Thursday, October 8, 2015

angst in my pants

I have been going to concerts for forty years. Starting with my first show (Alice Cooper with special guest Suzi Quatro), concerts have been a pretty big deal. I saw most of them at Philadelphia's self-proclaimed "America's Showplace," The Spectrum, an 18,000 seat area with some of the worst, sound-killing acoustics you ever heard. It was a multi-purpose facility, home to the Philadelphia Flyers and Philadelphia 76ers, much better suited for sporting events than concerts. I saw performances by Elton John, Jethro Tull, Queen, Fleetwood Mac and a dozen or so of the Grateful Dead's record-setting 53 shows. 

I saw a few shows at the smaller Tower Theater, a converted movie theater resurrected in the 70s as Philadelphia's answer to Bill Graham's famed Fillmore East. The Tower hosted acts that, while popular, couldn't possibly fill the massive Spectrum. I saw Warren Zevon, The Boomtown Rats and The Jerry Garcia Band there. Philadelphia also presented indoor shows at the sprawling, yet clunky, Civic Center and outdoor, festival-like shows at JFK Stadium,  the crumbling deathtrap, now the site of the 21,000-seat, schizophrenically-named* Wells Fargo Center.

I regularly attended concerts through my teens and they were exciting events. They were the culmination of weeks (sometimes months) of planning. There was coordination of purchasing tickets and securing transportation. There was decisions on what to wear and speculation and discussion about possible song selections. On the evening of the actual show, I'd be seated in a section that seemed to be miles from the action. Although it was thrilling and enjoyable, there was a noticeable, cold, untouchable distance between me and the band. Even when I sat in the third row and Queen's flamboyant Freddie Mercury tossed carnations in my direction, there was still an unseen barrier that kept me in my place and the the band in theirs... and never the twain shall meet.

My concert-going took a brief pause when my son was born. However, as he grew, and since music played such a major part in our lives, my wife and I took him to kid-friendly shows. We started with the venerable Trout Fishing in America, whose fun mix of folk-rock and silliness was the perfect jumping off point. We slowly graduated to the pop sounds of Canada's Barenaked Ladies and another Canadian quartet Moxy Fruvous. Soon, as he made his own musical discoveries, our boy was ready for the real adult world of concerts. We began to frequent an unassuming club in Philadelphia's western suburbs called The Point, which rose from the ashes of the legendary Main Point, early stomping grounds for Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen. It was a small venue, serving coffee and light snacks along with lesser-known, but powerful acts like Michael Penn and the mighty (though now defunct) Asylum Street Spankers. We also attended the Tin Angel, a tiny, narrow club in Philadelphia's historic Old City, where we witnessed performances by Graham Parker, Jill Sobule and an intimate set by one-time pop-darlings Fountains of Wayne. In later years, my son began working at a Philadelphia radio station that shares a building with a popular concert venue. I have lost count of the number of shows — by a wide variety of performers and genres — we have seen there.

The cool and most interesting aspect of my recent concert experiences is meeting the bands. That is something that was unheard of and just never ever happened when I was a kid. In these days of social media and more person-to-person connectivity, it is actually commonplace. (It sort of helps if you are related to someone that works in the media.) That invisible barricade between audience and performer has gotten thinner and thinner, sometimes to the point of nonexistence. Sure, it's still virtually impossible to have a "close up and personal" encounter with a Taylor Swift or some "flavor-of-the month" boy band, but most bands at smaller venues will offer a formal "meet-and-greet." Some like to mingle with the lingering crowds as they exit a show. If you're patient, some can be caught as they exit the venue themselves... and they are usually very friendly and appreciative. Meeting bands after a show has become such a common occurrence that it's almost taken as rude if a band doesn't put in a post-show appearance. Some bands have even learned to cash in on the "meet the fans" experience, but that's a despicable practice in my opinion.

Photo by Russell Mael, from
the back steps of the Electric Factory.
Ron Mael, my son and me are right up front.
A few nights ago, my son and I saw FFS, a so-called "supergroup" comprised of the chameleon-like Mael brothers — quirky Russell and enigmatic Ron — founders of the indescribable Sparks and Scottish art-rockers Franz Ferdinand. The pairing has produced one of the best albums of 2015, a self-titled release combining an original amalgam of the music and lyrics of both bands. Despite the age difference among the members (Franz Ferdinand are in their early 40s; Sparks are well into their AARP years), the collaboration works and it works well (no matter what that song says)! After the show, my son and I waited behind the venue by the tour bus, like a couple of giddy teenagers. Along with a gathering of about fifty die-hard fans, we braved the brisk night air as each member of the band filed through the crowd, shaking hands, signing albums and posing for pictures. It was a lot of fun and an experience that was approximately forty years in the making. 

But, I'm making up for lost time. 

*It has had no less than five names in its nineteen-year existence.

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