Top 5: What Are You, Deaf?

The last week of August always brings to mind (and who the hell knows why) one of the most memorable concerts I ever attended–although it’s memorable in a negative way.

In 1978, the Electric Light Orchestra was touring on the double album Out of the Blue with a stage shaped like a spaceship, which would open to reveal the group inside. The only place in Wisconsin big enough to house the stage was the Dane County Coliseum here in Madison–and my friends and I were thrilled to snag tickets. A band called Trickster opened for them, and we should have taken it as an omen when the guys behind us were laughing between numbers, saying that they sounded like a nuclear accident. When ELO took the stage, it got worse. I have no idea what they played that night, because we couldn’t hear them. Each song was a roar of unidentifiable and undifferentiated noise–jets taking off would have been as musical, and certainly no more painful. We actually considered going to ask the sound guy if he could turn it the hell down. My ears were still ringing three days later, when I went off to college for my freshman year.

I’m either fairly lucky as a concertgoer, or fairly undiscriminating, because I can recall very few concerts from which I walked away disappointed. ELO in 1978 was surely one of them. Another was earlier this summer, when we saw James Taylor at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee during Summerfest. Despite an all-star backing band featuring veteran session players Steve Gadd and Lou Marini, despite a list of songs that Taylor’s reputation is built on, I just couldn’t get into it. It seemed forced and passionless–like Taylor was role-playing a rock star and the audience was role-playing an enraptured crowd. I was bored silly. Mine was definitely a minority opinion, not just of the 22,000 people in the arena but in the group I was with–but I found myself counting songs in the second set, looking at my watch, and wishing he’d just get done already.

But that’s a rarity. Nope, the good shows have far outnumbered the bad ones. And now, because it’s Friday, here’s a list of five other memorable concerts I’ve attended.

Billy Joel, Madison, March 1979. On the last night of his 52nd Street tour, Joel and the band left it all on the stage. The show ended with him playing “She’s Got a Way” solo on the piano, leaning into the spotlight, taking off his necktie, and saying, “Good night, Wisconsin . . . don’t take no shit from anybody.” The place went up for grabs.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Madison, September 1980.
Half concert, half religious experience. Given that Marley would be dead within months, and given his legendary stature today, it’s the concert I am most grateful to have seen.

Paul McCartney, Ames, Iowa, July 1990.
My only football-stadium concert experience, but another quasi-religious one. I observed at the time that having seen McCartney sing “Yesterday,” I could now die a happy man.

Chicago and Crosby, Stills and Nash, Moline, Illinois, circa 1996. The latter-day incarnation of Chicago is basically Survivor with a better back catalog, but on this tour they were playing the whole “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” the suite of songs that includes “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World,” for the first time in 20 years. CSN sounded OK, too–I’d never imagined Stephen Stills as a monster guitar player, but on this night he was. That Graham Nash encouraged the audience to sing along on the line “four dead in Ohio” seemed a little creepy, though.

Steely Dan, Milwaukee, June 2000. My favorite band, and in the expensive seats, too. At intermission, The Mrs. went over to find my brother and his Mrs., who were sitting in another part of the arena. My brother spotted a college friend on the stage, who turned out to be handling the lights for the show. So the three of them got to go backstage, while I’m sitting on the other side of the arena waiting. What a dumbass.

Your concert tales are encouraged. Click “comments.”

2 thoughts on “Top 5: What Are You, Deaf?

  1. John

    When I was in high school, a girl I was dating got tickets to see Paul Simon at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. This was right around the time that Simon started dragging dozens of musicians and back-up singers everywhere he went, just after Rhythm of the Saints, I believe. Such a huge and varied band created an amazing sound, and the show was incredible. But I learned something vital about the girl: She had no natural sense of rhythm. She was clapping and swaying to the music, except that she could not keep the beat. This was particularly ironic as she was related to Gene Krupa.

    Anyway, as the show went on and the girl’s “arrhythmia” drove me nuts, I could swear that Paul Simon kept looking in our direction. He would turn his head (we were off to his left) and cock it upwards as if looking for the distracting off-tempo movement. Finally, he seemed to make eye contact with me and give me a sympathetic look.

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