My live music superlatives so far

I’m getting old. I have a bad back. My knees grind whenever I take the stairs. My hair has receded clear off my scalp entirely. I’m starting to really feel the slow physical degradation that goes along with the aging process, every day of my life.

I tell myself that age is a construct, that it means nothing, that it has only the power you grant it. This is true to some extent, and while reminding myself of that does help, it only gets me so far. There is no denying my exterior travel casing is long out of warranty, and is starting to wear out.

To compensate, I try to do things old people do not do. I think of the oldest person I know, which is my dad. He has always been the oldest person I know. What would Dad never have done when he was my age, i.e., in his late forties? Would he have, say, spent a weeknight in a packed music hall while a hillbilly surf rock band threw fried chicken at the crowd?

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Southern Culture on the Skids @ Slim’s (RIP), San Francisco, CA (2019)

I think not.

But preventing myself from turning into my father is not the only reason I still go to shows. I go because I love them. I love the crackling energy of the good ones, especially in smaller venues. I love the unpredictability of the performances, the beer spilled on my shoes, the low-key seediness of it all. I love spending two hours in the same room as the people who recorded some of my favorite music, sometimes close enough to cough on them. Live music makes me feel like I’m squeezing the most fun I possibly can out of life. It’s one of the best parts of living in San Francisco. I make it a point to catch a show whenever a good one pops up on the local events calendar. Right now that means not at all, because, well, you know why. (For posterity’s sake: Covid-19. Duh.) But I mean before that, before that.

When I lived in Florida, I did not have access to the surfeit of shows I have here. Florida is not on the way to anywhere else, so a lot of bands just skip it entirely. Those that don’t will usually stick to one or possibly two of the Miami / Orlando / Jacksonville triumvirate, none of which I lived in and two of which I actively loathed (Miami is seriously underrated though). I appreciate what I have—or have had, I guess—here in San Francisco, I really do.

Going to shows is one of the two or three things I miss the most now that we’re in semi-permanent lockdown status. I’ve been thinking a lot about the shows I’ve seen in my life—the good, the bad, the unexpected, the disappointing—and I’ve compiled a list of the ones that have stood out for me, and why I still think about them all these years later.

Here it is.

  • Best sound: Yukon Blonde at Vinyl Fever, Tampa, FL (2010)

In town for a show somewhere in Tampa’s Ybor City nightlife district, then-unknown indie-poppers Yukon Blonde also played a short set the next afternoon—fully amplified and with no mixing board—to a full house in the record store where I worked. They were flawlessly balanced, with no instrument overpowering or washed out, and their tone was as clear and sweet as their vocal harmonies, just as natural as you please. Later, when I listened to their CD in my car on the way home, I struggled to hear the difference between that and the performance I’d just seen.

  • Worst sound: Iron Maiden at the USF Sun Dome, Tampa, FL (1988)

It is true we did not have primo seating for this show—upper deck, opposite the stage, which is what $18 got you at an arena show in those days. It is entirely possibly the sound engineer just did not care what kind of an experience we got way up there in the nosebleed section; maybe it sounded better for those who had spent more money on the better seats. I don’t give a shit about that. I paid my moneys, I want a show that is listenable at the very least. Alas, no. The mix was so sludgy and overdriven I had some trouble identifying songs, even when Bruce Dickinson spent two solid minutes introducing them.

  • Most disappointing performance: A three-way tie, between that same Iron Maiden show; Toots and the Maytals at the Fillmore, San Francisco, CA (2018); and Tone Loc at Jannus Landing, St. Petersburg, FL (2013)

I think the problem with the Toots and the Maytalls show was more with me than with Toots. I was probably expecting something different from the show he delivered that night. That’s not his fault. It’s also not his fault the room was crammed full of popped collars, Chubbies, and white-boy dreads—those are not my people, and they are not my people for a reason. It might have been partly his fault the show felt more like a drunken sunset singalong at a Key West beach bar than anything else; it’s certainly not his fault I hate things like that.

The Tone Loc show, though. That was Tone’s fault, and Tone’s alone. He was so late, the poor DJ who was his opening act had to go all the way through his entire set of late ’80s / early ’90s hip-hop and R&B three times. We gave up and left after about two hours of waiting around and drinking $14 beers. I heard later that when Tone finally did show up, he was drunk off his ass and only played three songs before staggering off the stage. It may not even qualify as a show at all, really, but I’m including it anyway because the whole experience pissed me off so much. Of course, I only paid ten bucks for my ticket, so I guess it could have been worse.

(Dis)honorable mention: The Beach Boys and Friends, at the Florida Strawberry Festival, Plant City, FL (2008 or ’09, maybe?)—okay, it was really only one Beach Boy and some of the Wilson Phillips people, but either way, it was the most amateurish performance I’ve ever seen by a professional musician.

  • Most disappointing performer: Bob Dylan at the Ice Palace (1998) and the 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre (2013), Tampa, FL

Look, I love Bob Dylan. But I’ve seen him play twice, and both times my mind got up, walked out, and went back to wait in the car while he was on. His opening acts—the Brian Setzer Orchestra, My Morning Jacket, Wilco—all easily held my attention, so I know it wasn’t a matter of my easily-distractible nature. Bob just isn’t an engaging stage presence. He’s notorious for keeping his feet rooted and not bantering during performances, but it’s still possible to connect with an audience despite that. Yet he failed, or at least he failed to connect with me, and that’s really all I’m qualified to speak to here. And yes, I am aware he’s old, but as my former students will tell you, I don’t grade on a curve.

  • Loudest band: X at the Regency Ballroom, San Francisco, CA (2017)
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X @ The Independent, San Francisco, CA (2019)

Why yes, I have in fact been to a Mogwai show. In fact, I saw them a month before this very show, in the very same venue, and I stood in almost the exact same spot for both shows. It was as close to laboratory conditions as you can get, and X was just louder, almost cruelly so.

  • Most surprising opening act: Savatage, opening for Iron Maiden, at the USF Sun Dome, Tampa, FL (1988)

They say that great art emerges from constraints. Working with just one-sixth of the stage (the rest of it was covered by tarps, to preserve the visual impact of the elaborate stage design for Iron Maiden’s set) and being forced to play while the house lights were still on, local boys Savatage embraced that philosophy and proceeded to shove about 40 minutes’ worth of high-energy, high-powered metal straight up the headliners’ collective ass, ambiance be damned. Even if they’d had pristine sound for their set (which, as I think I mentioned earlier, they did not), I doubt there was any way Maiden could have reclaimed that night for themselves after that.

  • Most chaotic stage show: George Clinton and P-Funk, everywhere

I’ve seen George Clinton a few times now, and each performance has been a glorious hyperactive mess. George doesn’t even move around on stage that much anymore—he sat in a chair for almost the entire show when I saw him at Jannus Landing in St. Pete—but he doesn’t really have to, because there’s just so much else happening: an endless parade of dancers, backup singers, guitar players shredding metal solos in their tighty-whiteys, even a contortionist in feather-bedecked silver pants with a dildo strapped to his nose. All George has to do is conduct it all and, well, be George Clinton. He can do that sitting down just fine.

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George Clinton @ The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA (2019)
  • Most over-the-top: The Flaming Lips at the Warfield, San Francisco, CA (New Year’s Eve, 2014)

I bought my ticket for this one at the very last minute (it was a toss-up between this show on the one hand, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings on the other. I do sometimes experience a moment or two of regret over my choice, only because Jones died not long after). It was a two-hour explosion of color and light; of hallucinogenic dancing mushrooms, rainbows and Santas; of endless balloons falling from the ceiling and of Wayne Coyne crowd-surfing while encased in a large plastic bubble.

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The Flaming Lips @ The Warfield, San Francisco, CA (2014)

Honorable mentions: Beck at the Hard Rock Live, Orlando, FL (2003); KISS at the Worcester Centrum, Worcester, MA (1996)

  • “Past their prime” band that wasn’t: The Replacements at the Masonic, San Francisco, CA (2015)
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The Replacements @ The Masonic, San Francisco, CA (2015)

Even when the Replacements were still relevant (whatever that means), which hasn’t been for thirty years, as a live band they always had a reputation for … shall we say, inconsistency. There was nothing inconsistent about this show, though: just raw energy, attitude, and enthusiasm from start to finish. Despite the fact that I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since high school, this was my first (and, as it turns out, only, since Paul Westerberg retired the band immediately after the tour ended) Replacements show. It was well worth the wait.

  • Best crowd work: Mojo Nixon at The Moon, Tallahassee, FL (1991)

Nixon’s unflappability prevented a serious incident from becoming much worse when a slight young woman was injured by a stage-diving fuckwit right in the middle of Mojo’s most famous song, “Elvis Is Everywhere.” He could have stopped the show while everyone waited for the paramedics to arrive, or he could have just kept playing to keep the crowd placated. The former risked a riot, the latter risked the crowd inadvertently trampling the woman to death. Instead, he just kept the song in indefinite stasis: for about half an hour, his backing band stayed in the groove while he made up lyrics on the spot and sang them at the poor woman lying there in pain on that disgusting, beer-sticky floor (“We want you to be all right / we don’t want you to cry all night, uh huh”). Once they got her on the stretcher and out the door, Mojo picked the song back up right where he’d left it. Crisis averted.

(I didn’t realize it in the moment, but I actually knew the injured woman—we had both worked at the student-run radio station on campus. A mutual friend later told me she ended up buying a house with the settlement money. Good for her.)

Honorable mention: The Dead Milkmen at The Moon, Tallahassee, FL (1991)

  • Most unexpectedly great performance: Lee Fields at Crowbar, Tampa, FL (2012)
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Lee Fields @ The Chapel, San Francisco, CA (2018)

Back then, Fields’s website was referring to him as “the baddest motherfucker to ever sing words into a microphone.” A bold claim, but by no means a preposterous one: that night, he worked the shoebox-sized stage of that small club with the vitality and professionalism of James Brown, sweating and shouting and spinning and making everyone in the room really feel it, man. A lesser man would have had to be carted off like a hyperventilating offensive lineman after that performance, but Fields walked out under his own power, his swagger not depleted in the slightest.

  • Best in-store performance: The Black Angels at Daddy Kool Records, St. Petersburg, FL (2013)

A taut 25-minute acoustic performance in a cramped record store just a couple hours before their “real” show that night, across the street at the State Theatre. Alas, that one sold out before I could get tickets, but after this intimate and captivating set, I didn’t feel so bad about that anymore. It was a big performance in a small space, and live music doesn’t get much better than that.

  • Best discovery: a tie between the Black Keys at Hard Rock Live, Orlando, FL (2003) and Luminescent Orchestrii at WMNF’s Tropical Heat Wave festival, Tampa, FL (2010)

I’d never even heard of the Black Keys before that night; I was there to see Beck, while a lot of the rest of the crowd was (for some reason) there for Dashboard Confessional. Patrick Carney’s drum kit looked like the kind of thing people used to buy out of the Sears catalog for their eight-year-olds. Dan Auerbach’s amp didn’t even have a nameplate on it, and his guitar looked like they’d dragged it behind the tour bus on the way to the show. How those two guys got that brawny and scorching sound out of the gear they had, I’ll never know.

Luminescent Orchestrii billed themselves as a Romanian gypsy punk band—two violins, stand-up bass, percussion, resonator guitar—and I doubt anything I could add to that description would improve it. This is a band that really knew how to have fun on stage; I doubt they could have done anything else if they’d tried. I ran out and bought both their albums the following week, but sadly, they seem not to have recorded anything since 2011.

  • Most spine-tingly moment: a tie between U2 at Tampa Stadium, Tampa, FL (1987) and Van Halen, also at Tampa Stadium (1988)

I doubt I’ll be able to really capture what made these moments so special, but special they were, and they deserve a spot on this list.

Let’s start with the U2 show, on a chilly Sunday evening in early December. They closed with “40,” the last track on their War album and one of the few non-Joshua Tree cuts they played that night. We—and by “we” I mean everyone—sang the refrain right along with Bono, and we kept on singing long after the band had left the stage, one at a time (Bono left first, Larry Mullen last; this staggered departure was apparently how they ended pretty much every show back then, but in those pre-Internet days, it was all new to me). This was one time I was glad to be in the nosebleed seats: without that perspective, I wouldn’t have been able to hold the band and entire swaying crowd—lighters aloft, naturally—in my vision simultaneously, and the moment would have carried significantly less power.

The following summer, Van Halen brought the Monsters of Rock tour through Tampa, and this time I was right up front, smack in the middle of where the mosh pit spontaneously opened up for Metallica’s set. Just as dusk began to set in, Sammy Hagar pulled out an acoustic 12-string for a solo version of “Where Eagles Dare.” I couldn’t stand this song in its radio version—dig it up on Spotify or whatever and you’ll see what I mean; it’s a time capsule of garish late-80s hard rock production choices—but when presented as a simple marriage of voice and guitar, it was incredibly haunting and moving. I remember the sound of every strum echoing through the bowl and off the concrete overhang of the press box; I remember the sea of upturned faces behind me, all focused on the stage and only the stage, everyone so wrapped up in the moment Hagar was creating for us.

The fact that both of these moments happened a relatively short time apart and in the same venue is not lost on me. But I’m not sure what it means. Maybe there’s just something about sharing what feels like an intimate moment with 70,000 complete strangers that makes it feel even more personal and significant. Maybe it’s more to do with being a fifteen-year-old boy, full of energy with no socially-acceptable outlet and a roiling set of emotions you don’t understand and can’t yet begin to control, and how a concert environment just amplifies it all to the point where your brain begins to manufacture a shared connection that may or may not really exist. Maybe it’s both of these things. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

Maybe you just had to be there. You damn well should have been.

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