garden, no small feat. His whiskey voice and orchestration of the ivories has been pure magic.
However, for some inexplicable reason, Russell chooses to perform these days with an electric piano, which completely erases the melodic charm of the classics. I’ve been told this is partially due to his health issues, but one would think he would play the instrument with which he is associated, which is most certainly NOT an “electric” paino.
When Russell and his band took the stage at one of the casinos south of Memphis when I saw him several years ago, he might as well have punched a time clock on his way in and on his way out. He sure as hell wasn’t interested in working overtime. One could sense that while others got wealthy and famous singing Russell’s grand masterpieces, he’s forced to grovel away nightly playing in second-rate ballrooms in front of puzzled onlookers and drunks who probably don’t even realize HE WROTE the jazz standard “Masquerade,” not Goerge Benson. Imagine the insult of hearing that great song come on, and then hearing someone in the audience think he’s the one covering George Benson (when it’s the other way around).
Speaking of masquerades, it’s sad really. Russell should have been one of the greats. Now, he’s a shell of his former self and been reduced to a C-lister He’s an awful performer.
LED ZEPPELIN (DALLAS MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM) — 1977: This was one of the first rock concerts I ever attended. I can’t remember actually being angry at the time. But in the years since, as I reflect back on this show I now realize how bad it was. I believe this was the last major tour Led Zeppelin made of the United States. They were pretty much on top of the world at the time, especially to every teenage boy (I was 15).
I recall lead singer Robert Plant swigging Jack Daniels on stage and thought that was so cool. In retrospect, he was just zonked out of his mind, like the rest of the group. This was the era of demolishing hotel rooms and pretty much behaving like assholes — which is what the public inexplicably adored.
Looking back on this now, I suppose I’m glad I had a chance to see them. But I’m also sorry this was towards the end of the band’s existence, when they were utterly disinterested in musicianship and working the magic that made them so legendary. By then, it was too late.
VAN MORRISON (ANY PERFORMANCE AFTER MID-1970s): I’ll put my knowledge and collection of Van Morrison up against just about anyone. Forget the few hits you probably know — which are average at best.
Consider the astonishing output of excellence off and on from the period between about 1968 after he departed Them and 1999 which is probably unmatched over the course of any musical career. Thirty years of music. What’s amazing about Van is — he’s gone through so many changes. His music is also impossible to categorize — fusing jazz, blues, and soul with his own indelible voice and interpretation. You never know what insrtument you might hear next on a VM recording.
What’s even more amazing about VM is — he absolutely hates being a celebrity. He despises being a rock star. He wants none of it. Sadly, this shows when he performs. I can’t tell you how crushed I’ve been the times I have seen VM perform. I mean, crushed — like finding out there is no Santa Claus.
VM is hardly a perfectionist in the studio, and often races out his tracks in just a few takes. He’s also relentlessly difficult to work with. One might think this would create an interesting on-stage personality. Well, it doesn’t. He is a bore, a broken down and bitter man, terribly wronged by the music business (how he’s been fucked over multiple times is legendary) which often manifests itself in an angry or disinterested VM when he takes the stage.
Of course, VM has evolved and re-made himself many times over the years. No two shows or tours are quite the same. But to hear the magic of Van’s writing and craftmanship in studio mangled by his live delivery of that same material is painful. Van Morrison is an astonishing talent as well as an abominable performer.
And now — on to the worst three shows I have ever seen.
ELTON JOHN (THE RED PIANO TOUR – CAESARS PALACE LAS VEGAS) — 2007:
Elton John is an amazing singer and songwriter.
But the sewer I stepped into five years ago at Caesars Palace affected me so negatively that I now have no interest whatsoever in seeing him perform or hearing one of his records ever again.
Let’s start with Elton John’s producer and video choreographer, David LaChapelle — who deserves much of the blame. During my final days at Binion’s Horseshoe (before it was closed down and eventually purchased by Harrah’s), LaChapelle came into the casino and asked to film on location. So, I had the opportunity to meet the man. LaChapelle told me he wanted to show the “old” Las Vegas as part of a new show he was producing for Elton John, which would be called “The Red Piano.” Naturally, we were glad to help and let him have free run of the Horseshoe.
I watched as LaChapelle filmed that day. Frankly, I forgot about that incident until a few years later when I attended the show at Caesars Palace and saw the production.
First, you have to picture a large red paino positioned at center stage. So far, so good. Then, there is a huge arc of giant movie screens hanging above and around the stage which appears to be about a football field long, It’s gigantic. These screens show montages of various scenes while Elton John is performing. Again, so far, so good.
Then, there are what appears to be unlit neon signs which are somewhat hidden from view when the show begins. These signs, with bold and colorful lettering in the style one typically associates with Las Vegas, will become part of the show, one by one. This is where the bit of drama comes in. What is written on those signs and how do they figure in the show? As things turn out, I’ll be sorry that I asked.
So, Elton John begins. He sings and performs. There’s nothing particularly moving in the utterly predicatble song set, which bascially is a rolodex of his most popular hits. Why venture off the predictable interstate and perform any song other than the ones we have heard 8,793 times before, with all the comped suckers getting free seats and dupes like me paying $150 a seat, right Sir Elton?
Everything Elton John says to the audience is canned. All that was missing were the cue cards. One can sense these lines have been parroted more times than a Broadway show. I realize that with so many shows performed, it’s hard to stay fresh. But even Wayne Newton — who’s probably performed 10,000 shows in his carrer — goes off the beaten path at times. Forget about even ATTEMPTING to make any connection with the audience whatsoever — or sharing what creative forces or inner angst inspired him to write “Your Song,” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Forget it. This show was mailed in a long time ago, and there wasn’t nearly enough postage. Too bad we couldn’t stamp it “Return to Sender.”
But that’s nothing compared to the porno-infused spectacle that spewed above the stage in the form of those neon signs and the grotesque video presentation created by LaChapelle. As each Elton John song was piped down the assembly line to the capacity crowd, one by one, various signs and images appeared — most of which had absolutely no connction to the songs or the show. Some were also utterly offensive. I’m all for sex and adult-themed shows when they are performed in the right environment. But can someone please explain to be how a giant banana and two smaller oranges hoisted into the air during one of Elton John’s most sentimental songs is appropriate?
Then, there were the neon signs that had “XXX-RATED” emblazoned on the stage, once again, which appeared during a song that had nothing to do with anything associated with that genre. In fact, I can’t imagine any Elton John song where ANY of this garbage would have served any purpose, other than as a distraction.
It was baffling.
But wait, it gets worse.
David LaChapelle’s videos up on the giant screens played non-stop from the beginning of the show to the end. It was appalling. I used the term “pornographic” earlier — but at least pornography can be interesting and serves a purpose. This was fucking rubbish.
I recall a few inexplicable scenes from those videos – one of Justin Timberlake portraying a much more youthful Elton John who is backstage while getting his makeup applied before a show. No point. No purpose.
Another scene — a homoerotic fantasy of a man laying on a beach somewhere that seemed to drag on on several minutes while the classic ”Daniel” was sung. If Elton John wants to do a tribute to his former lover — that’s fine with me. In fact, go ahead and tell us the story and then perform the song. But seeing some erotic video of an anonymous male during such a wonderfully moving song cheapened the sentiment. Well, more like — it destroyed it.
Another scene — Years ago, Elton John was apparently suicidal. He considered placing his head into an oven and turning on the gas. We got to see that re-enactment Huh? This is ”entertainment?”
Another scene — the ridiculously repulsive and hopelessly out of place Pamela Anderson on the giant screens dancing wildly around stripper poles for what seemed like forever to the horrid song, “The Bitch is Back.” This was the point where I seriously considered walking out.
After all the provocative videos were shown, and all the sex gadgets and signs were prominently displayed (to an audience that most certainly included people who hoped to celebrate Elton’s John’s storied musical career), the star of the show exited the stage quickly. Then, on cue, he came back on for three-and-a-half minutes and performed “Your Song.” And that was the end. Lights up. Show over.
Now, everyone get the fuck out.
As I was exiting from the second-tier balcony along with my wife, I was livid. I remember standing on a descending escalator unable to control my outrage. I do not remember my exact words, but I expressed something to the effect that this was the “worst fucking show I have ever seen!” My voice tends to carry and many people heard this. My wife was also so insensed at the garbage we had witnessed, she didn’t even try to hush me up.
As one might expect, I got more than a few disbelieving stares. I also got a few quiet nodding glances from others around. Apparently, many people were thinking the same thing.
I can assure you that there’s virtually nothing that offends me. Almost nothing at all. Every act has a time and place. But Ceasars Palace and the performance of a rock legend is not the place to be displaying faux penises and suggestive neon displays, not to mention an inexplicably mind-boggling video that did nothing but serve as a distraction.
After seeing Elton John’s show, I felt cheap. I felt used. I felt like I’d been fucked.
This was an appalling performance. I never care to see Elton John again.
Writer’s Note: I did not expect this to run so long. So, I’ll post the worst two shows I have ever seen (even worse than Elton John) in tomorrow’s blog. There were hints in this write-up as to what those two shows were.