In July 1980 I went to see the Kinks at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. I cannot pretend I was a great Kinks fan at the time; I was more a fan of bands who were in turn Kinks fans. I went with a bunch of kids who were, as I was, attending one of those "summer abroad" college programs, where one did things like tour the Dickens House and then write an essay about David Copperfield, or attend a class about agitprop, where "homework" was to go to a Spartacist debate on the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
The crowd packed the hall, with everyone standing in a mass. When the band began to play, the entire atmosphere seemed like one great, relaxed bit of fun. I had read of fabled "boy, those Davies brothers hate each other" shows, but the band we saw was both loose and professional. I was amazed at how many Kinks lyrics I knew, as I owned exactly zero Kinks albums. The couple ahead of me, squeezed in tightly, seemed to be engaged in a form of dancing that was curiously rather invasive of surrounding folks' (including my own) personal space (and I am a person who values personal space). Somehow I didn't mind. That night I fell in love with the song "Waterloo Sunset", which still gives me a warm glow when I hear it. Ray Davies had an easy night of it--at all the refrains to almost every song he merely pointed the mike at the crowd, and the audience supplied the lyric. The Kinks' music-hall stylings felt so congenial and so audience-friendly. The show was not particularly eardrum-friendly. When the show was over, my ears rang for days.
When the Residents' 13th Anniversary Tour announced a Dallas date, my friend G. and I, along with the woman he was desultorily dating (as I recall, she was testing new waters, and discovering she preferred old familiar waters) and a friend of mine from work and her boyfriend, all made plans to go. I had been entranced with the Residents since 1981, when my friend T. and I became literally addicted to the album Duck Stab/Buster & Glen. We both suspected the song "Constantinople" to be backwards masked with some seductively cynical outre aural heroin-emotion. We would put the needle on the disk, and as if by magic begin dancing an odd, hopping dance while our hands made rapidly shifting rabbit ear signs, anticipating in some odd way a dance the character Dewey would later do on the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle". Neither my friend T. or I are natural "hopping rabbit dance" type of people, so we felt the album's potion was a bit strong.
The concert was everything a Residents concert should be--intelligent, wacky, chilling and entirely obscure. The repertoire played spanned nearly the entire band era. We learned that the Residents, though ever mysterious, were less a foursome than a troupe headed by a twosome, and we were pleased to see that individual Residents could be either male or female. We loved the giant eyeball heads, not to mention the skull head, and we didn't even mind that the entire concert sounded as though it emanated from sequencers. Heck, we even danced a bit to Diskomo. I have always loved the Residents, even though their lyrical themes can be off-putting, because they were so resolutely indie so much of their career. This night they sang, they danced, they weirded out, and they enveloped me in chord and discord. I cannot recall any time that a band performed an overview of its entire career so effectively.
When I first arrived at college, campus radio was obsessed with two albums. One was Rickie Lee Jones' first album; the other was Elvis Costello's My Aim is True. After the Damned and the Jam and the Clash drove those Ms. Jones and Mr. Costello from the campus, I still liked to sing along when "Last Chance Texaco" and "Alison" came on. I did not buy many Elvis Costello albums, though, until I read a stellar review for "Imperial Bedroom". I got the album, and fell in love with its complex melodies and tales of defeated relationships. When Elvis was coming to Fair Park's amphitheater in Dallas, I knew I had to go.
I was used to the "Watching the Detectives" and "Radio, Radio" Elvis Costello, so I assumed, even after hearing "Imperial Bedroom", that the show would be an angry, rough show. But I was amazed at what an immaculately professional performance he gave. Even at this midpoint in his career, the angry young man had faded, and given way to a brilliant songwriter at the top of his game. I think that Elvis Costello is simply an incredible pop force, and will one day be remembered in the same way we remember Cole Porter. The "Imperial Bedroom" show was exactly what it feels like to see a master at the top of his game, on a pinnacle few reach, and from which many fall.
On my birthday in 1984, I went to Tango, a now-defunct club on Lowest Greenville Avenue in Dallas. Tango was an odd place. Its signature mark was a set of life-sized green frog statues placed atop the roof. Inside was a modern Euro disco coupled with a small concert hall. It was one of those clubs dating from an era when X was legal, sex was only beginning to be unsafe, and X was also a band from LA. The Tango frogs later got moved to the top of a truck stop in Bill's Town, TX, population 1, but now apparently have again moved to more artsy climes whose identity escapes me now.
That August, my first August in Dallas, I went alone, as I often did in those days, to the club without any idea who was playing.
It turned out the band was the Los Angeles outfit The Dream Syndicate. The Dream Syndicate were among the creators of the so-called Paisley Underground, and arguably they can be credited with (or blamed for) much of the alternative music that was to follow them. They were a curious ensemble. The songwriter and lead singer, Steve Wynn, had Velvets and Doors fascinations. The guitarist, Karl Precoda, seemed to alternate between wishing he were Neil Young and wishing he played guitar for Hot Tuna. But "Tell Me When It's Over" remains the best Lou Reed song that Lou Reed never wrote or performed. For that tour, the band carried a keyboardist, who really added to the overall sound. The group did not last forever, and none of the band members have had the impact since that they had as a largely commercially unsuccessful band then. But they were an incredible show, and I count myself so lucky to have seen that band at that point in their trajectory. A few months later, the EP "This is NOT the new Dream Syndicate album...Live!" came out, and seemed to capture a moment of my life in amber.
When I look back on these shows (as well as a fifth in an abandoned hog barn featuring the Call and Stevie Ray Vaughan,
a sixth, my first show, Grand Funk Railroad singing "I'm Your Captain" and "Phoenix", a seventh, Edgar Winter Group playing "Frankenstein", and yearly sets of REM and Echo shows), I realize that it is not one type of music or one thing that makes a concert a 'favorite'. It's when a band or an artist reaches out and speaks to something inside me. That's what I remember--that inner voice, resonating, as the music plays.