Featured Column: The Biggies
Once upon a time, I was a 15 year old kid riding in the backseat of my friend’s mom’s car deep into the heart of Manhattan to see the Grateful Dead. When we pulled up to the Madison Square Garden that crisp, sunny day of September 24th, 1988 I had no idea of the long, strange trip on which I was about to embark. I was an innocent little kid who was talked into checking out a live Grateful Dead show in the biggest city in America. A little fish in a big pond is an understatement. And while I honestly can’t say I remember very much about the music played that evening, it was an incredible experience that started a chain reaction of seeing live music performed by different bands over and over and over again.
I attended a boarding school in High School and we immersed ourselves in the Grateful Dead. We collected shows, listened to and dissected them, read books about the band, and partied hardy. After that first show at the gigantic Madison Square Garden I was hooked. The days were spent scheming how we would get to another Grateful Dead show, whatever the cost. Spring Tour usually happened during our Spring Break, so we managed to see a few shows in Landover, MD at the now defunct Cap Center in the late 80s and early 90s. Summers were spent counting the days until it was time to roadtrip down to DC to see the band play at RFK Stadium or cruising up to New England to see them at Foxboro Stadium. There was always a HUGE lot scene, at least one opening band, and the shows themselves were massive events in venues filled with twenty thousand to eighty thousand fans. Intense experiences to say the least, especially for such a tender youngster.
Of course by the end of our senior year, we began branching out musically. We started listening to more and more music like reggae, funk, and jazz. And the younger, up-and-coming jambands like Blues Traveler and Phish held particular interest with us as these bands were made up of guys who were only a decade older than us…this could be one of our buddy’s big brother’s up on stage! And while Blues Traveler was fun to listen to, there was something unique about Phish and their songs about bouncing around a room or bagging and tagging meat made in the bathtub. At our young age, their bizarre lyrics backed up with serious chops were a powerful and intriguing combination.
I arrived in Worcester, MA to attend college at Clark University in the Fall of 1991. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to make plans to catch all six nights of the Grateful Dead’s run at the Boston Garden. Each night I borrowed my sister’s car (she also went to Clark) and drove the hour into Boston to see the show. They were great shows, too. They definitely lacked a certain something without Brent, but overall the band stepped up and performed some great music for the Boston area heads. Meanwhile, I’m also trying to learn about Phish. Since they are from New England, they play the area quite frequently. Before I know it I have my first ticket stub in my hand to see Phish play at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA in November of 1991.
It’s in a little tiny theater!! I walk down to the second row and take my seat in this little eight hundred seat theater. I know a limited amount of Phish songs, but am in no way a Phish head familiar with their vast catalogue. I have a few live Phish tapes, but having never seen them live, I don’t listen to them all that often. The band comes out ripping into a Chalkdust Torture with energy I never knew existed. I’m right in the front and can see Trey snarl as he dives into solo after solo. The lights are shining directly in my face, the band is joking around and making fun of certain audience members, there’s smoke billowing out behind them as they jump up and down on trampolines. Jerry never jumps up and down on trampolines!! And I think to myself, “Wow! This is like a younger, weirder Grateful Dead on steroids!” Right then and there I decide I will be spending a heck of a lot more time seeing Phish.
Through my college years I saw Phish slowly change from a band that played 800 seat theaters to headlining the Madison Square Garden a few years later. But Phish introduced me to the fact that live music does not need to be a massive affair. I branch out my musical tastes even more and start seeing lots and lots of bands in small venues and bars. Suddenly, seeing the Grateful Dead play in a massive indoor arena doesn’t sound so interesting. The driving, dealing with long lines, paying for parking, all the walking involved, the sheer madness of so many people, and the fact that the band is so far away in contrast to a bar show where you walk right in and cozy up to the front of the stage makes the big shows seem like more of a waste of time to me.
As a young person, it’s a common misconception that only “good” bands play the huge venues and it’s all about the good bands, baby! But over time I learned nothing is further from the truth. Having seen bands like the Aquarium Rescue Unit in a bar with forty people, I know for a fact it’s untrue. Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge are both masters on their respective instruments and seeing them from the front row solidified the fact that size means nothing when it comes to liver music. I saw Stanley Clarke play in Providence, RI while sitting in the front row just completely mesmerized by his ability -almost to the point of tears. Over time I learned that huge concerts mean only one thing: that the band playing the huge venue is very, very popular.
As the years went by, attending those big shows in arenas and stadiums became even rarer. Sure, I’d still go see Phish but during my college years they still were not at full-sized arena level for most of the time. My buddy and I would roadtrip down to the Meadowlands to see the Dead a few times per year, but that was mostly because he wanted to go. I gravitated towards smaller bands I could see up close and personal in bars like ARU, Shockra, Leftover Salmon, etc. Over the years I’ve made friends with many a small band because I was enthusiastic about their music in a room filled with only about 20 other people. I love the personal connection you get with small band playing a little venue. Of course, I’ve also learned there needs to be a modicum of success so that small band can start playing slightly bigger venues, or the band will call it quits.
I very rarely see shows at arenas or stadiums anymore. My favorite band to see is the nicely sized Umphrey’s McGee. They are not huge, but they are also big enough that there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance they will need to give up and work day jobs any time soon. But I love seeing all the smaller to medium sized bands of all different genres. Karl Denson, Galactic, Garaj Mahal, Tea Leaf Green, Raq, The Meters, Steel Pulse, The Quick and Easy Boys, JGB, Steve Kimock, Brett Dennen, Mothers Hips, Jackie Greene, etc. I love live music and love seeing all different types of it, especially in smaller venues. That’s why the next few months are going to be an interesting change of pace for me.
I will be going back to where things started. Well, not exactly as none of the bands I’m going to see will be playing in football stadiums. However, the shows I will be attending will be some of the biggest ones in years and I’m actually pretty excited. It starts with Phish in Berkeley come August. Now I realize that the Greek Theater is actually one of the smallest venues the band will be playing this year, but a Phish show is still a big affair in my book. There’s travel, lines, and lots and lots of people compared to a bar show. Next up will be Furthur in September. Again, the Cuthbert Amphitheater is a far cry from RFK Stadium, but it’s still bigger than the Goodfoot…a lot bigger, with many more people. Then in October I’ve got tickets to see Jimmy Buffett at the Rose Garden here in Portland. Now that’s a big show. While I’m anxious to hear many of my favorite “Caribbean Cowboy” tunes, I’m most excited for the spectacle of this event. Older folks in colorful shirts with parrots on their heads drinking heavily and having a grand old time should be a sight to behold (as long as no one throws up on me)! And in December, I have tickets to see Roger Waters perform The Wall live at the Tacoma Dome. This one should be massive and I’m incredibly psyched. The arena will be sold out and there will be lights, lasers, and effects the likes of which I have never seen before (I’m hoping, anyway).
I guess it all comes down to variety. I still do prefer seeing shows in smaller, more intimate venues where I can really connect with the musicians and other people in attendance. But I almost forgot that there is something special in the big shows as well. There’s something significant about getting that many like-minded people together to share an experience that makes it just as powerful as connecting at a small show, but in a different way. It’s easy to become jaded and skip the bigger shows because they’re just too much hassle. But I’ve learned balance is the way to go, like so many things in life. Man can not live on bread alone. So I soak up a smaller show or two almost weekly, but will also be seeing more and more large shows as they come through this summer. They both offer something unique and can be experienced for their own respective merits. The trick is to not get too burnt out on either one. And it’s been so long since I’ve seen a few arena shows that, right now, I’m pretty amped for the biggies.