A Day In The Life

Musicasaurus.com unearths & unveils my skeletal framework—the relics and remnants of my own Life in Music…

A new reflection will be posted every two weeks, on Sunday evening.....Each entry will highlight a happenstance, illuminate an episode, or capture an encounter—all mined from the music vein that has layered my life.

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Posted 6/23/24....BEGINNINGS

(Next post: Sunday, July 7, 2024)

 AND 

When you drill down on the concert experience, whaddya have?  A headliner of some stature that is your must-see, of course, but also the support act or acts who open the show.  These openers can be artists you already know who are simpatico of sound, so that you can just ease into the evening with expectations set...or they can be unknowns whose musical style sparks enough interest to keep you seated...or they can be such an incongruous matchup with your tastes that you’re ready to bail for a bladder break and a peek at the lines at the brew stand.

I went to many concerts beginning in the late 1960s and experienced some great shows early on, like the November 1967 concert at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre with the Beach Boys and their openers the Strawberry Alarm Clock and—gasp!—the Buffalo Springfield.  I also saw, under the wing of my friend Dan’s older brother who drove us to the show, a jaw-dropping performance by Janis Joplin and opening act Santana at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in November 1969.

I wondered even back then how certain artists ended up playing as warm-up to the headliners on a given tour, because there were some odd pairings “out there”—like the Jimi Hendrix Experience opening up for the Monkees on a handful of the latter’s tour dates in July 1967.  Some could view this Monkee maneuver as a bid for respectability—adding a cutting-edge artist for cred—but the simple fact was that the wildly popular foursome from the TV show had just fallen in love with Hendrix’s onstage aura, especially after seeing him play live the month before at the Monterey Pop Festival.  

According to the website monkeeslivealmanac.com, though, the headliners soon gleaned that the audiences in large part were in no way mesmerized; they were mystified, then miffed.  The website quotes Micky Dolenz from his autobiography in which he says “The parents were probably not too crazy about having to sit through a Monkees concert, much less see this black guy in a psychedelic Day-Glo blouse, playing music from hell, holding his guitar like he was fucking it, then lighting it on fire…Jimi would amble out onto the stage, fire up the amps and break into 'Purple Haze,' and the kids in the audience would instantly drown him out with, 'We Want Davy!!'  God, it was embarrassing."

Flash forward at least a couple of decades.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that I more fully realized there was indeed a method to the madness of adding openers to tours.  This realization came from my experience working at Star Lake Amphitheatre, the 23,000-capacity outdoor venue near Pittsburgh where summers were filled with forty-plus concerts every season.  Not only did it become clear to me that the headliner/support dynamic was pretty much always structured, pre-tour, by artists’ managers and their booking agents, I also had the good fortune to witness a ton of shows with all kinds of pairings-up—the Good, the Bad and the Inscrutable.  From the venue’s second season of operation in 1991 through the summer of 1999—my first nine years employed there—I was at the amphitheater for every single show.  And there were 367 of them.

That first decade was crammed to the gills.  Especially when it was still a toddler, the amphitheater hosted all sorts of genres—blues, classical, comedy, Christian music, jazz, pop, folk, rock, dance, and more.  Some of these shows, pregnant with promise, turned into annual events.  Others were tragically stillborn (which we deduced from our scan of their first-day ticket sales).  Thankfully though, we also had the “automatics”—the headliners of the early 1990s like Billy Joel, New Kids on The Block, and the Grateful Dead; the mid-decade ascendants like the Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morissette; and the artists who descended from the mountaintop and graced us with multiple sellouts like exalted hedonist Jimmy Buffett and crazy train conductor Ozzy Osbourne.

Some major artists back then would choose to hit the road with an inexpensive no-name opener, or sometimes trot out on tour with no opener at all.  Others glommed on to a truly synergistic support act that fit their genre nicely, or they brought on board one that fortuitously had a runaway hit record at that moment in time.  Still others were persuaded by their manager and/or booking agent to pair up with an artist of equal footing to form a cool co-headlining situation for the summer.

Here are some of my observations about that first decade of Star Lake shows, starting with three headlining acts who all share the distinction of playing Star Lake every single year from 1990 through 1999.  Then we’ll touch on one other artist-plus-support scenario, before exploring the way that Star Lake supported local Pittsburgh artists over those first ten years of the amphitheater’s existence...

Jimmy Buffett Concerts...

Buffett descended upon The Lake 15 times over the course of the decade, more than any other musical performer in that ten-year stretch: August 10, 1990...July 14, 1991...May 31, 1992...August 20, 1993...June 10 & 11, 1994...June 16 & 17, 1995...August 2 & 3, 1996...August 15 & 16, 1997...July 27 & 29, 1998...and June 17, 1999.

Regarding Buffett’s opening acts, there are not a lot of household names here: his openers in the 1990s included Zachary Richard (1990 season), Fingers Taylor & The Ladyfingers Review (1991), Evangeline (1992), The Iguanas (1994), and Marshall Chapman (1995).  Buffett in some years opted not to fill that opening slot, for he knew (as did we) that it didn’t really matter: Weren’t no one comin’ through those entry gates until Buffett took the stage and his first few chords rolled on out from the pavilion’s loudspeakers up...over...and into the vast expanse of the parking lots where the Glazed and Confused were all still partyin’ up a storm.

p.s. If pressed to pick my favorite opening act of the above five listed, I would absolutely say it would have to be The Iguanas.  In that summer of 1994 Buffett was scheduled for a two-night engagement on June 10 and June 11, and that first night all hell broke loose—oh, wait; it was the heavens.  They opened up.

A massive storm quickly descended upon Star Lake and we had an incident that couldn’t be labeled anything but harrowing.  Tom Rooney, currently president of the Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group based in Pittsburgh, was executive director of Star Lake back in 1994.  Rooney remembers well what happened next.  “Lightning made a direct hit on our venue’s main transformer rendering our sold-out show in darkness before Jimmy even hit the stage.  We were standing on the backstage deck when we saw the bolt hit and we were all lucky to survive.  We were saved by two things: the Iguanas, the opening act, traveled with a portable generator and Mark Susany, our electrician, ingeniously hooked it up on the main stage and we got (barely) through an unplugged show.  The next day Buffett’s management required a full backup generator for every show, anywhere they played!” 

For the record, even though Jimmy was at half-strength he still left the audience electrified.  While our venue, of course, just missed being electri-fried.

Chicago Concerts...

This band, born in the late 1960s and later embraced by white-bread radio stations who kept the group’s hits alive for decades, played every single year from 1990 through 1999.  They were consistent in another sense as well; judging from my backstage excursions on the days of their concerts, they seemed unfailingly happy and jazzed to be playing Star Lake every time they rolled into town.  Onstage, the three original horn players—Lee Loughnane on trumpet, and flugelhorn, James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on saxophones and flute—could neither suppress smiles nor stand still, whether blowin’ out a solo or blasting through the choruses on their three-pronged attack.  It is fair to say that Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider had truly found their life’s calling, as these three founding members were intact for the band’s recordings and tours for a period of 47 years, 1969-2016.

Chicago’s openers and/or co-headliners at Star Lake through the years: The Flecktones (August 17, 1990), The Triplets (August 21, 1991), Moody Blues (June 18, 1992), Stephen Stills Band (June 13, 1993), Tony Janflone Jr. (August 13, 1995), Crosby, Stills & Nash (June 8, 1996), B.E. Taylor (July 26,1997 and August 22, 1998), and the Doobie Brothers (July 14, 1999).

Steve Miller Band Concerts...

Here is another ten-year veteran of Star Lake playdates like Buffett and Chicago, and principally through fans’ word of mouth Miller climbed from first-and-second-year attendances of 9,732 and 10,378 respectively to sellout status (20,000+) for the rest of the decade.  Chronologically through the years, Miller’s show-openers for the most part were plucked from the pool of classic rockers: Lou Gramm (ex-lead singer of Foreigner; July 4, 1990), Eric Johnson (rock guitar wizard; July 23, 1991), Curtis Salgado & The Stilettos (blues-based, R&B-laced rock; July 23, 1992), Paul Rodgers (ex-lead singer of Free and Bad Company; June 20, 1993), The Doobie Brothers (July 22, 1995), Pat Benatar (July 20, 1996), Eric Johnson again (August 2, 1997), Little Feat (August 1, 1998), and George Thorogood & The Destroyers (July 24, 1999).   

Although all of the above support acts were viable in their own way, some of us at the venue experiencing this streak of Miller dominance felt that none were essential in helping the legendary classic rocker achieve the sell-outs that he consistently racked up eight years in a row (1992-1999).  Miller was a ticket-moving marvel on his own, thanks to unceasing airplay of his mass appeal mid-‘70s hits on FM radio, and the fact that he had somehow ear-wormed a younger generation of fans through the likely pass-downs of Joker, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams from big brother and sister to younger siblings.

Backstage at Star Lake at one of Miller’s sellout performances, I remember visiting his dressing room accompanied by his manager Scott Booray.  The legendary classic rocker was in a great mood, so much so that he welcomed me heartily and off the bat half-jokingly suggested that I rename the venue “The Miller Dome” because of his sweet string of successes.  I smiled and replied, “Steve, that would really be a worthy rechristening, but one problem: our official beer sponsor here is Budweiser, and can you imagine their delight upon hearing all of our radio and TV commercials directing people to come on out to the Miller Dome?”  Miller winked at that one.  “Hey,” he shrugged, “I thought I would give it a shot!”

One More Artist & Support Tale (the opening act is one of Musicasaurus’ favorite musicians)... 

Crosby, Stills & Nash with Michael Hedges, June 17, 1992 at Star Lake: CSN—or certainly at least C—had a friendship and mutual admiration society with guitarist Michael Hedges.  In March 2018 Crosby, whose most recent album was Sky Trails, sat with Guitar.com writer Teri Saccone and at one point gushed effusively about certain musicians he considered to be at the pinnacle of their powers.  “Lead players who elevate themselves above the pack are those who grow past the pentatonic blues scale and start playing pure melody,” Crosby said.  “Beck, Gilmour, Clapton, Hendrix and Hedges: they could play anything they dream up because there’s no distance between fingertips and brain.  They can play anything they desire.  That’s where the rubber meets the road – the guitarists who are forever legends.”

Crosby went on to say that Hedges was “the best acoustic player I ever heard in my life, anywhere.”  Sacramento-born and Enid, Oklahoma-raised, Hedges became a fan of California’s folk-rock scene while honing his guitar skills, experimenting with unconventional guitar techniques like altered tunings and, according to the artist’s website michaelhedges.com, “innovative techniques such as left-hand tapping on multiple strings over the top of the guitar neck, extensive use of percussion on the body of the guitar, and unique rhythms and harmonic voicings.”  In other words, his compositions and his execution of them seemed to be channeled from Above as if he had tapped into the Music of the Spheres...Hedges died quite expectedly in 1997 at the age of 43 when he was driving home from San Francisco International Airport and his car reportedly hit a rain-soaked curve and plummeted down a 120-foot embankment.  A few months after his passing, his album Oracle won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.

Pittsburgh Artists That Played Star Lake on the Main Stage or on the Venue’s Second Stage...

As noted above in the recap of the band Chicago’s appearances at Star Lake, a couple of local artists from the Pittsburgh market served as the band’s opening act on the main stage—guitarist Tony Janflone Jr. at one of their shows, and B.E. Taylor at two of their Star Lake stops.  It is important to recognize that our amphitheater, in addition to hosting major attractions, felt that it was important in this first decade of existence to welcome in a number of local Pittsburgh artists to fill certain available slots on the main stage as well as on the venue’s popular second stage.  The second stage was located just inside the facility’s main gate in the upper West Plaza, and fans became accustomed to seeing and hearing a number of viable, exciting local artists perform there prior to the main stage event.

June 16, 1990...The first-ever concert at Star Lake was The WDVE Open House Rocker, and its stellar lineup on the main stage included Donnie Iris & The Cruisers, Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers, Billy Price & The Keystone Rhythm Band, The Zippers, and The Clarks.

May 13, 1995...Rusted Root headlined a concert with support act Toad the Wet Sprocket.  This main stage show sold out at 23,183 tickets.

May 24, 1997...May 9, 1998...and June 5,1999...The Surge Festival.  The Surge Festival, an assemblage of noteworthy musical acts from the Pittsburgh region, was held three years in a row with most artists performing on the main stage.  Three of the most popular groups in the Surge lineups were The Clarks, The Gathering Field and Brownie Mary, all of whom in the mid-to-late 1990s were organically building up their fan bases and individually inking (or preparing to ink) contracts with record labels.  

These concerts were cause for jubilation.  There was an infectious joy shared by the bands, the fans and all of us who worked at Star Lake, and this was especially evident at the first Surge on Saturday, May 24, 1997.  The core lineup of the aforementioned three buzz-makers was extended to include a number of other local groups, and the event was priced very reasonably at $10.25 per ticket which tied back to our promotional partner WDVE’s 102.5 radio dial position.  The show went on sale, and then never lagged.  With WDVE’s on-air support and a robust sense of pride welling up in the ‘burgh, this multi-act concert went on to sell almost 19,000 tickets.  Having this homegrown concert end up a runaway success was certainly $weet, but for me, sweeter still was the camaraderie in full flower backstage while out in front, scores of fans showed their true hometown colors with every celebratory roar for the bands who walked out on that stage.  This was a great day.

June 6, 1998...The Pittsburgh All-Stars concert, a roundup of the region’s legends, featured Donnie Iris & The Cruisers, Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers, B.E. Taylor, The Corbin-Hanner Band, Billy Price, and Glenn Pavone & The Cyclones.

Between 1995 and 1999...The following local artists, among others, appeared on the venue’s second stage during this time period; they played sets prior to the start of the main stage activities: ATS, Rasta Rafiki, The Fabulous Gunslingers, Airborne, The Nixon Clocks, John McDonald & The Mango Men, Mark Eddie, Lee Alverson, Eugene & The Nightcrawlers, The Tim Stevens Project, The El Monics, Stone Ridge Band, Double Deuce, Barbwire Dolls, Ploughman’s Lunch, Karl Shuman Band, Jill West & The Blues Attack, G-Force, Sputzie & The Soul Providers, D.O.S.E., Dharma Sons, The Frampton Brothers, The Ike McCoy Band, House of Soul, Sho’Nuff, and The Flow Band...A resurrected “thanks!” must go out to all of these talents once again for participating in these landmark hometown shows!

 

 

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Posted 5/26/24....GOING DOWN THE ROAD FEELING BAD

   

If a survey was sent out to southwestern Pennsylvania concert fans with regard to the Pittsburgh market’s large outdoor amphitheater—originally named Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre > then Post-Gazette Pavilion > First Niagara Pavilion > KeyBank Pavilion > and now the Pavilion at Star Lake—it would make great sense, of course, to ask for their opinions about the current summer season’s lineup, their likes and dislikes, etc. 

And I’d wager that if an open-ended question was included in the survey that asked about areas that needed to see some improvement, many fans’ feedback in this instance would predominantly consist of just one word: Traffic.

Or maybe TRAFFIC (written in an all-caps emphasis).  Or perhaps TRAFFIC!!! (with all caps and three exclamation points).  Or maybe there wouldn’t be the word “traffic” at all, with a grawlix placed there instead (a grawlix is defined as a series of typographical symbols used in text as a replacement for profanity).  Hence, it might look something like this: @#*&*%#!!!  I am thinking the more astute of the survey tabulators just might catch on, though, and x-out the grawlix while writing in the “T” word.

There was a recent article on Pittsburgh’s TribLIVE.com about the trials and tribulations of several fans experiencing traffic woes on the way out to, and then into, the Pavilion at Star Lake.  But the venue has tried over the years to do its best to ameliorate the negative effects of a sad-but-true reality—huge shows draw sellout crowds which lead to jammed roadways and a particularly pinched entranceway.

I was the general manager of Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre-turned-Post-Gazette Pavilion during the span of 1995 through 2007 and as I start to reflect back on those days of traffic challenges, Willie Nelson’s voice is in my mind’s ear skittering about, softly reminding me of how often that issue had loomed large for me: “You were always on my mind.”

One weekend morning in the beginning of the summer of 2005, I remember running into an old acquaintance in a downtown coffee shop.  While I waited in line for my half-double decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon (alright, that wasn’t my order, but I always wanted to use that line from the movie L.A. Story), my acquaintance sipped the foam off his brew and asked where I was working now.  When I mentioned that I ran the amphitheater, he said “Oh, I’ve never been out there.  I heard the traffic was horrible at that Billy Joel concert.”  I think I may have gently reached out and touched his arm, to make a point.  “Bob,” I said, “you DO know that the Billy Joel show was fifteen years ago, in the venue’s first season.  You might want to give it another shot.”

So it was pretty much always like that, in terms of the one major complaint that a number of fans perhaps rightfully glommed onto and occasionally buttonholed me on.  The traffic situation, for some, was something that stuck in their craw to the point of driving them beyond reason.  Admittedly, there must be something about being in a car, at a crawl, on a highway, still about two miles away from the venue, with a full bladder and brain brimming over with steaming, righteous indignation.  I imagine that this highway paralysis led many to think, if not bark out loud, “What in the HELL is going on?  WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE DOING?!!”

The “these people” reference, of course, relates to the parking lot personnel at the venue.  Talk about a thankless job, these folks were on the front line.  They were the first amphitheater staffers to greet the patrons as they drove into the facility and instead of smiles and a thumbs-up, our people saw blood-vessel-popped foreheads and a finger-up.  

By 1994, the venue’s fifth season, the lines of cars to get into the facility—and conversely to exit the facility—on the biggest shows of the summer were legendary.  That same year we booked a classic rock band who hadn’t toured in two decades, the much revered late ‘60s-early ‘70s group Traffic featuring multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood and drummer/percussionist Jim Capaldi.  As we rolled out news of this particular booking in all of our marketing efforts, the jabs and jokes poured in from concert fans: “I hear Traffic’s at the amphitheater; I’m sorry—is that news?!!” ..... and ..... “Traffic at Star Lake?  First time in 20 years?  BULLSHIT!!!”

To complicate things and truly seal our fate, out on the highway at that point in time there was evil afoot.  In the form of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.  Looking back on this, having been rubbed raw by continuing frustrations with traffic, I kind of came to feel that PennDOT was worse than Al-Qaeda, SPECTRE, KAOS, Wall Street and every other dastardly criminal enterprise combined.  There was just one stretch of highway as the last part of the journey from Pittsburgh out to the venue—Route 22/30—and PennDOT (it seemed to me) took great pleasure in erecting work zones and lane restrictions for a number of our summers of operation especially in the 1990s.  The effect on the venue was palpable.  We were inflicted with outraged fans and bad PR, everywhere we turned...

My frustrations boiled over and I actually sought a form of tongue-in-cheek revenge.  In the late 1990s before the start of a new season, I had an idea for a new game for our plaza entertainment areas inside the venue.  We already had a basketball set-up and a football toss as part of our pre-concert fun for fans but I then turned to Shag, our facility operations guru, to develop a brand new offering that would be modeled after the time-honored beanbag throw.  The twist was that this game would be a means for our fans—the ones bewitched, bothered and bewildered by traffic—to let off some steam from the snail-like odyssey that they had likely just experienced on the way out to the show.

We decided the game would be a beanbag toss to knock down three items that were going to be lined up on a countertop about twelve feet away, and each lucky soul who aced the three shots would win a prize.  The three knock-down items?  They were little orange and white barrels, 12” high and 8” in diameter, patterned after their big bad-ass cousins that PennDOT routinely used out on the roadways to ensnarl traffic and enrage our customers.

We christened this game “The PennDOT Shot” and when we had it all set up in the East Plaza, we hung up a colorful sign as a backdrop.  By directly acknowledging our nemesis via this fun little game, we hoped our fans would see a bit of humor in the situation and pull out a buck to pelt PennDOT (we knew they’d much rather be barreling down the road unencumbered, but at least here in the East Plaza they could revel in revenge and retribution). 

Our new game turned out not to be a hit.  The hoops and the football toss continued to pull in a solid amount of revenue per concert, but the PennDOT Shot never caught on as a moneymaker; perhaps the fans had decided to drown their sorrows in suds instead.  We then retired our tiny barrels after a season or two of disappointing returns.

To be clear, we did pursue real options as well, of course, to address the traffic situation.  Complicating our plight, though, was the fact that our amphitheater had just one vehicle entranceway/exit—the four-to-five lanes that then spread and fed all of our parking lots that were adjoining the fence lines of our venue.  We worked unceasingly with our parking personnel and traffic duty police officers to eke out the best and fastest flow of incoming/exiting traffic, yet on the largest shows—how else can I say this?—we were screwed.

The worst traffic trauma came on weekdays between the hours of 5:30pm and 7:30pm, when concertgoers were all headed out to the venue from Pittsburgh after a pit stop at home to shed their work duds.  These fans then got caught up in the larger weekday commuter crush, and so thousands of cars—some concert-bound, some headed home—were all converging on the Pittsburgh parkway and then Route 22/30, headed in the general direction of the amphitheater.  When this wonderful world of wheels then hit the dreaded PennDOT stretch, our fans were forced into some serious brake dancin’—and their eager anticipation became vehicular vexation. 

For one of Tom Petty’s sold-out shows at our venue which had fallen on a weekday, we tried every which way to ameliorate the traffic on the ingress.  We heavily promoted “Free Parking Before 6:00 PM!” and “Free Food & Beverage Coupons!” in all of our pre-concert radio and newspaper promotions, hoping that fans would respond to these enticements and head out to the venue early for tailgating.  Not a whiff of success here.  The fans either missed our messaging or didn’t care quite enough, or perhaps the predominant reason was that they were essentially chained to their weekday schedules and couldn’t adjust the timing of their concert commute.

And then there was the Lilith Fair in 1997, the very cool concert celebration of women that was conceived, molded, and mounted to a national touring level by Canadian musician/singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan.  The buzz was so high on Lilith Fair that we pretty much sold all of the concert tickets in advance, yet we took a gamble on the day of the show, allowing a few more cars into our lots so that these folks could buy tickets at the box office (note: our venue capacity was governed more by the number of cars in the lots, and not so much by the number of people in the venue; with our very sizable lawn, we could cram to our heart’s content and squeeze everybody in.)

Our parking plan backfired.  Way more people than expected had hopped on the highway hoping to buy their tickets at the gate, and so we literally, at a certain point in the evening, had to turn cars away at the top of the hill.  These late-arrivals—some of whom had already purchased their tickets—could now not enter the parking lots.  There was No More Room at the Inn.  And these people were pissed.  The fans and followers of Lilith Fair, because of the nature of this female-oriented festival, were mostly women—and now we could hear them roar in numbers too large to ignore (yes, I’m pretty much always Reddy with a song reference).

We had a bit of a saving grace though, in our immediate neighbor to the south—the Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse.  The folks there allowed us on occasion to use their parking lot as an emergency overflow site, and so we sent a wave or two of the Lilith travelers down there.  These particular parkers were thus able to find an actual spot after all, but it was a bit of a hike over to our venue from there and so their nice little stroll usually ended at one of our customer service booths for some venting, teeth gnashing and tongue lashing.

That was pretty much the worst of it.  We had tried earnestly through the 1990s and into the 2000s to improve the customer experience and beat back the bad press, tackling the traffic situation through as many measures as we could dream up.  These measures included 1) hiring Michael Baker, a leading engineering and consulting services company, to do a study of the “ingress” and the “egress” of traffic flow within our lots...2) implementing and then maintaining a roundtrip bus service for fan transportation from the compass points around Pittsburgh through a partnership with Lenzner Coach Lines...3) continuing to heavily promote early arrival by opening the parking lots in the early afternoon on major shows...and 4) ultimately deciding to change the mode of collecting our parking fee, converting from collection at the parking lot entranceway to incorporation of that fee within the price of the concert ticket.  This last move in particular saved precious time for our fans on the ingress, as they subsequently found they could sail right by our parking staff instead of stopping to pay.

In a perfect world, the concert experience should be every fan’s delight, a night of great music and socializing with friends, capturing memories that last a lifetime.  And the amphitheater did and still does try to make fans feel like they hadn't just spent a lifetime getting there.

Today, as most of us (I think) would admit, reality says that it likely remains a work in progress.

 

 

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Posted 5/26/24....MOTHER AND CHILD REUNION

 

This is a special edition of Musicasaurus in a couple of ways: 

1) My most recent post was on May 19, and normally the next one would follow two weeks afterward--in this case, on June 2.  But I am jumping ahead of schedule here so that I can squeeze this particular post into the month of May which is, of course, the month in which Mother’s Day is celebrated.  So this is important.  Because moms are important.  

2) The following was originally written and posted in 2013 and it is an interview I had conducted with my mom who had just turned 83 (I realized at that time that I was long overdue in getting this woman on record about her life and how music had figured into her world).  Alison Guthrie Jones lived to be 90 years old and passed away on September 25, 2021.  You are missed, Mom, but I know that you continue to rest in peace...

[The following was originally written and posted on Mother’s Day 2013]

This is the tale of a wonderful tale that unfolded in the form of an interview with my 83-year-old mother Alison Guthrie Jones on Mother’s Day.  We had an early dinner out at an Italian restaurant in our hometown of Butler, PA and then subsequently retired to her duplex’s sunny dining room, sitting down at a table in front of sliding glass doors that afforded a beautiful view of her tiny patio.  Outside there were two deck chairs, a stocked bird feeder and a hanging basket—the latter a crimson-colored begonia courtesy of a son who loves her.

Alison is a Butler girl, born and raised.  She’s alternately warm, feisty, quick to laugh, at the core very gentle, and now and again a bit impatient with her foibles and forgetfulness.  I figured it was high time to explore with her a subject that was near and dear to my heart, so with a tiny recorder in hand I sat down at the dining room table and essentially surprised her with the request to get some of her thoughts on the subject of music.

I want to ask you some questions; it’s very informal, just pickin’ your brain...

Go ahead. Oh, there’s a blue jay....oh, it flew away.  Go ahead, honey.

Obviously I’ve been into music most of my life, starting at a pretty early age.  But what about you?  Do you remember, as a young person, listening to much music?  Did your parents have a record player?  Did they buy records?  

Oh, yes.  We had records by Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman and others.

And that’s the stuff your parents were listening to?

Well, yes.  What happened was, whenever more and more of these records started coming out my dad bought a radio that a drawer slid out, and we could play our 78s on there.  So they liked the music, yes.  But I guess I played it too loud.  Or at least that’s what my father said...Your Uncle Inky had a barbershop here in Butler, actually in Lyndora, and Markew’s was right beside it.  It was a bar with a jukebox.  Well, sometimes the records were getting old in there and they were putting new ones in, so they gave some of the old ones to Ink, and Ink would give them to me. So I had a lot of records before I even liked much music.

So this was the late 1930s and through the 1940s, and the records were Tommy Dorsey, and things like that?

Yes, and Harry James.  I loved Harry James.

You got married at the age of twenty, in 1950.  Before that, when you were a teenager in high school, what was your social life like?  Did you and your girlfriends drive around, go to dances, drink beer, what?

My girlfriends and I didn’t have beer, but if we were out with our boyfriends, THEY had some.  Yes, we did go to dances.  High school dances, one in Lyndora and one down Route 8 towards Pittsburgh, which young people used to go to.

Was there a deejay?

No deejays.  Just a jukebox.

You went to these places, and there were just jukeboxes?

Yes, but then we also went to dances where some of the boys we knew played in a band, and they were really good.  Dances were fun.  I remember after we were married, your father and I were in Erie with Dee Dee and Nick, and we jitterbugged to the music of Bill Haley & The Comets.

You could jitterbug to Bill Haley?

Oh, yes.  Also we went to see some live music—Tommy Dorsey and Stan Kenton in New Castle.  I always wanted to see Sammy Kaye—sing and sway with Sammy Kaye—but I never did.  We loved to dance, but not that stuff like “The Fish”—

You mean “The Swim”?

Yes, The Swim, those later-on dances.  We were either slow dancing or jitterbugging back then.  I did go to a square dance once while still in high school, and I almost wet my pants.

Why?!!

My girlfriend Helen invited me.  Some older guy grabbed Helen and took her out on the floor, and then some guy grabbed me, but I was laughing so hard that I almost wet myself.  All that spinning and changing partners, and goin’ so fast—it was a riot.

How did you find out about new groups or new releases from singers and musicians that you liked?

We used to go to Trader’s in Butler, and they had booths.  They were a music store down there on Main Street across from the gas company; they had little booths where you could listen to records...I can’t remember when the little records (45s) came out, but that’s where I bought my records.

What kind of music did Dad like?

Blues and jazz.  He loved Stan Getz, and especially Ella Fitzgerald.  He had loads of records by her.  I never particularly liked her that well.  He liked her voice; I didn’t...Dad and I liked pretty much liked the same music, though.  In the 80s we started listening to WISH-FM, the Pittsburgh station that played soft rock.  We both liked that, when he retired.

I remember your 45s when I was very young—That song “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox, “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison, and the Elvis Presley ones you had...

Oh, you imitated Elvis all of the time.  You pretended you had a guitar.

Was I holding a broom or something?

No, just pretending to have a guitar; you didn’t hold anything.  And you made gyrations, but not the bad ones that Elvis did.  You and your brother used to entertain Aunt Betty and her boyfriend in the living room at our house.  His name was Joe, I think.  You and your brother also used to do comedy routines for all of us.

In the early ‘60s, the Beatles came over to America for the first time and appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.  It might have been those camera shots of female hysteria in the audience, but I remember Dad saying “They’ll never last.”

Well, I’d say they lasted pretty long...You had your haircut in bangs and cut short, you know.  Like Paul McCartney.

So you liked the Beatles, and other groups that came out in the ‘60s?

I liked The Monkees, too.  I loved the TV show.

The ‘60s unleashed a lot of different artists & styles in music; did you ever get concerned with what I was listening to?

I just didn’t like some of that hard rock stuff you were listening to...I remember I liked Carly Simon when I first heard her, but not James Taylor until much later on.  And I started liking Rod Stewart when you gave me a CD of his, and I thought to myself “I’m not going to like this”—but I DID!  I remember you got me backstage to meet Rod Stewart when you worked at the amphitheater.  

That’s right.  Do you remember how that went?

Good.  He said “Hello there.”  And I said, “You know, I am probably the same age as your mother but I still enjoy you.”  He smiled, but then he left.

He left?

Well, he went to talk to the guy behind me.  I’m sure after their shows these performers are all hyped up and they just want to relax.  Somebody did take a picture of Rod and me, but you never got me the picture. 

I didn’t?  I don’t remember anyone taking your picture.

Some friend of yours did, and he was supposed to mail it to you—but you never got me the picture.

Sorry, Mom.

It would have been nice to look at it now.

Hmmm...Your one opportunity to have a photo with a big rock star, and I failed you.

It was tragic! (laughs)

Did you ever meet anybody else out there at the amphitheater?

Well, you got me backstage to meet Judy Garland but she didn’t come out after the show to meet anybody, but she did put on a wonderful show—wait, it wasn’t Judy Garland, it was her daughter.

Liza Minnelli?

Yes, Liza Minnelli.  But what a terrific show she put on....and her dancers and singers, I remember well.  They weren’t all skinny and pretty; they were all sizes, and I thought that was wonderful.  She didn’t just have beautiful girls up there.  I saw Cher out there, too.  And she was fantastic.

You probably had great seats, too.  Because you had a son that truly loved you.

That’s right.  I didn’t like Barry Manilow, though, when I saw him.  He didn’t have any back-ups; it made it boring. 

I’ve heard that he talks to the audience a lot between songs; true?

He said to the crowd “To all you guys who hated to come here tonight, I know how you feel.”  Oh, and I saw Bette Midler out there.  She was GOOD...Who else did I see?  Let me tell you about one I really loved.

Who was that?

The singer in that Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber show.

Michael Crawford.

Yes...I couldn’t go to that amphitheater concert, but you got us tickets for him at the Benedum Theatre later on, in...the late ‘90s?

You saw Sinatra too, right?

Yes, at the arena.  I think with Sammy Davis Jr.

That’s right...and that was the concert where Dean Martin was supposed to play as well, but he didn’t make it to the Pittsburgh show because of an illness.  That tour with the three of them was called “Ol’ Blue Eyes, Red Eyes and One Eye”.  That wasn’t the official name of the tour, but that’s what we industry insiders called it.

He was probably plastered...Did you ever know if some of these groups were drunk or anything?

No, I never ran into any artists who looked in really bad shape...I do remember Ozzy Osbourne had some struggles before he took the stage at the amphitheater a few times, and there was a doctor backstage who gave him B Vitamin shots just to get him focused enough to go on.

What did she ever see in him?  His wife is pretty, and his daughter is pretty.  I can’t stand him.

I remember in the late ‘60s bringing home a couple of new albums by Cream and Buffalo Springfield...and you overhearing the Buffalo Springfield record and saying “That’s too twangy country.”

I said that?  I really like some of the country music now (looks out the dining room glass door) There’s that bluejay again.  And the cardinals.  I wonder what’s in that feed I give them...Your Dad and I really liked that one program, “For the World?”  Is that it?  “For the World?”  Whatever it was, we tuned into that.

We Are the World?

Maybe.  I know it was around the same time your dad finished the deck out back.  You called and asked what we were doing, and I told you we were watching the program, and you said that you were pretty sure you wouldn’t find many other parents who were doing the same thing.

Oh, that was the Live Aid concert.  In 1985.

That’s it.  

I remember you liked Neil Young and Leon Russell, but when you first asked me about them, you said “Please play me some of that Neil Simon”...and...“Do you have anything by that Leon Uris?”  

(Mom giggles)

Didn’t you also like the band Chicago?

YES!  They were terrific; you’ve put them on some of your mixes for me...They were good in concert.  Who comes and plays Star Lake Amphitheater these days?

Well, there are more country artists than there used to be, starting around the early 2000s.

One time I went there with Joelle (niece) to see the guy who has the blonde hair and the hat.

Mom, that could be one of a few country stars...

He had a mustache and blonde hair.  And he just stood there.  I was so bored that I thought I’d scream.  He had people playing with him, but he just stood there.

Alan Jackson?

Yes, that was him.  I wanted to see Alabama but never made it out there.

Did you see Tim McGraw?

No, but I like that song he does about his dad.  And I know his wife is absolutely gorgeous, and they have three girls.  But she screams when she sings.  My friends think that, too.  

What was the trip to Star Lake Amphitheatre that you remember the most?

Well, who was the guy from Florida?

Uh...Are you thinking of Jimmy Buffett?

Yes, I went to see him twice when you got me tickets.  Anyhow, we were drinking beer so I didn’t care about the music that much.

You might have just summed up the whole Buffett concert experience.

The last time I went I was in my early ‘70s, I think.  Bob and I and another couple went to the concert, and Bob’s friend had a thing for big boobs.  So when we were out in the parking lots walkin’ along, walkin’ along, he was hoping to see some girls pull up their T-shirts.  And finally one girl did.  And he thought that was just wonderful.

One more question, Mom.  Say you had to go to a deserted island to live the rest of your days--what ONE album or CD would you take with you?

Can it be a CD that somebody made?  Like one of your mixes?

Technically, no.  But it IS Mother’s Day today.  If you want to, go ahead.

No, that’s okay.  Hmmm...Probably that Michael Crawford album with the girl who sang with him...

Sarah Brightman?  Wasn’t that the “Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber” compilation?

I think so...I think it had a bunch of different songs on it.  But it was just beautiful, and that’s the one I’d take along with me.

I think we’re done, Mom.  AND...thanks SO much for doing this!

Alright, my son.  Thank you.

 

 

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Posted 5/19/24....EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY

         ...

This is Yours Truly in the time period of 1978-1980 when I worked for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic Corporation (WEA Corp), the marketing and distribution arm of the three aforementioned major record companies and their subsidiary labels.  I was responsible for creating WEA artist displays in chain-owned and independent record stores in the Pittsburgh market and beyond, periodically branching out to cover satellite markets such as Youngstown, Ohio and Wheeling, W VA.  Taking stock of this photo of myself now, forty-plus years down the road, I would use these words to more than adequately describe me: Scruffy but Super Conscientious.  Armed with tape, scissors, staple gun and fervent desire to plaster up posters in every nook and cranny of every record store in my realm, I totally dedicated myself to Warner/Elektra/Atlantic.  I had drunk the Kool-Aid, for sure.  It was almost as if Freddy Mercury—yes, a WEA artist on the Elektra label--was belting out a message directly to me: “WEA the champions, my friends, and we’ll keep on fighting ‘til the end...”

NOTE: All of the events and happenstances below took place in the two-year period of 1978 through 1980.

THE AREAS WITHIN STORES THAT WERE MY OPTIONS FOR DISPLAY SPACE 

I found out soon after I landed the WEA display job that each record store—whether a stand-alone or one in a mall--was different in terms of the space that the managers accorded for displays of new album releases.  But after a while on my prescribed cycle of store visits, I found enough spots within each location to give WEA its due.  The photos immediately below illustrate this...

 

For Fleetwood Mac and Badfinger, I snatched storefront window opportunities.

For the Superman movie soundtrack and Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, I went with spaces above the long stretches of wall racks that showcased the store’s new releases and best-sellers.

For jazz artists Pat MethenyKeith Jarrett and others on the ECM label—who only provided me with enlarged black and white photos at that point in time--I used the areas that were beneath those aforementioned long stretches of wall racks.

For Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled debut I chose an endcap (the end of one of the store’s freestanding floor bins of albums).

For Ry Cooder’s Bop till You Drop album I utilized the archways and above-the-counter space in a mall store.

For Judy Collins’ new release, I staked out a claim for the bottom of the store’s front counter.

And for the Rolling Stones I achieved new heights by replacing a couple of the store’s drop-down ceiling panels with a 2’x2’ styrofoam-backed reproduction of the album cover.

DISPLAYS A BIT BEYOND THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH OF JUST POSTERS AND ALBUM COVERS

 

Rickie Lee Jones and Van Halen

With only a limited amount of space in one store, I chose to combine Rickie Lee Jones with Van Halen since the materials were kind of crammed together anyway.  In one photo you’ll note I placed the Van Halen logo in her mitts, and the other photo shows her “lighting her cigar” via the flaming hairdo of David Lee Roth.

 

Michael Franks

At this Peaches store in Bethel Park in 1979 I gained a whole front window to devote to Michael Franks’ new release Tiger in the Rain, and so I spent some bucks on a tiger cub statue, covered his head with a plastic rain bonnet, and threw some umbrellas into the mix.

The Henry Paul Band

This was a window display I concocted for NRM’s campus store in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, and it revolved around Grey Ghost, the Henry Paul Band’s debut album on Atlantic Records.  This 1979 release, through its title and through an included song by that name, reverentially referred to singer Ronnie Van Zant who perished along with a few other Lynyrd Skynyrd members in the band’s fateful airplane crash of 1977.  Once this Grey Ghost display was up and in view, I received a diplomatic call from the Atlantic Records area promotion person who told me Henry Paul was coming to town, and that the fleshless face of the grey ghost in my display might not be the best thing for him to stumble upon.  I gave up the ghost.

Black Sabbath 

In staying true to the cover of Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die! album and attempting to amplify that connection, I borrowed my friend Gary Uram’s mannequin head and torso and outfitted it appropriately.  Not sure I remember where I found the gas mask, but rest assured I hadn’t owned one; in other words, it wasn’t from any collection of materials I might have gathered up previously for an end-of-the-world bunker.  I wasn’t at that stage—uh, yet.

Shaun Cassidy

I had some fun with this teen idol’s display, keying in on the album’s title and wrapping Cassidy in swirls of plastic.  I cannot remember if I entertained the idea of leaving him any breathing room.  Perhaps subconsciously I was making a statement on his music and my desire to shorten its shelf-life.

 

Devo

The photo on the left illustrates the display materials sent to me by WEA for Devo’s debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!  The one above-and-beyond attention-getting display item that really drew in the curious was a full-sized Devo yellow suit.  After I had done a number of displays around Pittsburgh on behalf of the band and was about to send my pictures on to my boss in WEA’s Cleveland office, a friend named John “Pappy” Papinchak offered to suit up for me.  He wanted me to have this kind of lively action shot to send along with the usual batch of the more standard store window and wall photos.  Pappy, who was the kindest of souls, a true music hound, and an accomplished photographer who often freelanced for music industry folks in the Pittsburgh market, passed away in April 2020 at the age of 67.  This one’s for you, Pappy.

ARTIST APPEARANCES AT RECORD STORES AND ARTISTS COMING INTO TOWN FOR CONCERTS

Ashford & Simpson

One of the duties of the WEA field merchandiser was to cover in-store appearances of artists who were coming to town as part of their concert tours.  Certain performers “got it”—they realized how beneficial it was to their careers to spend a bit of time early afternoon on a show day to meet and greet their fans.  They also knew that doing so at one of the chosen market’s biggest record stores—often, but not always, a chain store--was key to keeping their product top of mind with the largest local record retailers.  

Ashford & Simpson, the popular soul/rhythm & blues duo who were married in music and in life, came to Pittsburgh for a show and agreed to do an appearance in the National Record Mart (NRM) in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  I slathered up posters for backdrop before the pair arrived, and aided (a bit) the NRM folks who were making sure the flow of fans didn’t impede the ringing of cash registers at the front of the store.

Henry Paul Band 

The aforementioned Henry Paul Band came together when guitarist/singer-songwriter Paul exited The Outlaws in 1977 and formed his own group.  They toured through the Pittsburgh market and agreed to a meet-and-greet at one of NRM’s off-branded superstores, the Oasis Records & Tapes location in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.  The band’s appearance there paved the way for an invitation from NRM management to attend, and to perform at, the upcoming annual NRM convention scheduled at that point in time to take place in Pittsburgh.  This was always an informative and fun two-or-three day gathering of over 70 NRM store managers and record company bigwigs who would flock there to curry favor and build connections with those who pushed their product.

 

Roxy Music

That mannequin head and torso belonging to my friend Gary Uram—the one I deployed in the aforementioned Black Sabbath display--came in handy once again.  I patterned this display after the album cover for Roxy Music’s Manifesto release, and it was situated in the front window of a downtown NRM location that was near the storied concert venue called the Stanley Theatre.  I went backstage with the Pittsburgh market Atlantic Records rep on April 9, 1979 and met the band, and I remember Bryan Ferry and Phil Manzanera in particular smiling over this particular photo.

 

Larry Carlton 

The photos above are related to an appearance in Pittsburgh by the almost famous and quite fiery, nimble-fingered session guitarist Larry Carlton.  Carlton had stepped out on his own in 1978 to release a self-titled solo album on the Warner Bros. label.  The NRM window display shown above promotes the upcoming Thin Lizzy/Larry Carlton concert at the Stanley Theatre, and in the four-man photo, Carlton is third from the left with Pittsburgh-area Warner Bros. promotion rep Mark Wallace beside him on the end.  

Carlton had agreed to an afternoon hotel room schmooze with key management folks from NRM and a couple of other record retailers, and so beforehand I fashioned displays in the room for emphasis and ambience.  I also got the bright idea, on one of the displays, to slip into the mix a few pictures of popular cigarette band Carlton just as a play on words.  Carlton—the man, not the brand—didn’t get upset at all over my pun play and it would have been kind of a drag if he had.

Linda Clifford

Linda Clifford was an R&B/disco singer who in 1978 was riding high on the national sales charts with her second album If My Friends Could See Me Now.  To punch up the display a bit, I borrowed a friend’s set of blinds that mirrored the ones on Clifford’s album cover and whipped up this pre-concert display in an NRM store window in downtown Pittsburgh.

The Cars 

The Cars were headed to Pittsburgh in 1978 on the heels of their enticing self-titled debut album, and I commandeered a front window in one of the downtown NRMs to tout their Stanley Theatre show.  At the invitation of the Elektra promotion person who was planning to put in face time with the band backstage on the evening of the show, I was able to meet the group and show them photos of my handiwork.  Regarding the photo above from one of the downtown NRMs: the group liked my tire approach which apparently was not yet a tired approach; perhaps the WEA display people in other markets hadn’t yet traveled that road.  And I was pleased that the “auto eroticism at the Stanley” line on my hastily scrawled in-concert sign was appreciated as well.  I would have expected nothing less from this quirky, captivating batch of Bostonians.

Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau

The Chaka Khan standup on the right in the photo above was one of at least ten that I received one morning on my front porch, which was UPS’ dumping place for all of the posters and additional merchandising materials that were routinely shipped out to me from the WEA branch office in Cleveland.  In one of my less-inspired bursts of creativity in helping to promote an upcoming WEA artist team-up--Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau at the Stanley Theatre--I quickly doctored up (nay, slightly butchered?) one of the Chaka standups by Jarreau-a-sizin’ it.  Huh.  At least it was an attention-getter.

THE INDEPENDENT RECORD STORES

I cannot end this “photos on parade” post about my life as an in-store display person without reiterating my initial marching orders from WEA.  I was instructed to concentrate heavily on behemoth retailer NRM because Pittsburgh was NRM’s home base, and they certainly weren’t shy about flexing their buying muscle since the chain was now up to about 70 stores total across six states.  But I also was encouraged to hit smaller local operations in the Pittsburgh market like the Record Outlet stores, and especially the burgeoning independent shops such as Jim’s Records in Bloomfield and Sounds & Seeds in the Monroeville area.  These were stores that mattered as well, often boasting the most passionate of music-driven record buyers.

  

Pictured above is a window display of the Akron, Ohio band Tin Huey’s 1979 debut album Contents Dislodged During Shipment.  The individual stepping through the doorway is store owner Jim Spitznagel, who made Jim’s Records one of Pittsburgh’s best places to shop for New Wave—and he was irrefutably always ahead of the next wave.  The other photo was taken at indie store Sounds & Seeds when I had dropped by to do a quick Blues Brothers display.  That is the store’s Tony Quatrini leaning on Belushi and beaming.  The always affable, quite knowledgeable Quatrini kept this record haven perpetually stocked with the old, the new, and the on-the-cusp.

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________________

Posted 5/5/24....BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE

 

The above photo of me does not illustrate a bit of elderly confusion, thankfully.  I was purposeful in shooting it this way because it reflects my desire to take a backward glance at Lollapalooza...

The first year of this pioneering alternative music festival’s existence, according to Aaron Gilbreath’s 4/17/21 Alive in the Nineties Substack post, was a runaway success.  “Playing to over 430,000 people during its almost six-week run,” Gilbreath said, “this first Lollapalooza tour grossed over $10 million dollars, making it the highest-grossing concert of 1991.”

According to Gilbreath, Spin magazine’s assessment of Lollapalooza was that it “changed the trajectory of the ’90s and became ‘the template for what became the modern American festival.’”  There was a confluence of cultural and societal shifts at the dawn of the ‘90s that set this groundbreaking festival on a path to immediate embrace and runaway success.  Major alternative music stations had begun sprouting up in certain cities and this trend then mushroomed across the country, which Gilbreath in part credits to a resurgence of the spirit of the ‘60s counterculture and that era’s “innovative, subversive bands like the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges.”  Also, some key college radio stations like Los Angeles’ KXLU and Seattle’s KCMU played a heightening role in showcasing non-mainstream music, as did MTV and its continued commitment to airing the alternative music program “120 minutes” that had debuted on the music video channel in 1986.

The real linchpin in bringing Lollapalooza to fruition, though, was Perry Farrell.  His band Jane’s Addiction at the beginning of the nineties was in the process of pulling the plug due to conflicts and fractious relationships within the band, and Farrell—who Gilbreath describes as “drugged out” but “ambitious, driven, and visionary”—was fully aware of the cultural shift taking place in the realm of music.  Farrell told his booking agent Marc Geiger that Jane’s Addiction had one last tour in them before breaking up, and he wanted to do something quite special.  

Around that same time, according to Spin magazine, Jane’s Addiction was on the slot of the mammoth Reading Festival in Reading, a town in Berkshire, England.  Geiger, William Morris Agency executive Don Muller and the band’s drummer Stephen Perkins spent some serious hang time one day at the festival and came back to the band’s hotel room inspired and gushing.  They spilled out their idea: turn the upcoming final tour by Jane’s Addiction into a sort of “roadshow Reading Festival,” replete with multiple new music/alternative bands, unique sideshow attractions and more.  Jane’s Addiction’s manager Ted Gardner loved the idea, saying that inspiration had flowed from all, but Geiger was truly the “seed-planter” and Farrell “watered the seed and came up with the name Lollapalooza.”

As the proposed talent lineup and other aspects of the goodbye tour began to crystallize, Geiger and Muller, according to Gilbreath, “asked Perry to sketch more detailed non-musical ideas for this festival...folding in everything they’d seen at Reading, everything that previous festivals had done, and adding their own unique spin for the dawning alternative era.”

Farrell became a fountain of ideas.  “I’d call someone at 3 in the morning and say, ‘I want helium balloons surrounding the crowd,’” Perry told The Orlando Sentinel.  “I’d say things like ‘We need Lollapalooza-sized burritos served in buckets—with buckets of Sprite.’  It all had to be different.”  He had so many crazy ideas: a marching band at each show; giving 10,000 attendees at each show a meal like a Krishna; spraying everyone with aromatherapy as they entered the venue, then providing different scents in different areas.  “We’d tell him, ‘Look, Perry, this is outside,’” said Geiger, “‘they’re just going to dissipate!’”  But that’s how Perry worked.  He was a dreamer, an impractical adult with a childlike imagination and excitement that either irritated people or ignited their own excitement.”

 ...the first tour, 1991.

Lollapalooza burst into being in Chandler, Arizona on July 18, 1991 and ended its run in Enumclaw, Washington on August 28.  The traveling musical alt-extravaganza  featured main stage acts including Jane’s Addiction (the band’s last ride), Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T & Body Count, Butthole Surfers, and the Henry Rollins Band...side stage performances from the Jim Rose Circus Side Show, the Shaolin monks, and other attractions...tented art displays...virtual reality game setups...and sign-up tables & literature points of distribution up and down the plazas populated by representatives of political get-out-the-vote organizations, PETA and environmental non-profits.

The buzz within the music industry after Lollapalooza’s 1991 tour concluded was intense, and writer Gilbreath in his aforementioned Alive in the Nineties post pointed to other factors that contributed to alternative music’s rise and its firmer footing.  “Nevermind came out in September 1991, after Lollapalooza wrapped up in Seattle that August,” Gilbreath said.  “By October, Jane’s had broken up, and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had put underground music in so many consumers’ faces that it made them the biggest alternative band in the world and put the term “alternative music” into the American lexicon.  Behind the scenes, Lollapalooza’s organizers were discussing what Lollapalooza’s second tour should look like, since it was perfectly positioned to sell more culture to the same hungry audience they helped create.”

It was just ahead of the festival’s sophomore year that Star Lake nabbed its chance.  Though Lollapalooza in Year One had chosen 21 different cities and played a total of 26 performances, its founders and tour handlers from the outset had punted on the idea of playing Pittsburgh.  Tom Rooney, the executive director of Star Lake Amphitheatre (1990-1994), once explained the reason for this to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Scott Mervis.  “I remember the first Lollapalooza would not play our facility,” Rooney said,” and that was because of the perception of Pittsburgh’s place on the alternative music food chain, which was very, very low.”  Indeed that was the case in 1991.  The Lollapalooza decision-makers were not bullish on a market like Pittsburgh that had no major alternative music station, and in fact WXDX (with that format) didn’t materialize to directly serve the market’s alternative rock fans until the spring of 1996.

Star Lake, though, launched a full-court press to convince Lollapalooza’s management team that a Pittsburgh play in 1992 made sense.  In the lead-up to that outdoor concert season I was the marketing director of the facility, and I was asked to submit a marketing plan that would hopefully woo them and win them over.  Although we lacked the big guns of a format-friendly major station in town, we did have thriving freeform college stations...and a street team who was plugged into the burgeoning alternative club scene and the right record stores...and we had the willingness of the mighty album-oriented rock (AOR) station WDVE to promote the festival’s particular performers who aligned well enough with their format.  On top of it all we had a champion in the form of our parent company Pace’s highly respected talent buyer Louis Messina, and he spent a good deal of time advocating for us—jockeying, justifying and at times inveigling—all to ensure we got our shot.

  ...the second tour, 1992 (first time at Star Lake).

Lollapalooza was ultimately confirmed for Star Lake for the date of August 16 and the show was an eye-opening, sometimes eye-popping experience for fans—and certainly for our venue staff as well.  The talent lineup was the intended mix bag: the main stage featured Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Ice Cube, Soundgarden, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Pearl Jam and Lush, and the side stage featured Cypress Hill, Ice T & Body Count and a host of others including two brand new bands whose debut albums would come out later that same year: Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against The Machine.  

Lollapalooza at The Lake turned out to be a complete $uccess.  It was a soaring touring artistic achievement and a true concert convergence opportunity for this new generation of music fans and, as it turned out, it was also a cash cow that moooved our money meter into much greener pastures.

Below are just a few of the memorable moments from Lollapalooza’s first time at Star Lake Amphitheatre...

  The personal highlight for me?  A brand new band on the main stage that day, whose debut album had been released exactly one year before—Pearl Jam.

Right around 1:30 pm I was down in the lower house, the seating area of our pavilion where the front three sections nearest the stage are divided from the rest of the upper house by a cut-through walkway.  This is the area where a row of corporate boxes caps off the backs of sections 1-2-3, as well as populates the fronts of each of the upper sections of seating 4-9.  Pearl Jam had just taken the stage, and this sell-out crowd of 22,000+ was rippling with edgy anticipation.  In fact, there was a palpable sense of electricity everywhere especially close to the stage—or was it a looming doom?  The crowd began pushing forward as one; “box jumpers” were bounding over the upper-tier corporate boxes in an effort to get quick, unauthorized entry into the lower house; and our firmly rooted barricades at the tops of certain aisleways were jammed to the max with pressing fans, our wide-eyed security force and ushering staff just simply trying to contain and maintain.

Then the music started, and Pearl Jam right off the bat helped quell some of the seat-seeking mischievousness.  The intensity of the band’s delivery and the pure power of their performance really seemed to unify the crowd; the roars deepened and some transfixion (thankfully) set in.  Suddenly it had become all about the music, and the audience basked in this baptism of fury and finesse.

The crowning pleasure of this particular experience—as relayed to my brain directly from my spinal column—was the band’s launch into the familiar opening chords of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”  I felt a sense of completeness, gathered up from the dual pleasure of witnessing a spirited, electrifying new band dive into a classic slice of rock history, and they mightily and masterfully pulled it off with aplomb.  Fans were high-fiving and fist-pumping, and I noticed more than a few were simply rooted to the spot—eyes wide, broad smiles and even a few glistening, moistened eyes.  

This still stands as one of the few defining moments in my own little corner of concert history.  It is one of my favorite live performances of all time.

 

  There was another band that hit the stage later that day that also made my jaw drop—but this was from pain.

Ministry was a perfect fit for this edgy festival, having released albums in the four-year period leading up to Lollapalooza with names like The Land of Rape and Honey (1988), The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste(1989) and Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and The Way to Suck Eggs (1992).  Reportedly they started out in the early 1980s as a synth-pop band but by 1988 had largely turned toward mighty industrial metal.  I was making my rounds through the venue and caught some of their show from right in front of the stage.

The music was an unrelenting blast, an industrial-strength mix of sustained ear-splitting, chest-thumping terror.  It was a drone, a screech, a clash, and a whine all brewed up into a steady stream of vicious volume, pushed out from the stage with all amps turned up to ten.  If there had been a corner nearby, I would have cowered in it.  My body was recoiling from the physical assault, but my brain was trying to process the sights as well so I stayed in my spot.  While Ministry was churning out this uninterruptible sonic wave, the band members flailed on their instruments and—for some inexplicable reason—a couple of Goth-like and gorgeous black-leather clad women undulated on stage near displays of cow skulls.  Honestly, I was trying to wrap my head around all of this to get to some higher meaning, and that, combined with the searing of my senses, probably delayed my body’s impulse for flight.  Mercifully though, the set ended shortly thereafter and as I left the pavilion I shook my head—an editorial comment but also in some way an attempt to dislodge just a few more decibels. 

 

  Most of the bands taking the stage at Lollapalooza were incendiary, and so were a few of our lawn dwellers.  For a decent portion of the day most of the fans up on the grass seemed in large part to be laser-focused on the main stage music, but a smattering of them began showing their true stripes as dusk melted into darkness.  No other name for ‘em; they were knuckleheaded, knuckle-dragging arsonists.

As night fell, I remember walking into the wings of the main stage after having spent a half hour or so with Lollapalooza’s tour accountant in a backstage dressing room.  I had turned off my venue radio to accommodate the discussion and had only popped it back on as I bounded onto the side entrance to the stage.  There I suddenly saw what the mainstage performers of the moment were seeing—the typically dark and shadowy lawn was now illuminated in twelve to fifteen different spots with flames that were beginning to roar to high heaven.  I immediately turned to my radio’s security channel and heard a somewhat frantic dispatcher barking out the locations of trouble spots on the lawn, and there were rushed reports from the security field teams intermittently breaking through in between.  It was Shock and it was Awe—a strangely beautiful, surreal and terrifying vision, all rolled into one.

That entire night the security teams did their absolute best at dampening and trampling these fires, but we realized we needed to mobilize more quickly and better deploy our “spotters,” as well as strategically position staff members so we could blitzkrieg each blaze as soon as it sparked to life.  

And, oh yes, there was another practice round for us just around the bend: Ozzy Osbourne, in what would be his first visit to Star Lake, was headed our way just three weeks later.

 

 

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Posted 4/21/24....FIELDS OF GOLD GREEN

Confession: For 17 years in a row I was high on grass.  A grass of superior quality, I might add.

I should clear up right now that in this instance, the grass I’m extolling the virtues of belonged to Star Lake Amphitheatre.  It was Mother Nature’s carpet, that wide and well-tended expanse of green that sat behind the fixed seating area of this large outdoor concert venue near Pittsburgh.  As marketing director (1991-1994) and subsequent general manager (1995-2007) of this facility, I shared our staff’s great pride in the knowledge that we had one of the finest-looking and unfailingly functional lawns of any open-air concert venue in the country.

In those days our facility operations director was the resourceful Shag Wright, and he almost singlehandedly kept that lawn in fan-ready shape through thick and thin.  Not only did Shag manage the upkeep resulting from the thirty to forty thousand pairs of feet tromping down our turf each week, he also weathered the weather.  He was able to tame the impact of the alternating crises of severe droughts and voluminous rain spells, and he even nursed back to health our green spaces after bouts of fan-ignited sod tossings and lawn chair roastings.

At Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre (now known as The Pavilion at Star Lake) the lawn meant so much to a lot of different people that came through our gates each summer.  It was a community where fans prearranged their meetups in certain sections that became, in their minds, their staked-out turf for every show they attended.  It was also the scene of mudslide parties on rainy rock festival days...it begat conga lines on disco and oldie shows...it boasted upscale, elaborate picnic spreads on evenings with mellow singer-songwriters and symphony shows...and it became a field of dreams for cowboys eyein’ cowgirls (and vice versa) at our country music shows.

It was in those first formative years of Star Lake in the early-mid 1990s that we of course began experimenting with various promotional programs designed to woo more fans to the venue and stoke repeat business.  One of these programs in fact we tailored specifically to appeal to our aforementioned lawn dwellers.  We had wanted to find a way to offer bargain prices for lawn tickets that would keep these fans comin’ back for more, so we came up with a plan which would keep their addiction fed without putting them in the red. 

And that is how the Grass Pass came into being.  Some thirty years on, Star Lake’s owner/operator Live Nation is still offering the Grass Pass, now under the moniker Lawnie Pass 2024, and for the all-in price of $239 the purchaser earns entry rights to the lawn on a whole host of summer concerts.  

But how did this initiative ever get off the ground way back in the amphitheater’s infancy?  Below is a look at two of our promotional campaigns that centered on that magical patch of earth behind the pavilion-seating area.  There was our initial thrust with the Grass Pass and then a new twist we conjured up a decade later... 

For our individual shows, sales of our reserved seats in the pavilion—especially the 4,000 out of 7,000 seats that were under roof cover—were never a concern, really.  It was the 13,000-capacity general admission lawn—unprotected from the elements—that was always the question mark.  We needed a viable incentive for the fans who were the fence sitters, those who would ordinarily wait for the weather forecast three days out from the show before deciding to buy, or not to buy, their lawn tickets.  To get these music fans off their asses and onto our grasses way earlier in the sales process, we needed something truly alluring.

The first iteration of the Grass Pass was a physical coupon booklet.  We hedged our bet for success by aligning out of the chute with two major players in town, Pittsburgh’s FM powerhouse WDVE and the revered hometown record store chain National Record Mart.  There were seven coupons in each booklet, and each one afforded the purchaser a redemption on a lawn ticket to a show of their choosing—and at a nice price. The booklet was priced at $102.50, a promotional tie to WDVE’s frequency of 102.5 on the FM dial, which we thought was a good hook for their on-air talent to run with.  When the initial batch of printed booklets arrived at Star Lake we then shipped them out to our record store partner for display on or near their checkout counters, and NRM was near ecstatic with the ton of WDVE on-air promos that resulted in both the committed and the curious dropping by their neighborhood NRM stores to check out the new Grass Pass.

Sales were brisk and in some way this seemed too good to be true.  We were notching a lot of sales and helping to ensure that our lawn-lovin’ music fans could come to as many shows as they wanted to, everything from personal favorites who were not quite superstar status to the perennially sold-out shows like Jimmy Buffett and OzzFest.  And about that last part: aye, there’s the rub.

Eventually we found out during our first season of the Grass Pass that this promotion that saved our fans money was costing us money.  And here’s the math on taking that bath: 

1.) With the Grass Pass booklet costing $102.50 each, each of the seven coupons good for one lawn ticket was worth approximately $14.64.

2.) The Parrotheads—that fervid flock of followers of stellar ticket seller Jimmy Buffett—began buying the Grass Pass expressly to redeem their $14.64 coupons on Buffett’s steeply priced (at the time) $30.00 lawn tickets.  So Jimmy’s fans were really prospering on a couple of fronts; they were getting into an already-sold-out show AND they were saving over $15.00 on the cost of a Buffett lawn ticket.

3.) The problem we had with this: we were losing our shirts on the deal.  Buffett at that time was a home-run king in the entire amphitheater circuit across the U.S., and thus his accounting people could demand—and so did demand—that we pay the artist back for every $15.00 discount that resulted from a Grass Pass redemption.

4.) And the redemptions on Buffett?  In our first few seasons with the Grass Pass, sometimes as many as 1,000 coupons ended up being redeemed on one of his shows—meaning, of course, that we had to write a check in the sphincter-tightening amount of $15,000 to a man that already had more money than God.

So alas and alack, we had to backtrack.  After a couple of seasons, we revised the Grass Pass rules such that sold-out shows like Buffett would no longer be eligible for redemption.  The Parrotheads squawked about this change but eventually their ire faded.  For a stretch of time afterward, though, our Grass Pass sales didn’t measure up to previous levels.  It did take some time for fans to readjust and for us to recover.

The other lawn-oriented marketing move on our part in the early days of Star Lake was the Green Circle which we originated in the early 2000s.  We hit upon the idea based on the concept of Gold Circle seating which had become very popular throughout our amphitheater network in the late 1990s, corresponding to the time that our large, family-owned parent company Pace was sold to the entrepreneurial businessman Robert F. X. Sillerman.  

One of Sillerman’s initial decrees was to aggressively scale the pricing of the pavilion seating area at the amphitheaters, and to charge an arm and a leg for the seats closest to the stage.  And that idea worked—there were always a few hundred or more cash-flush fans (law-abiding citizens as well as scalpers) who had no compunction about plunking down between $100-$200 a ticket for those tantalizing first ten rows for certain shows.

We took this golden idea and decided to go green.  We asked ourselves, what if we applied the Gold Circle approach to a central lawn position, one that had exclusive entry and that guaranteed the ticket buyer an unimpeded view of the stage?  So with pennant flags in hand we roped off a small center section of the lawn that was prime turf for viewing, and then we upped the service charges on this specific cluster of lawn tickets so that we’d have a nice little bit of boosted revenue.  To further entice Green Circle purchasers, we even added into this promotional package a coupon for a free food item and a non-alcoholic beverage.

Our Green Circle idea sprouted into some early sales success but then a few higher-level artists caught wind of our attempt here to raise a few extra shekels for the venue.  These carry-a-big-stick performers swiftly sent word through our company’s booking department channels that they would no way, no how permit us to include them in our local Green Circle initiative.  

We were not surprised.  To us, this was just another promoter-and-artist dance that was part of the ever-funky fun of being in the live entertainment business: 1) We’d think up a novel, occasionally under-the-radar idea to make a little more money for the venue, and then 2) the superstar-level artist would find out about it and demand that we give them all or most of this incremental revenue, OR they would insist that we just shut the damn thing down.

The Green Circle was a great idea and a hard concept to let go of, but we eventually did due to these artist constraints and a few other contributing factors.  If memory serves (though it’s a bit hazy) I think it was the summer after we abandoned the Green Circle idea that the Dave Matthews Band rolled into town with an eerily similar program—and of course DMB kept 100% of these funds for themselves.  I can’t honestly say if they appropriated our idea or not; they might have hatched it themselves, though we also thought they might have been aware of our program from a previous visit.  Whatever…we were all just pretty forlorn with this reminder that we had abandoned a once-promising extra-revenue idea spawned from our lawn.

[A postscript re: the above paragraph...At some point down the road from our early-days’ Green Circle attempt, Live Nation reinstituted the Star Lake program with modifications including moving the roped-off section to one side of the lawn instead of its previous front-and-center location.  In 2024, this side area is now part of a “reserved lawn upgrades” program at the facility and includes free rental of a lawn chair.]

 

 

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Posted 4/7/24....MY BEAUTIFUL REWARD(s)

The other day I scrolled through the photos on my phone and found a few shots from a handful of concerts I attended between the beginning of Summer 2016 and the advent of Fall 2017, and memories flooded over me.  Here are six amazing concerts that are lodged in my memory banks, ones that get my endorphins poppin’ up all over again....

June 21, 2016: Co-headliners Sting and Peter Gabriel in Columbus and Philadelphia

A dream matchup came to fruition in 2016 when Sting and Peter Gabriel launched their 21-date Rock Paper Scissors tour in June in Columbus, Ohio.  In an interview in January of that year at his Real World Studios, Gabriel explained how he and Sting had happened upon the tour’s title: “Rock-paper-scissors came up—rock, we make some music; paper, they made an offer we couldn’t refuse; and after we do the business, we cut away.  We’re going to be happy and smiling, and really enjoy the whole experience.”  

Their compatibility was abundantly clear, which I was lucky enough to witness two times.  I saw the tour’s kickoff show in Columbus on June 21 and the Philadelphia concert on June 26, and the shows were a meld and a marvel.  Running time was about three hours, the stage was populated by fourteen talented musicians a significant part of the time, and the co-headliners brought as many as fifteen songs each to the evening’s setlist.  

A snippet of the review from the New Jersey and Lehigh Valley news website nj.com captured the essence of this star-powered collaboration quite nicely: “Two, hit-soaked sets were intertwined to shape a sprawling, singular performance project…Neither of the stars left the stage for long; while one rocked a few of his tunes with the shared band, the other often supplemented the jam, or even took lead to add a new wrinkle."  [editor’s note: the not-that-thrilling videoscreen headshots are mine; the black-and-white photo of the two headliners onstage in Columbus was taken by Gabriel’s bassist Tony Levin.]

 

 ... (1979) ... (2016)

August 7, 2016: Lee Ritenour at Hartwood Acres near Pittsburgh

I first heard guitarist Ritenour upon the release of his third studio album Captain Fingers in 1977 and I was captivated by his style, a blend of light jazz with occasional tasty tangents into rock soloing.  In 1978 I started worked in Pittsburgh for WEA, the distribution arm of Warner Brothers., Elektra and Atlantic Records, and my job entailed fashioning displays in area record stores and in concert venues where WEA artists were scheduled to play.  In support of Ritenour’s appearance on the cramped little stage of The Decade, the famous hole-in-the-wall music club in the Oakland section of town, I created a backdrop for him to help promote his latest album, 1979’s Feel the Night.

The bottom photo was taken thirty-seven years later on August 7, 2016.  Some friends and I gathered together that evening to check out the guitarist’s performance at Hartwood Acres, the county park in Allegheny County, PA that each summer offers a number of concerts free to the public.  That night I came away convinced—and relieved—that instrumentalist Ritenour still had the chops, for he dazzled the small but attentive crowd quite often.  On the ballads and midtempo tunes he stuck to soft jazz--channeling forefathers such as Wes Montgomery--but thankfully he also dove into meatier material, finessing his way through some fuel-injected funk and blessedly giving rein to his tendencies to rock. 

 

     

Sept 23-24, 2016: The Thrival Festival at Pittsburgh’s Carrie Furnaces 

The Carrie Blast Furnaces Nos. 6 & 7 were once upon a time formidable producers of iron as part of US Steel’s Homestead Works operation.  Carrie’s industrial-strength reign had started in the early 1900s but by the dawn of the 1980s as the industry ebbed, the furnaces went dormant.  Then along came the Thrival Festival in 2013, with its goal--according to thrivalfestival.com—to “shine a light on the important ideas, products and entrepreneurs that are fueling Pittsburgh’s 21st century economic resurgence.”  Part of Thrival’s aim as well was to “open up the city to explore both new and old spaces for art encounters, performances, breakout sessions and workshops,” and this they certainly achieved by staging the 2016 festival’s musical component—two days, many bands—on history’s hallowed ground at the Carrie furnaces. 

I was immediately hooked on the concept of new music in such a sacred old space and ventured down to the site very early on the festival’s second morning, Saturday, September 24.  With my iPhone camera at the ready and no large crowds yet obscuring the landscape, I roved about freely for the next hour-and-a-half.  There were food stalls and brewery stands set back near the perimeter, and art installations and metallic sculptures and vendor tents scattered throughout.  As I completed the last of my several passes around the festival grounds, the music kicked in on one of the two outdoor stages that essentially sandwiched the view of the two mighty blast furnaces.  The musical attractions I caught that morning—the one-man army Chalk Dinosaur with his ripping and rippling guitar over self-programmed undercurrents of electro, funk, dance, rock and synthpop, and Brooke Annibale with her Americana-laced indie-pop—were well received by the as-of-yet sparse crowd.  

But what clearly came through to me that morning at Thrival was that Carrie was the perfect hostess.  She had invited into her “home” intriguing art installations...various eco-friendly booths...Pittsburgh’s performance art ensemble Squonk Opera with their boisterous music and surreal creations...and a whole host of disparate musical offerings on two stages including Chainsmokers, Chvrches, Thievery Corporation and many more.  The 2016 Thrival Festival turned out to be a triumph of innovation and vibrancy purposefully set against a backdrop of industrial decay.

 

 

March 13, 2017: Patti Smith at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall 

My friend Rick Sebak (a former WQED co-worker of mine) and I attended this galvanizing display of punk purity back in March 2017 and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Weekend Editor/Pop music critic Scott Mervis was there as well.  With pen (or more likely iPad) in hand Mervis churned out a string of superlatives in his day-after concert review, commenting that if a “Punk-for-Life Longevity Award” were to be presented to anyone, it should go to Smith who, Mervis said, “showed up at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland Monday night as fierce--no, more so--than she was the day she first hit the scene in 1975.”

Mervis went on to point out that Smith was touring this time on a song-to-song celebration of the 40th anniversary of her mesmerizing debut album Horses.  “These sorts of tribute shows can go a couple different ways,” he cautioned.  “Sometimes it takes your breath away.  Sometimes it’s too perfect.  Sometimes everyone seems bored with parts of it, eager to get on with the good stuff.  Rarely does anyone take the album and turn it into a living, breathing piece of performance art, but Patti Smith has always been as much an artist as a rock star, and nostalgia is not her game.”  

The mood over the aisles at the music hall never dimmed or dissipated; fans were exultant throughout, riding along with Smith on Horses standouts including “Gloria,” “Redondo Beach,” “Birdland” and the rest, and at the end, Smith tore into “People Have the Power” before returning for her encore “My Generation” and some thrashing just short of guitar smashing.  “She scraped and tugged at the strings,” Mervis wrote, “eventually ripping some off in a feedback frenzy, climaxing the most intense, purposeful performance she’s ever given here.  Because the night...belonged to Patti Smith and to Horses and to love and rage and punk and friendship and memories and dreams and the defiant refusal to ever get old or fade away.”

 

   

June 15, 2017: Sigur Rós at Stage AE in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is approximately six hours in the air and 2,803 miles away from the city of Reykjavík in Iceland.  Friends who have made this trek swear to the beauty of this land of waterfalls, glaciers, black sand beaches and lava fields, geothermal pools and the Northern Lights.  And in June 2017, Stage AE hosted perhaps Iceland’s greatest export--the music of Sigur Rós.  This group is the true ambassador of the sound and the fury, and the majesty and mystery, of this faraway land.  The band’s performance in Pittsburgh was an evening of captivating soundscapes that went from a whisper to a scream--often within the same song.

The group also played Pittsburgh back in March 2003 at the Byham Theater, and my late wife Margot and I attended that show which left us ear-battered, stunned—and grateful that we’d witnessed it.  This Byham performance was mesmerizing, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Ed Masely wrote post-show that “If Sigur Rós’ reputation rests on works of devastating beauty, the band was just as capable of rocking out its sold-out appearance, where its dynamic range was every bit as instrumental to the magic as the singer’s vocal range (which frequently soared into a bittersweet falsetto).”  

Here in Pittsburgh again fourteen years later, the jaw-dropping highs and lows of sound and spectacle were undiminished.  Beaver County Times entertainment editor Scott Tady in his follow-up review singled out “the haunting, cinematic sound” of lead singer Jón Bór "Jónsi" Birgisson’s violin bow work across his guitar’s strings and also praised the band’s lighting effects as living up to the hype.  But Tady also candidly admitted to moments when his thoughts wandered because, for example, the substance of the songs was not one that bore the “usual” lyrical hooks.  But each time he was quickly drawn back in.  “Sigur Rós always snapped me back to attention and wonderment,” Tady recalled, “when they'd hit a passage of sheer intensity, with pounding drums and artful guitar and that elegant, hypnotic singing voice.”

 

 

[below; Rick Sebak introduces Sheryl Crow; Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar with Lance Jones & Mary Ellen Call]

 

September 16, 2017: Farm Aid at KeyBank Pavilion (now the Pavilion at Star Lake)

For the first time since its inaugural stop at Post-Gazette Pavilion on September 21, 2002, Farm Aid’s annual fundraising and awareness-heightening concert returned to the newly-rechristened amphitheater—KeyBank Pavilion--on September 16, 2017.  Back in 2002 I was the general manager of the facility and had been quite fortunate, through the experience of prepping for and hosting the event, to have carved out a friendship with two of the principals of Farm Aid, Carolyn Mugar and Glenda Yoder.  

After the dust had settled on Farm Aid’s encore visit in 2017—an event which I attended this time as a fan, having left Live Nation some years before to work for non-profit WQED in Pittsburgh--I interviewed both Carolyn and Glenda for my blog musicasaurus.com about the goals they had set for this return to the Pittsburgh area.  I was interested, too, in hearing about their challenges and benchmarks for success in terms of the event, but quite honestly I also craved feedback on their impressions of the actual performances that day.  I think it is safe to say that the mission and the music are inexorably intertwined!

I asked Carolyn and Glenda about their favorite moments in terms of glimpsing particularly stirring performances.  Carolyn started off by talking about the onstage collaborations.  “Jack Johnson invited Nathaniel Rateliff’s band up on stage and kept them there, I believe, and Sheryl Crow was up there with him as well,” she said.  “Sheryl had Lukas and Willie up there during her set, and Lukas got Margo Price to join him.  Unrehearsed.  All of it unrehearsed.”  

I then asked them both about Neil Young, who happens to be a lifelong favorite of mine based on his questing musical soul and the fascinating directions he has taken his talent over the past decades.  I remarked that I had to leave the Farm Aid concert earlier than planned, but that I had heard from friends later on that his performance with backing band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real may have been the best they had ever seen.  Carolyn replied, “I heard that as well.  People that are real aficionados say that this was one of the best.”  And Glenda chimed in, just before the interview came to a close.  “What was funny,” Glenda recalled, “was that often the band did not know what song Neil was going to play!  I was talking afterward to Anthony, the drummer, and he said ‘We just didn’t know what was happening next!’  Can you imagine?!!  And remember, they hadn’t played together in a year or so, so it’s really remarkable.”

[ p.s. One of the photos above is of WQED’s resident documentarian & producer Rick Sebak onstage introducing Sheryl Crow.  Through my relationship with Farm Aid’s principals, I had been able to help construct a mutually-beneficial promotional partnership that benefited both parties—the Farm Aid concert received promotional assistance from WQED, and WQED received approval for an onstage announcement and some backstage artist interviews in return.

p.p.s. Here is a complete list of the performers at Farm Aid 2017 at KeyBank Pavilion (now the Pavilion at Star Lake): Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds.  Additional artists included Sheryl Crow, Jack Johnson, The Avett Brothers, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Jamey Johnson, Margo Price, Blackberry Smoke, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Valerie June, Insects vs Robots and Blackwood Quartet.  AND...care to donate to this worthy organization?  www.farmaid.org ]

 

 

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Posted 3/24/24....DRAW THE LINE

I purchased an interesting book a while back while out doing my part for the economy--poring over piles of clearance items in one of the bookstore chains that thankfully in the last handful of years emerged from life support.  I knew I could give the book a good home; better on my coffee table than laying around like a homeless-but-hopeful puppy in Barnes & Noble.  This 12.8” x 10.7” book is a six-decades look at the evolution of live music posters entitled Classic Rock Posters: Sixty Years of Posters and Flyers: 1952 to 2012.  The compilation was put together by Oakland, California poster historian and artist Dennis Loren along with music journalist Mick Farren, and they do a good job here of photo-packing and providing tidy summaries that lend significance.

Classic Rock Posters is chronological in approach--from the 1950s with the Rhythm & Blues Revues (Ruth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ray Charles, etc.) and the early Rock ‘n’ Roll shows (like Alan Freed’s cavalcades with Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, etc.), all the way through recent times with artists such as Vampire Weekend, Flaming Lips, and others.

The gist is this: Classic Rock Posters with its parade of images hits the highpoints of societal shifts, musical trends, and the marriage of creativity between the musicians themselves and the innovative design folks who wedded their instincts to the projects at hand.

Musicasaurus.com has some definite favorites from the book, so take a look:

1959: BUDDY HOLLY, J.P. “BIG BOPPER”RICHARDSON, RITCHIE VALENS, AND DION AND THE BELMONTS

Three out of four of these artists—Holly, Big Bopper and Valens--actually bought the farm all at the same time, in a February 3, 1959 plane crash while on tour together.  Unlike the blip in the news that accompanies most artists’ entries into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, entering Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven preserves adoration in amber.  And this four-artist lineup, back in ‘59, was the show to see--Holly doing “That’ll Be The Day,” “It’s So Easy” and “Peggy Sue”...The Big Bopper belting out “Chantilly Lace”...and Valens throwing in his signature tune “La Bamba” along with “Donna” and “Come On, Let’s Go.”  According to the Heritage Auctions website ha.com the national tour promoter for Winter Dance Party was General Artists Corporation/Super Productions, and the poster's graphic designer and printer was the Murray Poster Printing Co. (both entities based in New York).  Amazingly, the Winter Dance Party tour didn’t self-destruct after the loss of three of its four major attractions; according to ha.com, “the show still went on.  Through substitute talents such as Bobby Vee and Frankie Avalon, the mortally wounded Winter Dance caravan chugged its way through its remaining obligations, with all post-accident punters watching a shell of a show through moist, mournful eyes.  In retrospect, it defies belief.”

 

1967: BOB DYLAN

This poster is the work of Australian designer Martin Sharp.  Dylan was residing in Woodstock during this stretch of 1967, having had a motorcycle accident near his home, and he reportedly used this as an excuse to fade away from the public and press for a while.  The poster was a mindblower upon release.  One can see the words “Blowin in the Mind” contained in Dylan’s right eye, and below his face is written the partially obscured words “Tambourine Man.”  At first glance at the latter, though, I’m sure some Dylan fans thought he was just being his devilishly inscrutable self by placing the words “mist” and “urine” in that space.

 

 

1967: CONCERTS AT BILL GRAHAM’S FILLMORE (HISTORIC VENUE IN SAN FRANCISCO)

Legendary rock promoter and venue owner Bill Graham had on staff for a while a talented designer named Wes Wilson, and the latter loved to go all loopy with his letters, befuddling the masses and sowing doubt on eyeglasses.  The wording on this 1967 poster: top-left: Otis Rush & his Chicago Blues Band...top-right: Grateful Dead...upper-middle: The Canned Heat Blues Band...lower-middle: Fri-Sat-Sun, February 24-25-26; Fri-Sat 9pm: $3.00 / Sun 2-7pm:  $2.00...bottom of poster: at the Fillmore.  The poster to the right of this one is in Wilson’s style but was done by Bill Graham’s wife, artist Bonnie MacLean.  The musical acts spelled out: Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and The Sparrow (who eventually name-changed to Steppenwolf).  Also listed right there is “Lights by Headlights” and as The Filmmakers’ Cooperative website (film-makerscoop.com) explains, Headlights was “a multimedia liquid light show that provided visuals for some of the most iconic rock concerts of the late 1960s.”  Headlights designed the visuals for the Monterey Pop Festival as well as for individual gigs of bands like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. 

 

1968: JIMI HENDRIX

According to website posters60s.com the design artist Martin Sharp, creator of the aforementioned 1967 Dylan poster, also birthed this “Exploding Jimi Hendrix” poster.  It was based on an original photo by Linda Eastman McCartney which Sharp then more or less Jackson Pollocked into being.  The designer ended up wrestling with various iterations of this particular work through subsequent years, including a substantial tweak early in the process when he corrected his initial error of portraying Hendrix as a righthanded guitarist.  Hendrix, as the leftie he truly was, became Sharp’s most well-known version but the piece “underwent 12 iterations from the original in 1968.”  In an interview in 2013 not long before the artist’s death, the reporter who met with Sharp at his home noted that “the image of Jimi Hendrix, his guitar exploding with red-hot energy, is propped on an easel in Martin Sharpe’s cluttered dining room.”  The poster, an original from 1968, is currently listed for sale on posters60s.com with a price tag of $1,850 euros; in today’s U.S. dollars, this equates to $2.023.05.

A few other tantalizing tidbits about Sharp: According to his December 6, 2013 obit in the Guardian, the artist was also famous in music circles for writing the lyrics to Cream’s song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and for creating the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears album and the gatefold sleeve of that group’s subsequent release Wheels of Fire.  Sharp also was obsessed with Tiny Tim.  As the Guardian noted, “In London in 1968, he had attended a concert by the American singer Tiny Tim, in whose renditions of popular songs Martin saw an echo of his own reconfiguring of old masters.  He spent over a decade making Street of Dreams, a film tribute to Tiny Tim (an obsession of his that bemused and puzzled most people).”

 

 

[original draft of event poster, above left; official event poster by Arnold Skolnick, above right.]

1969: WOODSTOCK  

This iconic (not using the term lightly) bird-on-guitar-neck poster was created by New York graphic design artist Arnold Skolnick.  In the summer of 1969 he was contacted by festival promoter Woodstock Ventures to design the looming festival’s official poster—because the one they previously had chosen they now wanted to scrap.  According to an August 12, 2019 article on New England Public Media’s website nepm.org, Skolnick related that there was indeed some urgency to this request.  “They had the first poster, which nobody liked--it was called Age of Aquarius,’ Skolnick said.  “They called me in and said, ‘What do you think of this poster?’  I said, ‘Not much.’  They said, ‘Can you do another one?’  I said, ‘When do you need it?’  This was Thursday afternoon.  They said, ‘We need it Monday morning.’  So, I said, ‘Fine.’”

Some reports say that in all the years that followed, Skolnick received only one royalty check for his ubiquitous design.  He told New England Public Media’s John Voci that his remuneration was based on a percentage—which turned out to be a pittance. “Two percent of everything,” he said. “Two percent of everything was $15, according to their calculations.  I didn’t do it for the money--just solve the problem, that’s what I was doing it for.  I think about solving problems, visually.”  And how did Skolnick like the actual event?  He ended up leaving after the first day of the festival.  “Chaos.  There were so many people,” he told Voci.  “All day long, people kept coming, because they didn’t time it right.  The cars broke down.  And then I found out the rains were coming. I had no tent.  So I left on Saturday morning.  I must have damaged 50 cars getting out of the parking lot, and that was it.”

 

1970: ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL

The poster for this third year of the festival was created by David Fairbrother-Roe who had done art duties for the previous two as well.  The lineup was a mutha compared to previous years with an absolute kaleidoscope of 1960s top-tier talent including Chicago...Procol Harum...Voices Of East Harlem...Moody Blues...British folk rock band Pentangle...The Doors...The Who...Lighthouse (the one-hit-wonder whose sole hit was “One Fine Morning”)...Ten Years After...Joni Mitchell...Sly & The Family Stone...John Sebastian...Emerson, Lake & Palmer...Mungo Jerry (riding high on their washboard-strummin’ shuffle “In The Summertime”)...Jimi Hendrix Experience...Joan Baez...Spirit...Donovan...Richie Havens...Leonard Cohen...English singer-songwriter/acoustic guitarist Ralph McTell...and, billed as “special guests,” Jethro Tull.  The Classic Rock Posters authors noted here that this was Hendrix’s last live appearance in the United Kingdom.  The 27-year-old guitarist died of an overdose in London less than one month later.

 

1976: THE GRATEFUL DEAD AND THE WHO

Artist Philip Garris had some success in the 1970s communicating with the Dead.  He had already done the cover of their Blues For Allah album (1975) and Bob Weir’s side project Kingfish’s debut (1976) when promoter Bill Graham reached out to him about a new opportunity.  Graham had brought the Dead and The Who together as part of his annual “Day on the Green” concerts at Oakland Coliseum Stadium, and the two bands shared the stage--Dead first; Who closing--on two consecutive evenings October 9 & 10, 1976.  The poster is a prized one according to some auction houses, and the Dead performances from these two October ’76 shows have been preserved through the Dick’s Pick’s series of Dead recordings that have been released periodically through the years.  This one is Dick’s Picks Volume 33, and it rates quite high on Dead devotees’ lists.  Every volume of Dick’s Picks comes with a “buyer beware” advisement on sound quality, and here on Volume 33 it reads “This space is usually reserved to warn you of sound quality anomalies on these two-track recordings.  Disregard that for this Dick's Pick.  There aren't any.  It sounds great.  Enjoy."

 

1977: THE SEX PISTOLS

As Neil Young once sang, “The king is gone but he’s not forgotten / this is the story of a Johnny Rotten.”  Back in 1977 in England there was such a fuss and furor over punk-rockers the Sex Pistols’ first album that reportedly a record shop owner was called to trial on an 88-year old “indecent advertisements act.”  The issue swirled around the album’s title, Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.  One of the slang usages for the word “bollocks” is testicles, but when the hearing came up a few weeks afterward the charges didn’t stick...The above poster, designed by Jamie Reid in May 1977 to promote the Pistol’s second single “God Save The Queen,” sports a symbol of punkdom lodged in the lips of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  And that pretty much roiled the royals...In terms of the band’s longevity, Johnny Rotten and his three ne’er-do-well mates held together long enough to briefly tour the USA in January 1978 but then disbanded shortly afterward.  

 

1985: LIVE AID  

Artist Peter Blake designed this poster called “Global Jukebox” for the multi-venue, multi-city Live Aid event in 1985, the first truly global concert.  The performances ran simultaneously in Philadelphia at JKF Stadium and in London at Wembley Stadium (both broadcast live by MTV), and empathetic artists from around the world engaged in concert appearances in their own locales on the same day, benefiting the same cause.  Blake is perhaps best known for his co-designer status on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Live Aid concerts were born of a desperate desire to ease a raging Ethiopian famine, and they were the brainchild of British musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure.  If you ever want to have a chills-up-the-spine reading experience, pick up Geldof’s 1986 autobiography Is That It?  Over 50 pages of the book are specifically devoted to the momentous tasks-at-hand and the subsequent accomplishments of the Live Aid event.  It is a tale of a righteous cause and one man’s force of will. 

 

1995: NINE INCH NAILS  

This poster pushes a NIN show at Detroit’s outdoor amphitheater Pine Knob, and it was created by concert-art designer Mark Arminski.  His work is touted as a link between the 1960s psychedelic poster-art era and modern rock sensibilities circa the 1990s.  Arminski is one of the artists featured in another concert-art book if you’d like to go down that particular path--Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion by Paul Gruskin and Dennis King, which contains photos and information on 1,600+ rock posters and flyers from the late 1980s through the early 2000s.

 

1997: PINK FLOYD

I dove into the various Pink Floyd entries that are in the book Classic Rock Posters and ultimately decided to take a crack at this one.  Hipgnosis was an English graphic design company that came together in 1967 when artists Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell teamed up, and the firm’s work for Floyd was born of Thorgerson’s high-school friendship with the band’s Roger Waters.  Hipgnosis plunged into a variety of areas including album art design, and in addition to numerous Floyd covers they produced iconic works for Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, 10cc, Genesis, Brand X, Renaissance, ELO, Bad Company, Caravan, Wishbone Ash and many more.

Thorgerson in his book Mind over Matter: the Images of Pink Floyd, explains how the above promotional poster came about: “...we were commissioned to advertise the back catalogue of Pink Floyd in 1996.  There’s an incredible sense of humour in the Floyd camp, and they decided that the back catalogue should be literally, the catalogue on the backs...The covers were originally going to be painted on the backs of boys and girls, but that presented us with a problem, because each back is representing an album cover, and album covers are all the same size and shape.  We needed uniformity, and girls’ and boys’ backs are obviously quite different.  We had to choose one or the other, and we chose girls--probably because we’re boys.  It is a questionable thing on a PC level, and the photo has received some critical observations--most particularly by my partner.  But most women I’ve shown it to don’t mind it.  I just think that girls’ backs are more elegant than men’s backs, and I was going for elegance and shape here.”

 

2011: PRIMUS

What in the waterworld is going on with this one?!!  I am not sure of the tie-in between the prog-funk-metal band Primus and a mechanical fish but the poster does host a beautiful collage of lettering on the body of the beast.  The poster relates to Primus’ October 7, 2011 appearance at Stage AE in Pittsburgh.  The artist who designed the poster is Alan Hynes, a Dublin-born and now San Francisco-based graphic designer who handles a corporate client workload in addition to tackling specially commissioned screen-printed concert posters for a variety of artists.  Acts he’s worked with include but are not limited to Jack White, Sigur Ros, Queens of the Stone Age and The Black Keys.

 

2011: RADIOHEAD

Emek is the designer of the mood piece above that was commissioned for Radiohead’s September 2011 two-night engagement at Roseland Ballroom in NYC.  Born in Israel in 1970 and raised in California where his boyhood home was filled with art, Emek gravitated toward Dad’s old rock posters.  In our guide for this post, the book Classic Rock Posters, Emek speaks about how he came to fully appreciate the enduring value of concert posters as an art form: “It was in the days after the L.A. Uprising in 1992...It was for a unity rally and concert held on Martin Luther King Day.  People started stapling (the poster) to burnt-out buildings, and newspapers carried the image.  It was then that I realized that the posters illustrated a historical event, and they were in the moment, bold, and important.  Suddenly, the idea of the poster as something wholly dispensable, printed to promote a friend’s punk band, and left to flap in the wind after the show, seemed myopic.  Posters are the people’s art.  So, why shouldn’t a limited-edition silkscreened gig poster be an art form more worthy of a living room wall than a telephone pole?”

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________________

Posted 3/10/24....WE GOT THE BEAT

 

   

Bloggers find inspiration in a multitude of ways when it is nearing time to post.  Often ideas on subject matter come to me in a single flash, thankfully, but this time it was a couple of things that stirred me to focus on drummers: 1) I was recently listening to The Clarks’ song “On Saturday” from their 2002 album Another Happy Ending, and the track begins with vocalist Scott Blasey floating out a single word— “Drums!”--before that instrument then kicks the song into life.  2) The other bit of serendipity happened recently as well.  My partner Mary Ellen and I were in Sarasota, Florida and one evening near dusk we found ourselves on the beach at Siesta Key where, every Sunday evening, there is a drum circle.  It was a percussive paradise with revelers jammin’ and gesticulatin’ to the beat--and so that was it.  I now had a subject nailed down for my looming March 10 blog post.

I decided to reach out to friends and peers who were (or still are) inexorably connected to music in order to get their thoughts on drummers.  Specifically, their thoughts on which drummers stand head and shoulders above the rest (when they’re not sitting on their stools).  To get a sense beforehand of which drummers have been lauded for their skills in a much wider forum, I turned to Rolling Stone magazine and unearthed their March 31, 2016 critics’ poll entitled the “One Hundred Greatest Drummers of All Time.”  Nineteen critics had weighed in, and the survey article warned at the outset that these folks “used rock and pop as our rubric, so a drummer’s work needed to directly impact that world (as we define it, of course) to make the list.  This meant leaving out dozens of essential jazz artists such as Max Roach and Roy Haynes, whose innovations inspired many of the players you’ll read about below.”

There were no such restrictions when I polled our southwestern PA musicians, radio brethren, etc.  I simply asked this question: “Who do you consider your favorite drummer of all time?  

Our respondents included the following...musicians and/or singer-songwriters: Billy Price, Joe Grushecky, Scott Blasey and Josh Verbanets...folks currently with, or formerly working for, over-the-air and/or online Pittsburgh music stations: Val Porter, Jimmy Roach and Steve Hansen, Cris Winter, Jim DeCesare, Larry Gerson, Steve Acri, Jim Cunningham and Bryan Sejvar...entertainment/music critics: Scott Mervis and Scott Tady...past and present live entertainment promoters: Ed Traversari and Morgan Nicholson...designer/curator of the website Pittsburgh Music History: Paul Carosi...and select individuals who play instruments: Joe Decker and Stacy Innerst (drums); Sharon Steele (principally clarinet).

One more thing: before launching into their selections, I wanted to highlight the top twenty drummers from the aforementioned Rolling Stone survey of one hundred.  This will help us take note of the music magazine’s absolute top of the heap, and any and all selections that have coincidentally mirrored those of our contributors.  

#20: Bernard Purdie

#19: Tony Williams

#18: Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste

#17: Terry Bozzio

#16: Bill Bruford

#15: Buddy Rich

#14: Ringo Starr

#13: D.J. Fontana

#12: Charlie Watts

#11: Benny Benjamin

#10: Stewart Copeland

#9: Al Jackson, Jr.

#8: Mitch Mitchell

#7: Gene Krupa

#6: Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks

#5: Hal Blaine

#4: Neil Peart

#3: Ginger Baker

#2: Keith Moon

#1: John Bonham

And now, drum roll, please...

BILLY PRICE

In soul music, setting time and maintaining it with a steady pulse is everything: that’s why the drummer is the most important member of a soul band.  A singer needs to be able to rely on a stable, reliable, and predictable rhythmic foundation.  The slightest deviation can be disruptive.  The paradigmatic timekeeper of soul music was Al Jackson, Jr., drummer of Booker T and the MGs in Memphis, who recorded on most of the records usually associated with the classic era of Stax-Volt Records.  Jackson’s greatness had as much to do with what he didn’t play as with what he did.  Timekeeping was always primary, and his drumming is a primer on economy and restraint.  These qualities are evident on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”  But this is not to suggest that Jackson couldn’t dial it up when he had to: listen to “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” or “Try a Little Tenderness,” also by Redding.  Jackson’s role as the Memphis timekeeper overlapped with that of his contemporary, Howard Grimes, who carried the mantle into the 1970s on recordings by Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and others after Jackson’s death. 

A drummer produced my new album, Person of Interest, which is scheduled to be released on Little Village Records in August.  Tony Braunagel played for years with Bonnie Raitt and now leads Taj Mahal’s band, the Phantom Blues Band.  Tony (and I hope people will agree, Person of Interest) is right on time.

JOE GRUSHECKY

I always have difficulty narrowing a discussion of musicians down to a favorite because I have been influenced and entertained by so many.  I love the groove, so I am attracted to the “feel” of the music way more than “chops.”  I loved the late great Charlie Watts because he could swing.  He kept the “roll” in Rock ‘n’ Roll.  I love Ringo.  He played great parts and he could also swing.  I recently played with Mighty Max Weinberg, and he was fucking great.  Al Jackson, Jr. was a favorite.  When I recorded with Steve Cropper, he said that Al was the best drummer in the world.  One of my faves now is Steve Jordan.

SCOTT BLASEY

My favorite drummer is from Fayette County!  Vinnie Colaiuta was born in Brownsville, PA.  He’s a renowned session musician and has toured with Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and most notably,for me, Sting.  Vinnie was the drummer on four Sting albums and tours including my favorite, Ten Summoner’s Tales.  His drumming on the song “Seven Days,” in 5/4 time, is amazing.

JOSH VERBANETS 

[his band Meeting of Important People has a vinyl release show at Thunderbird Cafe & Music Hall on March 22]

My favorite drummer of all-time would have to be the one and only Keith Moon!  Not so much for his off-stage antics and all of that lore...but more his truly unique energy and approach to playing which sounds absolutely nothing like a “real drummer” as we know it.  I don't believe there is any other drummer from that British invasion/“classic rock” era that comes close in terms of Keith's playful sing-songy approach to drumming.  Favorite Keith moments would have to be some of the early pre-Who demos when they were known as the High Numbers, crazed playing on Motown classics like “Leaving Here” and “Baby Don't You Do It”...just unlike anyone else.

VAL PORTER

I’d have to say Alex Van Halen.  And maybe that’s just because Van Halen is my all-time favorite band.  “Hot For Teacher” might be the song that comes to mind for most people when they think about Alex Van Halen’s performances.  But anytime I hear “Mean Street” from Fair Warning, I’m air drumming!  When I listen to Van Halen, there might be almost as many times I notice the drums as much as I notice the guitar.  And the big, arena rock drum kit setup with the gong?  Classic!  Love it!

JIMMY ROACH

My guy is Pittsburgh native Russ Kunkel.  He has been ubiquitous on recordings for 50 years, sort of a one-man Wrecking Crew.  It’s tough to pick individual tracks because his strength is his ability to give each track what it needs, not to showcase his licks.  As David Crosby told me, “Russ is our favorite drummer because he doesn’t try to beat the fuzz off a new pair of antlers.”  His work is heard on just about every record to come out of Laurel Canyon from the ‘60s and ‘70s--Joni, Jackson Browne, Crosby and Nash, Linda Ronstadt, as well as James Taylor, Carole King, Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon, etc.  An amazing talent.

STEVE HANSEN

Favorite drummer, eh?  Isn’t that a bit like going into a house and picking out your favorite I-beam?  As important as drummers are to rock (and jazz and most every type of music other than Christian) am I really supposed to notice them?  I am aware when a drummer ties himself into a knot trying to sing into a mic while simultaneously keeping the beat but not in a good way.  When an actual drummer, Phil Collins, went on tour he hired another drummer to do the actual drumming.  And weren’t drum solos invented so that we knew when to go to the bathroom?  I mean, if you actually do notice a drummer during a show isn’t it for the reason in this video? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItZyaOlrb7E [editor’s note: this video is of Steve Moore, The Mad Drummer] ... My answer then would have to be the same as David Crosby when Little Jimmy Roach asked him what made Russ Kunkel such a great drummer: “He doesn’t pound the horsehide off the antlers.”  Or my answer to favorite drummer could be the first time I was aware of a drummer on a record, which is also perhaps the last time I was aware of a drummer on a record--Sandy Nelson on “Let There Be Drums.”

CRIS WINTER

There’s only one in my humble opinion: “The Professor” Neil Peart of Rush.  I have been a Rush fan since high school.  The intricacy of their music, the unique vocals and the lyrics were always deep and impactful.  Who else could write lyrics about the conflict of life’s struggles through the eyes of “The Trees”--that’s Neil, writing all of the band’s lyrics.  WOW!  While the band didn’t have a large contingency of female fans, the first time I saw them live--in the early ‘80s--Neil blew my mind.  Holy smokes!  He sat among a massive drum kit the likes that I had never seen before.  The kit completely surrounded him and trust me it wasn’t for show!  Somehow when he drummed, his arms magically would hit each and every drum--he was like an octopus.  He had to be exhausted.  And his drum solo was off the charts magnificent!  One of the few drummers who deserved that solo spotlight.  It was at that moment that I knew I had witnessed a unique and remarkable talent and one who has influenced so many others to pick up the sticks.  I’m still sad we lost him so young. 

JIM DeCESARE

My favorite drummer?  Are you kidding?  That's like asking a Radio guy which song is his favorite.  Impossible.  There are great drummers, popular drummers, influential drummers and highly sought-after session drummers.  While Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich were flamboyant and extremely popular for their time, they were also highly influential.  The more modern-day popular group would be Phil CollinsBill BrufordCarl PalmerTerry BozzioRingo StarrJohn Bonham and Michael Shrieve.  Highly sought-after session drummers include the late Jeff PorcaroSteve GaddPeter Erskine, Hal Blaine and Sheila E.  And all of that doesn't cover the Jazz world.  If I have to pick one, just one, it would be Neil Peart.  He embodies all of the above.  Probably the most serious of the bunch.  While most drummers just FEEL the music and try to be creative, or provide a time signature beat, Neil is a true percussionist.  He has studied the rudiments, the history, musicology and methodology.  Mainly, his drum tracks with Rush are epic.  All of the above are great, but Neil is a musician's musician.  Many of the others mentioned would probably choose him as well.  Which Neil Peart song is my favorite?  All of them.

LARRY GERSON

Tough one!  Lots of great Rock drummers.  Here's four of my favorites.  The first two I can pick out just by their distinctive sound.  Charlie Watts, solid, not flashy, jazz influence with a driving rock beat that drives the song.  "Get Off My Cloud, ""Live with Me."  Ginger Baker, African rhythm, powerful Rock drummer, impressive solos.  "Sunshine Of Your Love."  The Band's Levon Helm, the best singing drummer!  "Up On Cripple Creek."  Little Feat founding member Richie Hayward, unusual feel & style with a great blues shuffle.  Teamed up with Sam Clayton & Kenny Gradney, an unbeatable rhythm section.  "Waiting For Columbus" is all you need to hear!

STEVE ACRI

Well, you’ve asked a loaded question so I’ll give you some loaded answers.  Based on my specific musical tastes I will categorize them as Rock and Prog/Fusion.  In the rock realm, with 60+ years of listening behind me, I’ll go with my friend Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick.  I’ve been listening to him for nearly 50 years and his style is an amalgam of his own influences: Ringo, Charlie Watts, Mitch Mitchell, and Dave Clark.  Thus he covers many of my own favorites over time.  His feel, timing, and knowing when NOT to play are amongst the best.  I’d be remiss to not mention Ian PaiceRichie Hayward and BJ Wilson as well.  Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan album contains many great drumming moments from Bun E, particularly his intro to “Ain’t That a Shame.”  In regard to Prog/Fusion drummers, Bill Bruford is the man for me.  I’ve seen him play with Yes and King Crimson and I own virtually everything he’s released, and his approach and invention are simply stunning.  And he always moved forward.  My introduction to him was 1971’s The Yes Album and it tells you pretty much what he is all about.  But his playing on “One More Red Nightmare” from King Crimson’s Red album still knocks me off my feet every time.  And his last jazz band, Earthworks, was also quite good.  Honorable mentions to Billy CobhamCarl PalmerPhil Collins and Terry Bozzio.

JIM CUNNINGHAM

It’s in the engine room.  The force that pushes everything forward.  Impossible to name the best drummer ever.  Ludicrous!...All the drummers with the Pittsburgh Symphony were amazing: Andrew Reamer, Jeremy Branson, Christopher Allen and timpanist Edward Stephan (Andy is a comedian at the annual Thanksgiving Concert at Heinz Hall and a drum manufacturer shipping his instruments around the globe from Pittsburgh)...There was The Who’s Keith Moon battling a generally depraved lifestyle kicking his drum kit over at the end of shows like Live At Leeds.  I heard Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo where he thrilled with Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You, Baby.”  Nick Mason lit his Chinese Gong in a ring of fire during “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” at War Memorial auditorium in Buffalo and at the Civic Arena too...Who could forget Ginger Baker with Cream and his overlong solo in “Toad,” always nice for the deejay taking a break for a sandwich in the control room.  Baker’s polyrhythmic ability to play jazz and his madness are part of the era...

As a Beatlemaniac I’d like to put Ringo at the top of the list for his astonishing contribution to the joy of music and especially since he toured Carnegie Mellon University with Maureen and his daughter looking at colleges, and his return to town spreading peace and love with his All-Starr Band at Station Square, Heinz Hall and more...Charlie Watts was the man with the elegant three-piece suits at the drum kit and a quiet good nature for the Rolling Stones.  Oh my, what a fabulous jazz drummer too...and Roger Humphries, who as a young guy played on Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” for Blue Note records and many other essential jazz classics.  No one has worked harder on the scene in Pittsburgh.  A gentle giant, teaching at CAPA and providing an example of how to live a musical life, sharing everything, working endless late hours.  I listened and watched him up close in a live WQED-FM broadcast at the Carnegie Museum of Art Sculpture Garden's summer concerts in 2023.  Roger was so gracious in the interview with humility remembering his tours with Ray Charles, being the subject of a dissertation, receiving a PHD and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust legend award, and asking if he could get a copy of the gorgeous coffee table book Spirit to Spirit which features Roger prominently.  Roger is Number One. 

BRYAN SEJVAR

Favorite drummer has to be Neil Peart of Rush (no surprise to anyone who knows me!).  Not only does he have the technical chops, but there is a musicality to how he put his drum parts together.  He was always listening to the music and adding the appropriate style of fill or beat to the music.  And since he was the lyric writer in the band, his drumming often reflected what was being sung.  For example, adding a dance beat behind a lyric that references dance music.  It’s those little details that always impressed me about his playing.  Plus, Rush might have been one of the only rock shows where the audience stayed in their seats for the drum solo!!  I have to go with “La Villa Strangiato” as my reference track--a 9-minute instrumental that weaves through all types of styles and tempos. 

SCOTT MERVIS

This is always tough because I love the tumbling chaos of Keith Moon, but I have to go with John Bonham, because when you hear Bonham you can know it’s Bonham in one beat.  So many have tried to replicate his sound.  So many have fallen short.  Along with the steady, sheer power he’s known for, Bonzo added a complexity gleaned from jazz greats, resulting in him becoming the driving force and lead instrument of so many Led Zep classics (notably “Rock and Roll,” “Kashmir” and “When the Levee Breaks”).  Whether he was locked in with Jimmy Page or playing off of him, he was the backbone in the chaos.  Had tickets for the tour they canceled when he died.  Best concert I never saw.

SCOTT TADY

My favorite drummer is Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (as well as Asia).  One of those virtuoso guys who makes it look effortless live.  Palmer's playing is flashy, propulsive, and strident at keeping the ELP engine rolling.  Had the honor of interviewing him, too, and it was obvious how passionate he is about drumming.  The list of essential Palmer tracks begins with "Karn Evil 9" (I pity the fool not "playing" air drums along with him).  Another is "Tank," with all kinds of zesty bursts and clever drum thwacks.  Allow "Tank" to sequentially roll into the hit "Lucky Man" to savor some of Palmer's finest fills.

ED TRAVERSARI

Wow.  This is a very difficult question since I like different drummers for their different styles, however I would say when it's all said and done I would go with Steve Gadd.  His style and groove is so unique and heard on so many records.  I've enjoyed him on many projects over the years including his time with James Taylor and Paul Simon, but probably the best is his drumming on Aja by Steely Dan.  My runners ups are: Buddy RichRingo Starr and Keith Moon.

MORGAN NICHOLSON

My favorite drummer’s name is John Hall.  He’s the lively, smiling face behind the kit of a band EVERYONE should be listening to right now, The Red Clay Strays.  At first the singer draws you in, but you fall in LOVE with this band because of the drums.  The live experience is captivating.  John is smiling the whole time, bouncing up and down to the beat with his long red hair flowing to their smooth-as-butter sound.

PAUL CAROSI

Two men who come to the top of my mind as most talented and impactful drummers are a duo gentlemen rhythm masters with Pittsburgh roots: the Bern and the Byrd...A native of Sharon, Pa and graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Bernie “The Bern” Dressel toured with the Brian Setzer Orchestra over 15 years and recorded on four of their albums and two Grammy winning singles.  He later recorded several Grammy albums with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.  The Bern has also recorded with David Byrne, Brian Wilson, Michael Feinstein along with dozens of other artists.  He has performed on scores of movie and television soundtracks.  His work has been honored with awards from Modern Drummer and Drum Magazine...Ron "the Byrd" Foster, a native of Pittsburgh's Mt. Oliver neighborhood, became known on the national blues scene in the 1970s touring with and recording on five albums with blues guitar master Roy Buchanan.  During the 1970s and 1980s Byrd recorded with the Igniters (Atlantic Records), Sweet Lightening (RCA), the Silencers (CBS/Precision) and the Iron City Houserockers (MCA).  During the 1990s and into the 2000s Foster recorded with bluesmen Billy C. Wirtz and many others working at Kingsnake Studio with owner Bob "Rattlesnake" Greenlee and guitarist Warren King.  Foster recorded on over 36 releases.  He was a much in demand session player and live performer who energized and elevated every band with his strong steady beat.

JOE DECKER

My nomination for "favorite drummer of all time"--if I had to pick only one (and I guess I must)--would be the 17-year-old who started playing with Miles Davis in 1964, revolutionized jazz drumming, and then formed the famous jazz-rock group "Lifetime"--Tony Williams.  His conception of the drum set was a leap from "hard bop" rudimental swing into a more freeform, driving, splashing, exploding collage of colors, cymbals, hi-hat splashes and time stop, start and bending.  He also was an incredible technician, in his later years commanding a massive canary-yellow Gretch set such that you could not take your eyes off him.  Saw him many times, and actually interviewed him once in 1975 in Syracuse.  A great example of his free-form powerful soloing can be heard on the 1965 recording "Agitation" on Miles Davis' album entitled ESP.  My absolute favorite display of his creativity and intuition in a quartet setting with other geniuses, including his innovative use of hi-hat and stop time, can be heard on "Oliloqui Valley," a 1964 Herbie Hancock record on Blue Note featuring Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter.  Listen to the whole tune and hear its intense development, especially in the trumpet solo.

STACY INNERST

The king of groove, Steve Gadd.  Of all the jaw-dropping drummers out there, he is the jaw dropping-est, in my book.  I first heard him playing with the band Stuff in the ‘70s, then famously on Aja with Steely Dan.  I’m not really a drum solo guy for the most part and speed doesn’t really impress me that much, but when he solos he’s wringing everything that you can get out of a drum kit.  I’ve been enamored with various players at various times for various reasons but he is the one that keeps percolating to the top.

SHARON STEELE

In the heyday of jazz, Pittsburgh was a formidable place for traveling musicians because there was so much resident talent.  The saxophonist Hill Jordan said that in Pittsburgh, “a guy might jump off a garbage truck and play you off the stage.”  Art Blakey thrived in that epic scene.  He was one of the shapers of the “Pittsburgh sound,” meaning a combination of swing and blues with strong, driving percussion.  Blakey was also known for cultivating young musicians and giving them a platform for creative freedom.  Numerous jazz icons came up through the various iterations of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  Just one of many examples of this is pianist Bobby Timmons, who wrote the song “Moanin’.”  In another Messengers album, Blakey launches the whole band into a wild ride over the sand dunes in “A Night in Tunisia.”  I mean, come on, you can’t deny the power of his drumming. 

p.s.  Head right on over to the tab on this website called Building A Mixtery for a list of YouTube links to songs that feature some of the “favorite drummers” mentioned in this post.  And thanks to all of the music folks above who contributed to the survey!  http://musicasaurus-com.securec56.ezhostingserver.com/mixtery.php

 

 

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Posted 2/24/24....IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS

 

Twenty years ago I was the general manager of the Post-Gazette Pavilion (now the Pavilion at Star Lake), the full-size amphitheater serving southwestern Pennsylvania.  When the amphitheater was truly crankin’ in its first decade of existence, 1990-1999, we averaged about 40 shows per summer but by our fifteenth season in 2004 our show counts were in the 30s.  But our overall profitability never ebbed because of lessons learned related to booking: we needed to stay in the lane of quality and pump the brakes on our preoccupation with quantity.

Also tremendously important to our business: venue sponsorship.  Negotiations to land an artist at our facility included paying them a guaranteed sum of money whether ticket sales soared or death-spiraled, and though we always hoped and prayed we’d sell enough tickets to cover all costs, in a lot of instances it was the ancillary revenue from popcorn and parking that saved our ass.  Some artists who had ascended the mountaintop such as Jimmy Buffett even picked our ancillary pockets--because they could.  The deals we had to fashion in those few cases allowed the artist to additionally dip into our facility’s food, beverage and parking revenue at the end of the day.  Our venue’s sponsorship income, however, remained sacrosanct.

With sponsorship revenue so vital to our bottom line we loaded up our venue with sponsors of all kinds in our formative years, and through each successive summer we continued to creatively concoct new sponsor opportunities to keep amassing these funds to fuel our success.

Post-Gazette Pavilion was in its 15th year of existence in that summer of 2004.  We were mature by outdoor amphitheater standards, having kept pace (by and large) with facility upkeep and improvements while building up and nurturing an audience, all the while uncovering new revenue streams to keep the parent company happy--or at least off our backs.  In the sponsorship realm we religiously stuck to our unified scramble each winter and spring to renew the previous year’s sponsor relationships, and of course we kept angling for the new money out there dangling...

To all the music fans who ventured out to shows at Post-Gazette Pavilion in 2004: welcome to a stroll down memory lane.  The following is a list of venue sponsors who lined our two main plazas and walkways, some positioned near the main entry gates up top and most others spaced at intervals all the way down to the lowest points of the plaza near the stage.  In 2004 we had a total of 23 on-site sponsor/vendors who each paid a pretty penny for the right to showcase their wares in front of tons of concert fans on the move—those fresh through the gates on their way to their seats, others strolling early in the evening to kill time before the headliner, and still others on a mission mid-show to relieve themselves of bodily fluids or their hard-earned cash at the beer stands.

               

This first batch of sponsors will pass without much comment, as they were fairly “standard stuff” at the amphitheater back then: Best Buy (sponsor of our second stage in the west plaza).....JBL (audio electronics company who sponsored our sound technician’s mixing tent in front of the second stage).....Ebay, American Express, WPGH-TV (Fox 53), and GetGo (convenience store chain) who all had 10’ x 10’ tents for literature pass-outs and/or new customer sign-ups.....Land O’ Lakes and Smith Hot Dogs, who each had large inflatables anchored to the ground for can’t-miss visibility.....Snyder of Berlin, the Berlin, PA chip company who passed out product and coupons at our “Kids Drop-off Zone” at the top of the roadway entrance to the amphitheater.....Wheeling Island, the nearby West Virginia gambling hotspot who sponsored our open-to-the-public deck area in the west plaza.....and GMC, the automobile dealer association that sponsored our country shows who, in addition to an inflatable and a 10’ x 10’ tent for literature pass-out, displayed six cars parked in key spots in our east and west plazas.

These other on-site sponsors were a bit more interesting, as I reflect back:

        

          

Post-Gazette newspaper stands and vendor stations.....The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was our name-in-title venue sponsor, of course, and they provided their own staff to sell--usually for a buck-fifty--a recent edition of their newspaper that was wrapped with a four-page, full-color concert section specifically tailored to that night’s performer line-up.  Some artists grumbled about us giving the Post-Gazette the right to do this; they were under the mistaken impression that the Post-Gazette “wraps” would affect their own tour merchandise sales, which was...poppycock.

Bound By Design.....This company had a 10’ x 10’ tent staffed by its employees who did temporary tattoos (to paraphrase Rick James, “the kind you can bring home to motherrrr.”)

Diageo (on behalf of their distributed brands including Captain Morgan, Smirnoff and Jose Cuervo).....This sponsor had their own point-of-sale hut dedicated to Captain Morgan, and they also exercised their right to display (elsewhere in the facility) two gigantic inflatables.  One inflatable was a gargantuan bottle of Smirnoff and the other an enormous bottle of Jose Cuervo.  I remember one night James Taylor during his headlining set took note of the large liquor inflatables and spied at the same time the aforementioned GMC cars that were parked in the plazas.  He pointed them out to the audience, and then tongue-in-cheekily asked, “Is this place recommending you drink and drive?!!”

Dick’s Sporting Goods’ Sports Zone – This company sponsored two onsite games, a basketball toss and a small putting green, where fans could queue up and take their turns tossing and putting in order to potentially win store discount coupons as prizes.  I thought that the two venue staff members we had chosen to operate the games wouldn’t mind wearing shirts with the store’s logo on them, so I was sure to clarify what I meant when first telling them they were going to look like Dick’s.

FYE - This national chain of entertainment retail stores—branded f.y.e. —sold records and tapes onsite and also distributed store literature out of a 10’ x 10’ tent.  (Note: Now twenty years down the road FYE is, according to its website, “a leading specialty retailer of entertainment and pop culture merchandise stores in the United States and online at FYE-dot-com.”  Over the past two decades they diversified to stay alive, and now offer pop culture collectibles, trading cards, plush toys, gaming, anime figures, apparel, snacks—and oh yes, CDs and vinyl.)

Gunslingers – Gunslingers had a 10’ x 20’ tent usually populated with one grunge dude and one motorcycle mama doing tattoos and body piercings.

Simple Twist of Fate - This seller of tapestries, incense & beads likely came up with his company name while under the influence of the Dylan song, or maybe he simply twisted up a fatty--either way, his merchandise was popular especially at the jam band shows.

Rick’s Ranchwear – This cowpoke merchandise retailer from Youngstown, Ohio came aboard as a venue sponsor primarily for the right to set up two stocked-to-the-gills trailers, one in each of the two main plazas, at all Post-Gazette Pavilion country shows.  Rick’s Ranchwear sold cowboy hats, shirts and boots at shows like Toby, Kenny and Tim, and it sure seemed like some of our male security personnel roved repeatedly around these trailers.  And they beheld a common sight: one filly after another, garbed in knee-high cowboy boots and form-fitting cutoff jeans, primping with a newly purchased hat in front of one of Rick’s full-length mirrors.  (Note: our security team leader found that shooing was now added to his job description.)

U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company – This sponsor had a 10’ x 15’ tent for passing out samples of snuff.  Of course they didn’t peddle this cancerous commodity at kids’ shows like Britney or Backstreet; instead, at our country and classic rock shows, they served the older take-your-life-in-your-hands segment of our audience.

Jack Daniels – This sponsor had one tremendously oversized bottle of Jack (an inflatable) at five mutually agreed shows--and that sucker was blowed up real good and standin’ tall ‘n’ proud at shows like Hank Jr. and Skynyrd.

Beano’s - This is the deli condiment company and not the fart-suppression firm, FYI.  Their sponsorship deal enabled them to sample their deli condiment products at eight of our shows, cruising in one of our venue golf carts out in the parking lot areas where people tailgated.  And for two shows, Beano’s was able to have one of their inflatables placed inside our facility gates.  I honestly can’t remember what this oversized inflatable looked like, but I suspect it was one mean mister mustard.

Trojan – Employees of this company, at certain mutually-agreed shows, distributed free condoms to all takers from their 10’ x 10’ tent.  Invariably some guy would step up to the front of the line and ask for two or three, but the tent workers would always oblige (although I imagine the chorus to Aerosmith’s “Dream On” would sometimes pop into their heads).  At the conclusion of some of these shows our venue cleanup crew would find a number of still-packaged condoms on the lawn and others strewn about our parking lots.  They would even find a few on our exit lanes--and, well, I guess that’s where the rubber meets the road.

 

 

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Posted 2/11/24....ON THE RADIO

 

Radio had an overwhelming allure for a lot of us back in the heady days of the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s.  Growing up in the tailwinds of Pittsburgh—i.e., in Butler, PA, about an hour north of the 'burgh—my friends and I frequented the local Woolworth’s and G.C. Murphy’s stores all during junior high school, snatching up copies of the Pittsburgh radio stations’ weekly playlists in order to discover the newest artists that were breaking through to the bottom rungs of these holy ranking charts.

Pittsburgh’s KDKA-AM, birthed in 1920 by the Westinghouse Electric Company, was the first commercially licensed radio station in the country.  Another local station, KQV-AM, actually predated KDKA but was not commercially licensed until 1922.  Somewhere around the late 1950s both of these stations found themselves at the vanguard of rock ‘n’ roll, and they began to sandwich into their playlists—among the Sinatra songs and Como croonings—the likes of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers.

 

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By the early-mid 1960s these competing stations broadened their sounds even more.  Music from The Beatles and the Beach Boys began surfing on these airwaves joined by other new hitmakers like the Supremes, The Four Tops, the Rolling Stones, Sonny & Cher and The Dave Clark Five.  One of the landmark events during that time period—the alighting of the Beatles on our shores—proved to be a highpoint for both KDKA-AM and KQV-AM in their coverage of new music.  The stations reported in detail on the Fab Four’s September 14, 1964 concert at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, including coverage of the unyielding screams of the wildly adoring, off-their-mooring audience of teens.  A September 13, 2021 lookback article in Pittsburgh Magazine quotes a newspaper reviewer who had attended the 1964 performance: “‘A terrifying, unending high-pitched scream-shriek-wail,’ is how Kaspar Monahan of the Pittsburgh Press described the sound.  The voices of more than 12,000 screaming teens all blended into ‘one abysmal howl,’ he wrote.” 

 

Back then when the tide of new music was clearly coming upon us, some of the Pittsburgh radio talent sought yet another medium for their messaging.  KDKA-AM’s Clark Race hosted a teen show called “Dance Party” on KDKA-TV from 1963-1967, and KQV-AM’s Chuck Brinkman cranked up “Come Alive” (a similar teen TV outing) which began appearing on WIIC-TV (now WPXI) in 1966.  The shows featured local teenagers gyrating, of course, but also sported musical guest appearances from local favorites like The Vogues and Lou Christie as well as from visiting national acts like The Supremes.

The year 1967 seemed to be a pivotal one for the Pittsburgh radio airwaves.  The sounds began to morph away from middle-of-the-road, reflecting newer artists who were beginning to stake out new pioneering paths.  The aforementioned Beatles were obliterating traditional song conventions (the rules, the methods, the customs), and a whole slew of new bands began riding that wave and finding that Radio was more than ready for their embrace.

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My friends and I in 1967 were in eighth grade headed into ninth, and Radio ruled our heads and our hearts.  Sure, there were still the syrupy songs, the mainstream and the mawkish, but infiltrating this fluff was an ever-increasing number of songs from this new generation’s flag bearers.  Alongside every bit of Peaches & Herb, Ed Ames, Petula Clark, Bobby Vee and Englebert Humperdinck that would appear on the playlist, there came an increasing number of new artists whose radio debuts were making our transistor radios spark and sizzle—The Doors with “Light My Fire”...The Who’s incendiary “I Can See For Miles”...Procol Harum’s inscrutable yet hypnotic “A Whiter Shade of Pale”...The Buffalo Springfield’s rallying call “For What It’s Worth”...The Jefferson Airplane’s Grace-fueled “Somebody To Love”...and even psychedelic froth like one-hit wonder Strawberry Alarm Clock's “Incense and Peppermints."

 

Not long after the Summer of 1967 WAMO-FM in Pittsburgh kick-started the regional turn toward FM Radio as the listening choice of the new generation.  WAMO’s Ken Reeth somehow convinced his management at this established soul and R&B station to indulge him in a one-night-a-week “turn of format”—and so in that one evening per week, Reeth commandeered the airwaves as Brother Love, deejay deliverer of the new sounds from the underground.

Brother Love had a masterful, authoritative, and deliciously deep voice, perfect for spooling out the sounds of psychedelic rock that were firing up young minds across the country.  I remember sitting with my parents at an obligatory summer evening gathering in the neighbors’ back yard in 1968 and while they were roasting marshmallows to complement their hops-and-barley intake, I was in a lawn chair deflecting conversation, spellbound by Brother Love as he introduced “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to my ears—all seventeen minutes and five seconds of it.  Other FM classics followed including tunes from Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention and others.  Brother Love, as it turns out, was one of the first underground deejays in the country to emerge in this time of seismic generational shift and the rise of FM as Youth’s new soundtrack.

 

The other beacon of light back in the late 1960s was WDVE Pittsburgh, owned at that time by ABC and operating under the call letters KQV-FM—sister station to KQV-AM.  In 1969 KQV-FM began airing a company-initiated automated rock format (something it shared with ABC’s six other owned FM stations), but a year later this format was jettisoned in favor of live-deejay, free-form rock.  A year after that, the station call letters were changed and the format was tweaked again.  The new entity was christened WDVE and it was the country’s first album rock format station, one designed to concentrate on key tracks from emerging, chart-surging rock records accompanied by a noticeably reduced level of hyped-up deejay patter.

WDVE became a powerhouse of new music.  Some critics along its path toward recent times have lambasted it as a tar pit of tedium, a dinosaur that never adapted through the ages, but Musicasaurus feels a bit funny attacking a fellow behemoth so we’ll let that slide.  Suffice to say WDVE in 1971 was another key contributor in kindling a new generation’s turn toward vital new music, reflecting the era’s explosive societal changes and invariably stoking them as well.

1971 was also the year that I graduated from Butler Senior High School, packed up all my wares and cares, and went off to nearby Clarion State College.  After settling in for a week or so I swung by the college’s newspaper office between classes to inquire about writing opportunities (I had been on my high school’s yearbook staff and had picked up bit of experience in that realm).  While waiting for an available paper staff member to talk to, I discovered that radio station WCCB was just one floor above so I bounded up the stairs to check that out as well.

The scene up there just warmed the cockles of my heart.  It was a mess o’ music—albums and 45s littered the landscape; BillboardCashbox and Record World magazines splayed where they laid; and a couple of unkempt longhairs sporting a sense of purpose strode down the hallway between boxes, nearly colliding in this less-than-spacious strewn palace.

Somehow I talked myself onto the airwaves after a month or so of gopher duties, which included properly filing albums away in the station’s massive record stacks, handling some odd-job admin duties, and simply just hanging out and talking about music with the on-air and off-air staff.  Yes, THIS was the big time—becoming a deejay on Clarion State College’s carrier current radio station!  Carrier current, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to radio stations that were piped into the college dorms through the buildings’ electrical systems rather than broadcast over the airwaves.  But sitting in that chair back then, headphones on, cuing up track after track—it felt like a pretty big deal.  I guess passion trumps everything when you find a notch of fulfillment along your path.

As I neared the end of two years at Clarion I decided to break away entirely from my emphasis studies of Liberal Arts and English, and thus I set about transferring to Penn State’s main campus to enter their Journalism program in the Fall of 1973.  All my credits carried over so out of the gate I was in decent shape.  Soon after I arrived in Happy Valley, Radio lured me into another carrier current situation in my dorm complex—WHR, West Halls Radio.  Like WCCB in Clarion, this was free-form to the extreme.  There was a plethora of albums from which to pull tracks for our turntable spins, and the experience there turned out to be a bridge to Penn State’s official radio station WDFM.  

WDFM was the BSOC—Big Station On Campus.  Not a carrier current construct but a legit, over-the-air station with a 9-mile radius, enough to saturate the college and leak into the community.  Once I snared a position there I found the whole WDFM environment really amping up my interest in music.  I felt a lot more comfortable in this deejay chair, empowered by the nine-mile swath that I cut each Saturday night on my late shift (11pm – 2am).  And this was the deejay slot that apparently very few others coveted—at Penn State, Saturday night was Go-Out-And-Party Night but I was always seated, a Party of One, at the broadcast console instead.

                           

                           

I was content to sacrifice my Saturdays in this manner, and I likely saved some brain cells in the process.  I would sidestep the usual entreaties of my roommates to party for a while prior to my on-air shift, and so would head off to the station around 10:30pm, clear of mind and purpose.  Upon arrival I routinely spent about half an hour in the station’s album library, pulling together my playlist for the evening: a couple of Stones tunes, a few Beatles, and songs from other artists who were still in their infancy in terms of album output.  I would often turn to Paul Simon’s second record, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon... Bruce Springsteen’s second, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle...Gram Parson’s second (and final) album Grievous Angel....Steely Dan’s third, Pretzel Logic... Jackson Browne’s third release, Late for The Sky...Little Feat’s third record Dixie Chicken...Weather Report’s fourth, Mysterious Traveller...and Joni Mitchell’s sixth studio album Court and Spark.

           

            

Usually at that point I then reached for the esoterica.  And that was riddled all through the stacks, as various record companies often mailed out to college stations pretty much everything that they were crankin’ off their assembly lines.  So I delved into the shelves and pulled from possible obscurity a number of bands that I then peppered into my playlist—artists from Germany like experimental rockers Can, the jazz fusion outfit Passport, and prog-rockers Triumvirat...Britain’s ambient music innovator Brian Eno, psychedelic rock & jazz group Caravan, prog rockers Camel and Gentle Giant, and the glam-meets-prog rockers Be-Bop Deluxe...and then for some later-in-the-shift forays, artists and albums like Japanese musician Isao Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing and British multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Sitting there on Saturday evening I overanalyzed with abandon.  I was all about the segue—the transition of one song to the next—to sustain a mood and/or carry a theme.  My four-hour shift usually went by in a flash as I worked and reworked selections and sequencing, all in the quest to deliver a cohesive and captivating experience to whosoever was really listening out there.  My ongoing hope: strike a chord with all of these like-minded souls and in the end, maybe, have them understand me.

After I graduated from Penn State in 1975 I headed home with my journalistic sheepskin and actually attempted at various times to plunge deeper into Radio.  I “gophered” for a station in my hometown of Butler, and then one in Pittsburgh, and even tried my luck in the D.C. area—but none of these ventures led me to a paying position, nor put me back into the deejay chair.  So I shifted gears slightly while still staying true to my driving passions and started working as a clerk in a record store part-time.  My deejay dreams had been parked for good, but what a magical mystery detour it was.

And I’ll always remember that one special feeling: headphones on, very late at night, sitting serenely in a dimly-lit studio with stack after stack of albums yet to play.  The room is lovely, dark, and deep, and I have promises to keep, and these piles to go before I sleep, these piles to go before I sleep.

 

 

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Posted 1/28/24....HELP ME MAKE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT

 

I was leafing through the pages of my past the other evening...literally!  In a file folder I had apparently plopped down years ago on a desk top in the basement, I came upon a fairly comprehensive list of all of the opening acts that had played at Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre in the first decade of its existence.

That first decade--1990 through 1999--was crammed to the gills with shows.  Especially when it was still a toddler, this amphitheater which I had come to work for in 1991 sported all sorts of genres--blues, classical, comedy, Christian, jazz, pop, folk, rock, dance, and more.  Some of these shows gestated into annual events; others were, on their first day of ticket sales, tragically stillborn.  But thankfully we also had the “automatics”--early-on commercial juggernauts like Billy Joel, New Kids On The Block and Grateful Dead...the mid-decade arrivals of Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morissette...and the vaunted annual visits from exalted hedonist Jimmy Buffett and crazy train conductor Ozzy Osbourne.

As I flipped through that file folder the fact that this ten-year span produced 408 different concerts at the amphitheater--an average of 40+ shows per season--was amazing in and of itself.  But what was particularly fun to revisit and reflect upon was “the packaging,” the way the headliner/support dynamic had been, pre-tour, structured by the various artists’ managers and their booking agents.

Some artists hit the road with NO openers.  Some artists hit the road with NO-NAME openers.  Others luckily had been matched up with a synergistic support act, one that fit the genre nicely or simply had a runaway hit record at that moment in time.  Still others were convinced by their managers and/or booking agents to stretch the tour’s projected talent budget and pair up with another artist of equal footing (the thinking here was this “1 + 1 = 3” approach could potentially lead to a level of success greater than the sum of its parts).

So here are some of my observations about that first ten years of shows (’90-’99) and the magical and sometimes mystifying pairings and couplings that were sent out on the road each summer:

JIMMY BUFFETT CONCERTS

[RIP, Jimmy.]

In my years at Star Lake I consistently found the concert business to be all-enveloping.  It was my religion--and so one artist I certainly should have knelt in front of to wash his feet was Saint James.  Parrotheads flocked in record numbers to Star Lake each year throughout the 1990s, elevating Buffett to the rarified air of Homerun King.  According to the website margaritavillecaribbean.com, in the latter part of the 1970s Buffett had been labeling his music “Drunken Caribbean Rock ‘n’ Roll” but later on a lot of his fanbase rechristened it “Gulf and Western.”  The website defined the latter as combining “elements of rock, pop, folk, and country with Caribbean music” while adding in “a dash of tropics-inspired lyrical themes.”  This was the formula for Buffett’s barnstorming success throughout the 1990s at Star Lake Amphitheatre... 

Regarding his opening acts, there wasn’t a plethora of household names here.  Buffett’s warmup acts back then included Zachary Richard, Fingers Taylor & The Ladyfingers Review, EvangelineThe Iguanas, and Marshall Chapman.  And as best I can recall, Buffett sometimes opted not to fill that opening slot for he knew, as did we, that it didn’t really matter in the end.  Weren’t no one comin’ through those entry gates anyway until Buffett hit the stage.  Typically his initial whoop to the crowd would kick off the evening and kickstart the band, and the music would begin rollin’ on out from the venue’s loudspeakers up, over and into the jammed-with-humanity parking lots.  Here the Glazed and Confused were partyin’ away, and just beginning to perk up to the Parrot King’s arrival.

 

ALABAMA CONCERTS

Dale Morris of Dale Morris Associates was the individual who handled the overall bookings of country music superstars Alabama and he was nothing short of a mastermind.  Morris was unshakable in his conviction that the right time to play Star Lake Amphitheatre was ONLY once every two years or so.  He felt that by keeping out of certain markets for a year or more, this absence allowed the audience’s appetite and anticipation to build up once again.  So after the band’s inaugural visit to Star Lake in 1990, the venue’s first operating season, Alabama came back on an every-other-year basis: 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

The band’s opening acts through the 1990s varied, but Morris usually cobbled together strong support.  There was a farm team system of sorts that worked well within the country music touring business at the time.  The Nashville-based managers and booking agents like Dale Morris were always strategizing about strengthening ticket sales potential, scouring for future country stars and placing their best prospects on the undercards of their already-established headliners.  This exposure for the newbies to the fiercely loyal country music audience paid tremendous benefits down the road--and in some cases not too far down that road.  

Alabama for their September 21, 1990 show at Star Lake brought along Clint Black as one of their two support acts, and just two years later, Black was headlining his own concert at our venue.  And for their September 16, 1995 appearance at Star Lake, Alabama booked a fresh young talent named Kenny Chesney to open the show.  This really paid dividends.  Chesney was later anointed as one of the few top-tier support acts on the June 6, 1999 George Strait Country Music Festival at Three Rivers Stadium, and by 2002 it was clear that Chesney was ready for headlining status at the arena/amphitheater level.  In that year of 2002 he sold out his Star Lake show and scored again with victory-lap sellouts at the venue in 2003 and 2004.  Chesney’s pinnacle, though, came in 2005 with his first stadium-level headlining gig in Pittsburgh at the Steelers’ Heinz Field.  Unbelievably, Chesney returned to sell out Heinz Field again and again--in fact, an additional ten times after his 2005 debut.  And he’s comin’ back again on June 1, 2024.  The total number of fans that Chesney will have played in front of at Heinz Field, inclusive of his upcoming Summer 2024 appearance, is projected to top 600,000.

 

CHICAGO CONCERTS

This band played every single year from 1990 through 1999 and the reason was Howard Rose.  Rose was the booker and titular owner of a small but formidable talent agency that included artists like Chicago, Lionel Richie, Elton John and Jimmy Buffett.  The latter artist had every summer venue across the nation salivating to land him for their line-up, so Rose used this as a bargaining chip when it came time to book Chicago’s summer tour dates.

It wasn’t exactly framed or enunciated this way, but the clear message from Rose was this: “If I’m giving you Buffett, you will take Chicago--and you will be LOVING it.”  And so we did.  The fan turnout for this group was modest most years, falling somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 in attendance, but the shows themselves were usually very good.  The band members we ran across and/or intersected with backstage were easy-going and unpretentious, and they seemed perpetually grateful to be playing in front of their fans.  Chicago’s openers and/or co-headliners through the years: the Flecktones, Triplets, Moody Blues, Stephen Stills Band, Tony Janflone (Pittsburgh artist), B.E. Taylor (another Pittsburgh artist who opened up for the band on two occasions), Crosby, Stills & Nash, and The Doobie Brothers.

 

STEVE MILLER BAND CONCERTS

Here’s another ten-year veteran like Chicago, but this artist was one who brought a huge string of sell-outs to the amphitheater.  The phenomenon was somewhat mysterious: all we could figure out was that Big Brother or Big Sister had passed along to their underage siblings more than a few Millers--like Fly Like An Eagle, and Book Of Dreams--and the groundswell within this crowd of teens took a mighty hold and then multiplied right after that first show in 1990.  Steve’s openers were decent, and usually steeped in classic rock or the blues. They were also--as were the Buffett openers--pretty much inconsequential to ticket sales.  In our particular market, and practically nowhere else in our parent company Pace’s system, Miller was a ticket-moving marvel.

Chronologically through the years, Miller’s show-openers were: Lou Gramm (ex-lead singer of Foreigner), Eric Johnson (rock guitar wizard), Curtis Salgado & The Stilettos (blues-based, R&B-laced rock), Paul Rodgers (ex-lead singer of Free and Bad Company), The Doobie Brothers, Pat Benatar, Eric Johnson again, Little Feat, and George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  At this last show in 1999 with Thorogood, Miller’s fans turned out in such large numbers that the venue from the air must have looked like a geyser of humanity.  Six thousand people marched up to the venue box office that evening from 6pm through 10pm, buying tickets, wave after wave...Final attendance inside the venue: a record-setting 26,154.

 

MICHAEL BOLTON CONCERTS

Mass-appeal Michael was a white-bread warbler who was king of the Pop and Middle-of-the-Road radio playlist charts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he appeared four times during the first ten years of Star Lake.  When his career was at its zenith in 1990, Bolton appeared in concert with Kenny G and this package drew a respectable 12,000 to the venue--predominantly fans of the female persuasion.  In 1991 Bolton returned with a none-too-impactful opener Oleta Adams.  Then in 1994, as Bolton’s run of chart and record sales success began to dim, his management team paired him up for the summer with rising Canadian singer Celine Dion.  Though Dion was gaining increased popularity on the Adult Contemporary stations across the U.S., she was still three years away from the chest-pounding success of “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from director James Cameron’s titanic achievement.  This Bolton-Dion concert of 1994 ended up a sellout based on this crafty coupling of two very strong middle-of-the-road performers. 

Four years later in 1998, we heard Bolton was giving it the old college try one more time.  Though his albums were now idling if not outright stalling on the charts, Bolton was trying to mount a tour once again.  Our amphitheater booker at the time learned that Bolton’s people had centered on singer Wynonna Judd (whose nickname was “Wy”) as the tour’s opening act, and we were nonplussed.  We believed this pairing was preposterous because he was Adult Contemporary and she was Country, and in Pittsburgh especially there was no real overlap in the fan bases.  We protested to our booker, pointing out that the combination of Bolton and Wy was one that would perplex people, not prompt them to buy tickets.  As a joke that I hoped would be taken as nothing more than lighthearted commentary, I emailed the booker my idea for our local marketing campaign that would include this line: “Saturday, June 13 at Star Lake...Come experience these two artists together in concert--and you’ll be Bolton for the door, never stopping to ask Wy!”

Of course we ended up having to play the show after all.  And the paid attendance ended up at just half of the amphitheater’s 20,000 capacity.  Live and learn.

 

OTHER INTERESTING MATCH-UPS OF ARTISTS & SUPPORT & CO-HEADLINERS IN THIS DECADE:

 

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN WITH OPENING ACT JOE COCKER (June 28, 1990)

Great show but scant attendance as the heavens had poured down on Star Lake prior to gates-opening time.  There was uncontrollable flooding at the bottom of the pavilion seating area in front of the stage as we neared showtime, and the concert was almost cancelled.  But the ever-resourceful Operations staff at Star Lake soon successfully hoovered out the invasive floodwaters at the front of the stage, and the show went on (albeit running way behind schedule).

 

 

CROSBY, STILLS & NASH WITH OPENING ACT MICHAEL HEDGES (June 17, 1992) 

Opener Hedges didn’t help ticket sales at all.  Though he was a guitar genius who was classically trained and innovative in his use of slap harmonics and alternate tunings which spawned some amazing tapestries of sound, his fame unfortunately hadn’t spread.  Hedges died five years later in 1997 when his car skidded off rain-soaked roads near San Francisco and he was thrown from the vehicle as it plummeted down a cliff.  He was 43. 

 

AL JARREAU AND DAVID SANBORN WITH OPENING ACT ELLEN CLEGHORNE (August 1, 1993)

Artistically speaking, this was an appealing combination of two headlining jazz artists in their prime.  But the jazz aficionados did not turn out in sufficient numbers; we learned from this show that we couldn’t convince enough of the smoky club denizens who usually populated Pittsburgh’s nightlife to be boppin’ all the way out to Star Lake.  Opener Ellen Cleghorne was a comedian and actress, best known for her stint with Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s.

 

PANTERA WITH OPENING ACTS SEPULTURA, PHLEGMATIC AND BIOHAZARD (June 26, 1994)

We might as well have called this one “Phlegm Fest,” patterned after the vocal stylings of the various lead singers.  It was a night of highs and lows--in particular, high decibels and low attendance.

 

SANTANA AND JEFF BECK, WITH OPENING ACT KEB’ MO’ (August 8, 1995)

Two guitar gods alighted at The Lake and lit up the night.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Masley wrote this in his follow-up concert review: “Last night at the Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre, the two joined forces for a co-headlining bill that promised more guitar heroics per dollar than any other show this season.  And by the time Santana squeezed out the heart-breaking melody of ‘Europa’ nearly a half-hour into his closing set, the heroes had more than made good on that promise.”  p.s. The selection by the tour organizers of Keb’ Mo’ as the opening act did not spur extra ticket sales for this nirvanic pairing of guitar greats, but on the other hand his bluesy, rootsy performance didn’t amount to the level of an offense. 

 

SANTANA AND RUSTED ROOT (July 11, 1997)

Two years before this show took place, on the evening of May 13, Pittsburgh’s own Rusted Root--an innovative worldbeat band--sold out Star Lake with just one support act (Toad the Wet Sprocket).  The manager of Rusted Root, Rob Kos, was at this 1995 show along with L.A.-based Creative Artists Agency booking agent Mitch Rose who had routed the tour into Pittsburgh, and they both were ecstatic at the outcome.  Rusted Root’s appeal as a live act was undiminished, so this pairing with Santana on July 11, 1997 was essentially a dual headliner situation.  

 

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE WITH OPENING ACT WU-TANG CLAN (August 24, 1997)

Rage had just come off an opening slot on U2’s PopMart tour and had started up their own headlining summer outing with Wu-Tang Clan.  There was a lot of tension backstage this particular evening, as whispers abounded that this politically-charged pairing of Rage and Wu was headed for dissolution.  The tour had early on been dogged by police protests in some cities due to Wu’s sometimes violent and anti-cop song subject matter.  The controversy in some markets helped ticket sales but seemed to hinder it in others, making the show a must-see for some and a must-avoid for others.

 

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS WITH OPENING ACT LUCINDA WILLIAMS (June 23, 1999)

This was Petty’s third appearance at Star Lake in the 1990s, and his management company’s thought process at the time seemed to be one of shunning strong, strong (and thereby costly) support in order to help sell tickets.  This was the right course as this Touring Wilbury pulled in 14,590 fans on September 15, 1991 with opener Chris Whitley and sold out the venue (23,183) on August 26, 1995 with support act Pete Droge.  Ahead of his 1999 tour Petty then turned to his friend Lucinda Williams.  Although still just a cult hero in many respects Williams was riding a new wave of attention and respect from music critics and newly-minted fans based on her 1998 breakthrough album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.  

Whether the selection of Williams actually moved the needle in terms of ticket sales is debatable, but the pair blended well on the road and audience response to her was way north of the usual basic tolerance accorded to opening acts.  Petty in the future would reach out to Williams again, and in fact she was essentially with him until the end--his end.  Williams was the opening act on the last performance ever of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, September 25, 2017 at the Hollywood Bowl, the last night of the group’s 40th anniversary tour.  One week later, the singer-songwriter/bandleader suffered cardiac arrest and left us way too soon at the age of 66.

 

PAUL SIMON AND BOB DYLAN (July 18, 1999)

This combination of dual headliners worked very well for us with over 17,000 in attendance.  Internally, those of us who worked at the amphitheater remember this package of two established legends as one of the first that SFX Entertainment, our parent company’s brand new owner, had cobbled together to tour all of its newly-acquired outdoor venues across the country.  

This packaged powerhouse of a show was also notable for its high ticket prices which unfortunately soon became the hallmark of SFX owner Robert F.X. Sillerman’s approach to pricing live entertainment events.  This is a legacy that unfortunately continues to impact the concert business today.  In an obituary by New York Times music critic Ben Sisario published four days after Sillerman’s death on November 24, 2019, the author pointed out that “Mr. Sillerman’s plan transformed the concert industry even as it drew complaints, which still linger, about rising ticket prices and the outsize power of a centralized super promoter.”  Well said.  As Sisario additionally noted in this obit, SFX Entertainment in 2000 was sold to mammoth radio station group owner Clear Channel Communications...Clear Channel then spun off their concert assets into a separate company, Live Nation, in 2005...and in 2010, Live Nation merged with Ticketmaster.  With all apologies to ditsy and disgraced lawyer Sidney Powell, THIS was “releasing the Kraken.”

 

 

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Posted 1/14/24...A CHANGE IS GONNA COME

The Pittsburgh Civic Arena opened its doors to the public on September 17, 1961 with a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony and then was immediately put on ice--er, meaning that the very next event at the facility was the Ice Capades.  This touring entertainment entity featured theatrical ice-skating performances and at the Civic Arena in its inaugural year the Capades laid down for 13 straight days, September 19 through October 1.

Of course concerts early on figured in the venue’s eventual success, and from September 1961 through the end of the year, four major stars lit up the venue in separate engagements--Judy Garland, Fats Domino and Johnny Mathis, all in October, and Sammy Davis, Jr. in December.

It wasn’t until 1964 that the musical entertainment options began to open up for the Civic Arena as societal changes and cultural shifts in the 1960s began to bring about a new wave of entertainers.  So along with proven commodities like singers Nat King Cole and Robert Goulet, and variety stars like Carol Burnett and Jerry Lewis, the arena began to host musical attractions that were catching fire with a younger generation--a crystallizing counterculture--that was questing for something...different.

In fact the first musical performer with major youth appeal to perform at the arena was England’s Dave Clark Five, a rock and roll band who had formed in London in 1958.  This group, one of the first of the swelling British Invasion, had begun to dominate the USA national music charts in 1964 with hits like “Glad All Over” and “Can’t You See That She’s Mine.”  The DC5 was booked for June 5 that year and the crowd was roaringly appreciative to the point of some audience members actually clambering up onto the stage, but it was the sold-to-the-rafters September 14 concert by a group nicknamed The Fab Four that in all respects sealed the deal.  With the Beatles hitting our shores for the first time since their February 1964 television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, there was a resulting youthquake here and elsewhere around the country that just would not subside.  Newly formed bands, fueled by the drive to experiment and filled with the spirit of innovation, were mushrooming up everywhere here and across the pond.  And over time the Civic Arena, reflecting this trend, began hosting more and more new and developing artists...

Ten years down the road in 1974 the Civic Arena was still the repository for some aging stars of yore, but at that point in time the attractions routing through Pittsburgh as part of national tours were chiefly artists and bands that were born and bred in the 1960s.  Musicasaurus has dug up some tantalizing tidbits on a handful of these, with emphasis on what the newspaper reviewers of the day thought about the shows.  With pen and paper in hand these dutybound critics digested, then divulged...Enjoy.

MANDRILL - JANUARY 19, 1974 

Opening Acts: Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang

Attendance: 11,090

Mandrill was a Brooklyn-born band who formed in 1968 and were pretty funked up from the start--a multi-ethnic blend of musicians who laced Latin influences into their stew of African rhythms, rock music, and soul.  When they appeared early in the year at the Civic Arena they were on their fourth album, Just Outside of Town, which had hit record stores three months before.  With their two support acts, Ohio Players and Kool and the Gang, Mandrill managed to almost fill the arena to capacity.  

Apparently only the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s black newspaper, dispatched a reviewer to cover the show.  The publication’s drama/music critic Greg Mims was there and noted that the Ohio Players’ opening set “though only lukewarm musically, was well received.”  When middle act Kool and the Gang took the stage, according to Mims, “rows of young brothers and sisters, puberty hard on their heels, joined in an aggressive boogie to the band’s sharp horn riffs.”  Mims saved praise for Mandrill as well, extolling the band’s “driving hour long set of their most successful material” that included “Fencewalk,” “the street stompin’ hit single of last summer.” 

One other item of note:  Not only did the Pittsburgh Press not cover the show with a reviewer, apparently its editing staff didn’t care enough to proofread their brief listing of the concert in the newspaper’s “events of the week” column.  It said, “Saturday: MUSIC--Mandrill, Ohio Players, Karl and the Gang.  Civic Arena.  8 p.m.”

BLACK SABBATH - FEBRUARY 1, 1974

Opening Act: Bedlam

Attendance: 14,552 

Sabbath’s early ‘74 show at the Civic Arena was their third appearance at The Igloo after performances in 1971 and 1972.  The British heavy metal/rock band had come together in Birmingham in 1968, and through their 1970 self-titled debut they managed to perk up the public’s ears (though initially not those of the critics) in the UK as well as the USA.  Allmusic.com reviewer Steve Huey kind of nails the band’s essence and appeal: “From the end of the '60s and throughout the entirety of the '70s, the band became legendary for the doomy chemistry between its players...Sabbath's genius was finding the hidden malevolence in the blues, and then bludgeoning the listener over the head with it.”

Three months before this arena show the band released their fifth studio album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and both fans and critics applauded and lauded.  Major music publications like Rolling Stone called the work “extraordinary” and “a complete success.”  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Mike Kalina was among the wild in the crowd on that February evening, and he keyed in on the band’s ability to whip up audiences.  “The four Sabbath members worked very hard in their Arena set,” Kalina said, “particularly vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, who apparently cannot perform properly unless he’s confronted with an audience that’s going bananas.  When the fans were just on the threshold of doing so, Osbourne pushed them over the edge by harassing them for being so cool about what was going on in front of them.  Semi-chaos prevailed following his exhortation and the band was pleased with the response.  They proceeded to dig in deeper and hit the screaming, frenetic crowd with a tornado of sound.  The place went wild.  Ah, youth.”

 

YES - FEBRUARY 21 AND DECEMBER 13, 1974

This London-born progressive rock band “ruled” the Civic Arena in 1974 with two appearances, the first garnering an attendance of 14,710 and the follow-up concert at the end of the year bringing in 11,367.  Their track record in Pittsburgh remained particularly strong through the rest of the 1970s as well.  Pittsburgh Press reviewer Pete Bishop could not suppress his superlatives when he reviewed both 1974 performances, noting that keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman’s departure from the group before the second Pittsburgh date did not impact at all the band’s musical unity and level of precision.  “One of Pittsburgh’s favorite acts, Yes always has been primarily a group effort,” Bishop said in his December review, “and Wakeman’s successor, Patrick Moraz, fit in handsomely, much to the delight of an almost-packed house.”  It was apparent in both reviews that Bishop was a prog-rock fan (maybe even a prog-rock fanatic) based on the heap of praise he bestowed on the group and its musical interplay.  Bishop was especially effusive about the longer pieces from Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans (the February show) and the mixed-bag selections from CloseTales and new album Relayer (the December concert).  

RICK WAKEMAN - OCTOBER 11, 1974

1974 must have been “The Year of Yes” in Pittsburgh for there was a third Yes-related concert that landed at the Civic Arena--a solo-tour stop by former member Rick Wakeman.  The classically trained keyboard player had completed his second solo album Journey to the Centre of the Earth in May 1974 and he took to the road in North America, ending up at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena on October 11.  He had a ton of support in tow: his band the English Rock Ensemble, the 45-piece National Philharmonic Orchestra and the 16-piece Choir of America.  The Pittsburgh Press’ Pete Bishop was enamored of Wakeman’s keyboard prowess and his look--“regally messianic in white with gold trim, his die-straight hair a vertical saffron halo, he’s as striking a stage figure as popular music can offer”--but in terms of the musician’s compositional skills he concluded that overall Wakeman’s work was a case of ambitions unrealized.

ROCK AND ROLL REVIVAL WITH HEADLINER CHUCK BERRY - MARCH 23, 1974

Also on the show: Chubby Checker, Jackie Wilson, The Coasters, Johnny Maestro, and The Angels

Attendance: 9,996

This shower-of-stars type of show was cobbled together by disc jockey-turned-promoter Richard Nader, who since 1969 had specialized in putting together multi-act oldies/early rock ‘n’ roll shows for arenas and theaters usually in major metropolitan locations.  According to Pop Music Critic Mike Kalina of the Post-Gazette, this star-infused attraction was one of the more successful lineups that Nader had brought to Pittsburgh in recent years.  Kalina reported on the performances, of course, saying that Chubby Checker “wasn’t in the best voice” but gave “a high energy performance punctuated by steps from ‘the Twist’ and ‘the Pony’,” and that Jackie Wilson’s vocals “were the strongest of any act on the bill, but some fans were turned off by the contemporary mood of the arrangements--apparently they wanted a more 1950s ‘feel’ rather than that of today.”

What is most intriguing about Kalina’s review of this March 23, 1974 Rock and Roll Revival is his encapsulation of what happened when Chuck Berry walked out to begin his set.  It was something music fans aren’t usually exposed to--a searing outburst from the headliner that completely savaged the promoter of the show.  In Kalina’s words: “Berry, the last act to go on, told the crowd as he took the stage he would not work for Nader again because of a hassle he got into with the promoter--ostensibly over sound equipment.  Berry gave a harangue about the amplification system, which he said was not suitable for his ‘stereo guitar.’  Reluctantly, Berry began performing after repeating ‘I will never work for Richard Nader again.’  The amplification hassle may have been a smokescreen Berry threw in front of the crowd, for what apparently was at the root of the problem was a contract dispute.  Some rock stars realize that renegotiating their contract just before they step on stage is an opportune time.  But when Nader wouldn’t bend the way Berry would have liked, it upset him. Berry even went so far as trying to get Nader to the stage to debate their differences in front of the crowded auditorium.”

I’m sure there were a few jaws dropping and a lot of head-scratching out in the audience right about then (ah well, it’s only rock and roll, and I like it).

STEVE MILLER BAND - APRIL 30, 1974

Opening Act: Boz Scaggs

Attendance: 4,370 

Steve Miller, a Milwaukee-born musician who spent much of his childhood in Dallas’ vibrant music scene before moving to sample Chicago’s, finally found a level of fame after relocating to San Francisco and forming the Steve Miller Band in 1966.  On April 30, 1974 he performed at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, still cruising on just a little bit of late-coming fame resulting from his eighth album The Joker (released in October 1973).  The turnout of 4,370 was disappointing yet explainable, maintained Post-Gazette writer Mike Kalina.  In a local concert scene recap in his “The Music Makers” column of May 17, 1974, Kalina looked back at Miller’s Civic Arena show and remarked that it had drawn a remarkably small crowd.  “Many fans at the show expressed disappointment with his performance,” Kalina continued, “but I thought it was excellent.  Miller is a talented performer who is more at home in smaller halls where he can develop better rapport with his fans.  Perhaps the vastness of the arena marred the mood of the concert.”

OR...maybe it just wasn’t Miller’s time to shine.  Two years after his Civic Arena concert the singer-songwriter/guitarist released his ninth album Fly Like an Eagle (May 1976), and this mega-selling record plus his subsequent album Book of Dreams (May 1977) catapulted him into the major leagues.  Miller never returned to the arena after his April 1974 performance, however.  Fate must have had something else in store, for Miller’s next major venue appearance in our southwestern Pennsylvania region didn’t occur until his management slid him into Star Lake Amphitheatres’ inaugural season lineup in 1990.  This July 4 concert drew a respectable number of fans, right around 9,700, and the following year it inched up to 10,400.  Then, kind of inexplicably, Miller in 1992 began his run of sold-out shows at 20,000+ tickets per year, every year, from 1992 through 1999.  

Our theories for this wild success streak?  Sustained word-of-mouth about his hit-laden, galvanizing performances at Star Lake in ’90 and ’91, and the fact that tailgating for his shows became a phenomenon unto itself.  We noticed that there was a particularly large swath of younger fans in their late teens and early twenties coming out to Miller’s shows, and we theorized that perhaps they had glommed onto, and learned to love, some of their big brothers’ and sisters’ old Steve Miller albums from the mid-‘70s.  Whatever the reasons, there was quite a buzz about Miller and at each and every show there was a staggering number of individuals out in the parking lots--and yes, you can take that both ways.  We did the best we could in terms of keeping these young imbibers safe and sound, and when Miller took the stage we would gingerly sheepdog them toward our entrance gates and gently usher them inside.  There the music would take over and from the first few rows of the pavilion through the last bit of lawn space, the crowd seemed to us an unending sea of shitfaced grins and fist bumps, here and there punctuated by some top-of-the-lungs singalongs and slur-alongs. 

ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND - JULY 11, 1974

Opening Act: Duke Williams and The Extremes

Attendance: 10,380 

Guitarist Duane Allman and keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Allman established their musical brotherhood of six in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, and the group’s first two releases--their self-titled debut (1969) and follow-up Idlewild South (1970)--certainly blew minds upon release but did not achieve widespread acclaim nor any major swell in the fan base.  It took the issuing of the double-record set Eat a Peach (1972)--two sides of studio material; the other two of live recordings--to expand this cult of worshippers.  And then...At Fillmore East.  This all-live double album of tracks recorded in March 1971 at promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in NYC was released two months afterward, and it was a revelation.  In a 2002 lookback at this album, Rolling Stone contributor Mark Kemp said that these Fillmore East recordings “remain the finest live rock performance ever committed to vinyl.”  

The Allmans’ July 1974 Civic Arena concert was their first at the venue, and it came ten months after the release of the band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters.  This particular album was completed with two founding members gone--Duane Allman who died in October 1971 from a motorcycle crash, and bassist Berry Oakley who perished the same way(!) in November 1972.  And so the remaining founding members--Gregg Allman, guitarist Dickey Betts, drummer Butch Trucks, and drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson--subsequently drafted into service two new recruits, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams.  This was the lineup that evening of July 11 at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, and Pittsburgh Press reviewer Pete Bishop wrote in his post-concert review that “two major factors make the Allmans such a strong act: they’re excellent individual musicians yet they blend well together; they play for hours, giving you more than your money’s worth.”  Gregg Allman, Bishop noted, told the crowd early on to expect a LOT of songs, saying “‘We’re gonna play every one of ‘em we know.’”  

And they pretty much did.  Bishop singled out many highlights, including “Southbound,” “Stormy Monday,” “One Way Out” and “Ramblin’ Man,” and especially the lengthy stretch-outs “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Jessica” and “You Don’t Love Me,” the latter causing the reviewer to gush about guitarist Dickey Bett’s contributions.  “He shuns fuzz pedals, wah-wah pedals and feedback; he just plays,” Bishop said.  “He’s truly among rock’s greatest guitarists, as evidenced by the lighted-match encore signal, rock fans’ equivalent of ‘bravissimo,’ he received while still playing on that last number, no paltry feat.”  All in all, the music throughout the evening was, in Bishop’s view, “simply superb.”  The Allman Brothers Band raised the roof, alright--or at least got it to open up.  Bishop described it this way: “For a while at the Civic Arena last night, it was an outdoor party--the roof was open--the sunny evening becoming a pastel sunset and deep velvet blue, as pastoral as any urban scenario could be.”  

MARVIN GAYE - AUGUST 12, 1974

In this 1974 appearance Gaye was riding high; he had never played anywhere in Pittsburgh before, and his most recent releases--1971’s What’s Going On (his groundbreaking eleventh album) and 1973’s Let’s Get It On (his thirteenth)--had brought him great acclaim and scores of new fans.  He set a new attendance record of 14,864 that night, one that was topped only by the triumphant return of Sinatra in October.  Mike Kalina of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said “Gaye not only came to Pittsburgh equipped with one of the smoothest, most soulful voices in the music business today, but also with dynamite arrangements and a superb orchestra...He made transitions from funky up-tempo tunes to slow, emotion-laced lyrics with silken grace; in fact, his ability to interchange moods fluidly was one of the most striking parts of his show.”

FRANK SINATRA - OCTOBER 9, 1974 

Opening Acts: A tumbling act called The Veterans, big band leader Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd, and comedian Pat Henry

Attendance: 14,876

Francis Albert Sinatra was unequivocally one of the greatest singers/entertainers of the 20th century, and according to Wikipedia over 150 million of his records have been sold.  At the age of 58 he returned to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena on October 9, 1974 which was only his second appearance at the venue.  His first visit was in 1967 and so critics and fans were ecstatic at The Return of the King [hope J. R. R. Tolkien wouldn’t have minded my borrowing here].  

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press both covered the show and in their day-after reviews they were unsurprisingly unrestrained in their praise.  The Press’ reviewer Ann Butler was effusive from the outset, saying “Sinatra is a master showman.  He had them in the palm of his hand from the moment he reached the stage.”  Butler also noted that the singer set an attendance record, and “Not only did he pack them into the Arena, but most night spots downtown were packed to overflowing before and after the show.”  The Post-Gazette’s Entertainment Editor George Anderson in his review pointed out that “After almost four decades at the top of the pop heap, Ol’ Blue Eyes may have displayed an occasional hoarseness in the upper register, particularly on his first few songs, but the man’s magic is undiminished.  He stood in the center of the arena on a stage the size of a boxing ring, but there was nothing pugnacious about Frank except maybe his relentless attack on a good lyric.”

The reviews were glowing, as to be expected.  But George Anderson followed up his review the next day with a much more revealing article, one peeling back the lid on the singer’s stratosphere status, road habits and his connections to Pittsburgh.  The following are excerpts from Anderson’s piece which sets the tone early on by stating that “an entertainer’s career can be charted by his attitude toward interviews.”  When a star reaches the pinnacle of success, he or she frequently becomes press and public shy out of necessity--and as Anderson put it, “at the peak of that summit, looking down on everyone else, is Sinatra.”

Anderson went on to note that the singer hires press agents to ward off other press agents, and even avoids certain cities entirely.  And these and other protective measures, Anderson said, “can be a little tricky when you’re touring, but if you command forces large enough, it can be done.  Getting Sinatra in and out of the Civic Arena, for example, can be compared to a CIA operation...A Sinatra operative shows up well in advance to check out the facilities.  Plans for the stage setup are presented in minute detail.  For example, Wednesday’s concert was the first time the Civic Arena had ever used a skirted railing from the dressing room corridor to the stage.  The skirt was simply to keep enthusiastic fans from crawling beneath the railing.  The dressing-room area and hallway are declared off limits, not only to press and public but to most arena employees.  Sinatra arrives by his private jet, is met at the airport by a limousine and is escorted to the arena, where he enters by a prearranged gate.  He goes directly to his dressing-room where he dons his dinner jacket.  Limited refreshments--soup, wine, hors d’oeuvres--were [in Wednesday’s case] provided for the Sinatra party in his dressing-room by two Pittsburgh friends, Chuck Brusco, owner of the Win, Place and Show on Baum Boulevard, and Anthony ‘Wango’ Capizzi, Pittsburgh representative of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, with quarters in the Carlton House.

“When the magic time arrives for Sinatra’s entrance--9:30pm sharply--the star is escorted to the stage by four bodyguards who provide blocking that any pro football coach would envy.  The exit is even speedier.  With the blockers again working, Sinatra leaves the stage after ‘My Way,’ goes directly to the limo and heads for the airport.  He’s out of the arena and on his way while the audience is still applauding.  He changes his clothes on the plane.  It’s not that Sinatra is aloof...It’s just that his presence has the potential to turn any situation into an event...the mystique of isolation, as Garbo proved, can make a performer seem vaguely superhuman long after the cheering stops.  It hasn’t stopped for Sinatra.”

DAVID BOWIE - NOVEMBER 19, 1974

On this November night Bowie drew 12,348 fans to the Civic Arena, his first appearance there but also a return engagement of sorts.  Six months prior he had played two electrifying performances at the Syria Mosque on June 26 & 27, and these shows were replete with grand theatrics and special effects.  Not so, in the arena.  Both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press reviewers gave this November show an enthusiastic thumbs-down.  The headline on the Post-Gazette review by Mike Kalina was “A ‘New’ Bowie Bombs at Arena” and the one in the Press by Pete Bishop was “‘New’ David Bowie Ignores His Talents.”  But a qualification is necessary here in hindsight; Bowie was in the midst of morphing.  The second leg of his Diamond Dogs Tour, September 2 through December 1, 1974, had been nicknamed the “Soul Tour” because the singer in August had begun the recording of a brand new album which heralded a new musical direction.  This led Bowie to retool his remaining Diamond Dogs tour dates: scrapping a lot of the set pieces, adding a sextet of background singers that occasionally drowned out the star, and--inexplicably--choosing to be less animated overall in his movements about the stage.  With this trailblazing artist now clearly in transition, it was Wham, Bam, Goodbye Glam--Bowie was beginning to birth the Thin White Duke on a path to the release of Young Americans in March 1975.

 

 

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Posted 12/31/23...INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN

These are three who left us this year, ones that left me fumbling for words to express my awe of their talent and my angst over their passings: Jeff Beck, David Crosby and Tom Verlaine.

JEFF BECK (June 24, 1944 – January 10, 2023)

At a very young age I was advised that it wasn’t wise to ignore any of the Ten Commandments.  But back in my youth as the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll began confusing me then infusing me, I frankly struggled with one commandment in particular: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  Yes...we can blame Jeff Beck.  I worshipped the man.

Beck started out in the 1960s as a member of the influential English rock band The Yardbirds.  After less than two years the guitarist bolted to form his own band which went through two incarnations--the first with lead vocalist Rod Stewart in the late ‘60s and the other with lead vocalist Bobby Tench in the early ‘70s.  It was this second incarnation that foreshadowed greatness.  It is here on 1971’s Rough and Ready and his 1972 release Jeff Beck Group that the guitarist’s agonizingly brief but absolutely riveting solos provide ever-so-significant hints as to where his path would take him.  

    

So in 1975 and 1976 came Blow by Blow and Wired--and they are arguably Beck’s definitive works.  These two albums were all-instrumental boundary pushing efforts helmed and all held together in the studio recording process by famed Beatles producer George Martin.  And these were the albums that had my coterie of music friends abso-freakin’-lutely gushing.  Beck seemed liberated here; he was no longer bogged down in his traditional rock-group setting with its more than adequate but not quite inspiring song structures and execution.  He and George Martin created lasting works through these two collaborations and Beck cemented his status as a guitar innovator, a fearless voyager into breathtaking soundscapes that were an incredible melding of the searing and the serene.

I saw Beck in concert only three times in my life--at Duquesne University’s AJ Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh in November 1989, on an ear-battering evening with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble...in April 2015 at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg, PA...and in August 2018 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall.  Of the three, the Palace Theatre performance was hands down the jewel in the crown.  That night, Beck set the place ablaze whether beautifully accenting or power-chording through the vocal numbers by bandmember Jimmy Hall (“Morning Dew,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”) or easing out angelic cries and whispers on a few of the evening’s instrumentals (“A Day in The Life,” “Danny Boy”).  

Whether in studio settings or on stage over the years with various ensembles of his own making, Beck always seemed to be channeling things directly from On High.  His intuitive fingerpicking and his use of the instrument’s vibrato bar to coax out dynamic squeals, bend the pitch, and produce the occasional dive-bomb effect were astounding.  At his live shows audiences were agog, and the musicians backing Beck up onstage knew they were in the presence of greatness.  A case in point: the aforementioned singer Jimmy Hall.  This former Wet Willie bandleader had bonded with Beck in the early 1970s, contributed lead vocals to the guitarist’s 1985 album Flash, and joined Beck’s band when it paired up with ZZ Top for 2015’s Beards ‘N Beck tour.

Hall had a lot to say about the guitar great.  Ahead of a May 10, 2015 performance in Alpharetta, Georgia, the singer did an interview with online arts & entertainment website ArtsATL.  Hall was asked how it felt to be onstage with Beck and, pointing back to a 1980 Atlanta show where he was invited up from the audience to sing Beck’s encore of “Going Down,” Hall recalled, “It was powerful.  I always say that at that moment—on stage with Jeff Beck—it felt as if I was levitating.”

Then asked by the ArtsATL interviewer Brenda Stepp to use only ONE word to describe Beck’s playing, Hall answered “Transcendent.”  “How so?” asked Stepp.  Hall replied, “His playing lifts people and is transformative.  Every night he lifts the audience with the power and melody and passion of his guitar.  His guitar is a voice—a powerful voice.  I know his guitar playing lifts me.”

 

DAVID CROSBY (August 14, 1941 -- January 19, 2023)

 ​

In his 2019 review of the just-released documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine writes that the 77-year-old Crosby comes across in the film as a firm believer that he’s still alive only due to some kind of miracle.  Travers elucidates: “A diabetic with eight stents in his heart, Crosby has had a liver transplant and remains convinced that his heart will kill him in just a few years.”  And Crosby turned out to be right.  Just four years after the documentary debuted the rock singer-songwriter/musician passed away at the age of 81.

I had been a fan of Crosby and his contributions to the Byrds over their first five albums (1965-1968) and again on their self-titled reunion album (1973).  I also admired his work with CSN and CSNY in terms of his dynamic self-penned compositions like “Guinnevere, “Long Time Gone, “Almost Cut My Hair” and "Déjà Vu.”  AND I enjoyed his sidebars with Graham Nash which produced songs like “Carry Me” and “"To the Last Whale (A. Critical Mass/B. Wind on the Water).”  Certainly a lot has been written about this artist’s musical gifts in terms of his exquisite harmony vocals and his songwriting, but it is his temperament rather than his tunes that I recall just as vividly.

Travers points out that Crosby’s successes were considerable--as a founding member of both the Byrds and CSN and through some acclaimed solo work--but the Rolling Stone writer also relates that “the doc doesn’t skip over Crosby’s years as a heroin and cocaine junkie who did five months of Texas prison time on drugs and weapons charges.  And it definitely doesn’t soft-peddle his reputation as an SOB who pissed off damn near everyone he’s ever worked with.  ‘I alienated all of them,’ says Crosby, and the film is loaded with examples.  Roger McGuinn of the Byrds calls him ‘insufferable.’  Graham Nash and Neil Young both let him have it.  Joni Mitchell broke up with him with a song.”

  

I found this to be the case in my one (and only) encounter with Crosby back in 2001.  I worked at that time as the general manager of Post-Gazette Pavilion (formerly named Star Lake Amphitheatre) and on August 16, Crosby, Stills & Nash rolled into town for a show at our venue.  It turned out to be a perfectly scripted day for us—the band’s load-in of equipment early in the morning had gone smoothly, the tour’s crew and our house crew shared an amiable, laidback vibe, and our backstage area was now, at 4pm in the afternoon, in its usual comfortable lull between the end of soundcheck and gates-opening time. 

I was standing backstage leaning against the railing next to the start of the dressing room hallway, talking to Roy Smith who was our venue’s marketing director.  We were discussing the number of complimentary tickets that Roy had used for this CSN show for radio station trade buys and promotional giveaways, and he was assuring me that the tour folks had pre-approved all of these, so once again the Amphitheater Gods seemed to be smiling down on us.  

Suddenly the door of the nearest artist dressing room flew open, and a young boy (3, maybe 4-years-old?) bounded out and plopped down near our feet, squinting in the sunshine.  “I want some ICE cream!” the little boy harrumphed to no one in particular, and as Roy at the railing responded with “I think there’s some in the catering room right there,” David Crosby emerged from the dressing room and caught this exchange.

Crosby walked straight over to Roy and stood about six inches from his face. He hung there in silence for about three seconds, and then muttered the words “Just add water” before puckering his lips—still inches away from Roy—and making a slow sucking-in sound that started out low and then kept rising up and up to a sudden nipped-in-the-bud finish.  “Wa-LAH!” cried Crosby, “INSTANT ASSHOLE!”  He paused for effect.  “Don’t you EVER tell my kid he can have ice cream!”  Crosby then turned and walked away, following his son into the catering area.  Roy and I looked at each other, our eyebrows involuntarily up.  Then he shrugged it off, muttering “I was just trying to help...”

Lucky for us we were seasoned operators of a sizeable, successful concert venue, so we were already accustomed to the occasional prima donnas--and prima davids--that we’d play host to in the course of our work.  It was a job in which we were exposed to egos of all sizes and proportions--and that just went with the territory in this business of rock ‘n’ roll.

 

TOM VERLAINE (December 13, 1949 – January 28, 2023)

 

TOM VERLAINE (December 13, 1949 – January 28, 2023)

Tom Verlaine was a New Jersey-born musician who was famously part of a 1970s New York City music scene that was centered around the East Village music club called CBGB.  Founded in 1973 by owner/promoter Hilly Kristal, CBGB was an acronym that stood for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.”  Birthed to offer bands of all styles and stripes an outlet for original music, the club within a year or so became the repository for the emerging punk scene with fledgling artists such as Television (of which Verlaine was a member), Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads and many more.

I dipped into Guitar Player magazine recently and found a revealing quote from Verlaine from an interview he had done back in January 1993, some months after a Television reunion album had hit record stores.  The article was entitled “The Return of Television” and interviewer James Rotondi asked Verlaine this question: “In your playing I hear shades of everything from ska, reggae, and African music to Link Wray and Pentangle.  What music was in your head when you began writing and playing?”

Verlaine replied: “I hated guitar music for years.  I played piano because when I was a kid, I'd be really transported by symphonies.  My mother would get these supermarket records of overtures or something, and that was music for me...In the early '60s I hated pop.  I took up sax in about '63, and an older friend of mine had some Coltrane and Ornette Coleman records, and that's the music I liked...The first rock record I liked was Yardbirds stuff, because it was really wild.  I never listened to guitar music—I thought it was a really twee instrument.  But when I wanted to write songs, I decided that was the thing to play.  For me, even a solo is an accompaniment of some kind, or it just takes the place of a voice.  It's not wrapped up in the same elements or obsessions or desires—maybe that's not fair to say—that most guitar players have.”

 

It was Verlaine’s unique approach to this instrument and by extension his songwriting that caught my questing ears when Television’s debut album was released to record stores nationwide in February 1977.  That was also the exact month and year that my friend Gary Uram and I opened up an indie record store in Wexford, PA, a second location for Exile Records which had opened up its first shop in Butler, PA a few years before.  Gary and I right off the bat were on the same page when it came to the philosophy of “instore play.”  Though he and I were committed to dutifully spinning new and fairly recent releases of tried-and-true bestselling acts like Fleetwood Mac (Rumours), Kansas (Leftoverture) and Eagles (Hotel California), we also felt compelled to expose our customers to undiscovered and/or underexposed artists, the ones who had purposefully swum off the mainstream.  And New York’s CBGB house bands became the ticket to our musical civic duty.

By the time we had opened up the Wexford store that February, Patti Smith’s Horses had been out for about a year or so...Blondie’s first album had hit right before Christmas...the Ramones had released two albums’ worth of their 2-minute furies...and Television’s debut Marquee Moon had just arrived in our “New Releases” rack at the front of our store.  At certain times of the day, and/or when the mood struck, Gary and I strayed from the big FM rock stuff and peppered our in-store play with some of these New York bands that were truly on the wave of the new.  

Some of the music we played was noticeably off-putting to some of our clientele; a few of them, in fact, looked like they were getting the heebie-jeebies from our CBGBs.  But we persisted and, just often enough, we prevailed.  There was no feeling quite like scoring a Marquee Moon sale after blasting the ten-minute title track with its angular twin guitars raging over the store’s stereo system.  Our adventurous store regulars had already been scooping this album up as expected, but now we were even seeing a few shoppers we previously pigeon-holed as dyed-in-the-wool classic rockers throwing Television on their take-home pile.

Through the years that followed, I tried to keep tabs on Verlaine and never tired of his signature bleating-style vocals, inspired jagged-pop songwriting sensibilities, and his amazing, blessedly off-kilter and killer guitar playing in songs like “Kingdom Come” and “Souvenir From A Dream” from his 1979 self-titled solo debut…to “Annie’s Telling Me” from 1987’s Flash Light…all the way through 2006’s all-instrumental tunes “The O of Adore” and “Eighty Eights” from the album entitled Around.

In 2015 my “must-see TV” dreams finally came to fruition when Television was announced for a September 25 concert at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, part of the Andy Warhol Museum’s Sound Series of live musical performances.  My WQED colleague and friend Rick Sebak and I scooped up tickets and went to the show, and it was electrifying, even spine-tingling.  Guitarist-singer Verlaine fronted band members Jimmy Rip on guitar, Fred Smith on bass and Billy Ficca on drums, and the set list leaned extraordinarily heavily on Marquee Moon.

On the way out of the concert, amidst an exiting crowd of fans ranging from satisfied to sated, we ran into Rick’s friend Ben Harrison who at that time was Curator of Performing Arts & Public Programs for The Andy Warhol Museum.  Harrison was the one who booked Television for this appearance.  He gushed, we beamed and concurred, and the three of us then went our separate ways.  Several days later I reached out to Harrison for his thoughts on the show, and he told me how this booking had come about.  

A fan since his high school days, Harrison mentioned that one of the primary reasons he brought them to Pittsburgh was that he had seen them perform at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival back in 2013.  “They played the Tennessee Theatre,” Harrison said, “a large proscenium opera house of similar vintage to the Carnegie Music Hall--that’s where I first had the inspiration to bring them to the music hall through our Sound Series...I’m thrilled that the band responded really positively to the hall and their treatment, and they were very comfortable on stage.  They spoke highly of the unique clarity and overall acoustic/sonic qualities of the hall.  I hope to see them back for sure.”

Obviously, that won’t happen ever again.  But pretty much now and forever, we DO have the band’s and Verlaine’s recordings and various YouTube selections to visit, and revisit.  That’s some consolation...

 

 

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Posted 12/17/23...HOLIDAY

  

Cuvée is a very new, very cool and very well stocked bottle shop on Forbes Avenue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.  It is literally right around the corner from entrepreneur Pete Kurzweg’s other neighborhood establishment Independent Brewing, which is on Shady Avenue just a few doors up from Forbes.  Most Wednesday evenings you can find WQED’s Rick Sebak and me spinning vinyl at one of these two locations, tag-teaming tunes on our turntables, essentially cuing up so you can curl up (we have some folks chillin’ and listening in at home via Twitch, the video live streaming service).  

Of course people also drop by Pete’s places on these Wednesday evenings, and the past two weeks Rick and I have spun at Cuvée, appropriately dipping into our stashes of holiday albums because, well, ‘tis the season.  Rick especially is armed to the teeth with these tunes--a bit of a holiday hoarder?!!--so I have been, with his kind permission, burrowing and borrowing.  In the spirit of the holiday I would like to meet you now where the needle hits the groove, sharing with you a few of the songs that I played from the treasure troves that are Rick’s holiday recordings...

 

Christmas Time in the Motor City - Was (Not Was) - from A Christmas Record (1981)

Was (Not Was) is not a household name by any stretch, and the only song of theirs that might cross a generation of listeners is perhaps “Walk The Dinosaur,” a Top Ten hit in the USA in 1989.  “Christmas Time in the Motor City” is the group’s contribution to ZE Records’ 1981 holiday compilation that bore a representative tune from each of the label’s signed artists including Suicide, Material with Nona Hendryx, The Waitresses, August Darnell (aka Kid Creole), Cristina and others.  

The website hipchristmas.com had this to say about the compilation: “Though best known as the birthplace of the Waitresses' libidinous, evergreen classic, ‘Christmas Wrapping,’ ZE Records' A Christmas Record (1981) is--best I can figure--the first-ever alternative Christmas album.  Plenty of alternative Christmas singles had been released by 1981, but this album was the first complete, coherent, full-length record to arrive from ‘left of the dial’ (to employ Paul Westerberg's phrase).”  https://youtu.be/QHp5KT8ZKOE?si=3sZIZ33XkZZBs9Uu

 

Do They Know It’s Christmas? - Band Aid, a superstar assemblage who came together in London for great cause

Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Ultravox cobbled together this collaborative effort to record a December 1984 charity single to benefit anti-poverty efforts in Ethiopia, and they landed a ton of top-tier talent that included, among others, Sting, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael, Boy George, Duran Duran, Paul Weller and Spandau Ballet.  The lyrics were an appeal to help alleviate the suffering of the Ethiopian people, and the success of this single pointed a path toward other mission-driven releases and projects the following year--USA for Africa’s charity single “We Are the World” (March 1985) and the humungous concert that was a towering $ucce$$, Live Aid (July 1985).  

[p.s. When I played this track at Cuve on Wednesday, owner Pete Kurzweg pointed out his puzzlement over the one line in the song that Bono sang: “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.”  Kind of...inappropriate, perhaps?  But according to Virgin Radio UK in a December 2, 2022 look-back article about Band Aid, that line almost didn’t happen.  The Virgin Radio article’s author maintained that “Writer Midge Urie tried to get the famous line changed to ‘Only fate decides it’s them instead of you.’  However, Geldof thought the original line was punchier and more powerful in its philosophical message--so it remained in place.”]  https://youtu.be/j3fSknbR7Y4?si=7FKtg53KoV3gseQt

 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside - Dolly Parton with Rod Stewart - a bonus track from the 2022 Ultimate Deluxe Edition of Parton’s 2020 album A Holly Dolly Christmas

Not long before Christmas in 2018 controversy erupted over this Oscar-winning Frank Loesser tune from 1949.  NPR’s Amy Held noted that a number of radio stations were banning this time-honored seasonal tune, saying “This #MeToo-era-cum-yuletide-season, radio stations are pulling the plug on that holiday earworm with lyrics that, to some, ring date-rape warning bells, rather than evoking innocent snow-bound flirtation.”  

San Francisco station KOIT’s program director Brian Figula, picking up on the brewing storm, joined in the cancellations but then admitted “he had no idea of the ‘tornado’ he would face: hundreds of emails demanding the song be put back in rotation, more than ten times the number of requests he said he fielded asking him to yank it."  Up to you to decide if it was Dolly’s folly to do the tune with Rod “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” Stewart, but at least she didn’t have to coitally coo at the end of the song like Rod’s one-time lover Britt Ekland did at the conclusion of his 1976 hit “Tonight’s the Night.”  https://youtu.be/LfsNQhdCWo0?si=ytT2Z3flLKIobqWA

 

Back Door Santa - Clarence Carter - from A Collection of Rockin’ Stocking Stuffers: Cool Yule

Carter, blind from birth, was born in 1936 in Montgomery, Alabama and had a couple of notable hits with the songs “Slip Away” in 1968 and “Patches” in 1970.  But he also perked up ears (and libidos) with his one holiday hit “Back Door Santa” in 1968.  It appeared originally on a compilation album entitled Soul Christmas in 1968, but I found it in Rick’s collection on Cool Yule, a Rhino Records release from 1986 that additionally featured holiday-themed tunes from other artists including Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, The Surfaris, Edd “Kookie” Burns, James Brown and The Marquees.

In the liner notes on this Cool Yule collection, it says this about Carter: “That hunk of funk himself Clarence Carter reveals his risqué alter ego as salacious Ol’ Saint Nick, taking promiscuous little sleigh rides while there’s still a test pattern on the TV.  The baddest from ‘Bama, Clarence formed a duo with Calvin Thomas, but it was with Atlantic Records from 1967-1971 he did his own thing as a solo artist.  'Patches' was his biggest hit with the label, but our prurient interest flashes us back to the winter of ’68 when a bawdy 'Back Door Santa' made sure that the stockings--the nylon variety--were hung by the chimney with care.”  The song’s lyrics include these lines: “I ain't like old Saint Nick / He don't come but once a year / I ain't like old Saint Nick / He don't come but once a year / I come running with my presents / Every time you call me, dear.”  That’s a whole lotta funkin’ goin’ on.  https://youtu.be/38BCklcvALI?si=eK3OzmCybYeNRH8R

 

 

Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town - Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - from a CBS Records compilation album entitled In Harmony 2

This holiday song was originally performed by banjo player Harry Reser and his band in October 1934, and according to Wikipedia when Eddie Cantor covered the song on his popular radio program the next month, within 24 hours half a million copies of sheet music and more than 30,000 records were sold.

Many years later, Bruce got a hold of it.  His rockin’ rendition with the E Street Band was first recorded in December 1975 at a New York college and this performance first showed up on the aforementioned CBS Records compilation album In Harmony 2 which was released in 1981.  I saw Bruce and band perform this song live-in-concert seven years later at Pittsburgh’s storied Stanley Theatre on December 28, 1978 (a date on his Darkness on the Edge of Town tour).  During the show, I rather timidly snuck up front to the edge of the stage with a Santa cap in my hand--this was December, after all--and just as I was swiveling my neck to check whether Security was going to jump me, someone sitting in an aisle seat right next to me grabbed my cap and hurled it Bruce’s way.  The singer saw it, pounced and put it on, and a rock photographer friend of mine who happened to be in the vicinity caught the moment on his camera.  The glittery letters on Santa’s (now Bruce’s) cap spelled out the word “Exile,” which was the name of the indie record store that I was co-managing at the time in Wexford, PA.  That’s my brush with Bruce, and I’ll never forget it.  https://youtu.be/76WFkKp8Tjs?si=HFq8O4fZzhjjspGC  

 

Christmas at Ground Zero - Weird Al Yankovic - from the 1986 album Polka Party

The beginning of this song certainly sets a mood: “It's Christmas at Ground Zero / There's music in the air / The sleigh bells are ringing and the carolers are singing / While the air raid sirens blare.”

When I was manning the turntable on Wednesday evening and beginning to intro this tune, I was almost apologetic.  Although the song was written and released in 1986 the words as they resonate today are ringing way too true.  According to academic-accelerator.com, in the mid-1980s Weird Al presented this song to his record label Scotty Brothers who were after an album of holiday tunes.  Though the music was in the style of Phil Spector-produced holiday fare, the lyrics themselves were like a shard of darkness injected into the usual uplifting and light-filled holiday season.  Somewhat shaken by the song, the label cancelled plans for Weird Al’s holiday album and at first refused to even release “It’s Christmas at Ground Zero.”  But the company then relented and issued it solely as a promotional single.

The song has garnered fairly positive reviews over the years, according to the aforementioned website.  One reviewer wrote that “‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ is decades old, but this is a musical take on sickly holiday humor that hasn’t lost its freshness.”  And even though the advent of September 11, 2001 upended the song title’s original meaning of “ground zero”--from Cold War-era nuclear threat to the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood--the song, according to Yankovic himself, became a fan favorite. https://youtu.be/t039p6xqutU?si=x13ce2IQj0io6_Ch

 

Christmas Love - Rotary Connection (featuring Minnie Riperton) - from Have a Merry Chess Christmas

Minnie Riperton, who was most famous for her sweet-sounding, globe-crossing hit “Lovin’ You” from her second solo album Perfect Angel (1974), was originally part of the late-‘60s/early ‘70s psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection.  This group’s song “Christmas Love” was one of many blues and R&B holiday music selections that adorned a 1988 compilation album entitled Have a Merry Chess Christmas, issued by the famous Chicago born and bred record label Chess.  Also represented on the album: Chuck Berry, The Moonglows, The Soul Stirrers, The O’Jays, and The Ramsey Lewis Trio, among others.

While this album spun round and round on my turntable--with Minnie singing to maximum effect--Rick Sebak clued me in to a couple of salient bits of info about this singer who tragically passed away in 1979 at the age of 31 after a battle with breast cancer.  1) Riperton was married to songwriter and record producer Richard Rudolph from 1970 until her death in 1979, and the couple had two children, one of which--daughter Maya--became a cast member of Saturday Night Live from 2000 through 2007...and 2) Riperton’s husband Richard had strong, lasting local ties to the Steel City.  He was of Lithuanian-Jewish descent and was born in Pittsburgh, and one of his notable achievements a bit later in life was becoming one of the founding members of Congregation Beth Shalom in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  https://youtu.be/p3D49SMwSGk?si=UI2mn7f8J_ptRl7G

 

Sleigh Ride - by Mark O’Connor - from the compilation album entitled A Christmas Tradition

This song, an instrumental wonder, seems to zip by in a millisecond but not before the listener can slow things down enough to appreciate the artistry of multi-instrumentalist Mark O’Connor.  This fiddle player expertly (and seemingly effortlessly) weaves together tapestries of bluegrass, country, jazz and classical, and at the age of twelve he was invited to appear on stage at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.  At seventeen, he joined the David Grisman Quintet and went out on tour with French violinist Stephane Grappelli.

On “Sleigh Ride,” one of many compelling country music-oriented selections on the 1987 compilation album entitled Warner Bros. Presents A Christmas Tradition, O’Connor clearly shows a predilection for the DIY approach.  In addition to arranging all the music for the song, O’Connor plays all of the instruments on the piece--violin, electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and drums.  The tune can also be found on O’Connor’s own release, 2011’s An Appalachian Christmas, which features an overflow of guest talent--folks like Renée Fleming, Alison Krauss, James Taylor, Steve Wariner, Jane Monheit, Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer, among others.  https://youtu.be/g3fiqGYAZAc?si=yrN4QnLwVhNdKETY

 

 

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Posted 12/3/23...YOU DON’T MESS AROUND WITH JIM

Above is a fairly recent photo of WQED-FM artistic director and longtime morning on-air personality Jim Cunningham--uh, he is the one on the RIGHT.  On the left is also Jim Cunningham, of course, but too quick of a glance here might lead one to think that perhaps this particular Jim dates back to the late 1960s/early 1970s.  After all, Jim-To-The-Left sports very long hair (apparently having chosen the color white when letting his freak flag fly) AND he has on wire rims.  What better way to blend in with his peers of that era that were, just as he was, consistently flocking to the live-in-concert performances of his favorite artists like the Rolling Stones...and Jefferson Starship...and Bob Marley...and Pink Floyd...and Frank Zappa. 

Hmmm...You think not?  Alright, I admit I strained for effect.  The Jim on the left is obviously in a costumed nod to his longtime association with, and devotion to, classical music.  In any case, I know you’ll agree that there is SO much more to learn about Jim Cunningham, a true community treasure, a man who just recently (in the month of October) marked his 45th year as an on-air talent on Classical 89.3 WQED-FM.

In 2018 I had the privilege of interviewing Jim about his path to WQED and his passions all along the way, and I was spurred to post his interview again on Musicasaurus after very recently watching a fascinating half-hour program produced and narrated by WQED’s Rick Sebak.

The program, part of WQED’s ongoing Pittsburgh History Series, aired on WQED Thursday evening November 30, 2023 and was a celebration of a landmark anniversary of WQED-FM.  I caught up with Rick the day after it aired and asked him how the show had come together, and if there were any surprises in store as he worked his way through the project.

“Making a TV documentary usually involves searching for information, historic images (still photos as well as vintage movies and video) and interviews with the people around the subject,” Rick replied.  “So putting together a 30-minute program about the fiftieth anniversary of WQED-FM was not full of unexpected tasks. 

“Maybe the biggest and best surprises however were the three interviews with colleagues at WQED.  I learned so much about Bryan Sejvar, Anna Singer and Jim Cunningham, the trio who currently make this local classical-music radio station shine.  The longest of the three conversations was with Jim Cunningham who is the on-air morning host and a good friend.  I didn’t know that his mother had been a radio DJ in Warren, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and I didn’t know he originally came to WQED to work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!

“But learning new things is always a joy. And that may have influenced my decision to use a quote from Jim as the title of the show: It Is A Joy: WQED-FM Is 50 Years Old.”

And now, the re-posted excerpts from Musicasaurus’ 2018 interview with Jim Cunningham...

M: Jim, you’ve been full-time with WQED radio since July 1, 1979 after becoming a part-time employee in the fall of 1978.  Has this been a blink of the eye type of thing?  Has time just whizzed by?

JC: If you enjoy what you do, you never think about time.  There is something different and interesting every day so I never really think about time moving forward.

M: Your title is artistic director…

JC: Yes.  I started at WQED as a part-time deejay, then full-time on the air, then producer, assistant manager, assistant program manager, program manager, manager, and several other things along the way to becoming artistic director.  A little bit of everything.  It’s wonderful because it is centered on what I love the most, which is the music!

M: Tell me about your earliest influences in terms of music.  Were your parents partial to it?

JC: I always liked all kinds of music.  I grew up with it because my dad always had the radio on and my mother played the piano.  I can remember her playing Debussy’s Clair de lune in the basement when I was young.  When I’d wake up in the morning, she’d be down in the basement practicing.

She played piano for fun but was also a part of a group called the Philomel Club, local people who were interested in classical music.  And she was a deejay, too, on local station WNAE.  She used to take me there, and I just thought the atmosphere was so cool—reel-to-reel tapes going around, teletype clattering, UPI news, and records.  Thousands of records on the wall of all kinds.  She wrote the scripts for her show which was on two hours each week featuring just classical music.

I also sang in choirs in junior and senior high school, and in the church choir, so singing is really important to me.  My grandfather was a Lutheran minister and he always proudly said, “Lutherans have Johann Sebastian Bach.”  Church music is important in the Lutheran tradition, so I hung around the church secretary and the organist who was always there.  I took lessons from him.  He was an amazing “out there” guy who was equally talented as an organist and a harpsichordist, and he built harpsichords.  I always thought it was fascinating to see how an instrument was made; he had one on the floor of his living room and he worked on it sometimes when I was there.  He was interested in all kinds of music, which was impressive, too.  

Also, my family went to Chautauqua every summer when I was young and I heard everything under the sun, from George Shearing to Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Lovin’ Spoonful.  All of that and the orchestra performances.  My parents first met there and were married there, so Chautauqua was very important to my family.  There was always a mixture every summer—an orchestra, soloists, pop music and rock music.

M: When you were growing up in Warren, PA and first started building your own record collection, where did you go?

JC: The Bieckark Music House.  Mr. Bieckark had a music store that also had albums.  I loved that store.  I went to G.C. Murphy’s as well.  I mowed lawns to buy records and as soon as I had mowed enough, I headed to the record stores.  Also, my dad was from Pittsburgh originally and we had family down there, so occasionally when visiting I would go to Heads Together in Squirrel Hill and later on the Listening Post in Shadyside.  There was another place in Oakland as well, Flo’s Records, and a record chain I remember called Peaches that was in the South Hills.

The first albums that were truly important to me were the Beatles’ records.  The bands that mattered the most to me early on were the Beatles and the Stones—and then everything that came along from that, the classic rock era with the Doors and other bands.  Are You Experienced was another album that was mesmerizing to me.

M: I know that you are an avid collector of music, even today.  That can lead to marital discord, so I’ve heard—okay, so I’ve experienced!  So, where do you store everything at your house?  In the garage?

JC: There are a few things in there, but you should never store records there because of the temperature fluctuations.  In the basement I have one big room, the size of a medium-sized bedroom for my albums and CDs.  Before I got married, almost my entire apartment in Green Tree was filled with albums.  My father helped me build wooden boxes to keep them in.  There was some organization at first, but of course things went quickly out of control.

M: What was your first real radio station experience?

JC: That was while I was still in high school.  In a small town like Warren at that time, the radio station played a little bit of everything—classical, rock ‘n’ roll, pop music, dinner hour music…FM was developing in the early '70s, so at first the AM and FM were simulcast.  But when a friend of mine Scott Saylor came back from the Vietnam War, he convinced the manager of WRRN that he could make money for him if he did something different with his FM station, like playing rock ‘n’ roll.  Scott said to the station manager, if you let me program it and sell it, this will cover our costs.  

Scott had been on Armed Forces Radio while he was in Vietnam.  He was a tremendous sales person and a music enthusiast and loved listening to rock ‘n’ roll music.  And I had a giant record collection by high school, and so that became an important part of my resume to have my record collection be a part of what was essentially a free-form radio station.  WRRN-FM had a powerful 50,000-watt signal and it reached all the way to Erie; regionally it was much more powerful than the AM station.  I worked for both.  It started with a high-school radio club I was in, plus I knew the WRRN station manager’s son, and from there I became a part-time announcer.  I worked a lot for WRRN-FM when it became that rock ‘n’ roll station.

M: Was there a certain genre you gravitated to?  Sounds like you were open to most anything…

JC: That was the wonderful thing about free-form rock.  It was Ravi Shankar followed by Hendrix and then the Beatles, and on and on.  It was put together in a poetic way; the music seemed to flow and fit together, a late-night vibe always…There were so many discoveries then.  One night I was playing Leonard Cohen and it was one of his songs with extremely “blue” lyrics and my father heard it and called me at the station, saying “Do you HEAR what he is SAYING?!!”  My father was worried I would be fired for playing Leonard Cohen’s most erotic material. 

M: What were some of your favorite concerts back in your youth?

JC: We went to Pittsburgh a lot.  I went to see the Stones on several occasions; my dad usually drove me down.  I saw them once with my girlfriend and we stayed overnight at my grandfather’s place.  A whole bunch of friends stayed there as well.  I slept on my grandfather’s back porch that night.  

During college I remember going to the Syria Mosque to see Frank Zappa.  He was mixing in some classical music and did excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin!  I saw Jefferson Starship, too, at the Mosque.  I was at Bob Marley’s last show of his life at the Stanley Theater.  I saw a great arena show in Pittsburgh with Earth, Wind & Fire.

When I worked at WRRN we went to see a lot of shows, as that was part of the station culture.  I got to see Pink Floyd several times.  The Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo is where I saw the Dark Side of the Moon tour in 1972 or 1973, and I saw Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at Rich Stadium in 1974.  Shows at Rich Stadium were a total crazed cultural experience!  I will never forget seeing Hound Dog Taylor and The Houserockers at an outdoor blues festival there with the other deejays from WRRN.

M: I want to circle back to your path in radio.  How did you end up at WQED?

JC: I went to Thiel College in Greenville from 1973 to 1977 and did a student internship at WQED-FM in 1974.  Once out of college in ’77 I worked a year in Warren at station WGRP selling advertising time and working as an announcer.  I got married in the summer of 1978 and that’s when I applied for a job at WQED and got hired immediately as a part-time deejay.

M: Did you have any learning curve in terms of the inventory you were playing on-air?

JC: One thing about classical music is you never stop learning.  It’s so deep.  Blues and jazz is the same, and to some extent rock ‘n’ roll, but I guess I felt like I had already learned a lot from album covers and from doing radio in Warren and Greenville, so classical music was just a new part of music to learn—and I’m still learning every day.

Classical radio listeners want to hear Haydn and Mozart, the core artists, the core sounds, but there is always new music, new people writing music.  We interview composers all the time.  This afternoon I will be interviewing a pianist named Tom Roberts who played on Leon Redbone’s tours.  He is going to have a clarinetist with him, and they are going to play music by Charlie Chaplin for a Chamber Music Pittsburgh show.  So, there’s just an ocean of variety here to explore.

M: What do you like most about your job?

JC: Learning.  And the people.  Finding like-minded folks who enjoy it.  You never stop learning.  I interviewed Leonard Slatkin and pianist Garrick Ohlsson recently.  Leonard Slatkin was premiering a piece that he wrote in honor of his parents, who were musicians and heads of music studios in Los Angeles; Warner Brothers Studio was one of them.  All of their friends there were people like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra; they knew everyone in pop music.  I just thought it was fascinating that Leonard Slatkin was sung to sleep by Sinatra.  Who else would be able to make a claim like that?!!  The guy conducting Rachmaninoff and Elgar at Heinz Hall.  Crossed lines like that I think are interesting.

M: You have a long and enduring relationship with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and its conductors and musicians.  What’s that like?

JC: Manfred Honeck I couldn’t say enough about.  He is an extremely kind man and interested in people.  Interested in spiritual things, and in making Life better.  Completely unassuming.  Steeped in the traditions as a former member of the Vienna Philharmonic.  He’s at the top of the heap and just an amazing person.

I also spent eight years with André Previn.  Lorin Maazel was astonishing.  Mariss Jansons.  I wish everyone could meet these folks personally!  These maestros, like most of the great classical musicians I’ve met, are incredibly talented but also easygoing, down to Earth, and really trying to make the world better.

 

 

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Posted 11/19/23...BACK IN TIME

Let’s turn the clock back thirty years on Star Lake Amphitheatre (now the Pavilion at Star Lake) and take a closer look at a handful of shows that took place in the summer of 1993.  That was the venue’s fourth season, and a uniquely interesting assortment of genres was represented on stage including alternative music, classic rock, instrumental schmaltz, and third world music.

Friday, June 11 - Kenny G 

In the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s June 11, 1993 column entitled “Hot List,” a roundup of the weekend’s live entertainment options around the ‘burgh, Scott Mervis plugged--in his fashion--the Kenny G concert that was happening that evening at Star Lake.  Under a subheading labeled “Almost Jazz” Mervis started ticking off names: “Coltrane.  Shorter.  Turrentine.  Kenny G...Well, not quite.  Mr. G doesn’t place among the greatest saxophonists in the history of jazz.  What he lacks in melodic sophistication, he makes up for in flash--and sales (this former accounting major from Seattle has wracked up more than 10 million).”

Actually, the musician’s sales total alone for his sixth album Breathless, released the year before his Star Lake appearance, ended up around 12 million in the U.S. alone.  And while most critics frowned upon him, the masses craved to lay a crown upon him.  Kenny was truly at that time the undisputed king of smooth jazz. 

What I remember most about his concert—aside from the calming, almost coma-inducing effect on select staff members—was the stipulation from Kenny G’s booking agent that we include the tour’s national sponsor in all of our concert advertising.  I was marketing director of the amphitheater back in 1993 and this was not an unusual request, but I had never heard of this company called “Starbucks.”  As it turns out, the Pittsburgh area was behind the curve of the expansionist plans of the Seattle-based company, and so no one around these parts knew who in the hell Starbucks was—but I ended up including their sponsor attribution in our ads nonetheless. 

Sunday, June 20 - The Steve Miller Band

The start of the 1993 outdoor concert season was little more than a week away when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Scott Mervis debuted a May 14th preview piece on the various summer attractions slated for Star Lake Amphitheatre and its baby brother venue, downtown Pittsburgh’s I.C. Light Amphitheater.  Mervis also made mention in the article that a true juggernaut was on the horizon, one that wasn’t headed for our local stages but instead for the silver screen: Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  “The release of Jurassic Park will make this the summer of dinosaurs,” Mervis predicted, “and, of course, concert venues will be full of them: there’s John Kay and Steppenwolf, Chicago, the Moody Blues and the Steve Miller Band.”

I understand why Mervis’ first impulse was to peg Steve Miller as one for dino-status.  The guitarist had formed the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco way back in 1966, and broad success eluded him until a decade later with the release of Fly Like an Eagle (1976) followed by Book of Dreams (1977).  These two albums cranked out hit after hit (including “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Rock’n Me,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Jet Airliner,” “Swingtown” and “Jungle Love”) which all ended up on a multitude of salivating classic rock stations across the country who seemingly put them in perpetual rotation.  By the time the 1990s rolled around, though, Miller was a bit of an afterthought--or so we thought.  In Star Lake’s first season of 1990 the Steve Miller Band was booked for July 4th and ended up with a respectable attendance of about 9,700.  He returned in 1991 to better that attendance by bringing in 10,400, and then in the summer of 1992 Miller hit his first home run, drawing over 20,000 fans to the venue.  

One theory of ours for this sudden swell to sell-out status in 1992 was the sustained word-of-mouth generated by the artist’s energized performances and hit-heavy setlists from his first two plays at Star Lake.  Also, we noticed that there was a particularly large swath of younger fans in their late teens and early twenties coming out to Miller’s shows, and we surmised that perhaps these concert-goers had been the little-brother-and-sister beneficiaries of passed-down Miller albums from older siblings.  But there was likely a larger reason that this particular show held such an allure for the younger set: tailgating.

Quite a buzz had been building around this 1970s-era rocker and it seemed to correlate to the degree of buzz in the brains of a lot of our youthful tailgaters.  Miller sold out his June 20, 1993 date and then every year thereafter through 1999, and at each and every show there was a staggering number of individuals out in the parking lots (yes, I mean that both ways).  Though our security guards, ID checkers and local police did their very best to control the situation out there, it was always a bit of a struggle especially when Miller was hitting the stage and it was time to sheepdog the various clusters of glassy-eyed fans toward our entrance gates and gently usher them inside.  Then, at least, the music would take over, and it was--from the first few rows of the pavilion through the last bit of lawn space--largely a sea of shitfaced grins and fist bumps, hugs for friends, and singing/slurring to the music.

Wednesday, July 21 - Lollapalooza 1993

This was the third national tour for Lollapalooza, the alternative music festival originated by Jane’s Addiction lead singer Perry Farrell in 1991.  That first year the festival had whisked right by us, unsure of the sales potential for this cutting-edge event in the Pittsburgh market where there was no commercial (i.e., big league) alternative station at that point in time.  Through some subsequent lobbying of the booking agent responsible for routing the festival we were able to get it confirmed for Star Lake that next year of 1992, and the festival continued to alight at The Lake for the following three years and again in 1997.

The main stage line-up for our July 21, 1993 date consisted of Alice in Chains, Primus, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Arrested Development, Front 242, Babes in Toyland, Tool and Rage Against the Machine.  From an operations standpoint, we knew what to expect based on our experiences the year before in terms of main stage and side stage coordination, the placement of the festival’s sideshow attractions up and down the plazas, and general crowd control.  But this year was an eyeopener for us literally, as once Tool took the stage we gaped and gasped as one of the worst possible things that could happen, did happen.  Newspaper reviewer Ed Masley of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was there and described the scene.  “Tool won the ‘Outstanding Punk Behavior by a Major Label Funk-Metal Band’ award at this year’s Lollapalooza,” Masley said, “when its bass player encouraged the people on the hill: 'I just talked to management, and they said all these empty seats, it’s OK to come down and fill them.'

“Now maybe this guy’s got a degree in marketing, and maybe he hasn’t” Masley continued, “but quicker than you could say, ‘Free Beer--No I.D.,’ all the security in Burgettstown wasn’t enough to keep the previously disinterested crowd from storming the stage of the Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre.  Of course, no one ever went broke peddling anarchy to disaffected youngsters--just ask Perry Farrell.  This whole Lollapalooza deal was his idea, after all.”

We managed to retake the geography, and Star Lake’s security team slowly but surely emptied the lower house area of all interlopers and the show continued, but this coaxed uprising by the fool in Tool had its ramifications--especially within the Lollapalooza camp itself.  Beginning with the following year’s festival, we had no other pronouncements of that sort emanating from any of the acts on stage; according to Lollapalooza’s tour manager Stuart Ross, language had been inserted into artist contracts listing financial penalties for any such utterances.  Money talks.  And this was all it took to zip lips.

Saturday, August 14 - Steely Dan

In an August 22, 1993 preview piece in the Washington Post about Steely Dan’s upcoming concert at the nearby Merriweather Post Pavilion, pop music critic Richard Harrington did a masterful job of dissecting the Dan.  He extracted from the dynamic duo Donald Fagen and Walter Becker that royalty checks were the key reason they were able to resist returning to the road for nineteen years (1974-1993).  Over that span of time their seven Dan studio recordings and two hits collections continued to sell, propped up by radio programmers who never abandoned their signature songs like “Reeling in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Deacon Blues,” “FM (No Static at All,” “Hey Nineteen” and others.  These tunes, wrote Harrington, are “smart and stylish, with a jazz-wise pulse, sketched skintight in the studio by partners with a reputation for mordant wit and obsessive perfectionism.”

That obsessive perfectionism was a trait that made it easier for the two to abandon touring, and Becker spoke up about the conditions that led to their decision to return to concert stages.  "Back in the '70s,” Becker recalled, “we were frustrated both with the quality of the band and the presentation, the inconsistency from night to night, and just the lifestyle of being on the road was very uncomfortable.  One thing that changed is the way tours are organized and run, and the fact that it's now possible to present something {technically} the way you want it to be played."  Fagen then chimed in with a tongue-in-check warning about fans having high expectations about their reemergence.  "Well,” he said, “they're bound to be disappointed...If anyone's that excited about something, their idealization is going to be a problem."

NO such problem in Pittsburgh.  This 20,000+-capacity show sold out in advance, and the roar that went up when Fagen, Becker and company took the stage was roof-raising.  Post-Gazette reviewer Tony Norman labeled the show a long-delayed victory lap, saying that “the reconstituted Steely Dan, an eight-piece band with a chorus of three backup singers, proved it had the chops to deliver on the audience’s expectations for a triumphant return.”

I have at least two treasured recollections from the show, which I admit was a spine-tingling experience for me.  Like other serious fans of Dan, I was just happy that I no longer had to settle for genuflecting before my compact disc player as it doled out gems from The Royal Scam, or Aja, or Katy Lied.  Memory tidbit #1: At Star Lake that evening, I sang from my diaphragm when the group hit that magic marker within “Kid Charlemagne” that cries out for call-and-response: “Is there gas in the car?  Yes, there’s gas in the car.”  Memory tidbit #2: Steely Dan’s performance was a true “evening with” and had no opening act and no scheduled intermission.  However, at one point during the show Walter Becker stepped up to the mike and announced that he was going to lead the group into a handful of songs from a new solo album he’d been working on.  There was a sudden and sizeable exodus to our beer and food stations in the plazas, and it warmed my heart that the band had sorta kinda provided an intermission after all.

Wednesday, September 8 - WOMAD (World of Music, Arts & Dance)

Our Houston-based parent company Pace, ever watchful in those days for new event opportunities, brought this festival to our attention and offered us a chance to host one of the first few American dates of this esteemed U.K.-originated event.  WOMAD was collaboratively conceived by Peter Gabriel and some of his arts-minded associates in 1982, and he had his paws all over this amazing assemblage of Third World artists that descended upon Star Lake on September 8, 1993. 

Post-Gazette reviewer Tony Norman had strolled through the proceedings that day soaking in feedback from fans onsite, and he was quite taken by one of the sideshow attractions that apparently didn’t require anything to be takin’ in order to be wowed by it.  “If someone tells you that the WOMAD festival at Star Lake Amphitheatre yesterday was a trip, make sure you ask if they mean it literally,” Norman said.  “Chances are they’re referring to a simulated psychedelic trip they may have taken in Rick Hooper’s LSD Flight Simulator, one of many specialized booths on the makeshift, multicultural fairgrounds.  What the World of Dance and Music has to do with ‘tripping in Neuro-space’ as Hooper calls it may not be obvious to the casual observer (me), but it fits into the spirit of anarchic fun and experimentation that pervaded the atmosphere.”

This World Of Music, Art and Dance festival was indeed a combination of otherworldly and thirdworldly.  It was truly ahead of its time, for the artist line-up amounted to a perfectly assembled Spotify playlist that included British singer of Indian descent Sheila Chandra and fellow countryman Jah Wobble; Ugandan Geoffrey Oryema; the trio Trisan featuring musicians from Ireland, China and Japan; Native American John Trudell; Jamaican reggae band Inner Circle; Tanzanian guitarist/singer Remmy Ongala; hip hop groups P.M. Dawn and Stereo MC’s from America and England, respectively; and Australia’s Crowded House and many others, with the festival topped off by a 90-minute set from Peter Gabriel and his special guest Sinead O’Connor.  

Post-Gazette reviewer Ed Masley praised Gabriel’s performance, declaring that he “was in fine form, surrounded by greats like O’Connor, Tony Levin and Shankar.”  Although Gabriel in Masley’s opinion omitted a lot of his classic songs from the set, he noted that “it’s hard to argue with oversights like that considering the prime entertainment value he was able to squeeze into a relatively short set.  He may have lofty ambitions, but when push comes to shove, Gabriel is a real goofball, cavorting across the stage in absurd little dance steps with his bandmates like the Temptations on acid.”

WOMAD was an unmitigated success artistically and those in attendance were beyond worshipful, but the clear light of day brought out a grim reality for those of us who had brought this event to southwestern Pennsylvania.  Of course we had relied on the traditional routes of advertising and promotion via radio, print, television and street flyers, but in retrospect we lacked all the avenues we have today via the internet to help us tell our story and foster a much clearer understanding of all this particular cutting-edge festival had to offer. 

Our marketing efforts were just not impactful enough to prevail.  Our day-after calculations of where we ended up financially brought us a loss of record proportions, one of the largest in our company’s history to date.  And it was a very nice scarlet letter to have on our foreheads as, later on that month, we departed for the annual Pace amphitheater summit meetings.  Luckily, though, no unfair blame was accorded.  It was acknowledged by our top management that, in a time when our business was really calling us to test limits and pursue new opportunities, our venue had stepped up to take one of those roll-the-dice risks that in the end just did not pan out.

 

 

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Posted 10/22/23...COVER ME

I was born in the early 1950s, and so by the early 1960s as societal changes and cultural shifts here in America were bubbling up on their way to becoming truly seismic, I was of an age to fully appreciate the simultaneous flowering of new music.

I dove in ears first.  By the mid 1960s I had slowly but surely become a dedicated record collector of 45-rpm singles, but soon after I largely abandoned these in favor of much wider exploration--the purchase of 33 1/3-rpm multi-track albums from exciting new artists that were beginning to flood the record bins of department stores in my hometown of Butler, PA.

And thus I discovered an undeniable appeal of my amped-up record buying--album covers.  With eager eyes and flipping fingers I uncovered in these album bins a world of untold delights.  Many of the covers were enticing, giving me pause; some even set my mind afire.  They were my gateway, I soon found, to unlocking some of the mysteries of the sounds harbored within.

As I look back now over the decades, particularly the 1960s and 1970s, I cherish memories of some of the album covers back then that had in some way truly captivated me--and it all started with an album of my mom’s.

WHIPPED CREAM & OTHER DELIGHTS – HERB ALPERT’S TIJUANA BRASS

I was just shy of twelve when Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream & Other Delights was released in April of 1965.  My mother had purchased the album because of the huge radio hit “A Taste of Honey,” a perky Mexican-flavored pop instrumental featuring Alpert’s trumpet. 

My mom often danced (frugging) around the living room when this record played on the Hi-Fi, but I stayed on the sidelines, cradling the album cover which sported a beautiful woman in her late twenties covered only in whipped cream.  For me, this dollop packed a wallop.  I was only eleven years of age but already my mind was a morass of questions about the opposite sex (a swamp from which few men ever really emerge).  The bewitching beauty of this woman with the cleavage-clinging cream was absolutely mesmerizing.  AND...every time I studied the cover, she was looking right at me.

 

STAND UP – JETHRO TULL 

There was much more to this 1969 release than just the expressive woodcut style of the album cover--the band was at that time on their second album, and it revealed a true expansion of their musical palette.  There were now dabs and splashes of classical music, old English folk, progressive rock, and jazz layered within their blues-based rock.  And with its gatefold design, the new album literally had the band standing Tull: the cover opened up like a kiddie’s book, resulting in the four band members popping up in a magnificent “Ta-DAH!” pose that reinforced the record’s title as well as the group’s newfound depth of creativity.

The artist that Tull commissioned for Stand Up was James Grashow, a Brooklyn-born woodcut artist and sculptor.  He designed some other album covers as well for bands such as Deep Purple and the Yardbirds but is perhaps better known for his occasional illustrations in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine and Esquire.  Grashow has also received acclaim for his sculptures and massive art installations that he creates out of cardboard.  For more on Grashow, click on the following link and prowl the site; it’s fairly mind-blowing. https://www.jamesgrashow.com/gallery.cfm

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING – KING CRIMSON

I bought this album the moment it hit record stores in 1969 and rushed right home that afternoon to get it on my bedroom turntable.  It was nearing suppertime, and I cruised through the back door to find my father Walter sitting in his usual post at our Formica kitchen table nursing a Salem 100-milimeter menthol Slim and a frosted mug of beer.  He was a man of few words; not due to the alcohol, though.  It was just who he was.

He arched an eyebrow as if to say “Wha’ ja’ get?”  I pulled the lone album out of the Woolworth’s bag and showed him the front cover.  He just looked at me, expressionless, and said “Runnin’ off and joining the circus, are we?” 

My dad never had the opportunity to actually make judgments on the songs within.  I never extended an invitation for him to sit down and listen to it, and I’m glad of that.  It would have pinned his ears back and scrambled his middle-aged brain, sitting through a loud-volume sampling of the album’s buzz saw opener “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

OSIBISA AND WOYAYA – OSIBISA 

Osibisa was an Afro-pop band who plied their trade well before “world music” had seeped into American consciousness (note that this predates Paul Simon’s massively successful Graceland album by fifteen years).  The group had seven original members who were all in London at the time of the band’s formation in 1969, yet they all hailed from either Ghana or the Caribbean.  The music was a hypnotic mix of African, Caribbean, rock, jazz and rhythm & blues, and the horns were just plain wicked.

The covers for the band’s first two albums Osibisa and Woyaya (both from 1971) were designed and drawn by English artist Roger Dean--and Osibisa was his first dip into design for recording artists.  He is most acclaimed for the album covers that followed, including ones for the band Yes (Fragile, Close To The Edge, Yessongs, Tales From Topographic Oceans, etc.), Uriah Heep (including Demons And Wizards), Atomic Rooster, Asia and others. 

Musicasaurus was first hooked by the Osibisa covers, however.  These winged elephants in these vivid, colorful landscapes more than hinted of the world of wonder contained inside. 

  

  

  

ALBUM COVERS BY DESIGN ARTIST NEON PARK (Zappa and Feat)

Neon Park (1940-1993) was a child of California and a vagabond artist in his youth, at one point ending up in San Francisco doing poster art for the Family Dog hippie collective’s series of concerts at the Avalon Ballroom circa 1966. 

At the turn of the decade his surreal images and vivid use of color attracted the attention of Frank Zappa, and this iconoclastic musician subsequently hired Park to do the cover art for his upcoming album Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970).  That album cover is deliciously disturbing stuff and gained Park some notoriety; in fact, Zappa’s record label Warner Bros. initially refused to release the record with that cover but ultimately relented.

Park was best known, however, through his long association with the Los Angeles-based band Little Feat.  He had reportedly met Feat founder Lowell George while hitchhiking and the two then struck a bond that kickstarted a long collaborative relationship.  1972’s Sailin’ Shoes was Parks’ first for Feat, followed by Dixie Chicken (1973), Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (1974), The Last Record Album (1975), Time Loves A Hero (1977), the double-live Waiting for Columbus (1978), Down on the Farm (1979) and on from there.

Park died at the age of 52 from a decade-long battle with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease).  Reportedly he responded to the doctor who broke the news of his diagnosis by saying “I never even played baseball.”

 

STREET SURVIVORS – LYNYRD SKYNYRD                          

The cover above on the left is the originally-released version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors album which hit record stores nationwide on October 17, 1977.  Just three days afterward, the band’s chartered plane crashed-landed in a Mississippi forest while traveling from Greenville, South Carolina to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (the latter was to be the sixth stop on the group’s just-commenced tour).  Six people on board died in the crash including Skynyrd’s assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the aircraft’s pilot and first officer, and three bandmembers--lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines (the guitarist’s older sister).

This was a real shock to the world of rock, and the album cover was viewed as eerily prescient.  In the photo, Steve Gaines is situated dead center, eyes closed and wrapped in flames.  Very shortly after the crash, the band’s record company label MCA stopped production of the original cover and reissued the album with a less inflammatory one (see the cover above on the right).  Yes, it came back in black--the mourning of a new day.

TWO THE HARD WAY – ALLMAN AND WOMAN (aka Gregg Allman and Cher)

[Editor’s opening lament: Why did he do this album and why, oh why, did he allow himself to be in this cover photo?  Thanks for Cher-ing, Gregg.]

Gregg Allman married celebrity/entertainer Cher in 1975 and a year later the Allman Brothers Band broke up, but this wasn’t Cher’s doing.  That dissolution stemmed from the fractious factions within the band and some members’ reported drug use.

In 1977, two years into their marriage, Allman and Cher paired up to release a bizarre musical union entitled Allman and Woman.  In November of that year this album hit the nation’s record stores surprising the shit out of a lot of us.  I happened to be working at that time as co-manager of Exile Records in Wexford, Pennsylvania, and our little indie shop initially stocked a few copies of the album and displayed it in our front-of-store “New Releases” bin.  But the expressions on the faces of a few of our die-hard Allman Brothers fans entering the store reminded me of a classic 1970s environmentally-themed television commercial, the one in which a Native American’s single tear can be seen streaming down his cheek (he was standing right by the highway and someone in a passing car had just thrown trash out the window, which landed right at his feet).  Both the Allmans’ fans and this Native American quite simply had something in common--they were having gut honest reactions to an American treasure being polluted by an unthinking individual.

Maybe Gregg had no choice in doing this album.  Maybe he was figuratively tied to the whipping post.  And Good Lord, he probably did feel like dyin’.

 

 

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Posted 10/22/23...I’VE GOT THE MUSIC IN ME

When I title my posts here on Musicasaurus I almost always use a song title (as evidenced above).  But this time I was sorely tempted to use the oft-expressed favorite saying of Christopher Lloyd’s character Doc Brown in the Back to the Future films: “GREAT SCOTT!”

This utterance is a time-honored means of expressing a sense of wonder or astonishment, and so it is appropriate that I would have considered it for this particular post’s title for one reason: It’s about THREE great Scotts--Blasey, Mervis and Tady.

Each of these talented individuals has--over the years, throughout their careers--made significant contributions to the realm of music here in southwestern Pennsylvania, faithfully engaging, entertaining and educating the public through either song or story.  Scott Blasey is a musician and lead singer of The Clarks; Scott Mervis is Weekend Editor/Pop music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; and Scott Tady is entertainment editor of the Beaver County Times.

I was able to connect with them this past week, and I asked each of them to individually answer the same ten questions.  Through this bit of a deep dive I hoped to shine a light on the Scotts’ influences and pathways, and musical passions, yielding a better understanding of how each evolved and grew into who they are today.

SCOTT           BLASEY

1. What did your parents listen to around the house when you were quite young?  Were they an influence on you?

They were a huge influence on me musically, particularly my dad.  He loved percussion and had congas, bongos, snare drums and cymbals in the garage.  He listened to everything from Bobby Darin to Al Green to Jim Croce.

2. This is something that I THINK we share: there was an avalanche of innovation and exploration in music that was fueled in the ‘60s and certainly firing on all cylinders in the ‘70s—was this in some way a breeding ground for your path into music?

Definitely.  My first memory is of my grandmother buying me the 45 of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” per my request.  I was four years old.  The ‘70s were hugely influential on me, especially the radio hits of the day.  I discovered Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, Prince, Elvis Costello.  Still my favorite artists of all-time.

3. When you first started building your own record collection, where did you go to shop for music?  And what was the first album, or first few albums, that you purchased?

Atkins Music Center in Connellsville.  It’s still there but now they specialize in instruments.  The first album I bought with my own money was Slowhand by Eric Clapton.  I got Earth, Wind and Fire’s Greatest Hits for Christmas one year.  One of my favorite albums.  I still have both of them.  I also spent many hours and dollars at National Record Mart in Laurel Mall.

4. What was your first significant music-related experience in terms of starting off on the road to your eventual career?

I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Stanley Theater in 1980 on the Damn the Torpedoes tour.  He opened with “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).”  It feels like yesterday.  Tom made me want to be a musician.

5. Did you face any particular noteworthy challenge(s) in working toward your career goals?

I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 19 years old, much later than the other guys in the band and successful musicians in general.  I sucked for a long time.  It took a good 10 years to figure it out, and then another 5 or so to find my voice.

6. What were some of your favorite concerts back in your youth, AND a couple of your absolute favorite shows that you’ve seen in recent years?

The aforementioned Petty concert was life-changing.  I saw Prince at Mellon Arena in 2004 on the Musicology tour.  It was in the round and I was on the floor near the stage.  He was absolutely mesmerizing.  Best concert I’ve ever seen.  I saw Sting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall in January.  I love him.  One of my favorite concert experiences.  I recently saw Rod Stewart and Cheap Trick with my wife.  Rod was good but Cheap Trick was great.  I felt like a teenager.  We were on the floor and I was the only one standing, pumping my fists and totally into it.  I apologized to the people behind me.  They laughed and said it was fine.  There was a woman near us with a walker.  It was surreal.

7. What artist(s) have you met in person that you really felt a connection with?

Joe Walsh.  We opened some shows for him in the late ‘80s before the Eagles got back together and when he was still partying hard.  Nice guy.

8. Name a song or two that eternally hits you right in the gut, emotionally.

“Cover Me Up” by Jason Isbell.  Just a terrific piece of songwriting--the melody, the lyrics.  He’s a great writer. I really like the Morgan Wallen version too.  He drops it a half-step, adds some pedal steel, slide, and harmony vocals.  I want “Fields of Gold” by Sting played at my funeral.  “You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley.”  Maybe my favorite song ever.

9. These days, how do you listen to and compile your music?  Streaming?  “Old school” vinyl?  What artists are you listening to lately?

Streaming and vinyl.  New school and old school.  I listen to Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, boygenius, Blur, Lydia Loveless.  I still listen to old stuff like Sting, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan.  One of my favorite artists is a friend of mine named Julian Velard.  We toured together back in the day.  He’s a New Yorker currently living in LA.  He’s a super-talented songwriter, pianist.  Great songs, great voice.  Check out his album If You Don’t Like It, You Can Leave.

10. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Eric Clapton said “I’m very conscious of the fact that if there’s music playing in a place where I’m talking to somebody or if I’m with the family having dinner at home and I’ve got the iPod on the dock, half of me is listening to music.  I’m gone half the time [laughs].  It’s an addiction.”  My question: is this you as well?

I have music playing constantly but I’m still present if I’m with people.  I’m very aware of what’s being played when I’m out somewhere, and at what volume.  And I’m judging.

 

SCOTT   MERVIS

1. What did your parents listen to around the house when you were quite young?  Were they an influence on you?

My dad, a WWII Air Force veteran, listened to classical and big band music.  My mom loved Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Top 40.  There were also soundtrack albums in the house, like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and I would listen to some of those.  My parents were not a big influence on me, musically.  My sisters were (see next answer).

2. This is something that I THINK we share: there was an avalanche of innovation and exploration in music that was fueled in the ‘60s and certainly firing on all cylinders in the ‘70s—was this in some way a breeding ground for your path into music?

100 percent.  My oldest sister was one of the OG Shadyside hippies and had a record collection with The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Zappa, etc., and when she wasn’t around, I used to go into her room and look through them.  They were scary but fascinating.  My other sister was more into singer-songwriters like Dylan, James Taylor, Elton John, Carole King, etc.  They both went to see the Beatles at the Civic Arena in ‘64.  They were a huge influence.  My own journey went Jackson 5 > Elton John > Kiss > Dylan/Dead > punk. 

3. When you first started building your own record collection, where did you go to shop for music?  And what was the first album, or first few albums, that you purchased?

I started buying R&B soul singles, like the Stylistics and Al Green, at Heads Together in Squirrel Hill.  The first album I bought on my own, as a teenager, was Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus (with my high school gf, “Miracles” was “our song”).  I would also shop at NRM, Downtown, and then in college at Jim’s Records and the Jerry’s joints.

4. What was your first significant music-related experience in terms of starting off on the road to your eventual career?

Well, I had a dual major in college of Business and English Lit (I know, weird), but I was really more interested in Dylan, the Dead, punk rock and reading people like Hunter S. Thompson, PJ O’Rourke, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh and the PG’s own Barry Paris.  After seeing Gang of Four at CMU, I knew I really wanted to start writing about music, and I began working at The Pitt News, starting with a review of an album by The Call.  During my Pitt years, I got to interview Gang of Four backstage at the Stanley, and that was it.  Also, seeing the Iron City Houserockers and Carsickness around the Pitt campus made a huge impact, because I learned there were great bands here as well.

5. Did you face any particular noteworthy challenge(s) in working toward your career goals?

The Post-Gazette wasn’t hiring when I graduated in ‘83, so I took a delivery job Downtown, and on my travels, I saw this free magazine (can’t even remember what it was called) and the entertainment section really sucked.  I walked up to their offices and told them I would do their entertainment page for free.  They said OK.  I did that for a month or two, and then In Pittsburgh Newsweekly suddenly appeared.  They hired me right away and I was mentored there by the great Abby Mendelson, who schooled me on journalism.

6. What were some of your favorite concerts back in your youth, AND a couple of your absolute favorite shows that you’ve seen in recent years?

My mom took me to see the Jackson 5 in the early ‘70s.  That was my first.  Then, around ‘77, my friends and I started seeing shows like Kiss, Aerosmith, Skynyrd (we met Ronnie Van Zant outside the Chatham Center).  Fave shows in college years included Gang of Four, Elvis Costello (Clash were disappointing), Peter Gabriel, Ramones, Talking Heads, Dylan, The Dead, Springsteen.  Always loved seeing A.T.S., The Cynics, Houserockers, as well.  In recent years, some of my fave shows were Springsteen (again), Nick Cave, Tool, Wilco, Neil Young, Chris Stapleton, Stevie Nicks…Taylor Swift!

7. What artist(s) have you met in person that you really felt a connection with?

I don’t really do a lot of the backstage stuff cause I’m always writing about the show.  There have been a few artists where we just talk long past the interview.  Art Alexakis of Everclear comes to mind.  Also, Stevie Nicks.

8. Name a song or two that eternally hits you right in the gut, emotionally.

A lot of Springsteen stuff does that, like “Thunder Road” and “The River.”  My big emotional album, believe it or not, is Dylan’s “Street Legal,” because it was him gazing over the abyss.

9. These days, how do you listen to and compile your music?  Streaming?  “Old school” vinyl?  What artists are you listening to lately?

Basically, I’m just streaming Spotify and a few Sirius stations.  I love listening to Yacht Rock, The Bridge and Steely Dan to chill.  My fave Spotify playlist is a noisy mix of Cloud Nothings (probably my fave modern band), Car Seat Headrest, Titus Andronicus, Manchester Orchestra, PUP, etc.  I also listen to a lot of Morgan Wallen.

10. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Eric Clapton said “I’m very conscious of the fact that if there’s music playing in a place where I’m talking to somebody or if I’m with the family having dinner at home and I’ve got the iPod on the dock, half of me is listening to music. I’m gone half the time [laughs]. It’s an addiction.” My question: is this you as well?

Of course!  But everyone by now understands that I might get distracted with that.

 

SCOTT  TADY

1. What did your parents listen to around the house when you were quite young?  Were they an influence on you? 

Mom listened to the Beatles and saw them at the Civic Arena...she still has the ticket stub ($5.25).  Also a lot of Eagles ("One of These Nights"), Cher, Billy Joel and Neil Diamond.  Dad was more of a country-western fan, especially "Hee Haw," and we teased him mercilessly for watching that silly TV show.  It was quite a revelation to me, deep into my adulthood, what great musicians Buck Owens and Roy Clark are.  My parents' appreciation for music, and mom's keen interest in concert-going, definitely influenced my career choice.  

2. This is something that I THINK we share: there was an avalanche of innovation and exploration in music that was fueled in the ‘60s and certainly firing on all cylinders in the ‘70s—was this in some way a breeding ground for your path into music?

For sure, those wide-spanning '70s songs were pivotal in sparking my lifelong obsession with music.  From Aerosmith to Zappa; punk to prog (though I wish we still called it "art rock.”)  It's amazing how many of those '70s songs have stood the test of time, and yes I'd include the once-maligned disco, which needed to go away, but then fortunately came back when we needed a nostalgia kick.  I think the predominant album format of the '70s--those artful LPS with cover photos and lyrics we studied like the Rosetta Stone--fueled the interest for many of us.  There's nowhere near the same personal connection with a Spotify stream. 

3. When you first started building your own record collection, where did you go to shop for music?  And what was the first album, or first few albums, that you purchased?

Rode my 10-speed bike several miles to the Bethel Park Murphy's Mart to buy cassette tapes of The Doors Absolutely Live and Aerosmith's Toys in The Attic.  Then I discovered if I rode an extra mile up Route 88, I could reach the National Record Mart.  I was hooked.  The obsession grew once me and my friends discovered Eide's on the North Side (the original location where PNC Park now stands).  Eide's was well worth the trip on the Shannon-Drake trolley to snag Motorhead, Peter Gabriel-Genesis and live bootleg albums.

4. What was your first significant music-related experience in terms of starting off on the road to your eventual career?

My first byline was a review of the '82 Aerosmith concert for the South Park High School newspaper.  That was such a rush, I knew I needed to find a way to make a living out of reviewing concerts.  Proud to say, I individually interviewed all 5 original members of Aerosmith for the Beaver County Times, needing to wait until Steven Tyler was at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center publicizing his American Idol stint.  One of my Tyler questions sparked a debate between him and Jennifer Lopez!

5. Did you face any particular noteworthy challenge(s) in working toward your career goals?

The biggest challenge was waiting for my opportunity.  I spent my first 9 years in journalism serving as a news reporter--including school board and county commissioners coverage, election night coverage, police & fire reports, etc.  I'd beg for entertainment assignments to prove my worth, including a day-in-the-life of Star Lake Amphitheatre story I wrote in 1995, spending a 12-hour day there backstage when Rusted Root played for 23,000 hometown fans.  I wore my editors down, and when our entertainment reporter left for law school, I swooped in. 

6. What were some of your favorite concerts back in your youth, AND a couple of your absolute favorite shows that you’ve seen in recent years?

I rank favorite shows by decades.  1980s was Yes; 1990s was Rolling Stones; 2000s was U2 (all at Civic Arena); 2010s was Nick Cave at Carnegie Music Hall, and Paul McCartney christening Consol Energy Center was a close-second.  Favorite show so far in 2023 was The Sadies at Club Cafe, with maybe 60 of us in the audience.  Last year's Billy Joel show at PNC Park was epic. 

7. What artist(s) have you met in person that you really felt a connection with?

Taylor Swift backstage on her first arena tour when she opened for George Strait.  She was so humble and easy to talk to but you could sense her fierce determination.  That early exposure for me has made it a treat watching Swift's well-deserved ascent to superstardom, and I can report she was equally nice, funny and focused when I spoke with her backstage in 2018 at Heinz Field.  For phone interviews, three of my faves were Billy Corgan, J. Geils' Peter Wolf and Todd Rundgren, each of whom let me go way over the allotted time to have conversations that felt like old friends catching up.  Wolf made sure we met up on his tour bus a few months later to continue our chat.  His enthusiasm was inspiring. 

8. Name a song or two that eternally hits you right in the gut, emotionally.

"The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" by Genesis.  Something about that piano riff intro then the other instruments crashing in dramatically, then off we go on Peter Gabriel's surrealistic journey.  Instantly whisks me back to younger, carefree days of discovery.  The Pogues' "If I Should Fall From Grace From God" makes me want to chug a bottle of whisky and go carousing.  Anything off Dire Straits' "Alchemy" is a beautiful escape.  And the Eagles “Take It to The Limit,” especially that line “If it all fell to pieces tomorrow / Would you still be mine?”  Affects me every time.

9. These days, how do you listen to and compile your music?  Streaming?  “Old school” vinyl?  What artists are you listening to lately?

I'm streaming all the time--YouTube Music and album links sent by publicists--especially now compiling the all-important Year-End-Best-Albums list.  That's kept me busy listening to Blondshell, Bully, Elle King, Jessie Ware, boygenius, Ashley McBryde, Shana Cleveland, Olivia Rodriguez...the ladies are slaying this year. 

10. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Eric Clapton said “I’m very conscious of the fact that if there’s music playing in a place where I’m talking to somebody or if I’m with the family having dinner at home and I’ve got the iPod on the dock, half of me is listening to music. I’m gone half the time [laughs]. It’s an addiction.”  My question: is this you as well?

I feel ya', Eric!  I often comment on background music others haven't noticed.  The default channel on our TV is Comcast MusicChoice Indie (second-pick is MusicChoice Adult Alternative).  It's on a few hours a day, playing commercial-free music while running little factoids about each featured band.  If the TV is on and I can't find a soccer match, I'm usually "watching" a music channel.

 

 

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Posted 10/8/23....TROUBLE IN MIND

 

Looking back from my retirement (a nice perch, I must confess), I am thankful that my own long and winding road was sketched out like notes floating along a musical score; I spent a lot of years of my occupational life in the music business.  

One stretch of employment actually lasted 17 years, and this began in 1991 with my marketing director position at the 23,000-capacity amphitheater near Pittsburgh (note: it was called Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre up through 1999, and then renamed Post-Gazette Pavilion beginning in 2000).  When my boss Tom Rooney left Star Lake to join the ranks of our corporate decisionmakers in Houston, Texas in 1995, I jumped into the general manager’s chair and held that position all the way up to the beginning of 2008.  My main charge, as the position’s title implies, was to manage a core full-time staff and a much larger contingent of seasonal employees each summer.  

Yet the job was so much more--continually challenging, occasionally mind-numbing and quite often mind-blowing.  There is in this business of operating a sizeable outdoor venue a perpetual unpredictability that is both a blessing and a curse.  For one thing, the artists and bands come in many different stripes, of course, and their audiences range from docile to...well, let’s just say, demonstrative.  And because every show that’s headed your way has its own unique challenges--some of them anticipated; others popping up like microbursts--an old friend, Stress, is always whispering within you.

I realized long ago that Stress is an unworthy companion.  If you can keep the Ol’ Devil at bay before He fully settles in, great.  But sometimes He has His way, and the Queasy Little Beast looms large.

Here are three examples of particularly stressful days at “The Lake” (which is what most of us that worked there internally dubbed it):

1. Every summer for a long stretch beginning in 1997, a crazy train pulled up to the Star Lake station.  First engineered by my employer Pace to feed its amphitheaters a money-making, rafter-shaking event, the annual OzzFest soon became a must-see attraction for--excuse my dissings here--the disheveled and the disenfranchised. 

OzzFest typically began around 11:00 am and ran a full twelve-hour day with multiple stages around the venue, plus vendor and sideshow attractions peppered throughout.  In the process of mounting each year’s tour, crazy train conductor Ozzy usually welcomed aboard a multitude of high-volume support acts--artists with wholesome-sounding names like Megadeth, Snot, Life of Agony, Slayer, Fear Factory, Disturbed, and Methods Of Mayhem--and consequently our venue was awash annually in debilitating decibels to the utter delight of The Great Unwashed.

The mood at the day-long OzzFest always held hints of malevolence.  Over time, the venue’s staff became well accustomed to the patterns of the day.  Fan friskiness began early on and as the day progressed, it was bolstered by the baking sun as well as abetted by alcohol.  Then in the approaching dusk there was a definite shift in the wind.  Right around then we would see, here and there, little vortexes of squabbles and skirmishes inevitably on their way to bigger brawls, and roving, glassy-eyed firebugs on the lawn itching to get their party started.  These were the road signs leading all of us to OzzFest After Dark.

On the venue’s lower westside there was a clock-face that stood high in one of our large planters in the center of the plaza, and my director of operations and my food-and-beverage manager routinely met me there around 7:00 pm on the days of OzzFests.  Though Aramark (the concessionaire) would have the last word about a shutdown time for the beer stands, there would always be an earnest discussion between the three of us on the general mood of the crowd, the number of incidents thus far, etcetera.

In all of my years at the amphitheater, there was only one time that our in-the-shadow-of-the-clock discussion led to a very early alcohol shutdown (note that the venue’s and the concessionaire’s usual policy was to cease sales about an hour or two before the end of any given show).  On that particular OzzFest--memory doesn’t serve as to exactly which year this was--the three of us gathered at the clock at 7:00 pm and the expressions we wore walking toward each other told the tale before a single utterance.  It was, we agreed, essential to play “Taps” for the taps right then and there.  Though the festival wasn’t supposed to fold until 11:00 pm or even a bit thereafter, Aramark pulled the plug on all alcohol sales on the spot.  

Postscript on this one: Over its many stops at Star Lake, OzzFest brought us many law-abiding fans who were laser-focused on the music as their primary fuel.  But in this one above instance, we had perceived--in our nerve-jangling meeting at the clock--that there were just too many doom clouds on the darkening horizon for us to conduct business as usual.

 

2. WXDX-FM (“The X”) started up an annual alternative music festival in the late 1990s.  From the very beginning this Pittsburgh radio station managed to put together some truly powerhouse lineups for their annual X-Fest.  In its third consecutive year (2000) the festival was once again scheduled to take place in the month of May, and the X was able to land Stone Temple Pilots as their headliner.  Those of us at the venue found out firsthand that, true to the whiffs of legend that had wafted our way beforehand, lead singer Scott Weiland was both an alleged partaker and a rule breaker.  

At one point late in the day before the band’s headlining set, I got a call on my venue radio from my security chief to immediately come backstage.  There I found Scott Weiland standing near one of our venue golf carts literally in the grip of two venue security guards, one on each arm.  A local township police officer was also on hand.

Weiland looked distracted and discombobulated.  The security guard on Weiland’s right sported a beautiful shiner, and the police officer recounted a quick tale of Weiland’s efforts to hotwire--with a screwdriver--one of our golf carts for a joyride around the venue.  When the security guards tried to stop him from this cart-jacking, Weiland reportedly unleashed Linda Blair-worthy expletives and then had to be physically removed from the driver’s seat.  He apparently then calmed down and asked the guards to please let loose their grips--and then he sucker-punched the guard to his right.

Now back in the grip of the long arms of the law, Weiland fidgeted and mumbled as the police officer asked me The One Hundred Thousand Dollar Question--Did I want him to be arrested for assault?  All eyes were on me--except the one below the one guard’s shiner--and I gave an answer that had come to me quite easily.  An apology would suffice, I told the policeman, and the spacey yet truculent lead singer would be remanded to the supervision of his tour manager with assurances from the latter that all off-stage antics from Weiland would cease.

As the singer walked off with his handler I heard another roar out front from the sell-out crowd of 23,000, all greeting the next main-stage artist who was filling the slot right before Stone Temple Pilots were scheduled to take the stage. 

Case closed on this one: we let the wily Weiland wiggle free and justice wasn’t fully served, of course.  But clearly this was neither the time nor the place for “an eye for an eye.”

3. Stress can rear its ugly countenance not only on the days of actual concerts.  It was sometime in the early 2000s, on a sleepy Wednesday, and we had just finished a stretch of shows and were beginning to prep for another burst of multi-event activity yet to come.  Typically the days between shows at the venue were prime for catch-up: facility cleanup and maintenance efforts, paperwork pushed out to Corporate, and quick meetings set up with department heads to address pressing items while we were in the calm before the next storm.  On that particular Wednesday, Facility Operations Director Shag Wright radioed me to say that he had just been alerted to some troubling news courtesy of the local police.  

Shag came to my office and we had a one-on-one conversation; no one else, he said, was being apprised of this situation at this particular point in time.  Apparently a fan from the last show who had been partying in our parking lots had gone out of the parking area and over a grassy hill to relieve himself (note: a lot of the areas on Star Lake’s property adjacent to the lots are various wetlands and/or undeveloped terrain).  The fan, Shag said, had stumbled down to the marshy recesses to do his business and there he spotted a skeleton on the ground by a tiny stream’s edge--and it looked to him like the bones of a small child.

My face must have gone ashen, because Shag very quickly blurted out the next steps which were already in motion: an assistant coroner from a nearby municipality was on his way to the scene right now so that he could put finality on the findings.  The good thing at present?  No missing persons’ reports anywhere in our area.  Still, this was stomach-churning news and we hoped against hope that it wasn’t what we feared.

Shag ran off to meet the assistant coroner and said he would report back within the hour.  I debated calling Corporate but decided to hold off just until Shag returned with more concrete news.  He came back 45 minutes later and thrust himself down on my small couch opposite the desk.  He pushed his ballcap back and stared at me dispassionately for maybe three or four seconds.  

“We got there,” Shag said, “and the assistant coroner put on gloves and just started his poking around, saying ‘Oh my God, I think this IS a child’s skeleton!’”

I looked at Shag in terror, but he didn’t allow it to take root.

“So I asked the guy,” Shag continued, “‘Well, if it IS a small child, do they all have one of THESE?!!!’  I pushed away the guy’s hands and picked up the thing by its tail--‘cause it was a beaver!”

Relief flooded in.  Shag went on to say that perhaps this assistant coroner was not someone who the municipality should promote to the next level, all things considered...

Stress is a companion for Life.  We get tested; sometimes bested.  But keep it at bay, I say.  Things have a way of working out even in the most potentially harrowing of circumstances.  Just like this last entry--this little, uh, tale of the unexpected.

 

 

 

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Posted 9/24/23....THE SEPTEMBER OF MY YEARS

Listening recently to some songs by Sinatra, I came across one that fit the moment--or in this case, fit the month.  It was the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen composition “The September of My Years,” and it made me reflect back on the Septembers of my life working at what is currently known as The Pavilion at Star Lake (originally Star Lake Amphitheatre).  September was the month each concert season that, for the most part, signaled the near end of the frenetic pace that we’d been on since the very first show in May.  With eyes on the prize--the ability to schedule departmental debriefings and then segue to facility shutdown and winterization--we’d barrel through the remaining handful of shows in that month of September while thoughts of the off-season danced in our heads.

Some of the September shows were especially memorable, though, and as I look back over my seventeen years at Star Lake, a few of them stand out because of their uniqueness.  Some of them were fascinating, must-see festival events...others broke an existing record of some kind...and still others were interesting from a very personal perspective.

FARM AID: SEPTEMBER 21, 2002 WITH A RETURN ENGAGEMENT ON SEPTEMBER 16, 2017

Back in 2002 I was the general manager of the 23,000-capacity Post-Gazette Pavilion (formerly Star Lake Amphitheatre) when Farm Aid came for the first time in its history to the southwestern Pennsylvania region.

The concert was a life-changer for me.  One of the many pleasures of the whole experience was getting to work with mission-driven people whose interests rose above the typical lust for loot.  From the moment of my first connection with the Farm Aid team to the time they rolled on out of town post-show on September 22, there was just this energizing atmosphere of harmony and mutual respect—a bit of a rarity, perhaps, when two very different organizations meet and try to meld in pursuit of putting on a major sell-out show.

I learned much from that experience, and also created a couple of lasting friendships.  After the festival’s second appearance at the venue in 2017, I reached out to Farm Aid’s Executive Director Carolyn Mugar and Associate Director Glenda Yoder and told them I’d love to pick their brains a bit.  I was eminently curious about how they now regarded Pittsburgh, having played here two times, but fifteen years apart.

The resulting phone call with these two Farm Aid principals is one of my most treasured September memories.  In particular, I loved the insider’s view that they afforded me when I asked them about the similarities and the differences they found in Pittsburgh in 2017 versus their initial visit in 2002.  Glenda fielded first.

Glenda: “My first thought here is the consistency of working with some of the groups.  The Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Farmers’ Union were both strong in 2002 and they’re still strong today.  What was new this time was the myriad of local produce aggregators and co-ops, and the spirit around the urban and rural connections through food and farming.

“In our press event back in 2002, one of the main points we were making was that the organic rule (through the U.S. Department of Agriculture) had just passed, and we made that a pretty big deal because we saw that this was going to lead to the capacity for eaters to have a way to learn more about who produced their food and how their food was produced.  We also saw how organic third-party certification could spark everyone’s interest in connection to the source of their food.  That opened up a sea change in awareness about transparency, about the supply chain, and that felt like a historic moment in terms of food and farming.

“In 2002, though, we didn’t have our homegrown concessions yet, and we didn’t have our homegrown brand to reach out to eaters.  I’m pretty sure we had Patchwork Family Farms selling their pork at your amphitheater that year, but we hadn’t yet taken over the whole concession scene.  It became clear to us then that we had an opportunity in the food movement, and we all started working and thinking about that. 

“In 2004 we went out to ad agencies and began to look at what our branding and reach could be to eaters, more specifically to connect them to farmers, and then we launched our homegrown brand in 2007.  The annual concert itself with its connection to food evolved enormously after that…That year also was the first time that we made it a deal point with Live Nation venues that all of the food that came on the property would come through our screen.”

Carolyn: “To me a huge difference from the 2002 Farm Aid to this one is also in the different way that we move now.  We are reaching out more broadly, and through our Homegrown Village we reach out to a lot of people to find who in the area is doing work that illustrates and drives deeper into what Farm Aid is all about.

“Around the actual concert date each year, we’ve always had meetings associated with Farm Aid, sometimes a town hall meeting, sometimes something on the morning of the show.  We’ve had all kinds of different ways of bringing people together, and the last several years we have it sort of on a theme, and in Pittsburgh we used the theme of creating wealth—something we labeled Homegrown Prosperity. 

“We found ourselves in a really positive place this year in Pittsburgh, and that really represents where we are in the whole country, in a sense.  It’s about the true wealth that can be created by family farmers and the thing we were able to illustrate, by bringing people together so they could talk about it, was what people are doing in the Pittsburgh area—creating co-ops, and also urban growing, where they are teaching kids about responsibility, about farming, and about what it means to be connected to your food.  It’s great stuff there, and that is what we found so heartening.  Pittsburgh just happened to have fabulous illustrations of this...

“The value of going to different places each year with the concert, even though it’s really hard, is that you really do deepen your connections.  So inevitably you add more people into the mix when you’re talking about the various specific efforts that we’re involved in.  For example, this time we really deepened our knowledge about some urban farming around Pittsburgh, some leading farmers in urban areas, some co-ops, several co-op issues; I would say there were many issues that were deepened by the connections that we made this time.  And those will be automatically rolled into our work; they already are.  And we’re already back in touch with a lot of these people.  It is a lot of work going to a new place each year, but it always benefits us.  Always.  And I consider this Pittsburgh experience really, really good.”

[postscript: Farm Aid 2023 took place just this past weekend (Saturday, September 23) in Nobelsville, Indiana and was, once again, a sell-out event.  And a particular highlight was the surprise appearance of Bob Dylan who performed three songs to the satisfaction (and I’m sure stupefaction!) of the festival audience.  This was Dylan’s first performance at Farm Aid since the inaugural year of the event in 1985.]

...AND A FEW MORE MEMORABLE SEPTEMBER SHOWS (which, for some inexplicable reason, all fell on the 24th of the month)...

TOBY KEITH: SEPTEMBER 24, 2004

At Star Lake Amphitheatre during the 1990s we were big on plaques.  For noteworthy shows we would spend a few hundred dollars on these commemorative items for presentation to the headlining star that night, inscribing upon them the artist’s name, the concert date, and whatever achievement we were lauding, like a sold-out show or an unbroken string of appearances at our venue.

The artists seemed to like this extra touch, but honestly our prime motivation was to get a photo of our amphitheater principals with the star and his or her manager so that we could feed it to the industry trade magazines like Pollstar and Performance.  A picture is worth a thousand words—we loved to see ourselves in print a few weeks down the line, with the published photo and the caption that inevitably extolled our venue as a hotspot for big shows, big attendances, and big paydays for the bands.

The above photo is of Toby Keith on 9/24/04 receiving a plaque that not only commemorated his sell-out show, but an all-time attendance record he had set that very night—the largest crowd at the amphitheater in its fifteen-year history.  Our Nashville-based country music booker Brian O’Connell (second from the left) had been dead set on getting to that particular mark of distinction for Toby, ever since I let it slip to Brian in the not-too-distant past that Steve Miller had taken the title through a show of his in 1999.

Some people call Miller the Space Cowboy, some people call him the Gangster of Love.  But we at the venue began calling him “Steve Miller Number Two” after that September night in 2004 with Toby.  In the weeks leading up to Toby’s concert we were all watching the daily ticket sales like hawks, even expanding the lawn capacity to potentially uncomfortable levels (sorry, country fans) so that Toby could triumph.  His will be done: the final attendance for Mr. Keith that night was 27,250, beating back the once-proud Mr. Miller by a margin of 1,096 tickets.

FLEETWOOD MAC: SEPTEMBER 24, 1997

Here we’re talkin’ the Big Mac, of course--the most commercially viable line-up of this group that had originally formed in England in 1967.  It wasn’t until late 1974 that California duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band after its latest membership shuffle, and this particular injection propelled the band to chart-topping success here, there, and everywhere.

In the spring before each outdoor concert season truly arrived, our booker from our parent company Pace Music Group would routinely survey the amphitheater general managers about upcoming summer concert opportunities.  The news of Fleetwood Mac’s reformation of their mid-1970s powerhouse line-up and their pledge to tour together for the first time since 1980 were indeed welcome bits of info.  

We were a bit startled by the ticket prices that were suggested for this amphitheater tour, though.  As was becoming par for the course this upper echelon band was asking for a LOT of money from each venue, and the only way to try to snag a win with that hefty of an artist price tag was to goose the ticket prices way up beyond “normal” levels.  So we followed that logic and, still a bit queasy, we held our collective breath.

The show was booked, placed on sale, and sold every damn ticket.  Fleetwood Mac’s national publicity machine was a driver, for sure, and the band had--before the tour commenced--produced a new live-on-a-soundstage CD of largely their hits entitled The Dance.  Then MTV, along with strong radio play and word-of-mouth, laid final waste to any lingering ticket-price resistance; the Mac fans from way back had salivated for much too long and just wouldn’t be denied.

I remember the show to be an audio marvel. The sound system and mix were stellar, and the band on this chilly September evening was on fire.  I remember at one point strolling along “sponsor row”—our corporate boxes near the stage—and I believe I saw every single bigwig from every company that had signed up with us for that summer of shows.  One glassy-eyed reveler leaned over his box railing, beaming at me.  “This sure beats that Ozzfest pummel-your-head crap,” he slurred. “But, my son loved that show.”

THE BEACH BOYS: SEPTEMBER 24, 1993

Thirty years ago in 1993 the Beach Boys were already in essence a bunch of tired old guys.  They were all entering their fifties and had been peddling that surf-sand-and-sun stuff for seemingly centuries.  Friday, September 24th turned out to be a very chilly Fall evening at Star Lake Amphitheater, certainly not ideal for another warmed-over unspooling of this band’s summer sentiments.  The reason I remember the cold that night was because of my late wife Margot, who had found herself backstage with a friend in a Beach Boys meet-and-greet/photo-opportunity prior to the group’s performance.  

She was told to huddle close with the other few folks in attendance, so that everyone could squeeze into the shot.  She related to me later that evening that she’d been positioned right next to lead singer Mike Love, and had muttered something almost under her breath as to how cold it was.  Love immediately wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in tight, smirking and whispering “Oh honey, I’ll keep you warm!”  My wife kept her revulsion largely at bay, and semi-smiled for the camera.  Somewhere, maybe lost for eternity, there is a photo of the lecherous Love in a near-groping of my wife with her priceless, restrained look of bemusement.  My temperature always rises slightly when I think about this incident, but on that cold evening in September ‘93, I very much appreciated she’d been frigid in the face of Love.

 

 

 

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Posted 9/10/23....KING OF THE ROAD

[RIP, JIMMY BUFFETT, December 25, 1946 - September 1, 2023]

In a September 9, 2023 opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Living and Dying in ¾ Time,” Maureen Dowd reflects on her friendship with Jimmy Buffett and on the singer-songwriter’s gifts, his humor, his humanity--and his humility.  “I don’t think I ever met anyone as warm,” Dowd wrote.  “He had no airs.”  The columnist later on recounted how Buffett had reached out to her this past April with his thoughts “on the occasion of ‘Margaritaville’ being enshrined as ‘culturally significant’ in the Library of Congress.”  Buffett, according to Dowd, had always been a fan of this institution which functions in a lot of ways as our nation’s library.

“I have always loved books, reading and libraries, a gift from my mother,” Jimmy told Dowd.  “The Library of Congress is a monumental treasure you don’t have to dig up; you just walk in the door of American history.  ‘Margaritaville’ in the Library of Congress.  I just have to giggle, but with pride.  I haven’t received many awards in my profession, but I am OK with that.  I think the best reward for a performer is to please the audience.”

 [photo by KatrencikPhotoArchives]

And please the audience is exactly what he did each and every time, right around 8:20 pm on a given night, when he would bound onto the stage at the Pittsburgh area’s Star Lake Amphitheatre before a clamoring, adoring suds-and-sunbaked sellout crowd of 23,000 fans...

Buffett, way back in time in the 1980s, did start out playing much smaller venues than Star Lake.  On the Pittsburgh Music History website curated by Pittsburgher Paul Carosi, there is a listing of Jimmy Buffett playing the Syria Mosque in the Oakland section of town on December 11, 1983.  And according to Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in a Buffett trivia quiz he trotted out in August 2015, that Syria Mosque gig was indeed Jimmy’s first time in the city.

I remember that date well, but not because I was there.  The 1983 Syria Mosque show came up in a conversation I had with Steve Smith of the Howard Rose Agency during the winter of 1986 when I was less than a year into my job as booking director of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.  Steve was offering up a Buffett date for our arena’s summer concert series of shows and quite dispassionately was telling me that this show was a no-brainer.  “You’ll see,” Smith said, “just do this date and you’ll be fine.  Buffett’s played there before, his fans spread the word; he comes back again, the audience increases.”  Smith maintained that he had seen this growth in multiple markets already, and that he was really just letting us know to get ready.

So we took the bait and booked Buffett, bringing his beach + hammock + margarita-mind-blur ideology to town for a show scheduled for June 24, 1986.  That evening, Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band performed an incredibly well-received set on our side-stage in front of 6,000+ rapturous hedonists, all packed together and festooned in florals, carousing and caroling to the high heavens [the arena roof was opened up that night].

Buffett came back one more time to the city of Pittsburgh before Star Lake Amphitheatre came into being.  This return to the city in December of 1989 took place at a theater called the Syria Mosque.  Six months later Star Lake opened its doors for its inaugural summer season, and Buffett’s booking team in Los Angeles—the Howard Rose Agency and the singer’s manager Howard Kaufmann—were elated that their artist could now move into the Great Outdoors in the Pittsburgh market.  Buffett by the late 1980s had been racking up considerable sales in markets where amphitheaters already existed, and on August 10, 1990 in Star Lake’s debut season Buffett appeared and started to lay claim to the throne.

This first time around Buffett drew almost 11,000 fans to the party.  In his second Star Lake stop the next summer, which was my first season employed at the venue, the artist pulled in 50% more followers.  And so Steve Smith’s words from my arena days began ringing in my ears: Buffett and his merry band—espousing the carefree island life where drive and determination matter not a whit and life pursuits are limited to locating lost shakers of salt—were converting the masses and pumping up the nascent Parrothead movement, Pittsburgh-style.

  

                                                                     

                                                                                [photos by KatrencikPhotoArchives]

What I loved most about the Buffett shows at Star Lake was the venue parking lot, where concert-goers parked campers and vans...beat the heat via hot tubs...built operating replicas of volcanos (those things were smokin’)...set up drink-tube contraptions that looked like liquid hookahs...and much, much more.  And I found out--early in Buffett’s rise to dominance and double-night engagements--that riding on the security golf-cart patrols in the lots was where one could also get lei’ed.  Grass-skirted girls would ask you to slow down so they could gingerly drop one over your head as a peace offering, and this was but another reflection of the general vibe of the denizens of this parking lot Show and Tell.  Smiles were everywhere and most senses were deliciously dulled, as Buffett’s frolicking flock seemed ever so successful at temporarily packing away all the strife of Life.

Inside the amphitheater gates along “corporate box row,” the arc of seating that runs all along the back of the venue’s first three sections in the pavilion, it was quite the social register.  For Buffett shows practically all of the venue’s top sponsors and box owners were present and accounted for, which was the extreme inverse of other situations where the box tickets didn’t mean as much and the people filling the chairs were more likely a company receptionist’s nephew and a doe-eyed date.  At Buffett, the powerbrokers and the box-lease signers were all on display; collectively they were the ones who kept this precious venue revenue stream going for us year after year, always asking at renewal time--with pen poised above the signature line--“So, is Buffett definitely coming back?”

The singer-songwriter’s concert the third year (1992) began his amazing, unbroken string of sell-outs at the Lake, and in 1994 the artist doubled down—two back-to-back nights were booked for Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11, and both sold out in advance.  Buffett’s reign had begun—and then the storm hit.  On the first night of this doubleheader, the skies filled with dark clouds and we had an incident that couldn’t be labeled anything but harrowing.

Tom Rooney, currently president of the Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group based in Pittsburgh, was executive director of Star Lake back in 1994. Rooney recalls, “Lightning made a direct hit on the main transformer rendering our sold-out show in darkness before Jimmy even hit the stage.  We were standing on the backstage deck when we saw the bolt hit and we were all lucky to survive.  We were saved by two things: the Iguanas, the opening act, traveled with a portable generator and Mark Susany, our electrician, ingeniously hooked it up on the main stage and we got (barely) through an unplugged show.  The next day Buffett’s management required a full backup generator for every show, anywhere they played!  And I still remember Star Lake’s local fire departments showing up with their trucks to provide our only lights for the parking lots.”

Through the rest of the 1990s and entering the 2000s, Buffett pretty much continued rollin’ doubles.  There were two-night stands in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2000, and he went on to truly cement his status as the Sell-Out King of Star Lake.

A few things I learned along the way in my years as marketing director (’91-’94) and then general manager (’95-’07) of the amphitheater while working the Buffett shows:

1.) The folks who were part of Buffett’s touring entourage year-in and year-out were some of the nicest, laidback music biz professionals that I’ve ever run into--tour manager Charlie Fernandez, tour accountant Henry Rosquete, John Vanderslice, Kino Bachellier, Charleston Miles, and many more.  Backstage always had a pretty consistent vibe of “What, Me Worry?” and a lot of these folks just seemed grateful that fate had called upon them to serve a guy who so unswervingly delivered the essence of summertime fun to hundreds of thousands of Parrotheads across the country.

2.) There were a couple of reasons that our amphitheater was consistently on Buffett’s summer-tour hit list of “must-play” venues: A) He liked our backstage catering a lot—especially the dinners—which in the early years were carefully cultivated by our catering company’s resident chef, a guy who went by the nickname Burger Bob.  He was a quirky but immensely talented individual who was a total vegan (of course!), but who whipped up amazing menus that ran the gamut and really pleased the tour’s palates.  And B) Our venue was a hop, skip and a jump—by small plane—from the singer-songwriter’s summer home in the Hamptons.  Buffett sometimes piloted his own small aircraft and with a tiny airstrip located in the vicinity of Star Lake, he would often arrive an hour or so before his scheduled 8:20 pm start--and then he’d be back in his plane shortly after the show wrapped up, arriving in the Hamptons by midnight or 12:30 am.  Not a bad commute for a two-hour show, one that yielded a paycheck so weighty that I’m kind of glad he didn’t take it on the plane with him.

And one last account, from my Buffett memory bank: One time in the late 1990s, I heard a story from my operations manager of a problem that one of our ushers had in the lower house, in that aforementioned realm of the venue’s row of corporate boxes.  It seems that a rather spirited (or spirits-filled) concert-goer was trying to slip his way into one of our sponsor’s boxes there, and the usher—in performance of his duties—diplomatically asked the interloper to please step outside of it for a moment.  

When the wobbly but determined individual could not produce the appropriate ticket, the usher calmly explained that the box was the property of the company who had purchased it for the season, and thus he would not be permitted to sit there.  This is the rest of their exchange, as relayed to me by my Ops guy:

* The gentleman: “I don’t care what you say, man, I am taking a seat here.”

* The usher: “Sir, I am so sorry but as I’ve explained, this box belongs to—

* The gentleman: “I DON’T CARE!  YOU DON’T KNOW WHO THE HELL I AM!  I AM A LAWYER, AND I AM GOING TO HAVE YOUR JOB!”

* The usher: “Sir, if you want to make $6.00 an hour you can certainly have my job, but you still cannot sit here.  I am very sorry.”

Suffice to say, after the show, only high-fives and accolades were given to that particular staff member for his dedication and diplomacy.  I never heard from the “lawyer.”

 

 

 

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Posted 8/27/23....ALL THAT JAZZ

 

In the summer of 1975 I began my earliest days of post-college life working part-time in an independent music store in my hometown of Butler, PA.  It was a small but mightily stocked record store called Exile which, according to its sole owner/operator Dave Kleemann, was so named because of its location just two blocks away from Butler’s main drag--hence, Exile off Main Street.  It was here that I had a chance to really start dipping heavily into the mind-altering sounds of certain Norwegian-born ECM recording artists like guitarist Terje Rypdal, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist Bobo Stenson, drummer Jon Christiansen and others.  ECM (for those still uninitiated) was and is a prestigious, hard-to-pigeonhole label—mostly European jazz, but certainly not constrained by that definition—and the bulk of the label’s studio albums have historically been meticulously and lovingly recorded in an Oslo, Norway recording studio.

Christopher Porter of jazztimes.com, “America’s Jazz Magazine,” wrote a piece dated May 9, 2019 about Norway’s established and burgeoning ECM artists, and he expressed his thoughts on how the ECM sound may first have developed.  “Norway’s stunning landscape, from fjords and mountains to glaciers and streams,” Porter said, “must have provided the artistic inspiration for these early ECM musicians who mixed bebop chops with folk-music hearts, creating melancholic music that reflects the land of the midnight sun.”

The more I listened to ECM recordings the more enchanted I became and soon, Norway became my true north.  I felt a calling, an inner need to travel to this part of the world that had produced such sonic splendor.  And my opportunity to seize the day--rather, a handful of days--came in 1983 while I was working for the Pittsburgh-based National Record Mart retail record chain.  I had racked up some decent vacation time and decided to use all of it in one glorious chunk by embarking on a “search and enjoy” mission to Norway.  And so in the spring of ’83, I set about searching for music-related summer events in that country.

Finding an address for the Norway Tourism office, I sat down and wrote them a letter [editor’s note: this may seem quaint to some younger readers].  It certainly would have been so much easier to Google it up but the internet at that point was nowhere to be found.  That doorway to instant gratification hadn’t opened up yet; it was still a long way off, down some tech corridor gestating in a womb at the end of the hall.

About two weeks after I had mailed the letter I received back a batch of information, including a pamphlet hyping a summer jazz festival taking place in fjord country in northwestern Norway in the small coastal town of Molde [pronounced “mold-ah”].  The Molde International Jazz Festival, I learned, had been around for many years, springing up in 1961 first as a three-day event featuring only one international artist along with a host of Norwegian musicians.  But by 1983 the festival was well-established as a week-long event (Monday through Saturday) hosting the best Norwegian artists along with many established names in international jazz.  In fact, the 1983 lineup set to perform July 25 through July 30 looked especially eclectic and tantalizing; it was a mix of European, American and Third World musicians, and the travel brochures and city postcards that accompanied the concert info essentially sealed the deal for me.  I set my course for the land of the Norse.

I had originally planned to travel solo, but then the woman I was dating at that time began displaying a bit of interest in the trek.  Pittsburgh born and bred Margot Gloninger was an adventurous young woman who had travelled overseas before, including a pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle [where else should the lass have gone, with her Da & Ma descending from the Gloningers and the Fitzgeralds?!!]

We spent a few evenings spreading out the maps, as Margot began to suggest a wider orbit for us.  Once over there, it would be so easy to haul ass with a Europass and we could actually get around with little expense and great ease.  Of course my original intent was just to touch down and hunker down in Molde to luxuriate in the jazz fest, but with Margot now on board we then mutually added Copenhagen...then Stuttgart and Munich...and finally Paris.  I remember saying to Margot “Are you sure all these places have record stores?”  Her green eyes flashed a rapid response, but luckily all she SAID was, “Yes, dear; they do.”

The revised plan was a good one.  Leaving the U.S. we’d have a touchdown in London just to change planes, and after a brief pit stop in Bergen, the aircraft would go right on through to Oslo on Norway’s east coast.  From there, we’d trek by cross-country train and bus to Molde on the west coast.  After sightseeing and all that jazz in Molde, we’d venture on to Copenhagen, Denmark for a day or two and then it was on to Stuttgart, Germany where Margot’s sister Annie lived.  We’d also do a daytrip to Munich with Annie, and a few days after that, journey on to Paris by ourselves.  Paris would then lead to London, and the flight back home.

We started our journey on July 24th.  The flights (Pittsburgh>Newark>London Gatwick>Bergen>Oslo) were ultimately exhausting yet thankfully uneventful, save for an inexplicable bump-up to first class at the ticket counter for the Bergen-to-Oslo portion [no protestations from us!].  Alighting in Oslo on the 25th we spent a night at Hotel Fønix, and early on Tuesday the 26th we hopped trains from Oslo > Dombås and Dombås > Andalsnes.  Boarding a bus in Andalsnes to finally make it to Molde, the sights we beheld on the trains and now on the bus ride were intoxicating.  In window seats throughout, our brains reeled as we soaked up the scenery--rolling mountains and crystalline, in-land lakes brought us colors that almost made us weep.  The mountains were the deepest, richest greens and some lakes a hypnotic icy blue, others an emerald green.  It truly looked like a land before time, pristine and clean, and dazzlingly clear.

  

Molde was welcoming.  The town is known as the “City of Roses” and the village square had a statue dubbed the Flower Girl holding a tray of roses amidst some sprouting fountains.  Every summer at this time, jazz enthusiasts reportedly jammed the boarding houses, hotels and camping sites in and around Molde, as this city of 22,000 inhabitants opened up its arms to the celebrators of this musical art form.

Jazz flowered everywhere...in the restaurants at night, in small and mid-size theaters, libraries, open-air parks, cathedrals, and even down the slim main streets of town where there were daily festival parades with marchers of all ages and golden mop-topped kids blaring horns.

During our four-day stay in Hotel Romdalshiemen on the main street of Molde, we balanced our musical must-sees with our impulse to explore.  On a couple of afternoons we spent time at the Romsdalsmuseet (Romsdal Museum) to view transplanted buildings, art and relics from around the country that predated WWII, and we found others structures as well--small model cottages akin to our log cabins--in and around Molde that had been preserved since the 14th and 15th centuries.

 

But music was our main preoccupation.  Our festival tickets gave us entrée into whole other worlds and we sought out as much music as we could in the clubs, cafes, and theaters.  On Wednesday evening July 27th we decided to check out a club called Lucullus that was featuring an Oslo band called Cutting Edge, and their overall style--my ears deduced for me--was a meld of other bands similar to German group Passport and America’s Spyro Gyra.  Here we met the keyboardist during one of the band’s breaks, and we talked to him about other festivals he’d played around the country, including ones in the municipalities of Kongsberg and Voss.

Thursday evening we struck gold in terms of seating for a show.  We were in row 5 of a theater called Kino, and here we took in a performance of American “free-form funk” drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson with his band The Decoding Society.  Jackson’s ensemble was a powerhouse and a bit overwhelming; all evening long in fact there was absolutely no letup on the fast pace and frenzied soloing.  The band at that point in time included Vernon Reid as a member, and just one year later the guitarist would end up forming his own band in NYC, Living Colour. 

On Friday evening, our last night in Molde, we were back at the Kino at 7pm to catch a group going by the name European Super Quintet.  I recognized three out of the five players, all household names in jazz circles throughout Europe.  Palle Mikkelborg, a Danish trumpeter, I knew from his presence on some late-1970s ECM albums by Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal.  Bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen I had run across when he guested on non-ECM releases with musicians including guitarist Joe Pass, pianist Oscar Peterson, trumpeter Chet Baker and many others.  And the European Super Quintet’s Philip Catherine, the guitarist, I first heard in the late 1970s through his team-ups on record with American guitarist Larry Coryell.

Margot and I thoroughly enjoyed and were edified by our ticketed shows each night, but we also came to treasure our brief encounters--in shops, at shows, in restaurants and bars--with local folks and also fellow festival attendees who had been similarly inspired to travel to Molde from far-flung places around the globe.  After Friday evening’s ticketed event we hit a club on the way back to the hotel and began looking for seats at the bar.  There was no one on stage this particular evening, but various jazz standards were blaring out over the club’s house speaker system.  It was there at the bar that we met Ole.  

This bespectacled, chain-smoking Philip Seymour Hoffman-lookin’ Norwegian man appeared to be in his late twenties, and he quickly gestured for us to sit on the two stools next to him.  Our first impression: he’s sweet, and he’s shit-faced [editor’s note: just FYI, the Norwegian translation for the latter is “drita full,” with a trill in the R sound].  Immediately after we sat down Ole shouted “OLE!” at the top of his lungs, pointing to himself with his cigarette hand, the other one nestling a glass of Pils on his lap that was now beginning to slosh over from his exuberance.

We pointed to ourselves and pronounced our own names and Ole, now rightly suspecting a language barrier, sat up a little and wheezed out a smile.  He had hazily grasped that we were from somewhere far from Scandinavia but that we had likely come to Molde for the music.  He leaned backward a bit, his face creased and deep in thought, and then suddenly leaned forward and screamed “MILES DAVIS!!!”  Margot erupted in peals of laughter and I caught on to the game just as quickly.  I gave Ole the universal thumbs-up, and yelled over the din of the house speakers, “TERJE RYPDAL!”  Ole smiled and furrowed his brow, working toward another outburst.  And for the next hour or so, amid the Pils and refills, the three of us had the best “conversation.”

Margot and I howled at Ole’s lager-fueled precision.  He knew a TON of jazz musicians, and it stoked him mightily when we nodded with smiles of recognition and then spouted one of our own: “KEITH JARRETT!”...“CHICK COREA!”...“BRIAN AUGER!”...“PAT METHENY!”  Only when Ole shouted out a regional Norway name or would deign to try a Dane did he come up short with just a shrug of the shoulders from his now-favorite American drinking buddies.  This would befuddle him, and he’d sit back and crease his features anew, his Pils-buried synapses trying to unearth yet another jazz giant that we could relate to.

Margot and I hung out, and hung in there, with Ole until we felt the tug of sleep.  We slid off our stools and with a high-five and a hug from our new friend, the two of us started for the door.  Ole stayed at the bar sitting in his swirl of smoke, his eyes now slits, smiling ear to ear.

Postscript:  We left the next morning, ultimately headed back to Oslo, then Copenhagen, and on from there...but the memories of Molde are indeed some of the best of our entire Summer ‘83 European vacation.

 

 

 

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Posted 8/13/23....THE ART OF HAPPINESS

Musicasaurus.com’s post this time was kick-started by my plucking from the bookshelf a long-forgotten Christmas present—a quite thick little reference book entitled 1,000 Record Covers.

I remember spending more than a little bit of the holi-daze a few years back immersed in this book.  It is an admirable effort in that it seeks to capture the creativity and charisma of three decades of album cover art in the U.S.  Leafing through it again I revisited some of the works of English design firm Hipgnosis, a signature name in music history which may not spark any recognition in much of the younger generation.  But for those of us who spent our youth in record stores particularly in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Hipgnosis visually dazzled us with their unique approach to photography, darkroom techniques and conceptual settings.  Some say, in a way, Hipgnosis paved a nice path for technology in terms of the eventual development of and unbridled creativity associated with photoshopping…

Read on, and become transfixed through Hipgnosis…

Pink Floyd – A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

This second studio album from Pink Floyd was noteworthy in a couple of ways.  The finished recording reflected the contributions of the outgoing Syd Barrett (jettisoned for increasingly aberrant behavior) and the incoming David Gilmour, and so Saucerful was a passing of the torch and a stabilization of the line-up.  Also, this particular album essentially launched the careers of design wizards Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, the two enterprising individuals who had come up with the cover.  After Saucerful hit stores the band’s record label EMI peppered Thorgerson and Powell with requests for additional covers for other artists the company represented, and so the design duo’s new firm Hipgnosis came into being.

It was really Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, though, that cemented Thorgerson and Powell’s reputation for album cover artistry and presented them with a slew of new artist opportunities as their fame mounted alongside the worldwide success of Moon.  In addition to keeping its fealty to Floyd with subsequent albums including Wish You Were Here and Animals, Hipgnosis began working with other top-notch bands including Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and many more.

[back and front cover unfolded outward shows complete view]

Quartermass – self-titled debut album (1970)

I have loved pterodactyls and pteranodons from the first moment my tiny, pre-teen fingers freed a plastic replica from the toy box to thwart the chomping of a brontosaurus by a marauding tyrannosaurus rex—you get the picture.  Back then, boyhood was dino heaven.  My love affair continues with this compelling cover that masks an album of progressive rock by an English band whose shelf life was just three years, 1969-1971.  

Quartermass produced this one studio album of urgent, rollicking material that fans have likened to a lesser-talented Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  In the album I also hear strong hints of Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and Bloodrock, sans the guitars.  Quartermass, named for the fictional professor who was the focus of a few sci-fi serials on British television back in the 1950s, consisted of three musicians in an organ-bass-and-drums setup.  Bassist John Gustafson handled the vocal chores while keyboard wiz Peter Robinson helmed piano, clavinet, harpsichord, synth and especially a Hammond A3, which pumped out those rich, swirling fuzz tones that warmed and won over many a young prog-rock fan.

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)

I lifted the following info from London’s Daily Mail which published an interview with one of the kids from the Houses of the Holy album cover.  The interview was timed to coincide with a reuniting Zeppelin who had agreed to a one-off appearance at the December 10, 2007 Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at London’s O2 Arena.  Writer Rick Hewett interviewed Stefan Gates, who talked about the long-ago album cover shoot on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland which featured Gates and his sister Sam.  "I've heard people saying they put wigs on several children,” he recalled, “but there was only me and my sister and that's our real hair.  I used to love being naked when I was that age so I didn't mind.  I'd whip off my clothes at the drop of a hat and run around having a great time, so I was in my element.  My sister was older so she was probably a bit more self-conscious."  Hipgnosis’ Powell and Thorgerson took several multiple-exposure shots of Gates and his sister to create the image of several more children clambering over the rocks. 

There is endless debate among rock fans over the significance of the image.  Powell has claimed he was inspired by the science-fiction book Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, in which children climb off the end of the world.  Gates—who lives in North London with wife Georgia and daughters Daisy and Poppy—is skeptical of all the theories about the artwork's meaning, including Powell's.  He told interviewer Hewett that "In a lot of cases with graphical design work it's an evolving process and they think up the explanation later.  I personally have no idea what it means.  There's something about it, though, that is disturbing and haunting perhaps more so because I am in it."

Although a fan of Led Zeppelin, Gates confessed that he has never listened to Houses Of The Holy which was released in 1973.  "It carries too much significance for me," he said.  "A part of me wants to go out to the Giant's Causeway with a big pair of speakers, strip naked and play it just to see if I have some kind of great epiphany."

Hydra – self-titled debut album (1974)

While in college at Penn State, I came upon this debut record from an Atlanta, Georgia rock band that, from the very first cut “Glitter Queen,” went full-tilt boogie.  I pretty much wore out the grooves on the album on my less-than-costly, less-than-kind stereo system at the time, head bobbing to this hormone-hyping Southern rock record for a spell—and then it was over.  I had moved along to so many other new bands through my coterie of college friends and my volunteer deejay position on the campus radio station, and I had forgotten all about the album with the man and his many heads of snake.

But in doing some additional research for this blog post late last week I rounded a bend on this design firm’s long stretch of fetching masterworks, and…there it was again.  I was smitten to be visually bitten by this old friend, the album cover that I had once cradled in college poring over liner notes while gruff vocals and gritty guitars were exploding around me.  These days the album doesn’t hold up for me at all, but I’m sure a whole host of classic rock fans trapped in amber who still listen to 102.5 WDVE Pittsburgh would soak it up if it somehow ever crept onto the playlist.

The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot (1977)

In June of 1977 I was clerking at Exile Records in Wexford, PA and furiously writing up sales slips with pen perpetually in hand as this album just flew out the doors.  Local radio stations were relentlessly playing the single “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” and the more rock-oriented ones were keying in on the album track “Breakdown.” 

The album’s theme intentionally mirrored writer Isaac Azimov’s series of short stories and novels about artificial intelligence, but not close enough to merit litigation (the rights were owned by a TV/film company).  The first book in Azimov’s series of five novels was I, Robot and reportedly Parsons and company just dropped the comma between “I” and “Robot” to avoid a slap on the wrist (best case) from the media group owners.  Project leader Parsons also shied away from direct references to the sci-fi legend’s work and so steered the lyrics toward more general themes of man vs. machine.

[back and front cover unfolded outward shows complete view]

Strawbs – Deadlines (1977)

This twelfth album by English rockers Strawbs hit record stores in 1977 as well.  Once again flashing back to my days in Exile, I remember some of my store customers—the serious collectors who finger-flicked religiously past every album in every bin—pulling this one out of the stacks and bringing it to the counter to ask the time-honored “Is this any good?”  The artwork had brought them to the counter and me to the cusp of a sale, but being an honest sales guy—that is not an oxymoron, mind you—I had to let them know that I wasn’t all that familiar with the band.

Strawbs had formed back in 1964 and originally plied a course toward bluegrass, but then went folksy before veering into progressive rock in the very early 1970s.  Keyboard master Rick Wakeman had boarded the band for two albums around that same time period before departing to join the group Yes.

Renaissance – A Song For All Seasons (1978)

This haunting Hipgnosis design was one of several done for the English folk-rock/prog-rock group Renaissance and it is a cover that I could never cast from my cranium.  This 1978 album was released in the U.S. in the very month that I started my new job as a record store display person for the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Corporation—it was March of that year—and on my front porch a week into my new gig, I found a newly-shipped poster tube containing 25 A Song For All Seasons album covers.  These were not normal covers, it should be said.  The merchandising folks at my new record-company employer’s home base in Los Angeles were obviously seasoning themselves with growth hormones, for they had retooled the cover from its original 1’ x 1’ album size and reproduced it as 4-foot x 4-foot poster. 

This made for some interesting exchanges out in the field.  Some managers of the larger record stores in my territory loved the expansive Renaissance blow-ups and cheerfully afforded me some space.  Others, especially those eking out a more flat-line existence in smaller and much less trafficked indie stores, gave me expressions I would tend to label as “bemused”—and one or two even sent me packin’ before I had a chance to unpack.

Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (1978)

Gabriel was post-Genesis by about three years when he released his second solo album in 1978, the one that his growing fan base eventually referred to as “Scratch” because of the claw marks approach on the cover.  Like the artist’s solo debut that preceded this one, and indeed his third and fourth albums that followed it, this second effort had no title other than “Peter Gabriel.”  The artist apparently didn’t mind pissing off his record company in this regard, and so all of us only have nicknames to help us more effectively identify his first four solo outings.  Gabriel’s first solo album earned the nickname “Car,” and then after “Scratch” came “Melt” and then “Security.”

Gabriel’s commercial juggernaut finally came with his fifth record, 1986’s album entitled So—yes, he had finally acquiesced to the record label’s request to give the damn thing a name, and thus relented a bit via a two-letter album title.  Sales of So weren’t just so-so.  Aided by MTV the album exploded internationally and this, plus a warm embrace by Radio, rocketed Gabriel out of cult status with songs like “Sledgehammer," “In Your Eyes," “Big Time," “Red Rain” and others.

Catherine Wheel – Chrome (1993)

This British band was pretty active all through the 1990s in terms of touring and recording yet they only have five full-length studio albums to their credit.  Catherine Wheel was labeled part of the shoegazing genre of alternative rock, so named for bands on stage who ostensibly stared downward more than most, working their effects pedals for drones and sustains.  Catherine Wheel in particular edged a bit toward metal after a time, but they preserved some lush and atmospheric leanings as well. 

The cover was designed by Storm Thorgerson, co-founder of Hipgnosis and the one who had continued on after that design firm’s dissolution in 1983.  The photo for Chrome was shot in an indoor swimming pool and eventually it graced the cover of the designer’s 1999 publication Eye of the Storm: The Album Graphics of Storm Thorgerson.

Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Mr. Love Pants (1998)

British singer-songwriter Dury was most notably a recording artist on the Stiff Records label, an independent record company born in England in 1976 which immediately caught the wave of some of the more adventurous new punk rockers emerging on the scene.  Stiff had attitude to spare, with marketing slogans like “If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a F**k,” and part of their promotional genius included mounting various tours of Stiff recording artists in their quest for world (or at least U.K.) domination.  The label’s first tour in 1977 was U.K.-only; it was dubbed the 5 Live Stiffs Tour and featured newly-established and fledging artists of the genre including Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe and Larry Wallis.

Over here in the United States CBS Records did a reasonably good job of promoting Stiff stateside through a label distribution deal, and so I was fortunate enough back in late 1978—while working as the aforementioned Pittsburgh-based Warner Brothers/Elektra/Atlantic display person—to snag a promotional copy of Ian Dury and the Blockhead’s newest single “Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick.”  An industry peer who worked as the local CBS record rep had bestowed it upon me, and this song was my introduction to Dury’s unique style—a sound that borrowed from rock, reggae, jazz and funk, often powered by English “music hall,” i.e., the music rooted in Britain’s theatrical traditions a la America’s vaudeville.  Lyrically, Dury was zany, erudite, full of word play and not above some sexual mischief.  The album cover pictured above is a Dury & Blockheads reunion record released in 1998, and it was a Storm Thorgerson production (post-Hipgnosis).

 

 

 

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Posted 7/30/23....IN THE SUMMERTIME

Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ to the beat.  Musicasaurus attended five concerts in June and three in July; some required road trips while others were right here on home turf.  I have zeroed in on three from that batch, ones I felt should really be in the spotlight this time on Musicasaurus: NASH.V.ILL, June 7 at the Three Rivers Arts Festival...Counting Crows, June 29 at MGM Northfield Park in Northfield, Ohio near Cleveland...and Billy Price, June 25 at Hartwood Acres Park, the 629-acre county park in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania located in Hampton and Indiana Townships.

  

NASH.V.ILL 

On Wednesday June 7 during this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh I went downtown with paramour Mary Ellen and friends Sharon Steele and Steve Schlick to catch some music.  We checked out an early evening set by the local band NASH.V.ILL on the festival stage that was situated at the intersection of Fort Duquesne Boulevard and Stanwix Street.

The turnout was sparse but there was no lack of enthusiasm from those who had planted themselves in front of the stage and off to the sides.  It was hard to tell the diehard fans from the curiosity seekers, though, because more than handful of them--ages 8 to 80, it looked like--couldn’t suppress limb-twitching and dance delirium once the music started.  We quickly got the sense that there was a real power and positivity to this quartet featuring the highly skilled guitarist Byron Nash and charismatic vocalist Jacquea Mae, along with Justin Brown on bass and Julz Powell on drums.  

When Nash and Mae were interviewed by Brian Sikes Howe on the latter’s Start the Beat podcast back in August 2022, Nash had talked of how he and Mae first met during a trio gig he had with his bassist and drummer the previous summer.  During the band’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Nash couldn’t help but notice in the crowd a spirited young woman with a big voice singing right along.  He was startled and so taken with this projection of power that on the spot he called out to audience member Mae to finish the vocal.  She stood up and did it, with no microphone in hand, so loud and strong that it sounded as if she’d had one all along.  That was how it all started, Nash recalled, pointing out that another person in the audience had filmed these moments and tagged Mae, so he quickly reached out to her on Instagram.  NASH.V.ILL had come together.

In September 2022 in an interview with the Beaver County Times’ entertainment editor Scott Tady, Nash did his best to describe the band’s sound, saying that it was indeed a melting pot.  “If you like Aretha, B.B. King, Biggie Smalls and Led Zeppelin smothered in hot-buttered, old-school soul,” Nash told Tady, “then you’ll love NASH.V.ILL.”  The four of us last month at Three Rivers Arts Festival ended up feeling exactly that way as the band wrapped up their hour-long performance.  NASH.V.ILL’s music was something to behold--a riveting set of near-metal fueled by funk and imbued with a stew of rock, blues, gospel and soul.

 

     

COUNTING CROWS

When I first heard about Counting Crows coming to Pittsburgh this summer I was tempted to add this to my list of must-sees.  The Crows had alighted on Star Lake Amphitheatre several times in the past including a touchdown in the summer of 1997 on July 12, a great show that I hardly recall because, well, I worked there.  As general manager of the facility, my responsibilities did NOT include soaking in a full performance of anyone on stage, and any effort to get in synch with the show for more than a song or two was almost always thwarted by the need to respond to, among other things, security chatter on the radio...or to monitor the length of the lines at our concession stands...or to fetch and then run up-to-date TicketMaster audits down to the tour accountant backstage.  So, I had really never been in a position to properly savor the Crows.

Now the band was headed toward Pittsburgh once again, this time settling into the UPMC Events Center, principally a basketball arena and part of Robert Morris University in Moon Township near Pittsburgh.  The Crows concert date was set for June 26, but my wariness of returning to that facility after a bad experience began to gnaw at me.  Tedeschi Trucks Band had played there in March of this year, but also back in February 2020 a month before COVID upended Life as We Know It.  At that 2020 show the acoustics were so bad that the band’s finesse and their instrumental prowess was something that never reached our ears all evening; the sound was a muddled, albeit powerful mess (at least in the section where we had been seated).  So with the Crows looming for June 26 of this year at UPMC Events Center, and “UPMC” in this instance now meaning “Unappealingly Presenting Major Concerts,” I punted and called my friend Michael Belkin of Live Nation Cleveland.

The Crows, fortunately for me, were also scheduled on this particular tour to play a show at MGM Northfield Park, a casino complex in the Cleveland area that housed an acoustically near-perfect 1,800-seat theater for showcasing bands.  Belkin set me up to be able to acquire some decent seats, and so on this evening of June 29, 2023 I FINALLY was able to sit undisturbed, unperturbed and in the zone for a satisfyingly full taste of Crow.  Lead singer Adam Duritz and the six other band members are now pretty much all in their late 50s and although they are coming up on a 30-year anniversary of togetherness as a band, my brain still thinks of them as a relatively new group. Perhaps this is because of their sound, which stands apart from a host of other bands both musically and lyrically; they seem timeless to me.  And. at this concert, they didn’t phone in a thing.  They rolled out one sophisticated song after another, all polished professionals (including a few multi-instrumentalists) powering through a catalogue of self-penned stories-in-song with an arresting cover to boot (Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”).  

Here is the set list from that evening: “Mrs. Potter's Lullaby”...“Mr. Jones”...“Colorblind”...“Butterfly In Reverse”...“Omaha”...“Come Around”...“Recovering the Satellites”...“When I Dream Of Michelangelo”...“Friend Of The Devil”...“God Of Ocean Tides”...“Round Here”...“The Tall Grass”...“Elevator Boots”...“Angel of 14th Street”...“Bobby And The Rat Kings”...“Rain King”...“A Long December”...“Time And Time Again”...“So Long So Long” (with opening act Dashboard Confessional joining the band onstage)...“Hanginaround” (also with Dashboard Confessional)...and the band’s closer, “Holiday In Spain.”

 

                                                 [2023]                                                                              [Early 1980s]

BILLY PRICE

Local rhythm & blues legend Billy Price is currently touring Pittsburgh and beyond in celebration of his most recent CD release, a 3-disc retrospective entitled Billy Price: 50+ Years of Soul.  On this career-spanning set you’ll find 41 songs representing the singer’s chosen favorites, and the collection is aptly titled because Price’s first-ever vocals appear on an album that is now 50 years old: Roy Buchanan’s That’s What I Am Here For, released in 1973. 

On June 25 some friends and I caught The Billy Price Band in action at the Hartwood Acres Park Amphitheater which is hosting a number of shows that are part of the 2023 Allegheny County Summer Concert Series lineup.  On stage that evening, Price prowled and near-howled, preaching and beseeching, intermittently snapping his fingers to the groove and occasionally raising an arm to high heaven.  This was tried-and-true Billy Price--non-stop testifyin’, most of it electrifyin’, all of it satisfyin’.

I first met Billy Price in the early 1980s when I was working for National Record Mart (NRM) at their corporate headquarters on Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh.  I started out my employment there as the chain’s display materials/in-store merchandising specialist, and part of my duties included designating priority displays for the stores as well as covering in-store appearances of artists in the Pittsburgh market and beyond.  One of my earliest memories of being with Price was driving both him and Bonnie, his wife at that time, to our Altoona NRM location one day in the fall of 1982.  The charismatic singer’s newest album with his Keystone Rhythm Band had just been released--They Found Me Guilty--and the three of us spent the afternoon at the store’s pre-promoted album-signing session. 

It was a long and winding road for Price in following his passion and making a career of it.  He spent his youth in Fair Lawn, New Jersey and early on became addicted to the rhythm & blues music spilling out of nighttime radio.  Upon entering college at Penn State’s main campus he played in a band and soon launched one of his own, the Rhythm Kings, and post-college in the early-mid 1970s had a brief interlude (two albums worth) with guitarist Roy Buchanan.  Back with the Rhythm Kings, he and his band mates moved at times between State College and Pittsburgh, and all the while his popularity in both locales was seeing a slow, steady rise.  In the very late 1970s after earning his second PSU degree in English/emphasis on writing, he ultimately decided to make Pittsburgh his home and so brought his newest ensemble, the Keystone Rhythm Band, back with him.  This newfound promise at the beginning of the 1980s, in Musicasaurus’ opinion, made Price a ready for primetime player.

“With degree in hand, I moved back to Pittsburgh around 1979, which was when I really started doing things on my own,” Price told Mark Thompson of BLUES BLAST Magazine in an interview this past May.  Though he was the cornerstone of Keystone, of course, Price was savvy enough to lure in the absolute best talent he could find and soon added some sizzlin’ sax players.  Local favorite Kenny Blake was one, and another, Eric Leeds, hopped aboard as well and just a few years down the road he ended up playing with Prince and the Revolution.  Price, after releasing his first two albums, Is It Over? (1979) and the aforementioned They Found Me Guilty (1982), then seized the day when a certain guitarist came his way.

Weekend Editor/Pop music critic Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated in his September 29, 2022 interview with Price that “The game-changer for the KRB [Keystone Rhythm Band] was the 1983 addition of Glenn Pavone, a guitarslinger from the Richmond, VA scene suggested to them by Jimmy Thackery of the Nighthawks.  With Pavone, the KRB went from a popular band that would pack the Decade in Oakland to the scene’s biggest-draw, selling out weekend stands at the 500-capacity Graffiti.” 

In 1984 as I continued in my merchandising/marketing roles at National Record Mart, and Billy Price and the KRB on the local scene were riding high, I had a bit of a brainstorm as I neared the day that I would be walking up the aisle.  I was slated to marry a wonderful woman from Pittsburgh named Margot Gloninger on September 29, and the outdoor reception was to be held in the common driveway that Margot’s parents shared with their neighbors the Bamonte family on Devon Road (near the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland).  I decided that it would be the essence of cool if I could snag Billy Price and his KRB to play at our wedding reception.

Lovely Margot ran interference with her parents on this, and although her mother Peggy voiced some surprise at the initial suggestion--thinking, I believe, that some sort of soft and soothing jazz combo might be more appropriate--we got the green light.  Actually, to start out my son-in-law status on firm footing I decided to book that jazz combo anyway, or some portion thereof.  After I had negotiated a fee with Price’s booking agent and confirmed the band’s appearance I reached out to a good friend of Margot’s named Harry Cardillo, a talented keyboardist who often played at clubs throughout the city.  Cardillo heartily agreed and said he’d bring along another musician friend, Virgil Waters, to play bass.  So musically, we were all set: Cardillo and Waters would be in the big white catering tent in the Gloninger’s backyard, providing audio ambience while people were milling around before and during dinner, and Billy Price and the KRB would be set up nearby in front of the garage’s double doors on the driveway, ready to roll just as soon as dinner had ended.

The reception was a hit.  The weather cooperated (always a good omen on one’s wedding day), and the jazz duo was perfectly in tune with what we had wanted early in the reception: instrumental mellow music at a low volume, with a focus on easy-going Great American Songbook standards.

Shortly after dinner, the driveway came alive.  Price and his KRB immediately kicked into gear with perfect-punch horns, Price’s impassioned blues-drenched vocals, and a startling, emotionally-charged in-the-pocket solo from guitarist Glenn Pavone.  It was much like that for the next 90 minutes, through songs like “Eldorado Café,” “Ace of Spades,” “You Left the Water Running,” “Lickin Stick,” “A Nickel and a Nail” and others.  Kin from both sides of the aisle spilled out onto the driveway, some smooth and practiced as they danced their blues away, others a bit more...uh, shall we say, freeform.  I remember beaming with my bride as we watched at first from the sidelines, knowing we would soon be slow-dancing in the spotlight to some of Price’s tamped-down testifyin’.  But at that moment, literally everywhere we cast a glance, we witnessed the perfect meld of adrenalin and glee.

[Thank you, Billy Price, for the memories.  I wish you all the best at this stage of your Life--and many more years on stage!]

 

 

 

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Posted 7/16/23....YOUR MOTHER SHOULD KNOW

A decade ago on Musicasaurus I posted a piece about Frank Zappa, the musician, composer and compelling cultural commentator who was a real mutha of a crusader when it came to pushing boundaries and calling out hypocrisies.  I thought that in this current climate of ours in the U.S. with roiling censorship issues, parents’ rights controversies and congressional-hearing shenanigans, now would be a good time to once again shine a light on the man’s refreshing frankness...Enjoy.

[Originally posted on July 1, 2013] ... Recently I was rooting through old posters from my past life as a record company display person when I came upon a black and white portrait-style poster of Frank Zappa.  It had been shipped to me back in 1978 from my employer at the time, the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Records distribution company (WEA).  It is a great photo of Zappa, cigarette dangling below his black bushy mustache right above his thin center slice of a beard, and he’s wearing mirrored glasses and exuding major attitude.  Finding this “lost” treasure compelled me to write about the Mother of invention.

Frank Zappa was not someone I followed faithfully step-by-step through the years, but I was recently reminded (via some trawling through music sites) that he once appeared before a Congressional panel in support of freedom from censorship.  But more on that later...

Zappa was, in a word, an iconoclast.  He shocked, amazed, alienated and enthralled with his various recordings through the years, starting with his 1966 group-effort debut album Freak Out! with his L.A.-based band Mothers of Invention, and ending with his 1993 solo record of orchestral works entitled The Yellow Shark.  Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer in that latter year, thus we’ve been placated only through posthumous releases that have mined the vaults of this master tinkerer.

He deftly straddled musical worlds and fearlessly mixed, matched and herky-jerked from one genre to another--sometimes within the same song--giving not a whit about his audiences or his critics.  Although his own idols included classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and the French-born Edgard Varese, Zappa just used these influences to further his musical mission of defying expectation and decrying conformity.  

From the late 1960s through the early 1970s Zappa with his Mothers of Invention were placed on Rock’s pedestal by a small but fervent slice of the new generation, those soaking up society’s rampant changes and the accompanying heightened musical experimentation.  Not only were the Mothers of Invention and auteur Zappa beloved by aspiring musicians and musical nonconformists, the bong-clutchin’ crowd was also on board.  While wisps of smoke curled up around their furrowed brows in dens and dorm rooms all across America, they sought largely in vain to try to fully comprehend what in the hell they were listening to...

The Mothers’ debut Freak Out! (1966) was a double-record concept album full of political and pop-culture satire.  It was also a puzzling and not always pleasant hodgepodge of sound snippets and snatches of dialogue, with a few nods to normal songwriting.  With songs like “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” and “Who Are the Brain Police” Zappa gave preview to where the band was heading with his next few albums--unshackled experimentation and the thrashing of convention.

 

My first real sonic brush with The Mothers of Invention came with the band’s third studio album We’re Only in It For The Money which was released in 1968.  The record was silly and satirical, and a slicing indictment of extreme political positions of the Right and the Left as well as the emerging youth culture.  While the Mothers were in the recording studio working on this record, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Zappa then veered with a vengeance.  He replicated--in his own fashion--the front and back covers of Sgt. Pepper with the intention of using them, but his lawsuit-shy record company banished these Zappa take-offs to the inside gatefold sleeve instead.  Thus the plan for the album's front and back covers morphed to just one wide photo of Zappa and his Mothers in frilly women’s clothing.  

As the 1970s dawned, the prolific Zappa churned out solo records as well as refueled the Mother ship with various new personnel.  The year 1970 brought on board new mamas Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, two singers from the California rock band the Turtles who had scored big in 1966 and 1967 with sugarcoated hits like “Happy Together” and “She’d Rather Be with Me.”  Kaylan and Volman might strike some as an incongruous match for Zappa’s outer-edges musical turf, but it does make sense if one subscribes to the rumors that were circulating back then about the Turtles’ May 10, 1969 appearance in Washington, D.C.  As the story goes, the Turtles scored a very special, by-request gig at the White House for a party held for President Nixon’s daughter Tricia, and the band reportedly sneaked off and sniffed coke on Abraham Lincoln’s desk.  (Who knows, they might also have passed right by the presidential portrait of George Washington and re-powdered his wig).

Kaylan and Volman, who had rechristened themselves Flo and Eddie when joining Zappa’s ranks, departed the group after less than two years.  Zappa then continued jamming, recording and touring with a number of other talented musicians--in both Mothers and motherless formations--including, in various stints, woodwinds player and keyboardist Ian Underwood, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, keyboardist George Duke, and drummers Chester Thompson and Terry Bozzio.

A whirling dervish in terms of output, Zappa released 16 albums between 1966-1972 and they are a combined showcase of his zingers on social issues; his abiding love beyond rock & pop for experimental sounds, free jazz and classical; and his penchant to stir the pot if not outright inflame.  In 1973 he hit upon a mother lode of material that meshed with the masses, and with one release in particular he then became an overnight sensation.

The album Over-Nite Sensation, credited to the Mothers, was arguably the most cohesive musical example of Zappa’s wit and wanderings, but in part it is also a lyrically volatile cocktail of the surrealism and satire--and sex.  “Dirty Love” and “Dinah-Moe Humm” are two album tracks that are explicit and gleefully twisted, yes, but also compelling because of Zappa’s prowess in crafting highly original musical escapades as the settings for his satire (editor’s aside: Uncredited female background vocals run throughout this record, and they belong to Tina Turner and her Ikettes).  There are other standouts on the album that abandon the sexual commentary, though, including Zappa’s tale of movin’ to Montana and one other key song that I found later in life that could serve me--sort of--in the parental guidance department.  The song was “I’m The Slime.”

I loved "I'm the Slime" upon first hearing it in 1973 and then found myself dredging it up some years later when my daughters were still fairly young, entering their teens.  At that particular time I was cognizant of the two of them dipping a little bit into trash TV talk-shows, so I called them to the carpet--the couch, actually--and asked them to listen to something on the living room stereo.  I gave them a sixty-second dissertation on Zappa, and then placed Over-Nite Sensation in the CD tray, cuing up “I’m The Slime.”  “Please listen to these lyrics, Girlers” I said to them. 

I am gross and perverted

I'm obsessed 'n deranged

I have existed for years

But very little has changed

I'm the tool of the Government

And industry too

For I am destined to rule

And regulate you

 

I may be vile and pernicious

But you can't look away

I make you think I'm delicious

With the stuff that I say

I'm the best you can get

Have you guessed me yet?

I'm the slime oozin' out

From your TV set

 

You will obey me while I lead you

And eat the garbage that I feed you

Until the day that we don't need you

Don't go for help...no one will heed you

Your mind is totally controlled

It has been stuffed into my mold

And you will do as you are told

Until the rights to you are sold...

As the song faded out via some frenzied guitar work, the girls exchanged inscrutable glances and muttered “Can we go now?”  I then tried to thematically tie Zappa’s rant to the TV shows that they were currently falling prey to, but away they scampered before Dad’s lesson could be fully imparted.  And I had no illusions about them immediately running off to look up words like “pernicious” in Webster’s Dictionary.

 

After Over-Nite Sensation brought Zappa and his Mothers ramped-up notoriety and FM airplay (albeit in edited versions), the artist continued through the decade producing some noteworthy nuggets including “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Cosmik Debris” from solo album Apostrophe (1974), and “Dancin’ Fool” and “Jewish Princess” from the 1979 double live solo release Sheik Yerbouti.

I largely lost track of Zappa after 1979.  He was still “out there,” though, cranking out his singular-vision satire with revolving-door players as well as intermittently releasing guitar-centered, all-instrumental recordings that amplified his stature even more within the appreciative circles of his followers.

Then in 1985 I caught major wind of him again, this time as Zappa injected himself into the brewing shit storm called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).

To everything there is a season.  Rock ‘n’ roll music in 1985 found itself in the spotlight--nawww, the crosshairs--thanks to some Washington wives who had formed a committee with the goal of taking some kind of action against the content of violence, drug use and sex in American rock music.  One of the founders of the PMRC was Tipper Gore, wife of then senator Al Gore who in later years of course contributed mightily to the cause of global warming warnings via his 2006 acclaimed documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Tipper and the three other female founders of the PMRC advocated that the record companies voluntarily place parental advisory stickers on all “suggestive” new releases, and as pressure mounted that summer, a majority of the major companies agreed.  Hearings by the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee were then held starting in September before the stickers were officially adopted, and three musicians stepped forward to testify--Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister, his Rocky Mountain Highness John Denver, and Frank Zappa.

Zappa’s testimony is most memorable in his fierce opposition to the concept of labeling record albums along the lines of the already established Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system for films.  Below are a few excerpts from Zappa’s testimony, illustrating the rampant intelligence and wit of this spitfire in his suit-and-tie command performance.

*** IN THE BEGINNING: “The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.

*** “It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment Issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative.  In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”

*** AND THEN: “Is the basic issue morality?  Is it mental health?  Is it an issue at all?  The PMRC has created a lot of confusion with improper comparisons between song lyrics, videos, record packaging, radio broadcasting, and live performances.  These are all different mediums, and the people who work in them have the right to conduct their business without trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by The Wives of Big Brother.”

*** LATER ON: “Children in the vulnerable age bracket have a natural love for music.  If, as a parent, you believe they should be exposed to something more uplifting than ‘Sugar Walls,’ support Music Appreciation programs in schools.  Why have you not considered your child’s need for consumer information?  Music Appreciation costs very little compared to sports expenditures.  Your children have a right to know that something besides pop music exists.

*** “lt is unfortunate that the PMRC would rather dispense governmentally sanitized heavy metal music than something more uplifting.  Is this an indication of PMRC’s personal taste, or just another manifestation of the low priority this administration has placed on education for the arts in America?”

*** AFTER THAT: “The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of Moral Quality Control Programs based on ‘Things Certain Christians Don’t Like.’  What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow ‘J’ on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?"

*** “Bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality.  Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religious Thought and the Right to Due Process for composers, performers and retailers are imperiled if the PMRC and the major labels consummate this nasty bargain.”

*** AND THEN: During an exchange with Senator Gore, Zappa once again stated that this whole issue should be the parents’ concern and not the government’s.  Gore replied that the PMRC agreed with that.  Zappa’s response: “Well.  That does not come across in the way they have been speaking.  The whole drift that I have gotten, based upon the media blitz that has attended the PMRC and its rise to infamy, is that they have a special plan, and it has smelled like legislation up until now.  There are too many things that look like hidden agendas involved with this.  And I am a parent.  I have got four children.  Two of them are here.  I want them to grow up in a country where they can think what they want to think, be what they want to be, and not what somebody’s wife or somebody in Government makes them be.  I do not want to have that and I do not think you do either.”

In the end, Zappa did not get his ultimate wish.  Within a couple of months of this 1985 hearing, record companies felt compelled with the hovering doom cloud of legislation to follow through on voluntarily self-stickering “objectionable” releases with new parental guidance stickers.  

And in reference to Zappa’s comments about his four children: of all of his offspring--Ahmet, Diva, Moon Unit and Dweezil--it is the latter who most closely followed in lockstep.  Reportedly named by Frank for one of his wife Gail’s toes, Dweezil in 2006 musically dipped into his father’s legacy and plunged feet first into launching a tribute tour he labeled Zappa Plays Zappa.  He has spent years of his musical career precisely and lovingly replicating the musical compositions of his talented father.

In an October 29, 2010 interview by writer Chris Hall in London’s Guardian newspaper, Dweezil was quoted as saying “...there is a level of detail we operate on that no cover band or tribute band could ever get to"..."We'll listen to the original master tapes and take every individual track and transcribe exactly, so there's a level of commitment, detail and respect of the music that goes beyond anything that a cover band would ever do."  

An inspirational idea, and a hell of a restoration project.  Doubtless a lot of us will ever be as committed as Dweezil was in carrying the torch, but we can all go our own way through Life seeking the truth and speaking Frankly.

 

 

 

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Posted 7/2/23....LIGHT MY FIRE

I’m thinking back to my time at Star Lake, the Pittsburgh area’s large outdoor amphitheater located just outside of Burgettstown, PA in Washington County.  I had initially joined the company as marketing director in 1991, and by 1995 was helming the ship as general manager.  Early on I couldn’t help but catch on to the unique rhythms of this music venue.  It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride; in front of shows we had prep days that were a slow climb toward readiness, and often just as we teetered on the edge of complete preparedness we found ourselves hurtled into Show Day.

Each show was a unique experience.  Depending upon how each summer schedule fell into place, on one particular night Pantera might be on stage pulverizing the place and the very next night Yawnee--er, sorry, Yanni--would be practically lulling the staff into vertical naps at their appointed stations.

Of course the audiences were wildly divergent as well.  Early on when the amphitheater was doing forty or more shows a summer, a typical jam-packed week at the outdoor venue might have many different artist offerings, and so the fan turnout night to night was a treat to behold.  The crowds at the country shows for example really wowed us with their Western Wear fashion sense.  Some of the guys came all cowboy’ed up from hatted head to booted toe, and the fillies were decked out in knot-tied midriff-baring shirts and short skirts, their calves roped in by knee-high boots.  These country audiences were generally well behaved, though later in the evening on some shows we ended up dealing with something our venue’s concessionaire manager called “beer muscles”--instances of alcohol intake wherein the judgement centers of the brain fog over and all inner restraints on such things as raucous horseplay simply melt away.

Also in the early 1990s we had some high-profile alternative concerts and at the show where The Cure headlined, Good Goth Almighty, the audience really showed their colors.  Black ruled the day and this wasn’t just reflected in the T-shirts; on some members of both sexes, eye shadow and lipstick often followed suit.  These crowds were by and large there for one reason: passion for this band was their sole focus.

And on the jazz, upscale R & B, and symphony-backed offerings, folks in attendance were usually dressed to thrill--each other.  More than a few were quite plainly peacocks on parade and in small huddles they strutted their stuff, lending the amphitheater a multi-fabric rainbow glow around the east and west plaza concession stands and in front of the tour merchandise booths.  The audiences at these particular shows were often upscale, and on pleasant (i.e., rain-free) evenings there was sometimes quite an amped-up atmosphere of conviviality throughout the facility.

But then there were those other patrons, audience members who came to Star Lake shows feeling the need, once night had fallen, to bring the world back into the light.  Through the setting of lawn fires.  

These people deployed one of our planet’s oldest classical elements in absolutely the worst way, of course, but fire has had a long history of association with certain rock ‘n’ roll performances.  In the late 1960s/early 1970s there emerged the phenomenon of the “cigarette lighter song,” a power ballad or rock anthem (usually deep within the band’s setlist for the evening) that fans responded to by flicking their lighters into flame in a visible expression of love for their onstage heroes.  There were many of this ilk--Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” certainly brought out the Bics, as did Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and others.

Which is all well and good.  In the arenas especially, starting in that turn from the Sixties into the Seventies, this practice became a time-honored part of the concert experience, a radiant fan tribute to the artists and their music.  Upon the advent of the amphitheater boom however, in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, there just might have come into being a sort of a weird nexus of “design flaw meets social misfit.”  The amphitheater lawn concept was meant to give the concert fan a certain amount of freedom, away from the more restrictive reserved seating; here, he or she could gather together with others in like-minded bliss, enjoying just a bit more mobility and social interaction than those patrons in the fixed seats nearer the stage.

Of course at a James Taylor show, the lawn inhabitants generally use that mobility and freedom to picnic, socialize and lightly party.  Even at events more in the “rocker” vein like Styx or Santana or Tom Petty, the lawn dwellers are likewise there largely to celebrate memories and classic rock kinship.  But with the metal band extravaganzas, the alternative music festivals and OzzFest, it’s another story.

On these shows something wicked this way comes, and invariably it settles itself upon the lawn [editor’s note: before some readers get all up in tattooed arms over this last statement, let me add that certainly not ALL fans at these shows are bizarro-destructo types.  The vast majority are there because of their passion for the music.  Still, it seems that proportionally there are more combustion-lovin’ kooks at these types of events compared to many others.] 

The accumulated years have dimmed my recollection of my first brush with fire, but I am fairy confident that it was at the Lollapalooza festival in August of 1992, the first time this fledgling touring entity had landed at Star Lake.  This was also the summer that Ozzy Osbourne first appeared at the venue.  Both of these shows ended up drawing in excess of 20,000 people, and the audience composition seemed to break down this way: 7,000 seated in the pavilion and 13,000 on the lawn, with approximately 200 of the latter consisting of knuckleheaded, knuckle-draggin’ arsonists.

At that Lollapalooza festival, I remember walking into the wings of the main stage after having spent a half hour or so--basically, from dusk to darkness--with the tour’s accountant in a backstage dressing room discussing a few show issues.  I had turned off my venue radio to accommodate the discussion and had only popped it back on as I bounded onto the stage.  There I suddenly saw what the mainstage performers of the moment were seeing--the typically dark and shadowy lawn illuminated in twelve to fifteen different spots with flames that were beginning to roar to high heaven.  I immediately turned to my radio’s security channel and heard a somewhat frantic dispatcher barking out the locations of trouble spots on the lawn, and there were rushed reports from the security field teams intermittently breaking through in between.  It was Shock and it was Awe--a strangely beautiful, surreal and terrifying vision, all rolled into one.

That entire night the security teams did their absolute best at dampening and trampling these fires, and as the seasons progressed we learned on these particular shows to mobilize more quickly, to better deploy “spotters,” and to strategically position staff so that we could blitzkrieg each blaze and move on to the next sparking calamity.  

Indeed, for our security folks, what a strange part of Amphitheater Life this was--calmly, methodically preparing for these outbreaks of Armageddon and accepting that they were inevitable, and when the time came, charging into the fray efficiently and dispassionately.

I remember an interesting one-on-one I had with a fire starter at one of the X-Fest shows in the late 1990s.  X-Fest, a product of Pittsburgh alternative station WXDX, started up in 1998 at Star Lake and for a number of years running was a real powerhouse in terms of talent line-up and ticket sales.  It also was a poster child for obstreperous fan behavior, as after dark it tended to turn a bit nasty out there on the lawn, shifting from mischief to mayhem.

As I was whisking through the lower pavilion and spotted yet another Bonfire of the Inanities [apologies to Tom Wolfe, there], I decided to go it alone and enter the lawn, jogging up to the flash point that I had spotted from below.  This was just the beginnings of a fire, thankfully, and a few of the flame feeders arched an eyebrow when they saw me come on the scene.  When my venue radio squawked and a few more of the flame gazers saw my lanyard I.D. tags and staff shirt, some of them backed up a bit.  Instead of directly confronting the few still nearest the flame, I faded back from the glow to whisper to one of the glassy-eyed individuals who seemed to be on his own.

“Sure a shame that they are gonna cancel X-Fest next year,” I said.

“Wha?” was the reply from the one I hoped would be the brightest of these bulbs.  “What do you mean?”

“Yeah,” I continued.  “The radio station told me that because of these fires, they are going to close down X-Fest for good.  No show next year, if these fires continue.”

I looked him intently in the eye.  There was a slight whirring of gears going on.  He warily shuffled over to another guy a few feet off to his left; maybe his companion?  He whispered something and the second fire worshipper stole a glance at me and then stared down at the blaze.  He stepped forward, wobbling a bit, and started to reach down to his fly.  Just then on my radio I could make out at low volume our dispatcher updating everyone that our security team was on its way, so I turned and started back down to the pavilion.

It was nice of that guy to step forward like that and offer, in his own unique way, some assistance.  Maybe my messaging in this case got through to at least a few of these folks.  I wasn’t flooded with hope--but at least there was a trickle.

 

 

 

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Posted 6/18/23....SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO

  

One year ago I posted a story of how I ended up being hired in March 1985, at the age of 32, as the new director of booking at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

In that particular situation it was a job opportunity that came my way while I was already employed.  I had been working in the field of record store merchandising and marketing with the Pittsburgh-based National Record Mart chain when out of the blue, on my friend Paul Carosi's tip, I heard about the arena opportunity.  I dusted off a resume and sent it off to the appropriate P.O. box, and to my surprise I soon got a call from the arena’s manager who quickly gauged my interest level and then offered up an interview.  Within a week after that interview took place, I was on board and in the booker’s chair.

More often than not for a lot of folks, however, landing a new gig is more of a twisted tale.  There are so many factors at play when an individual is out in the world trying to find their way, intent on the job hunt and searching for a fit.  And there are times when looking for work is actually an imperative, especially when one’s current employment suddenly goes up in smoke and the afflicted has to tamp down this shock to the system and start a search anew.  

That was the situation I found myself in at the age of 27.  It was also how I eventually became an employee of National Record Mart, and the first step on that path began in early December 1980.  I had been working in the Pittsburgh market for the previous two years for the Cleveland branch office of music giant WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) Corporation.  The gig was a field merchandising position and my role was to blanket record stores with posters and other display materials, making certain to simultaneously schmooze the store managers with free promotional copies of our new releases, some of which--but of course!--ended up on my own shelves at home.  Home was an apartment in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh with my high school friend Mike Doman, and we were livin’ the good life of twentysomethings.  

Perhaps because of our identical age, shared social circles and mutual addiction to my blossoming album collection, Mike and I pretty much spent our weekday evenings and weekends in freewheeling fits of fun.  And although my job was frankly on the lowest rung on the WEA corporate ladder and I was paid a mere pittance, I had flexible hours and total freedom in shaping my weekly schedule of display runs to the key record stores in southwestern PA, eastern Ohio, and the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.  Even in my off hours, WEA work was always top of mind. I took pride in keeping to my rigorous schedule of store visits and the deepening of my relationships with record store managers, and I perpetually tried to “do one better” each time I labored to craft unique, eye-engaging new artist displays in their stores. 

So anyway...early December, 1980.  My boss from the Cleveland WEA office Dave Lucas called me about three weeks before Christmas and asked me to meet with him the next morning at the Pittsburgh airport.  I figured this was just a rare swing into town for him but as we nestled into chairs in a coffee shop at Pittsburgh International, Lucas dropped a bomb on me.  WEA was letting me go as of January 1st.  He went over with me what was already familiar territory, explaining that my hiring in 1978 was the result of WEA’s rush to sign up more field merchandisers to cover more cities/markets across the country, particularly because at that time record sales were booming.  But there was a bit of a noticeable slowdown recently, he lamented, and because this trend had begun worrying the highers-up, Lucas was now being tasked with making the rounds and lopping off staff in the nearby markets that were under the purview of WEA Cleveland.

There was, however, a bright spot, Lucas told me.  “You are well respected,” he said.  “The photos you send on to Cleveland documenting your displays are testaments to someone who is creative and dedicated--and you are someone we’d like to keep within our company.”  He went on to say that within our WEA region, the field merchandising positions in both Pittsburgh and Buffalo were being eliminated, but in Cincinnati there would be a slot for open for me if I wanted it.  “We’re letting the Cincy person go,” Lucas confided, “but we would be happy to offer you that particular post if you wanted to consider it.”

I remember leaving that coffee shop more than a bit agitated and it wasn’t the caffeine; it was the result of dreams dashed.  I loved this job, but I equally loved the life I had carved out in Pittsburgh.  I was a befuddled mess by the time I hit the apartment and over the next two weeks--the timeframe given to me by Lucas to make my decision--my mind spun positives and negatives, back and forth.  Should I stay or should I go?

Lucas, to his credit, had arranged an exploratory trial run for me shortly after we had our airport meeting.  He informed me WEA would pay for my hotel room for a couple of nights in Cincinnati, and pay for my roundtrip gasoline expense as well, if I wanted to check out that market and the particular record store routes that I would be inheriting.  I took him up on the offer, hoping for a bit more clarity in arriving at a decision to uproot or stay put in Pittsburgh.  After a whirlwind few days of meeting a few local WEA folks in Cincinnati and nearby Louisville, KY, and checking out the chain and indie record stores there and at points in between, I hit the road for home.  That drive seemed to take forever--perfect for overthinking a situation!--and I realized when I pulled into Pittsburgh I was still on the fence.

Complicating my decision on the home front was my still relatively new relationship with Ann, a woman I was dating at the time.  We were close, but not exclusive, yet under the circumstances I could feel a bit of desperation beginning to color my view of where the two of us really stood.  She came over to the apartment on the evening I returned from my Cincinnati trek and cautiously I spilled out my feelings of ambivalence about moving away.  Then she tried, I do recall, to calm me down with what she thought would serve as words of encouragement: “I think you should make the move,” she ventured.  “You might actually find Cincinnati to be a nice place to live and work!”  Okay, I thought, this really helps my seesawing.  In my list of determinants, in the one section related to “girlfriend,” it is now clear that I can move and immediately lose the relationship, or I can stay and just more gradually lose the relationship.

Obviously my brain at that point was readily taking any offramp that held the promise of a negative outcome.  I really didn’t know if I could trust my feelings to make the right choice, suffering some sort of pathways paralysis.  But within a day or two I s-l-o-w-l-y came to the conclusion that I was not going to accept the Cincinnati offer, and would instead remain in the ‘burgh in familiar surroundings near friends and family, and begin--somehow, some way--my search for a new job.

I was beginning to contemplate updating my resume to send it out to local Pittsburgh advertising agencies to net a copywriting job, though even as the thought occurred to me I realized it well might be a dead end.  I had no real-world experience doing that sort of thing, and frankly lacked meaningful contacts that could serve as conduits.  My spirits were sagging and I was increasingly second-guessing myself, and this was just the initial stage of my hunt for a new job.  I so wanted to be in the driver’s seat on this thing, but also wished like hell that I could boot out that nagging sense of hopelessness which persisted in riding shotgun with me.

And then came the phone call from George Balicky.  He was Senior Vice-President of the National Record Mart chain, and just as I had gradually cultivated relationships with the NRM store managers during my past two years with WEA, I had developed a bit of a bond with Balicky as well.  

“I knew Lance from WEA,” Balicky, now retired, recalls.  “He was occasionally in our offices/warehouse doing some album and tape inventory on behalf of the local WEA salesman, but mostly he was out in our stores doing displays.  He was obviously someone who was very familiar with our store layouts and in-store promotions.  When I learned that Lance was no longer with WEA, I felt we might benefit from having someone like him join us.  

“NRM was in an expansion mode at that time, and I really needed someone else in the Marketing Department working with the various record companies setting up in-store promotions and helping me internally with advertising strategies and developing chain-wide advertising campaigns.  I figured with Lance’s background in display work, he’d also be valuable in terms of developing in-store displays for our new store openings as well as coordinating regional and chainwide display priorities.  So I called Lance and asked him to come meet with me and my boss and one of the owners at our NRM headquarters on Baum Boulevard.” 

I agreed to meet with Balicky, and so the next morning I dressed for the occasion--not in my former WEA work clothes, which were usually jeans and a T-shirt with some band or another on it--and I drove over to 5607 Baum Boulevard.  Honestly I was a bit unnerved as I took a chair in the tight environs of the president’s office.  I had no idea what to expect in this three-on-one meeting with Senior VP Balicky, the president Frank Fischer and one of the company’s owners Jason Shapiro.

Balicky clued in his superiors to my overall situation and talked about his need to fill a new slot in his department.  I was then asked a couple of questions about my familiarity with NRM and my relationship with key store managers.  The meeting did not last all that long and it was hard for me to properly read the room, but Balicky continued his pitch and this elicited a positive nod here and there from Shapiro but neither he nor Fischer revealed what was behind their occasional game-face glances at one other.  And luckily for me, no one broached the subject of salary since I knew--and they surely knew--I didn’t hold anything close to a winning hand there.

I left after handshakes and Balicky assured me as he and I walked toward the building’s loading dock exit that he would be in touch.  He phoned me the next day and without mentioning any post-meeting conversations that he might have had with Fischer and Shapiro, he told me that NRM was going to offer me the job of Creative Merchandising Coordinator--an initial title they made up to fit the new position--and then he trotted out the proposed salary.  It was close to WEA’s  modest remuneration, or might have even been the same (I don’t exactly recall).  I then asked if I still had time to think it over and he said to let him know as soon as possible.

That afternoon I received a call that was, in retrospect, the nudge I needed.  Mike Dragas, Atlantic Records’ Regional Sales Director based in Cleveland, was a man I knew through my WEA work and was someone I looked up to.  Disarmingly genuine, sweet natured and whip-smart, Dragas was older and wiser, and already a veteran of years spent in the music industry.  He would periodically come into Pittsburgh for visits to record retailers but we didn’t cross paths a whole, whole lot.  But when we did, I could always count on his positivity to help clear away any doubts I might have had at that point in time about working “in the biz.” 

Dragas called me because he had heard about my very recent meeting with NRM.  “Lance,” he sighed.  “I just wanted to reach out today and say that you should jump on this National Record Mart opportunity.  You should call Balicky back, and say you accept.  Yeah, you can look for other work, but here’s your chance to keep your foot in the door!  You need to stay employed in this business, because there’s a value to that--and who knows what other doors will open up down the road, IF you are still in the game!”

For me, Mike Dragas’ phone call and his bit of clear reasoning at that juncture was a godsend.  Early the next morning, I called Balicky at his office and told him I would accept NRM’s offer.

Staying in Pittsburgh turned out to be the right choice, as I was able to remain in a lane that I loved.  I had thankfully built up some relationships through my time working for WEA that ended up serving me well here, and now I was off on a new set of music business challenges that held the promise of professional growth as well as personal satisfaction...

Some people when they reach a certain age look back over their lives and see all the different footprints they’ve left behind on the trail to where they are now.  I look back at my path and see that my footprints are mostly in the shape of musical notes--and for all of those who helped me along the way, please know I still sing your praises.

 

 

 

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Posted 6/4/23....ON THE ROAD AGAIN 

Weather-wise the City of Pittsburgh seems to settle for overcast and downright gloomy a lot of the year which undeniably takes its gradual toll on our collective spirit.  But after spring has sprung and we’re less nestled in, and things outside have started poppin’ to life once again, we heed a call of the wild and especially, feel a lure to the open road.

There is something about getting behind the wheel with freedom in front of you--setting out to visit a friend who’s within a day’s drive, or burning rubber to catch a killer concert one evening in another city, or hittin’ the highway because a favorite outdoor habitat is beckoning from afar.

And when it’s time to hit that road, there are certain songs that lend themselves to our own particular journeys.  Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900), an American essayist and novelist who befriended and co-authored a novel with Mark Twain, said this on the subject of road trips: “There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.”  And those words ring especially true because from the outset of any voyage large or small that I’ve undertaken, I have found music to be essential to clearing away the cobwebs of routine, reorienting my focus to the journey just unfolding.

Two instances come to mind.  The first was on a drive from Pittsburgh to Toronto in the fall of 1980, heading up there for solo exploration of the city and its cultural offerings.  I remember leaving Pittsburgh very, very early one morning in my beat-up Vega hatchback, armed with a fresh cassette mixtape that I then plugged into the player just as the first streaks of daylight started to part the darkness.  The first song on the tape was an instrumental by an African musician and this particular tune effortlessly amped up my awe of the blossoming sunrise.  The song was “Baobab Sunset” by Manu Dibango, the African saxophonist who blended jazz with his native Cameroonian music.  A perfect accompaniment to the unfolding of the day...

The second instance of “perfect” road trip music for me occurred in 2003 when I boarded a train in Pittsburgh to journey to NYC to see the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater.  Early on, with earbuds on and my iPod loaded, I settled back in my window seat to watch the rail yard whisk by, followed by tangles of brush and dilapidated buildings and, eventually, wide open fields that once in a while ran all the way back to mountains in the distance.  The tune that had started my voyage was a ten-minute instrumental entitled “San Lorenzo,” the first song on the 1978 self-titled release by ECM recording artists the Pat Metheny Group.  That song by itself is a voyage, and it eased me into complete harmony with the worlds going by my window...

And now, more songs that have proved roadworthy for others.  Almost a decade ago, back in 2014, I had reached out to a few Musicasaurus readers about their own favorite “road trip” tunes.  These were folks that I knew were lovers of music, ones who had been--at one time or another--actually in the music business in some capacity.  When you read about their song selections, see if their driving impulses match your own...Enjoy.  [NOTE: links to hear all of the contributors’ selections are at the very bottom of this post.]

* “Jessica" by the Allman Brothers Band.  ---  Susan Drapkin (Pittsburgh) / former employers have included Pittsburgh concert promoter Next Big Thing, and Live Nation Pittsburgh in the management of local sponsorship sales

* My favorite road trip song from my college days would be "Dead Flowers" by the Rolling Stones, or really anything off of the Sticky Fingers album.  Not particularly a happy song, but one I always found myself listening to when driving through rural areas. ---  Josh Verbanets (Pittsburgh) / musician; group member, Meeting of Important People

* Back in 1973 Doug Horner, Keith Hepler, Doug Ritzer and I crammed into Doug's blue Dodge Dart to cruise along Route 66 to California.  We listened to NRBQ cassettes the entire way across the country.  "Ridin' in My Car" by NRBQ always reminds me of the carefree days when we drank beers with locals at a bar in the middle of a Montana pasture and slept under the pines in Lake Tahoe on our way to San Francisco and Beserkley.  ---  Paul Carosi (Pittsburgh) / designer and developer of the website Pittsburgh Music History (https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/)

* “Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon, from the days I lived in warm and sunny California.  Warren played once for the Valley Media sales staff when I worked for that company.  He opened the set with "Werewolves of London" and so when the weather breaks in the ‘burgh it's the first song I play, howling with the windows down!  ---  George Balicky (Pittsburgh) former Senior Vice-President at National Record Mart and record-retailer music biz veteran

* “Revival" by The Allman Brothers...Just a joyful musical exploration.  "People can you hear it...love is in the air."  Oh yeah, we hear it.  That's the love of freedom, so powerfully expressed on an open road with the top or windows down and the radio cranked.  I vividly recall blasting "Revival" one summer drive in my convertible down some Ohio backroads traveling at breakneck speed.  ---  Scott Tady (Beaver, PA) / Entertainment Editor of the Beaver County Times

* “Little Red Corvette” by Prince.  ---  Kathy Wallace (Pittsburgh) / employment history includes sales-related positions in Pittsburgh market radio and television, and sponsorship sales with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ organization 

* The song that I might choose for the open road would be “Windy”, or “4 on 6”, or how about “Road Song”--all recorded by the great Wes Montgomery. ---  Joe Negri (Pittsburgh) / jazz guitarist, composer and educator (also, for all time, “Handyman Negri” on PBS’ Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)

* I used to always play "Ol' 55" by the Eagles (the Tom Waits composition) when I hit the road.  Also, the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” is road worthy.  ---  Stacy Innerst (Pittsburgh) an award-winning painter, children’s book artist, illustrator and educator who also has been known to dabble in drumming

* “Green Onions” by Booker T and the M.G.s...A long time ago I remember getting in the family car to go on a trip and “Green Onions” was on the radio.  My dad always insisted on leaving early in the morning while it was still dark and to hear a song like this--mysterious, soulful, and even profound in an inexplicable way to a young kid--added to the anticipation.  We were going somewhere, moving, in transit, and Booker T was our guide.  ---  Rege Behe (Pittsburgh) / freelance journalist and former music writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

* There was synchronicity in your request; the day I got it, I was driving around cranking a certain album, and “Panama” from Van Halen is THE ultimate road song. ---  Russ Rose, aka Whip (Pittsburgh) / 102.5 WDVE on-air talent 

* “A Night to Remember” by Shalamar. ---  Billy Price (Pittsburgh) / singer-songwriter and east coast blue-eyed soul man

* “American Girl” by Tom Petty...Well, maybe Matchbox Twenty’s “How Far We've Come.”  This was harder than I thought!  ---  Beckye Levin Gross (Houston, Texas) / former booker with Pace Music Group (ultimately Live Nation); currently Director of Strategic Accounts at UnifiedCommunications.com

* I gotsta, gotsta name three songs.  My happy traveling song is “25 Miles” by Edwin Starr—he also has my favorite anti-war song in “War”.  And my moody, melancholy song is “Carefree Highway” by Gordon Lightfoot.  My nighttime, caffeine driven, driving-at-3:00-AM marathon trip song is “Highway Song” by Blackfoot.  ---  Tom Rooney (Pittsburgh) / former executive director of Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheatre 1990-1994; currently now president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group

*“Master of Puppets” by Metallica.  Great song to crank!  It makes me want to drive really fast!  ---  Val Porter (Pittsburgh) / longtime 102.5 WDVE on-air talent and a member of the station’s acclaimed morning show

* “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.  ---  Charlie Brusco (Atlanta, GA) / Pittsburgh-area native and former Atlanta-based concert promoter; currently heads up the Atlanta office of artist management company Red Light Management; also manager of Styx

* “Are You Experienced?” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  ---  James “JY” Young / lead vocals/guitarist for Styx

* “Freeway Jam” by Jeff Beck. ---  Ricky Phillips / bassist for Styx

* Truly, and you’re not going to believe this, my choice is Canned Heat's "On The Road Again.”  It has been reissued...It was originally recorded in 1969, and is NOT the version that the radio played for the last 45 years; it’s a really groovy extended version now available, and YES, neither of us were at Woodstock (I was 13 in '69, my Cindi was 11), but the two of us play this reissued Canned Heat song ON CD, in our car or in the rental car!  ---  Sean McDowell (Pittsburgh) / legendary on-air talent on 102.5 WDVE from 1993-2019

* That’s easy.  “Low Rider” by War.  ---  Donnie Iris (Pittsburgh) / musician, singer-songwriter and bandleader (Donnie Iris and The Cruisers)

* Either of these: Lyle Lovett’s “The Road To Ensenada” or his “L.A. County.”  ---  Bob Klaus (Durham, North Carolina) / original marketing director of Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheatre (1990); currently general manager of Durham Performing Arts Center

* If there's going to be singing involved, my choice is Eddie & The Hot Rods’ "Do Anything You Wanna Do.”  It has it all...searching for adventure, celebrating rebellion...plus musically, a killer chorus, great chords, a drum section you can pound out on the steering wheel.  And it sounds better the louder you sing it--even if you're 52 and your rebelling days are mostly behind you.  Two more: The Tom Robinson Band’s “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, and “Depth Charge” from Los Straitjackets.  ---  Chris Fletcher (Pittsburgh) / former publisher/editor of Pittsburgh Magazine (1993-2002); currently Organizational Advancement Manager with The Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation

* Peter Wolf’s "Nothing But The Wheel.”  I also like Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" but the Garret Hedlund version is way better.  ---  Marylynn Uricchio (Pittsburgh) / formerly the Seen/Style Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

* I love “Windows Are Rolled Down” by Amos Lee.  The title pretty much sums up the song!  ---  Scott Blasey (Pittsburgh) / Musician and lead singer for The Clarks

* Nothing out of the ordinary for me.  I'll take the Allmans'"Ramblin' Man" (with the best guitar solo ever) or the Eagles’"Already Gone."  Essential American songs that make you hit the pedal a little harder.  If I want something to update that playlist I'm taking it from the new War on Drugs albumLost in the Dream.  Think it's going to be great summer driving music.  ---  Scott Mervis (Pittsburgh) / pop music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and editor of the newspaper’s Weekend

* It’s a toss-up between Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes” and B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s “Riding With The King.”  ---  Wilson Rogers (Wilmington, North Carolina) / Former general manager of Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheatre during the 1990 inaugural season; most recently a Live Nation executive vice president 

* If I had to narrow one of the richest veins of writing--be it musical, literary or cinematic--down to its one song essence I'd choose “Diamonds On My Windshield” by Tom Waits.  It's a three-minute, non-stop cross-country trip fueled by weeds, whites and wine--and the beat.  And can you even write about the road without a beat?  Of course, “Diamonds On My Windshield” is pretty much the antithesis of a top down, sun-drenched anthem.  That's the very definition of “Fun, Fun, Fun” by the Beach Boys.  But if the road I'm on is taking me to my happy place then I'd have to go with the one-two punch of “Save Me San Francisco” by Train and “San Francisco Days” by Chris Isaak.  ---  Steve Hansen (Pittsburgh) / former on-air talent on WDVE Pittsburgh’s “Jimmy & Steve” morning program (1980-1986); currently an independent writer/producer

THE SONGS AND THE LINKS:

Baobab Sunset - Manu Dibango https://youtu.be/u-KqS-2IcEo

San Lorenzo - The Pat Metheny Group https://youtu.be/O9mEoXfN91I

Jessica - Allman Brothers Band https://youtu.be/vTOozRAJ8dU

Dead Flowers - Rolling Stones https://youtu.be/Avrv8t_nEI0

Ridin’ in my Car - NRBQ https://youtu.be/lReK7eO27Io

Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon https://youtu.be/qae25976UgA

Revival - Allman Brothers Band https://youtu.be/otlhY5HR6tY

Little Red Corvette - Prince https://youtu.be/D_2a_a2j5jc

Windy - Wes Montgomery https://youtu.be/fVF8ushvqzk

4 on 6 - Wes Montgomery https://youtu.be/9PD2Q7TXmvU

Road Song - Wes Montgomery https://youtu.be/ABFAz5orvWA

Ol’ 55 - Eagles https://youtu.be/86sb1AFl8Rs

Blue Sky - Allman Brothers Band https://youtu.be/JSMubgZoL58

Green Onions - Booker T. & The M.G.s https://youtu.be/0oox9bJaGJ8

Panama - Van Halen https://youtu.be/2wHU5ocfFsA

A Night to Remember - Shalamar https://youtu.be/XuFre4QM7uM

American Girl - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers https://youtu.be/SIhb-kNvL6M

How Far We’ve Come - Matchbox Twenty https://youtu.be/5d7EbtLb8ok

Twenty Five Miles - Edwin Starr https://youtu.be/elS2-rFe_Vc

Carefree Highway - Gordon Lightfoot https://youtu.be/Lfo0XBrGgI0

Highway Song - Blackfoot https://youtu.be/PbNrJWgG_24

Master of Puppets - Metallica https://youtu.be/E0ozmU9cJDg

Gimme Shelter - Rolling Stones https://youtu.be/QeglgSWKSIY

Are You Experienced? - Jimi Hendrix Experience https://youtu.be/C2XL4P9HRH4

Freeway Jam - Jeff Beck https://youtu.be/u6jHlW414sQ

On the Road Again - Canned Heat https://youtu.be/mgBHRYtt-Y4

Low Rider - War https://youtu.be/qMkwuz0iXQg

The Road to Ensenada - Lyle Lovett https://youtu.be/B9yPFqIK2ME

L.A. County - Lyle Lovett https://youtu.be/KGIsPLB9Ua4

Do Anything You Wanna Do - Eddie & The Hot Rods https://youtu.be/zJI5pH-gGmQ

2-4-6-8 Motorway - The Tom Robinson Band https://youtu.be/g-ZU_-OUM3Q

Depth Charge - Los Straitjackets [could not at this time be located on YouTube]

Nothing but the Wheel - Peter Wolf https://youtu.be/w8A4drSh_Dw

Silver Wings - Garret Hedlund https://youtu.be/yTdPHZRhYI4

Windows are Rolled Down - Amos Lee https://youtu.be/m08eW3ubq0g

Ramblin’ Man - Allman Brothers Band https://youtu.be/Wa4DCp6cl2U

Already Gone - Eagles https://youtu.be/vKPPmNGGKrQ

Lost in the Dream (the album) - The War on Drugs (the whole record was recommended as ripe for plucking songs for the road; to sample, here’s a track entitled “Disappearing”) https://youtu.be/hvoMww-dkyw

Sailin’ Shoes - Little Feat https://youtu.be/6pZj91KImqc

Riding with the King - B.B. King & Eric Clapton https://youtu.be/RYJIc9bjENk

Diamonds on my Windshield - Tom Waits https://youtu.be/tHhO6bSQnSU

Fun, Fun, Fun - The Beach Boys https://youtu.be/VF_o-N0fhZ0

Save Me San Francisco - Train https://youtu.be/zftcZYdOl3Y

San Francisco Days - Chris Isaak https://youtu.be/JSI8VdOIGJQ

 

 

 

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Posted 5/21/23....STUCK IN A MOMENT YOU CAN’T GET OUT OF 

While recently combing through a bit of past feedback about my Musicasaurus blog, I found a recollection of a concert-goer who had a harrowing experience at a show.  Bernie Caplan of Pittsburgh, PA, now largely retired but forever a music freak, had submitted to me a short tale of seeing Jeff Beck live in concert some years ago at Duquesne University’s AJ Palumbo Center.

Bernie’s memory of that experience had been jogged when he took notice of a song mix on Musicasaurus which contained a Jeff Beck tune: “Jeff Beck on the mix reminded me of a one & only story,” Bernie said.  “I never counted the number of shows that I’ve seen but it's higher than the number that I remember.  I went to see Jeff Beck at the Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh in late 1989 with my concert buddy Bobby.  We were dead center and five rows back.  I can't remember the first song but I looked over at Bob and he was already inserting ear plugs.  Now ear plugs were never an option for me.  There have been many concerts that were too loud and/or being mixed by a deaf roadie, but I always hung in there until...Beck broke out into ‘Going Down.’  Now I have never had heart problems but I was convinced that I was going Fred Sanford.  My heart was pulsating through my chest cavity as if the alien was breaking through. As my heart pounded quicker, I realized that it was actually playing along with Beck.  Every note and every increase in the bass was in sync.  Either I was having a heart attack or what I ate for dinner had turned into a Jeff Beck tape that became electrified.  I was a frickin’ walking juke box playing Jeff Beck. 

“As I slowly turned to look at Bob, I noticed that his eyes were popping out of his head like a scared frog.  His color wasn't far removed from a frog’s either.  I tried to ask him if he was okay but when I opened my mouth, it was like trying to breathe on a 90mph rollercoaster.  (I remember losing track of where I was and thinking that if I ever got out of there, I would be sent to a rehab center for bass abuse; people would come to see me and I would open my mouth and ‘Going Down’ would begin to play.)  I grabbed Bob's arm and we very slowly stood up and weaved our way into the aisle.  We gingerly walked to the lobby where Bob and I didn't say a word.  We never went back to our seats or talked much about the ‘experience.’  Some things are just best forgotten.” 

Uncomfortable situations are not uncommon for concert-goers of any era, really; you hope for the best and bound through the turnstiles with great anticipation, but sometimes the experience ends up a mild disappointment or, for the wrong reasons, a show you’ll never forget.

Here are a few tales from Musicasaurus readers from the southwestern PA area who sent me their own reflections on shows that were nerve-wracking...or discomforting...or even potentially perilous.  And--because I am admittedly a one-note guy--I have headlined each remembrance with a musical reference, i.e., a song title that serves to sum up each individual’s particular story of distress.

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE: Joe Negri / jazz guitarist, composer & educator who will forever be known as “Handyman Negri” on PBS’ Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Pittsburgher Negri’s particular situation involved his participation in a CD release performance in New York City with singer/musician Michael Feinstein.  This was in 2010 and coincided with the release of their new collaborative album entitled Fly Me to the Moon.  “The CD release performance of that recording was scheduled to take place in NYC at approximately 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening at a book store on Broadway,” Negri explained.  “The date involved just Michael and myself on guitar.  My wife Joni and I were to leave Pittsburgh quite early for New York.  I think we had a 10 a.m. flight.  Well, the delays started appearing: The flight was delayed for an hour...then another hour...I started trying to get us on another flight but to no avail.  The hours passed and before you know it was afternoon and we're still walking the halls of Greater Pittsburgh Airport.  

“Finally at about 3:00 or thereabouts we departed for La Guardia Airport.  I think we landed sometime after 4:00, found our limo driver (thank goodness) and began our trek into Manhattan.  It was a harrowing and hectic journey--I remember at one point closing my eyes because I just couldn't stand to look at the traffic and the way the limo driver was weaving in and out of it.  Long story short: At about 5:15 we pull up to the bookstore on Broadway...make a mad dash in…upstairs to the auditorium...a large crowd was already in their seats…and it was show time.  

“We were still in our traveling clothes.  I was able to dash to the bathroom and splash some water on my face.  A good friend Howard Alden had brought me a guitar, one that I had never seen let alone played.  I didn't even have time to tune it, let alone play it a bit, and I didn't have a clue as to what Michael had planned for the program.  The next thing you know we're on stage and it's show time.  It went beautifully, and the audience was very pleased.  I had a few anxious moments trying to adjust to the strange guitar, but eventually got with it and found my groove.  It was quite a day and quite an experience, one my wife and I and Michael will never forget.”

 

DON’T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME: Scott Blasey / Musician and lead singer for The Clarks

Blasey reported that he had a concert experience that was both terrifying and enlightening--within sixty seconds of each other.  This psychic one-two punch happened on September 11, 1980 when he and a friend went to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena to see Ted Nugent, who was crisscrossing the country on his Intensities In 10 CitiesTour.  “It was festival seating and Humble Pie opened the show,” Blasey recalled.  “We were about twenty feet away from the stage inside a mass of freakiness that I'd never encountered before.  Everything was cool until the lights went down for Ted.  People started pushing to get up front and it got really crowded.  The audience began to sway and we had no choice but to sway with them because everybody was packed so tightly together.  I was just a young, skinny teenager and I thought for sure I was going to be trampled underfoot like those kids at the Who concert the year before.  It seriously scared the shit out of me.  

“Just then the lights came up and Sweaty Teddy swung across the stage from a vine dressed in a loincloth.  Let me repeat that, he swung across the stage, on a vine, in a loincloth.  It was the most rock-n-roll thing I've ever seen.  He tore into ‘Stranglehold’ like a man possessed.  I was transfixed.  I was still scared, but I was completely in awe.  We watched the first two songs from there and then moved back and found some seats, where the sweet smell of...y'know, popcorn, filled the air.”

 

CHUG-A-LUG: Scott Tady / Entertainment Editor of the Beaver County Times

Tady remembers a show he attended on June 19, 1987 in the basement of the Syria Mosque in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  The lineup consisted of three bands: Steppenwolf, Alvin Lee and opener Roger McGuinn.  “For some reason it was BYOB, and so you had all these biker dudes swigging from MD 20/20 and bottom shelf liquor,” Tady recalled.  “Tables were covered in bottles.  The show started late, and the crowd was restless.  They respected McGuinn, but hearing him croon ‘Chestnut Mare’ wasn't what the ‘Born to Be Wild’ crowd was craving.  A Yuppie tried dancing to ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ until he felt a meaty hand on his shoulder and heard, ‘Sit down, son.’  Can't say I was physically threatened at any point, but that was one of my first shows and I remember being rather nervous.  I learned not to make eye contact.  Have a good time, but get out alive!”

 

I’M ONLY SLEEPING: Russ Rose, aka Whip / deejay on 102.5 WDVE

Back in the early ‘90s part of Rose’s job at the station was to cover shows around town, setting up the WDVE van outside the particular venue and then handing out station promotional items like stickers and T-shirts.  “So I went to a lot of shows that I enjoyed,” explained Rose, “but also a few that weren't my style.  Emerson Lake & Palmer was at the AJ Palumbo Center in 1993, and I had to go do my 'DVE thing at the show.  Since I was also doing overnight shifts at the time, I walked around in a perpetual state of exhaustion.  As ‘luck’ would have it, I wound up with front row center tickets for the show, which I have to admit, was not my style.  I had a hard time keeping my eyes open at this show, and about 15 unbearable minutes into Emerson's droning Moog solo on ‘Lucky Man’ I fell asleep in my seat, all of 5 feet from Greg Lake staring down at me in my WDVE T-shirt.  My date nudged me and said that falling asleep from boredom right in front of the band was a bad idea.  I had to agree, and we left to sit in the van.  As the fans left the show I took an ear beating from one of them that 'DVE should play more ELP as they are more important to music than Beethoven.  HEY--I might have been tired, but I wasn't stoned!” 

 

SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS): Steve Acri / lifelong music enthusiast who formerly worked for National Record Mart and subsequently audio-video companies

Acri didn’t waste any time choosing a troubling concert experience to send my way.  “That’s an easy one,” Steve told me.  “OzzFest at Star Lake, 1997.  I took my son who was eleven.  Fortunately we were seated well within the covered pavilion so as to not be so directly affected, but experiencing the hail of partially filled cups and bottles, chunks of the lawn turf, and anything else that might be launchable was very harrowing.  It was especially bad in between sets.  Trying to get from the pavilion to the concourse made you a target.  You literally ran the gauntlet.  I truly was concerned for our safety.  In addition (or perhaps because of), there was an almost palpable sense of evil in the air.  A lot of not-nice people around.  Headliners were Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson.  I’m not the kind to stereotype, but if ever there was justification in doing so, this was it.  Probably needless to say, we were like hockey players and got the puck outta there before the gates of hell opened.”

 

LIGHTNING CRASHES: Tom Rooney / Former executive director of Star Lake Amphitheatre 1990-1994; currently now president of the Tom Rooney Sports & Entertainment Group

 

Rooney reminisced about Jimmy Buffett, one of the true homerun kings of Star Lake Amphitheatre (now known as The Pavilion at Star Lake).  The singer-songwriter who gained monstrous fame (all the while simply looking for his lost shaker of salt) pretty much owned the 1990s, racking up 15 total shows that decade with 13 of them sell-outs.  In 1994, the first of many years that Buffett did a two-night engagement with both shows selling out in advance, Mother Nature decided to flip the bird to all 22,683 Parrotheads who had flocked to the first night’s show.  Rooney, head of Star Lake at the time, explained what happened on the evening of Friday, June 10: “Lightning made a direct hit on our venue’s main transformer rendering a sold-out show in darkness before Jimmy Buffett hit the stage.  We were standing on the backstage deck when we saw the bolt hit and we were all lucky to survive.  We were saved by two things: The Iguanas, the opening act, traveled with a portable generator and Mark Susany, our electrician, ingeniously hooked it up on the main stage and we got (barely) through an unplugged show...I still remember the local fire departments showing up with their trucks to provide lights for the parking lots.”

 

BORN PORN IN THE USA: Val Porter / longtime 102.5 WDVE on-air talent; currently Music Director and a member of the station’s morning show

Porter had an unusual concert experience that has, to my mind, few parallels in terms of a big reveal.  One of her duties as a WDVE on-air talent was to make some announcements on stage prior to the beginning of select shows that fit her station’s musical format.  On October 19, 1997 Mötley Crüe came to Pittsburgh and literally rocked the arena--even before they hit their first note.  Porter looked back on the incident and labeled it her most memorable moment on stage.  “It was the tour in which Mötley Crüe were causing trouble at just about every stop,” she said.  “I went on stage before the band came out in order to do announcements about upcoming shows and no smoking, and that sort of thing.  Well, the crowd goes crazy when I get up there.  And I’m thinking ‘Yeah!  A real rock crowd ready for a big show!’  As I’m walking off the stage someone said ‘Be glad you don’t know what was going on up there.’  Then someone else offstage said the same thing.  When I got back to my seat, I was told that while I was up on stage they were showing a very graphic porno on the very large screen behind me.  And that’s why the crowd went crazy.  A friend told me that the screen was so big I looked like an ant in front of it.” 

 

CRUSH ON YOU: Jeff Sewald / former music journalist and a writer/filmmaker who in 2020 co-authored The Life and Deaths of Cyril Wecht: Memoirs of America's Most Controversial Forensic Pathologist

Sewald squeezed out a memory from his days in high school.  During his summer break in 1978 he attended a concert by the aptly nicknamed “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent.  It did not go well.  “As a friend and I waited amid the throng that had amassed outside Pittsburgh's Civic Arena...all hell broke loose,” Sewald said.  “It was a ‘festival seating’ event, which meant that, if you were quick and agile (and didn't get trampled to death beforehand), you might just get to see your favorite artist from the best seats in the house at cheap-seat prices, which was only $8.00 at the time.  

“When the time came, for some reason, the arena management elected to open only some of the doors and, when they did, the humanity assembled outside the hall pushed forward en masse trying to squeeze through only a handful of entryways.  People were knocked to the ground and many were screaming, while others--including one immensely fat, pimpled-faced guy--simply lowered their shoulders and shoved.  I managed to keep my balance and maneuver my way through one opened door, but my friend wasn't so lucky.  He got pinned up against the outside edge of a door that was only partially opened and, as the mass of bodies pressed toward the hall, was in danger of being cleaved in two by that very door.  With no way to fight the tide of sweaty flesh and get back to him, I was helpless.  Finally, a security guard grabbed my friend by the shirt and yanked him free of the door's edge--saving if not his life, then at least his sternum and ‘family jewels.’  

“As if the experience of getting into the arena wasn't bad enough, during the show, some fans in the sections nearest the top of the dome began tossing M-80s into the crowd on the floor.  The house lights went on and a warning was issued--to no avail.  ‘The Nuge,’ in typical Nuge fashion, refused to stop playing, even for a moment.  Years later, Ted would tell me in an interview that pushing a crowd to the very edge of disaster was ‘the ultimate’ for a rock performer.  Even then, only in my early 20s, I thought, ‘I'm getting too old for this.’” 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________________

Posted 5/7/23....VIDEO THRILLED THE RADIO STAR

Back on December 4, 2022 I posted a story of my very first concert experience in 1967.  I had traveled from my hometown of Butler, PA to The Big City--yes, Pittsburgh--on the evening of November 22nd to see a packaged show headed up by The Beach Boys.  The multi-artist concert had been booked into the Penn Theatre and a bunch of us Butler fourteen-year-olds, members of our local YMCA’s Gray-Y club, were provided access to tickets and group transportation by our cool, twenty-something club leader.  He had sold his bosses (and our respective parents) on the idea, and then benevolently took the reins and made it happen. 

The show was advertised as featuring local KDKA-AM radio personality Clark Race as emcee, national comedy trio the Pickle Brothers, the Soul Survivors, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Buffalo Springfield and headliner the Beach Boys.  The Soul Survivors actually ended up a no-show, but from the cheesy high jinx of opening act the Pickle Brothers all the way through the ebb and flow of the Beach Boys’ songs about sun, surf and sand, we were absolutely enthralled.  No longer concert virgins, we became sated with the sights and sounds of the musical performances and the audience’s roaring reception...

As I researched that long-ago show for my December 2022 post, I came across something surprising.  When digging into Buffalo Springfield’s past, I encountered one site that had a curious reference in it.  There was a simple one-line listing of the date and place of Springfield’s Pittsburgh November 22, 1967 appearance at Penn Theatre, but below it there was an additional line that had a different venue listed--same date--which said “KDKA-TV studios.”  Wha-a-a-a?  I tried Googling down different avenues hoping to come up with information on this, and finally found an answer when combing through old print publications of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press via newspapers.com.

 

I found only one article that fully explained how Buffalo Springfield could seemingly be in two places at once on November 22, 1967.  Post-Gazette columnist Win Fanning had, later in November, written a preview article about a recently completed KDKA-TV music special that was soon to air.  The television show was entitled “Clark Race...With It” and it was designed to feature nationally-known, up-and-coming musical acts--and the first artist performing on the program was Buffalo Springfield.  I gleaned from all of this that the group had been booked not only at the Penn Theatre for their evening set but had also been corralled by KDKA to perform in a taping earlier that afternoon in the station’s Gateway Center studios.  And as it turned out, both the Buffalo Springfield and Strawberry Alarm Clock performed that afternoon as part of the making of KDKA’s “Clark Race...With It” television special.  

Here is Win Fanning’s opening paragraph in his preview piece about this November 1967 telecast, and it emphatically set the stage for an exciting viewing experience: “As a guide for an exploration of the ‘new sounds of youth’ in the field of popular music, it would be difficult indeed to come up with a more logical choice than Clark Race.  The KDKA-Radio, and sometime KDKA-TV, Pied Piper backs up this observation in spades as the host of a half hour color special to be telecast on Channel 2 this Friday starting at 8:30 pm.  The show, ‘Clark Race...With It,’ was produced in the station’s Gateway Center studios with guest stars Bobby Vinton, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Aretha Franklin and the Buffalo Springfield.  The pace is fast, the photography simply superb and the narration serves excellently to introduce the spirit and sound of today’s music.”

Fanning was right about the cachet of Clark Race.  He was a powerhouse media personality in Pittsburgh radio, as Post-Gazette writer Adrian McCoy noted in her July 28, 1999 obituary on Race.  “Clark Race's radio career dovetailed perfectly with the golden era of pop music in the late '50s and throughout the '60s,” McCoy said.  “He became one of the most influential and popular local disc jockeys, with a keen ear for what makes a hit record.”  

He had started out his radio career in Albany, New York and then in 1959 was wooed by Westinghouse Broadcasting to come to Pittsburgh--at age 26--to join the on-air staff of KDKA-AM.  It wasn’t long before Race, in terms of radio ratings, had conquered Everest.  McCoy drove this point home in her obit, saying “At its peak, Mr. Race's show captured more than 50 percent of the audience--a rating that is unheard of today.  There was no formula, no Top 40: he simply played what he thought listeners would like.”

Throughout the 1960s, Race was a whirligig of media moves and exploits.  As noted in a February 6, 2011 post by Ron Ieraci on the website Old Mon Music (oldmonmusic.blogspot.com), “Race brought the music of black artists to his mainstream audience.  His playlist mixed pop, rock, soul, country and standard hits, and featured local artists like Lou Christie, the Vogues, the Electrons, the Racket Squad and Bobby Vinton.”  He also mightily contributed to the breaking (on a national level) of songs like “Lightning Strikes” by Lou Christie, “Roses Are Red” by Bobby Vinton, and the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”  He was even invited at one point by Fab Four manager Brian Epstein to go to London to meet The Beatles along with a fellow deejay from New York, Murray the K.

Beyond the world of local radio, Race mined opportunities on a national level as well.  He auditioned for parts in major network television programs and at the end of 1966 came close to snagging a host’s role of a new-to-1967 ABC game show called “Everybody’s Talking.”  He lost out eventually to another media maven--Lloyd Thaxton, who got the slot--and the program ended up lasting less than a year.  Race was more successful, though, in pursuit of roles on established series.  He earned small speaking roles at various points during the 1960s, among them appearances on the NBC drama “Run For Your Life” starring Ben Gazzara, ABC’s western “Iron Horse” starring Dale Robertson, and CBS’ “The Wild, Wild West.”  He also once guested on the Merv Griffin Show and the David Susskind Show.

 

Back in Pittsburgh, Race’s popularity on KDKA-AM coupled with his inner drive and love of music led him to extend his reach over to the TV side.  In 1963 he became the host of KDKA-TV’s Saturday afternoon “Dance Party”--fashioned after Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”--and he presided over everchanging groups of local teens gyrating on a studio dancefloor.  Popular musical acts of the day like the Supremes, Buddy Holly and Chubby Checker also appeared on the program, performing on what later had become the television station’s evening news set.  According to McCoy in her Post-Gazette piece, the program was an immediate hit.  “For area teenagers,” she said, “it was considered a status symbol to be seen on ‘Dance Party.’"  However the show lasted only three years, ending in 1966--perhaps a victim, noted McCoy, of a rising trend in local TV: a shift away from locally produced TV programming.

Though “Dance Party” was only briefly a success, Race later on continued on the TV side to create and produce pilot programs in the hope that one would catch fire and be greenlighted.  The Post-Gazette’s Win Fanning in his August 22, 1967 TV column offered up this telling blurb: “Clark Race, the KDKA deejay, has made a variety show pilot tape now being appraised by the Group W brass.  The half-hour in color features Clark as emcee, with guests Bobbie Gentry, The Fifth Dimension (a group) and the Baja Marimba Band.  No air date has been set.”  Three months later on Saturday, November 11 the program did air, however for some reason--according to an updated Win Fanning blurb on October 21--The Fifth Dimension were out and The Letterman were in.

Which brings us back to “Clark Race...With It,” the TV special taped on the afternoon of November 22, 1967 featuring two of the acts--Springfield and Alarm Clock--that I saw later that same evening at my first-ever concert.  The afternoon taping was yet another valiant effort by Race to establish a vehicle for the station to consistently entertain and enlighten its viewership about new artists on the horizon and evolving trends in music.  In closing the loop on this look back at Clark Race and his significant impact and contributions to Pittsburgh media, I am 100% now giving the floor to Mr. Fanning. 

The Post-Gazette columnist’s article about this half-hour KDKA-TV music special, after all, says it best: Race’s strong advocacy for respecting the new sounds of youth was laudable, and clearly his efforts helped shine a light on music’s incoming wave in this pivotal year of 1967.  Remember as you now read Fanning’s review that Sgt. Pepper’s was released this same year...the Summer of Love had taken root in San Francisco...and the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine had debuted, in fact, in the same month that this KDKA-TV special aired.  In 1967 there were ruptures in the seams of tradition; a youthquake of social, political and cultural awareness, and action.  Some newspaper columnists like Fanning, though, were doing their best to help demystify it and maybe also help usher it in--even if their articles and columns now seem a bit dated in terms of how they grappled with articulating what was happening and what was to come. 

“‘New Sound’ Topic of Ch. 2 Special” by Win Fanning / November 1967 /Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"The show is introduced, musically, with a low-keyed rendition of the hauntingly tuneful ‘For What It’s Worth,’ by the Springfield.  The latter, for those who are over the hill--say in their middle 20s--this is a singing-instrumental group of long-haired young men as clean in appearance as their music is attractive to the ear.

“During this opening number, Art Fischer, a New York freelance producer-director, with a major assist by KDKA-TV art director Don Spagnolia, introduces the avant garde psychedelic backgrounds and almost subliminal titles which continue so effectively throughout the program.

“Race points out the new emphasis on lyrics which has been increasingly noticeable, and nicely underscores this by introducing Pittsburgh’s own Bobby Vinton singing ‘I’ll Love You Forever’ and later, ‘Just as Much as Ever.’

“Miss Franklin, a minister’s daughter who received her vocal training in a church choir and still retains much of the spiritual feeling in her interpretations of secular music, offers ‘That’s Life’ as her opener.  Later in the show she presents ‘Respect,’ in the arrangement which has contributed the phrase ‘sock it to me’ to the current show biz theme, i.e. on the Rowan and Martin outings.

“Last to come on the swinging scene are the Alarm Clock (‘is’ the Alarm Clock?) who have obviously undergone a flavor change to come up with ‘Incense and Peppermints,’ a catchy number in a subdued rock ‘n’ roll tempo.  An English aggregation, this group is not quite so esthetically satisfying--to adults, at least--as the Springfields, but they do have an engaging way with a song.

“At the end Piper Race sums up with the explanation that ‘we have showcased an idea...explored the paths of the sight and sound of a young, spirited generation...’ and expresses the hope that the audience has enjoyed the trip.

“I, for one, after yesterday’s preview, have to admit to Jack Reilly, the executive producer, and all others concerned, that I did.

“This is a pilot production for what, hopefully, may become a syndicated Group W show.”

[p.s. This 1967 pilot program, “Clark Race...With It,” unfortunately did not lead to a syndicated music show mounted by Group W (Westinghouse Broadcasting Company), the parent company of KDKA-AM and KDKA-TV.]

[p.p.s. The website oldmonmusic.blogspot.com details Clark Race’s years post-Pittsburgh.  Race left the Steel City after eleven years (1959-1970) and moved to Los Angeles, taking a job in 1971 at KMPC, a radio station owned by Gene Autry.  He also moonlighted the following year by hosting ABC-TV’s game show “The Parent Game,” then left KMPC’s employ for other radio stations including ones in San Francisco and San Diego.  Race then contemplated returning to Pittsburgh.  “Like many radio jocks from the early years,” the Old Mon Music website post points out, “he left the business because the power had switched from the DJs to the programming directors.”  

Back in the ‘burgh in 1986, Race opened a bed and breakfast in nearby Sewickley, PA with his wife Diane.  “It was actually a dream vocation for the pair, who could often be seen tooling around the area,” Old Mon Music noted, “running errands and giving local tours to their guests.”  And, to be expected, Race then had some offers to return to the airwaves but only from oldies stations.  He eschewed those entreaties, however; true to his nature, he was always a champion of new music.  “Race turned them down, not wanting to be caught in that niche,” Old Mon Music said.  “He was listening to Natalie Merchant, Enya and Kenny Rogers, not Bobby Vinton and Lou Christie, in the eighties and nineties.” 

The multi-talented, trailblazing Clark Race passed away in 1999 at the age of 66 from a heart attack, and a prolonged battle with throat cancer.]

 

 

 

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Posted 4/23/23....WHAT’S YOUR NAME (part two; the second half)

A post back on 3/26/23 dove into the origin of band names, covering the first half of the alphabet, “A” through “M.” This is the latter half, “N” through “Z.”  Enjoy diving in...and at the end, you’ll be able to catch some Z’s (well, one, of course).

New York Dolls  

Free weekly publication Creative Loafing Tampa Bay (cltampa.com) in a June 3, 2009 story on the resurrection of the New York Dolls provided some insight into the band’s formative years in the 1970s. “They are revered as proto-punks,” CLTB writer Eric Snider explained, “early players on the lower Manhattan scene that produced The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads et al.  Their look fell somewhere between androgynous and full-out drag, and for that they are credited as a major influence on glam-metal.  The Dolls released only two albums during their initial run: 1973's self-titled LP and the following year's Too Much Too Soon.  Both were critical darlings and commercial stiffs.  The band broke up in '75.”  

Tina Benitez-Eves on americansongwriter.com dove into the origin of the band’s name in her April 2023 piece, stating that “A repair shop for toy dolls inspired the name...By the late 1960s, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (born Sylvain Mizrahi and no relation to designer Isaac) and schoolmate and drummer Billy Murcia were testing out their band The Pox.  After their singer quit, the two transitioned into fashion and launched the clothing line Truth and Soul—even selling pieces to famed fashion designer Betsey Johnson.  At the time, Sylvain also worked at a men’s boutique called A Different Drummer, which was adjacent to the New York Doll Hospital, the toy doll repair shop at 787 Lexington Ave in Manhattan.  Founded by the late Irving D. Chais, the doll hospital remained in operation from 1964 through Chais’ death in 2009.  The doll shop would also inspire the name of Sylvain’s future band: the New York Dolls.”

 

 

Oingo Boingo     

Surfing the web for the story behind the unusual band name Oingo Boingo turned up a couple of theories--1) the name comes from fictional characters Oingo and Boingo who were in the Japanese manga series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure...or 2) the name springs from a Swahili phrase which means “thinking while dancing.”  According to allmusic.com, what we do know for sure is that this American new wave rock band “started not as a traditional group per se, as they were originally put together in the '70s by movie director Richard Elfman, who needed music for a whacked-out, John Waters-esque flick he was working on called Forbidden Zone.  Enlisting his younger brother Danny Elfman (vocals, guitar), Steve Bartek (guitar), and Johnny ‘Vatos” Hernandez (drums), the group originally went by the name Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo before shortening it to Oingo Boingo in 1979.”  

Danny Elfman stayed with Oingo Boingo all the way through the band’s dissolution in 1995, but on the side beginning in the 1980s he dove into composing scores for film and TV as well.  Starting in 1985 with the Tim Burton film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and continuing to present day with Netflix’s Wednesday, Elfman has racked up numerous awards and wide acclaim for his film and television program score achievements: Burton’s BatmanEdward Scissorshands and Beetlejuice;The Nightmare Before Christmas, Good Will Hunting, Milk, the Men in Black series of movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, A Civil Action, A Simple Plan, Silver Linings Playbook, the TV theme’s for Desperate Housewives and The Simpsons, and dozens more.

 

Procol Harum   

Procol Harum was one of the first rock groups in the 1960s to thread classical music into its overall sound, which overall has been described as a blend of art-rock, psychedelia, a bit of prog, etcetera.  Their best material had, for lack of a better word, majesty (cue up “A Whiter Shade of Pale” or “Conquistador” or “A Salty Dog”).  

Fittingly, the band’s name itself has a kind of grandeur.  In an interview with founding band member/vocalist/keyboard player Gary Brooker--conducted on July 27, 2003 at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts by the Acoustic Storm website’s Jeff Parets--the name of the band was the first order of business.  Brooker told his interviewer, “We got named after a cat, a little Burmese Brown...that was its pedigree name: Procol Harum.  It didn’t sound like anything, we didn’t really know what our music was, what box that fit in either.  It didn’t fit anywhere, sort of an ambiguous name like that; it did have sort of a Latin sound to it.  We found out a couple months later that if we had spelled it right, it would’ve meant ‘beyond these things,’ which is just sort of a happy coincidence.  But we’ve always been happy with our name; I suppose every band is.  I’m just glad we weren’t called Strawberry Alarm Clock or something.  It would’ve been a bit embarrassing 35 years later.”

 

Quicksilver Messenger Service  

This group was part of the mid-to-late 1960s San Fran stew, a melting pot of musicians and groups that put this City by the Bay on the map with the younger generation that was then flowering into power.  There was the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Cold Blood, It’s A Beautiful Day, Santana--and the Bay Area’s kings of psychedelic rock, Quicksilver Messenger Service.  This particular band fronted by two innovative, interweaving lead guitarists was at its best when performing live, and the group’s most coveted release is the 1969 Happy Trails album which captured all the extended riffing, noodling, accenting and soloing in all its ragged glory.  

The name Quicksilver Messenger Service was astrologically inspired, according to guitarist Gary Duncan.  In an undated classicbands.com post of a Gary James interview with Duncan, the guitarist was quoted as saying “Everybody tried to come up with some sort of strange name for some reason.  We had a bunch of different names and finally settled on Quicksilver Messenger Service because we're all the same birth sign.  We're all Virgo, which is ruled by Mercury.  Me and the drummer had the same birth date.  David Freiberg and John Cipollina had the same birth date.  So, between the four of us, there were only two birthdays.  Virgo is ruled by Mercury, which is Quicksilver.  Quicksilver is the winged messenger and Virgo is the sign of the selfless servant.  So, that's where the name Quicksilver Messenger Service name came from.”

 

Radiohead  

Talking Heads’ David Byrne was the one chosen to induct Radiohead at the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, and there could not have been a more appropriate choice.  UK-based Far Out Magazine, an international publication within the culture sector, posted an online article on October 17, 2021 that described Radiohead’s reverence for The Heads, and how the former’s final choice of a name came about.  "From their incarnation,” said the article’s author Arun Starkey, “Radiohead were initially working under the name ‘On a Friday’...The group chose their first moniker after the day of the week on which they rehearsed.  However, when it came to signing a major record deal, Thom Yorke and the rest realized that the name, in fact, sucked.  In the end, they were told by label reps that they had to ditch the moniker or not get signed.”

The band, on the cusp of their label signing with EMI in late 1991, looked backwards for inspiration. They picked as their new name a song entitled “Radio Head”--a rather obscure one--from Talking Heads seventh album True Stories (1986).  “Talking Heads were one of the most experimental and pioneering groups of the 1970s and ’80s,” Starkey said at the conclusion of his article, “and they had a major impact on forging the creative vision of Radiohead, among countless others...When forced to find a new name or lose everything, Radiohead turned to their trusty heroes.  Given Radiohead’s penchant for the off-kilter and David Byrne’s wacky lyricism, for anyone looking for a band name, Talking Heads lyrics seem like a good place to start.  A brilliant portmanteau, what a critical decision this was.” 

 

Spandau Ballet   

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."  Maybe that’s a credo of all of the Warhol acolytes who, through the years since 1969, assumed the publisher’s mantle of Andy’s magazine Interview.  It certainly seems so, judging by the magazine’s April 29, 2015 interview highlighting an upcoming film project by Spandau Ballet.  This musical heartthrob once ruled the airwaves some four decades ago but faded from the limelight, and so the band was quite fortunate in 2015 to be accorded another quarter-hour of fame--as they announced their new tell-all documentary. 

Interview’s Gerry Visco started off his conversation with the band members with an introductory encapsulation of Soul Boys of the Western World, and fortunately for our purposes here he also nails the name origin.  “The film documents the British band’s mercurial career through its formation in 1976 to its breakup in 1990 and subsequent reunion in 2009,” Visco said.  “It is no mere biopic; rather, the focus is on the legacy left by Spandau Ballet’s unique blend of glam-rock and punk fashion as ‘New Romantics.’  Over the course of their career, members Tony Hadley, Steven Norman, John Keeble, and Gary and Martin Kemp have sold more than 25 million albums.  The band’s name comes from graffiti written on the wall of a nightclub bathroom in Berlin.  It refers to Spandau Prison, a former Nazi prison in which war criminals were held after the end of World War II.”  There you have it.  But another source apart from Interview added this twist to the name origin: “Spandau” was the prison, indeed, but the "ballet" portion of the band’s name refers to the spasmodic movements of the prisoners who were hanged there.  [Editor’s aside:  Ugh.  Nice name for a band whose biggest ‘80s hit--the blah, bland ballad “True”--was so oversaturated on MTV and Radio that some viewers and listeners I’m sure pined for a noose.]

 

Toad the Wet Sprocket  

Toad the Wet Sprocket is a cult-revered, Santa Barbara-based rock group who came together in 1986, dishing out some smart, crisp and catchy pop music while still staying within the boundaries of some wider definitions of alternative music.  When their third album Fear came out in 1991, Seattle grunge was beginning to brim over because of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden who were coming on the scene, but Toad managed to garner some strong radio and MTV play anyway, with songs like “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean.”  But geez, that band name...In an August 7, 2018 post on the website stereogum.com, interviewer Michael Tedder asked this question of Glen Phillips, the lead singer of this ‘90s indie-alt-pop band: “There’s a lot of interviews where you guys talk about how much you hate your band name.  Is that still the case?”  And Phillips answered: “Ahh, I mean I don’t love it.  It’s what we are at this point. It was a joke and it’s a good lesson in how you know if you make a joke it might just stay with you, which is fine.”  

Toad cultists are certainly in on the joke but for those not in the know, a blogger named Jack Calhoun fills in the details via his June 10, 2021 post on medium.com: “In a 1975 skit on Monty Python’s BBC comedy show, performer Eric Idle did a bit about a fictitious band named Toad the Wet Sprocket that had just finished a successful European tour despite the loss of their ‘lead electric triangle player, Rex Stardust.’  Idle came up with the band name as a throwaway, never thinking twice about it...More than a decade later, a new rock band was making waves in the suburbs of Southern California.  Preparing to head out on its first tour, the group lacked only one thing: a name.  And so, being witty kids and fans of Monty Python, the band members landed on the one name Eric Idle had been certain no one would ever use: Toad the Wet Sprocket.  

By the early ’90s, Toad the Wet Sprocket had become a staple of rock radio.  Eric Idle, now a resident of Los Angeles, was driving in his car one day when ‘Walk on the Ocean’ came over the airwaves.  ‘I was driving along the freeway in LA,’ he said, ‘and a song came on the radio, and the DJ said, “that was by Toad the Wet Sprocket,” and I nearly drove off the freeway.’”

 

Uriah Heep  

On the band’s official website uriahheep.com, Martin Popoff provides a brief biography that puts a positive spin (but of course) on the group’s place in the history of rock music: “Among venerable UK rock institutions, with Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull dispersing, we are, perhaps, really, down to just Deep Purple, Yes and Uriah Heep left to uphold the tradition of quality original progressive hard rock forged at the very beginning of a golden era for this music, late ‘60s into the nexus year that was 1970.  At that crossroads, along with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Uriah Heep helped invent a decorative and uniquely British form of heavy metal with their debut album, Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble.  The record was offered as self-titled on American shores, but whatever the titling, it was historically massive in the invention of a music format that would rule the ‘70s and only intensify in the ‘80s.  It is from those roots...that Uriah Heep began their ascendance both at home and in the US, culminating in their most enduring works, Demons and WizardsThe Magician’s Birthday and Sweet Freedom, all of which went gold in the States, entering the Billboard Top 40, ensuring years of concert dominance for the band throughout the ‘70s.”

The band had first been operating under the moniker Spice but once they gathered together in late 1969 and started working on their debut album in London’s Lansdowne Studios, a consensus arose about the need for a new name.  Charles Dickens happened to be in the news and top of mind at that time, because of a milestone that was made much of: 1970 was the one hundredth anniversary of the famous English novelist’s passing.  So a noteworthy character, though not a man of great character, Uriah Heep, was plucked from Dicken’s 1850 novel David Copperfield.  The band even gave a further nod to Dicken’s creation through the naming of their debut album, Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble, which hit record stores in the summer of 1970.  In the novel, the unctuous, conniving and calculating Heep once says to David Copperfield “I am well aware that I am the ‘umblest person going.”

 

Vampire Weekend  

Indie music magazine Under the Radar was the first nationally distributed print magazine to interview Vampire Weekend and thus early on helped to break the band.  The interview took place in 2007 when these four Columbia University upperclassmen were still just peddling CD-Rs of their band’s earliest material.  It would be almost a year until the group released their official debut album on XL Recordings, and this earlier interview helped nail the band’s influences and engender audience appeal: “I think we are all drawn to the pop music of every era,” keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij said.  “We’re into bringing together music that come from disparate origins: things that come from folk traditions—like African guitar turns and punk chord progressions—and things that are more vaulted, like Bach or Tchaikovsky.”  Band leader Ezra Koenig also weighed in.  “Some people will say, ‘You kind of remind me of Paul Simon,’” he said.  “And some people will be like, ‘Yo!’ and then start talking about some super obscure genre of Kenyan pop that I’ve never heard.  Either way, I think people can appreciate our music without knowing or caring about our influences.”

Since you’ve read this far and obviously know and care about the band’s name origins, here is the rather simple tale.  Back in April 2013, in kind of a fun poke at bands they thought were named badly, the Denver Post came up with their top ten list on the subject and Vampire Weekend made the cut.  Post contributor Dylan Owens said, “Unless you really got in on the ground level, odds are the buzz around Vampire Weekend hit you before you could give their name an honest appraisal.  It never hit you that ‘Vampire Weekend’ sounds more a theater promo for the opening night of a Twilight movie than a buttoned-down indie rock band...The band name comes from the self-same title of frontman Ezra Koenig’s college film project, wherein a man named Walcot has to warn the mayor of Cape Cod of a vampire invasion...Koenig abandoned the project soon after, but came back to the name when he and a few of his fellow Columbia U friends decided to form a band.  Love it or loathe it, Koenig and co. have made their band-name bed, and are sleeping in it quite comfortably.”

 

Weather Report  

Even if you live under a rock, at some point you might have lifted it up, peeked out, and perked up your ears when you first heard Weather Report’s signature tune “Birdland.”  Jazz rock, or jazz fusion, is not everyone’s musical cup of tea, but this particular band was quite an innovative force in that realm--and a freakin’ powerhouse in live performance.  In a revealing 1997 interview with group co-founder Joe Zawinul conducted by music journalist Anil Prasad and posted on innerviews.org, Zawinul is asked for his assessment of the band’s impact.  “We started playing using electronic instruments in a way they had never been used,” Zawinul said.  “It’s just fine music played with different instruments.  Also, the compositional quality of Wayne Shorter and myself, frankly speaking, is unique.  The way we put together quartets and quintets—there was nothing missing.  Weather Report sounds as fresh today as it did then...Dizzy Gillespie once called me to say ‘Man, I just heard one of your records. That’s music, man.’  That really made me feel good because we had some funny backlash from people who said we were selling out because we were using electronic instruments.  It’s such idiocy...An instrument is not important.  It is the way one plays that is important.”

On the incredibly comprehensive website weatherreportdiscography.org tucked into the review of the band’s first album, Zawinul is quoted about how he and the other two founders of the group--saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous--struggled to find just the right name for their new band.  “We thought the Wayne Shorter-Joe Zawinul Quintet...sounded ridiculous,” recalled Zawinul.  “So we were in my apartment in New York–Miroslav, Wayne and I–trying to find a name which would say something, especially what people had in their minds all the time.  So we were thinking about Daily News, but that didn’t sound good.  Thousands of names–Audience, Triumvirate, all kinds.  Suddenly, Wayne popped out Weather Report, and we all said, ‘That’s it!'”  Wayne Shorter, in this same section of the website, is also quoted about what unspooled from this brainstorming.  “We were sitting together one evening, talking, and trying to figure out what we would call the band,” said Shorter.  “We didn’t want just an ordinary name, but something that would hit everybody.  So I said what does everybody do at 6 o’clock every evening?  They watch the news.  And what do they want to hear?  The weather!  So I said, ‘How about Weather Report?’  And that was how it got started.” 

 

XTC  

My first brush with the British band XTC occurred in 1979 when I was working for WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) Corporation as their Pittsburgh field merchandiser, responsible for in-store displays of the WEA group’s new albums.  One morning I unrolled a cylindrical cardboard tube that had been shipped to me by the company and discovered that the posters inside were reproductions of the band’s freshly-released studio album Drums and Wires.  It was a pleasure to plaster the record stores with these, as I flat-out loved this XTC album--not only the cover, but the captivating sounds tucked within.  From Newcity magazine’s website, specifically a March 11, 2022 post on music.newcity.com, I gleaned a bit of info on the start-up of the band: Three musicians--guitarist Andy Partridge, bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers--formed the band in 1972 “as sort of a glam-band outfit inspired by the New York Dolls.”  1979’s Drums and Wires, their third overall UK album but the first to be released in the U.S., contained their breakthrough single “Making Plans for Nigel,” and the band then continued recording and releasing albums pretty regularly through the ‘80s with a couple more in the ‘90s and one in the year 2000.

XTC’s music is described quite well in the aforementioned Newcity article.  The piece’s author Craig Bechtel expressed it this way: “XTC was never really a punk band, and never really post-punk, either.  Given their origins, the group could more accurately be categorized as pre-punk, but the truth is, it was a pop band that harnessed frenetic punk energies and rode the punk wave into new wave and beyond.”  And the origin of their name?  Whatsinabandname.com reports that the band in 1975 were casting about for a final, official moniker and certain suggestions were bounced including The Dukes of Stratosphere, Terry and the Lovemen and The Three Wise Men.  They finally coalesced behind the name XTC, which lead singer Andy Partridge declared had once come to him while he was watching an old Jimmy Durante film called This Time For Keeps.  In the film Durante apparently at one point says or sings--in his inimitable style of zealously overemphasizing his words and phrases--“Dats it.  I’m in ECS-TA-SY!”  Some on the internet, though, wonder aloud if the band’s name really came from the drug ecstasy instead, but XTC had become the band’s name before the drug MDMA was called ecstasy.  

 

YES  

British band Yes formed in 1968 in London with vocalist Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire the driving forces behind pulling in the rest of their chosen talents, guitarist Peter Banks, keyboard player Tony Kaye and drummer Bill Bruford.  They produced their self-titled debut in 1969 and then right on its heels Time and a Word in 1970, both of which bore a couple of cover songs in addition to group-member compositions; the band was still finding its way and shaping its sound.  On the band’s official website yesworld.com where the group’s entire history is delineated, the arrival of the band’s third album is hailed as a truly pivotal moment for the group.  “It was with the release of The Yes Album in April of 1971 that the public began to glimpse the group’s full potential,” the bio reads.  “That record, their first made up entirely of original compositions, was filled with complex, multi-part harmonies.  Loud, heavily layered guitar and bass parts, beautiful and melodic drum parts and surging organ (with piano embellishments) passages bridging them all.  Everybody was working on a far more expansive level than on any of their previous recordings.”

This was the beginning of the prog rock band’s string of successes in chart climbing and fan building--and personnel shifting.  1971’s The Yes Album featured new guitarist Steve Howe who had stepped aboard to replace the exiting Peter Banks ...Fragile came later in 1971 with keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman entering beforehand to replace Tony Kaye...1972 brought the classic album Close to the Edge with drummer Alan White entering the band after the fact, replacing Bill Bruford...and then the group released their live triple-album set, 1973’s Yessongs.  

But back to the beginning before the Yes name, when the band was still a no-name.  The band played their first public show as Yes in August 1968 (a year before their first album was released) and according to yesworld.com, Peter Banks had thrown out the idea for that name and the group thought that “like The Who, it was short enough to ensure top billing.”  The name stuck, of course, but for a bit of whimsy one might want to check out progarchives.com where there are fans of the band posting their own ideas of how the name came about (none of them on the mark).  There was one post claiming it might have come from “the affirmations by Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses” because “the book contains probably the most famous yeses in all of English literature.”  Another fan proffered a theory linking the name to The Beatles’ 1968 movie Yellow Submarine.  He or she believed that the band members had all seen the film “probably tripping their brains out” and were bowled over as the word “yes” flashed multiple times onscreen “in big bold block letters, sometimes with exclamation points” during the tune ‘It’s Only a Northern Song.’”  Well, are these obviously just theories and do they have any merit at all?  Yes, and NO.

 

ZZ   TOP  

ZZ Top released their sixth studio album on Warner Brothers Records in 1979 and this was the first record of theirs that I had dug into deeply, principally because it was a work project.  I was employed at that time by WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) Corporation as a Pittsburgh-market display person, and consequently many a record-store wall and window in November of that year was adorned by me with posters of the Texas trio’s new album Degüello.  Songs like “A Fool for Your Stockings” and “Manic Mechanic” were heavy on my home turntable at the time, and seven years later in 1986 I ended up having a chance to actually meet the band.  As booking director of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena at that point in time, I had booked the band through out-of-town promoter Beaver Productions and we ended up achieving a “first”--THREE sold-out nights at the Civic Arena, April 9, 10 & 11, establishing ZZ Top as the first band in the arena’s then 25-year history to sell out three consecutive evenings.  Somewhere in dusty old copies of music trade publications like PollStar and Performance magazine there is undoubtedly a photo of the three band members holding a plaque commemorating the achievement, with Yours Truly and arena marketing maven Tom Rooney standing in as venue representatives.

On grunge.com, which is a website dedicated to in-depth articles about various niche interests including but not limited to cleaning up the murkiness of historical facts, Nicholas Vrchoticky wrote a piece on January 31, 2023 entitled “The Untold Truth About ZZ Top.”  Here Vrchoticky attempts to set the record straight on the origins of the band’s name: “For a long time, nobody knew exactly how they got their name, so the rumors started to burn while legends grew from their ashes. In an interview Billy Gibbons did with [Austin Public Television station] KLRUthey talk about the myths flying around as of 2008.  Gibbons' favorite is the rumor that says they're named after Zig Zag and Top cigarette rolling papers.  [Houston TV station] KHOU 11 addresses a different rumor that says ZZ Top got their name from a pizza delivery business sign that had some of the letters missing, causing it to spell ZZ Top.  Which is a great way to unveil an epiphany in a stoner film, but not a great way to name a band.

“Gibbons has set the record straight quite a few times now, beginning in a book he published.  The actual story, as Ultimate Classic Rock describes, was actually quite simple.  The band was sitting around their old apartment hang out, when Gibbons looked up at the posters.  Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King stood out as some of his favorite bands, so he mixed the two together but realized how much Z.Z. King sounded like B.B. King.  To switch things up and since B.B. King was at the top of the genre, "Top" became their stand in for B.B. King.  The band then and forever had their name.”

 

 

 

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Posted 4/9/23....YOU LEARN

      

TWENTY YEARS AGO in the fall of 2003 I had my annual call with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Scott Mervis about the just-concluded outdoor concert season at Post-Gazette Pavilion (formerly Star Lake Amphitheatre).  I was the general manager of the facility beginning in 1995 and like many of my previous season-ending discussions, Scott (or another Post-Gazette writer) and I went over the shows and the highlights and lowlights--but this year’s call wasn’t quite as routine as its predecessors.  The difference this time: our show count was way down.

Here is the way Mervis’ October 10, 2003 article started out: “To use a term that’s been tossed around in the baseball playoffs, the Post-Gazette Pavilion played ‘small ball’ with the occasional grand slam in the summer of 2003.  The Burgettstown venue staged the smallest number of shows in its 14-year history with 29, compared to the high of 44 in 1995 and 1996, and drew the third lowest number of fans, with 431,325, compared to the peak of 655,210 in 1999.”  But Mervis then pointed out that this wasn’t necessarily bad or portentous news.  The Clear Channel owned and operated venue, he wrote, “booked its shows wisely.  The average attendance per show, 14,873, was second only to the 1999 mark of 15,600.”

Mervis wasn’t just spinning positive here to achieve balanced reporting; he was right on the money.  I had mentioned to him during our phone call that our Clear Channel Entertainment bookers were beginning to follow a new directive that had for a while been percolating at best in the hallowed halls of our decisionmakers.  It had clearly been time for our company to start shifting our emphasis on booking quantity to one of booking quality.

Prior to 2003 our venue’s bookers had always been walking a bit of a high wire in the preseason.  Their true mission was to nab the major attractions that touring agencies were offering to summer venues like ours, but in the spirit of trying to meet the venue’s need for tonnage--i.e., having a large number of shows to satisfy sponsor and season ticket holders’ expectations--the bookers were also on the lookout for midrange bands and even occasionally the packaged, multi-act shows featuring lower-rung artists.  These latter bookings of long-in-the-tooth acts--ones where we essentially gulped, rolled the dice and prayed--ended up not even approaching a “must-see” level with our concert-going fans, and thus the end result for us was a marginal win or, more often than not, a bottom-line loss on the event’s overall balance sheet.  

   

There had been a number of shows previous to 2003 that fell into that category of grasping at straws.  On June 12, 1992 we offered up to our southwestern PA music fans a four-act package of bands whose careers by then were admittedly pretty much running on fumes: Blue Oyster Cult, Jefferson Starship, Molly Hatchet and Leslie West.  We believed, though, that this lineup might rekindle a fired-up devotion to classic rock especially at a bargain basement ticket price but, well, no one seemed compelled to care.  

The show turned out to be interminable, and it wasn’t just the fact that we knew we were circling the drain.  The show itself ran until 1:30 in the morning due to, among other things, prolonged arguments between the bands’ grizzled tour managers as to who would play last, or next to last, or next-next to last.  And so at 1:30am over the sparsely attended pavilion and lawn, and consequently then up and over the rolling hills of tiny Hanover Township, floated the lovely strains (and lyrics) of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”  Indeed, looking at our financials the day after, we had reaped what we had sown.

     

Yet we continued to pursue these kind of past-their-prime multi-artist shows over the years before our 2003 epiphany.  We had a ‘70s Star Party on June 2, 1995 with Three Dog Night, Little River Band, Rare Earth, Edgar Winter and Guess Who, and that night with each artist’s turn on stage we couldn’t help but play “Guess who’s still in the band.”  That, uh, might have had just a little something to do with the meager turnout.  A few years later in August 1998 I remember that we piecemealed together an ‘80s package to fill in a Friday night, this one with a lineup that included Human League and Howard Jones as support acts.  When this August 14 show with headliner Culture Club initially went on sale, it limped out of the gate and all I could do was wonder “Do you really want to hurt us?”

And on August 10, 2001 we presented a Summer Oldies concert trying to lure out to our venue the elderly-but-spry.  The line-up consisted of 1960s hitmakers Tommy James, The Turtles, Gary Puckett, Grass Roots and The Buckinghams, but I recall that we lacked strong radio support from the popular oldies station 3WS, and also that as a rule the older generation didn’t particularly like to leave their comfort zones--whether they be living room couches or familiar haunts closer to home--in order to trek all the way out to the wild and woolly Post-Gazette Pavilion.

Other misfires for us through the years were of a different stripe.  One event that didn’t involve any band beyond its shelf life was one that we imaginatively cobbled together for May 11, 2001.  This was Fake Fest, a daylong affair with different tribute acts.  It certainly looked good on paper: no less than eight tribute bands performing on the main stage one after the other, throughout the afternoon and evening, churning out Rock’s greatest hits.  With this time-honored music from The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Grateful Dead, Kiss and Mötley Crüe, really, who could resist??!!!  But as we eventually found out, resistance was not futile.  Attendance was abysmal--on a level of Pepto Abysmal.

One other misfire of note was June 24, 1995’s Deep Space Spectacular, which our Houston-based parent company Pace had put together and then offered up to all of its venues including ours.  This was a high-concept affair, a full orchestra playing an evening of themes from classic sci-fi films and television programs like the original Star Trek and its next-gen installment, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Star Wars and more.  There was an accompanying laser lightshow too, providing something symbiotic with the sonic--a synchronized lighting plan so that the swooping and swelling sci-fi themes could play against the night sky.  We even found a Star Trek: Voyager actor willing to materialize--the emergency medical hologram also known as The Doctor (actor Robert Picard), who climbed aboard agreeing to an onstage Q & A session and to fan autographs in a side tent.

All of this was to no avail.  Though we were bullish about the possibility of a strong showing on the first day of ticket sales, we found that all of our time and effort had amounted to throwing our money into a black hole.  Then about a week before the show we thought about asking our Houston bosses if we could deep-six our Deep-Space-Now-Less-Than-Spectacular, but this turned out not to be an option.  The night of the event the weather was fine and the lasers lit the night sky while the orchestra dazzled.  The audience, though, true to predictions was insufferably small.  And when we added up all of the event expenses the next day, we closed the folder on a grand experiment that had propelled us on a journey from deep space into deep shit...

Which brings us back to the belt-tightening on booking shows that literally paid dividends for our venue in 2003, and my post-season interview with Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Mervis’ headline for the article was “Post-Gazette Pavilion Does More with Less in ’03,” and in his piece he credited a lot of our venue’s success to country music.  “For its high slugging percentage,” Mervis said, “the promoter might want to thank country hunk and former jock Toby Keith, who closed out the season drawing 25,137, the ninth-biggest crowd in the venue’s history.”  [Editor’s note: Little did Mervis know that just one year later Keith would end up setting an all-time attendance record at the venue.  On September 24, 2004 a total of 27,250 fans flowed into--and then pert near overflowed--Post-Gazette Pavilion, beating the previous record holder Steve Miller who drew a staggering 26,154 fans in 1999.]  

Mervis then rounded out his incisive examination of Post-Gazette Pavilion’s 2003 season by citing a few other highlights:

* “Once again the biggest overall draw was the Dave Matthews Band, with two performances totaling 41,850 fans.”

* “Jimmy Buffett’s streak of sell-outs grew to 18, as 23,593 Parrotheads visited ‘Burgettstown Beach.’”

* “OzzFest, featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Disturbed, P.O.D., and Chevelle, sold out for the seventh straight year.”

* “Four out of the five country shows--Kenny Chesney, Brooks and Dunn, Alabama and Toby Keith--were sell-outs.”

* “First-time artists at the venue included ZZ Top, The Blue Man Group, The Doors (21stCentury), Evanescence, John Mayer, DMX, Nas, Lil’ Kim, Chingy, Queens of the Stone Age, The Donnas and Audioslave.”

* “The Post-Gazette Pavilion competed against a handful of major arena tours--including Justin Timberlake/Christina Aguilera, Fleetwood Mac, Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw--that passed through Mellon Arena.  The summer also saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band breaking in PNC Park before 47,000 fans.”

The last paragraph of Mervis’ article consisted not of a look back but a stated desire to look forward.  He asked me my opinion of the year to come, and not having an un-fogged crystal ball at that point in time I could only tell him what I suspected might be coming our way.  “Jones says to expect return visits from a number of the top draws,” Mervis wrote as his conclusion, “plus the possibility of Sting, Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller.”  For the record, I was wrong about Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller.  They were no-shows in 2004.  But I was right about Sting, and his July 10, 2004 concert was one that is still talked about in some circles today--Sting’s special guest who opened the show was Annie Lennox.  And...the show count for 2004 ended up almost exactly the same as 2003’s.  Post-Gazette Pavilion, with lessons learned that less is more, hosted 30 concerts from May 22 through September 24, 2004.

 

 

 

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Posted 3/26/23....WHAT’S YOUR NAME

Musicasaurus originally planned to do this post as a look at the origins of band names--and that still IS the plan--but I also found on Quora, the question-and-answer website, a fun related exercise.  Some contributors to Quora came up with names of bands that reflected a fanciful merging of two or three different artists or groups, and some of the results are quite interesting and at times often amusing.  Judge for yourself; dip into this meld of monikers first, and then you’ll see that I have worked my way--halfway, actually--through an alphabetized list of artists with a paragraph in each case on their origin stories...ENJOY.

Part one of two: A FANCIFUL BAND NAME GAME (with all due credit to Quora contributors Richard Ferrara, Seamus Flynn, Brian G. Doctor of Funkology, G.M., Number Six and Eddy Borremans):

[Some leadoff examples to set the tone] Ratt and Poison merge to form Ratt Poison.....Fleetwood Mac joins up with String Cheese Incident to form Mac 'n Cheese Incident.....Nine Inch Nails merges with Tool to form Nine Inch Tool.....and Limp Bizkit and Panic! At the Disco join together to form Limp At the Disco.

* Cream & Sugarland

* Bush and the Presidents of the United States of America

* Bad English Queen

* Yes No Doubt

* Crowded House 3 Doors Down

* Styx & Stones

* Rage Against Florence and the Machine

* Petty Cash

Korn Hole

* The Flaming Lipps Inc.

* Temple Of The Three Dog Night Ranger

* Jon Spencer Davis Group Blues Explosion

* Kajagoogoo Dolls

* The Police Cars

* Van Morrissey

* Simon Le Bon Iver

* Beatallica

* Barry Whitesnake

* The Grateful Dead Kennedys

* Bell Biv DEVO

* Beastie Boys II Men

* Liz Phairport Convention

Rare Earth, Wind & Fire

Alice Cooper in Chains

* Electric Light Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Ian Dury and the New Kids From the Blockheads

* The Boomtown Cats

Part two of two: ORIGIN OF BAND NAMES (COVERING THE FIRST HALF OF THE ALPHABET, A--M.  NOTE THAT BAND NAMES COVERING THE SECOND HALF OF THE ALPHABET, N--Z, WILL BE POSTED NEXT TIME ON MUSICASAURUS).

10cc

Here we have an artist’s name that starts with a number, so it is positioned before the alphabetized list of artists begins.  Rumors had dogged 10cc for a while after its formation claiming that they picked a name which, it was said, represents a number close to the average amount of human male ejaculation at the point of orgasm.  But Snopes says “Nope.”  On snopes.com it states the name came from a dream had by Johnathan King, the record producer who signed the band to their recording contract with UK Records.  King said that in his dream he saw on a building’s face a hoarding (British for “billboard”) that said “10cc The Best Group in the World.”  Snopes also in its short post on this subject exercises emission control, because it states that the average amount of semen ejaculated at orgasm by males is actually more like 3 or 4 cc’s (hopefully this correction is a load off everyone’s mind).

AEROSMITH  

Boston’s bad boys came together in 1970.  Drummer Joey Kramer suggested the band’s name should be Aerosmith, a word he had habitually scrawled on his school notebooks in his earlier days, somewhat inspired by the songs and the album artwork of the 1968 Harry Nilsson record Aerial Ballet.  There has, however, been some erroneous outside chatter through the years about the name stemming instead from the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith--but that doesn’t fly, according to most sources.

 

BANANARAMA  

This British trio of pop singers Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey and Keren Woodward racked up a lot of UK-to-the-USA hits in the 1980s after forming at the beginning of that decade.  They’re best known for chart-climbing hits including “Cruel Summer,” “Really Saying Something” and “Venus.”  Their group name is a blend springing from two sources--the Saturday morning kids’ show The Banana Splits and a song they adored by Roxy Music entitled “Pyjamarama,” a single released by the latter in 1973.

 

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL  

This California-based foursome of John and Tom Fogerty, Doug Clifford and Stu Cook had been playing as a unit since 1959, and they might not have enjoyed quite the level of success they attained beginning in 1967 if they had stuck with one of their former names--The Golliwogs.  How they arrived at CCR: “Creedence” came from band member Tom Fogerty’s friend Credence Newball; “Clearwater” was borrowed from a then-popular Olympia Beer TV ad which promoted “It’s the water--the natural artesian water of Tumwater” (a city in Washington state where the beer was brewed); and “Revival” pointed to the band’s tendency to burn through other names before finding THE ONE.  [A parting note of interest here: in just a three-year period, 1969-1971, this group racked up fourteen consecutive Top Ten singles in the U.S.A.]

 

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE  

This indie pop-rock group from Bellingham, Washington first formed in 1997 and cribbed their name from a song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band that had been included on the latter’s 1967 debut album Gorilla.  Bonzo band member Neil Innes’ original inspiration for co-writing and naming the song “Death Cab for Cutie” was a story with that title that he had spied in a pulp fiction magazine.  One can catch the Bonzos performing this song at the end of the Beatles’ classic mind-scrambling movie, 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour.

 

EARTH, WIND & FIRE  

Co-founder Maurice White was a driving, corralling force as he worked in 1969 and 1970 to complete the lineup of musicians who would then comprise Earth, Wind & Fire.  According to the band’s website earthwindandfire.com, “EWF combined high-caliber musicianship, wide-ranging musical genre eclecticism, and ’70s multicultural spiritualism.”  White was indeed a spiritual soul AND was astrologically inclined.  In 1970 he shed the band’s current name The Salty Peppers--“the smartest move of his young career,” according to the website--and rechristened it Earth, Wind & Fire.  White’s astrological sign Sagittarius had apparently ruled the day, because a primary elemental quality is Fire and seasonal qualities are Earth and Air.  White then squeezed out Air in favor of Wind because he felt the finalized band name rolled off the tongue just a bit better.

 

FOGHAT  

This British quartet who had a style combining blues and rock and who also knew their way around a boogie came together in 1971.  According to Foghat’s website, that was the year that two of the members of Savoy Brown, Lonesome Dave Peverett and Roger Earl, split from that band to form the new group.  Foghat ended up conquering FM Radio in the U.S. in 1975 with the release of their fifth album Fool for the City, which spawned “Slow Ride”--a song that rock station deejays all across America must have colluded to play every five minutes (or so it seemed).  Speaking only for myself, after a while the tune gave me foghead.  The band’s nonsensical name came from a Scrabble game that Lonesome Dave and his brother were playing (not sure which of them attempted to get that word to count).

 

GRATEFUL DEAD  

According to Phil Lesh in his 2005 memoir Searching for the Sound, here’s how the band found their name in late 1965: “What on earth to call ourselves?  The dam finally broke when one day Jerry danced in my door all a-sparkle.  We poured over all the reference books in the house.  Including Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.  Coming up empty until Jer picked up an old Britannica World Language Dictionary that Ruth had in the house.  In that silvery elf-voice he said to me, 'Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?'  It hit me like a hammer.  It seemed to describe us so perfectly.  I started jumping up and down shouting 'that's it, that's it!'  Our suggestion didn't immediately warm the hearts of all the other guys.  Pig and Bob, I know, thought it was too weird."

 

HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH  

According to an Atlantic Records publicist, the name for this group came from lead singer Darius Rucker’s apparent tendency in his college years to give his friends nicknames based on physical attributes.  Rucker attended the University of South Carolina and when he was performing one night in a band at a campus party, two of his college buddies walked in.  One of them had large round eyeglasses that made him look owl-like, and the other had big puffy cheeks that made him look like a blowfish.  Rucker yelled out “Look!  Hootie and the Blowfish!” and after his bandmates’ laughter subsided, the phrase lingered and the group adopted it soon thereafter.  Hootie’s debut album Cracked Rear View on Atlantic Records came out in 1994 and became a monster-seller across the country, aided in fact by the formidable AOR (album-oriented rock) station in Pittsburgh WDVE/FM 102.5.  This station was one of the earliest to champion the new record, helping to ignite its quick climb to massive national success.

 

INXS  

Reportedly the manager of fellow Aussie band Midnight Oil, Gary Morris, suggested the name for INXS.  He said, “I saw a commercial for a brand of jam called IXL.  Their ad featured a guy who said, 'I excel in all I do.'  I'd recently seen the English band XTC when they toured Australia, and I loved their name: XTC - Ecstasy.  In that moment, I put all those thoughts together.  The name needed to be letters, but make a word.  I put the IXL jam commercial together with XTC and the concept of a band that was inaccessible and I had it: INXS."

 

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE  

Multiple sources suggest that it was bandmember Jorma Kaukonen who threw this name in the hat when the group was huddled to discuss possible group names in the summer of 1965.  A friend of Kaukonen’s who was into giving out nicknames had called the guitarist “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane” in a scrambled nod to the blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson.  “You want a silly band name?” Kaukonen reportedly said to his mates, “I got a silly name for you!”  I did uncover another account as to how the name might have come about, from an online article on the band put forth by the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy of Ohio State University: The name Jefferson Airplane, the article posited, may have come “from a slang term for a used paper match splint to hold a marijuana joint to avoid burning one's fingers.”  Not sure who originally came up with this particular head-scratching origin story, but I hope they didn’t burn their fingers in the process.

 

KING CRIMSON  

The British band King Crimson were almost fully-formed in January 1969 as they began rehearsing in the basement beneath Calatychos Café in southwest London.  On January 22 the name “King Crimson” leapt out of some song lyrics that Pete Sinfield had been working on--his draft of a song he called “The Court of the Crimson King”--and the band members liked it and adopted the name.  The Crimson King was a term that Sinfield had come up with to enable him to spin tales about dark forces in the world--one of the emerging themes in his lyrical pursuits--without simply falling back on the existing standard names for the devil such as Beelzebub.  The band’s first gigs began a few months later and their October 1969 debut album In the Court of the Crimson King--a melding of pop, classical, jazz and rock influences; “a brilliant mix of melody and freakout” as one review had labeled it--is a prog rock classic with fantastical lyrics, Mellotron and much more, starting with the buzz saw opener “21stCentury Schizoid Man” and closing with the majestic 9 ½-minute title track.

 

LIMP BIZKIT  

Pick your own descriptor here: I’m sayin’ rap-meets-metal, but others have pigeonholed the band as rap-rock, nu metal, hard rock, alternative metal--they’ve even been labeled frat-metal.  Limp Bizkit sprouted up out of Jacksonville, Florida’s underground music scene in 1994, and three years later released their debut album Three Dollar Bill, Y’all.  Lead singer Fred Durst talked about the origin of the band name on Reddit AMA (i.e., Reddit Ask-Me-Anything) and is quoted as saying, “I wanted it to have the same roll off of the tongue as Led Zeppelin, but be so odd that you would have a hard time forgetting it.  I remember things like Gimp Disco, Split Dickslit, Bitch Piglet, and somehow…Blood Fart.  Plus, we never really took our name or purpose very seriously considering the chances of succeeding were slim to none at that point.”  Well, they certainly found success, and later on infamy through their star appearance at Woodstock ’99 where things in this crowd of approximately 220,000 devolved into chaos and confusion--and contusions.  Google up that festival for more info, but let’s just say at the very least that for more than a few people at this concert, Limp Bizkit led to a limp and a med-kit. 

 

MOTT THE HOOPLE  

After the group came together in 1966 in Hereforshire County, England they spent some time under a few different band names but when signing to Island Records in 1969 took a novel approach--that is, they took their name from the title of a novel.  According to Campbell Devine, author of the definitive history of the group All the Young Dudes: Mott the Hoople & Ian Hunter, it was the group’s producer and new manager Guy Stevens who keyed in on the 1966 novel Mott the Hoople by L.A.-based writer Willard Manus.  Manus’ novel is centered on an individual named Norman Mott, and he is actually based on a character named Major Hoople from a real-world comic strip called Our Boarding House.  According to Manus, “Hoople” is also a slang word “meaning variously fool, rogue, buffoon and even sucker.  That’s why my character Norman Mott sometimes thinks of himself as a Hoople.”...Though the group Mott the Hoople in 1969 had a new name, a new label (Island) and a well-connected manager, fame eluded them and sales of their first four albums stoked only cult-level interest from the public.  The fifth album changed that.  Fan David Bowie presented the band with a song of his called “All the Young Dudes,” which quickly turned into a full album (same title) produced by Bowie, and so the glam sound of Mott was finally catching on and drawing fans throughout the UK and across the pond in the U.S.

 

 

 

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Posted 3/12/23....JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE MIND

Oxford Academic is Oxford University Press’ platform for serving “the diverse and changing research needs of students, researchers, professors, and practitioners” and self-touts its “commitment to publishing pioneering authors and authoritative content.”  In the November 2018 issue of the Cerebral Cortex Journals–volume 28; issue 11–a study is posted related to brain functions when a person listens to music.  The long and the short of it: LSD “alters the neural response to music in brain regions supporting basic and higher-level musical and auditory processing, and areas involved in memory, emotion, and self-referential processing,” and there are “associated increases in emotionality, connectedness, and meaningfulness in response to music that are commonly observed after the administration of LSD and other psychedelics.” 

Of course I am also picturing in my head that famous anti-narcotics television ad from 1987 where an egg is held up by a man who says “This is your brain.”  He motions to a frying pan, saying “This is drugs.”  Then he cracks the egg and fries it up, saying “This is your brain on drugs.”  I don’t know if that eggs-actly makes sense, and according to Wikipedia, an association called the American Egg Board soon came out against this late-1980s media campaign, stating that they felt eggs were being unnecessarily and arbitrarily linked “with the unhealthiness of drug use.”

Whatever...What IS certain is that LSD as well as other psychedelics alter perceptions and there is a strong response in the brain to the music experience.  A prime example of this was the Trips Festival held on January 21-23, 1966 at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco.  According to Mark Paytress, author of a deep dive into legendary in-concert moments entitled I Was There/Gigs That Changed the World, this event was the first full-scale “acid test” party, though Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (famous ‘60s progenitors of LSD-fueled gatherings) had been dose-si-do-ing young and willing San Franciscans for months beforehand.

The “happening” was priced at $2 per day or $5 for the three-day affair, and it offered the mind-boggled attendees video on large screens, light shows and slide shows, exhibitors ‘round the room including counterculture booksellers and paraphernalia salesmen, and of course music, supplied here by the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and The Holding Company (featuring then 23-year-old Janis Joplin).

The crowd over the three days amounted to around 10,000 people.  In Paytress’ words, Saturday evening (the second night) was when everything jelled: “The audience, some in Indian headgear, others in hooped Breton shirts, others still bare-chested and dancing ecstatically, their eyes closed in blissful abandon, weaved in and out of the technicolour shadows...The Grateful Dead and Big Brother provided the ‘psychedelic symphony’ promised on the posters.  By the third and final night, the cops had been dosed and were now more interested in playing with model aircraft than in policing the event.”

One year after the Trips Festival, across the pond in England, 25-year-old Paul McCartney admitted in a June 19, 1967 ITV interview that he had used LSD four times, lamenting the fact that he’d previously revealed this at the behest of a newspaper reporter.  McCartney made it clear that he had only been trying to answer questions honestly, and that the media was responsible for circulating and regurgitating this tidbit.  Asked if he thought that he was now encouraging his fans to take drugs, McCartney replied “I don’t think it will make any difference.  I don’t think my fans are going to take drugs just because I did.”  The Beatle may have felt assured in that belief, however, a devil’s advocate may point to the overall group’s release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just one month before.  This don’t-need-to-be-said-but-I’m-sayin’-it immensely popular album included hints, if not outright references to, the subject of drugs–“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” of course bore Lewis Carroll flavors and psychedelic imagery; the song “A Day in the Life” contained the lyrics “I’d love to turn you on;” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” boasted the words “I get high” with said friends. 

The late ‘60s was indeed the full flowering of LSD usage and experimentation.  It was sprouting up in musicians’ lyrics and lifestyles, and some members of their audiences across the country were tuning in, turning on and dropping...acid.  San Francisco in 1967 in particular, with its unstoppable influx of freewheeling, anti-war and pro-free love youth during the aptly named Summer of Love, was a true melting pot–where some inhabitants plainly saw things melting before their eyes.  

In 1968 the British band The Moody Blues released their album In Search of the Lost Chord which featured the song “Legend of a Mind,” a paean to the charismatic and controversial psychedelics guru Timothy Leary.  In a January 22, 2021 loudersound.com article entitled “The Moody Blues: stories of nights in technicolour satin and LSD,” author Henry Yates pointed out that some of the band’s inspiration was assuredly chemically induced.  “Though it’s hard to envisage The Moody Blues waving their freak flag high, let alone tripping on acid,” said Yates, “in fact LSD played a crucial role in their development of the band both musically and personally.”  Both guitarist Justin Hayward and keyboardist Mike Pinder were openly positive of their experiences, with the latter espousing the benefits to their recording process.  “It worked in terms of giving you more colour varieties to add to your sound," Pinder said.  "And you’d notice this more when you were in a meditative state.  And the drugs helped you get to that meditative state.” 

With seven albums released between 1967 and 1972 The Moody Blues became incredibly popular in their home country, but their success rippled then roared overseas as well–those seven albums in the U.S. all went gold.  Bill Graham, our country’s premier concert promoter at the time, brought the band over to The States in 1968 for their first American gigs, one in San Francisco and the other in New York City.  According to Yates, the group then became “massively popular in middle America” by touring the heartland cities as well.  “I had thought that we were doing an arty kind of thing but what we found out was that the people who loved us were working Americans,” Yates quoted Justin Hayward as saying.  “We played all these industrial towns–Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit–and got a really strong, loyal audience.”

Woodstock in 1969 was yet another testament to the growing level of acceptance of psychedelics, in terms of a sizeable swath of the younger generation and their musical heroes.  In an August 6, 2019 article, an interview with Carlos Santana by Rob Tannenbaum of the New York Times, the guitarist talked about his source of inspiration–and consternation–related to his now legendary performance with his band Santana at the Woodstock festival.  The title of the article says it all: “How Santana Hallucinated Through One of Woodstock’s Best Sets (His Own).”  Upon arrival at the site the first person Carlos saw was, in his words, “my brother and friend Jerry Garcia.  He looked like one of those yogis in a cave in the Himalayas.  He had that beatific, everything is all right already look.  For me, he was like assurance, confidence and sanctuary.”  

Garcia then offered up some mescaline principally because Carlos and his band were not slated to perform until very, very late in the evening, and it was just a little after 12:00 pm when Carlos had arrived.  Suddenly just two hours after dropping the tab, Carlos recalled, “there was a face in my face that said, ‘You need to go on right now, otherwise you’re not going to play.’  By this time I was really, really on it, you know?  I just held on to my faith, and what my mom taught me.  I asked, over and over, ‘Just help me stay in tune and on time.’”  Writer Tannenbaum then asked the guitarist if he was truly hallucinating during his set and Carlos replied “Oh totally.  You can tell by my body language.  I’m wrestling with the guitar–not wrestling in conflict, but like a surfer, wrestling to maintain and sustain a balance.  That’s the key to everything in life.  Whether you’re straight or on mescaline, maintain your composure and your balance.”

 

Musicasaurus wanted to dive a bit deeper into this “composure and balance” aspect that Carlos referenced above, so to round out this post about LSD (and/or other psychedelics) tied to musical experiences, I reached out to a few Musicasaurus readers to share their own stories.  I thank each of them for dredging up the memories of their youthful journeys to the centers of their minds.  The question I had asked: “If you were an individual who in your youth experimented with LSD or another psychedelic, and thus had a memorable experience at a concert OR while listening to a certain band’s album, please submit your recollection.”

  RICHARD / PITTSBURGH, PA

Richard was the first person I posed my survey question to.  He reported back to me with this: “In the early 1970s I attended the University of Miami, and I saw a LOT of bands at my school or elsewhere around Miami.”  He then ticked off an impressive list of shows he’d seen: Electric Light Orchestra, Journey with founding members guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Gregg Rolie, and the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, all at the university; and around Miami in different venues, Santana, It’s A Beautiful Day, Black Sabbath, The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac (it’s Future Games & Bare Trees period), Dylan backed up by The Band, The Beach Boys and The Who.  

When I asked Richard which shows he saw while doing acid, he replied “Could have been all of them.  I saw a lot of bands there on LSD; I was tripping practically every weekend, so much so that I might have even seen a band playing there that really wasn’t there...Okay, let’s see–Blue barrels?  Orange barrels?  Purple Haze?  Oh, yeah, it was windowpane!”  He and his friends, Richard then recounted, would sometimes scoop up a fallen coconut from one of the trees on campus, split it in two and fill the hollowed-out half with Hawaiian Punch, and then dose it with five or six hits of acid.  And of all the concerts Richard saw in his Lucy in the Sky college years, he remembers as one clear favorite a new group who ended up playing in the university’s cafeteria: Mahavishnu Orchestra.  “THIS show was incredible,” Richard recalled.  “Each band member was supremely talented; all were first-rate players, like Billy Cobham on drums, Jerry Goodman on violin and Jan Hammer on keyboards, and the band’s leader, the guitarist John McLaughlin, let all of them shine with individual solos.  Amazing!”  [Editor’s note: Lest you have drawn the conclusion that Richard essentially was living the life of a burnout, he did earn a “C” average his first semester but then made dean’s list the rest of the time at the university.]

 

  MARK / TAMPA, FL 

“In the early 70's, the Allman Brothers were just starting out and had a show at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh.  About a half-dozen of us dropped acid, and off we went.  The opener was a band also from Macon–Wet Willie–newly signed, similar bluesy rock sound but a bit more soulful.  Great show, and after intermission, the Allmans came on and started with ‘One Way Out’–which to me sounded the same as Wet Willie, so I got up to leave.  My crew asked me: ‘What are you doing?’  My perfectly lucid (not) self said: ‘I've already seen this show.’  Back at our place, I asked: ‘How was that second Allmans' show?’  They put me in another room for the night.”

 

  ANONYMOUS / PITTSBURGH, PA 

“On June 20, 1975 I attended the Pink Floyd concert at Three Rivers Stadium.  Although I had tried LSD and mescaline a few times in the past, I was not very experienced with psychedelics and can’t say that I ever had a pleasurable ‘trip.’  The other times I was just mostly paranoid.  I preferred to smoke pot.  But, I digress.  My main intent for this show was to trip.  After hooking up with friends at the stadium gates, we made our way to the floor of the stadium and I began my search for the goods.  Very quickly I found a guy sitting on the floor, openly announcing what he had to offer.  From a roll of what looked like amber-colored cellophane tape with red dots on it, he peeled me off a dose.  I think it cost $3.  I indulged and in fairly short order I was seeing and hearing things in a very altered state.  Soon after, the band started.  I recall being nothing but elated.  I’ve been told I had an ear-to-ear grin.  The band played most of Wish You Were Here (their current album), Dark Side of the Moon and a large portion of the yet-to-be-released Animals.  The highlight to the trip was when a large airplane model stealthily made its way from the top edge of the stadium to the back wall of the stage.  When the plane’s nose hit the wall, a musical crescendo occurred and the brightest lights possible illuminated the stage and most of the stadium.  It was quite the surprise to nearly everyone in attendance, and totally unforgettable.  I was still quite high as I left that night to walk to E. Ohio Street to catch a bus home.  Not sure how I managed that.”

 

  MARK / PITTSBURGH, PA

“I honestly don’t remember much about this listening incident, but the album that totally had me was Steve Miller Band’s Sailor.  Not that I ever bought the album but whenever I heard it again it took me right back there…no, not a flashback per se but a fond memory to be sure.” 

 

  BILL / SAN DIEGO, CA

“Hunter Thompson once wrote that you can measure the zeitgeist by noting which drugs are popular: psychedelics went out with LBJ and barbiturates came (back) in with RMN.  Despite a reduced market, hallucinogenics never actually went away.  And now, they’re being acknowledged once more as therapeutic!  One old LP gave me a deep and memorable experience: Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland.  Altered-state listening to it took me places in my perceptions that Huxley likely never dreamed of.  Oddly, I can’t remember where I was physically…maybe Slippery Rock, PA or Penn State’s Behrend location up by Erie.  Two caveats for anyone considering such travel: have a knowledgeable guide or at least a babysitter, and listen to music you might not otherwise.  I’ve got Pet Sounds lined up should I ever do it again.”

 

  STEVE / PITTSBURGH, PA 

“Contrary to what I hope is the popular perception of me, I never listened to an album on LSD nor ever took LSD.  I more of a Mr. Natural.  I was also a connoisseur of the Carlos Castaneda series of books (now largely debunked) and thus perceived naturally-growing mushroom psychedelics as the one true path to higher consciousness.  Even then I only partook on two occasions—once on a Christmas Eve when I relived the birth of Christ and once at Winterland in San Francisco on the night of December 31, 1978.  The occasion was the closing of Bill Graham’s fabled Winterland and featured the Blues Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage and The Grateful Dead.  I was not a fan of the Dead before that night nor since that night.  But on that night...I TOTALLY got it.  My cosmic energy synched up with the collective vibrations of the room under the spell of the Dead.  We undulated, oscillated, billowed and flowed as one.  Jerry Garcia plucked on my tendons and talons as he wove Sugar Magnolia in and out of my pixilated atomic core.  I was the Dead and the Dead were me.  The spell was broken only when the Dead left the stage at about three in the morning.  Bill Graham then set up a sunrise breakfast buffet and I joined several hundred other famished hippies as we gently returned from the long, strange New Year’s Eve trip we had all taken together.”

 

  SEAN / LAS VEGAS, NV

“The Grateful Dead, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University in May 1977.  Possibly the most historic Dead concert ever–and I was there, tripping my ass off.  I was wandering around the venue (Barton Hall) right before the show and some hippie walked by saying ‘Blotter!  I got blotter!’  The acid was hit-by-hit spread out on a sheet of paper, and this guy had a paper hole-puncher that he used to punch out five hits of blotter for me and my friends...Decades later during my time as a deejay on WDVE, 102.5 Pittsburgh I interviewed (separately) Donna Jean Godchaux and Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead over the phone, and I told them I was there at Cornell in May ’77.  They both replied ‘WOW...You were there?!!’  This was my claim to fame amongst Deadheads.”

 

  BERNIE / PITTSBURGH, PA 

Penguin Random House, the renowned multinational conglomerate publishing company, offers up on its website this encapsulation of writer Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 road trip saga Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “This cult classic of gonzo journalism is the best chronicle of drug-soaked, addle-brained, rollicking good times ever committed to the printed page.”  

Musicasaurus was reminded of this when this particular submission from Bernie hit my email.  It is a bit lengthy but it also just might be some sort of minor classic, a mini-Fear and Loathing, Florida-style.  So here it is, as submitted...

It might have been ‘71 or ‘72 but there we were, ten people–or it might have been eleven or twelve–taking two cars and driving to Florida for spring break.  Six guys and four ladies–or it might have been seven guys and three ladies.  Anyway, we left with enough weed to get a small army stoned and land in jail for a cool 20 years.  Accompanying the weed and what seemed to be an entire case of Zig-Zag rolling papers, was an assortment of acid, ludes, and mescaline.   

“It's worth noting that a week before the concert and our second day in Florida, we were retained by the Florida Police and Disney security as we were videotaped smoking joints in the overhead tram cars as they traveled out of Fantasy Land.  Fortunately, we had already taken the ride through It's A Small World so when we got escorted out of the park and our weed was confiscated, it wasn't a complete waste.  

“Several days later, we became aware that Humble Pie with Steve Marriott was scheduled imminently to perform at Pirates World, a 3,500-seat open-ended barn that was transformed into a concert venue.  The trip to and from the venue is a little murky as is the number of people from our Freak Flag Traveling Weed Community who attended the show; there might have been two or six of us, with the number probably somewhere in between.  From what I recall we smoked a joint or two before the ride over to the concert–or it might have been a half dozen.  Green mescaline for sure, though, was in my pocket for good measure and away we went.  

“The parking lot was a big field and the crowd consisted of longhaired freaks.  Upon entering the barn (venue) we were greeted not by someone patting us down or asking us to empty our pockets, but by a random guy–not a venue employee–who was right there holding a small fish bowl full of different colored pills.  ‘Help yourself,’ he said, nodding toward the bowl, ‘and have a good time.’  Now, I can't tell you where I ate last Saturday night, but if you put my fellow pill-pushing Good Samaritan in a line-up today I’d be able to pick him out.  Before I asked him about the cost of this ‘medicine,’ I took a nanosecond to think about all the weed I had already smoked and the green mescaline that was just about to kick in at any moment.  As my brain cells were trying to keep up, the generous soul with the fish bowl said, ‘Take a handful; they're free.’

“I scoured through the bowl looking for anything green, assuming that if I took two pills of an unknown substance, my chances of overdosing were lessened if they were the same color.  And right then, because our little group of friends had somehow just scattered, my one buddy and I grabbed a drink to swallow the just-provided music enhancers and then headed up by ourselves to the top of a ridiculously steep set of bleaches.  I was a big fan of Humble Pie as were the 3,500+ fans that had overtaken this barn.  About a third of the way through their set, the band broke out into ‘I Don't Need No Doctor.’  

“At this point the music and I became one, and I was probably closer to needing a coroner than a doctor.  The band was tremendous (or, hmmm...they might have been just okay?).  I don't think anyone around us sat down even for a minute on those damn bleachers the entire night, and I remember thinking that the barn was swaying.  As the show continued, I had my Gibson air guitar at the ready for ‘30 Days in The Hole.’  Minutes later as I heard the first chord of that song, my green meds took me to a higher level and Steve Marriott and I were totally in tune.  

“EXCEPT...I turned to look at my friend as he had just begun to fall in between the bleachers in our row and the one in front of us.  Considering that we were three rows from the top of the bleacher platform, his fall of 30 feet (you know, it might have been 50 feet!) would have ended our evening and our mind-expanding experiences forever.  Without thinking I reached down, grabbed him by his shirt collar, pulled him up, and planted his two feet on the bleachers.  The rest of the show was without incident for us–and a gentler, more mature duo will be without their green meds next week at the Tedeschi Trucks Band concert in Pittsburgh at UPMC Events Center.” 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________________

Posted 2/26/23....A WHOLE NEW WORLD

 

1973 was an interesting year of transition for me because I voluntarily upended my psyche.

I was a focused but freewheeling nineteen-going-on-twenty-year-old college student in Clarion, PA, and in one fell swoop that year I changed my environment, my bonds of recently forged friendships and my aspirations in life.  From the fall of 1971 through the spring of 1973 I attended Clarion State College majoring in English in the Liberal Arts program, but it occurred to me (or rather had reoccurred to me) early in my second year that my post-graduation career options would likely be limited to teaching positions.  I realistically couldn’t see myself continuing on that path, so I started to research the Journalism B.A. program at Penn State University and soon began the work of credit transfers, etc. for a planned move to PSU’s main campus for the 1973 fall semester.

I believed at the time that this redirection of mine in the latter half of my college undergrad years was a necessity.  The things I loved the most of my swirl of experiences at Clarion College were my communications courses, the ample opportunities for writing I found in certain courses and through journaling, and the intoxication I felt when I netted a deejay shift on the college’s student-run, carrier current radio station WCCB.  Yet Penn State loomed large, a beacon for me because of their journalism major which at the very least began to lessen the anxiety I had over my foggy notions of occupational life after college.

One of the first things I did upon hitting Happy Valley in September 1973 was to sign up for a campus radio deejay slot as I had previously done at Clarion.  This kind of continuity made sense to me; from a very early age, growing up in my hometown of Butler, PA, music had been my mainstay.  It helped to form who I was and then sustained me through the years without fail.  My early Elvis lip-syncs and gyrations with a plastic guitar in my parents’ living room in the late ‘50s eventually led to my out-and-out worship of everything Beatles in the early-mid ‘60s, and by the age of fourteen in 1967 I was already hoovering up from downtown store record bins a myriad of other artists’ brand new albums.  I was also poring over issues of the recently birthed music magazines Crawdaddy and Circus, at the same time searching out and glomming onto likeminded schoolmates whose brains I felt were similarly fixated and fired up.

Later on, entering my college years at Clarion seemed part of a natural flow.  1973 though, was the year I straddled, weaning myself off the liberal arts concentration in one setting and then taking the major plunge into journalism elsewhere.  But the one constant was my drive and determination to continue exploring all things music.  The extra-curricular deejay gig that I secured upon arrival at Penn State was on WHR (West Halls Radio) which was, like Clarion’s WCCB, a pumped-through-wires carrier current station.  WHR, I found, served the campus’ small geographic cluster of residence halls that included the dorm I had just moved into, Mifflin Hall.  

In Mifflin on check-in day I met my new roommate Gene Cates, an African American from Pittsburgh who, I quickly determined, was a music fan himself.  Back in Butler in the summer between Clarion and PSU I had consulted with my friend and hometown music guru Dave Kleemann, and upon his recommendation I bought a turntable and speakers made by Acoustic Research (AR).  The sound was pristine.  So the cramped little quarters that Gene and I were now sharing was thus often filled with music, and it was not uncommon for him to return from class and find me lost in Little Feat, or for me to return and find him listening to Hubert Laws.

Gene had turned me on to some new sounds that semester in Mifflin dorm, and I mentally added some must-haves to my album wish-list courtesy of him.  Marvin Gaye’s new album Let’s Get It On was one I liked and luxuriated in, but the bigger find for me was diving into a number of my roommate’s CTI recordings.  The letters “CTI” stood for Creed Taylor Incorporated, and record producer Taylor was the mastermind behind a series of releases featuring jazz luminaries and future greats, and I particularly liked--out of Gene’s stockpile--the albums Afro-Classic and Carnegie Hall by flautist Hubert Laws, Sky Dive from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and two from saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, Sugar and Don’t Mess with Mr. T.

As I settled into my deejay shifts on WHR that fall, I found even more new music that enthralled me.  The station was already on some record companies’ mailing lists for promotional albums and singles, so there was a flood of stuff to sift through and plunk down on the turntable.  I mainly remember dipping into certain key songs in the piles of 45rpm records that were strewn about the small space that had been accorded to West Halls Radio spinners.  Some of my go-to selections included: “Stuck in the Middle with You” (Stealers Wheel), “Will it Go Round in Circles” (Billy Preston), “Angie” (Rolling Stones), “Free Ride” (The Edgar Winter Group), “Right Place Wrong Time” (Dr. John), “Hocus Pocus” (Focus), “Ramblin’ Man” (Allman Brothers Band), “Daniel” (Elton John), “Your Mama Don’t Dance” (Loggins & Messina), “Higher Ground” (Stevie Wonder), “Diamond Girl” (Seals & Crofts) and “Reelin’ in the Years” (Steely Dan).

Between all my deejaying and digging into WHR’s “stacks of wax” in the fall of 1973, along with periodic record store visits and music magazine reliance, some roomie revelations, and my occasional weekend trips home to reconnect with the zealots there, I was continually and rather blissfully inundated with fresh new sounds from all directions.  I found this first semester at PSU to be ear-adrenalizing.  In fact, during the whole of 1973 there were SO many singer-songwriters and musicians mining their roots and/or feeding off threads and tributaries in order to create their own paths.  It felt very much like recorded music in 1973 was boiling over with ingenuity.

This explosion of creative output and resulting spike in album sales was not lost on the national media powers-that-be.  Both major radio syndication companies and network TV kicked into high gear to create high-profile music programs in 1973.

According to an article on prweb.com dated March 1, 2008, “In February 1973, the King Biscuit Flower Hour launched the first syndicated radio series of the rock era to reach North American radio listeners with live concert performances.  The premiere program featured a triple bill of Blood Sweat & Tears, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and an unknown by the name of Bruce Springsteen, each recorded live in concert just weeks before.  These artists were promoting new albums at the time and the KBFH provided an exciting new and unprecedented opportunity to reach a national radio listening audience.”  King Biscuit Flower Hour, a creation D.I.R. Broadcasting, aired on Sunday evenings for twenty years until 1993.  At its highest peak the program was broadcast on over 300 radio stations across the country including WYDD-FM, 104.7 Pittsburgh.  

Also in February 1973, television producer Burt Sugarman launched a new music variety program called The Midnight Special.  He had recently sold NBC on the concept of a 1:00 am music show that could potentially keep the 11:30pm Tonight Show’s large viewership tuned to their sets, and thus The Midnight Special debuted as a weekly program immediately following the Friday night airing of Johnny Carson.  The official show announcer and frequent guest host was Wolfman Jack, and Helen Reddy had a stint as guest host, from July 1975-March 1976.  Throughout its 1973-1981 run, The Midnight Special showcased the popular artists of the day in predominantly live performances, and once in a while also featured archived performances and comedy acts.

Near the end of 1973, song publisher Don Kirshner left an executive producer/consultant role with ABC Television’s semi-monthly music program In Concert to launch his own syndicated weekly rock show on ABC, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.  The show featured live performances from many A-list music superstars, and the program’s debut on September 27, 1973 featured the Rolling Stones in their first American TV performance in over four years.  Rob Simon of the Paley Center for the Media was quoted on donkirshner.com as saying that Kirshner’s venture, which had an eight-year run 1973-1981, was a “crucial ‘70s bridge between the Ed Sullivan era of the ‘60s and MTV of the ‘80s...Don Kirshner was able to capitalize on many different forms of music that were coming out in the ‘70s.”

Rob Simon’s observation about Kirshner being able to capitalize on the myriad sounds of the ‘70s is a point well taken.  There were so many remarkable recordings in 1973 alone that covered all the strands of rock, yet other genres were ably represented as well including revelatory singer-songwriter confessionals...traditional jazz...jazz fusion...blues...New Orleans funk...reggae... early Americana... alternative...rhythm & blues...and more.  

Below is Musicasaurus’ fashioned list of 1973 landmark albums and a representative track from each.  Here’s hoping that by the end of your review, you’ll concur that 1973 is, still, a year to be reckoned with... 

                   . . .

ALBUMS RELEASED IN JANUARY 1973:

Greetings from Asbury Park - Bruce Springsteen - “Spirit in the Night” https://youtu.be/hFEeqfqoTSY

Dixie Chicken - Little Feat - “Dixie Chicken” https://youtu.be/yaHEfJApEVM

Holland - Beach Boys - “Sail On, Sailor” https://youtu.be/ZdzC-3UPKbk

Light as A Feather - Chick Corea and Return to Forever - “Spain” https://youtu.be/sEhQTjgoTdU

Sky Dive - Freddie Hubbard - “Sky Dive” https://youtu.be/G2zJnSOWS20

Aerosmith - Aerosmith - “Dream On” https://youtu.be/89dGC8de0CA

 

RELEASED IN FEBRUARY 1973:

In the Right Place - Dr. John - “Right Place, Wrong Time” https://youtu.be/W4PjWgiH-LQ

 

RELEASED IN MARCH 1973:

Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd - “Us and Them” https://youtu.be/GKiLEgAzFDQ

Closing Time - Tom Waits - “Martha” https://youtu.be/VXQwDb7AUmo

The Byrds - The Byrds - “Full Circle” https://youtu.be/79oGn6-7wL4  

Beck, Bogert & Appice - Beck, Bogert & Appice - “Black Cat Moan” https://youtu.be/6qP_t0HySoI

Birds of Fire - Mahavishnu Orchestra - “Thousand Island Park” https://youtu.be/cU6eykMxiZM

Still Alive and Well - Johnny Winter - “Still Alive and Well” https://youtu.be/NdIGrNcXcs4

A Wizard, A True Star - Todd Rundgren - “Just One Victory” https://youtu.be/jitktxIuMOw

Houses of the Holy - Led Zeppelin - “Over the Hills and Far Away” https://youtu.be/Ee33FsDANk0

 

RELEASED IN APRIL 1973:

Aladdin Sane - David Bowie - “The Jean Genie” https://youtu.be/rWL8gzs_gQA

Catch a Fire - Bob Marley & The Wailers - “Stir It Up” https://youtu.be/1hwL3S3Gtzs

The Marshall Tucker Band - The Marshall Tucker Band - “Take the Highway” https://youtu.be/25ALsr5phZo

Fingers - Airto Moreira - “Romance of Death” https://youtu.be/2wgtab2jnnA

 

RELEASED IN MAY 1973:

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon - Paul Simon - “Learn How to Fall” https://youtu.be/VqlaLXAoJN0

Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield - “Tubular Bells, Part One” https://youtu.be/BfWJqKIxyGc

Tower of Power - Tower of Power - “What is Hip” https://youtu.be/Pfim3SKTNkw

Sufficiently Breathless - Captain Beyond - “Sufficiently Breathless” https://youtu.be/fIQWu5YbCAA

 

RELEASED IN JUNE 1973:

Fresh - Sly and The Family Stone - “If You Want Me to Stay” https://youtu.be/gZFabOuF4Ps

 

RELEASED IN JULY 1973: 

Queen - Queen - “Keep Yourself Alive” https://youtu.be/5VmEXWpvfhc

New York Dolls - New York Dolls - “Personality Crisis” https://youtu.be/ioixZtoTp00

Tres Hombres - ZZ Top - “Jesus Just Left Chicago” https://youtu.be/L2UTjoVVVb4

Countdown to Ecstasy - Steely Dan - “My Old School” https://youtu.be/s7DYyToslXc

Mott - Mott the Hoople - “All the Way from Memphis” https://youtu.be/PuMOWrRZ0HA

 

RELEASED IN AUGUST 1973:

*Innervisions - Stevie Wonder - “Higher Ground” https://youtu.be/zGSxvH5i6XQ

(Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd - “Poison Whiskey” https://youtu.be/Ncc-GLzJpyc

Let’s Get It On - Marvin Gaye - “Distant Lover” https://youtu.be/edwZRwpkjW0

Goats Head Soup - Rolling Stones - “Dancing with Mr. D” https://youtu.be/r6huPIAdhh0

Brothers and Sisters - Allman Brothers Band - “Come and Go Blues” https://youtu.be/W8w7_Y7w9w8

Maria Muldaur - Maria Muldaur - “Midnight at the Oasis” https://youtu.be/3gKnnb24Eso

Body Talk - George Benson - “Plum” https://youtu.be/jsJu5cTOggI

 

RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER 1973:

Over-Nite Sensation - Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention - “Montana” https://youtu.be/Qs0CGOwWmCI

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle - Bruce Springsteen - “Incident on 57thStreet” https://youtu.be/ioQcvijom28

 

RELEASED IN OCTOBER 1973:

Spectrum- Billy Cobham - “Stratus” https://youtu.be/_VakN0BA2Vc

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John - “Harmony” https://youtu.be/3GSPvHu9Krg

Selling England by the Pound - Genesis - “Firth of Fifth” https://youtu.be/VZePgiiOrkY

Mystery to Me - Fleetwood Mac - “Hypnotized” https://youtu.be/fDzXbdxeeHI

Quadrophenia - The Who - “Love, Reign o’er Me” https://youtu.be/ZhSdNy1snaU

Head Hunters - Herbie Hancock - “Chameleon” https://youtu.be/WYRrIBqKsJ4

For Everyman - Jackson Browne - “These Days” https://youtu.be/oFYgaarYepw

Laid Back - Gregg Allman - “Queen of Hearts” https://youtu.be/wLsHjRk7n4U

Takin’ My Time - Bonnie Raitt - “You’ve Been in Love Too Long” https://youtu.be/Q43Je3ay2xY

The Adventures of Panama Red - New Riders of the Purple Sage - “Panama Red” https://youtu.be/O9G0emfp87E

 

RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 1973:

Abandoned Luncheonette - Hall & Oates - “She’s Gone” https://youtu.be/87Q042KlxI4

Mind Games - John Lennon - “Mind Games” https://youtu.be/QLeObvcUii4

Back Street Crawler - Paul Kossoff - “Time Away” https://youtu.be/Lu2mOI_YLeU

Brain Salad Surgery - Emerson, Lake & Palmer - “Karn Evil 9: 1stImpression, Pt. 2” https://youtu.be/HPt8zNLw0dU

 

RELEASED IN DECEMBER 1973:

Band on the Run - Paul McCartney & Wings - “Let Me Roll It” https://youtu.be/ly_G9QBX_f0

Virtuoso - Joe Pass - “Night and Day” https://youtu.be/E5_EQdTZbSs

 

RELEASED SOMETIME IN 1973: 

Andy Pratt - Andy Pratt - “Avenging Annie” https://youtu.be/DZI-DraC0o4

First Time Out - James Montgomery Band - “Son of Jump” https://youtu.be/ZNi5fFcxb00

Closer To It! - Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express - “Happiness is Just Around the Bend”  https://youtu.be/aW40REAxLEc

Paul Butterfield’s Better Days - Paul Butterfield’s Better Days - “Please Send Me Someone to Love” https://youtu.be/EP9q-jkV7O4

It All Comes Back - Paul Butterfield’s Better Days - “Louisiana Flood” https://youtu.be/X_SrBHDAA8c

Carnegie Hall - Hubert Laws - “Windows / Fire and Rain”  https://youtu.be/G0-YSlpP1gA

Kindling - Gene Parsons - “Willin’” https://youtu.be/t2mbXSku7Gw

 

 

 

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Posted 2/12/23....CHANGE PARTNERS

 

I was sixteen years old in May 1969 when Crosby, Stills & Nash released their self-titled debut album which critics adored and longhairs like me the land over freakin’ loved.  The trio’s high harmonies, deftly applied to captivating song structures, were rare in rock at the time.  And then, before the summer was over, there was a Y attached to CSN--and that was a BFD.  Neil Young had been invited to become the group’s official fourth member as part of agreeing to hop aboard the group’s imminent tour, a necessity in an effort to accommodate and augment the upcoming run of performances.  Their second gig turned out to be a real test of fortitude.  The foursome ended up on the stage at Woodstock playing before a crowd of over 400,000 people, and Stills copped to the pressure.  “This is the second time we've ever played in front of people,” the guitarist said to the multitudes, “man, we're scared shitless.”

He needn’t have worried.  Seven months after Woodstock CSNY released their debut album Déjà Vu and thus firmly established themselves as one of the first true supergroups.  These immensely talented and credentialed musicians were inexorably scaling new heights, now drawing upon their storied pasts as members of other bands who had quite deservedly experienced their own bursts of fame and acclaim.  Both Stephen Stills and Neil Young had come from Buffalo Springfield, David Crosby from the Byrds and Graham Nash from the Hollies...

Not all supergroups, however, whether born in rock’s early days or decades down the path, were able to engender the same level of $ucce$$ and fan fervor as CSNY.  In the purest sense of the term, “supergroup” is certainly an apt descriptor of bands like Cream and Blind Faith from the ‘60s, Emerson, Lake & Palmer from the start of the ‘70s and the Traveling Wilburys from the late ‘80s.  But there were also a number of groups through the years that came together with high expectations for widespread success and an enduring fan embrace, yet they were met with yawns of indifference or, worse yet, wholehearted rejection. 

A Los Angeles entertainment / lifestyle-oriented publication, the L.A. Weekly, back in January 2017 debuted an article highlighting “The 20 Worst Supergroups of All Time” as delineated by staff writer Jonny Coleman.  Right off the bat, Coleman wrestled with the terminology.  “It's right there in the name: Supergroups are supposed to be ‘super,’” said Coleman.  “Too often, however, these gatherings of musicians already famous for other projects end up being less than the sum of their parts.  Whether it's a lack of ambition, lack of chemistry or both, many so-called supergroups just leave fans wishing everyone would stop dicking around and get back to their regular gigs.”

 

Coleman then proceeded to his hit list, emasculating some and eviscerating others, all handled with aplomb.  About the early ‘90s band Damn Yankees: “Whatever you may think of Ted Nugent's politics,” Coleman said, “you have to admit that the man made some pretty good cock-rock in his day.  But by the time he joined forces with Styx's Tommy Shaw and Night Ranger's Jack Blades for this half-assed, late-to-the-game foray into hair metal, he was clearly just goofing around and collecting a check.  Add a thin layer of The Nuge's trademark jingoism to the band's formulaic riff-fests and you've got one of the worst relics of the glam-metal era.”  

About the late 2000s debut of the group Chickenfoot: “Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony joined forces with guitar guru Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith to put out some very forgettable tunes.  ‘Chickenfoot started off with me, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith jamming at my club, Cabo Wabo, in Mexico,’ Hagar once told Classic Rock magazine, which is about as much as you need to know about this project.  Wasted on margies, this probably seemed like a great idea.  If only they had waited until they sobered up to really think it through.”

 

New Musical Express NME.com, a legendary London publication which originated in print in 1952 and subsequently online in 1996, also got into the act with regard to dissecting and disparaging supergroups.  In the website’s March 5, 2013 article attributed to picture_freelance entitled “The 15 Most Disappointing Supergroups of All Time,” the skewering is abundant.  The NME writer said this of the band Velvet Revolver who formed in 2002 and lasted through 2008: “Touted as the band Guns N’ Roses could have been, the non-Axl Roses recruited Stone Temple Pilots drug fuck-up Scott Weiland as their surrogate frontman for Velvet Revolver and set about pouting and noodling their way to Number One with a grunge pop formula that did neither party justice.”  

And about the band Asia, who formed in 1981: “Imagine how bad a supergroup consisting of old lags from King Crimson and ELP would have been.  Now add in ex-members of Yes.  And all of them trying to hang on to their prog-pop stylings well into the 80s.  Asia, presumably, being where they should’ve been exiled to at birth.”

It’s Musicasaurus’ turn now, though not to heap scorn.  It is true that for some artists who chose a fork in the road that led to a supergroup label, the results were meh and reactions from the public ranged from indifference to serious head-scratching.  Our basic hope in the following roundup is just to shed some light on seven other bands in music history who, in some circles at least, indeed earned the supergroup tag...

STEAMPACKET

According to ultimateclassicrock.com’s September 26, 2017 staff members’ post on “Rock’s Forgotten Supergroups” this particular band could be called “a reverse supergroup.”  Some of the band members of this British collective would soon be branching out to paths of stardom, even superstardom.  The group consisted of, among others, the gruff-voiced and blues infused Long John Baldry, pre-mod Rod Stewart (before his turns in the Jeff Beck Group and Faces, and his solo career), a Nina Simone-like singer with some truly powerful pipes named Julie Driscoll, and the versatile keyboardist Brian Auger.  Even the lesser-knowns in the band went on to greater heights.  Guitarist Vic Briggs later joined Eric Burdon and the Animals, and drummer Micky Waller post-Steampacket most notably played with the Jeff Beck Group on an album, on some solo Rod records, and also continued to do session work.  The talent reservoir called Steampacket lasted a little more than a year. [Sample song: “Can I Get a Witness” https://youtu.be/tCTLAJVt67I]

THE SOUL CLAN

In the long history of music this may be for most people just a footnote, but what a feat it was--rounding up five talented and successful African American singers in 1966 for the purpose of recording music together.  The five were Solomon Burke (the driving force), Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Don Covay, and they called themselves The Soul Clan [editor’s note: Redding died in a 1967 plane crash and was replaced by Arthur Conley; Pickett left the group around the same time and Ben E. King replaced him.]  The collective’s initial goal in recording together on their shared record label Atlantic was to raise significant funds to benefit black communities in the South.  But in 1968 after releasing just one 45rpm record together--“Soul Meeting” on the A side; “That’s How It Feels” on the B side--the group soon fell apart and reportedly a contributing cause was a lack of strong support from the label.

In a same-day New York Times preview piece about the July 24, 1981 reunion show of the group at the Savoy, music critic Robert Palmer touched upon the individual members’ legacies as well.  During the ‘60s these singers were “the kings of soul,” Palmer explained, “that high-voltage amalgam of dance-floor strut and gospel intensity.”  He went on to note that though the Soul Clan produced only the one record, the group has not been forgotten.  “Like the Million Dollar Quartet, a one-time-only 1950's collaboration of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins,” Palmer said, “the Soul Clan was a gathering of a musical aristocracy.” [Sample song: “Soul Meeting” https://youtu.be/rN2h0KdmfPg

CACTUS

In 1969 Cactus grew out of the efforts of former Vanilla Fudge members Tim Bogert (bassist) and Carmine Appice (drummer) to form a new band.  Their original designs were on joining up with Jeff Beck but those hopes were dashed when the guitarist sustained injuries from a motorcycle crash and entered a long recovery.  Bogert and Appice quickly drew into their orbit singer Rusty Day (ex-Amboy Dukes) and guitarist Jim McCarty (ex-Detroit Wheels) and Cactus ended up releasing four albums before the band split up in 1975.  A few critics and some fans at the time had likened the band to Led Zeppelin, which by at least a couple of accounts was possibly close to the mark: 1) The group’s tunes on their self-titled 1970 debut album (including “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” “Parchment Farm” and others) are frenzied hard-rock classics, and 2) According to a loudersound.com April 23, 2018 look-back article by a contributor who goes by the name Sleazegrinder, debauchery was the band’s avocation.  “Both Tim and Carmine were already debauched road kings, hardened from their days with Vanilla Fudge,” Sleazegrinder said.  “But Cactus still made the Fudge look like amateurs in the rockpig sweepstakes.  There were pot busts, nights in jail, and fistfights everywhere.” [Sample song: “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover”  https://youtu.be/oHXhbUjRk8U]

CAPTAIN BEYOND

This supergroup comprised of four individuals congealed in 1971, half of them having recently flitted out of Iron Butterfly.  Guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt and bassist Lee Dorman were joined by ex-Deep Purple singer Rod Evans (notable for his singing on early Purple hit “Hush”) and Bobby Caldwell, who previously had drummed for Johnny Winter.  In the aforementioned ultimateclassicrock.com 9/26/17 article “Rock’s Forgotten Supergroups,” Captain Beyond’s sound is described as “blending prog-rock intricacy with blues-based psychedelia.”  The band produced three albums during their three-year union (1971-1973) and the one particular tune that stood out from the pack and found a home on some FM stations at the time was the sweetly addictive title song from their second album Sufficiently Breathless. [Sample song: the aforementioned “Sufficiently Breathless” https://youtu.be/fIQWu5YbCAA

KGB

Talk about an interesting initial formation, KGB was one of several supergroups through the decades that used the first letter of the principals’ last names to brand the band.  The was singer/songwriter Ray Louis Kennedy (composer of songs for the Beach Boys, Dave Mason, The Babys and others), the was keyboardist Barry Goldberg (best known as a co-founder of the blues and R&B band Electric Flag), and the was guitarist Michael Bloomfield (ex-Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag).  KGB then enlisted two talented sidemen to round out the band: Ric Grech (ex-Blind Faith) and Carmine Appice (ex-Vanilla Fudge, Cactus and Beck, Bogert & Appice).  

A number of reviews of this supergroups’ two total albums (both released in 1976) were tepid at best, though there were some Bloomfield fans who scarfed them up to see--or rather, hear--what the music was all about.  Bloomfield himself basically denounced the albums as too formulaic and indicated that the record label MCA’s bigwigs were too intrusive and demanding in their quest for a commercially successful record.  The caustic king of criticism Robert Christgau, via his Consumer Guide music review of the band’s first album, heavy-handedly agreed.  He labeled it “heavy horseshit” and graded the album a D+.  Regarding the group’s most recognizable member, Christgau added this: “As for Mike Bloomfield--well, he's deserved better ever since he left Butterfield, and there's obviously no reason to believe he'll ever go out and get it.” [Sample song: “Midnight Traveler” https://youtu.be/XkrnQpaVJqU

U.K.

This assemblage of first-rate players was a hit with progsters pretty much everywhere.  Both bassist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford had been in King Crimson from 1972 through 1974, and after this band’s breakup in that latter year they sought out guitarist Allan Holdsworth (ex-Soft Machine and Gong) and violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson (previously with Curved Air > Roxy Music > Frank Zappa) to form this new band.  Allmusic.com reviewer Mike DeGagne pointed out that standout tracks on U.K.’s 1978 debut album showcased the “overall fluency of each member” and showed “no signs of any progressive tediousness that could have easily evolved.”  Bruford and Holdsworth bailed after the debut record but U.K. soldiered on, selecting ex-Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio to replace Bruford and electing not to replace guitarist Holdsworth at all.  After one more studio album and a live record, U.K. disbanded at the end of 1979. [Sample song: “Nevermore” https://youtu.be/GRMXJ9tiW4U

THE FIRM

In the early ‘80s British singer Paul Rodgers went from Bad to good: He left the once popular but runnin’-out-of-steam rock group Bad Company in 1982 and then two years later found himself in very good company--in the presence of ex-Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.  Together in 1984 they co-founded the supergroup the Firm, inviting in bandmembers Tony Franklin (formerly a bassist with Roy Harper) and drummer Chris Slade (previously a session player then a founding member of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band).  Though the Firm ended up not as commercially successful as Bad or Zep relative to album sales, it seemed that music critics and ticket buyers were largely in agreement on the live shows.  In Pittsburgh the Firm played the Civic Arena on May 5, 1985 and Post-Gazette reviewer Scott Mervis praised the show.  

“Listening to the Firm is like hearing two radio stations that are blurring into each other’s signals,” Mervis opined.  “You hear the voice of Bad Company interjected with the dreamy guitar strains of Led Zeppelin.  One cannot help but feel nostalgic hearing those precious sounds so deeply etched into the history of metal blues.”  Mervis went on to stress that the band had 100% eschewed their Bad Company and Led Zeppelin material in favor of playing only the Firm’s songs with a few Rodgers and Page solo works thrown in for good measure.  But Mervis’ enthrallment was undampened.  He ended his review this way: “With a glorious past, a riveting concert set and an eye toward the future, the Firm can’t miss.  The singles that are sure to follow will reveal whether or not the band will remain radio-active.”  It did not have the chance to.  After releasing a second album (Mean Business) in 1986, the Firm folded that summer.  According to Rodgers and Page, as reported in Mick Wall’s February 11, 2020 story on the Firm on loudersound.com, this had always been in the cards.  Both of the musicians came into this union feeling that after two albums, they would go their separate ways. [Sample song: “Radioactive” https://youtu.be/Pcg52q6NXqk

 

 

 

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Posted 1/29/23....OH WHAT A NIGHT!

[In remembrance of Jeff Beck, who ascended to Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven on January 10, 2023.]

It wasn’t exactly two wise men heading east, but we were following a star.  Frank and I were on a trek to see Jeff Beck...

I got wind in the fall of 2014 of an upcoming theater tour by Jeff Beck and had learned that the musician was overshooting Pittsburgh to land in Greensburg, about 35 miles to the east.  There were apparently no suitably-sized venues available in Pittsburgh for the specific mid-late April time period the guitarist wanted, so my friend Brian Drusky—a concert promoter by trade—instead confirmed Beck for a show in Greensburg at the storied Palace Theatre.

The Palace has been around since the 1920s, first as the Manos Theatre.  It is a well-preserved venue with a capacity just under 1,400, and it consistently has offered the region a variety of musical events and local arts productions as well as serving as the home of the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra.  The concerts, judging by the Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 schedules, were somewhat geared toward an older fan base with fair amount of MOR and country attractions such as Michael Bolton, Don McLean, Kenny Rogers, Oak Ridge Boys and Bill Medley (one half of the Righteous Brothers).  But there were long in the tooth classic rockers in the lineup as well, like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Huey Lewis and the News, Jefferson Starship, and Dave Mason.

The announcement of Jeff Beck being added to the venue’s 2015 schedule really fired me up, but I unfortunately delayed a bit in getting with Brian to check on the purchase of tickets.  When I did get in touch in early December 2014 he told me that all he had left in his holds were a few opera seats—which was a good thing.  The Palace’s two opera box seating areas were elevated and affixed to the venue’s side walls, and the two tickets I ended up with were in the opera box (house right) that was closest to the stage.  From this perch, one was almost on top of the action; every instrument fingering and every facial expression was therefore pretty ripe for close inspection.

And as it turns out, these beautifully crafted and maintained opera boxes were the originals from the theatre’s construction in the 1920s—so says the venue’s website—with “hand-cast, decorative moldings and hanging velvet swags.”  Come to think of it, the only thing I lacked to top off all that grandeur would have been a pair of opera glasses, but anything that would have brought the ticket price into sharper focus for me wasn’t something I wanted or needed.  The cost: $125.00 per ticket; $250.00 for the pair.

My good friend Frank Fotia who lives in Cumberland, MD was the one I had invited to accompany me in my pilgrimage to see Beck.  I bought the tickets and informed Frank that this was his Christmas present, and that having me go along with him was really just a kind of layered treat upon treat (not sure he bought that).  As for me, I had no problem convincing myself there was nothing wrong with sprinkling a bit of self-serving interest on my holiday generosity.  After all, I absolutely needed to see Jeff Beck live in concert again...

      

                        

For those of you who may only tangentially know this artist, Jeff Beck is one of the true guitar gods of the 1960s, right up there in stature with fellow Brits Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.  Deep music aficionados (i.e., those of us whose brains have successfully crowded out the more sensible, essential stuff of Life) know that these three were alumni of the English rock group The Yardbirds, all passing through its ranks on their way to more formidable unions and achievements.  Blues devotee Clapton exited the band after just two years on board (1963-1965), quickly joining John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and eventually forming Cream.  Beck’s tenure in The Yardbirds overlapped with Jimmy Page a bit—1965 to 1966—and then the latter splintered off with the rest of the disbanding Yardbirds in 1968 and went his own way to cobble together Led Zeppelin.

Of the three, Beck was the one who gained the least traction; he was never able to break into much wider acclaim and mass acceptance, at least in terms of record sales.  After his stint with the Yardbirds Beck formed his own group and released a couple of atmospheric late-‘60s albums (Truth and Beck-Ola) with feisty hotshot vocalist Rod Stewart.  The guitarist then lost Rod in 1969 to a new band (Faces) and a burgeoning solo career, and so he consequently brought on new personnel for a second incarnation of The Jeff Beck Group fronted by singer Bobby Tench.  And in 1973 he switched gears again to form Beck, Bogert & Appice, a power trio rounded out by ex-Vanilla Fudge and Cactus members Tim Bogert (bass) and Carmine Appice (drums).

If you seek out that second incarnation stuff from the Jeff Beck Group—1971’s Rough and Ready and 1972’s The Jeff Beck Group—you’ll pick up sometimes subtle hints from Beck’s short but riveting solos as to where he would soon be heading musically.  Blow By Blow and Wired, arguably Beck’s definitive works, were released in 1975 and 1976 respectively.  These two albums were all-instrumental, boundary pushing efforts helmed and all held together in the studio recording process by famed Beatles producer George Martin.  And these were the ones that had my coterie of music friends abso-freakin’-lutely gushing.  Beck seemed liberated here; he was no longer bogged down in his traditional rock-group setting with its more than adequate but not quite inspiring song structures and execution.  He and George Martin created lasting works through these two collaborations, and Beck cemented his status as a guitar innovator and a fearless voyager into breathtaking soundscapes that were an incredible melding of the searing and the serene.

After the George Martin-produced twin successes Beck’s output was relatively spotty—three studio albums in the ‘80s, two in the ‘90s, two in the ‘00s and then one each in 2010, 2016 and 2022—and along the way I somehow lost my zeal for constant monitoring of the man; my worship remained, but only in fits and starts.  The first time I saw Jeff Beck live, which was the only time prior to this Palace Theatre engagement, was thirty-four years ago (1989) at the AJ Palumbo Center in Pittsburgh.  Beck and his band at the time were flip-flopping headliner status night-to-night on an October 26th through December 3rd concert tour dubbed The Fire Meets The Fury; the other act on the bill was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.  My expectations were sky high with this double barrel bill, but the problems with Palumbo I’d classify as jumbo: bad, bad acoustics in this glorified gymnasium and, likely not the venue’s fault, a pulverizing decibel level that must have been perpetrated by the tour’s sound man stationed at the mix position, a guy who undoubtedly could have quickly run a Q-Tip through one ear immediately pulling it out the other.

So...there we were on this Sunday evening in April 2015 at Greensburg’s Palace Theatre.  We had our killer vantage point, and leaned forward as opening act Tyler Bryant came on stage and began readying the crowd with his short set.  The 21-year-old Texan turned out to be a fledging guitar god in his own right but I was just waiting, and salivating.  With this being only my second brush with Beck, I was pretty much primed for the pump.

I had read that Beck seemed to have latched onto fresh young talent to comprise this latest touring band—bassist Rhonda Smith, schooled in jazz & funk; rhythm guitarist Nicolas Meier, said to bring some Eastern music and Latin influences to the game; and drummer Jonathan Joseph who previously had toured with artists such as Al Jarreau and jazz fusion band the Yellow Jackets.  Beck walked out to join his mates dressed predominantly in white, nodding and smiling.  Two songs in, Frank and I were mesmerized with the skill and interplay of the four on stage, and especially Beck’s finger picking and his use of the instrument’s vibrato bar to coax out dynamic squeals, bend the pitch, and produce the occasional “dive bomb” effect.  WHOA.

I sat back, settling in, and thought, “Well, this is good.  An all-instrumental master class.”  And then the third song started.  As close as we were to the stage, I was able to see Beck seemingly lock eyes with someone in the wings, and nod.  A moment later a tall, fedora-adorned man in a tucked-in shirt and blue jeans walked out to center stage and grabbed a hold of the microphone stand.  The band then launched into “Morning Dew,” which I immediately recognized as a Grateful Dead staple of especially their late-‘60s live performances, but then also quickly realized that it was a Beck cover from his own album Truth.  On that long ago studio recording from 1968, Rod Stewart had been the vocalist—and here on stage, forty-seven years later, it was soulfully recreated by Jimmy Hall.

I had recognized Hall’s face and knew who he was before Beck had the chance to introduce him.  His original entry into rock music’s limelight came to pass with Wet Willie, a Southern blues-soul-and-rock-‘n’-roll band which got its start in the very early ‘70s in Macon, Georgia.  Macon was the home of Capricorn Records, a label famous particularly for its Southern rock artist roster, and Wet Willie had migrated there from Mobile, Alabama to join the likes of the label’s earliest signings including The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band and Elvin Bishop.

Wet Willie fit right in with the other Capricorns.  Hall was a charismatic frontman with passion-drenched, gritty and soul-infused vocals, and depending upon the song, he also adeptly contributed harmonica or sax.  The band’s best-known track—a commercial success, one that still pops up occasionally on rock and easy listening stations here and there—is “Keep On Smilin’."

How did this boy from Alabama hook up with Beck the Brit?  They met by chance in 1969 but really started bonding when Wet Willie was plucked as the opening act for Beck’s 1973 tour with Beck, Bogert & Appice.  Beck liked what he heard on stage each night and told Hall that someday they’d work in the studio together.  And they finally did, with Hall appearing on Beck’s 1985 release Flash, supplying vocals for five of the numbers on that album.

So Hall launched into “Morning Dew” on this April 2015 evening and then with the next song, brought shivers of recognition as he stood center-stage and began singing, “I was borrrrn by the river, in a little tent…Oh, and just like the river I've been runnin’ ever since…It's been a long, a long time comin’…But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…”  At that point the concert amped up tremendously, buoyed by a palpable emotional convergence: Hall’s gospel-like fervor and Beck’s shadings and accents right behind him, both beautifully in synch on this classic Sam Cooke song that had become, in the ‘60s, a stirring anthem for the American Civil Rights movement.

The rest of the evening was a smartly-paced pleasure, with Hall making appearances in between the instrumentals, bringing life to Beck’s choice covers like Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and the classic “Rollin’ And Tumblin.”  The latter, a 1929 Delta blues tune, was first the province of black elder statesman like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters before being torch-passed to their next-gen white-rocker disciples Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, and many others.

But the epicenter all night long was clearly Beck, whether he was power-chording through the vocal numbers or giving flight to the evening’s instrumentals like his near shredding on “Big Block” and his angelic cries and whispers on both “A Day In The Life” and the evening’s closer “Danny Boy.”  When the applause died down, Frank and I floated out of the Palace.  We had entered agog and departed in the most comforting sort of fog, buzzed and chatting away, reflecting on the fact that this may have been one of the best shows we’d ever seen… 

But don’t just take the word of a couple of rabid fans, because Jimmy Hall himself had a lot to say about the guitar great.  In a May 6, 2015 interview with online arts & entertainment website ArtsATL—right before Beck’s Alpharetta, Georgia performance on May 10—Hall was asked how it felt to be on stage with him.  Reflecting on a 1980 Atlanta show where Beck had invited Hall up from the audience to sing “Going Down” during the encore, Hall said, “It was powerful.  I always say that at that moment—on stage with Jeff Beck—it felt as if I was levitating.”

Then asked by the ArtsATL interviewer Brenda Stepp to use only ONE word to describe Beck’s playing, Hall answered “Transcendent.”  “How so?” asked Stepp.  Hall replied, “His playing lifts people and is transformative.  Every night he lifts the audience with the power and melody and passion of his guitar. His guitar is a voice—a powerful voice.  I know his guitar playing lifts me.”

                                                                                   

                                                                               RIP, JB.

 

 

 

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Posted 1/15/23....WILL IT GO ROUND IN CIRCLES

Will it go round in circles?  Indeed it will.  Above is my music button display that I painstakingly put together a few years back and, not wanting to give the impression that any one button was necessarily more important than any other, I just started with a swirl which became a sort of a circle which became a spiral, and...well, to paraphrase the Yardbirds, these are now just the shapes of things before your eyes.  And Musicasaurus is going to get all buttoned up here and talk in detail about the first nine pins on parade...ENJOY.

 

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

If memory serves, this button was given to me back in the fall of 1980 by CBS record label representative Mike Kraski.  His sales accounts back then included National Record Mart (NRM), the United States’ oldest music retail chain which started out in 1937 as a small used-record shop located in downtown Pittsburgh.  I enjoyed the five years (1980-1985) that I spent at NRM headquarters working under VP George Balicky while handling the chainwide advertising, and in terms of my job performance there I felt I was all buttoned up—but never so much in a fashion sense until record companies started producing these little promotional gems.  Buttons like the Bruce one were all the rage within music circles, and had been since at least the mid-late 1970s.  The Bruce button in particular coincided with the October 1980 release of the singer-songwriter’s new double album The River, and this little pin made its way—as did all other such specialized buttons produced by the various record companies—into the hands of music retailers’ management folks and their instore staff personnel all across the country.  

Springsteen's fifth album The River came between 1987’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and 1982’s Nebraska.  The River was the artist’s only double album, crammed with songs that largely glorified the sound of ‘50s and ‘60s rock music while exploring through his lyrics both the themes of personal struggles and the impact of the legacies of family relationships, economic hardship, and cultural and political shifts.  The album was Bruce’s first to hit #1 on music industry bible Billboard’s Top LP’s & Tapes chart and the song “Hungry Heart” was his first Billboard Top Ten hit, reaching #5 on the national Pop Singles chart.  Bruce and band immediately set out on tour with the release of The River in October 1980, and on YouTube (at least as of now) one can travel back in time to revel in a set of 24 songs filmed at the November 5, 1980 Tempe, Arizona concert.  It’s a captivating look back, one for the time capsule...

Flash forward thirty-six years: in January 2016 Bruce again went down to the river (oh, down to the river he did ride) when he and the E Street Band launched The River Tour featuring all 20 songs from the 1980 release followed by a generous handful of other signature Boss tunes.  I saw this show at Pittsburgh’s Consol

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