Some people come to the show only when they imagine the headliner is coming on. These folks stream into the audience at the last minute, sweaters tied around their waist, leaning over to chat with friends as they await the band they paid to see.
For them, the opening band is a kind of sonic wallpaper--no more significant than the merchandise booths or the line at the restroom.
But I'm all about the opening acts. I remember my very first rock concert. We were there to see Grand Funk Railroad. This was the Grand Funk Railroad before "We're an American Band". The GFR which played every southern and midwestern concert hall imaginable for five dollars a show, 350 nights a year. The same band that had, despite this incredible work ethic, somehow managed to sign the really valuable music rights to their manager, rendering the entire exercise non-remunerative.
I still remember the words to "I'm Your Captain", their first real hit.
The Grand Funk Railroad show was a great deal of fun, although I've always wondered if second-hand marijuana smoke figured into the equation somewhere. I have always been pure as the driven snow about controlled substances, but in those unrestrained 70s days, attending a concert was like taking a hike in a cool, foggy swampland laced with the scent of burning rope. I'm still a bit miffed that my view of the Edgar Winter Group was marred by the fellow using inhalants. "Frankenstein" loses a lot when the visuals come complete with a man blowing into a huge plastic bag right in front of one's view.
The opening act for the Grand Funk Railroad, in essence, my opening entry into rock concert life, was a band called "Bulldog". Bulldog was an American band from some worthy locale which escapes me somehow. They had had a minor hit with a song that went something like "and she said No...ooohhh no....and she said no". I can still hear the vocalist's quaver as he sang this gentle ballad.
But the thing I remember about Bulldog was their sheer daring to be different. Grand Funk Railroad, you see, was the kind of band whose fans tended to ask one simple question: "does it ROCK?". GFR was arguably more "heavy pop" than "heavy metal", but certainly no GFR fan was there for the subtleties of pop culture.
But Bulldog won a place in my heart by opening its show with a metallic cover of "Rockin' Robin". Let me tell you, "all the little birds on Jay Bird Street" gain a lot from being played as if it were an early Head East song. The lead guitarist, wearing sunglasses, strutted the stage, reflecting the floodlights off the metallic sheen of his electric guitar into the audience's eyes, in what I assume was a substitute for the ability to actually solo. Bulldog put out two albums, I believe, and I doubt their work is still available on CD. But they gave me a laugh that night.
Then there was the night that Larry Raspberry and the High Steppers came to town to open for Edgar Winter. They were one of Stax's few white recording artists, and they seethed Memphis bar band boogie soul. Larry Raspberry had apparently been to more than a few dozen Jerry Lee Lewis concerts, as his stage presence seemed to go beyond mere homage into full-fledged credit card debt. He banged the piano between lines as he said "rock n roll will make you rant and rave/it will send you to an early grave/but at least that's better than the other ways". He had actually had a hit as the leader of the Gentrys in the 1960s, and had further written one of Carly Simon's hits (the one about being blonde). But that night he was straight outta Memphis, on display for all to hear.
The Highsteppers were less a rock band than a state of mind. They had a musicial virtuoso, Greg "Fingers" Taylor, who does with the harmonica things that no other musician or musical instrument can do. Fingers Taylor has played with Jimmie Buffett for years, but he's wasted there. In the Highsteppers, he was recognized as a gift from the Heavens, and allowed to solo over and over again. I see that Larry Raspberry is still around, and still puts out CDs and hits the road. But I wish mostly I had a CD of Greg Taylor wheeling into that harmonica. I always think of the harmonica in the same way I think of speaking French--my life is somewhat inauthentic because I can't do it.
Of course, not every opening band remains an opening band (and I'll skip over my Billy Joel opening act story). I remember going to a state fair animal barn to see the Call. The Call were a great show, but the opening act was Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine that Stevie Ray Vaughan opened for the Call, but those were the times then. My friends here in the Dallas area remember when Stevie Ray Vaughan played night after night in any Dallas-area place that would pay him to play. But by the time I saw him, his fame had begun to increase. He had just finished playing guitar on a Bowie tour, and people understood who he was. The night I saw him play, he was completely in control of his audience. Electric blues is not my favorite rock genre, but Vaughan was simply stunning. Yes, he was Hendrix-drenched, but he also had a kind of athleticism in how he made the guitar sound that was all his own. He died a few years later, far too soon. He played songs, and he sang, but mostly he made the guitar come alive.
Music is a difficult and unremunerative business, but to me, so is teaching fourth grade or being a cop. I never fail to be amazed, though, how some folks judge acts solely by whether they charted a top hit. But there's a metaphor there somewhere.
So often one feels surrounded by people, dressed fashionably, milling around waiting for the headliner they are supposed to love. Meanwhile, rock is happening, all around, right up there on stage, if you only stop talking long enough to listen.