Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prince: October 30, 1988

What I remember best about this show is that I violated curfew in Detroit to see it. In Michigan, the night before Halloween is known as Devil's Night -- for most of us, an evening of innocent pranks such as egging and toilet-papering houses, but in Detroit things often took a darker turn, with fires being very common. I was still in high school but went to the show with my friend Bonnie. I even remember passing a cop on the way to the show and he just said hello and kept going.

I wish I could recall more about the show. I do remember we were only five or ten rows from the back of Joe Louis Arena, but I was happy just to be seeing Prince at last. He performed in the round, so none of the seats were truly bad. There was no opener: it was just Prince, in a show with two "acts" separated by an intermission. I recall him explaining very politely how he was going to leave the stage for a break, but would be back in approximately such and such minutes to continue the show.

It's funny how memory works, isn't it? Prince is one of my favorite musicians yet it's his polite demeanor that I remember from that night, not the performance.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dead Milkmen: May 14, 1989

The Ritz, as far as I recall, was a hair-metal bar in Roseville – a rather, um, inelegant suburb of Detroit. The Dead Milkmen were the only band I ever saw there and one of the occasional “alternative” acts that performed there. At this time the Milkmen were touring in support of Beelzebubba, the album containing their big crossover song, “Punk Rock Girl.” However, it’s another track from that album, “RC’s Mom,” that I remember best from the concert. The song is a redneck parody with jokey lyrics about spousal abuse: “Gonna beat my wife / Gonna smack her with a lead pipe.” The lyrics get more outrageous and ridiculous as the song goes on; it’s doubtful even the most humorless of people would take it seriously. Still, it was a little disconcerting seeing a few boys, probably about ten years old, at the front of this all-ages show singing along enthusiastically. Hopefully they were old enough to get the joke! Sadly, I don’t remember much else about the show except it was fun and cheap.

The Roseville Ritz died some time ago but the venue has been resurrected in the city of Warren. Given its current ads for stripper pole contests, divorce parties, and shows hosted by radio station WRIF, I guess it hasn’t changed much. Then again, I haven’t either: The Dead Milkmen’s Bucky Fellini is still one of my favorite albums.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TLC, Christina Aguilera, Blaque: January 16, 2000

In honor of the release of Christina Aguilera's new movie Burlesque (sort of) we skip ahead in time a bit from the 1980s concerts I've covered so far. As you can see from the ticket, TLC were promoting their Fan Mail album at the time. Christina Aguilera and Blaque (who were protegees of TLC's Left Eye) were the openers. I bought tickets for my niece and oldest nephew for Christmas and my oldest sister also went. It was fun to be able to take them somewhere and I'm glad I did, because just four months later I moved to Chicago and didn't see them too often afterward. And of course Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes died in a car wreck just two years later.

I don't recall a lot about Blaque except that they were a competent female R&B group. Christina Aguilera's appearance was a big deal because this was when her first album was out and "Genie in a Bottle" was a big hit. I'll never forget that I had taken my nephew to the restrooms and as he exited the bathroom the song started up and this wave of kids came pushing past us, pouring back toward their seats so they wouldn't miss it. My nephew's eyes were filled with fear and as big as saucers - and I'm guessing mine were too. It felt like we were in a scene from A Hard Day's Night! Another song I remember Aguilera doing was Etta James' "At Last," and she really nailed it. Then, as now, she has a really superb voice even if her choice of material isn't usually top-notch.

TLC were fun, as I recall - lots of dancing and all the expected hits. Lisa Lopes was just coming off that ridiculous incident where she burned her boyfriend's house down. At one point she did some magic trick involving a rope and a lighter and she made a crack about how she shouldn't be around fire or something. Ah well, at least she had a sense of humor. I always liked TLC even if they weren't the best singers or dancers on earth because they seemed to have a lot of personality and charisma in addition to good songs. To this day I still have my beloved "No Scrubs" button from that show. RIP, Left Eye.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Depeche Mode and OMD: May 21, 1988

Since this was an outdoor show, I'm surprised to see it happened in May. The weather was good, as I recall. I went with my high-school friend Laurie and a few of her girlfriends. On the ride there, one of them mentioned that her brother or someone had asked if OMD was a rap group. "Yeah, Run-OMD," I laughed, unwittingly creating one of my own all-time favorite jokes. (Yes, I frequently amuse myself.)

This show was part of the tour for Music for the Masses, some of which was captured in D.A. Pennebaker's film Depeche Mode 101. The tour marked a special moment in the history of Depeche Mode and alternative music in general. Little did we realize but both were about to blow up big-time and "alternative music" would soon evolve into a totally different monster. (I don't think there really is any "alternative" music anymore, but that's a whole other story, not fit for this blog!)

OMD were alright, but nothing great. I prefer their older material, but they still had some great songs at this point, but were pretty lacking in the stage presence department. Although to some extent the same could be said of Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan really worked it, and the whole vibe of the show was pretty exciting, since it was a big outdoor thing that made you realize, "Holy cow, there are a lot of us... alternative people."

DM did a lot of great songs that night, but not "People Are People." I guess they were feeling contrary. My one big memory of the night was a girl who was so drunk she was face-down on the ground for most of the show. Her friends just left her there for people to throw grass on, and I kept one eye on her most of the time because I remember how Jimi Hendrix died. I was thankful I was a) not hanging out with a bunch of jerks like that (what would likely now be called "frenemies") and b) not drunk.

Funny postscript: One night much later I was at (where else?) Denny's dressed in an all-black outfit that was typical for me at the time. The waitress asked me if I liked Depeche Mode and when I answered affirmatively she said, "You look you would like Depeche Mode." She didn't say it maliciously or anything, but it got me thinking about how I presented myself. I decided I didn't want anyone to assume they knew a lot about me based on the way I looked. I think not too long after that I bought a pink polka dot shirt just to be an asshole.

Monday, November 15, 2010

New Order, PiL, Sugarcubes: July 1, 1989

Rachel, Bonnie, and Rachel outside the show, '80s alt fashions on proud display.

The first thing I recall about this show is that it was rescheduled, so the date on the ticket is probably incorrect. We were actually almost to the parking lot of the venue by the time they announced the show was canceled; someone in the band (I think Peter Hook) had fallen ill. In retrospect, I think the show would have been just fine without him. I read one of the meanest, funniest, and truest reviews of this tour a few weeks after our show. It began, "No wonder Ian Curtis hanged himself."

I was a fan of all three bands on the bill so I figured it would be great. The Sugarcubes were still riding high on their amazing debut album but had just recorded the follow-up, so we got a taste of it, too. Bjork has always had a fantastic voice and she is just as dazzling live as on record. She was wearing platform sneakers and a clingy silver dress, this being the start of her "deranged club-hopper baby doll" fashion period. The Sugarcubes were good but Public Image were even better - tighter, more confident, with better songs. They  were supporting their album 9 at the time.

So it was a good day, the excitement had been building, dusk had come, and New Order took the stage. They stood there and did a song that sounded just like the record. They stood there and did another song that sounded just like the record. And so on. Lather, rinse, repeat. The highlight of the show was when John Lydon, clearly bored and annoyed out of his mind, came back onstage and shook his butt mockingly in the band's direction. It was hilarious and the crowd ate it up, but Bernard Sumner was absolutely shooting daggers from his eyes. It was brilliant. And then New Order stood there and did another song that sounded just like the record. We left before the encore and could hear the strains of "Blue Monday" as we were driving away. I was sort of sad to miss it, but then I realized I could put on the record, stare at a picture of the band, and get the same effect.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Smithereens: October 13, 1988

No, there was never (to my knowledge) a Jimmy Smits-fronted band called Smitereens. Poor Smithereens; the typo on the ticket seems symbolic of the lack of respect they get. They were a pretty great band in their day, though. At the time they were touring for their second album, Green Thoughts, largely overlooked now, but full of great songs including "Only a Memory" and "House We Used to Live In." They had already turned out the wonderful "Blood and Roses" on their debut, and I recall hearing great live versions of all those songs that night. Even though the band has become kind of a footnote in rock history, I recall this being one of the best live shows I've seen. The crowd was really into it and by the end of the set the band was running out of songs and had the audience call out Beatles songs for them to cover. They ended up doing a kick-ass version of "Rain."

It was always easy to find the tour bus at shows in Ann Arbor so before the show my friend Bonnie and I made our way to it and peeked inside the window. Unfortunately, all we saw was a TV showing... well, let's just say the back of a woman's head. We shrieked and ran away, never to know exactly who was guilty of watching porn on the tour bus.

The last I heard about the Smithereens was that the lead singer was a super conservative and would play in your living room if you paid him enough.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Jacksons Victory Tour: August 18, 1984

This is the one that started it all, my first concert. I was 12 years old and like most kids of that era, a massive Michael Jackson fan, even though I'd definitely started shifting my allegiance to my ultimate teen idols, Duran Duran. It was symptomatic of the control his parents still exerted over him that Michael did not tour for the blockbuster that was Thriller but instead toured with his brothers for their album, Victory (although, bizarrely, they didn't perform any songs from that album).

My friend Becky Withrow's parents got the tickets and took us to the show, in Pontiac, about an hour away from where we lived. Becky and I were frequent partners in crime back then, and I still recall my mother, who had taken us to see the R-rated Purple Rain at the Wayside Theater in Ypsilanti, telling Becky mom's afterward that it "wasn't too bad except for one scene." Oh, to be underage in the 1980s.

I don't remember much about the opening act, a magician. Given that we were in the lower bowl of a football stadium (since sold for a paltry $583K!) I doubt we really saw much. I do recall a couple of the Jackson brothers peeking out at the crowd from behind the curtain and I think Tito even ran across the stage at one point. Once the show began, there were Jacksons songs and Jackson 5 songs and Michael Jackson solo songs and moonwalking and tearful prepubescent girls. I don't remember anything specific but I remember a palpable sense of hysteria.

Something really fantastical happened on the way home. Getting onto the expressway, we saw a plain vehicle (it was a van or trailer, something with several windows) alongside us. Becky and I were looking and - no it couldn't be - could it? It sure as hell appeared to be Jackson brothers inside. And then one of them saw us looking and waved so we waved back, me with my hand decked out in some KMart version of the famed Michael Jackson sparkly glove. It seemed unbelievable then, but I recall thinking that really famous people would be in a plain vehicle, just as they were. All these years later it seems totally unbelievable, but I'm 99% sure it really happened.

As an adult, I've read a lot of criticism of that tour. The ticket price was astronomical for its time - $30. (What I find inconceivable now is that there were no service fees. Look at the zeroes on that ticket - you don't see that nowadays!) A lot of people didn't want to hear Jacksons material; they just wanted Michael's solo hits. That's understandable, but I sure wasn't disappointed at the time. It was the first of many magical nights to come.

According to someone on the Interwebs (!), this was the set list:

Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
Things I Do for You
Off the Wall
Human Nature
Heartbreak Hotel
She's Out of My Life
Jermaine Jackson Solo: Let's Get Serious/You Like Me Don't You/Tell Me I'm Not Dreamin'
Jackson 5 Medley: I Want You Back/The Love You Save/I'll Be There
Rock with You
Lovely One
Working Day and Night
Beat It
Billie Jean
Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)