I’m in Cincinnati for my mother’s 95th birthday, which was actually last Sunday, but we’re celebrating it today. It’s been 32 years since I last visited here, and I don’t think I’ve been in the part of town where my sister previously lived, because nothing looks familiar. It’s pretty unusual for my mother, my two siblings and I to be together at the same time, so we’ve been enjoying it.
We were talking about conccerts we’ve been to, something I’ve been thinking about off and on anyway. I was never a great concert-goer, but used to attend them a lot more often when younger, and some of them were quite memorable. Others, not so much. The one Rolling Stones concert I attended might have been memorable if I’d actually been listening, but I was seeing a band I’d listened to and thought about so much that I tried to get close enough to the stage to get photos, which didn’t turn out to be a great idea. When I was ready to actually listen, the concert was ending.
The first electric band I ever saw was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a name which will probably be unfamiliar to most today. Their lineup had changed with every album, and when I saw them their drummer and bass player were different, one of their guitarists had left, and they’d added a horn section. My friends and I sat very close to the stage in a not terribly large club in Cleveland, Ohio, called La Cave, and I was blown away practically from the first note. They ended with a song called Tolling Bells, which was tremendously impressive live, though it didn’t really come across on their subsequent album.
I attended a number of other concerts during those years, some pretty good, some not so good, but the next really memorable one was virtually accidental. I was attending Akron (Ohio) University at the time, and a couple of friends asked me if I wanted to go to a concert at Kent State, which wasn’t terribly far away. Apparently I didn’t have anything better to do, so I went with them.
The first act was a black electric guitarist playing solo. I’d never heard of him before, and don’t think I ever heard of him again, but he played some nice stuff. Then came the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I think I’d heard of them before, but knew nothing about them. They were a fusion band, jazz musicians playing a mixture of jazz and rock & roll, with the emphasis in this concert being more on the rock side of the spectrum. The personnel included John McLaughlin, the guitarist, who had played with Miles Davis, and was playing the first double-necked guitar I’d ever seen or heard of. Jan Hammer, who later wrote the theme music for Miami Vice, was the keyboards player; Rick Laird the bassist; Billy Goodman (I think) played electric violin, and Billy Cobham was the fastest drummer I’d ever seen. I was simply amazed at what they played, feeling they could have played absolutely anything, an impression I had never gotten from any previous band I’d seen.
But it wasn’t long before I saw another one. Frank Zappa’s post-Mothers of Invention band came on next, and they were on the same high level. I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this, but I found the sensation similar to times when I used to often visit art museums. I could look at the pictures with appreciation for maybe an hour or two, but after that I didn’t feel I could take any more in. That’s how I felt that day, and my friends felt the same, so we left early. Now I wish I could go back and see that show again. If you go to musical events you see a certain number where the performers are playing because it’s their job, but don’t seem to be that interested. So your interest level isn’t too high either. When the musicians are really passionate, as well as good at what they’re doing, you get more involved. There was a high level of both passion and expertise there that day, and that’s another concert I’d like to relive.
A third was a concert several years later in Akron, by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. I decided to go to it because they were playing Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, both favorites of mine. They did both very well, and I was particularly impressed with the woman keyboard player, who played an unusual keyboard (possibly a Celestina?) during the Ravel piece, and then was the soloist during the Rachmaninoff. As Rachmaninoff was himself a virtuoso pianist, her part was very difficult, having her playing with her hands crossed at times, for instance.
I had to work the next morning, so decided to leave early, as Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony was beginning. I’d heard of Shostakovitch before, but hadn’t heard any of his music, and this piece happened to be one of his most famous ones. The reason was because he had previously written an opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, which Josef Stalin hadn’t liked.
If you did something that Stalin didn’t like, it could be quite hazardous to your health, and Shostakovitch knew what to do. He wrote his Fifth Symphony and dedicated it to Stalin, which got him out of his difficult situation.
And this started off in a very impressive fashion, with the pianist playing bass runs (piano is an unusual instrument in symphonies), and the rest of the orchestra playing what you might call a sinister sort of music, which was very powerful. But since I had to work, I did leave early, and never heard the rest. That’s another instance where I wish I had. I’ve listented to recordings of the symphony since, and have never been impressed, but that night, in that place, it was something like a steamroller. The sequel to Shostakovitch’s story was that when the symphony was premiered in Russia, all the audience were said to have understood that Shostakovitch was NOT being a loyal Stalinist, though Stalin apparently didn’t know the difference.
I’ve seen other good concerts through the years. While at Akron U, I saw Muddy Waters, for an absurdly low price. I’d heard of him, but didn’t really know what I was listening to, at the time. If I’d known more, it would have enhanced the concert for me, but it was still good. I saw the Jefforson Airplane a couple of times, and they were quite good. So were the Who, and Pink Floyd, but none of them were transcendent when I saw them. I saw another good guitarist in Burlington, Vermont, years later, playing only with a drummer, whose name I’ve forgotten, but whom I liked a lot. I bought one of his CDs, but didn’t find it nearly as good. I saw a concert at Dartmouth College in which the first piece was a Trumpet concerto, but the trumpetist (a student) wasn’t up to playing in the lead position. That was followed by Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, which was well done, though, so the concert wasn’t a total washout. Another good one was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, another of my all-time favorites. This one was performed outdoors at the Blossom Music Center north of Akron, so it was a great place for a concert too.
The last great concert I saw was more than 20 years ago, and that was Sun Ra with his Space Arkestra (I think that was the name of his band). That was another simply amazing concert, which set me off near the beginning by a saxophone solo that depositied me in the ecstatic zone. I didn’t come back down from there till the end of the concert.
I don’t have any profound conclusions about much of this. I think live music can sometimes be much better than recorded music, but it seems as if conditions have to be just right, and I’ve listend to a lot more recordings than concerts. Now the phenomenon I described above seems to have taken me over. I don’t listen to contemporary music much, and when I do, I rarely find anything that excites me. When I was attending nursing school, there was a cartoon on the bulletin board in which a boy is raising his hand in a classroom, and saying, “May I please be excused? My brain is full.” That’s kind of how I feel about music these days.