Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Journey Through Music and My Favorite 20 Concerts

By Raymond Benson
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m heavily into music. I’m a musician as well as a fan. I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my lifetime—not as many as I would have liked—and I missed some of the classic bands of the 60s and 70s simply because I was living in an area of the country where the big bands didn’t play. The supergroups only toured to the big cities. I grew up in a small town in West Texas and went to college in Austin, Texas. Austin got a lot of great acts, but in those days the supergroups went only to Dallas or Houston or maybe San Antonio. Still, I managed to see many of my favorite bands in the 70s. I didn’t hit many concerts in the 80s, I was too busy and my lifestyle didn’t allow for the late nights. However, in the 90s I started going again, especially after my family moved to the Chicago area—where everyone toured. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of bands, and here are my twenty favorite shows—in chronological order—as I remember them.

1.      CHICAGO (1971; Odessa, Texas). Everyone remembers his or her first concert, and this was mine. It was very early ’71, I was a sophomore in high school, fifteen-years-old. The album Chicago III had just come out, and I was heavily into the band at the time. Those first three Chicago albums will always be their best, when they were practically an experimental rock band with horns, before they sold out and went commercial/Top-40 radio. I went with a guy I hardly knew, but he was sixteen and had a driver’s license. It was an amazing experience. The band was in top form and they played everything I wanted to hear and more. I saw them twice more in the next four years, but this was the best.

2.      TRAPEZE (1972; Odessa, Texas). Trapeze was a British power trio led by bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes, who later went on to be lead vocalist of Deep Purple. The band was produced by John Lodge of the Moody Blues and they recorded on the Moodys’ label, Threshold. For some reason, Trapeze was big in Texas and especially in our neck of the west. I probably wore out my copy of their 1971 rocker, Medusa. Lo and behold, they came to Odessa (the opening act was either Sugarloaf or Foghat, I can’t remember!). At any rate, Glenn Hughes owned that stage. He was an incredible performer, powerful vocalist, and darned good bass player. For hard rock power trios, Trapeze was one of the best.

3.      SANTANA (1973; Odessa, Texas). I was a huge Santana fan in high school and college, especially when Carlos moved into jazz fusion after becoming a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. Carlos Santana was influenced by John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra; they collaborated on an album in ’73, and Santana’s band was playing cosmic jazz fusion that was very different from “Oye Como Va.” I loved it. The 1972 album Caravanserai was out, and it was before the album Welcome. This was the tour that was captured on the Japanese triple-live-album, Lotus—Live in Japan, which could still stand as my favorite Santana record. I was in the know when Santana played in early 1973 in Odessa—supposedly the result of a truck breakdown in the area—so they decided to do a show. It was spur-of-the-moment and was advertised beginning the day before the concert. Thus, there wasn’t a huge crowd at the Ector County Coliseum that night, and most of them were expecting “Oye Como Va.” The audience got something very different. Most people didn’t like it. Carlos, wearing a white suit and his hair cut short, was unrecognizable. But I knew. I was totally into what the band played that night. Truly spacey and out there, it still stands as one of the best shows ever—even if I was one of the few who appreciated it.

4.      JETHRO TULL (1975; San Antonio, Texas). I was a Tull fan all through high school and still am today. The first chance I got to see them, though, was when I was in college at the University of Texas at Austin. The closest the band came to the city was San Antonio, so I went to see them there when I was a sophomore. It was the War Child tour, January 1975. What an amazing, energized show. Ian Anderson was in his prime then, and he danced and jumped around like a madman. They even did a good portion of Thick as a Brick. I’m so glad I got to see them at least once in the 70s, for I wouldn’t see Tull again until thirteen years later. I’ve seen Tull many times since the mid-90s and have become friends with Ian. I even wrote a little biography about the band that was published in 2002. But nothing I’ve seen since will equal that show in ’75.

5.      SHAKTI (1976; New York, New York). I was lucky enough to be in New York for a couple of months that spring (I took a semester off from college to do an off-off-Broadway musical), and happened to notice that John McLaughlin was playing at the Bottom Line with a group called “Shakti.” I was a big Mahavishnu Orchestra fan, so I decided to check it out. Shakti, as it turned out, was McLaughlin’s new group, made up entirely of Indian musicians, including L. Shankar (Ravi’s son) on violin. This was their premiere performance! A lot of luminaries were in the audience; in fact, Carlos Santana was sitting at the table next to mine. Well, I’d never heard anything like Shakti. It was all-acoustic Indian jazz fusion, but it was as “electric” as anything McLaughlin had done with Mahavishnu. It was one of those shows from which you leave with your jaw dropped. I saw Shakti again a couple of weeks later, opening for Weather Report, but that first night was more intimate and exciting.

6.      GENTLE GIANT (1976; Austin, Texas). Wow. One of my favorite progressive rock bands of all time, and did they put on an incredible show at the Armadillo World Headquarters. They received a tremendous response from the crowd, too, and apparently the band members still remember this particular night as being one of their best gigs. It’s very possible that this is my most favorite concert of all time. These guys were sickeningly talented; they could play each other’s instruments (and in fact, rotated around the stage to do so!). The term “math rock” wasn’t invented then, but it’s something that could be applied to the Giant’s music. Very intricate, complex, and accessible at the same time. I saw them again a year later—still great, but it couldn’t match the novelty of that first outing.

7.      TALKING HEADS (1978; Houston, Texas). They were on tour for their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and they weren’t very well known yet. I knew of them, though, and owned their first two records. It was a small club, don’t remember the name, but I was six feet from the stage, looking up at David Byrne and company as they rocked the house. Very possibly the most energetic show I’ve ever seen. I was bouncing up and down like a madman. I really wanted to see the band in the 80s but had to suffice with the film Stop Making Sense to experience that era. Still, the raw, stripped-down sound of the early Heads was something to behold.

8.      BRUFORD (1980; New York, New York). Again at the Bottom Line, drummer Bill Bruford brought his progressive jazz-rock band to the States, and I was particularly interested because the keyboard player was Dave Stewart, of whom I was a huge fan (from his work in Egg, Hatfield and the North, and National Health). That alone is what made this show so great for me personally, for I also got to meet Dave afterwards. We’ve remained friends and correspond now and then. Too bad Bruford was a short-lived band, for they were truly excellent.

9.      PAUL McCARTNEY (1989; New York, New York). A friend of mine at the time, Chris Whitten, was McCartney’s drummer, so he got my wife and me in to see a VIP “rehearsal” of the band before their world tour supporting the album Flowers in the Dirt. The rehearsal was held at a Broadway theatre. Wow. Intimate and very, very good. It was my first time to see a Beatle. We also saw the regular tour show at Madison Square Garden a few months later—still great, but it didn’t match the uniqueness of that very cool rehearsal opportunity. Thanks, Chris!

10.  THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1990; New York, New York). I had just discovered the band and owned their first three albums. Shortly before we moved away from New York, the band came to the Beacon Theatre, so I went with a friend. Those two guys did it all, no sidemen. It was such a fun show—funny, eclectic, and totally rocking. While I like the band a great deal, they’re not particularly one of my favorites these days—but this show elicited such a good time that it made the top 20. 

11.  GONG (1997; Chicago, Illinois). I never thought I’d see the original lineup of Gong, since they had disbanded in 1975. However, Daevid Allen and company got back together (only Steve Hillage was absent, but they had a good sound-alike on guitar), and performed the Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy, live and in front of my eyes and ears. I kept nudging my friend next to me, saying, “I can’t believe I’m hearing this live.” For those of you who know the albums, then you’ll appreciate what I’m saying. The band also featured Pip Pyle on drums, also from Hatfield and the North and National Health. Psychedelic, man!

12.  PORCUPINE TREE (1999; Chicago, Illinois). Representing the 90s new wave of progressive rock, Porcupine Tree hit the waves that decade and recharged the prog scene along with a few other new bands. At this time they were sort of a mix of Pink Floyd and... I don’t know, it was new. The band eventually morphed into more of a prog-metal band and I became less interested, but Steven Wilson, the leader, is still a frikkin’ genius. This show blew my mind. Saw them several times in the early 2000s, too.

13.  NEIL YOUNG (1999; Rosemont, Illinois). I’d wanted to see Neil Young since high school, and I finally got the chance. This was a solo acoustic show in a theater (not a huge venue), and it was perfect in every way. The sound was fantastic, his performance was heartbreaking, and I sat there in awe the entire evening. At one point I had tears in my eyes. Since then, I've seen him with Crazy Horse and with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but solo acoustic Neil is the best.

14.  SPOCK’S BEARD (2000; Chicago, Illinois). Another one of the new wave of progressive rock bands, I saw them while Neal Morse was still the leader/songwriter (he left in 2002 to go solo). This was one of those shows where I was only a little familiar with the music—I had, I think, one CD—but I walked away totally jazzed, ready to buy every CD they had out. And I did. Spock’s Beard was the 90s’ answer to Gentle Giant. I lost interest after Neal left, but this was another one of those shows from which you leave truly impressed.

15.  YES (2002; Chicago, Illinois). I’d seen Yes a few times, even in the 70s when they were huge. But this was the best Yes concert I ever saw (for once, the “first” time wasn’t the one for the history books). It was the highly-touted “classic lineup reunion” (Anderson, Howe, Squire, White, Wakeman) and they were spectacular. The sound—ever so important for a Yes concert—was great. Every member was in top form, and they played all the classic numbers I wanted to hear. Again, it was one of those perfect shows. I took my son, Max, who was thirteen at the time; and we met several members of the band afterwards.

16.  MAGMA (2003; Trenton, New Jersey). This was at NearFest, a prog-rock festival that used to be held annually on the east coast. Magma is a French avant-garde “Zeuhl” band (look it up) that originated in the 70s; these guys mesmerized the audience from the opening notes to the very end. They sing in an invented language as if they were from another planet, and the music can only be described as “Klingon Opera.” Really, I’d never seen anything like it. From then on, I was a Magma fan.  

17.  SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA (2003; Chicago, Illinois). Another legendary 70s progressive band, this time from Sweden, was led by my friend, the late Lars Hollmer. I couldn’t believe they got back together (after breaking up in 1980) and actually came to Chicago. I had gotten to know Lars by correspondence, so it was great to finally meet him in person. I volunteered to be a roadie for the show, so I hung out with the band all day. The music? Well, if you know the band, then you’ll know that it is complex, funny, and Zappa-esque. The audience came away stunned.

18.  TEMPEST (2003; Racine, Wisconsin). Well, I’m not sure if it was 2003 or 2004, but I’ve been a fan ever since and I try to see them every year that they come through the Chicago area. Led by Lief Sorbye, Tempest is Celtic rock at its best. Hard-stomping Irish reels on electric instruments. Too cool for words. They just celebrated their 25th anniversary this year, and it’s a mystery why Tempest has never made the real big time, despite several albums on a fairly major label. They certainly deserve more fame and fortune, although they seem pretty happy doing what they do.

19.  ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA (2006; Chicago, Illinois). Alas, I never got to see Frank Zappa, but seeing his son Dweezil and band perform Zappa music was the next best thing. Former Zappa band members—Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock—were also in the band. It was great to hear that stuff live. One poignant moment was when Dweezil accompanied his father (who was on film, projected on a screen behind the band) in a dual guitar solo. Zappa was one of the 20th-Century’s great composers, and I hope he’ll go down in history in the same breath as Beethoven, Bach, Beatles... :)

20.  PREMIATA FORNERIA MARCONI (PFM) (2014; Chicago, Illinois). This progressive rock band was Italy’s most successful outfit in the early 70s. Supposedly they were the first Italian band to have international success. I never thought I’d see them either, but here they were, live and in person. Very Gentle Giant-like, only with Italian lyrics. Simply put, this was also an amazing show. They’re getting up there in age, but the guys didn’t act like it. A once in a lifetime experience? I hope not!

And there you have it. Many other bands and shows were memorable, and I saw some truly legendary people such as Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, Richard Sinclair, Kevin Ayers, National Health, Steely Dan, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Keith Jarrett, Return to Forever, The Cure, The Roches, Ozric Tentacles, SimakDialog, and more. The ones I wish I’d seen?—Hendrix, Soft Machine, The Beatles, Zappa, Hatfield & the North, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus, to name a few.

Keep on rockin’.

Sunday, April 13, 2014