Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades
Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society but books and music are the best evidence that the civilization is thriving. Let’s leave books aside for the moment and consider music. People far smarter than me have failed to determine exactly why music is so pleasurable. It can be a hot bath or a cold shower, a dose of valium or a hit of Red Bull; music can be stimulating, irritating, compensating and luxuriating.
If the best way to experience music is to play it with others then the second best is to experience it with others. A concert is a visual, auditory, sociological carnival. The difference between a concert and a recording is like between a movie and a play. The concert is immediate, existing only in the moment, and enjoyed in the dark with others. There is danger because mistakes can be made. It is enthralling because art is being created right before your eyes. It is art that will exist only for an instant and then be gone forever.
I have experienced a lot of concerts and will not bore you with the entire list. A few I’ve enjoyed include Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, John Hiatt, Jackson Browne, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Phish, Bare Naked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Chicago, Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson, Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson and on and on.
Many concerts have disappointed. I saw Gordon Lightfoot in his prime but left wondering if he really wanted to be there. I saw B. B. King and Chuck Berry when their primes were in the rear view mirror. King rambled rather than played and twice during solos that he clumsily threw to his pick-up band Berry forgot what song he was singing.
Some concerts have delighted me. Bruce Springsteen was, well, he was Bruce for over three hours, outdoors, blasting into the summer breeze rock n roll played by grown men. All three Paul McCartney concerts left me amazed with the man’s energy, talent and catalogue. The first time I saw Elvis Presley I was thrilled by the musicianship of his band, his energy and charisma, and the power of his voice that in a couple ballads and gospel numbers seemed to shake the arena.
Elvis in Niagara Falls, New York in 1975
I was once in Nashville. Arriving early to see Jerry Lee Lewis I found myself in a tiny, chicken BBQ juke-joint. I was told that the concert was out back and so walked through a small door and into a large parking lot with a thousand stacked-up folding chairs and a stage at one end. I pulled a steel chair from the pile, placed it in what would become the front row and a twelve-year-old boy offered to guard it for a dollar. I returned an hour later to find the place packed and the boy good to his word. Lewis was terrific. He explained that when his career collapsed in scandal that the owner of the place was one of the few who would hire him and so he performed once a year to return the favour.
The best concerts are those that surprise me. One year at the Mariposa Folk Festival, back when it was on Toronto Island, we heard a deep baritone coming from a small stage. We spread our blanket and were captivated by the voice, songs and stories of Stan Rogers. Another Mariposa festival ended with John Prine. The brilliance of lyrics that combined humour, insight and bathos was magnificent and to top off a perfect show he was joined by his pal Steve Goodman. They played Souvenirs and Paradise and seemed lost in the joy of the songs, the crowd, and each other’s company. Music’s ability to unite strangers was evident with the sound (and aroma) of hundreds of us singing Paradise over and over again on the ferry back to the city.
Paul Simon’s Graceland tour was a special moment in cultural, political and musical history. Maple Leaf Gardens was an awful place to see a concert. I had seen the Good Brothers there and Jimmy Buffet and Neil Diamond and everyone always suffered the bad sight-lines and worse sound. That rainy night it did not matter. Nelson Mandela was still in jail and apartheid appeared invincible. But Lady Smith Black Mambazo danced with moves and rhythms that shocked and enchanted. They and others sang of their homeland sometimes in words we could not comprehend but with an emotional commitment that could not be denied. Simon was great but almost an afterthought as the singers, musicians and music of a country in pain beguiled us with a joyous spirit of undiminished hope.
The most surprising concert of all, and therefore my favorite, was close to home. The Pines is gone now. For generations it was an institution. The Pines was a smoke-smelling, falling-down, big box of a building just outside of my hometown that harkened back to the honkey tonks of the American south. At least, that’s what Ronnie Hawkins said one night as he led his band through old rock-a-billy songs while sipping vodka and orange juice from a beer pitcher.
Superman Song was on the radio at the time. It was funny and mournful. It was hopeful and sad. It spoke of Superman’s funeral, attended by his old superhero pals who were in awe of his life’s work but understood a man who felt unappreciated, unrewarded, and with an immigrant’s sense of homelessness. The band was called the Crash Test Dummies. The singer, Brad Roberts, sang so low and with a tone so melancholy that it suggested the voice of Methuselah; or maybe of God Himself. We bought tickets based on that one song.
Our surprising night began with the opening act. Lennie Gallant is from PEI and at that point had just recorded his first album. He had borrowed sound equipment from a friend; it was all stamped Rita McNeil. His voice was strong, his band was stronger and his songs were stronger still. They had catchy hooks, clever changes and lyrics that actually said something of life’s challenges and love’s trials and of a region of the country where there is a constant battle between hope, fear and fun. Every song was better than the last. At one point he sang a ballad of the sea, accompanying himself on an Irish bodran. The night could have ended there, but then it got even better.
The Crash Test Dummies exuded the perfect balance of show biz swagger and Canadian modesty. Roberts was obviously the leader and his voice the star. The harmony vocals of Ellen Reid were angelic. Her sarcastic banter and sly smile kept Roberts humble. Roberts introduced the band that included his older brother who he said was behind him and to the left but was smarter, more talented, better looking and more popular with women but still, he reminded us, behind him and to the left.
The songs were ingenious without being glib. The melodies were like all well-crafted songs in that they were fresh but instantly memorable and stirred an inkling that I’d had heard them before. Each offered a new perspective on an old idea. Each used interesting metaphors and offered unpredictable patterns and breaks, rhythms and instrumentation. Unlike some bands, no one showed off. They seemed to remember that when the songs are strong they will do the work; no one overpowered the songs or each other. You could see them playing for us but listening to each other and enjoying themselves; that’s why they call it playing. They sang their whole debut album and the Superman Song twice.
It was the best concert ever because I went expecting nothing and was surprised by everything. It was the music, the players, crowd, the venue, and those I was with – it was perfect. Canada has incredible musical talent. I’ve enjoyed concerts by Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo, the Sadies, Randy Bachman, Serena Ryder, Royal Wood, April Wine, the Guess Who, Cowboy Junkies, Valdy, Murray McLaughlin, Blackie and Rodeo Kings and many more but I always kind of knew what to expect. But that night at the Pines, way back in 1991 took me by surprise and left me dazzled. The Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – the best concert ever.
Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades
- Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – 1991
- Paul Simon – Graceland – 1986
- Bruce Springsteen – 2013
- Elvis Presley – 1975
- Paul McCartney – 2002