Gonna Have a Big Time --
My friends are sharing that 'best/ worst/ first/ last' rockshow exercise on social media and I wanna play too - but it's a snowday during quarantine so of course I'm gonna overdo it OCD style:
->> FIRST CONCERT: John Baker made us go, like, with missionary zeal; he corralled us fluff-lipped high school chums and made sure we got our tickets and got us all a ride from the subway and we saw YES in a big arena show, and the band members were all the size of action figures and the light show was stupendous and sure, I liked it. The first ‘human size’ show I ever saw was John Azrelsky’s fault, he made sure I came down to the Continental Divide to see Sea Monster and they were gritty and dangerous sounding and I was too new to the whole thing - I wasn’t sure how you could tell ‘punk’ and ‘hardcore’ and ‘nazi skinheads’ apart and wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble. Bonus round: since infancy I’d been to tons of classical music concerts that my dad was playing in - I particularly remember the dragon from a small but colorful production of the Magic Flute. Also, we lived in Queens, on the next block down from the big West Side tennis stadium which then, as now, was hosting big deal rock concerts - as a kid I slept through the high and low end of many 80’s greats, Genesis and Olivia Newton John stand out, my room was a block away and still too loud for bedtime. Bonus bonus round: the first band I ever went to because I was interested and excited on my own was just after high school, I was trying to figure out what being a ‘fiddle player’ would be like, because I had ditched classical lessons, I wanted no part in that anymore. There was a band called ’Shaman’ in the early 90’s and they played down at the Wetlands every year on ‘Hobbit Day’ and they were a wild mix of folk traditions mixed with hippie psychedelic rock and I had been told I should check out their fiddle player, Abram Stuart. So I went down with money to get in and I got to the door and, sure enough, I was an utter failure: I was kind of a straight edge kid without knowing there was a term for that - in other words - I was the sober kid in my high school crew of malcontents - I had never been through the shenanigans of getting a fake ID and even at 18 I still wasn’t running around concerned about proving my age to anyone; I’d come all the way down to the Wetlands with no form of I.D. and was now loitering forlornly on the curb. But then I saw my wild-haired imaginary mentor, fiddle case in hand! Dressed in beads and a blousy pirate shirt (no doubt, I might be extrapolating). He was just hanging out by his vehicle, maybe smoking a cigarette, preparatory to loading in for the gig and, yeah, we got to talking (you know, I wasn’t a smoker, but now that smoking isn’t so much a part of the culture, how do strangers meet and engage on the street without that, hey, got a light?). Long story slightly longer, he got me in, here kid, grab that amp head and follow me. I dont even really remember the show that well, just that first rock-and-roll gig culture baptism of getting snuck into the show by the bandleader.
—>> MOST RECENT CONCERT: I am lousy at making time (and putting aside money) to go to shows. I’m pretty sure part of that is because I go to tons of shows… because I’m playing music at them; maybe that sounds like bragging, but no, really: it’s like - I’ve worked a lot of food service jobs, waitstaff, kitchen, delivery guy - & I guess because of that intimacy I don’t really have an instinctive interest in going to restaurants. I’ll certainly go if other people are going, I’m not against going out to eat, I’m just not good at getting excited about eating out & then following through, it’s the same with concerts. So, really the last concert I went to may have been two or three years ago and it was by complete happenstance, I was at the Storm King Arts Center with a friend and there happened to be a tent set up and a woman playing my absolute favorite Classical Indian instrument, the rudra vina, and it was just fabulous. Bonus round: a couple of Valentine’s Days ago I was a pop up entertainer at a big masquerade ball and the main band was this crazy Haitian soca/ kompa band, I say crazy because even though it had plenty of capable musicians involved, they were all at the beck and call of the electronic component: the band manager had bought beats and was running the show like karaoke, there were two very fine, finely dressed singers, plus electric bass, guitar and keys, all having to keep in lockstep with these backing tracks - it worked, I mean, the audience didn’t notice, but man, the irritation was definitely something I could pick up on.
—>> LOUDEST CONCERT: okay, so yeah, I’m coming from a classical and then a folk background, so it doesn’t take much to make me feel like a band is too loud to be enjoyable, then again, I very much understand the impulse to destroy every fiber of normalcy with fierce vibrational aggression. During the almost two decades I lived in the tiny mountain town of Sylva, North Carolina, snuggled up against the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest I got to watch a really cool scene develop of touring bands doing gigs because we were sort of on the way if you wanted to play Atlanta after Asheville, or maybe if you were headed to Knoxville and Nashville next - we weren’t a huge payday for those bands but the Sylva kids were so eager and excited and just honest about how much they wanted to rock - none of this ironic lackadaisy, none of this hipster cool - nothing urbane about it, let’s rock! And meanwhile the homegrown scene was totally flowering with mad weird explosive energy and again, the loudest band I ever in my life was witness to had to be Libianca, a Cherokee hardcore act - straight off the Rez - their eardrums were young and supple and ready for punishment and holy crap mine were not: the band sounded fine to me out on the street, inside where the show was totally reminded me of a way more brightly lit version of that scene in David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me where you can’t hear anything at all besides the palpable throbbing drone of fuzz metal and all the dialogue is subtitled. Bonus round: when the Orange Peel opened in Asheville in 2002 they were perfectly situated to take advantage of that town’s growing reputation for cool in the south east, and they functioned as a beacon to national and international acts that wanted a large but not stupidly large venue there. Their sound system was being talked up long before the doors even opened but I swear, the first few shows I saw there were wretched - it really took them a long time to get their big expensive gear to calm down and properly inhabit their big expensive room, we saw Dick Dale sometime in the venue’s first full month of operation and it was lousy. And loud - bizarrely, uncomfortably loud; Dick Dale was trying to be gracious, I mean, the dude is a monster veteran of every possible iteration of rock-n-roll sound system, but the conversation he was having with the sound booth between and during songs was hard. Dismaying. Later, the Orange Peel absolutely warranted their reputation for a good time, and there again, I think the next loudest show I was ever at was absolutely meant to be abrasive and frighteningly, bowel alteringly loud: Squarepusher played there, playing slap bass and pumping very chemical, very disorienting, very body-piercingly loud beats - and it was great.
—>> ACT I’VE SEEN MOST OFTEN: hmm, as I was saying, I’m not a frequent concert goer, and often I go because I’m also performing at the same venue. Thus, I don’t think I’ve seen any band more than twice, and of the ones I can think of it’s likely I can blame Andrew Hellblinki’s ‘hardest working band in gypsy punk rock southern gothic cabaret’ - the Hellblinki Sextet. I was a frequent add-on fiddle player for that band and because of it I got to see two very dearly beloved bands from both in front & behind the stage, Gogol Bordello & the Luminescent Orchestrii. We opened for Gogol Bordello at the Earl in Atlanta and I totally had a great moment of musical comradeship with Yuri, the accordion player: while noodling around on stage during our soundcheck I was messing with a tune I was trying really hard to get correct in my head, not a Hellblinki tune, it was a polka, a Mexican polka - ‘Jesusita en Chihuahua’ - a four part polka with great key changes, its a standard for mariachi bands; it’s also found in the Texas Swing repertoire, they usually just do two parts of it and I was trying to hack my way through those two parts and not quite getting it, just rolling the melody over in my head and playing it to test my microphone set up. twenty minutes later, what do I hear from the stage but Yuri, also testing his mics during the Gogol soundcheck and he is going to town flawlessly on all four parts of Jesusita en Chihuahua - cuz of course its an accordion standard, and he’s a damn wizard. Hey, I guess I’ve seen Luminescent Orchestrii three times come to think of it - and the first time was at Vincent’s Ear in Asheville at the behest of my Mad Tea Party friends who had told me about them when I first came to town, mostly because they were telling me that my entrance into the Asheville scene was fortunate cuz they had just lost a cool cat fiddle player, Sarah Alden, who had left the Asheville area to go up to Brooklyn where she had joined in the advent of the Luminescent O.
—>> MOST SURPRISING ACT: So this runs into the next category as well, let’s just say that in 1995 I was totally ready for Tricky’s first album, Maxinquaye, sketchy and weird and lush and nasty and just perfect. I loved it, it totally made a velvety depression in my musical tastes and laid its leathery eggs in there. My good friend said hey, wanna go see P.J. Harvey with me? & maybe I wasn’t so excited, I mean, sure, P.J. Harvey was cool, it was cool that a woman was coopting a very cock-rocky angst-with-overdrive guitar-slinger archetype; I was all in favor - but still not a fan of a sound I still associated with insecure and unpleasant white boys who want to throw their weight around - not a fan. But then my friend followed it up with, guess who’s opening up for P.J.? Tricky, that’s who. Whoa, serious? Uh, yes please! I couldn’t quite figure how a sound like Tricky’s was going to work in a live setting, but I was so ready for it, and whatever, I might not dig P.J. Harvey, but my ladyfriend was sure gonna get sweaty and agitated so yeah, Let’s Rock! Tricky sucked. I mean, he’s a damn genius, but whatever, something tells me he didn’t really have a strong vision for how his sound was going to work at a live show, and maybe the record label hired him a band to interpret his arcane closet doodles and he and Martina Topley-Bird just sat on the stage mumbling sporadically into microphones while a perfectly functional but uninspired rock band did covers of the material on my favorite album? It was so awful. And then P.J. Harvey strode forth and bloody well showed the universe who was in charge - blessed be! That was the most incandescent mind-blowing rockstar experience of my life, and was totally not what I was expecting, especially after having my idols show their asses so completely just moments before. This was P.J. Harvey circa her ’To Bring You My Love’ album, when she had moved on from her Steve Albini produced trio stuff which, again, I was impressed by, her sound was awe inspiring then, but I didnt neccessarily like it. With this new album her palette had more colors on it, it wasn’t so blunt and slablike, and she was a frickin’ monster performer totally inhabiting an archetype on stage, a frickin’ goddess with an outrageous light show to boot.
—>> WORST EVER: I mean, I’ve seen bad bands, I mean, clumsy or uninspired bands, bands that didn’t really have anything new to add to the world and sucked at their attempt, but really, they weren’t memorably bad, like, not monumentally bad. My disappointment in seeing Tricky be so much less than my expectation - that hurt, that was bad. So yeah, I’m gonna say this category should be for ‘greatest disappointment’, & so, since I already told the Tricky story (above) here’s two others, first: Shane McGowan and the Rogues, 1992. This was a real downer, like, this was an amazing opportunity - Shane McGowan was out of rehab after his spiraling self destruction got him kicked out of the Pogues, and he was coming to NYC to do a show with a Pogues cover band - local heroes the Rogue’s March. My musical life at the time was completely devoted to Irish traditional and Irish bar-brawl rock and me and the crew I ran with were all going to Tramps to see the glorious return in triumph of that grand poet and highwayman, our sacred king without a crown… and he was a mess. He was a complete gibbering mess. The band knew it and was obviously in shock too. He was a pickled tyrannosaur, pallid, his sweat looked like a flammable jelly, he could barely stand and so he didnt. And maybe some folks didn’t notice, after all, they were there to get drunk with their idol, so yee-ha… but as performers ourselves and young ones at that… wow. Second most disappointing: I was a latecomer to Wu Tang Clan. I didn’t realize how amazing they were until I’d already left NYC; I loved KRS One and Public Enemy and Poor Righteous Teachers and Das EFX but somehow I missed Shaolin’s Finest completely. It wasn’t till I saw Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s crazy NYC samurai movie, and heard RZA's soundtrack that I realized what I’d been missing and even then it took me a couple years to catch up. So in 2006 when GZA was touring with DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill I thought, wow, this will be excellent; they played at the Orange Peel in Asheville and I went - totally unprepared for how this was going to go down. DJ Muggs went first; I really loved Cypress Hill back in the early nineties, especially for the dee-jay work, like sure, I thought the rapping was clever and impressive but I don’t smoke weed and so it wasn’t the same anthemic rallying call to me. The sound of the band was rough, raw, gritty, it stood out from that kind of overglossy cheap-lacquer sound of so much West Coast rap - I was ready to see what DJ Muggs had been doing for the last decade, what new vistas had been opened up in his sonic adventures - but no, that’s not what this show was about. This show was him just basically spinning old Cypress Hill records and leading the beery college-age whiteboy majority through a group of marijuana campfire karaoke singalongs. Asheville is an Appalachian mountain town in the south with several colleges in the vicinity. It’s black population is used to being marginal and long-suffering and thereby tough and sullen. All along the walls of the Orange Peel was a marginalized and sullen row of black folks, here to take part in this event, amazing that these heroes of hip hop should have made it to this weird little mountain town, and this is how it was going down - white boy funtime dominating the center of the room and really, ain’t that the story of Africa in America, over and over again. GZA came on after and it was the same deal, he just looked tired and irritable and it was rap-along to the greatest hits while looking around the room trying to make sense of the energy-suck. I assume Atlanta was the next show on the tour and I bet that was the one to go to, that’s a big problem with hip hop shows, if there isn’t a band to build the pressure and blow it out just right then you are utterly dependent on the energy of the room.
—>> BEST: Whoa. I mean. I could go on. And I guess I will. I think my best could easily be Mahmoud Ahmed, an ethno-funk R&B star of Ethiopia, who was easily 65 years old when I saw him at Jazz Fest in Montreal. He was outrageous - I mean, he was so tremendous as a performer. The sort of energy that James Brown was legendary for but wasn’t still putting out at 65. I also loved what an education in physicality he was - an education in cultural body language, like, he demonstrated not just Africa but also strong Arabic and Indian ways of holding yourself - seriously, something wonderfully sinuous and belly rooted and just a particular poise and bounce and radiance that speaks of East Africa and its cultural pathways. Other greats: Digable Planets, circa their second album Blowout Comb, now that was a perfect hip hop show and yeah, they had a live band and DJ Jazzy Joyce spinning - fantastic. I saw Tom Waits at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, that was way special. Decembrists at the 40 Watt in Athens, also brilliant. Special shout out to the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra who played at Western Carolina University having put together a show where they played arrangements salvaged from a Chicago theater orchestra’s library for accompanying movies, and yes, they played as accompaniment for three silent comedy greats, Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd. This ‘Best’ category sort of feels like a ‘Bragging Rights’ category, but, yeah, I saw the Cramps, they were amazing; I saw the Red Clay Ramblers perform in a comedy revue with clown-vaudeville great Bill Irwin; I saw Soul Coughing at Wetlands and it was the first gig I ever saw with a computer onstage, in this case a whole desktop stand alone personal computer - kind of hilarious and also a brilliant show; I saw Nick Cave at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; and I saw Godspeed You Black Emperor at the Orange Peel, I guess it was a reunion tour, it was a fun immersive experience, but what it really did was whet my appetite for an offshoot of that Montreal collective, Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, who I’ve seen twice and who really stand out as a band I enjoy on records fine, but who are really a favorite act to catch live.
—>> WHO WILL YOU SEE NEXT?: If we manage to survive the Covid ice age? I kick myself often for having moved back so close to NYC but not having gone to see any shows. I was always bad at this, and really, just about every rockshow I’ve ever gone to has been at the behest of special friends who had to work hard to get me to go out. I’m a stick in the mud, or rather - early on I dedicated myself to making my own music so I willfully stay at home, stirring the mud with a stick, until someone scoops me up and says hey, you should check this out. That said - I want to see Shabazz Palaces. They came and played in NYC at Afro-Punk fest recently and that just demonstrated a wealth of fresh-ass bands I would really like to see - Flying Lotus, Dizzee Rascal, Danny Brown and Death Grips were high on that list. Also, the famous downtown smoked-fish wonderland Russ & Daughters opened a cafe on Orchard Street and they were having a music night curated by avant-jazz-skronk wizard John Zorn, and Laure Anderson played one of those - that would have been amazing, and really, I would probably enjoy a ticket to any show by any act signed to Zorn’s Tzadik record label.
—>> WISH I HAD SEEN: Well… that’s too big to get a grip on really. I wish I’d been paling around with the Japanese jazz pop arrangers that were making music for Godzilla movies in the 60’s. In my 'of-age' concert-going lifetime? I mean, Prince - but really, I don’t hold with regret or nostagia, or rather, I don’t think it’s healthy. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And sure, there are performers that I love that are still performing but I don’t think I need to see them, cuz I missed them when they were doing the work that inspired me. I wish I was a regular at various imaginary venues, like at the roadhouse in Twin Peaks and that club Luke Cage inherited, Harlem’s Paradise. Whatever that joint Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers were playing at, and of course, that cantina in Mos Eisley is a raging hot spot, night and day.