Back in the days of festival seating, if you wanted a good seat at a concert, you had to get to the venue early. One fine night in the 1970s, a bunch of us were lined up outside the Dane County Coliseum here in Madison when a guy in line nearby started yelling in a voice that sounded like broken glass and scrap metal, screechy and raspy at the same time. “Let us in! Let us in!” The guy was maybe 5-foot-5, and he seemed more funny than threatening. At one point he paused, grabbed an empty beer can, smashed it flat on his forehead, and yelled, “I’m Melvin Funlinger, goddammit! Let us in!” I can never attend anything at the Coliseum, down unto to this very day, without thinking about Melvin. Of course, I don’t get to the Coliseum much anymore. It doesn’t book as many shows as it used to, and rarely the kind of shows I’m interested in.
‘Twas not always thus. The Dane County Coliseum (known now as “Veterans Memorial Coliseum at Alliant Energy Center”) was once the main concert venue in the region. From the 70s to the 90s, everybody who was anybody in rock played there: the Grateful Dead (February 3, 1978), Queen (June 3, 1975, February 28, 1976, and June 12, 1978), Pink Floyd (March 4, 1973), AC/DC (May 8, 1979), Elvis (October 19, 1976, and June 24, 1977), David Bowie (October 11, 1974), and Elton John (September 4, 1980), to name just a few. Plus it was the venue for Wisconsin Badgers hockey, tractor pulls, flea markets, and other events. My first-grade class went to the circus there in 1967, right after the building opened. Later, I saw the Electric Light Orchestra, Billy Joel, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer—twice.
Oddly enough, the ELP concerts took place within five months of each other. On June 9, 1977, the Works tour hit town with a full orchestra. It was the first concert I ever went to by myself without parental escort, although I believe my pal Dave’s dad drove us. We learned about festival seating that night, finally finding two way up at the top of the building—but I don’t remember much about the show other than that, except the ticket price, which was $7.50.
(The June 9 show was ELP’s second visit to southern Wisconsin in four days. On June 5, they had played Milwaukee, presumably at County Stadium, sharing a bill with the J. Geils Band, Foghat, and the Climax Blues Band in one of those glorious daylong displays of 70s musical democracy. After that, they zipped down to Indianapolis for a show, then back up to Madison.)
Thirty-one years ago this week—November 8, 1977—Emerson, Lake and Palmer returned to Madison as a trio. (The orchestra had proved ruinously expensive, and the orchestra got smaller and smaller as the tour progressed.) The second leg of their 1977 tour took them mostly to college towns, but why they returned to Madison, I don’t know. (One comprehensive listing of tour dates shows that they may also have played Houston, Texas, and Wheeling, West Virginia twice, but those could be errors.) By then, I loved ELP with the passion only a 17-year-old prog-rock geek could gin up. (A passion I have lost, by the way.) On that November night, the band opened with a version of the theme from the TV show Peter Gunn, which remains the coolest concert-opening number I’ve ever seen. Ticket price: $8.50.
A while back I found a bootleg of a show ELP played in Memphis, Tennessee, on November 20, 1977, less than two weeks after I saw them at the Coliseum. This one’s for you, Melvin.