Long Live Rock: Eric Andersen

Eric Andersen, The Tin Angel, Philadelphia, March 1999

Some concerts I remember only who went with me. Some concerts I forget because of who went with me. This show was neither, simply a moving performance I saw with some friends from grad school who are more or less out of my life, though not in any kind of sad way.

Eric Andersen, Ghosts on the RoadI discovered Eric Andersen by luck, browsing the central public library in downtown Cincinnati, summer of 1993, its reading areas dominated by stale, old, sleeping men. I saw this unfamiliar CD in the folk section, the album cover an arresting image of this grim, gaunt man, his face haunted, his eyes dark pools of regret. I took the CD home with me, and I didn’t immediately fall in love with Ghosts on the Road, not at first, but something about the songs compelled me to listen again, and again. The first track that finally pulled me in was “Belgian Bar,” a song that I suddenly realize has influenced my own travel writings, recalling those chance encounters, moments talking to a stranger, that linger in our memories, wisps of magic never fully realized.

Soon I was in captivated by another song on the album, “Irish Lace,” one of the saddest songs I’ll ever know. Andersen’s mournful liner notes describe “Irish Lace” as about two women. One lives not too far away and though she is still around you could say she has gone. The other has long departed this world but I couldn’t say she’s ever left.

I don’t remember if Andersen performed either of these songs that night in 1999, but it didn’t matter. The concert was splendid, full of Andersen’s reminisceces of Philly in the sixties and other American singers — Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bobby Dylan, Townes Van Zandt — on the vanguard of the progressive folk scene. But even with these stories, the concert was not about seeing a relic, but a troubadour who’s seen something of it all. Live, Eric Andersen was more lanky than gaunt, with a touching sense of humor that betrayed none of the melancholy that first drew me to him.

Eighteen months later I was to see Andersen again, but by then, everything had changed.

Long Live Rock: Elliott Smith

The Black Cat, Washington, D.C., September or October 1998

I’ve been doing this concert series on and off for two years now, and a chance encounter with a bootleg recording of Elliott Smith performing John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” at the Black Cat club cracked open a forgotten memory, a forgotten concert.

In 1998 I saw Elliott Smith at the Black Cat, and I saw him cover “Jealous Guy.” But the performance I saw was not the live version you can find online, generally regarded as the best bootleg concert ever of Smith. That’s the April 17, 1998 show at the Black Cat. I don’t know the exact date, but memory and circumstantial evidence tells me that the concert I saw at the Black Cat was in the fall of that year, late September or maybe October.

No record of that concert exists.

I googled my heart out, scouring the web and local newspapers for a shred of proof that Elliott Smith was at the Black Cat twice in 1998, once when the widely circulated bootleg was taped, and once when I saw him.


It’s as if the show never happened.

I know it was the fall of ’98 because I was no longer living in D.C. and I made a special trip down from Philadelphia to see the show with ██████. A special trip after we had already fallen halfway apart. By this point, every conversation left us, in ██████’s words, gutted.

But we had the tickets, we had the plans, we had the Amtrak schedule, we had it all, and we went through with the concert. Back then the Black Cat was in the middle of a desolate strip of 14th Street. Whole Foods hadn’t been built, and gentrification was a word that only flittered across the pages of the City Paper, a word we laughed at in Logan Circle, when we saw the junkies and dealers come out as night fell, their needles sharp, their eyes hungry.

The concert that ██████ and I saw — unlike the gentle bootleg acoustic April concert — was hard-edged, sharp, maybe even brittle. I don’t think Elliott Smith even brought his acoustic guitar. It was all electric, backed up by the opening act. I don’t know their name, but even if I hadn’t forgotten it, it would have been forgettable. When someone from the audience shouted out “Angeles” as a request, Smith laughed sardonically and mumbled something about that song being impossible to play.

It was ██████ who turned me onto Smith. She had a knack for finding tortured, fated musicians. She adored Jeff Buckley, who drowned while we were together. She was devoted to Morphine, whose lead singer died just after we fell apart. And of course, she found consolation in Elliott Smith’s introverted lyrics, his dark view of the world, his bad haircut.

I guess I must sound hurt or angry, and I guess I probably am. I don’t know whether I’m angry at Elliott or ██████. After the concert, after that night, I never saw either one again, though I sometimes heard and read their words, on the phone, in email, on CD liner notes.

Elliott Smith hung around for five more years, and that’s more than I can say for ██████. She’s around, but she didn’t hang around.

Ten years have past, and somewhere along the way I had forgotten that show. Most times I forget ██████ too. But every so often, when I’m random shuffling through ten thousand songs, I hear Smith’s “Baby Britain,” and a lyric that reminds me of haunted, frightened ██████, who, in the end, I hope has found her way: “You’ve got a look in your eye / when you’re saying goodbye / Like you want to say hi.”

Elliott Smith, “Jealous Guy” (Black Cat, April 17, 1998)
Elliott Smith, “Baby Britain” (End Sessions, February 22, 1999)

Long Live Rock: The Tragically Hip

Toledo Zoo Amphitheater, June 1996

The zoo is a crazy place for a rock concert, but for the Tragically Hip, this Depression-era amphitheater was perfect. And this was years before Gord Downie sang about Gus, the polar bear in Central Park (In Between Evolution, 2004). I like to think that the Toledo Zoo was his initial inspiration for this later polar bear song (“What’s troubling Gus / Is it nothing goes quiet?”). Anyone who has seen the Hip in concert, or heard Gord Downie on one of his solo shows, knows that he improvises extended monologues during instrumental breaks in the songs. On this particular night in June, 1996, probably during “New Orleans Is Sinking,” Downie went on a long surreal rant about bored polar bears panting in the sun in the American midwest, an improv piece evidently inspired by his pre-concert walk around the zoo. I think in this same monologue Downie riffed on dolphins too, talking about how the artist dolphins never swam with the rest of the pod.

I went to the concert with Scott, and maybe he remembers some of the monologue too. The Hip was the only live show I saw with Scott, though he and I saw dozens of movies together. I can’t remember how I got Scott hooked on the Tragically Hip, but I did. A month or two after the concert, when I moved away from Toledo, Scott surprised me with the Hip’s rare self-titled 1987 debut CD. By 1996, with moody songs like “Nautical Disaster” and “Springtime in Vienna,” the Hip had moved light years beyond “I’m a Werewolf, Baby.” How could they not?

As an aside that doesn’t fit in with the usual nostalgic tone of all my concert posts, I have to say that the Hip’s online presence is remarkably rich, a model of what a Web 2.0 rock band should look like. In true “Here Comes Everybody” fashion, the site combines Hip-produced content with fan-generated media. Every set list for every show ever is online — here’s the set list for the 1996 Toledo Zoo show. And fans can add their own concert stories in the “Hip Story Project,” which is essentially a digital archive open to everyone, much like the online collections my neighbors at the Center for History and New Media design.

Funny thing, though, I am not going to post my story — this story here — in the Hip’s archive. It belongs to me and my own collection of concert memories. Ultimately these stories are not about any particular band, or even the concert experience, but something much more intangible. The past. And not just any past. My past.

Long Live Rock: Dougie MacLean

The Ark, Ann Arbor, circa 1996

Another concert with Tim, who was in grad school at Michigan by this point. Dougie was fantastic — The Ark is an intimate venue, and as I remember it, we were sitting just a row or two from the stage. I watched transfixed as Dougie tuned his guitar differently for each song, taking only seconds to go from a standard EADGBE to a rich open tuning like DADABD.

What really stands out in my mind twelve years later is how I came to the music of Dougie MacLean in the first place, through a series of acquaintances in college whose names I have trouble even recalling. At the end of the line was Wendy, whose name I do recall, though I don’t know what her last name is these days. On a mix tape I must still have, tucked away in some shoebox — though with no means to play it — she had included “Ready for the Storm” and another MacLean song, and I’m having trouble just now remembering which one. Maybe “Singing Land” or “Caledonia.” But definitely “Ready for the Storm.” I’ll never forget how blown away I was when I heard the song for the first time. It was even more powerful when I heard Dougie perform it live a few years later, but some of that power must have come from the bailfuls of nostalgia that swamped me at the time.

Going back a few years, Wendy had dubbed the two songs from a mix tape of her roommate’s, a zoology major named Heidi. I want to say Heidi Michaels was her name, but I can’t say for sure. Google doesn’t help in this regard. She was supposed to have gone off to grad school to study wolves, but I don’t know that she did.

Heidi’s mix tape was made by a friend of hers, a sometime suitor named Colin. I want to say Colin’s last name was Michaels too, but that can’t be right. This is where the trail really goes cold. I don’t think Colin and I ever said much to each other. The odd thing is that one spring break, 1992 it must have been, a van full of these people I’m naming drove to Hilton Head, where Colin’s family had an empty condo waiting for us on a golf resort. Who all went on this trip I’m having trouble remembering: Wendy, Heidi, Colin, me, and some other people too. There was one of Heidi’s friends, named OT, which was short I guess for Othelia. She moved to Brazil after graduation. I seem to remember this. To work in a pizza parlor with her older sister, who was married to a Brazilian man? I think I’ve got that right.

The beach at Hilton Head was usually too cold for swimming, and none of us golfed. Heidi and Colin mostly went birding.

Funny, as I wrote that last sentence I’m listening to a Dougie MacLean CD I bought years later, and the song playing right now is “High Flying Seagull.”

Anyway, so all these people are gone from my life, and even in 1996 at the concert with Tim, they were gone then too.

Tim and I are still in touch. And Dougie’s still around too. I see he’s going back to The Ark in Ann Arbor this September. If I were a few hundred miles closer I’d try to see him again. It’s the closest he comes to North Carolina. Mostly he’s in Scotland. Everyone is in some place, aren’t they?

Long Live Rock: The Indigo Girls

I’m not quite finished with the concerts of the nineties yet, though from here on out I’ll be jumping around chronologically, as I remember the shows. And here is one I can’t believe I almost forgot:

Indigo Girls, Toledo, 1995

Two things I remember about this show, maybe three.

(1) I went with Tim, my closest friend in Toledo, an alien city at the time. Tim was basically the guy who nudged me on to graduate school after I roosted for a few years as a high school teacher.

(2) This was the Indigo Girls’ Swampophilia tour, the first CD of theirs that I didn’t buy, and never did buy, and I don’t know why, because it’s great.

(3) The show was at the Masonic Complex, a great indoor venue, and I just love saying the name, Masonic Complex. It’s like something Freud would have to diagnose.

(4) Tim and I later saw La Boheme at the Masonic Complex (Masonic Complex, just say it with me). I don’t think the musical qualifies as a rock concert, but it’s worth mentioning anyway, because there’s another great name involved here, a student of mine who I remember seeing at the show, his nose buried in a book the whole time. This would be a troublesome nerd I had a great fondness for, Alaric. If Alaric didn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome, he should have.

So that’s four things I remember, not three. What did the Indigo Girls sing? I have no idea, but I’m sure “Closer to Fine” was in there, the only song of theirs I ever mastered musically and vocally, only because Matt Sutter had told me a few years earlier that the Indigo Girls were the future of alternative music. (And we were in, at the time, the home of the Future of Rock and Roll, 97X…)

Long Live Rock in the New Millennia: Mojave 3

A long time back I began a series of posts about the different live concerts I’ve seen since the eighties. A student of mine who happens to be a Glen Phillips fan dug up an old post about a Toad the Wet Sprocket concert in the early nineties. It got me thinking that I never did finish my concert reminisces. So, here I am, picking up approximately where I left off.

Mojave 3, North Star Bar, Philadelphia, 2001

I first heard Mojave 3 in a coffeshop on Pine Street — the Last Drop Coffeehouse I think. I was there with John, and Mojave 3 was playing softly on the shop’s stereo. This was back when Napster was a revelation operating under the radar, and I went back to my apartment and downloaded whatever Mojave 3 songs I could find. I fell in love with “A Prayer for the Paranoid.”

A few months later Mojave 3 was live in Philly, at the North Star Bar. I went with Matt and Stephanie, about the oddest trio you’d ever seen. But then, put Stephanie with any two people and you’d end up with an odd trio.

I remember Matt saying that no band deserves to sing such gorgeous songs and look so gorgeous on top of that. And they were gorgeous. I smuggled a pint glass out of the bar. Seven years later it’s the only memento I have from that evening, the only memento from that entire spring.

Long Live Rock, The Nineties, Part III

Hothouse Flowers / Ziggy Marley and the Wailers / Midnight Oil (1993, Cleveland)

A triple bill. An absurdly mismatched triple bill. I went for Hothouse Flowers, Wendy went for Midnight Oil. We both grooved to the Wailers, although reggae really wasn’t my thing back then. I guess it still isn’t. Peter Garrett was huge. At least two heads taller than anybody else on stage. He’s in the Australian Parliament now. He’s probably the tallest man in the room whenever they meet. That’s got to count for something, in rock and politics both. Bono on the other hand is short, I think, probably too short for a serious career in electoral politics. I guess you can still try to save the world, even when you’re short, if you operate outside of elected positions.

    But in 1993, Garrett was still a rock singer, and Bono, I don’t even know why I’m talking about him.

    Long Live Rock, the Nineties, Part II

    The early nineties are hazy, for no particular reason, other than that they were so long ago. Still, I’m determined to continue write about every concert I ever attended. The eighties were easy because attending concerts was a new thing for me, and I saw “big” acts like The Who and The Kinks, all near my hometown of Akron, Ohio. The nineties were more diffuse and I saw a mix of big and small acts, all over the Midwest and East Coast. You can track my migration east simply by looking at the venues I found myself in. But I’m still not done with my undergraduate years. One last show:

    1. Toad the Wet Sprocket (1991 or 92, Shriver Center, Miami University)Toad was the rage, and this was even before “All I Want” was all over the radio. Oxford, Ohio was home to the now defunct alternative radio station 97X (as heard unforgettably in The Rain Main), and this station had been playing tracks from Bread and Circuses and Pale for several years already.

    The concert was fabulous. I remember the crowd left their seats as soon as the show began, and rushed the stage. We were crushed, just about, only a few feet from Glen Phillips and company. I was surprised to see that it wasn’t Glen who sang “Nothing Is Alone,” my favorite song from Pale, but guitarist Todd Nichols.

    I was there with Wendy. I can’t remember if I introduced her to Toad or if it happened the other way around. Or maybe it was neither, since Toad was in the air, literally, all the time, on the radio and frat house porches and green grass quads. Wendy and I, we traded music a lot. Fifteen years later, I still owe Wendy a few good mix tapes. But these days, who knows where she is and what she listens to?

    Long Live Rock, the Nineties, Part I

    1. Royal Crescent Mob (1990, Hall Auditorium, Miami University)

      I don’t remember this concert, or this band. Royal Crescent Mob was the midwest’s answer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Unfortunately, nobody had ever asked that particular question. I went because I was working with one of the organizations sponsoring the concert. I can’t even remember which organization. I swear I was there and totally conscious and totally sober, but I also swear I can’t remember anything at all, other than I was there.

    2. James Taylor (1990, Millett Hall, Miami University)

      Or maybe this was 1991. It was sometime my sophomore year at college, fall or spring I don’t know. I went with my roommates Matt McClure and Kevin Kearns. We had a fourth roommate, another Matt, but I don’t remember if he went to the concert. Years later, long after I had last seen him, this other Matt would go on to win $30 million in the Ohio lottery. I read about it in the newspaper. I’ve lost track off all the other guys too. Kevin is in Chicago somewhere. Matt McClure is an even bigger mystery. He went to Luxembourg and then seemed to drop off the face of the planet. Sometimes people do that. When the concert ended, James Taylor told the cheering audience, “Thanks, you make it easy.”

    Long Live Rock, More Eighties

    I’d forgotten at least one concert in the eighties:

    1. Ray Charles (1989, Millett Hall at Miami University)
    2. This was a Parents’ Weekend Concert, my first semester at college. My parents came and Ray Charles was late. That’s about all I remember: the concert started something like an hour late. Ray Charles must have sang “Georgia on My Mind,” but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

    Long Live Rock (Be It Dead or…)

    For some reason, I’ve been wanting to make a list of every rock concert I’ve ever attended. Not that there have been a lot. I was never a big concert goer, which makes the handful I’ve been to all the more interesting to see listed. (Yet, as I start thinking about this list, I keep remembering more and more shows, though the ones I’ve forgotten, there’s usually a reason why). What’s even more interesting is not the actual bands or performances I remember, but those other small details: who I went with, the weather, snatches of conversation that have stuck with me.

    I thought I’d break the list down into decades. Let’s begin with the eighties. While the rest of the kids in school were into Madonna and Duran Duran, I was listening to and going to see bands from the sixties and seventies:

    1. The Beach Boys (1985, the Boy Scout Jamboree in Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia)
      What I remember: My first concert, ever. Hurricane Bob made it rainy, Nancy Reagan was on stage first, talking about something (probably just saying “no”), and I was there with a bunch of other pimply-faced boys whose main source of conversation was farts and burps.
    2. The Kinks (1987, Blossom Music Center)
      I was sixteen. Went with my brother Jon, seven years older than me, and his best friend Scot. We set up a blanket on the lawn. I watched the show. Jon and Scot, I’m not so sure they saw much of it. At one point, Scot either fell asleep or passed out on the blanket. This was the first concert I saw people peeing into bathroom sinks.
    3. Boston (1987, Richfield Coliseum)
      Saw the show with my friend Adam. (Hey, Adam!) It was thrilling to be at the concert, but disappointing, too, because I remember it seemed as if Boston played every song on all three albums in the same order that the songs appeared on each album. Could that be true? Either Scholz and company were extremely unimaginative, or I’m remembering incorrectly. I do remember that on the way to the concert (or was it in the car driving home?) we were listening to Roger Water’s K.A.O.S. album. Adam’s older sister, Karen, drove.
    4. The Who (1989, Cleveland Municipal Stadium)
      I’d been dying to see The Who since 1982, when my brother Jon saw them. Whenever The Who played in Ohio, people remembered Cincinnati, 1979. But Cleveland is a long way from Cincinnati, and this was ten years later. It was the summer between high school and college. I went with Larry Morris, and I have no idea what happened to him afterward. Not immediately after the concert, I mean, but in life, like, where is he now?