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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Coming Soon to a Stage Near You

A friend on Facebook posted photos of ticket stubs from concerts he attended, mostly in the latter half of the eighties. Among them were The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2, Eric Clapton, Van Halen, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, R.E.M., Billy Joel, Bob Seger, Styx, Foreigner, The Cars, and Heart. It proved quite the enviable list of classic rock artists – of which I’ve seen a mere four. I’ve accumulated my share over the years, but Steve amassed as many shows in half a decade as I’ve seen in my lifetime.

I was a latecomer to the rock concert scene, not seeing my first show until my college days. My introduction to the world of live music was via the Rainmakers, a local Kansas-City based group. Their music fit snuggly in the classic rock format with jangly pop that recalled Big Star and that group’s subsequent followers such as Tom Petty and R.E.M. Lead singer Bob Walkenhorst’s unique vocal delivery encompassed some of the nasal snarl of Bob Dylan along with the hiccups and twang of classic country from the 1940s and ‘50s.

The show was on our college campus and I went with a bunch of friends. I don’t remember much – we had seats in the balcony and Amy was disgusted with us for not getting up and dancing (never a strong suit of mine). My virginal concert outing did a lot to make the group’s debut album, 1986’s The Rainmakers, one of my 20 favorite albums of all time.

I’ve amassed a slew of memories since. I traveled to Chicago to see Marillion (my favorite band) and trekked to Minneapolis for The Police. My one-time neighbor and childhood playmate grew up to be a percussionist/drummer with Rod Stewart and got about thirty of us backstage. When I saw Bob Dylan, a gang of us locked arms at an outdoor festival with no ticketed seating to safeguard our primo location from being overrun by people trying to shove in front of us. For my 40th birthday, my wife surprised me with Eric Clapton tickets and more than a half dozen friends to accompany us to the show. A buddy got box seats for the Allman Brothers and we sat next to local DJ Skid Roadie. My brother caught a drum stick at a Styx concert. I loved the clever short film featuring Jerry Stiller that opened the Rush show and seem to remember they had a fridge on stage. I saw Yes with Jon Anderson replaced by Benoit David, a guy about twenty years younger than the rest of the band and about twenty years too energetic. I felt for the guy who’d wasted all that dough to see Roger Waters only to pass out before the thing even got started.

All right, so plenty of memories – which will make this next comment very odd. In general, I’m not wowed by the whole concert experience. Perhaps this is due to a failure to be, shall we say, “properly stimulated.” Maybe a distaste for the party vibe is to blame. I also lack the sense of awe that many possess in the presence of legends. Similarly, hearing a group’s gotta-play-it hit fails to lift me to the heights to which most of the audience are transported. My inability to play an instrument, a complete lack of schooling in musical theory, and a failure to appreciate the technological complexities of putting on such productions all play huge parts. It’s a wonder I go to concerts at all.

So why do I? A little more than a week ago, I saw Roger Waters performing Pink Floyd’s The Wall in its entirety. The album, its brief tour, and the movie in the late seventies and early eighties have all reached legendary status. I bought the album years ago and saw the movie, but missed the original concert experience. An actual wall was constructed on stage throughout the performance, literally and symbolically closing the band off from the audience. The complexities of staging the show, however, led to only a handful of concerts.

When Roger Waters announced plans to revisit the show with a full-fledged tour, I was in immediately. Here was a show for which I’d built up expectations over nearly three decades. I wondered if I might be setting myself up for a huge disappointment.

I was giddy upon arriving just to see the edges of the wall on either side of the stage that would, in the hands of a busy tech crew, become the eventual barricade between us and them. Throughout the show, the visual projections cast upon that slowly-erected wall were a mix of powerful imagery, eye-tricking effects, a rainbow of colors, and poignant graffiti-scrawled commentaries. A homeless man pushed a shopping cart around the arena floor pre-show. Waters performed “Nobody Home” in a motel room set that came out of the wall. The guitar solo for “Comfortably Numb” was played atop the wall. During “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II”, a gaggle of local kids taunted the monstrous teacher puppet lifted straight out of the movie version of The Wall with a chorus of “hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!” Of course, the gasp from the audience as the wall crumbles at the show’s close is priceless.

That show, the one I’d anticipated more than any other – and one that didn’t disappoint – is the quintessential example of the theatrical possibilities of the concert-going experience. While I doubt the visual spectacle of that extravaganza will ever be matched for me, there’s more to concerts than just what meets the eye. There are smaller, but no less poignant possibilities in every show. I pray that an artist will grace listeners with a creative re-interpretation of a beloved hit (John Mellencamp’s calypso version of “Jack and Diane”). I dream of a song moving me to tears (Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”). I relish the unexpected (like being ho-hum about Peter Frampton as an opening act, only to become a believer after seeing the sheer joy he still received from playing “Baby, I Love Your Way” for the umpteenth time).

For some, it may be about the impressive concert ticket collection. For others, it’s the party or whatever substance circulates through the aisles. There are those who will get a rush from the energy of the crowd and others who are awed by a guitar God nailing just the right chord. It might be the lights or the pyrotechnics or a ten-minute drum solo. It could be the sheer grandiosity of an arena or the intimacy of a club. No matter the specifics, the cherished memories and moments are about the music and the atmosphere surrounding it.

I still have a long wish list. Please bring U2, Squeeze, Fish, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and others to a venue near me. Give me a great light show or a moving theatrical production. Give me an inspiring moment where an artist plays that familiar hit in a less than familiar way. Most of all, give me a chance to walk out of an arena clutching a ticket stub that will remind me of some special moment for years to come.