Archive for the ‘Of Concerts Past’ Category

On a chilly eve in late December 2014, Diane and I traveled from our suburban enclave to center-city Philadelphia, home to the region’s best concert hall (acoustically speaking, that is), the Kimmel Center. It was for no mere concert, however. It was for an audience with the queen – the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. 

She was touring in support of her then-recent Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.

It was a great, if odd show. The evening began with “(Your Love Is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and included such stalwarts as “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” “Ain’t No Way,” “Angel,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Freeway of Love” and – of course – “Respect,” as well as her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which she turned into a medley with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The Williams Brothers joined her for “Precious Memories.” Also in the set: the Christmas carol “O Holy Night”; “The Way We Were” (which she sang offstage); and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (Yes, you read that last one right – the Irving Berlin song from Annie Get Your Gun. It was reminiscent of when we saw Van Morrison, decades earlier, cover “Send in the Clowns.”)

Like I said, it was a great, if odd show. 

Other oddities: After 30 minutes, or thereabouts, she left the stage for a full 10 minutes. While the band vamped, we were treated to pictures from her holiday party. And, after singing with the Williams Brothers, she left the stage and let them take the spotlight for a few songs.

It wasn’t the best concert I’ve seen in my life – but it gave glimpses of what Aretha must have been like in a live setting in, say, 1970 or ’71.

I’ve uploaded my video of “Respect” and the Berlin send-off to YouTube (but am leaving it unlisted due to its poor quality):

The Allentown Morning Call reviewed the show, which can be found here. Philadelphia Magazine reviewed it, too. 

And Diane, who saw Aretha once before, asked to chime in:

The weirdness of the show didn’t matter to me—Aretha invited us (the audience) into her world for a bit and played songs that are the heartbeat soundtrack to my life. Jeff surprised me with tickets to this show, which was a good thing, because the first time I saw Aretha was a show in Atlantic City, and I left it rather disgruntled with the idea of never seeing her live again. She barely acknowledged the audience’s existence and seemed put out at being there.

This show—even with the pictures of her party and the Williams Brothers—was a much better memory to have of the greatest woman performer in rock and soul, the icon, the Queen. I walked down to the front when she performed the song that never gets old or careworn. Aretha may be gone but ‘Respect’ and her musical legacy will never suffer with the aging process.

Thank you, Jeff, for getting those tickets!

Years long ago, on the early evening of Saturday Sept. 6, 1997, Diane and I saddled up our faithful Dodge Colt and traipsed the trails fantastic to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., to see Nanci Griffith at what must have been the apex of her touring career. And eight days later, we set out on a longer sojourn, this time to the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., to see her again. Supporting and joining her on both occasions: the Crickets (aka, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Joe Maudlin).

The Tower fits a little more than 3000; and the Opera House a bit more than 1200. I’m not sure, now, if one or both were sold out, but given her popularity at the time, I’d guess that, if they weren’t, they were close. She’d been on something of a commercial roll since her major-label debut in 1987, Lone Star State of Mind, with each new release expanding her audience while simultaneously expanding her sound. She didn’t approach her music as a lather-rinse-repeat exercise, in which every new release sounded like the old, but as a mode for artistic expression and exploration. Pop sensibilities surfaced on the classic Storms (1989) and less-classic Late Night Grand Hotel (1991), for example, but receded for her 1993 collection of folk covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms and what may well be her finest album ever, 1994’s Flyer, which were both folk- and folkabilly-minded affairs.

Blue Roses From the Moons, released in March 1997, was both solid and sad, however. Primarily recorded live in the studio with her longtime band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, and the Crickets, it veers from the sublime (“Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses”) to the ridiculous (a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield”) and back again, and revisits old themes (“Saint Teresa of Avila”) and even old songs (“Gulf Coast Highway,” this time with Darius Rucker subbing for James Hooker). And, truthfully, her voice often sounds shot.

To the shows: The Crickets didn’t open. Instead, Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra came out first and played for 40 (give or take) minutes, with the Crickets joining Nanci for the Sonny Curtis-penned theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love Is All Around.” With the baton thus handed off, the Crickets then played for about half an hour, with their set including – as one would expect – a few Buddy Holly chestnuts. Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra then closed out the night.

My memory of the Tower show is near non-existent despite the ticket showing us as having very good seats, while my recall of the Wilmington show is slightly better, though I don’t remember meeting members of the Crickets afterwards, which Diane says we did. That said, I do remember leaving both thinking that the concerts were solid, but not sublime, with my favorite moment of each being…the MTM theme, plus the older material, especially “Trouble in the Fields” and “The Wing & the Wheel.”

The Crickets were fun, and Nanci and the band were in good form – but placing ‘50s-styled rock ’n’ roll in the middle of Nanci’s country-folk stylings didn’t quite jell the way one might think it would or should.

That said, one of the encores, “Well, All Right” (from the Not Fade Away Buddy Holly tribute CD released in 1996) was a delight.

This was the set list from Denver a few months later: 

Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Across the Great Divide
Two for the Road
These Days in an Open Book
Love at the Five and Dime
Ford Econoline
Gulf Coast Highway
Love is All Around
Do You Wanna Be Loved
I Fought the Law

Oh Boy
Lover You More than I Can Say
Maybe Baby
Everyday
Summertime Blues
I Gotta Pass
The Real Buddy Holly Story
True Love Ways
Peggy Sue
That’ll Be the Day
Rave On

Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses
The Flyer
Tecumseh Valley
She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Boots of Spanish Leather
It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go
I’ll Still Be Someone
Walk Right Back
Not My Way Home
This Heart

Encore:

Well Alright
Trouble in the Fields
The Wing & the Wheel
Darcy Farrow

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):

  1. Control
  2. Nasty
  3. What Have You Done for Me Lately?
  4. Let’s Wait a While
  5. When I Think of You
  6. The Pleasure Principle
  7. T.V. (Interlude)
  8. State of the World
  9. Race (Interlude)
  10. The Knowledge
  11. Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) [instrumental interlude]
  12. Black Cat
  13. Come Back to Me
  14. Alright
  15. Escapade
  16. Miss You Much
  17. Pledge (interlude)
  18. 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.

February in the Philadelphia region can be a cruel, cruel month. It’s usually cold and often snowy, with icicles dangling from gutters and tree limbs like daggers aimed at spring. Such was not the case in 1990, however. We were in the midst of a mild, mild winter – the mean temperature for December 1989 was 41; January’s was 56; and February’s was 60.

That’s not to say the days and nights were sans inclement weather – it rained 10 days and flurried on two. This specific day, Tuesday the 6th, the temps aligned with the overall warming trend: We experienced a high of 59 and a low of 30. But it was an even hotter night in South Philly, where Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers played the Spectrum.

At the time, I managed the CD departments at two locations for a regional video-store chain, one of which had a Ticketmaster machine – which was how two floor tickets for this concert fell into my lap. Just as the store’s doors opened at 10am sharp, the person manning the machine pushed a button, and my tickets printed and were put to the side as a stream of fans flowed to the counter to purchase theirs.

At least, that’s how it usually worked; but time, distance and memory being what they are, I don’t recall this specific transaction.

Why I bought the tickets: I’d been a fan of Petty’s since 1979 and “Refugee”…

…and bought many – though not all – of his albums in the years that followed. He was dependable – even his worst LPs were better than most. And, too, he seemed like a good guy. Not only did he fight to keep record prices low (famously threatening to title the album that became Hard Promises “Eight Ninety Eight” if his label upped its retail price to $9.98), but in the late ‘80s he showed up on one of my favorite TV shows, It’s the Garry Shandling Show, as a friendly neighbor.

Anyway, by 1990, he was riding high from the unexpected blockbuster success of Full Moon Fever, his first solo album, which had been released the previous April. But, for me and my tastes, I preferred and played his previous album with the Heartbreakers, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), more often. It was looser and less polished, and had hooks galore. His under-appreciated 1985 album Pack Up the Plantation was another (double) platter I often played, in those days. It wasn’t just a run-through of his greatest hits, but a smart set with some way-cool covers. Here’s one of my favorites from it:

To the show itself: My memory is decidedly cloudy – I didn’t even remember that Lenny Kravitz, who we’d seen three months earlier at the Chestnut Cabaret, opened until Diane reminded me of it a week or two ago. What I do recall: Our view of the stage was stellar; the early portion of the set spotlighted Full Moon Fever, which was followed by Stan Lynch’s “Down the Road a Piece” and Benmont Tench’s “Ben’s Boogie” (an extended bathroom break/beer run); and the totally unexpected (by me, at least) cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.”

It was a a magical moment, that song.

I also recall the show’s final quarter, when Petty and the Heartbreakers cranked up some of their biggest, best and hardest-hitting numbers: “You Got Lucky,” “Rebels,” “I Need to Know,” “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

The encores were good, too: “The Waiting” and “American Girl.”

All in all, it was a solid concert with stellar moments – not great, but good. The emphasis on Full Moon Fever, while understandable, would have been fine if the show ran longer than an hour and a half, or if the extended bathroom break/beer run had been replaced with a few more of Petty’s past classics.

In the years that followed, I often contemplated seeing Petty and the Heartbreakers again. That I didn’t is easily, now, one of my greatest regrets. He had a knack for creating cool and concise tunes that were packed with hooks, and for writing lyrics that said something.

Here’s an entire concert – same setlist – from five days earlier, in Providence, R.I.

The set-list:

  1. Love Is a Long Road
  2. A Mind With a Heart of Its Own
  3. Breakdown
  4. I Won’t Back Down
  5. Free Fallin’
  6. Down the Road a Piece (Stan Lynch)
  7. Ben’s Boogie
  8. Don’t Come Around Here No More
  9. A Face in the Crowd
  10. Listen to Her Heart
  11. Something in the Air
  12. Alright for Now
  13. Yer So Bad
  14. You Got Lucky
  15. Rebels
  16. I Need to Know
  17. Refugee
  18. Runnin’ Down a Dream
  19. The Waiting **
  20. American Girl **

(** = encore)