Music To My Ears (Part 1) — The Best Pop-Rock Shows I’ve Ever Seen
We don’t necessarily move to great music. To the contrary.
Great music moves us.
I think most of us – at least those of a certain generation — think of music as a sort of “soundtrack to our lives.”
I love music. To me, music is not just heard. It’s experienced. It’s emotional. Music is felt.
Indeed, the greatest music moves us. It transforms us from one state of consciousness to another. At certain points in my life, I’ve heard powerful pieces of music and then afterward thought of myself as a changed person after hearing the composition. That’s the power of sound.
I remember a great story once told by Brian Wilson, of The Beach Boys. He spoke of the time he first heard the Phil Spector-produced “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes. It was 1963 and Wilson was driving down the Ventura Highway. Keep in mind what the popular music scene was back in those days. Pretty tame and pretty lame. The radio was on and the disc jockey announced a brand new record by a group no one had ever heard of before. “Be My Baby” began to play.
I can’t tell the story as eloquntly as Wilson. But he recalls he actually had to stop and pull the car off to the side of the road. He sat there. He listened in awe. Of course, Wilson took the experience as motivation and went on to pen several classics himself.
However, no two people react to music in the same manner. My rose garden is a mere field of dandelions to someone else in tune with another fragrance. In this sense, there is no such thing as bad music, if someone, somewhere is moved by the experience of listening to it.
If I were asked to produce a short list of music that has profoundly influenced me (and continues to do so) that would be next to impossible. Any list would be too short — and therefore incomplete.
Like most people who enjoy music, I have heard the standards and the classics hundreds of times. These songs that most people know are timeless. So, I now mostly expose myself to new alternative sounds. For instance, I tend to listen to a lot of international music.
Let’s take a moment to talk about a few sources for great music. My favorite site for new music is PANDORA, which is arguably the best way to experience new songs and artists. If you are not aware of PANDORA, the idea is that — one-by-one — you listen to songs by artists you prefer. As you grade these selections, a sort of peersonal musical profile is formed. Then, PANDORA presents you with alternative music that you might enjoy based on your ratings. LINK: VISIT PANDORA HERE.
My favorite source of older music is WOLFGANG’S VAULT, which has a staggering amount of concert archives. I have spent hundreds of hours at WOLFGANG’S VAULT, listening to all kinds of performances. While classic rock is the main feature, there’s a lot of other genres of music, as well. Where else can you listen to multiple live performances by Charlie Parker, The Tubes, and Led Zeppelin all at the same site? For free! Just about everyone I have tuned into this incredible music collection has been blown away. No, I’m not on their payroll. I just think you might enjoy some music that is as rare as it is incredible. LINK: VISIT WOLFGANG’S VAULT HERE.
Best of all, the shows are FREE to listen to IN THEIR ENTIRITY. Why anyone woul listen to some stale classic oldie when these alternative versions are available is baffling to me. Perhaps people just don’t know. The bottom line is, if the scale of 1-10, WOLFGANG’S VAULT deserves an “11.”
Speaking of great live music, I want to spend today sharing with you some of the best rock/pop performances I have seen. Unfortunately, there are many acts I have not seen. So, I cannot comment on shows I have never experienced. Moreoever, just because I am a fan of the artist does not mean they put on a good show. For instance, no one is a bigger fan of Van Morrison than I am (get past “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl” — those are throwaways compared to his much better, less commercially successful, works later on and even most recently). But “Van the Man” is a terrible live performer, at least these days. And Bob Dylan is worse. I actually stormed out of a Dylan concert one time.
To make things really interesting, in the next blog, I’ll write about some of the worst rock/pop performances I’ve seen. I hope you will indulge me over the next few days, open your mind, and take a journey.
That said, here it goes:
TEXXAS JAM — 1978: The Dallas version of Woodstock was held numerous times during the 1970s, when 80,000 crazed rock fans jamed into the relic of a stadium known as the Cotton Bowl. The Texxas Jam shows were always a marvel, since the day began early and then ended way past midnight. It wasn’t so much a show. It was a test of endurance. There was also so much drinking and so many drugs taken that most of it is now just a haze to whose who were there. The 1978 show featured Van Halen, Eddie Money, Heart, Journey, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Ted Nugget, and Aerosmith. There were other acts, too. I recall Heart taking the stage late in the day, just as sun was going down. Imgine having to be the unfortunate act that had to follow Van Halen in 1978. But the Wilson sisters just blew everyone away. Perhaps it was so much great guitar from the other bands that made Heart the perfect counterbalance. I also remember some whacked out nutjob climbing up the sound tower next to the stage, and the show actually had to be stopped because they thought he was going to leap to his death.
THE POLICE (SYNCHRONICITY TOUR) — 1983: I saw back to back shows in Dallas (Reunion Arena) and Austin (South Park Meadows) in 1983, when The Police were at the top of their game. This was a wall of sound that took several twists and turns, hitting on every note. I had expected to just see the Dallas show, but after being blown away, I caught their show in Austin a few nights later. I found it amazing that just three musicians could produce such a powerful sound. This experience made me a Sting fan for life.
THE WHO (FAREWELL TOUR) — 1988: This was one of multiple so-called “farewell tours” by the legndary band from the UK. The final show of the tour was a dark and dreary setting, which was perfect for the occasion. The Who had been touring all summer and fall, I suppose hoping to rake in one last heist of cash before taking a break. The long tour ended with a late afternoon concert at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Trouble was, it was early December. The concert was held outdoors and it was perhaps 35 degrees. Then, it started raining. We had seats on the field, about 50 feet from the stage. Despite the band getting soaked and freezing their asses off, they rocked the house. There must have been no more than 40,000 or so fans packed into the cavernous football mecca that day that held twice that number, and many were huddled beneath the upper deck. Those of us who stuck it out in the rain were treated to a masterful show. The Who could have very well mailed it in that day, and no one would have blamed them. But they didn’t. They even did an encore. I was kind of on the fence about The Who prior to this show, thinking they were somewhat overrated. But after this experience, I gained great respect for the band’s dedication.
MICHAEL JACKSON (DANGEROUS TOUR) — 1992: Not a fan of Michael Jackson at all. But the man did have amazing talent. “The gloved one” astonished the world twenty years ago by becoming one of the first major acts to visit Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Jackson put on a special concert in Bucharest, Romania where he played in a huge soccer stadium called 23 August. The layout was horrible. It was hard to see. The sound system sucked. But what a show it was! Jackson arrived in the stadium in some kind of jet pack. I don’t usually like light-laser shows and smoke, because those stage tricks are often used to cover up the artist’s lack of talent. But in the case of Jackson, he nailed it that night. Maybe it was because the show was being held in a place that had never experienced anything like a Michael Jackson concert before, but I remember hyperventilating during the performance. It was that powerful.
RUSH — 1994: I’ve never been a huge fan of the Canadian rock band known as Rush. Sure, I certainly admire their musicianship. But I don’t think I own even one of their albums. That said, Rush puts on one of the best shows I have ever seen. There’s just so much energy in a Rush show. Like The Police, it’s astonishing to hear three guys pump out such an incredible sound. When I saw them play the Capital Centre, a dumpy arena on the outskirts of Washington, DC, I recall the stage configuration was highly unusual. Rather than the lead guitarists standing in front of the drum set as with standard rock acts, the drums were actually placed center stage and then the other two musicians played around the set. It somehow provided a more intimate setting. The band gave everything. Oddly enough, their energy does not come across as well on recordings, in my view.
U2 (POP TOUR) — 1997: I’ve seen U2 perhaps ten times. It’s hard to say which was the best show since they were all overwhelming. However, the performance at RFK Stadium that year was special. What was most impressive was the integration of new material off their vastly underrated “Pop” album with the classics. Often, impatient crowds just want to hear the familiar hits. But for whatever reason, the mix of old and new hit the perfect note that night. Moreover, with it’s encassd shape, RFK Stadium is (was) an awesome outside concert venue. Usually, outdoor shows lose quality. If anything, this show was better because of the setting. I remember being particularly moved when U2 ended the 30-minute encore with a tribute to a local artist who had died of AIDS that year, singing the Rightous Brothers’ classic “Unchained Melody.” Fucking powerful.
Now, to the best three shows I have seen:
U2 (TARRANT COUNTY CONVENTION CENTER, FT. WORTH, TEXAS — 1988) — This was a show that made history. I was there. u2 was to play one show in the Dallas area that year. But when tickets went on sale, the show sold out so quicky that a second show was added. I got tickets for both shows. U2 has always been politically active, one of the reasons I admire them. At the time, U2 refused to play in any city that invested money with South Africa (this was during the last stages of Apartheid). So, because the City of Dallas had a lot of investments with South African firms, u2 decided to boycott the big Dallas venues and instead play in some tiny hellholle called the Tarrant County Concention Center. They could have sold 100,000 tickets for that show. But this dump held like 6,000. So, you can imagine the lines to get tickets. I did an overnight camp out and got tickets for both shows. First show was solid, but not as memorable as the RFK show I would see years later. I do remember that the Smithereens opened Then, on the second show, I crashed the expensive seats with my freinds and we got up right next to the stage. What happened next was fucking unbelievable. U2 was filming their live documentary called “Rattle and Hum” during this tour. No one knew it, but one of the best scenes was to be filmed that night when blues legend B.B. King steppd onto the stage with U2 where they sang “When Love Comes to Town,” which Bono had written as a tribute to King. So imagine, Bono singing and then The Edge trading guitar licks with B.B. King, and being like 30 feet away. Wow. What a stunning moment. I remember it like it was yesterday.
STING (MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION, NORTHERN VIRGINIA) 1995 — I’ve seen Sting five times. From his debut album in the mid-1980s to today, he always puts on a fabulous performance with many of the best session jazz musicians in the world. Sting is able to draw from an almost endless reservoir of classics, but still manages to keep his shows fresh and unpredictable. I have a hard time singling out any one show or experience, because they have all been fabulous.
PRINCE (MUSICOLOGY TOUR) — 2005: Bar none, the best show, the most talented performer, and the most musically moving moment I have ever experienced was seeing Prince when he performed live at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles during the Musicology Tour. Words fail to come to me to describe this man’s astonishing natural charisma and talent. But first, I will digress.
I was always neutral on Prince until this show. I respected his mix of influences and knew he was one of the rare few who could both create fabulous music and also perform it in a live setting. But I’ve always thought Prince’s overt sexuality distracted the audience from his musicianship.
This show was performed in the round, with Prince at center court. He sang. He danced. He played instruments. He started off songs in unimaginable ways, once laying on his back shirtless on the floor and then, like morphing fom a some bundled-up caterpillar into a beautiful monarch butterfly, simply blew away the roof with his magic. Like I said, this is impossible to describe. But, I’ll try.
Consider what we thought were the closing moments of this show. Prince had just performed a two-hour set. I remember looking over and saying this was one of the best shows I had ever witnessed, at least from a single performer. The hits. The sound. The sweat and the perspiration. The giving of everything to his audience — as though he was completely spent, utterly bankrupt of any remaining energy, like he had absolutely no more left to give.
Moreover, durng the program Prince’s shyness actually seemed to cement a much closer relationship with his fans. I felt as though his whispers between songs, talking to the audience so softly and with such tenderness, just before puntuating the serenity by breaking into some heart-racing scream as the opening riff to the next song served as an embracing yin to and audience juxtaposed against a staggering yang of symphony that everyone knew was about to come.
So, as I said, the show was about to end — or so we thought. As the audience stood on its collective feet and roared for an encore, Prince came out again. He was all alone. It was as though the rest of the band had gone home. He had an accoustic guitar in his hand. There was a barstool on center stage. It was just Prince. Prince alone. Unplugged.
Prince whispered to the audience, “Does anyone here mind if I play my guitar?”
The crowd went fucking wild.
I mean, we just lost it. The next 30-40 minutes (yes, it went that long) seemed to flash by.
Prince riffs into these incredible songs, one leading into another. His hands were dancing all over the neck of the guitar. He played classical. He played rock. He played funk. IT WAS BREATHTAKING.
Like most of us, I’ve seen the clips of the greatest guitar masters — Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, Slash, whoever. Prince was every bit as good as any of them, and better in the sense he was alone and unplugged and exposed and just sat there and gave us the gift of himself. I had tears in my eyes watching that performance. IT WAS MESMERIZING.
I remember leaving the arena that night dazed and almost in a state of shock. I had just witnessed something that was as close to perfection as anything I had ever experienced. In short, there was no show that could possibly top that one. None. And, I must admit — in part for that reason — I have attended very few pop/rock shows since I saw Prince that magical marvelous night in Los Angeles.
Alas, I had climbed music’s equivalent of Mt. Everest. I had heard the sound of the roaring wind. From that vantagepoint, everything else was beneath. There was no higher place to go.
Writer’s Note: Tomorrow, I will recall the worst rock/pop performances I have ever seen.