Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ten Shows: Part V

Holy-long-gap-between-posts, Batman! I'll try not to let it happen again. Well, here's the 2nd-to-last post for the Top 10 shows I've attended series. This went on way longer and is much more verbose than I intended. I should have taken Faulkner's advice. Oh well...

Phish, Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, Irvine, CA 9-19-1999
As I’ve stated in a previous blog, I never quite got the whole anti-Phish sentiment that a lot of Deadheads maintain. It’s funny, because from an outside perspective, had you walked the parking lot of a Dead show in the early-mid 1990’s or a Phish show from 1995-on, well, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two as far as the look and feel goes. Many Phish fans branched off and dropped the Dead scene due to the overwhelming popularity of the Grateful Dead and the massiveness of their shows. Phish was more intimate and was still the fans band in a way.
That all changed. Even more so after the Grateful Dead was no more.
Although I’ve never researched any exact numbers (nor do I plan to,) there was a huge spike in Phish show attendance after Garcia’s death and the demise of the Dead: this likely led to some of the conflict. I’m sure the “old-school” Phish fans resented the influx of Deadheads. The first time I saw Phish I recall a couple of hippies arguing over who was the bigger fan.
“Well I saw them back in ninety-four at” such-and-such venue.
“Yeah, well, I was going to shows in ninety-three…”
Ridiculous, really, but that’s not what this post is about.
I saw Phish for the first time in the summer of 1999. My wife and I had been anticipating the show for some time—we had been going to as many of the post-Jerry incarnations of the Dead as we could manage yet were ready to experience something new. I had a grasp on their repertoire by then as I had collected a fair amount of bootleg shows in addition to their studio releases. Like the Grateful Dead and many other jam bands, Phish allowed taping at their concerts so long as they were not used for commercial profit.
Irvine Meadows was a short distance from where we were living at the time. As we tooled south on the 405, the freeway became thick with vehicles sporting the “Phish” emblem. The logo was a clever take on their name designed in such a way it resembled the outline of an actual fish:
As we approached the exit for the amphitheater and made for the parking area I noticed no discernible difference between this lot-scene and that of a Dead show.  Drum circles were pounding away, every 10th head was a mop of dreads, marijuana smoke wafted about, mixing in with sage, patchouli, and grilled cheese. Vehicles ranged from wildly painted school buses to brand-new SUVs. Everywhere you looked were hippies on skateboards and bikes, college kids partying, and the occasional dog wandering that may have been named Cassidy or Althea (or Trey?)  It really was just like a Dead show.
 Yet upon settling in and walking the lot for a bit the differences became more apparent. The crowd was generally much younger; not as many crusty hippies left over from the 60’s lurked about. The general mood of the fans wasn’t quite as “peace, love, and happiness” either. Being as how Phish first gained traction close to their roots in Vermont, a large contingent of their fan base was East Coast. And with that came a more stand-offish attitude. I’d come to find out (or heard) that East-coast Phish fans selling stuff in the lot were much more apt to rip you off.
Regardless, the general mood was still festive—generous amounts of drugs and alcohol changed hands and everyone was partying. We got primed for a couple of hours and filtered into the amphitheater to find our seats, stage right, just a section or two in front of the general admission lawn. The sun was disappearing behind the hills to our back as the venue lights came up and then dimmed again. The sell-out crowd was building with an intense anticipation I hadn’t experienced since seeing the Dead for the last time almost 5 years previous. As Trey and the band stepped out, the crowd absolutely erupted and was sent into a frenzy of whirling, wild dancing as the band opened with the song NICU.
As the late summer California day fell dark, a strange thing happened. The band launched into the 3rd song, an instrumental called First Tube, which has an awesomely complicated polyrhythmic structure to it. At the same time a car dealership down the hill and across the freeway lit up their huge spotlights to attract would-be buyers to their lot. The spotlights shifted across the sky and fell into rhythm (a polyrhythm mind you) with the song. It was as if the entire city, as well as the venue, was pulsating and became one with the band—the energy surged and suddenly everything in our extended space was absolutely electric and alive and was in tune and rhythm with the music.
A hippie to my right turned and said:
“Can you feel it, man? Can you feel it?”
Yes, as a matter of fact I could.
The band played on for two sets and an encore which totaled over two hours of music. As the band built into an intense jam during the second set droves of fans began twirling glow necklaces and bracelets—the kind you get at the fair or around Halloween. As the song reached its zenith, the band and crowd entwined in a rapid crescendo, everyone began throwing the glowing jewelry, the stadium exploding into a psychedelic glow-stick battle that continued for most of the rest of the concert.  The band truly played to the crowd and the crowd to the band. There was a oneness at that show that was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
I understood then why so many Deadheads jumped ship for Phish. Being a Phish fan in the 90’s could be likened to seeing the Dead in the 70’s. You were a part of an exclusive subculture that was still somewhat new and unique that the world hadn’t yet fully discovered or understood.
I was absolutely enthralled with Phish after that show and saw them several more times through the years, including a recent solo show by Trey Anastasio here in Portland (which almost made this list actually.) Phish is a fantastically talented band, and although I never grew to love them as much as the Dead, they are among one of my favorite bands and are one of the torchbearers from that fire on the mountain the Grateful Dead ignited so long ago.

Wilco, Les Schwab Amphitheater, Bend, OR 8/23/2008
Someone burned me a couple of Wilco CDs back in 2001 or 2002. I gave them each a partial listen without too much interest and they were shuffled into my CD collection, perhaps never to see the laser on my CD player again. It doesn’t surprise me, really. I was pretty snobbish about what I listened to then. The reasons are ridiculous in hindsight—I was very centric to jam bands then and was trying to make it as a musician myself. For a time I was fairly narrow-minded music-wise, listening only to those I wanted to emulate.
I came to my senses eventually—I should have much sooner, especially in regards to Wilco.
It wasn’t until 2005 that I realized what a great band Wilco is. A friend I worked with at the time mentioned them once. I recall telling him I had a few CDs. He asked if I had heard their live stuff. No, I hadn’t. Well, they are all about their live stuff.
And that’s when I got Wilco—after listening to Kicking Television, a live recording they did at the Fox Theater in Chicago.
I hadn’t had an album grab me like that since listening to American Beauty and Wake of the Flood by you-know-who. I was a Wilco fan overnight. I found my copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. The albums lay dormant under a stack of garage demos by bands you’ve never heard of like Television Child and 2 Tone Turtle. Within a month I had bought just about everything in Wilco’s small catalog and soon discovered they allowed taping at their shows—just like the jam bands—and  that there was a fair amount of bootleg material out there for free trading on music swapping sites.
My first opportunity to see Wilco got nixed. They played McMenamin’s Edgefield just outside of Portland in the summer of 2007, and due to a last minute babysitting debacle we had to cancel. The following summer they came to Bend, Oregon and with a bit more planning time ahead of us we were able to go. We arrived in Bend just in time to have a late lunch and catch Wilco’s sound check from the patio of the hotel restaurant. In fact, after checking in, we realized we wouldn’t have needed tickets at all. Our balcony looked directly over the amphitheater, and was likely a better seat than some of the concerts I’d been to with nosebleed tickets.
But of course we were going to be on the grass for this show. We got to the amphitheater just as the opener— Fleet Foxes—came on stage. We found a clear spot on the field just to the left of the soundboard. The day was warm, the crowd mellow, and the booze cheap. In fact, they sold wine by the bottle. Ah yes… by the bottle.
Wilco fans are not hippies, nor are they hipsters. They seemed to be just an average lot of late 20 through 40-somethings. There were lots of families but it didn’t have that Oregon Zoo Concert Series feel to it where you expect the Wiggles to come on stage instead of Matisyahu.
Wilco’s heart and soul, Jeff Tweedy, engages, occasionally teases, and even taunts audience members—especially if they are drunk. He’s a very interactive performer yet is sometimes moody and even gets surly on occasion. That night he commented on the amount of marijuana smoke wafting his way “oh yea… we’re in Oregon.” Cranking out tunes that lay somewhere between Americana, alternative, and a bit of psychedelia, Wilco’s sound is unique—it has elements of pop without being shallow or trite—the songs are well-crafted and engaging yet not overly preachy on any particular subject. Tweedy writes about life—simple things that catch his attention or musings on relationships or his kids.
Wilco pays homage to their forbears without sounding like someone else’s song.
That night we danced and drank and sang along and laughed and had the most fun we had had in years—period. Wilco rolled through their repertoire, 2 sets and an encore that included members of the Fleet Foxes coming out to do a cover of Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Tweedy even indulging in a falsetto for the last verse.
As the concert wrapped we stumbled back towards the hotel and collapsed under a tree for a time as one of our friends went shopping for a concert shirt near the exit. The night was warm; my head buzzed from the music and wine. The crowd hummed and laughed and chatted as they went their respective ways.
Wilco is just a damn good band.  They write great songs, put on an entertaining and energetic concert, and I really believe I caught that first show at an opportune time in my life. I was a fairly new parent and had moved well beyond the desire to follow bands up and down the state or across the country. I was becoming much more grounded in many ways. I finished college just a week previous (I didn’t start until I was 28) and was ramping up for a new career and essentially, a new life. I was in a good place that summer weekend, and Wilco provided a proper soundtrack to what was really a turning point in my life.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ten Shows: Part IV

Well I’m getting down to the final few shows on this series of music blogs: 10 of my all-time favorite concerts. As I stated previously, these have been presented in no particular order. I tried to draw from the wide variety of shows I’ve seen while considering everything from the quality of the performance to the overall mood and experience of the show. The final three concerts (coming soon) are a culmination of these qualities and therefore I’m saving the best for last. 

But, again, to continue the list in no particular order:

Lollapalooza I, Southwestern College/Devore Stadium, San Diego, CA 7/20/1991

I decided to include only one of the two Lollapalooza shows I attended in the 90’s; it was a difficult choice when deciding between the first and second incarnations of the travelling rock and roll circus.  Line-up wise Lollapalooza II was definitely chock-full with bigger names: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Ministry, Ice Cube etc. Additionally, they had quite a side-show going on in the concession area of Irvine Meadows which included a set by Rage Against the Machine. A line-up like that wasn’t something you could count on every summer.

 Yet I settled on Lollapalooza I for my top 10 for many reasons. It was my first festival show; it was the first show I went to where my parents or friend’s parents didn’t drop us off/pick us up. Most of my extended circle of high school friends were there and throughout the festival, whether in line at the concessions or crammed against the stage, I ran into people I knew, giving the entire event a strange sort of familiarity. The entire day had the feel of the keggers we’d throw in the orange groves or at the house of whoever’s parents happened to be out of town for the weekend.

And let’s not forget the line-up. Although not nearly as full of household names as Lollapalooza II, there were some great bands there, all of which I had at least an interest in seeing:

Jane’s Addiction
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Nine Inch Nails
Butthole Surfers
Living Color
Ice-T and Body Count
Violent Femmes
Rollins Band

Rollins opened the festival. We had crammed up towards the front of the stage and could see Henry off behind a stack of amplifiers, jumping up and down and throwing punches, obviously psyching up for the set. A dozen or so hapless concert goers had set up blankets right up next to the stage, unaware of the fracas that would ensue as soon as Rollins took the stage. And ensue it did.  The crowd went ape-shit when Rollins got on the mike. Droves ran in horror from the pit as blankets went aloft and the crowd degenerated into an old school punk rock free-for-all. 

What a way to get the party started.

I wandered about the venue during the Femmes set. I recall a drunken Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers going on an intelligible rant. Siouxsie Sioux, still the sexy beast, pranced about the stage in the same goth-style she helped create along with Robert Smith of The Cure in the early 80’s.

Nine Inch Nails “performed” a terse, 20 minute set… that is Trent Reznor proceeded to destroy all of the equipment on stage due to technical difficulties less than 30 minutes in. Guitars went flying, the keyboard was chucked into the drum kit, and Trent cursed and belittled the sound crew before storming off stage. 

After a handful of his “traditional” rap songs, Ice-T brought out his metal band: Body Count. An epic moment and one of the first rap-metal crossover attempts, Body Count nearly stole the show. 

Lyrics from the song, There Goes the Neighborhood summed it up: 

Don’t they know rock’s just for whites? Don’t they know the rules?

All the aforementioned bands put on great sets, yet the absolute pinnacle of the show was Jane’s Addiction. As much as I hated sharing my favorite band, Jane’s had brought alternative to the masses. They had perfected the gritty, sardonic sound the Seattle bands came to be known for when members of Pearl Jam were still mucking about in Mother Love Bone. Jane’s had more polish and finesse though. Riding high on the success of Ritual de lo Habitual yet technically on their farewell tour, for a group of guys who, as I understand it at the time actually hated each other, well, Jane’s Addiction would of tore the roof off Devore Stadium had it had one. Go-Go dancers in gold lame body suits graced the wings, and, unlike their Seattle counterparts, Perry Farrell actually embraced the rock star persona. 

I saw them over 20 years after Lollapalooza I, and save for a few wrinkles and a different bass player, it was the same intensity, stage presence, and unabashed rock and roll.

Driving home from San Diego north on Interstate 15 after the show, my friend Mike fell asleep at the wheel. Without warning he jerked the car towards the shoulder, yelling that a mattress had fallen out of the truck (there was no truck) in front of us. We talked Mike into letting me drive (I was the only other licensed driver in the car.) I took control and continued on without incident, Mike snoozing away in the passenger seat of his mom’s Sentra. I steered us home and relished in the fact that I had just seen the best concert of my life. That and I got to drive on the freeway for the first time. 

And honestly, for a 16 year old, that was almost as exciting as the show.

Alice in Chains, Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood, CA 12/16/1992

This was probably the 3rd or 4th show I had seen at the Palladium. At age 17 I considered myself a seasoned pro as far as concerts went. In addition to shows at the Palladium, I’d caught gigs at the Palace, Irvine Meadows, Universal Amphitheatre and many other clubs, theatres, and stadiums throughout L.A. and Southern California.  Usually overloaded with whichever friends were along for the show, I pushed my beat-up 1970 VW to its breaking point, navigating any number of southern California freeways depending on the venue.

Supporting the album Dirt, Alice in Chains was rising fast on the new popularity of the Seattle sound—a fluke in popular music that combined some of the anti-establishment sentiments and rough edges of punk rock with a traditional 70’s hard rock sound. Evolving somewhere between punk, hard rock, and metal, it was distorted guitars, combat boots, and long hair without any of the glam: better known as Grunge.

The lights came down and a huge banner behind the stage was subsequently back-lit. It depicted a Cheshire cat perched in the branches of a tree, a malevolent grin upon its face.  Poor Alice was hanging from her neck by the feline’s tail. The twisted spin on the Lewis Carroll tale brought uproarious cheers from the crowd which escalated exponentially as the band stirred in the wings.
I managed to wiggle, squeeze, and worm my way up to the very front of the stage just as Alice in Chains came on.  It was the closest I’d ever managed to get to the stage during a concert. Mere feet from now-deceased front-man Layne Stayley throughout most of the show, I absorbed the rock and roll aura that emanated forth. I banged my head of curly locks and was the epitome of a concert-going, shirtless tattooed youth—a generic caricature of the kids you see at concert films the world over. 

Stayley was an engaging performer—at times he looked me straight in the eyes. Just inches from my face I could smell liquor and cigarettes on his breath as he belted out the tunes. I got several high-fives from him and Jerry Cantrell throughout their performance and just missed catching both a guitar pick and a drumstick that were chucked into the crowd towards the end of the show. The bean-pole behind me had a bit longer reach… dammit.

After an hour-plus set the band stepped off stage for a moment. Upon their return Stayley addressed the crowd:

“What do you guys want to hear?!”

With all my might, I screamed “Rooster! Rooster!” repeatedly. I loved that song. It wasn’t the hardest song in Alice’s repertoire by a long shot, but the insightful lyrics that mused of Layne’s dad’s time in Vietnam struck a nerve with me for some reason. 

Layne looked straight at me.

“This kid wants to hear Rooster!” The crowd roared and he nodded at Jerry Cantrell. Thus it was decided. Thus I had decided the encore at the Hollywood Palladium that night.

Damn I love rock and roll.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Ten Shows: Part III

To continue this bi-polar journey down my concert memory lane, I’ll revisit two shows from the 90’s that couldn’t be on more opposite ends of the rock and roll spectrum.

Grateful Dead, Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, NV      6/26/1994
I was 9 months into my Navy tenure, stationed in San Diego, and basically, living easy. Yeah that’s right—in the military and living easy. There’s too much back story to account for exactly why I was able to surf daily, cruise Coronado on my bike, and generally fuck off most of the time, so let’s just leave it at that.
When I saw that the Dead were playing 3 nights in Vegas early that summer, well, of course I was going to go.
The initial plan was to drive all night Friday, arrive in Vegas sometime after sunrise, set up camp in the parking lot, and get a few hours of sleep before the festivities commenced. My buddy Robert and I arrived to find the parking lot secured (not opening until noon) and a battalion of police officers and sheriff’s deputies running people off the side streets, parks, empty fields, and anywhere else you might cop a squat adjacent to the stadium. Within 12 hours of arriving in Vegas, we had rented a room in town, gone to and from the stadium again (unable to score tickets for Saturday’s show) and were enjoying an enhanced version of the bright lights of Vegas.  
Fast forward to Sunday’s show.
It was Phil Lesh that coined the term “Mega-Dead” in those days. They sold out all three nights at a 50,000+ capacity stadium with thousands of people still out in the lot, unable to score tickets.  Robert and I filtered into the stadium and found our way into the grandstands, stage right, about ½ way up with a great view of the “Jerry Side.” They launched the show with a crowd-pleasing Hell in a Bucket, Bob Weir stepping into the rock star role early, working up the crowd and setting the mood for the 1st set.
During those last few years before Jerry died, Grateful Dead shows were mostly hit and miss as far as quality goes. If Jerry was in a particularly bad slump (i.e. in a bad way on the heroin he was using) the rest of the band would ramp up and carry the show along as best they could. This was quite the opposite of the many golden eras of the band’s past, where Jerry lived up to his early moniker of Captain Trips, leading the Dead along a musical adventure while shaping and guiding the songs as his 9 fingers worked effortlessly across one of his signature guitars.
In 1994 he was a shadow of that icon. Aged well beyond his 52 years, Jerry looked like a decrepitly obese rock and roll wizard. Stooped over his guitar I imagined he could collapse in a heap at any moment.
Yet a spark of the old Jerry graced the stage Sunday night. The licks flowed and the band fell in line, Phil trading musical phrases with Jerry throughout. And as the 2nd set segued from the compulsory drum solo, Jerry carried the band aloft into a crowd-pleasing Wheel and into Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, closing the show with Morning Dew. Emerging back on stage a few minutes later they tore into a rousing encore of U.S. Blues.
I caught the Dead a few more times that year. Overseas in Japan when Jerry died, I felt the loss as I would a family member. The Grateful Dead were a defining experience in my life; there were many moments when I felt I could throw it all away and get on that bus for good. The Grateful Dead’s music carried me through good times and bad and were (and continue to be) the soundtrack of many significant events in my life. That show in mid-1994 is a standout among my adventures with the Grateful Dead.

Bad Religion, The Blitz, Tokyo, Japan, (exact date unknown: 11/15/96 or 11/16/96)

I was never a huge fan of Bad Religion. They have a decently- gritty punk sound and I always liked their in-your-face, irreverent logo. Yet they aren’t the first band that comes to mind when I consider quintessential acts in punk rock. Arguably Bad Religion brought about a rebirth in punk rock in the late 80’s, but I think if anything they gave the genre a more palatable sound that led to the likes of Green Day and others creating and finding success in the diet-punk niche. Whatever the discourse, Bad Religion has an elevated status in the punk genre for certain.
I had been on a 3-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence, and upon returning to our homeport in Japan, my squadron was ready (like every sailor on the ship) to let loose, blow off some steam, and consume as much booze as was humanly possible. Our barracks erupted into a free-for-all of drunken sailors, at, oh, 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon or so the day of our return. Just as things were really starting to get out of hand, one of our aircrew guys showed up with a handful of concert tickets.
“Who wants to see Bad Religion in Tokyo tonight?”
And with that I was off, Tokyo bound on the Sotestu Line out of Atsugi with a gang of drunken sailors.
The Japanese don’t do anything half-ass. I came to that conclusion as we approached the venue Bad Religion was playing that night- The Blitz.  Based on the look of the crowd, we could have been in L.A. or D.C., waiting to see The Germs or Minor Threat or any number of old-school punk bands. Replete with mohawks, Doc Martens, red suspenders, and ripped jeans, the Japanese had the details of punk fashion down to a science. There was enough leather in the venue to supply a dominatrix convention.
When Bad Religion took the stage, these Japanese punkers went absolutely nuts.  The mosh pit was unequivocally crazy— as intense if not more so than some of the whirling melees I’d bumped around in at punk and metal shows back in the U.S.  Elbows and knuckles abound, the stage dives also rivaled anything I had seen before. Security was surprisingly mellow: there were no warnings to kick out the occasional crowd surfer that went over the rail towards the stage—they simply shuffled them around and back into the fray.
Yet through it all, the Japanese crowd maintained their polite honor. One kid elbowed me in the pit a bit too hard—he asked if I was okay in broken English, a look of real apology on his face. I laughed and patted him on the back and went back to it.
The band put on a rapid-fire performance, the audience feeding fuel to the non-stop energy of the first note to the reverberated hiss and squelch that wrapped the encore. The show must have gone almost 2 hours, and I was exhausted and relieved as the house lights finally came up inside The Blitz. We shuffled out into the cool air and loitered amongst the slowly dispersing crowd.  A roadie or drum tech emerged from a side door of the venue with a handful of drumsticks and began handing them out. I sprinted over and got myself one, the wood flaked and frayed and chewed to near shreds: a visual demonstration just how hard these guys rocked that night.
Funny thing though, I never grew to really love Bad Religion, even after a stellar performance such as that. I have a few of their albums, but I don’t know if I would jump at the chance to see them again if they came through town. That night in Tokyo was just a perfect combination of good music and camaraderie at a unique venue in a faraway land.
If anything, Bad Religion proved to me that night that, despite many attempted burials, The Exploited-coined phrase was true: Punk’s Not Dead.