Apparently I’ve been to a lot of concerts.
I didn’t actually think that was the case. There’s a Facebook meme going around now where you list ten musical acts, nine of whom you have actually seen in concert, and see if your friends can guess the red herring.
Of course it takes exactly zero seconds for the moral guardians of the internet to jump on fun little memes like this and declare anyone who participates to be flaunting their privilege and generally upsetting the proper order of the universe as determined by said moral guardians – I can’t tell you how many tut-tutting articles and self-important declarations of refusal to participate I have read in the last 48 hours – but my response to such people is the same as it always is to such people. They and the horses they rode in on are cordially invited to find other sources of entertainment, while the rest of us will have a bit of harmless fun with a mindless little meme.
Yeah, my patience for the guardians of moral probity is a bit thin now. Has been for years. If I ever see any reason to change that, I’ll let you know.
So I thought I’d give it a try. Seemed like fun. Of course, I wasn’t sure that it would work. To be honest, my first thought was, “I wonder if I can come up with nine that I’ve seen?”
On the one hand, I’ve been in a lot of concerts.
I sang in choirs from fourth grade through graduate school and – especially in high school – we performed a great deal, all over the region. The choir I was in when I was doing my MA actually went on multi-state tours. I once helped to write and perform an entire chemistry-themed K-Tel-album-style performance for a one-time band called “Joseph Priestley and the Ketones.” And, like most undergraduates, I was in a band in college. I highly recommend the experience, as it is a lot of fun and requires no talent. We would perform in coffee houses and dorm lobbies, and we had a regular gig doing the between-set space of a friend of one of the band members. She performed at a bar in center city Philadelphia, and we’d haul our stuff down there and do three or four songs every few Thursdays for an audience of half-drunk medical students. Eventually the bar burned down. I don’t think that was our fault.
On the other hand, my actually going to concerts to hear other people perform has been rather slim. Most of them have been small acts, either performers nobody’s ever heard of or performers famous in small niches. But when I added it all up there are more than nine. A whole pile more. And this was a rather pleasant discovery.
The first concert I can remember going to was Leon Redbone.
My dad had two positions – vertical and asleep. So back in high school he’d often be cashed out on the sofa while I or my brother would be watching late night television. Sometimes he’d wake up and watch with us. Thus we watched Saturday Night Live one evening where Leon Redbone was the musical guest. Not long after that we discovered he would be appearing locally.
This was a no brainer.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, Leon Redbone was a fascinating performer. Always dressed in a white linen suit and Panama hat, he had a resonant bass voice and mostly performed Dixieland jazz and other early-20th-century-style music. He also had a sly sense of humor, as perhaps you’d expect from this description. For that concert he was actually the opening act for George Carlin (and wasn’t that a double bill!) and at one point he took out a small camera and started taking pictures of us. “Smile!” he’d say.
I saw him a few times, actually, in venues large and small. Perhaps the most memorable was at a bar in Philadelphia with my college roommate and my dad. It was memorable not because of who I was there with but because the opening act was a local comedian. The performing space was ringed with televisions, all of which were set to Bugs Bunny cartoons before the show. Eventually they turned the cartoons off and up trots this mook who starts telling what he obviously considers to be jokes, except they’re the kind of racial comedy that was probably popular in the darker recesses of the 1950s but which even in the 1980s struck most of us as uncomfortable and, worse, Not Actually Funny. And he didn’t even tell them well. Eventually the crowd started chanting “We want Bugs Bunny! We want Bugs Bunny!” and, after a while, we got what we asked for. And then Leon Redbone came out and all was forgiven.
There were more.
I got paid good money to see 10,000 Maniacs once. For those of you who don’t remember them, well, you’re missing out. They were a lot of fun. They played a sort of melodic pop and their lead singer, Natalie Merchant, had a rich alto voice that you don’t often find in popular music. She was also completely unable to keep still, which was a concern for me since I was running a spotlight for that show and for vast stretches of time my job was to keep her lit. This was quite a workout, and a very different experience from the opening act. Tracy Chapman walked up to the mic in the middle of the stage, pulled out her guitar, and from that point on the only things that moved on her were her fingers and her lips. Eventually I locked the spotlight into position and went and sat down.
Years later I paid to see 10,000 Maniacs again, but I’m still about $20 ahead on them.
In college I saw Dave Van Ronk perform in a seminar room – there were maybe 20 of us in the audience, I think. I also got Pete Seegar’s autograph after a show he gave in a small auditorium at Drexel University with a few other old folkies, the only one I remember being Utah Phillips. He was just standing there in the aisle after the show, so I introduced myself. He was a gracious man, though he disappeared almost immediately after my friends and I found him there. I think he didn’t want to be bothered.
Some friends and I went to see Arlo Guthrie back in college. I don’t think he wanted to be there, though – he certainly didn’t perform as if he did. His opening act, John Prine, was much happier to be there and it showed.
I saw Ani DiFranco as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival back in the early 90s. I’ve never seen anyone so energetic, not even Natalie Merchant, who had a looseness to her movements. Ani DiFranco played like she had just noticed someone walking over to unplug her sound system and was determined to finish her song. They brought a bunch of great acts to that festival over the years I lived there. The Roches, whose harmonies continue to amaze and who once recorded a three-part all-female a capella version of The Hallelujah Chorus. Buddy Guy. And perhaps my all time favorite, a thoroughly obscure little band called Celtic Elvis. They were the opening act for another band called the Horseflies, who were actually popular at the time in a grungy indie sort of way but whom I found tiresome. Celtic Elvis was a lot of fun, though. Someday I will find “High on Stress!” online.
The nice part about the Three Rivers Arts Festival is that everything was free. This was important, on a graduate student budget. It’s always amazing how many things there are out there that you can just walk into that way. I went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival a couple of times in the 1980s and saw a bunch of great acts there - Elizabeth Cotton, Free Hot Lunch, Dave Bromberg, and so on. Those weren't free, but they were still surprisingly affordable on a budget. You have to love that.
You also couldn’t live in Pittsburgh in the early 90s and not see Rusted Root a few times. They were the best dance band in Pittsburgh before they hit nationally later in the decade. I wonder what happened to them. Most people know them today as the band that plays “Send Me On My Way” in the first Ice Age movie. Through an odd combination of circumstances I ended up hanging out with their bass player one night. He was a nice guy.
I’ve seen George Winston a couple of times. Once I brought a pair of binoculars to my nosebleed seats at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and figured out how to play Linus and Lucy by watching him do it. I also got to see Suzanne Vega at a bleak little club in the Strip District of Pittsburgh.
My job as the Performing Arts Guy at Home Campus has given me a ringside seat at a few concerts. There was an American roots band called The Barleyjacks who were really good even if nobody came. We had an Australian band called Max Judo once. I ended up taking them to a Mexican restaurant afterward, which was a bit of a culture shock. I spent some time with the Galactic Cowboy Orchestra, whom I highly recommend. And if you want great harmony and songwriting, you can do no better than The Good Lovelies.
Last December Kim and I took the girls to see Panic! At the Disco, which was a great deal of fun.
On and on, concerts and venues, performances and memories. There were others, and they'll come to me by and by.
So many shows.
The red herring for me was Genesis, a band I nearly saw but, well, didn't. They came to Philadelphia when I was about 15 and my friend Matt and I made big plans to see them. And then my mom found out and, well, suddenly there were no plans. I can't say it traumatized me, to be honest.
You know, maybe this is a sign that I’ve led a fairly privileged life, but if the moral order of the universe can’t handle a few concerts, I’m guessing the problem isn’t me.