First, Last, Best, Worst, Loudest, Most, Next

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(Pictured: Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, and Donald Fagen take a bow in 2010.)

I have friends who seem to spend most of their disposable income going to concerts. I am not one of those people, although I’ve seen my share, and some absolute legends, too, including Ray Charles, Bob Marley, Merle Haggard, Al Green, and B. B. King. The following concert meme has been going around on social media, but since I have a website, you get to read it here.

First concert: For years I told people it was Emerson Lake and Palmer on the Works tour with the orchestra, in 1977. It was actually Tony Orlando and Dawn at the Wisconsin State Fair circa 1974.

Last concert: Steve Forbert in 2019, at the fabulously funky Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, unless we’re counting streaming shows. Then it’s Wisconsin legend Pat McCurdy several times last summer and fall.

Best concert: I have always considered it to be Robert Palmer at the Orpheum Theater in Madison in 1979, but that show long ago ascended to the realm of folklore in my life, so maybe there have been some that were better. For example, it should be hard to beat Paul McCartney at Cyclone Stadium in Ames, Iowa, in 1990, or Billy Joel on the 52nd Street tour in 1979. Also in the semifinals: the Dukes of September (Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, and Michael McDonald) in 2012, Peter Wolf at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee in 2016, or Booker T. Jones at a free outdoor show in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 2019. Honorable mention to Tift Merritt, who opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Barrymore in Madison in 2012. As I wrote after that show, “She was so endearing that by the time her part of the show was over, everybody in the theater was in love with her. (Or maybe it was just me.)”

Worst concert: This one probably isn’t fair because musically it was fine, but the most disappointing show I’ve ever attended was James Taylor in Milwaukee in 2009. I did a podcast episode about it.

Loudest concert: A better choice for worst concert might be the Electric Light Orchestra at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison in 1978, on the tour with the spaceship stage. They were so loud that we literally could not identify most of the songs. But you know who else was devastatingly loud the night we saw them, in 1982? Air Supply.

Seen the most: This would be the much-missed Iowa City band Big Wooden Radio by a lot. Among national touring acts, it’s probably Boz Scaggs, with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash close behind. But since the band backing the Dukes of September is the Steely Dan touring band and the Dukes do some Steely Dan and McD songs, maybe the Dan and the Doobie Brothers should be in there too.

Most surprising: the acapella group Home Free. The Mrs., who is an acapella singer, had seen them on the TV show The Sing Off and wanted to go; I never expected them to be as entertaining, and as musically impressive, as they were.

Wish I’d seen: In 1980, a bunch of us from college were planning to see Led Zeppelin in Chicago when John Bonham died. The Mrs. and I had tickets to see Tony Bennett a couple of years ago, but the show was mysteriously canceled. We believe now that it had something to do with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We considered seeing Aretha Franklin the last time she played Milwaukee, in 2016, but the state of our fun budget that summer didn’t permit it.

Unfulfilled bucket list (a personal addition to the meme list): a full Springsteen show (we saw him do a couple of songs at a John Kerry rally in 2004); also Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr.

Next concert: that is a question we’re all trying to answer. Although some acts are starting to announce summer shows, I think that’s overly optimistic. We are assuming that we will, in the near-to-intermediate future, achieve a happy immunity from the coronavirus, with all of us kissing each other on the mouth in crowded bars from coast to coast. However, given America’s oft-demonstrated ability to fk up a one-car funeral, a critical national mobilization like the vaccination program is likely to contain snags that we cannot foresee. I wouldn’t bet on anything close to normalcy before the fall, and if we were still hunkered down in our houses come next Christmas, it wouldn’t be a shock to me. But let’s hope we find ourselves at a show long before that.

9 thoughts on “First, Last, Best, Worst, Loudest, Most, Next

  1. First concert: Chicago, Reno, Nevada 1973.

    Last concert: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at the Uptown Theater in Napa, California February 29, 2020.

    Best concert: ELO and Little Feat at Anaheim Coliseum, 1975. This is before Jeff Lynne replaced the string players with synths. These guys were acrobats—playing behind their backs. Amazing.

    Worst concert: Daryl Hall and John Oates, Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, 2019. The mix was horrific. I know it wasn’t the acoustics because we’d seen shows at Golden 1 before—and recently. This was just someone who couldn’t get the mix right to save their life, and for an act that was really about crisp, sharp music, it sounded sloppy. Also, Daryl’s ego took up three-quarters of the stage. Dude made David Lee Roth look like Perry Como.

    Not worst, but a big disappointment: Queen. Winterland, San Francisco, 1976. Shortly after “Bohemian Rhapsody” went big. For whatever reason, that night, Freddie sang everything an octave lower. Honorable mentions to Jack Jones and Burt Bacharach, in separate appearances at Harrah’s Tahoe in the late 70s, both of whom were drunk.

    Loudest concert: The Who, Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego August 22, 1989. I wasn’t at the concert itself, but at a hotel a mile to the west. I was in town doing a story on a killer whale accident at Sea World and listened to the concert from my hotel room balcony. I really wouldn’t have wanted it any louder than it was. Runners-up: McCartney and U2 (both at Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe)

    Seen the most: If comedy counts, it would be Bill Cosby seven times (all at Harrah’s Tahoe) followed by Steve Martin three times (at the same venue). I saw seven completely different shows from Cos, and the same damn show from Steve three times. Had I known what a monster Cosby was, though, I would have seen Steve ten times and skipped Cosby.

    Assuming comedy doesn’t count, it’s a four-way tie. Sinatra twice (Caesar’s Tahoe 1981 and Golden Nugget Las Vegas 1984), Willie Nelson twice (Harrah’s Tahoe 1980 and University of Nevada Reno Stadium 1982), Sammy Davis, Jr. twice (Nevada State Maximum Security Prison, Carson City 1982 and Harrah’s Reno 1983) and James Taylor twice (AT&T Stadium, San Francisco with Bonnie Raitt and Golden 1 Center Sacramento solo—both in 2017).

    Most surprising: This is the part where I get to explain the Nevada State Prison above. I was co-anchoring a news/entertainment hybrid show called Live at 5 on the CBS TV station in Reno. The phone rings one day before the show and I answer. It’s Sammy Davis, Jr. (I didn’t believe it was him, and hung up on him. He called back, I still didn’t believe it was him. He asked how he could prove it. I told him to sing “The Shelter of Your Arms”. He did. My response was something along the lines of “Shit, Mr. Davis, I am SO sorry”. He said “Never mind that. Why “Shelter of Your Arms”? I told him it was because I figured if it was one of my friends doing an impression, they probably had “I Gotta Be Me” down cold. He said that made sense.

    Anyway, Sammy was calling to see if I’d be interested on doing a story about him and his backing band from Harrah’s doing a show for inmates at the Nevada State Prison gym that week. I said yes. By the way, he did as good a show in the gym as I saw him do in Harrah’s showroom a year later.

    Wish I’d seen: Tony Bennett, Linda Ronstadt.

    Unfulfilled bucket list : Steely Dan, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen. And if Herb Alpert, Lani Hall and Sergio Mendes get together at the Hollywood Bowl again (they’ve done it twice), I’ll be there.

    Next concert: Whaddya got? After a year and a half in lockdown, I’m ready.

      1. mikehagerty

        I have a history of celebrity misfires. Probably why I gravitated toward hard news. I’d have been a nightmare on a show like ET.

      2. Wesley

        Please tell me somewhere there’s a recording of Sammy’s concert at Nevada State Prison. The patter between songs alone would be worth the price of hearing it. No way I could top that story, mikehagerty.

      3. mikehagerty

        Wesley: As I remember it (and it’s been just a shade under forty years), it was me, my cameraman, and a print reporter from the Reno Gazette-Journal. That reporter must have fed it to the wire services, because the only record I can find of the event is in the Eugene (OR) Record-Guard, attributed to “wire service reports”:,1552690&dq=northern-nevada-correctional-center&hl=en

        I didn’t see any recording equipment other than our old 3/4″ Sony U-Matic field deck. And KTVN didn’t maintain a good archive. I’m sure that cassette was re-used within a week.

        As for the story itself—I was 25. If someone at Harrah’s had called and said “Sammy Davis, Jr. would like to speak with you—please hold.”, I’d have believed it was him and would have been appropriately terrified.

        But, even though I knew entertainers at Reno and Tahoe casinos watched the show I co-anchored (it aired during the time that they’d be in their dressing rooms prior to the dinner show), the idea that Sammy Davis, Jr. would know my name and call me was far less likely to me than the idea that one of my smartass disc jockey friends could work up a damn fine impression and screw with me. In fact, there was one in particular that I had burned with my own Wolfman Jack impression over the phone on his show a year or so before—I was looking over my shoulder.

        Thank God Sammy called back and sang “Shelter of Your Arms”. He could have just called one of the two other TV newsrooms in town.

        I don’t want to hijack this comment thread (any more than I already have), but f we ever have a “my brush with fame” post, I can give you a list of my less than stellar interactions with celebrities—most because I was young and naive, a couple that I was old enough to know better but still have a smartass streak in me and two or three that were absolutely all on them.

  2. John Gallagher

    First concert: Frank Zappa in 1974
    Last concert: Rascal Flatts in 2013
    Best concert: John Mellencamp in 1985
    I don’t really recall the worst concert, but Lorrie Morgan was a B * * * H in person back stage with some radio concert winners.
    Loudest concert: Tim McGraw
    Wish I’d seen: The list is miles long.

  3. ALWAYS love your posts… just thought I’d chime in a bit. Haven’t seen a whole lot of artists, but have seen one A LOT (more to come on that).
    I’ve seen George Jones, Roy Clark, John Anderson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jewel and Kris Kristofferson. All of these were at small venues… about 5,000 or so in the audience. As you can see, it has a country lean to it… they seem to play to smaller crowds more often it seems.
    Would love to see Springsteen and McCartney,  and back in my younger days so many of the 70-80’s rockers.
    George was amazing, Roy was the most talented, Jewel was gorgeous and sang like an angel at times… and Kris just had coolness radiating off of him.
    That one artist, that I’ve seen A LOT… well I’ve seen him 28 times (3 times outdoors)… Willie Nelson. First time was in 97 and just about once year since then (sometimes twice). Most recently one year ago today (February 12, 2020)… shortly before the world changed.
    Got to meet him in 2001, spent a few minutes talking with him. Amazing artist, excellent guitar player.

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