Category Archives: Of Concerts Past

Of Concerts Past: Janet Jackson at the Philadelphia Spectrum, 8/19/1990

Janet Jackson is slated to play the Wells Fargo barn in South Philly next week. The concert isn’t sold out, which is surprising to me, and the fact that good seats are still to be had almost make me reconsider the decision Diane and I made long before it was announced – the key word there is “almost.” The decision: Aside from Bruce and Neil, big barn shows are in our rear-view mirror. Why? They’re among the worst bangs for one’s live-music buck there is – tickets cost more, sight-lines are generally poor, the sound is often subpar, parking is expensive, booze-fueled idiocy flows freely, and traffic…don’t get me started on traffic. Also, in this instance, it’s a worknight.

Yes, I’m re-acquainting myself with the arguments against.

The argument in favor: As the ticket stub shows, we saw Janet in 1990 on the Rhythm Nation tour, the third of three dates she played over four days at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the hallowed hall built in 1966-67 to house the Philadelphia Flyers. It was her first headlining tour, I should mention. It was also a damn good show.

In some respects, it was her State of the Nation address:

The Rhythm Nation 1814 album, released in late 1989, was a socially aware set accented by such top-notch songs as “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat” and “Come Back to Me.” It was pop, it was rock, it was dance, it was new-jack swing. (The between-song spoken bits were also annoying. But that’s a post for another day.)

Now, I’m basically a folk ’n’ roller. Singer-songwriters and old-school rockers – as evidenced by this blog, that’s who I tend to listen to and see in concert. But I have a wide range of additional likes, from traditional country to soul/R&B to jazzy pop, and have enjoyed each in a live setting. Janet’s is the only concert I’ve attended that featured music video-like production numbers, however. She had dancers, choreographed numbers and, I’m sure, on-stage marks she had to meet. And, yet, it was no more calculating than most big-scale rock shows. Instead of the obligatory guitar solos, there were those and the obligatory dance breaks.

The night began with her Control-era hits, then moved into the Rhythm Nation songs. I’d love to give a play-by-play of the evening in total, but – similar to the Tom Petty & Heartbreakers show we saw at the Spectrum six months earlier – only jagged memories of the night remain. I remember that, after a string of dance-heavy opening songs from Control, she slowed things down with that album’s sweet “Let’s Wait a While”…

Although my hunch then (and now) is that she relied on pre-recorded vocal tracks for the high-octane dance numbers, as I can’t imagine anyone singing while doing those moves, it was obvious that she sang live for the slowed-down songs and the more rock-oriented “Black Cat,” which was another of the night’s highlights.

The closing “Rhythm Nation” was also cool. Janet was decked out in her military-like garb, and she and her troupe of dancers stamped their feet to the beat of universal solidarity. “With music by our side/to break the color lines/Let’s work together/to improve our way of life/join voices in protest/to social injustice…”

Say what you will about Janet and her music in the years since (and I have mixed feelings about some of it), and about her now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, but when Diane and I left the Spectrum that long-ago August night in 1990, we only had good things to say about what we’d witnessed and heard.

The set (via Wikipedia):

  1. Control
  2. Nasty
  3. What Have You Done for Me Lately?
  4. Let’s Wait a While
  5. When I Think of You
  6. The Pleasure Principle
  7. T.V. (Interlude)
  8. State of the World
  9. Race (Interlude)
  10. The Knowledge
  11. Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) [instrumental interlude]
  12. Black Cat
  13. Come Back to Me
  14. Alright
  15. Escapade
  16. Miss You Much
  17. Pledge (interlude)
  18. Rhythm Nation

And of that Super Bowl mishap? In some ways, I think, the over-the-top backlash that followed was fueled by the very forces she called out in “Rhythm Nation,” which she performed just moments earlier in the short set.

Advertisements

Of Concerts Past: Roxy Music at the Tower Theater, 1983

Too often, especially as we age, the waves of time wash over the sturdy landmarks of our youth like the ocean during high tide; and, when the water recedes, what’s left are merely dull fragments of a once-sharp image. Such is the case with this, the second-ever concert I attended. Much of the night remains a vivid, Technicolor wonder; but much more has been carried away by the receding tide of time.

First: As I mentioned in my remembrance of the previous week’s Kinks concert, the show was originally scheduled for the Spectrum in Philadelphia, but was relocated to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby at some point. I don’t know why, but imagine poor ticket sales were to blame. The Spectrum held upwards of 18,000 for concerts; the Tower fit about 3000. An event isn’t downsized that dramatically except to avoid a sea of empty seats.

The change in venue made the trip to the show that much more arduous from my neck of the woods. In today’s world, one could hop on the turnpike, exit at Mid-County and take the Blue Route and West Chester Pike. Maybe a 45-minute (to an hour, depending on traffic) trip. But back then? I didn’t drive much, and wasn’t behind the wheel – a friend with his father’s car was – but imagine we took 202 to West Chester Pike, with the 202 portion of the ride likely taking forever. Another friend was with us.

I say “likely” because I don’t remember it. What I do recall: Walking into the Tower and being amazed by the decked-out guys and girls milling about. Everyone was dressed to the nines in (stereotypical) New Wave fashion except for the three of us, who wore the typical suburban attire of jeans, button-down shirts and, given that it was a chilly night, light jackets. It was as if we’d stepped into a Duran Duran video, in other words. Our seats were on the balcony, a little less than a third of the way back, where the D-Squared vibe continued unabated.

To the show itself: the British band Modern English, who’d caught fire in the U.S. thanks to MTV placing “I Melt With You” into heavy rotation that spring, opened. My only memory of their set is of that song, their last of the night. The moment it began, many on the floor spilled out from their seats and danced in the aisles.

The reason we’d traveled to the Tower, of course, was Roxy Music. Maybe they had to downsize the venue, but whatever disappointments Bryan Ferry & Company had didn’t show in their performance. The band and backup singers came out dressed like many in the audience, like fashion models, and opened with the funky “The Main Thing” from Avalon

One highlight: “Can’t Let Go,” a song from Ferry’s 1978 solo album, The Bride Stripped Bare, which Roxy had just released on the live High Road EP.

Another: “My Only Love,” which – given that I’d been playing the High Road EP for much of the month – I knew like the back of my hand. It’s still a thing of genius.

Another: “Love Is the Drug,” the band’s lone U.S. hit.

Another: their take on Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” which saw a wind machine add to the stormy mood on stage. In its eye: Bryan Ferry, playing it cool; Phil Manzanera, tossing off guitar licks; and Andy MacKay, who wailed away on the sax in lieu of Neil’s swirling guitar solo. The back-up singers provided the proverbial icing on the cake.

“Editions of You” rocked:

The night ended with their cover of John Lennon’s classic “Jealous Guy.” It was the perfect cap to a great concert.

The next morning, in my desk calendar, I noted that “the Musique Roxy were fabulous. It was better than the Kinks!!”

One other memory: After the show, my friend at the wheel inadvertently ran a red light while trying to figure out where he was supposed to turn. Bubble lights from a police car flashed behind us and, within a few minutes, a bulky cop was leaning inside our car with a flashlight, scanning for any signs of intoxication. What he saw instead: three very sober, and very nervous, suburban kids. He let us go with a warning.

The likely set:

  1. The Main Thing
  2. Out of the Blue
  3. Both Ends Burning
  4. A Song for Europe
  5. Take a Chance With Me
  6. Can’t Let Go
  7. While My Heart Is Still Beating
  8. Impossible Guitar
  9. Tara
  10. Avalon
  11. My Only Love
  12. Dance Away
  13. Love Is the Drug
  14. Like a Hurricane
  15. Editions of You
  16. Do the Strand
  17. Jealous Guy

 

Of Concerts Past: Maria McKee in Philadelphia, 6/10/2003

Our stop at the Boot & Saddle to see Juliana Hatfield two weeks back reminded me of the North Star Bar, where I saw the Absolutely Sweet Maria McKee on her much-anticipated (by me, at least) High Dive tour. The Boot & Saddle, for those who’ve never been there, is your basic bar with a sizable backroom and stage; and the North Star, which closed in October 2015, was your basic bar with a sizable side room and stage. Both fit about the same number of bodies, I think: 150, maybe 200 if the fire marshal’s not looking. The main difference: at the North Star, at least on this night, the sound from the bar bled into the music room.

At the time, the Little Diva and her band were on tour in support of High Dive, her first release since her genre-bending 1996 album Life Is Sweet. Gone, still, was the country-rock overtones of her early days; instead, the CD tempered the glam and glitter of Life with elements of baroque and operatic rock. To quote (and lightly edit) the review I left on Amazon in 2006: “The tracks, in total and apart, have a narcotic-like effect; one listen and you’ll be hooked. ‘In Your Constellation’ has a Neil Young-like vibe, a la ‘Like a Hurricane,’ that sends me flying into the stratosphere and higher; ‘Be My Joy’ is, well, just plain intoxicating; and the dramatic ‘Non Religious Building’ is as potent as songs come. I was hesitant about the remake of ‘Life Is Sweet’/‘Afterlife’ … but, ya know what? It’s as good as the original – and the backing vocals are to die for, both there and elsewhere. My album of the year for 2003.”

As Diane can attest, I played it the way I play most albums I fall for – over and over again. In the month and a half between its April 22nd release and this show…did I listen to anything else? Of my own accord, no. With Diane? Yes. (Such sacrifices are what sustain a marriage, after all.) By the night of the show, I was primed. Bouncing-off-the-walls primed. Maybe Maria’s career hadn’t taken flight in the way she’d hoped since Life Is Sweet, but the new music she was making meant (and still means) as much to me as the alt.country prototype she built with Lone Justice and on her first two solo albums.

Anyway, of the show: Certain memories survive. I remember her guitar soaring through “Absolutely Barking Stars” along with her voice, which – I swear – felt like a ghost inhabiting my body. It was deliciously intense, in other words. Here she is playing it a few months later in Hamburg (from the 2004 Live in Hamburg CD):

“High Dive,” as on album, was brilliant:

“Shelter,” one of my all-time favorite songs, was another highlight. Here she is from a few years later performing it:

“Breathe,” too, was mesmerizing – but when is it not? It was sparse and dramatic, similar to this performance from 10 years earlier…

“In Your Constellation” was simply phenomenal; it swirled like the cosmos through the room. Afterwards, she talked about Bruce Springsteen and his influence on her music, singing a snippet of… “Rosalita,” says Diane…before launching into a dramatic reading of his “Candy’s Room.”

The philosophical “Something Similar” closed the main portion of her set.

Unlike the Boot & Saddle, where the entrance to the stage is basically through the audience, the North Star Bar had stairs with a slight overhang leading off the stage. As Maria and band were leaving, she hit her head – a loud thwack followed by her “ow!” echoed through the room. She returned a few moments later – and sang a song so good she recorded it twice: “Life Is Sweet.” She then left the stage, no doubt making sure to duck before descending the steps.

The (possible) set:

  1. I Can’t Make It Alone
  2. Absolutely Barking Stars
  3. From Our TV Teens to the Tombs
  4. High Dive
  5. Be My Joy
  6. To the Open Spaces
  7. Shelter
  8. Dixie Storms
  9. Breathe
  10. Non Religious Building
  11. I’m Awake
  12. In Your Constellation
  13. Candy’s Room
  14. Something Similar
  15. (Encore) Life Is Sweet