Thursday, April 27, 2017

Were You There, Too? My Scrapbook of Favorite Live Music Moments

The epic 1987 Joshua Tree Tour
I've spent a good portion of my life flicking my Bic. That is, I've attended a whole bunch of music concerts in large, medium and small venues. It all started in August, 1972, when my parents took me to see The Guess Who at the Iowa State Fair. I was 12, but already a big music fan, a drummer and soon-to-be guitarist who listened to music every day. And night. 

When The Guess Who's lead singer Burton Cummings screamed "American Woman," then whispered "These Eyes," then the entire crowd, us included, clapped along with him on "No Time" during the show's finale', I was hooked. I knew at that moment that live music and I were going to have a lifelong relationship. 


When my family moved to Las Vegas the following year, I got the opportunity to see all kinds of live music with my dad, who was a radio and TV personality who got to go to all the great Las Vegas shows of that town's Golden Age. I was fortunate to see Elvis, and Sinatra, and Sammy, and Dean, and the list goes on. 

And it's never stopped. I still love live music, almost all kinds of live music. Be it in a bar, a back yard or a stadium. And only a small handful were not worth the time or the money. So, after reading some of my friends' posts on Facebook about their favorite concerts, I decided to follow suit -- but without the one lie, without the one concert that I did not attend (what's up with that, anyway?). Yes, I attended all of these below.

Here's a short list of the concerts that have stuck most indelibly in my memory. The ones that come up first when I try to summon up my life of enjoying live music.

These are not in chronological order, they're literally in the order in which I remembered them. And to most of these shows, I went simply as a fan, not as a journalist or critic. Perhaps you saw some of these concerts, too? What concerts entertained and inspired you the most?



MY FAVORITE CONCERTS:

Elvis Presley - Las Vegas Hilton, September 1973: Yes, this was the slightly older, less energetic Elvis, but he was not yet visibly ill or grossly overweight. He was still amazing. Elvis was a truly tragic rock and roll figure, and of course an immeasurable talent. He's immortal. And thankfully he's still everywhere.

Frank, Ella and Basie at Caesars
Frank Sinatra - Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas, January 1974: Frank ruled the world. He had lost a bit of his vocal chops and range, but he was still the master, the greatest singer ever to walk the earth. His legend loomed large in the Reno house, where I'd regularly listen to Frank's swing records right alongside the Beatles. I couldn't believe I was actually seeing him in person.

Elton John - Las Vegas Convention Center, October 1975: This was at the height of Elton's deserved mega-fame. His genius for melody writing aside, there was no one in pop music history who had more raw and real energy and enthusiasm on stage. When I saw this concert, Elton was the center of the universe, the biggest thing in popular music since the Beatles. And worthy of it all. I remember when rock was young.

U2 San Diego Sports Arena, April 1987: The original "Joshua Tree" tour, this was probably my favorite concert of them all. The poignance and majesty of this band's music has floored me from the start, and it has never been matched. And "Joshua Tree" remains their towering achievement. Sorry Beatles, sorry Stones, but this is the greatest rock band of all time, and easily the greatest live act on the planet, then and still. No band has stayed this good and this relevant this long. Their last album was my favorite one since "Joshua Tree." No other band has been able to sustain this level of greatness. And the band's current 30-year "Joshua Tree" anniversary tour will be as relevant as if it had been released this year.

Stevie Wonder – Humphrey’s, San Diego, August 2007 : A rare opportunity to see Stevie in a very small venue. I interviewed him in advance of this concert for Newsweek. One of my favorite interviews of my entire career. After about 90 minutes on the phone, he ended up kindly and shockingly insisting that I play him a couple of my songs. Are you kidding me, Mr. Wonder? Omigod, I'm not worthy!

Jackson Browne - Hilton Coliseum, April 1978: My senior year in high school, me and my three buddies Mike Stauffer, Mark Davis and Blake Mishler, drove up to Iowa State University in Ames from West Des Moines to see Jackson's legendary "Running on Empty" tour.  It was the greatest album ever recorded about live music and touring, and the greatest song about same was Jackson's "The Load Out/Stay." Fantastic concert. As good if not better than the iconic album.

Peter Frampton - Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts, Las Vegas, July 1977: Do You Feel Like I do? Frampton was in his full rock star glory here. The most underrated rock guitarist of all time, Peter has been unfairly lumped in with disco and all the other kitschy 70's trends. He's a rock legend who played lead guitar for Humble Pie, played guitar on such records as George Harrison's epic "All Things Must Pass," toured as lead guitarist for such legends as David Bowie, and was the biggest rock star of the 1970's. Peter, who years later wold be kind enough to play on one of my songs, has never been given his due not only as a rock guitarist but as a singer and songwriter. He deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The late Terry Kath (hat) and Chicago
Chicago - Iowa State Fair, Summer 1974: This was when Chicago, my favorite band since I was eight, was the most popular group in the world. At age 13, I hitchhiked to this show across Des Moines with my best pal Donny Anderson. If our parents knew they woulda killed us. This remains one of the biggest concerts in Iowa State Fair history, with 24,700 people, and in my memory forever, especially because it was the last time I saw Chicago's legendary lead guitarist Terry Kath before his tragic and untimely death. 

Natalie Cole - Anthology, San Diego, September 2009: Rest in peace, Natalie, you were the greatest female singer of them all. Natalie sang jazz better than Ella, she sang soul better than Aretha, and she sang pop better than Whitney. And the sadly now-defunct Anthology, the classy old-school nightclub in San Diego's Little Italy, was the perfect venue for her to show off her inimitable talent and charisma. These kind of classy nightclubs don't exist any more, and neither do singers like Natalie.

Pink Floyd - San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, 1994: A mind-blowing night, even without Roger Waters, that left me "Comfortably Numb."

Guns N' Roses - Jack Murphy Stadium, 1992: Welcome to the Jungle. These guys were a bright spot in the 90's, which was easily the worst musical decade for rock music. It's heartening to see this band (mostly) back together and touring again after so much vitriol over the years.

Rolling Stones - Jack Murphy Stadium, 1994: The legendary Stones, in peak form on this tour. But then when are they not? Still, I wish I could see them in an intimate venue. How cool would that be?

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Don Henley, Timothy Schmidt, Chris Hillman  - Santa Monica Civic, 1991 - Poetic and powerful night of acoustic music that I reviewed for the old San Diego Tribune (can't find a link).

The Clash, Men At Work, Oingo Boingo, Flock of Seagulls, English Beat, INXS, Stray Cats - US Festival, near Los Angeles, 1983: It was called "New Wave Day," I recall. Amazing lineup in the early 80's, my college years. I attended with my childhood friend Kelly Noble Vukovich. Men at Work were the highlight. Eternally underrated band with a truly great singer-songwriter in Colin Hay.

Paul McCartney - The Pond in Anaheim, 2002: I've seen Sir Paul several times, but this somehow was the most memorable. When he sang "Fool on the Hill," well, it remains the most beautiful, transcendent musical moment of any concert I've attended. 

The Eagles - Hell Freezes Over Tour, San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, June 1994: Had a front-row seat for the concert that I had dreamed about for years but never thought would happen. It did and it was even better than imagined.

Simon and Garfunkel - Dodger Stadium, August 1983: Musical perfection, even in an awkwardly shaped, clunky baseball stadium venue. 

The Who - Jack Murphy Stadium, August, 1989: Long Live Rock!

Brian Wilson - Del Mar Fair, Pet Sounds Tour, 2016: My preview of this concert above was pretty laudatory, but this show lived up to and exceeded my hype. It was Brian Wilson, happy, and with his full genius on display. An amazing survival story for a man who was down and out for so many years. It touches my heart every time I see him walk on stage, but especially at this show, with the ocean in view and with Brian singing cuts form arguably the greatest rock album ever.

The Guess Who - Iowa State Fair, August 1972: My first concert, as I mentioned, was the Guess Who, the Canadian rock hitmakers whose lead singer Cummings is simply the best rock singer of all time (sorry Robert Plant). I had just turned 12. And yes, I had a date... but my mom took us and picked us up. 

Yes - San Diego Sports Arena, The Union Tour, May 1991: Another of my very favorite bands, led by the angelic, ethereal, brilliant Jon Anderson, who finally got his overdue love at the Rock and Roll Hall Fame. This concert was fantastically weird, and weirdly fantastic, with members of each of the Yes incarnations jamming happily together. We can all get along! 

Dire Straits - Open Air Theatre, San Diego State University, the Brothers in Arms tour, September 1985: Catching another great band on the top if its wave of fame. Too bad Dire Straits founder, lead singer and lead guitarist Mark Knopfler now stubbornly, selfishly, preposterously refuses to play Dire Strait songs in his concerts. 

Other favorite shows include James Taylor, with the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall, November 1995 (America's finest singer-songwriter with a fine symphony orchestra, what's not to love?); Steely Dan, L.A. Greek Theater, 1993; Jim Messina, Arlington Theater Santa Barbara, 1980; James Cotton Blues Band, Blind Melon's, San Diego, 1995; Randy Newman, Humphrey's, 1985; David Crosby, The Bacchanal San Diego, 1986; Peter Gabriel, L.A. Forum, 1987; Hall & Oates, Humphrey's, 1998: Everly Brothers, Humphrey's, 2005; Kenny Rankin, Elario's La Jolla, 1993; Roger McGuinn, Bacchanal, 1988; Smokey Robinson, Sycuan Casino, 1998 (Smokey just kept singing, in a torrential rain); Dan Fogelberg, Humphrey's San Diego, 2000 (rest in peace to the guy who more than anyone else, sparked my interest in writing songs and playing acoustic guitar); Cheap Trick, Bacchanal, 1987 (nothing like seeing this band, finally Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, rockin' out in a cool, small venue like the Bacchanal. Does anyone remember the Bacchanal?

There you have it. There are about 1,000 more about which I could write. But I don't have time, I'm headed to a concert. See you in the aisles!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Concert Review: David Crosby Inspires, and Disappoints, at Humphrey's By the Bay

David Crosby  - Photo by Jamie Reno
Singer-songwriter David Crosby (left) performed for three hours last night at Humphrey's By the Bay in San Diego with his stellar band. It was a nice night of music. But it was also hugely disappointing.

Crosby, the legendary and legendarily cantankerous member of the Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, played only a few songs that most fans last night readily recognized ("Deja Vu," "Long Time Gone," "Delta"). 

The gracefully aging sailor instead chose to play a boatload of more obscure tracks from CPR, the jazz-tinged rock band he formed with his son, James Raymond, and acclaimed studio guitarist Jeff Pevar. 

CPR is a good band. Highly underrated, in fact. But is David or anyone else delusional enough to think the folks who filled Humphrey's last night came to hear CPR songs?

Crosby also played some tunes from the various Nash-Crosby collaborations. Good songs, all, and the band was tight. The harmonies were amazing. And Pevar all but stole the show with his fret mastery. 

But even Crosby acknowledged during the concert that most of the tunes on the setlist are probably not known by the audience. 

I felt slighted. Cheated. And a bit miffed. And clearly I wasn't alone. By the three-hour mark, nearly half the audience had bailed.

Granted, it was an older demographic, some of these boomers were probably just getting sleepy. But it was obvious that while this crowd loved David Crosby, they were none too pleased with his choice of songs.

The fact that this beloved artist, who, God love him, is 75 years old and looks healthy and happy, repeated the same rambling story/diatribe about politicians in the first half of the show and the second, verbatim, didn't help matters. 

But we could have forgiven him that minor sin had he tried a bit harder to please us. It's not that tough to please fans who love you as much as we do, David.

As a singer-songwriter, I respect the fact that an artist wants to play the new stuff and obscure stuff and some of the personal favorites, not just keep performing the same old hits over and over and over again. It's an age-old musician's dilemma. I get it. 

But I also believe artists have an obligation to play the songs that paid for their mansions, the songs for which they are famous, the songs we all know. The songs of our lives.

At the Crosby, Stills and Nash show reviewed here that took place two years ago in San Diego, they did it right. They played the hits, but each of the three particulars (Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash) also introduced several news songs. 

Most fans enjoy hearing the new stuff. At least a few songs. It's a delicate balance. But it bothers me when a veteran artist like Crosby, whose records haven't really sold in decades, forgets why his aging fans keep paying to see him. 

Last night's show was good, and at times great. I was into the music all night. But it was frustrating. 

David, if you ever happen to read this, before you get pissed off and throw your laptop at me, just please consider this:  Don't ignore your sacred canon. Don't take your fans for granted and slight us just to please yourself. 

Please consider putting in your set a few more tunes we all know and love. It won't kill you to make us happy. At least put in "Wooden Ships," "Almost Cut My Hair," and "Guinnevere," for crying out loud. 

We all love you, and no, you're not selling out just by adding a few tunes that made you famous. To play three hours and not include a few more songs that you know full well will lift and inspire your adoring fans is just selfish. 

But then, this isn't the first time you've been accused of that, is it? Truth is, you were having more fun on that stage last night than we were having in the audience.



Friday, April 21, 2017

Resolved: Founding Father and Constitutional Framer James Madison Was Not an Originalist, and Would Not Have Voted for Neil Gorsuch

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and President Donald Trump 
Some of my best conservative friends are defending "originalism," the tired notion espoused by new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and others that the United States Constitution is not a living, evolving document. This is of course nonsense. 

Harkening back to my college debate days, allow me to don my cob-webbed, dark-blue blazer and resort to some unfair tactics (appealing to your patriotism) to cement my point.

It was none other than James Madison, loving husband of Dolly and one of our country's cherished founding fathers, who said at our nation's Constitutional Convention that in framing a system which we wish to last for the ages, "we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”

You go, James! And no, he wasn't referring to the Constitutional amendment process, which is cumbersome and very, very difficult to do.

The great irony of the current originalism debate, or perhaps it isn't irony at all, is that many of our founding fathers were clearly not originalists, as far as we can tell. Madison outspokenly supported the idea of a living and flexible US Constitution, one that changes over time.

Why? Because it's what is right and decent, and because it is the only thing that makes sense. 

The US Constitution is the greatest framework for democracy in the history of the world. But viewing this document as inflexible, while interesting in theory, is silly in practice. 

It just doesn't work, and it's preposterous to suggest otherwise. Scalia and Gorsuch? Both dead wrong on this issue. It just can't be wisely or convincingly argued in their favor.

The document, which was written centuries ago exclusively by and for white, male property owners, many of whom owned slaves, has an obviously and inherently biased outlook. It is a good guide, the best, in fact, but it should not be taken verbatim all these hundreds of years later.

The proof of the inherent dangers of originalism is inadvertently but very obviously revealed by just who supports it. 

Who more than anyone else wanted Gorsuch to be the newest member of Team Robe, also known as SCOTUS? People who were literally praying for his nomination, that's who. 

Yes, folks who want to impose their religious values and beliefs and interpretation of God on the rest of us. 

I greatly respect everyone's beliefs, but forcing the on people is not what America stands for. In fact, many of the founding fathers were not Christians at all, they were Deists.

As legal and Constitutional scholar Andrew Shankman wrote recently, Madison’s framework demanded that the American people "maintain their right through time to be the final arbiters of constitutional meaning through popular politics and the thoughtful expression of public opinion."

Legal scholar David Strauss recently said, "Originalists simply do not have an answer to Thomas Jefferson's famous question: why should we allow people who lived long ago, in a different world, to decide fundamental questions about our government and society today? Originalists do not draw on the accumulated wisdom of previous generations in the way that the common law does."


Indeed. David nailed it. 

He added that originalism "forbids the judge from putting those views on the table and openly defending them. Instead, the judge's views have to be attributed to the framers, and the debate has to proceed in pretend-historical terms, instead of in terms of what is, more than likely, actually determining the outcome."

So, in closing, and in honor of my old college debate coach, I say, Resolved: Originalism in 2017 is simply a more palatable term for judicial activism! And/or, Resolved: A living, evolving interpretation of the US Constitution is a must in a free society!

I could argue for both, until the cows come home.