Feedtime is one of those bands I thought I’d never get a chance to see. They broke up, reunited, and disbanded again, all before I was even aware of their existence. Now, they are playing my favorite bar.
Not many Australian noise punk records made it to rural Missouri when I was a kid, so I had never even heard of them until I was full-grown and actually made it to Australia. I was scouring the record shops for Beasts of Bourbon records without success. (I asked one of the shop owners if they had any Beasts records. His response: “We get a lot of Americans that come in and ask that question.”) Rich Stanley, an Aussie legend in his own right, handed me a copy of Cooper S and said, “Have you heard this? You’d probably like it.” No, I hadn’t, but yes, I did.
Finally getting to see Feedtime is great, but it also makes me think about what other bands or musicians I would still be this excited about seeing, and unfortunately, the list is getting mighty short. Only an idiot, or a writer for Pitchfork (probably not mutually exclusive categories), would try to claim that we are living in a golden age of anything musical right now. You could argue whether the true golden age of American music was anywhere in the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s, depending on whether you were more into bebop or girl groups or delta blues or whatever. But you have to agree that the bad started to outnumber the good by the late 1970’s, at least as far as commercial popularity was concerned. Things got worse in the 80’s, and by the time we got to the 90’s and 00’s it’s been downhill ever since.
Not that there hasn’t been good and bad music made during any of those decades, but just look at the top releases from, say, 1965 and 2005, and try to tell me there’s any comparison. I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’m just telling it like it is. We may be living in a golden age of smartphone apps or something right now, but not music.
I take some comfort in the fact that, even though I happened to be born when the era of recorded sound excellence was already well in decline, I still managed to see quite a few great musical performances. It has helped that the people who make rootsier kinds of music sometimes get better at it as they age. Some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen are of artists that have since died, or who have stopped performing, so I’m glad I got the chance. That’s just because, sorry kids: most of the best music got made a long time ago. Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I missed most of it, too.
The majority of the shows I’ve seen have been either of the rootsy, rock n’ roll, or punk variety, and I’m not going to apologize for it. If you don’t want to read about that, what are you doing here? The Fabulous Andy G of the Devil Dog summed up my position in profane and exasperated fashion, on one of the great live albums from a generally miserable musical decade:
Andy G, trying to get a response from a lame crowd: “Do you people like rock n’ roll music?!”
Crowd: scattered golf claps, some smartass yells “NO!”
Andy G: “NO?! So, get the fuck out! What the fuck are you doing here? You know something, I hate opera music, but you don’t catch me down at the fuckin’ opera hall!”
Okay, now that I’ve run off all of the squares, here are some highlights from a lifetime of going to shows…
You can’t talk about great shows you’ve seen without a tinge of regret for the ones that you didn’t. Not the stuff you were born too late to see, that’s nobody’s fault, but the stuff that you at least had a reasonable chance to see but didn’t. The two big ones for me are Johnny Cash and the Ramones. I missed both of them, and even though it would have been later in their careers, I would have liked to be able to say that I caught them once.
I was just a dumb kid, but I realized at the time that seeing the Ramones would have required me driving a few hours to Lollapalooza in 1996, and risking hearing the likes of Rancid, Soundgarden, Soul Coughing, or Ben Folds. Then, after enduring all that, I probably would have had to hear some songs from ¡Adios Amigos! You can see my dilemma. Still, missed my chance.
Some I missed, but don’t really regret. Bo Diddley falls into this category. By the time I could have seen him, his later shows were reportedly lackluster. Same story with John Lee Hooker. I heard the show was just his backing band for 45 minutes, then they brought him out to mumble for 15, and that was it. There’s a big difference between seeing an artist that you admire put on a good show, and just ticking off the fact that you saw X before he/she died. That can be depressing when they don’t have the goods anymore, even if you get to lord it over somebody who missed them, that “Yes, I saw ____.” Sometimes you are better off saving your money.
I’ve had a few of those, too. Yes, I can say that I saw Jerry Lee Lewis, but he looked like an audio-animatronic Crypt Keeper propped up at the piano. I can say that I saw Booker T. Jones, but I can also say that the show was boring. Chuck Berry was just a sloppy mess. Bob Dylan’s voice was shot by the time I got to see him, even if I did like Love and Theft. I saw Link Wray play Rumble live and in person, but he had a ponytail down to his waist, a fanny pack, and I wouldn’t say it was particularly good from a musical perspective, either. But hey, I saw Link Wray play Rumble, and that’s all anyone wants to hear.
Other times, you can see a legend, and they still deliver. I managed to see some of the greats who still had it.
Little Richard still had it, and was hilarious, to boot. Etta James had to sit down, but she could still sing. And how. I saw James Brown on a rotating circular stage in the middle of a rodeo arena, and cowboys were getting down. During Sex Machine, he ran off the stage, got in the sawdust, and ran around the entire arena, shouting “Get on up!” the entire time. He was in his late 60’s at that point. Unreal!
Roy Head could still do the splits. Ike Turner played Rocket 88 on piano, and then strapped on a guitar, and proceeded to sound exactly like Ike Turner. Mind = blown.
I missed Johnny Cash, but Merle Haggard projected that air of an elder statesman, and I saw him when Red Volkeart was still in his band, so it was that much better. George Jones was still in good voice, and I got to see him in a country dive and not the Moody Theater. I did the sound for Willie Nelson. A record store set that turned into a full show. He was supposed to play outdoors that night, but it was pouring, and the show got canceled. He did his whole set to a few hundred people in the store instead. Stripped-down band, mostly acoustic, maybe ten feet away from me. One of those once-in-a-lifetime deals.
I saw Irma Thomas play a show on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. What an amazing, sorrowful, soulful night. Everybody knew the storm was going to be big. She couldn’t go home the next day. She did requests. I asked for Ruler of My Heart, and she sang it.
Sometimes you wonder how they do it. I booked a show for Leo Kottke in the early 90’s when I was just a kid, and he seemed like a weird and hilarious curmudgeonly old man. I saw him nearly 15 years later; he still sounded great and he appeared to be exactly the same. Not that he still appeared youthful, because he hadn’t really appeared that youthful in the first place, but just that he hadn’t changed at all. Forget the eternal youth, maybe you are better off being pre-aged.
I’ve seen some big names, but the smaller shows were often more rewarding. I was working at a blues club when Latimore played there. I didn’t know shit from chitlin circuit soul at the time, and seeing fat black women freaking out over Latimore in his gold lamé suit was a trip.
Yeah, I saw the Rolling Stones with thousands of other people, but it was more memorable seeing John Fahey play an impromptu set to nobody. It started raining, seemingly just to lend atmosphere to the performance.
You may earn some bragging rights, but it can also be frustrating to see an artist that you think deserves wider recognition playing to an empty room. Due to SXSW booking incompetence, apparently nobody was aware that Peter Stamphel of the Holy Modal Rounders (one of my all-time favorite recording sensations) was playing in the Hilton ballroom, of all places. Yeah, it was cool to have a private audience with him – for me. But it was Stamphel’s first time playing Austin, and playing to a half-dozen people probably wasn’t what he envisioned when he agreed to this gig at the supposedly world-renowned music festival. Still put on a great show, though.
Sam Butera was still playing small lounges the first time I went to Vegas, giving his all to handfuls of people. Still an energetic performer well into his 70’s. It was like a trip back in time, to when Vegas was actually cool.
Junior Kimbrough brought the groove, heavy, at the old Antone’s. A younger guitar player (Gary Burnside? I honestly don’t remember) had opened for Kimbrough, and then switched to bass to back him up. The opening set was a more guitar-wanky, SRV style of blues, that apparently was more appealing to the drunken jackass demographic. There was one drunk asshole who kept yelling “Let the bass player play guitar!” over and over. Middle-aged loudmouth
type, he kept shouting this phrase repeatedly and wouldn’t stop. Junior Kimbrough deserved more respect than that. I finally threatened to kick his ass if he didn’t shut the hell up, and I’m not the violent type. I’m sure I wasn’t intimidating in any way, but maybe I looked pissed off enough that he believed me. I felt like the lone representative of all that was good in the world, against all that was douchey. Maybe the guy just got bored that there weren’t going to be any wanky guitar solos, but he shut up and left, and I got to enjoy the rest of the set.
Next time: More of the same!