I was using the lyrics to an old Simon and Garfunkel song in the journalism class I’m teaching this semester, and that got me thinking about a Paul Simon concert at the Assembly Hall in the early 1970s. It was a terrific show -- my roommate camped out and we got front-row seats. There was a memorable exchange between Simon and the members of a UI chapter of a fraternity he’d belonged to, and he pulled a fast one on the crowd between sets. So I’ve been thinking about other memorable concerts I’ve seen. In some cases, I just feel lucky that I got to see the artist when I did: Cat Stevens at the old Chicago Stadium in the summer of 1974, after spending the day at the Oak Street Beach. Buddha and the Chocolate Box was his most recent album, and the live version of “Oh Very Young” was phenomenal. (And it was decades before Salman Rushdie.) Maybe that same summer, maybe the next, I saw Jackson Browne at the Auditorium in Chicago, fairly early in his career, probably about the time of Late for the Sky, one of my favorite albums ever.
But there have been great shows in Champaign-Urbana. Here are a few of my favorites:
Bonnie Raitt, with John Prine as the opening act, at the Assembly Hall. This was in the early 1990s. Raitt was on a roll nationally, with Nick of Time (which came out in 1989) and Luck of the Draw (1991). She was on, all night. Her playing, her singing, her banter with the crowd and her crew, it was all good. But when Prine came back onstage during Raitt’s set and they sang “Angel from Montgomery,” that alone was worth the price of admission. One of the finest moments of live music I’ve ever witnessed.
Harry Chapin in the spring of 1974. He was not yet famous. He was playing the Auditorium. (“Foellinger” had not yet been added to the name.) It was as intimate a show as I’ve seen there. At one point, after worrying about profanity – WPGU was broadcasting the show live – he said, “This really is a living room, anyway.” He got a standing ovation after every song. I saw him a few more times, and I never saw him mean it the way he meant it that night. I can’t tell you how many encores there were, but finally, he came out by himself, sat on the edge of the stage with a guitar and played “Same Sad Singer.” Not really a song made for a live audience and he acknowledged that before he sang it. It’s a song about a love left in the past in pursuit of a career. The last line is, “When I’m still, I’m still wanting you.” He finished the song with that melancholy line, put down his guitar, looked out at the audience and said, “All of you.” And with that, he waded out into the crowd, shaking hands and chatting with his fans.
Loggins and Messina at the Assembly Hall, early 1970s. We had seats in AA and I don’t think we sat down for an instant. A great version of “Vahevala” went on for 15 minutes or so, and “Angry Eyes” was spectacular, both of them due to an outstanding band. The most energetic show I’ve been to, and the musicianship was superb.
REO Speedwagon, the (Foellinger) Auditorium. I got to town just a little too late to have seen REO at the Red Lion, but they were too big for it anyway when they played on campus in the fall of 1972. It was just before the Nixon-McGovern presidential election. Kevin Cronin announced “our political rap for the evening” and they played “Golden Country.” Not my favorite REO song (“Being Kind” holds that honor), but it ranks right up there, and Gary Richrath was still with the band, inching his way toward the guitar deity pantheon.
Delbert McClinton at the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival, 2002. A friend and I were standing near where McClinton came out of his trailer and headed for the stage. My friend asked McClinton for his autograph, even offering, “I’ll hold your beer.” “You will not,” said McClinton, who signed – without giving up his beer – and then went on stage. Didn’t matter whether he was singing or playing harmonica, he owned that audience the entire night.
Alison Krauss and Union Station with Jerry Douglas. The Virginia, a few weeks ago. I also saw her in a tiny place in Monticello a few weeks after she won her first Grammy, and you know what? She was great there, singing to maybe 200 people in folding chairs. She has perfected her band over time and if you were lucky enough to see her last month in downtown Champaign, you know how good she was.
A couple more out-of-town shows to mention:
John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, February 2011. Two men. Two guitars. Great songwriters. A great evening.
Al Green, Indy Jazzfest, 2000. One song might not normally qualify. But rain started coming down just as the reverend took the stage. He sang one song and then it was raining hard enough that the band had to unplug or risk electrocution. Somehow, they kept the microphone on, and Al Green led 10,000 or so fans in an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” I still get chills thinking about it.
So there you go. You’ve all been to some great shows. What were they, and what made them so good? Please share in the comments here.