Monday, October 31, 2011

A Tale of Two Concerts

Elizabeth and I don’t go to a lot of concerts.  Or, Elizabeth and I go to a bunch of concerts.  I don’t know which of those two statements is more true; it probably depends more on the perspective of the other person involved in the conversation, in this case, you.  I’d say we average about 3 concerts a year, which has been pretty consistent over the 22 years we’ve been married.  3 concerts a year doesn’t seem like a lot, thus validating the first statement; but if you add up all those shows over the years, we’ve seen somewhere between 60-70, which I think fits the technical definition of a bunch.

Foo Fighters
Paul Simon
In all that time, I don’t think we had ever attempted the formidable feat of back-to-back concerts.  But that’s just the position we found ourselves in when the Foo Fighters decided to put on a show Sunday night, and then Paul Simon came along and scheduled his concert for the next night.  Two shows in two nights is not a challenge we intentionally set out for ourselves, like hiking the Grand Canyon, for instance, or reading Sarah Palin’s biography.  It just kind of happened that way. 

It’s important to understand that Elizabeth and I aren’t extreme personalities; as a rule, we don’t like extreme sports, we don’t watch extreme television, and we don’t do extreme things.  We’re big fans of the golden mean, of stability, of routine.  To us, extreme is putting the kids to bed and then…watching a movie, or if we’re really out of our minds, having sex.  The fact that both of us will be asleep before it’s over tells you just how horribly pathetic we are, both at determining what qualifies as extreme behavior, and also in carrying it out.  Perhaps you can imagine just how daunting the prospect of back-to-back concerts appeared to two such small, hum-drum individuals.

Some of you are probably thinking, “What’s he making such a big deal out of going to a couple of shows for?  I rock and roll all night, and party every day.”  To you, my friend, I say kudos; however, you’re probably not 43 years old, with two young children, and don’t have to deal with the challenges of coordinating multiple schedules, resolving overlapping commitments and lining up childcare, the combined logistical complexity of which easily rivals the early Apollo missions. And not just once, but twice in a row.  Put a man on the moon, puh-leeze.

Others might suggest, “If it’s such a big deal, why go to both? Just pick one, and sell your tickets to the other one.” Sound advice for the middle-aged, to be sure.  Just one small problem:  which one?  You see, Elizabeth loves the Foo Fighters.  I think I can say they’re her favorite band to see live.  I came to realize this the first time we saw them, about seven years ago, when the band’s amplified din and Dave Grohl’s screaming were drowned out only by the unearthly howls and brain-piercing shrieks coming from my wife’s mouth.  I had never heard anything quite like it.  You’ve probably seen that black-and-white footage of the early Beatles performances, you know, where they show all the girls in the front screaming as though someone had just handed each of them the Publisher’s Clearing House grand prize check.  

Seven crazy women, and one small, petrified boy.  I feel you, dog.

I always thought that was some kind of psychological phenomenon, some kind of group-think response to being in an emotionally charged environment with a crowd of weak-minded individuals, who just kind of get caught up in the fervor of the moment.  Someone screams, and before you know it, everybody’s screaming.  I now know better.  I now believe every woman has a primal scream inside her, and I also know that I don’t want to be anywhere around when it goes off. With Elizabeth, I knew I would be getting that scream one way or another, the only difference being that one of the ways would be partially mitigated by really loud music.

Besides, when you’ve been together as long as we have, you develop a kind of mental map of the other person’s mind.  You gain an ability to see, with a fair amount of clarity, exactly where the areas of common ground are, and also the hills on which your loved one is willing to die alone.  When it comes to the Foo Fighters, my mental map told me we’re not just talking about a hill, but a mountain.  A mountain with a fortress on top, fortified by archers, cannon, and frothing cauldrons of boiling oil, all waiting to drop on the chump who’s dumb enough to challenge that gate.  Picture Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what my map of Elizabeth’s mental terrain looks like when it comes to the Foo Fighters.

Minas Tirith lives!
This is simply to illustrate the point that going to Sunday’s show was in no way optional. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been waiting all my life to see Paul Simon perform.  Literally.  The story goes that while pregnant with me, my mom went in for a routine checkup.  The exam proceeded uneventfully, until the doctor began moving the stethoscope erratically around my mom’s belly, like he was trying to pinpoint something but couldn’t.  He cocked his head slightly and furrowed his brow, but didn’t say a word.  This understandably concerned my mom. “Is something wrong?” she asked. 

“Just a moment,” the doctor replied curtly, grimacing and moving the stethoscope’s round silver disc again.  “I can’t quite get it,” he mumbled to himself.  A few more minutes of frantic movement and listening followed.

My mom was becoming increasingly alarmed.  “Doctor,” she said, pushing herself up to a half-sit around her bulging belly, “What is it? Is there something wrong with my baby’s heartbeat?” 

“Shhhh!” he said sharply, moving the scope once again.  “It’s almost as if…It couldn’t be… This is highly unusual…Must check the literature…” He abruptly left the room, and returned a few minutes later with two more doctors, and several nurses.  They all took turns listening while my mom lay there in escalating mortification.  They spoke in hushed, mysterious tones, engaging in a very animated, but silent, discussion. My mom was just about to explode with anxiety when her doctor turned to her and said with amazement, “We’ve never seen anything quite like this before, Mrs. Thorson.  I wanted confirmation before I said anything, but we all hear the same thing.  It’s Scarborough Fair.”

If I knew what they looked like, I might never have come out.
Turns out that was one of four Simon and Garfunkel songs that I would randomly hum while I was floating around in my little amniotic sac.  Well, only three were completely confirmed; there was a dispute within the medical community about the fourth:  some people thought I was humming “The Boxer,” while others thought it sounded more like “Jumping Jack Flash.”  But I knew it had to be Simon and Garfunkel; my parents didn’t listen to rock’n’roll. 

At ten, I found a Paul Simon cassette tape at the library and checked it out.  It had all the great early solo hits on it: Mother and Child Reunion, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Kodachrome, Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard, and my absolute favorite Simon song, Slip Slidin’ Away.  I spent hours listening to that one song, over and over, with one minute breaks in between while my lunchbox-sized cassette player rewound the tape. 

Graceland came out when I was seventeen, and it was one of the first CD’s I ever bought.  Of course, I had to wait six months until I could afford to buy a CD player to listen to it, but still I was happy.

Isn't that 'Columbo?'
Money and circumstances prevented me from being able to see Paul Simon live over the next 26 years.  The years seemed to slip away, just like in the song.  Then I saw him on TV performing during the 9/11 anniversary tribute last month, and was shocked by how old he looked.  I checked his age online; Paul Simon was just about to turn 70 years old.  I started to panic.  No, Paul Simon, you cannot die yet!  I had long considered it a moral imperative to see him perform at least once in my life, and now I was being jolted by a sense of his mortality, and maybe just a little of my own. 

Once before in my life I waited too long to see a band I yearned to see in concert, and ended up missing out forever on the opportunity.  Queen was my favorite band through most of my teenage years, until I discovered the Kinks anyway (those British bands and their cheeky names).  They had a long-established reputation for legendary live-performances, of which I was well aware.  They came through Phoenix on tour in ’82.  I probably could have gone, if I had really set my mind to it; my older sister was a fan as well, and I remember talking about the upcoming concert with her, and the possibility of us going together.  However, at fourteen, the steep price of a concert ticket was almost impossible to cover with my meager paper route proceeds, plus I would have had to talk my mom and dad into it, and besides, in the recklessness of youth, I thought I had all the time in the world.  I ended up passing on the concert; and as it turned out, they never came back.  Queen did two more tours after that, but neither one had a U.S. leg, and in 1986, they stopped touring altogether.  Freddie Mercury contracted AIDS, and died in 1991.  When I heard the news of Freddie’s death, I was angry at myself all over again for not trying harder to make that ’82 concert.  I remember stepping outside into a sunset so blazing that everything was completely engulfed in red, raising my fist to the setting sun, and vowing:  “As God as my witness, I shall never go Queenless again.”

Fiddle-dee...oh, screw the fiddle, where's the guitars?
What exactly I meant by that, I’m not entirely certain, but I think the gist of it is that I shouldn’t take for granted that there will always be another opportunity to do something I really want to do.  It’s been almost thrity years now, and I still regret not seeing them perform when I had the chance, regardless of the difficulties.  There was no way I was going to let Paul Simon become a Queen.

That didn’t sound right, did it?

Incidentally, Queen eventually reformed, with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company taking over lead vocals.  They began touring again, even playing a concert in 2006 at in Glendale.  I didn’t go to that one either.  As much as I love and respect Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, it’s not Queen without Freddie.

Obviously, there were some deep emotional forces driving my desire to see Paul Simon, forces which precluded a compromise on my end.  Ultimately, we had no choice but to man up to the fact that, for those two nights, we were going to throw caution to the wind and act like irresponsible teenagers.  Thank goodness I could rely on the recent examples of my students to help me recall what being an irresponsible teenager was like; it’s been so long I’m not sure I could have done it otherwise.

We made all the arrangements, endured all of the hassles precipitated by our foolhardiness, and before we knew it, our two-day concert season was at hand.

So, how did it go? Well, it turns out that we had a great time at both shows.  Of all the things that could potentially have gone wrong, very few actually did.  I could try to entertain you by inventing a cavalcade of funny and bizarre incidents or silly predicaments, but the truth is that everything just kind of fell into place.  The Foo Fighters rocked the house as very few bands can, and Paul Simon, even at 70 years old, was nearly everything I could have hoped for.   Because I was there as a fan, and not as a professional concert reviewer, I don’t feel comfortable critiquing the shows as a whole; but, for what it’s worth, I can relate a few personal observations.

Foo Fighters – US Airways Center, Phoenix AZ, 16 October 2011

The first thing you need to know about a Foo Fighters show is that if you prefer to observe musical performers from the comfort of a seat, this is not the place to be.  Standing is the default position.  At many concerts, performers will encourage the audience to get up periodically, either with hand gestures or by direct request.  Dave Grohl (lead singer) never asked or indicated; he didn’t have to because no one ever sat down to begin with. 

See...even they admit it.
The other first thing you should know is that the Foo Fighters believe in the healing power of rock’n’roll, specifically the kind that comes through the use of volume.  Their amps start at eleven, and Lord only knows where they go from there.  Simply put, they are a loud band, although I don’t mean that entirely as criticism.  After all, if they didn’t crank it up the way they do, I wouldn’t be able to hear them over Elizabeth’s ecstatic shrieks. 

This is Dave screaming and/or cursing.
Speaking of screams, Dave Grohl is a prodigious screamer himself.  Half of his singing is screaming.  In fact, I believe it’s his preferred method of communication.  He probably screams from the time he hits the Starbucks drive-thru in the morning until he screams bedtime prayers with his children at night.  I don’t know how a performer develops that kind of screaming endurance any other way, although it did seem to me that he has toned it down some since the last time we saw them.

Dave thinking about screaming and/or cursing.
For about a week after that first show, my brain was screaming every thought at me in Dave Grohl’s voice.  Given Dave’s proclivity for injecting the f-word into every sentence, you should have heard some of the things my brain was saying to me; and if you were standing close enough to me, maybe you did.

Taylor is on the far right. Doesn't he look nervous?
Taylor Hawkins, the Foo Fighter’s drummer, is simply a wonder.  I don’t know much about rhythm, or percussion, so I can’t really analyze his technical proficiency, but I’ve never seen anyone who was so intent on beating the absolute crap out of their drum set before. As an audience, you felt the unrestrained energy expended by every blow.  I kept expecting to see him spontaneously combust, like one of the drummers from Spinal Tap.  The most amazing part was his ability to maintain that level of performance throughout the show, which was lengthy.  If that were me, I could have lasted two, maybe three, before succumbing to exhaustion.  I’m talking about beats, not songs, or hours.  It was also fun to watch him because he had this intensely worried expression on his face, as if he were afraid that Dave would catch him slacking off even for a second, and throw him by his feet into the mosh pit, and kick him in the face as he tried to crawl back onstage.  I imagine being Dave Grohl’s drummer is a bit of a mixed blessing; after all, Dave was the drummer for a little band called Nirvana back in the day.  I’m sure he has definite expectations about the job, which apparently include treating your drums the way John Henry treated granite.  Hang in there, Taylor.

The band performed two massively cool covers during their show.  One was Pink Floyd’s In the Flesh?, which sounded spectacular, complete with searing guitars and stomping drums that would have had Pink blushing.  Taylor even sang Waters’ vocals.  How that man can do any singing while he’s actively engaged in annihilating his drum kit is an unexplained phenomenon.  They also did a spot-on version of Tom Petty’s Breakdown.  In a way, these covers seemed like strange choices, a couple of non-sequiturs, not really there for any particular reason.  But I love it when a band salutes another band by taking the time to get the sound just right.  The respect and admiration show through, and for me, that’s reason enough.

Dave must have liked something about the Phoenix crowd that night, or maybe he was just over-caffeinated.  If Dave likes you, watch out; you’re in for a long night.   Early on, he warned us that he liked us, and was going to play, in his words: “for a long !$%@#$* time!”  He also seemed impressed (or was it confused?) by the especially warm and extended reception the fans gave Pat Smears when he was introduced.  Pat had been a guitarist going all the way back to the Nirvana days, and had been part of the Foo Fighters before leaving the band several years ago.  This marked the first time he had played in Phoenix since returning, and the audience’s appreciation was enthusiastic and sustained.  Whatever the reason, they played for almost three hours, including extended encores.  
Now Pat's the one on the far right, but Taylor still looks nervous...
Oddly, I heard that pop sensation Taylor Swift performed here about a week later and was “smitten” as well by her Phoenix audience.  She apparently tweeted some very complimentary things about the fans here relative to other places (sorry you had to follow us, San Diego).  What’s going on here?  Are we particularly starved for entertainment here?  Is it desperation?  Did we suddenly develop a reputation for being a good concert city, and someone forgot to tell me?  It made me wonder if there’s a list somewhere of good concert cities, and if bands sit around and talk to each other about the relative righteousness or suckiness of playing in different cities.  I would love to hear a conversation like that. 

One final note:  Elizabeth and I invited my brother-in-law with us to see the show.  He wasn’t a huge Foo Fighters fan to begin with, but I owed him a concert for taking me to see Green Day’s American Idiot tour several years back.  I had a big obligation to repay that particular debt, as it was Green Day that helped me hang on to my sanity while the country around me was losing its collective mind in the years immediately after 9/11.  He really seemed to enjoy the show, which obviously made us feel good about inviting him.  The fact that, a week later, he told me that he had been looking into the remaining tour dates just “to see if he could squeeze another one in” may not sit that well with my sister, but for Elizabeth and me, it was pure validation that we had done something right.  Mission accomplished. 

Paul Simon – Comerica Arena, Phoenix AZ, 17 October 2011

There’s something inherently unfair about asking a 70-year-old-man to follow the raging onslaught of electrified power that is the Foo Fighters.  It’s an apples and oranges situation, to be sure, and not just with the performers themselves, but in the energy level and overall vibe of the audience as well.  When you’re 43, and referred to by other patrons of the show as a “youngster,” “nipper,” or my personal favorite, “little shaver,” you’re in a distinctly different crowd.  Standing was not only discouraged, it was considered potentially life-threatening.  “If I have to stand up for more than two minutes at a time,” I overheard some elderly person say, “my thrombosis will kill me dead as a doornail.”  Like I said, apples and oranges.

While there was a definite drop in the energy level, it wasn’t as sharp as you might think.  The only time during the show it was a distraction was when Paul would play one of his oldest hits.  Mother and Child Reunion comes to mind, or, unfortunately for me, Slip Slidin’ Away.  These songs lacked any real spark at all, and came out as listless, light jazz blobs.  But can you really blame him?  He’s been singing some of these songs for almost 40 years; who wouldn’t feel like throwing up if they had to sing Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard for the ten million and oneth time?  Although I still wish he had; that song didn’t make the set list.  Anyhow, the juice would jump immediately anytime they played a song from Graceland, or anything more recent, which was the vast majority of the show.  Paul had no problem keeping up with the natural exuberance of the band with any of those songs, and his voice sounded pleasingly trim through all of it.  He sounded like the old Paul Simon, and by old, I mean young.

This is what Paul Simon's voice looked like.
Paul Simon isn’t a particularly talkative performer.  This shouldn’t surprise anybody, and it certainly didn’t surprise me.  Paul Simon has always reminded me of a tortoise with a songbird trapped inside.  Any amount of effort seems to require an advance calculation, a check of the storage tank, before acting.  He doesn’t seem to do anything quickly, and his face always seems to have the same drawn mouth, pensive eyes, and slightly annoyed expression, as though he’s never entirely happy where he is, but because it took him so long to get there, he doesn’t want to turn right around again and leave.  

This is the look I'm talking about.
He always seems uncomfortable in a way that makes you feel a little uncomfortable for him, at least until he opens his mouth, and begins to sing.  Then the songbird is revealed, and the world is a beautiful place to be, both for him and the listener.  When the song is over, the tightly drawn lips swallow the bird, and the tortoise returns.  There wasn’t much talking between songs during Monday’s show, and the sparse, awkward banter that occurred early on seemed to discourage those people down front from saying anything else that he could hear.  I know it’s Paul Simon, and that’s who he is, but imagine the thousands of stories that guy has to tell about the places he’s seen, people he’s met, things he’s done.  Would it kill you, Paul Simon, to share a little?
Musical moments that stand out:  Paul covering George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun, which not only sounded great, but the way he sang it made it somehow sound as though he had written it and it had been his song all along (almost surreal); his stark, simple version of Sounds of Silence, made famous (again) by his performance of it at the 9/11 remembrance ceremony at ground zero; Late in the Evening, which is my second-most-favorite Simon song, during which I unapologetically dropped some pretty ugly white-guy dance moves,  (we had moved to the top row on the concourse by that point, so I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view) ; Hearts and Bones, just because I love hearing that song being played and sung.       

Here's the video of Paul singing at the 9/11 ceremony.

Odd moment:  The one-song second encore.  Neither of us could remember hearing a one-song encore before.  We got one on Monday night, when Paul came out and played Still Crazy after all these Years.  There were several songs he hadn’t played yet that would have nicely capped off both the encore and the concert with a happy, upbeat finale.  Elizabeth and I both totally expected You can Call Me Al.  But after Still Crazy, he just waved to the crowd again, and that was that.  It was a bizarre ending that left us asking each other questions. Did he originally intend to only play one encore, but didn’t remember until he was already back out on stage and it was too late?  Were we witnesses to an example of the tortoise effect?  Did he forget he only played one song in that encore?  Were we a weak audience?  Did we only earn a one-song second encore?  Did he have some urgent business to take care of, and just had to go (you know what I mean)?  At 70, there could be some health issues involved.  Were his doctors keeping him on a strict time limit, and time was simply up?  Or, as elderly people sometimes do, did he just decide “I’m done,” and end it, without regard for appearances or repercussions?  Whatever the reason, it was a strange way to finish a show; but ultimately, it didn’t detract much from a strong, fulfilling performance. 

So, that’s my tale of two concerts.  I’ve done a lot of talking here; now it’s your turn.  How many concerts do you see?  Who’s on your list of performers or bands that you absolutely feel you must see before you die and why?  Do you have any great concert moments you want to share?  Is there a performer or band you regret not seeing when you had the chance?  C’mon, don’t be a Paul Simon; share a little.


  1. About 5 years ago, my husband Dennis surprised me on my birthday with tickets to see Crosby Stills & Nash. Having seen other acts from the 60's and 70's in recent years, my expectations weren't very high. I have to say, we were pleasantly surprised. There were no younger singers doing the vocals. David Crosby was phenomenal. Stephen Stills was still fierce in his anti-war singing. Graham Nash still hit the high notes like when he was with the Hollies. They had been a must see for me and I am glad we waited.

  2. It's always a gamble, isn't it, seeing a performer/band that's getting on in years? Are they still passionate about what they're doing, or are they simply padding the retirement account? Do they still believe in what they're doing, or have the words and songs gone empty for them? Do they even have the physical tools anymore to be on a par with the material?

    But it's such a hopeful thing when you see someone perform who does still find great passion in what they're doing, even after all those years of doing the same thing. It's tremendously inspiring.

    Elizabeth and I saw Earth, Wind, and Fire last spring for the first time, and we had all the same questions about whether it was worth it to even go see them at this point (they were celebrating their 40th anniversary as a band on that tour). But they put such energy, passion, and talent into the show that by the end, we felt grateful that they had given us the opportunity to see them. I love it when that happens!