Saturday, March 21, 2009

Taking a break from politics-- My top 5 concert experiences

I've seen both big-name acts (Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Yes, Alan Parsons Project, Lilith Fair) and lesser-known bands (Andrew Bird, X-Clan, The Walkmen) in both huge arenas and small local venues. I'd have to say the best shows are when the band personally connects with the audience in a smaller venue. That being said, here are my top 5 concerts.

1. The Walkmen, at Jillian's in Louisville (now closed)
During my Junior year of high school, I impulse-bought tickets with my friends Kelley, John, and David, all from our drumline, to see The Strokes. I was indifferent about The Strokes; they weren't my favorite band, but I didn't hate them, and I like seeing shows, so I forked over the $25.

It was in a ruddy, smoke-filled basement in downtown Louisville, with about 400 other people all crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder. I had X's on my hands, because I was 16 and underaged. We got there early, so I got close to the front, and it was standing-room only, so you had to be comfortable on your feet. Some band called The Walkmen was opening for The Strokes, and they were from NYC. I'd never heard of them before, but I was optimistic.

And holy shit, I was blown away. Easily the best concert I've ever seen. These guys weren't the best musicians, but their sound was unique like Id never heard before. Rough, gritty guitar distortions, energetic drumbeats, eclectic piano and organ sounds, and a frontman who had enough energy inside of him to power Las Vegas for a week. It was a good hour of intense, beautiful, loud, and raw music. They left everything they had on that stage.

I've never seen a band get so into the music they were playing, and these guys were all about making good music and interacting with their audience. We were a part of their show, and the energy we gave them was thrown back to us. I've never seen a better show since. The Strokes were good, but they weren't anywhere near the same level as The Walkmen.

2. Public Enemy, at the Madison Theater in Covington
Me, my best bud Whittney, and my roommate Matias from Finland during my Sophomore year all decided to go see Public Enemy live on a school night in early 2007. Matias discovered the concert online, and told me about it excitedly, because he loves oldschool Hip Hop. I was down, because I'd never been to a Hip Hop show before.

Upon arriving, Matias reaffirmed his love of spirits by buying one of what would be four or five 24 oz cups of bud light that night, and we went immediately to the front and waited for the show to start. Again, the good spots are always standing-room only. How do you watch a Hip Hop show while sitting down?

A band called the X-Clan opened up, and I was actually pretty impressed; the DJ mixed some hot beats, and the two rappers interacted with the audience and busted some dance moves while the other MC was rapping. Not a whole lot of people were there yet, but once Flavor Flav's voice came on the mic as he came out, the room suddenly flooded with people. I fought fiercely to keep my front-row spot.

Public Enemy had a live band; a drummer, a guitarist, a bass guitar, a horn section, a DJ, and for some reason, two guys in uniform holding swords and occasionally doing Kung-Fu routines to the music. They rocked the fuck out for about two hours solid. Chuck D and Flav definitely knew what they were doing. I'd never seen a Hip Hop show before, but I was pleased to see that this one had a plethora of live musicians who could kill at their instruments.

Chuck D and Flav all had fun interacting with the crowd. Flavor Flav repeatedly came around to the front and slapped hands with everyone who held one out (including me and Whittney, who grinned at me excitedly every time Flav slapped her hand) and I even bumped fists with Chuck D at one point. I was puzzled to see Flavor Flav doing pushups in the middle of a song. After the song ended, he got his mic and explained to us what he was doing--


Halfway through the set, I saw a tall black man with a crazy outfit and dreadlocks and sunglasses grinning and bobbing his head to the music. I was moving my right forearm up and down to the music, and I made eye contact with this man. He nodded, grinned, and pointed at me and started moving his right forearm, too. After the song, Flavor Flav told us who the guy was.


Bootsy Collins. The man who invented funk. The funkiest of the funky. And he was on the stage. He grinned, grabbed a guitar from one of the musicians, and sat down on the stage with his legs dangling into the audience. I could have touched him just by reaching out. Dude was like, four feet away. He told us, unintelligibly, that he was going to play a riff on the guitar, and we were supposed to chant something every time he chanted a certain lyric. The band joined in with Flavor Flav on the drums, and we just grooved with Bootsy Collins for awhile. It was righteous.

Since then, that's one of the most fun experiences of my life. A close contender for the #1 spot, I'll have to say.

3. Andrew Bird, at the Southern Theatre in Columbus, OH
Andrew Bird is an eclectic indie singer/songwriter who plays his own genre of music. Along with singing and playing guitar and mallet percussion, Bird is also an expert at the violin, and oddly enough, whistling. It's hard to explain his style of music, so if you're confused, watch this performance and you'll see what I mean.

The Southern Theatre is a high-class, painstakingly ornate concert hall in the heart of Columbus, and I had a time navigating Whittney's car through downtown Columbus evening traffic. When we got there, we had a few minutes to spare, and noticed that our seats, while in the balcony, were right behind a whole bunch of Whittney's old posse from Ohio. She referred to them as well-to-do hipster intellectuals from good neighborhoods, like Circleville who wore their hair long and dressed in thrift store apparel to make some sort of point. While I'd describe this as most likely 90% of Andrew Bird's fanbase, his music can still be enjoyed by pretty much everybody who enioys music.

Bird's opening act was a woman whose name escapes my memory at the moment, but she had a great sound, albeit little soul in her performance. And her guitarist not once looked up from his pedal board at the audience. I didn't feel connected to her performance, despite her music being really good. Probably why I can't remember her name. This is why I prefer not to see big-name acts in huge venues, because it's a largely impersonal and disconnected experience.

However, Andrew Bird had great stage presence, and I watched him work through every minute of the set. Near the end, I couldn't resist the temptation to watch him from the floor instead of the balcony. His trademark is a suit and tie coupled with rainbow-colored toe socks, and lots of cartoonish props strewn thoughtfully across the stage; gramophones, statues, and other fantastical objects all combined was a great visual compliment to his equally eclectic and fantastical sound.

Andrew Bird's violin work was outstanding. During the ends of the songs "Dark Matter," and "Scythian Empire," what he did was play a simple violin melody for one bar, and then step on a recorder to loop the melody he just played. Then, he would play a harmony on his violin to compliment that original melody for a bar, and record that to play another complimentary track over that. He did this until he had a literal string quartet playing in harmony behind him, and then he played a solo over the entire soundscape. It was literally majestic. Andrew Bird isn't the best performer I've ever seen, but he's one of the best musicians I've ever seen live.

4. Ben Folds, at the Gray Chapel Auditorium on the Ohio Wesleyan University campus in Delaware, OH
What Ben Folds lacks in musicianship (and he doesn't lack much) he makes up for in performance energy. Whittney and i saw him the day after we saw Andrew Bird. The consensus of the weekend was that Bird was the best musician out of the two, but Ben Folds was the best performer of the two.

The day after the Andrew Bird concert was a rainy, cold, gray one complimented by ceaseless rain and lots of driving, so thankfully, this venue was indoors. The OWU campus was nonetheless striking, and our visit there for the night was with some fraternity brothers (I forget which one, but they were hella cool hipster-type dudes) Whittney knew from back home. I got my Ben Folds poster from one of the guys there, drank some beers, and ate some local food before walking in the rain to the venue. Just getting in was somewhat of an ordeal, as either me or Whittney had some issue with the will call stand, but after all of that, we finally walked into a large room that went way back with a tall ceiling and concrete floors. The makeshift stage was enormous, and the room quickly filled up. It was standing room only, but we weren't too far back or extremely close. We even saw Brandon and Bill from back in Morehead, both sporting sunglasses despite the lack of light.

The opening act was a white dude wearing white with an acoustic guitar named Eef Barzelay. He wasn't particularly memorable, other than his name and his cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy." I felt bad for the dude, because the crowd was as restless and irritable from the weather and getting in as I was, and they all started chanting to get Ben Folds on stage. He certainly took his time, but Ben Folds and his band came on after about a half hour of dead time when Eef's set was over.

Ben Folds walked on the stage in a nerdy-looking sweater and thick glasses, and did, in fact, rock that bitch like it had never been rocked before. His energy was constant, and he hammered away at the piano and sang his hits. In between songs, he bantered with the audience and fooled around with his music equipment like a 6-year old on Christmas day.

"(presses a button making a loud THUMP sound) Holy shit, that's awesome. (THUMP) Hey guys. (whispering) Check this shit out."


"Shit is so cool."

I could tell he was enjoying himself, which made all of us enjoy it more; that's half of the concert experience. The music can be good, but if the person playing it isn't playing it with heart, it just ruins it for me.

The coolest part of the show was the very last song he played; he gave us all instructions on what to do during the end of the song. He directly involved the audience with his music. He taught one low harmony part to one third of the audience; a middle harmony to another third; a high harmony for the last third. He instructed us to sing it all at once when he started to, at the very end. When that part of the song came in, the band dropped out, and we harmonized, a capella, with Ben Folds. It was angelic. I was floored. The somewhat unpleasant experiences of the day leading up to the concert was all worth it, just for that one moment of beauty.

5. An unknown jazz quartet, at the Jazz Factory in Louisville (now closed)
On May 18, 2004, a great Jazz legend died. That man was Elvin Jones, a highly influential drummer who played for all the greats; Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane (he played on A Love Supreme), Bud Powell, and others. Being a jazz drummer, Elvin was and still is one of my heroes.

On that same day, I went to the Jazz Factory to celebrate mine and my brother's birthdays that night with my family. While it's closed now, the Jazz Factory was once a hip, classy joint in the basement of an old, abandoned glass factory, where $20 entrees are served and excellent jazz musicians from all over graced the stage every weekend. The quartet we saw that night featured an old drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie (wrote the original "Manteca") and some other old Jazz greats. Before the set started, the drummer dedicated it publicly to the late Elvin Jones.

While I put this at 5, because I can't remember the guy's name for the life of me, I was witness to one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen to this day. That's why this concert made the list.

We stayed for both sets that night; the dinner set, and the later set. My eyes and ears were glued to the musicians as they played. The best jazz combos are the ones who trust each other, who watch one another 100% of the time, and are in tune with what each person is doing so much that the performance becomes an organic, fragile experience, dependent on the musicians' ability to listen and play in tune with one another. These guys locked in perfectly. Their very last song on their very last set was a fast-paced rendition of "A Night in Tunisia," originally by Dizzy Gillespie.

At the end of the piano solo, the musicians all looked at the drummer, who started to solo over the complex rhythm he was already playing. He sped up and maneuvered all over his kit, incorporating his feet with his hands as they rolled over the snare, the cymbals, and his two toms. As the drum solo picked up in speed and complexity, I looked at the drummer's face and saw that he was crying; his eyes were closed while he was playing, but there were tears. He was smiling, and saying something to himself. He kept on speaking to himself as he was playing, and I saw him say the words "Lord," "Father," and "Jesus." My dad, a preacher, pointed out to me that he was praying.

This drummer was praying. With his eyes closed, smiling, during an intense drum solo. Id like to think he was praying for the soul of Elvin Jones. He was playing that drum solo for the man who influenced his playing the most, and praying for his soul as it traveled to the afterlife. And that was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

What about you? Any memorable experiences from concerts?

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