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Seeing God In Concert: Six Case Studies

Because I have kids, a job that requires working well into the evening, and a home a good 40-minute drive from the nearest reliable rock club or concert hall, I rarely see live music anymore. And though I don't necessarily miss the smoky, dank venues and ear-splitting volume, I know I'm missing something essential by not standing in a crowd of like-minded people, feeling the vibrations. There's nothing like being in the right place on the right night, and getting lifted out of your body by a band completely in the zone, feeling the rhythm of each other and the audience, and nudging everyone in the room higher and higher.

Note: The dates/venues/details of these stories may be way off. But this is how I remember them.

Midnight Oil @ The Cannery, Nashville, 1988

Anyone who grew up in Nashville in the '80s and liked alternative rock went to pretty much any show that seemed remotely cool, even if the band in question was more "mainstream" than snobby alt-rockers usually preferred. It was the summer between high school and college when I saw this show, almost on a whim. It was a hot night, and the large-ish club was packed so tight that I didn't get admitted until about four songs in. I didn't know much about Midnight Oil at the time. One of my cousins was a fan, and a few years earlier, when I spent a weekend with him in D.C., he showed me an episode of The Alan Thicke Show on which Midnight Oil performed a handful of songs from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, including the incendiary "The Power And The Passion." By the summer of '88, the band's Diesel And Dust album was a hit, so I headed up to the Cannery with the singles in my head. But I wasn't prepared for the sheer force of a by-then-well-road-tested touring band, or for the larger than life personality of frontman Peter Garrett, whose freakish charisma was really too big for that Nashville club stage. He pontificated, he jerked about, he howled to the rafters. As I recall, the show ended with an extended version of "The Power And The Passion," during which Garrett patrolled a miked-up, metal-festooned stage set with a drumstick, turning everything he could find into part of an unstoppable beat.

Fishbone @ Legion Field, Athens, 1989

Here's another band I didn't really know when I saw them live for the first time. Their logo may have turned up on a lot of skate-dudes' decks and Ts back then, but the alt-crowd I knew were more into hardcore. (And myself, I liked the dreamy stuff and the rootsy stuff–more Cocteau Twins and Meat Puppets than DRI and COC.) This show was one of those free-with-a-student-ID spring-quarter-kickoff deals. Fishbone took the stage like a New Orleans brass band conducting a jazz funeral, trudging on one at a time, blowing their horns and stomping. Then, when everyone was in place, they sounded the opening notes of "Question Of Life" and they were off. My head almost exploded. My pulse raced. I've still never seen a more exciting opening to a show. It felt like what watching Sly & The Family Stone in 1968 must have felt like, or Prince & The Revolution in 1983, or Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band in 1975, or The Clash in 1980. Here was a band fusing rock, R&B;, reggae and punk, distilling the joy of each genre, but keeping an element of anger and sagacity that gave the performance an edge. The tragedy of Fishbone for me is that they were never as amazing again as they were on that night: not on the records I ran out and bought, nor in the times I saw them live afterward. Theirs is a story of potential energy, perpetually dissipating.

The Feelies, The Uptown Lounge/Georgia Theater/The 40 Watt Club, Athens, 1988-1991

I saw The Feelies three times while I was attending the University Of Georgia, and each time was equal parts thrill and letdown. The first time, on the Only Life tour, they couldn't get any momentum going because they had to stop and re-tune after nearly every song–that is, until the last five or six, which they played in a breathless rush that left me feeling I'd gotten my money's worth. (It's kind of like making par on the last hole of a round; you forget the shitty first 17 holes and carry the promise of 18 back to the clubhouse.) The second time I saw them, on the Time For A Witness tour, they were much tighter, but played a short set because they claimed that somebody in the audience was throwing ice. The third time, in support of the Crazy Rhythms reissue, they played every song from that record in double-time, finding a hypnotic groove and ripping through it, making a wondrous racket. I was convinced I was seeing the best show I'd ever seen, until I caught a glimpse of drummer Stan Demeski mouthing the words, "Having fun?" to second drummer Dave Weckerman, to which Weckerman shook his head and mouthed, "No." I don't know what kind of personal issues made The Feelies incapable of performing a completely awesome gig in Athens, but the memory of those fleeting moments of percussive bliss-out still sustain me.

Five-Eight, various, Athens/Atlanta/Nashville, 1989-1994

Five-Eight must've played some Athens venue or another nearly once a month during the years I was at UGA, and I don't think I missed too many of those shows. Of the local bands I was devoted to back then, Five-Eight is probably the second-biggest "what might've been," after The Jody Grind (which is a whole other story). As I understand it, after I graduated in '92, Five-Eight took a shot at the bigs, fell short, went through some tough times, and then had a comeback in recent years as elder statesmen of the Georgia rock scene. (I really liked their most recent, self-titled album, which came out in '04.) But they were so gloriously erratic back in the early '90s, playing two-hour-plus shows that sometimes peaked in the first 10 minutes, and sometimes didn't get rolling until an hour in. Bandleader Mike Mantione would usually start each set with just himself and his electric guitar–frequently singing his self-loathing anthem "Weirdo"–and then the band would join in, sometimes struggling to keep up with whatever frenetic pace Mantione had set for himself that night. Strings would break, tempers would flare, and statement-of-purpose covers of The Velvet Underground's "Cant Stand It" (or Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown," or Hüsker Dü's "Celebrated Summer") would stretch on and on, getting faster and louder than a power trio could sustain. I could dissect why Five-Eight never caught on during that magic window when alt-rock bands across the country were getting a fair hearing–too basic in sound? too unpredictable in concert? too naïve in business?–but their failures had nothing to do with me. They were great when I needed them to be great.

Jason & The Scorchers @ The Exit/In, Nashville, 1995

Thanks largely to The Scorchers, Nashville in the mid-'80s briefly became an alt-rock hotspot to rival Athens and D.C. (or Chapel Hill and Seattle a decade later). Unfortunately, most of the great bands who were gigging around when I was in high school failed to heed the cautionary example of the The Scorchers, an amazing live act–arguably the greatest of their era outside of the Bad Brains–who wanted so desperately to be rock stars that they let major labels tinker with their look, their sound, and their reason for being. When I moved back to Nashville in 1992, I'd see a lot of the guys and gals I'd idolized five years previous haunting the seedier bars on Elliston, hustling pool with their hair-sprayed dos and studded leather outfits still in place. The scene had withered and just about died. It was in that atmosphere that The Scorchers made a glorious return. They reunited for a respectable comeback album, A Blazing Grace, and started playing around again, including an emotional gig at The Exit/In in which pretty much every musician and music writer who mattered in Nashville in the '80s–along with young turks like myself, still trying to make a name–gathered and paid tribute. The band played until they ran out of songs. Jason climbed the amps and ran through the crowd, just like he'd done in all those legendary shows I missed a decade earlier, because I was too young. And after the last encore was over and the houselights were up, Jason and the boys hung out with the remaining crowd, soaking up the afterglow. It was as though the fall had never happened. There was nothing but rise in that room.

The Flaming Lips @ 328 Performance Hall, Nashville, 2001

My father died in the year 2000, but his ashes weren't interred until about a year later, when the church where he'd been presiding finished their new building. I drove up for the ceremony, and stayed in town that night to see the Lips. This was early in the band's post-modern carnival phase, though by 2001 they had a few costumed characters roaming the crowd, and bags of confetti, and stage blood, and a movie screen. And Wayne Coyne was fully into ringleader mode, trying at once to blow the audience's mind and keep us all in a good mood, ready for a ride into his world of fragile mortality and unquestioning compassion. I had a complicated relationship with my dad–who doesn't?–but that night helped me come to grips with it a little. I felt at once tiny yet not insignificant. I was one among many, living and dead, flinging confetti and shouting my head off, taking comfort in the liberation of our mutual, eternal mass hysteria.