A night to remember? We sure do like to set ourselves a challenge – and part of that is to avoid some gauche “bragging rights” list. Honestly, it’s the gigs I could have made but missed for some reason that often loom large in the memory, but let’s not dwell on them. Big gigs, small gigs, big bands, solo musicians – they all have their moments. The rule of thumb that the bigger the venue the worse the musical experience breaks down at Dylan ’84 at Wembley Stadium – what a night that was, with guests including Van Morrison and Chrissie Hynde, as well as Carlos Santana whose band had been the highlight of the daytime part of the all-day gig. But that rule of thumb does hold up on a determination to never darken the doors of Wembley Arena again. What a soulless venue.
Amongst all the pleasures of gig-going however, one of the most enjoyable can be summed up as “what’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” – which is to say the artist playing a venue far too small for them. An early example of this was the king of kings – that’s B.B. King – at the University of East Anglia Lower Common Room for the princely sum of £5.50 – quite a lot of money back in 1985 but a bargain to see the best touring Blues Revue of the time. The Blues was experiencing a mini-revival, thanks in no small part to two American comedians who had expanded their Saturday Night Live Blues Band skit into a full movie and also with the recent emergence of a new guitar hero in the form of Robert Cray. How a campus University stuck well outside of the city centre of Norwich managed to attract the greatest living electric bluesman to play in a room that had a capacity of 1,100 is a wonder to this day. And what was it like? Apart from the audience being quieter – attentive and appreciative but quieter – it was everything that anyone who had ever heard ‘Live at the Regal‘ could hope for: a hot band, and BB’s elegant guitar playing and deep growling vocals, leading the unwary down dark alleys with “I’ve got a good mind to give up living….and go shopping instead (audience laughs)….for a coffin.” And, periodically, the encouragement to give it up for “Mister Beee Beee Kiiiing! The King of the Blues! Mister Beee Beee Kiiiing!” There was a feeling of really being lucky, and yes, privileged, to be in the same room as this impossibly old man (he was all of sixty!) roaring out these songs that had been written well before most of the audience had been born. I loved folk, but folk with its tiny clubs and people no-one had heard of felt like an underground passion, but here an incipit passion for the real electric blues was the closest some of us ever got to feeling cool, and this gig was the climax of that feeling. You had to have been there.
Although the UK has been lucky enough to see Crosby, Stills and Nash tour frequently this century, up until the big falling out, they tended to play larger venues – Royal Albert Hall, Hammersmith Odeon: small compared to the aircraft hangers they could pick in the States but not tiny. Stephen Stills, though, played a few gigs as a solo band tour in 2008 starting and finishing at Shepherds Bush Empire. There’s a live album stitched together from the two nights – with Stills’ vocals sounding far more strained than they seemed in the flesh on those two nights in October but which does capture the truly incendiary guitar playing that Stevie is capable of. The first night saw me down in the stalls standing, near the front and stage right, the second night was a seat way back in the Circle. And both were memorable in their own ways but no moment surpassed ‘Rock and Roll Woman’ on the first night. Hearing those distinctive opening notes was literally a dream come true – this came damn close to being my Stendhal moment, the surge of pleasure was so overpowering. Music – it can move you. It’s an experience that’s unlikely to be repeated – Judy Collins has said recently that she was keen to bring the album she did with Stills a couple of years ago to the UK when they were touring it in the USA, but “Stephen doesn’t like to have to fly.”
Everyone loves the Green Note – what a perfect venue, anyone who is half a name feels like they’ve done us all a favour by playing such a tiny room – Pharis and Jason Romero, I See Hawks in LA and Cam Penner jump instantly to mind. But, Eric Andersen. At the Green Note? How did that happen? I’d only ever caught him once before, as part of a Greenwich Village Revisited celebration at The Barbican, so to be quite literally within touching distance of the great man was a thrill. Eric Andersen has a great presence and retains his distinctive vocal abilities. With just guitar and fiddle and a clutch of songs such as ‘Thirsty Boots‘ and ‘Violets of Dawn‘ it was a real throwback evening, Andersen’s friends seemed to make up half the audience so whilst the music was never less than excellent it was coupled with a wonderfully relaxed ambience.
Just a few of many great gigs, I also really like being able to see people on successive nights, so Richie Havens at the Jazz Cafe and Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall have great memories – as do two great evenings by Dr John at Under the Bridge. The real truth though is that there’s the constant hope that the best gig is going to be the next gig – if there wasn’t that not so often achieved wish then really what would be the point in going? And the next gig? Well, currently…