Thursday, December 17, 2009

They Stole the Show ...

In the wake of the recent HBO broadcast of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert that took place at Madison Square Garden this past October, I’ve been thinking about the many high-profile, multi-act concerts of all sorts that have occurred over the years. With healthy competition among the performers, a colorful amalgamation of disparate acts and, in some cases, finales featuring “all-star jams,” many of these concerts have earned a place in the annals of rock history.

I suppose the precursors to these assemblies of leading rock artists of the day were the infamous Murray the K and Dick Clark package tours of the early and mid ’60s, which put the likes of the Everly Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and others together, albeit for 30-minute sets in grueling whirlwind theater tours across North America. These were anything but conducive to spontaneity or inter-band jamming, but that didn’t matter since little music could be heard over the screaming teeny boppers.

It wasn’t until the advent of the first big rock festivals in the late ’60s – most notably, the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love (1967) and 1969’s many festivals (Isle of Wight, Bath, Woodstock, Altamont et al) – that the modern rock fest as we know it came into existence. These quickly spawned a succession of others – both one-offs and annual affairs – from the ’70s through to today. While these secondary events may not be held in the lofty historical esteem of those iconic original gatherings, many boasted impressive lineups of performers.

Then and now, these multi-act extravaganzas have the potential to be the setting for a singular, career-defining performance – one that, regardless of the high standards set by peers, asserts itself as paramount to the rest. In other words, one artist steals the show. Over the years, there have been a half dozen or so such instances, when one band literally ripped the rest to shreds. What follows is a brief look at a few of those occasions.

Hail to the Thief!

Now, since I haven’t personally attended any of these momentous concerts, the existence of audio and video recordings (either official or bootleg) not only have to suffice, but, in fact, dictate which events are considered here. So, qualifiers stated, let’s get to the concerts.

Monterey Pop, California (6/67) The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The obvious starting point, this concert marked the true arrival of Jimi Hendrix. Already a sensation in the U.K., Hendrix returned to stake his claim to rock stardom on home turf with an incendiary performance – in the process essentially beating The Who at their own game. Although some might argue that the highlight of Monterey was Otis Redding’s transcendent delivery of Southern soul to the flower children or The Who’s first major American performance, which featured the mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away,” foreshadowing more noteworthy things to come from Townshend’s pen a few years later. But this is where Hendrix first took guitar histrionics to another galaxy, iconically torching his guitar in an eros-tinged sacrifice while grinding his way through The Zombies’ “Wild Thing.” Yes, it was as much spectacle as musicianship, but it was out of this world and rock was utterly changed from that day onward. [Available on DVD and CD.]

Woodstock, Bethel, New York (8/69) – Santana. Many would argue that Hendrix, The Who or even Ten Years After or Joe Cocker commanded the field at that famous “Aquarian Exposition” in the Catskills. But Hendrix was tired, as was the audience by the time he performed. And, despite the power and timeliness of his interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Hendrix’s band was a transitional patchwork, soon to be replaced by the Band of Gypsys. Yes, The Who were astounding, especially as depicted in the famous film of the event, but the split screen imagery did much to magnify their impression, as did the film editors’ consolidation of their full set to just two songs in that familiar depiction of the event. The emergent Santana, on the other hand, performing during peak hours of the festival (not to mention the brown acid), knocked peoples’ socks off with the power of their Latin-tinged blues rock. Carlos and Co.’s scorching rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” was the launching pad to a long and accomplished career. Michael Shrieve’s emphatic drumming was as passionate and impressive as the staccato bursts from Santana’s six string. [Available on DVD and CD]

Amnesty International Tour Finale, Giants Stadium, New Jersey (6/86) – U2. This is where U2 unquestionably assumed the rock crown from the soon-to-be-departing biggest band in the world at the time, The Police. The young Irishmen kicked off their set with a hymn-like rendition of “M.L.K.” before launching into emotive and transcendent versions of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad.” They preceded through a reinterpretation of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” before peaking with a stunning mash-up of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” and Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” They followed with a poignant performance of The Beatles’ “Help” and concluded with a mini-all-star jam on Little Steven’s topical tune of the time: “Sun City.” (Bono later joined The Police for a haunting duet with Sting on the blonde brigade’s eerie “Invisible Sun.”) [Officially, only brief excerpts are available on the Unforgettable Fire Reissue Box Set]

Admittedly, the preceding three selections (as well as much of this entire post) are highly subjective and ripe for vociferous debate (i.e., good “bargument” fodder), but the next two selections are, in my view, beyond debate. The cited performances are so superior to the others at those particular affairs that recognition of that fact is virtually universal.

Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert (a.k.a., BobFest), Madison Square Garden (10/92) – Neil Young. The great and varied line-up honoring Zimmy for his (then) three-decade-long career with Columbia Records was downright owned by the flailing, flannelled Godfather of Grunge. Even the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Tom Petty were dwarfed by Neil’s enthusiastic and heartfelt take on Dylan’s classic “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and his blistering rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” (done Hendrix style). He benignly capped his utter dominance of the crowded stage during the “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” finale, out-dueling Clapton with searing, feedback-tinged guitar lines. [Available on CD and partially available on poor-quality DVD]

The Concert for New York City: The 9/11 Concert, Madison Square Garden (10/01) – The Who. They were old and on reunion [number incalculable], but in their emotion-fueled four-song set, the ornery Englishmen absolutely kicked ass. Their between song banter made clear that they were humbled, honored and respectful of the occasion and the raw emotion on display in the arena. Then they transmuted all of the pent-up anger and hurt of the circumstances into an absolutely brutal assault on several of the most revered songs in the rock genre: from the defiance of their opener (“Who Are You”) to the trio of Who’s Next classics (“Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – the latter the most vicious it had been rendered since Keith Moon last beat the kit … maybe ever). Fellow performers – Bowie, Mick and Keith, Sir Paul and Elton among them – couldn’t come close to competing with The Who in full throttle on this night. [Available on DVD and CD]

Technical Knockouts

The following festivals also featured breakaway performances by certain artists, though perhaps not of the magnitude of the five previously mentioned examples.

Newport Folk Festival, Newport Casino, Rhode Island (7/65) – Bob Dylan. Zimmerman goes electric, delivers rock unto the folkies, shakes the universe … what more needs to be said? [Portions included in various Dylan documentary DVDs]

The Texas International Pop Festival, Dallas International Speedway (8/69) – Led Zeppelin. Lesser-known than most of the other festivals featured here, the Texas Pop Fest yielded no film or big budget record release. There was, however, an impressive lineup (Joplin, B.B. King, Freddie King, Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, Johnny Winter, Santana, Sly Stone, Ten Years After et al) and ample bootleg evidence of the anointment of the new heavyweight champs of rock: Led Zeppelin. The one-year-old band dominated the field with the power of their blues jams and tunes from their eponymous debut album. [Bootleg sound sources only]

Live Aid, Wembley Stadium and J.F.K. Stadium, 7/85 – U2. This was a career-defining moment for the up-and-coming Irish band. Their epic version of “Bad”– including Bono’s lengthy foray into the crowd while the band chimed on behind him – was the high point of a day full of highlights from virtually all of the top performers from two generations of rock music. [Available on DVD]

Live 8, five locations around the world (7/05) – Pink Floyd. OK, bonus points for sentiment (the hatchet burying among the estranged Waters and his ex bandmates – at least temporarily), but the group really did bring it to the masses, despite not having played as an intact unit for 25 years. [Partially available on DVD]

If you haven’t seen or heard these concerts on DVD or CD, check ’em out. If you have, check ’em out again and see if you agree. Have other examples not mentioned here? State your case!

I Was There, Too … Really!

The only big multi-act concert of this sort that I’ve personally attended was a largely forgotten gathering of the principal Southern Rock bands of the day known as “The Roundup” at Philly’s J.F.K. Stadium in the summer of 1981. Despite its unmemorable status (I do remember the torrential rain dampening the prior night’s tailgate party as much as the day-long concert itself), it does fit the topic at hand. The featured acts were 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws and The Allman Brothers Band. Despite my not being at all interested in the first two bands, and only mildly interested in Marshall Tucker and The Outlaws, I bought my tickets in order to see the Allmans. Much to my surprise, Marshall Tucker stole the show with their country, folk-tinged rock. The Outlaws were OK, and the Allmans were mostly disappointing. So, I guess, surprise is often one of the characteristics of these kinds of concerts, too.

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