It’s been a good life. Hey, I’ve…
- been winked at by Martha Reeves…
- had a drink with the Raelettes…
- opened for John Hiatt…
- conversed in a New York jazz club with Oscar Peterson…
- chilled backstage with Michael McDonald after he opened for Steely Dan.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… Here’s a list of 10 live listening experiences that truly opened my ears, eyes, mind, and heart to music’s infinite possibilities. In chronological order:
- Martha Reeves & The Vandellas at Bowdoin College (1968) – The first time I ever saw live in-the-flesh musicians that I had previously heard only on the radio. As if that were not thrilling enough, I will go to my grave believing that Martha winked at me – as in, only me! – during “Dancin’ in the Streets.”
- James Brown & The Famous Flames at The Portland Expo (1969) – Growing up, authors like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Richard Wright and books like Soul on Ice and Manchild in the Promised Land awakened my attention to civil rights and the black cause. However, I never really pondered my own whiteness until I walked into the hallowed halls of The Expo on that spring night and observed a racial mix I had never previously encountered. A night to remember. “Say it Loud!…”
- Oscar Peterson at Plaza 9, NYC (1970) – I had just turned 16 and my father took me out to some NYC jazz clubs. We saw pianist Peterson at a long-gone joint called Plaza 9 & All That Jazz. My dad sent up a few requests and instructed the bartender to prepare Oscar’s drink of choice. At the break, Oscar came over to our table and asked my dad how he knew the songs he had requested. (Apparently, they were obscure choices.) My dad told Oscar that he had been a major fan since way back in the day. With a grin, Oscar replied, “This next set, I’ll play whatever you want.” (Me: Could it be possible that in another life my dad was cool?)
- Ray Charles at The Warehouse Nightclub in Denver (1974) – As a young kid, Ray Charles got a lot of rotation on our family turntable. Living in Denver that summer, I heard he was playing a multi-night gig at The Warehouse. I showed up at the box office one afternoon only to face a sold-out show. Hearing Ray and the band’s sound check echoing through the halls, I begged the box office attendant for permission to go in and listen. He relented. I tried to be inconspicuous until one of the Raelettes caught my eye and motioned me over to have a drink with them. (Q: Am I in heaven?) One of them flirted with me. (A: Yes) Seeing my unbridled delirium, Box Office Guy comes over and explains that since I’m obviously a true fan, he will sell me the tickets that he normally reserves for MVPs. I buy them and then return to my seat with The Raelettes to hear the rest of the sound check. My friends and I return that night for an unforgettable show.
- Jesse Colin Young… The Beach Boys… CSN&Y at Denver’s Mile High Stadium (1974) – My first stadium rock experience. All three acts were outstanding with the then recently reunited (for the first time) CSN&Y headlining.
- Albert Collins at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland (1990, I think) – During its all-too-brief existence (1984-91), I saw some awesome shows (e.g., Steve Earle, The Band) at Raoul’s. That night, the “Master of the Telecaster” (1932-93) was memorable for many reasons, especially when (thanks to a very, very long power cable) he went table-to-table during a single extended guitar solo. When he got to our table, he took a seat at a vacant chair, propped his boots up on the table, playing throughout without missing a beat. Albert set a very high bar as a Texas blues guitarist.
- Randy Newman at the State Theatre, Portland, Maine (1994) – Should I ever find myself condemned to live in a totalitarian state that forces me to limit my music listening to the work of only one musician (i.e., my version of Hell), Randy Newman would be my choice. If I ever got sick of the songs, I could listen to the movie soundtracks: e.g., The Natural, Ragtime. (Should I be surrounded by screaming kids, I’d simply turn them on to Toy Story or James & the Giant Peach.) I practically worshiped the guy in college. What a treat to see him up close in The Port City.
- NRBQ at Hyde School (1996) – For Hyde’s 25th birthday, I exercised executive privilege in deciding to blow most of the entertainment budget on one of my all-time favorite bands. One of my better calls. Rolling Stone once called them “America’s Greatest Bar Band.” I call them the greatest band you never heard of.
- Bob Dylan and Van Morrison at Madison Square Garden (1998) – Two sets with Van up first. A few songs in, Van announces the sad news that rockabilly icon Carl Perkins had died that afternoon. Then, on cue, wearing blue suede shoes, Dylan emerges on stage and the two of them launch into Perkins’ signature song. The song concludes, Dylan vanishes, and Van completes his set only to be followed by Dylan’s. I don’t believe that either of them said another word that night. The music stood on its own.
- Eric Clapton & Stevie Winwood at Madison Square Garden (2008) – Two pros doing their thing. From our awesome seats, I resisted the evil urge to taunt Martha Stewart, several rows behind us, for being in the cheap seats. Beyond the choice cuts from Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith and their respective solo careers, they also did a beautiful cover of “Georgia On My Mind.” Great t-shirt, too.
Bonus: John Hiatt at Hyde School (1998). John, an alumni parent, did a benefit show for Hyde scholarships at our Woodstock campus. When we asked him to perform, he issued one condition, a Hyde-style challenge: “I’ll do it if Malcolm opens with a song of his choice.” (Back Story: He sometimes teased me for being a jock.) I picked The Band’s (written by Chuck Willis in 1958) “I Don’t Want to Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.” When John came out for his set, he said, “I want to give special thanks to ‘Blind Lemon Malcolm’ for warming up the crowd.” (Me: Once again, I’m in heaven.)
Of course, any list like this necessitates the sin of omission: Mose Allison at DC’s Cellar Door (1978)… Chuck Berry at BB King’s on New Year’s Eve in NYC a few years back… BB King himself at Portland’s Merrill Theater (1998?)… Stevie Wonder with my wife and daughters at Newark’s Prudential Center (2015)… Two Stones shows… Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, and James Taylor multiple times… And more obscure acts like Karla Bonoff, Dan Hicks, and Martin Mull… And many more to see, hear, and feel.
Keep on rockin’. Onward,