I went to a lot of concerts in the 70s and 80s. That covers the time from when I started college (actually fall 1969) through the time my wife and I became parents in 1987. Suddenly the logistics were more complicated and there were more things going on, so we haven’t gone to as many since that time.
When I think back over all the concerts I’ve gone to, there are two performances that stand out for me as the coolest things I’ve seen. There were others concerts I enjoyed more overall, but these two performances were amazing.
I saw the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble during my freshman year in college, so this was during the 1969-70 school year. Their performance of the Chuck Berry classic Roll Over Beethoven blew me away. The band was started by students at the Juilliard School (link to school website), so they were of course outstanding at classical music. They sat down as a string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello) and started a Beethoven piece. Then, one of them picked up an electric guitar and played the Chuck Berry riff that starts the rock song, and they all switched instruments and became a rock band. They went back to the string quartet for the bridge, then back to the rock band to finish the song. The playing, in both formats, was very impressive. For me it focused on how musicianship can make rock music more enjoyable to listen to — it’s more than just getting your hair and your attitude right. There was an energy that made their performance special. When I listened to their records later, their playing seemed to restrained by comparison, that energy was missing.
At a Weather Report concert in the early 1980s at Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, Maryland, I saw bass player Jaco Pastorius play Jimi Hendrix‘ Purple Haze as a bass duet — WITH HIMSELF. He set two speakers facing each other with a guitar stand in between. With the first bass he played the repeating notes (octaves?) that start the song (click here to refresh your memory). He set the bass between the speakers so that the notes repeated in a loop. Then he picked up a second bass and played the lead of the song. I found it mind-boggling that not only could he play it on a bass but that it sounded just like the Hendrix original. I don’t think he sang, and I don’t remember anything about the end of the song. It was that WHAM moment at the beginning of the song that stuck with me.
In addition to being awesome performances, another thing they have in common — unfortunately, in this case — is that there doesn’t seem to be video available. At least not that I could find. So all I have to share with you is the memory. I hope you have also experienced a magical in-concert moment like these.
There may be only a few bands that have many great songs, but there are many bands that have at least one great song. That can include bands that didn’t have a big impact in the music business. Here are four great songs, and if you’re familiar with all four bands you get a gold star.
Martha and the Muffins
Martha and the Muffins are my second favorite Canadian band after Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Their song Echo Beach is one of my all-time favorites. Anyone who has been bored at work or didn’t feel like being there can identify with this lyric:
From nine to five I have to spend my time at work
My job is very boring I’m an office clerk
The only thing that helps me pass the time away
Is knowing I’ll be back at Echo Beach some day
They add layers of sound as they build up the song (a favorite technique of mine), and there’s a terrific saxophone solo in the middle:
Bloodwyn Pig was a band with an unusual format – power trio plus saxophone. Their song See My Way shows how well this format can work. Band founder Mick Abrahams has lead guitar and vocals and sax player Jack Lancaster does the Rahsaan Roland Kirk multiple-sax thing. Great song:
Ten Years After
Ten Years After is best known for their performance of I’m Going Home in the Woodstock movie. You get a taste of Alvin Lee’s guitar ability there, but he sings “I’m going home ,,, see my baby” about 150 times. My favorite song of theirs is 50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain from the Cricklewood Green album. Love the lead guitar on this song:
The James Gang was a power trio that featured the awesome guitar work of Joe Walsh. I like his playing with the James Gang much better than what he did later with the Eagles, because he had more room to work. In this video of The Bomber, he throws in some of Ravel’s Bolero, some Cast Your Fate to the Wind, and maybe the kitchen sink:
If you like that song, there are several other James Gang songs that are worth checking out. In particular, I’d recommend Walk Away and Funk #49.