Janet Jackson is slated to play the Wells Fargo barn in South Philly next week. The concert isn’t sold out, which is surprising to me, and the fact that good seats are still to be had almost make me reconsider the decision Diane and I made long before it was announced – the key word there is “almost.” The decision: Aside from Bruce and Neil, big barn shows are in our rear-view mirror. Why? They’re among the worst bangs for one’s live-music buck there is – tickets cost more, sight-lines are generally poor, the sound is often subpar, parking is expensive, booze-fueled idiocy flows freely, and traffic…don’t get me started on traffic. Also, in this instance, it’s a worknight.
Yes, I’m re-acquainting myself with the arguments against.
The argument in favor: As the ticket stub shows, we saw Janet in 1990 on the Rhythm Nation tour, the third of three dates she played over four days at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the hallowed hall built in 1966-67 to house the Philadelphia Flyers. It was her first headlining tour, I should mention. It was also a damn good show.
In some respects, it was her State of the Nation address:
The Rhythm Nation 1814 album, released in late 1989, was a socially aware set accented by such top-notch songs as “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat” and “Come Back to Me.” It was pop, it was rock, it was dance, it was new-jack swing. (The between-song spoken bits were also annoying. But that’s a post for another day.)
Now, I’m basically a folk ’n’ roller. Singer-songwriters and old-school rockers – as evidenced by this blog, that’s who I tend to listen to and see in concert. But I have a wide range of additional likes, from traditional country to soul/R&B to jazzy pop, and have enjoyed each in a live setting. Janet’s is the only concert I’ve attended that featured music video-like production numbers, however. She had dancers, choreographed numbers and, I’m sure, on-stage marks she had to meet. And, yet, it was no more calculating than most big-scale rock shows. Instead of the obligatory guitar solos, there were those and the obligatory dance breaks.
The night began with her Control-era hits, then moved into the Rhythm Nation songs. I’d love to give a play-by-play of the evening in total, but – similar to the Tom Petty & Heartbreakers show we saw at the Spectrum six months earlier – only jagged memories of the night remain. I remember that, after a string of dance-heavy opening songs from Control, she slowed things down with that album’s sweet “Let’s Wait a While”…
Although my hunch then (and now) is that she relied on pre-recorded vocal tracks for the high-octane dance numbers, as I can’t imagine anyone singing while doing those moves, it was obvious that she sang live for the slowed-down songs and the more rock-oriented “Black Cat,” which was another of the night’s highlights.
The closing “Rhythm Nation” was also cool. Janet was decked out in her military-like garb, and she and her troupe of dancers stamped their feet to the beat of universal solidarity. “With music by our side/to break the color lines/Let’s work together/to improve our way of life/join voices in protest/to social injustice…”
Say what you will about Janet and her music in the years since (and I have mixed feelings about some of it), and about her now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, but when Diane and I left the Spectrum that long-ago August night in 1990, we only had good things to say about what we’d witnessed and heard.
The set (via Wikipedia):
- What Have You Done for Me Lately?
- Let’s Wait a While
- When I Think of You
- The Pleasure Principle
- T.V. (Interlude)
- State of the World
- Race (Interlude)
- The Knowledge
- Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) [instrumental interlude]
- Black Cat
- Come Back to Me
- Miss You Much
- Pledge (interlude)
- Rhythm Nation
And of that Super Bowl mishap? In some ways, I think, the over-the-top backlash that followed was fueled by the very forces she called out in “Rhythm Nation,” which she performed just moments earlier in the short set.