I was signing a couple of books for a friend (I’m still uncomfortable with the word “fan”) the other day, when she asked me a question. On the surface, it seemed simple:
What is your all-time favorite concert?
You’d think the answer would spring immediately to mind. You’d think that gig would be on the tip of my tongue. But here it is several days later, and I STILL don’t have an answer! My reason — unlike my answer — is simple: there are just too many variables.
I love live music. As much as I enjoy and respect studio recordings, there’s something about seeing and hearing a top-flight band on stage, right in front of me, with no safety net or second takes to fall back on. That, to me, is where I learn the true measure of the musician.
I’ve been to quite a few concerts over the years in clubs, symphony halls, theaters, hockey arenas, amphitheaters, and stadiums. Like most, I focused on the major acts for my earliest live music experiences. I figured the larger the room, the better the show should be. Now that I’ve matured, I know just how wrong that thinking is. For me, the smaller the room, the happier I am to be there. And there’s the first variable. It’s a LOT more fun to stand ten feet away from the artists than it is to sit 50 or more yards away, watching the show through binoculars or the video monitors on either side of the stage. The latter simply does NOT work for me.
Is my love of the gig based on the artist or the number of times I’ve seen them? Musicians I’ve seen in concert only once can have just as big an impact as artists I’ve seen half a dozen times. Does it matter if I’m intimately familiar with the artist’s catalog? After all, an opening set by a band called Boxing Gandhis blew my mind back in ’96 when they opened for Dave Matthews. And I had never heard of them! What about the energy of the crowd? Does the length of the set matter? I’ve seen some musicians absolutely blister a stage over 35 minutes, and I’ve dug in for a three-plus hour marathon that left me begging for more.
This shouldn’t be that difficult. But it really is.
Sometimes, the bad gigs stick out more than the good ones. I was really bummed out by the Billy Joel show I saw at Tokyo Dome c. 1991. The place is a 50,000 seat concrete echo chamber. The sound was horrible! I was thrilled to see Prince at our local hockey arena in 2001, until we actually got to our seats. We were seated way up and way left, so when Prince stepped to the mic, I had a perfect view of the PA speakers. And I paid 60 bucks for that ticket. I was not happy! My two Radiohead experiences were ruined by both the size of the amphitheater and outside circumstances beyond my control. The music was great, but everything else pretty much sucked. Primus put on a lackluster show when I saw them in 2002. Les Claypool tried to turn them into a jam band, and it was not working. The next night they played an excellent show in Chicago, which I heard and saw as a DVD. Crap.
It was cool seeing Sting at the legendary Budokan Theater in Tokyo, Japan c. ’92. We had really cool seats behind the stage. I practically felt like I was sitting in Vinnie Colaiuta’s drum throne! I also saw jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan at the Blue Note Tokyo on my birthday. That show became a live CD called Stolen Moments, which is in my collection. Speaking of being there, I saw bass legend Tony Levin at Blueberry Hill, where his rendition of the Peter Gunn theme was recorded and included on his live CD. Rush has never been bad when I’ve seen them, nor has Parliament/Funkadelic. Tool’s show was mesmerizing, as was Steve Vai. And how many shows have I all but forgotten about? More than I care to count.
So how can I choose just one show? I have no idea. Instead, I’ll just rattle off a couple of gigs I recall fondly off the top of my head.
It was a thrill to see Brand X last year at the Old Rock House. They were one of those legendary bands I never thought I’d get to see live. And I almost didn’t, because I didn’t catch the ad for the show until a week beforehand! Luckily (and sadly), there were plenty of tickets available, and I was able to watch legendary musicians John Goodsall and Percy Jones from up close.
Fusion bassist Victor Wooten nearly tore the roof off the Rock House during his set, which I also saw last year. I would have gone to see him again this year, but I was in Memphis when he was in St. Louis.
My friends in El Monstero put on one of the better Pink Floyd tribute shows in the Midwest. It was a thrill to check them out from an up close and personal vantage point.
It was an honor and a privilege to see John McLaughlin’s farewell tour show in Nashville a few months back. Having the support of Jimmy Herring made things that much better. And the two bands coming together to form their own version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was positively other-worldly.
I caught 37 bands over three days at Progtoberfest in Chicago last year. Cumulatively one of my better concert experiences, especially when you consider I didn’t know anything about the majority of the bands! One artist I was familiar with was Mike Keneally, who put on his usual phenomenal set.
Rhiannon Giddens owns one of my favorite singing voices in the world. Getting to see her perform live will always rank among the greatest concert experiences.
Over the course of a week, I got to see two absolute favorites in Tortoise and Snarky Puppy. That’s a whole lot of talent playing a whole lot of choice notes.
And I can’t see enough about my Dweezil Zappa experience, which continues to resonate long after the fact.
No matter how many times I see him, I can’t help but leave thrilled after seeing my hero, Adrian Belew. His shows never fail to defy belief, and I am always happy to be able to get up close and personal.
There have been so many amazing experiences, it’s impossible to choose just one. But I will admit, the Steven Wilson show I saw in Chicago definitely reached me on a level rarely experienced. It was just one of those shows where everything came together brilliantly. Does that make it my all-time favorite? No, not really. But it’s in the Top Two. Probably.
Bottom line: when all is said and done, my favorite concert is usually the last one I attended. I savor the experience of that show until the next one comes along, and the cycle repeats itself. That may not be the answer people are looking for, but it’s the best answer I can give you.
And there’s always another show right around the corner.