AVQ&A: Worst concert experiences
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As a bookend to last week best-concert-experiences AVQ&A;, this week, we're asking: What was your most disappointing concert experience?
In high school, I was a huge Morrissey geek, so when he toured the United States for the first time in ages sometime in the mid- to late '90s, I bought tickets to see him in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison. To make this story even more pathetic, I'm fairly certain I attended at least two of these concerts by myself. At his show at the Riviera in Chicago, Morrissey came out late, stumbled his way through about 15 minutes of solo material, mumbled half a Smiths song, then gloomily announced, "I have a cold. This is my last song. There will be no encore." True to his word, there was no encore. I couldn't believe I'd paid $35 and taken a three-hour bus ride to Chicago so I could see Morrissey sleepwalk through about six songs. Later, I saw Morrissey in the tiny Barrymore theater in Madison. Keith and everyone else I went to the show with thought he sucked, but I was all, "Whatter you tawking 'bout! That wuz awesome!" Of course, I was completely smashed. Moral of story: excessive drinking can transform a terrible disappointment into an awesome triumph.
It's funny that my friend and Senatorial colleague Nathan Rabin mentioned the Morrissey show at the Barrymore, because it's one of two I was debating as my most disappointing concert experience. I had seen the Moz a bunch of times on his very first American tours—1991 and 1992—and it was generally such a great vibe that it was extra-surprising when he disappeared from the U.S. for a few years after. But it was little ol' Madison that got one of just a few shows in 2000, and on the first U.S. tour that Morrissey busted out some Smiths songs, too. But he looked tired and like he really didn't want to be there. It didn't help that my friends in The Promise Ring opened the show and were told by backstage security beforehand, "If Morrissey happens to come backstage—he probably won't—don't talk to him and don't look at him." I'm not joking, I was there. Now maybe that was just dickheaded security people, but it was a little disheartening nonetheless. That said, I've actually met Morrissey a couple of times, and he was very cordial and humble. That show just left a bad energy; his last tour was great, though.
My worst concert experience had nothing to do with the performer. I grew up in Maryland, and as a teenager, I spent some happy family times at Wolf Trap in Virginia, a venue where you can see shows from seats around the stage, or pay a lot less to sit on "the lawn," a huge, grassy, bowl-shaped field surrounding the stage like an organic arena. So when my boyfriend and I went to Ravinia in Chicago to see Suzanne Vega, we were expecting a similar experience. It was a disaster on every possible level. The parking lots were so full when we arrived that we had to park in an "auxiliary lot"—a far-off uncultivated field—and take a shuttle to the concert. So we got there late. It was cold and muddy. The Ravinia lawn is flat, with no view of the stage, so my boyfriend compared it to paying concert prices to sit in a park and listen to a radio. And we only heard a couple of her songs before she went offstage. Turns out she was opening for Bruce Cockburn, but the site where I bought the tickets mistakenly listed her as the main act. We left 35 minutes after we arrived, which meant another long shuttle ride back to the now-churned-up, completely unlit field, where we both fell on our asses in the mud while stumbling around in the dark, trying to find our car. My boyfriend has refused to go to Ravinia ever since. But none of this is Vega's fault. A few years later, we saw her at the Park West, and she was terrific. She had a broken arm at the time, so she wasn't playing her own guitar, so she felt a need to put on a show in some other way. So she danced and did comedic patter and told little stories. It was pretty adorable.
Pixies' 2004 reunion had a seismic effect on the indie world, perhaps giving everyone unrealistically high expectations. I wasn't a massive Pixes fan—when Jawbreaker reunites, I'll be there, even if it's in downtown Tehran—but I wasn't about to miss this. Also, the people I knew who saw them at Coachella spoke about the show in reverent tones, as if God himself parted the clouds to cast the quartet in the warming glow of his grace. The Pixies were playing a stunning four-night stand in Chicago at the sound-destroying echo chamber that is the Aragon Ballroom, a venue I'd sworn off after seeing Weezer there in 2001. Nevertheless, I went to the third night and jockeyed for the best-sounding spot I could find. The band came out, people freaked, the sound wasn't too bad, and everything seemed right. But as the set went on, I found myself thinking, "So, this is it?" They only played one Kim Deal song, and they played "Wave Of Mutilation" twice. When it was all over, my "Yeah, that was good" quickly became "pretty good," then "adequate." And now, in the harsh light of time passing, it was disappointing—I skipped out early on their set at Lollapalooza in 2005 so I could get a good spot for Digable Planets.
Last week, I blathered on about the Guided By Voices show I saw in 2001 being the best concert I'd ever seen. Now I'm going to blather on about the Guided By Voices show I saw in 2004 at New York City's Bowery Ballroom being the most disappointing I've ever seen. GBV was a notoriously drunken band onstage that encouraged fans to get just as drunk as they were, and we always happily obliged. But it wasn't about just getting totally smashed; you had to get the right level of smashed in order to fully appreciate the GBV experience. If you or the band got too drunk, GBV went from being rock titans to fortysomething men flailing away tunelessly and somewhat embarrassingly on songs that sounded an awful lot alike. Sadly, the band and the fans got way too drunk that night at The Bowery. The band sounded awful, and a constant stream of dullards stumbled from the audience to the stage and warbled Robert Pollard's brilliant Dadaist lyrics into the mic like they were singing second-rate Bad Company songs. In the middle of this depressing debacle, Pollard announced—for the first time ever, I believe—that GBV was breaking up at the end of the year. News that normally would have had me reeling made me think that maybe Uncle Bob was feeling as ambivalent about the band's current direction as I was. Thankfully, I caught GBV one last time at the incomparable Fillmore in San Francisco that November, and saw my favorite band off right.
In 2001, the Old Town School Of Folk Music in Chicago hosted a benefit concert for a school in El Salvador. Why a school in El Salvador? I think it had something to do with the Mekons' Jon Langford being friends with a Welsh bartender who sponsored it for some reason. I can't remember. But it was definitely a good cause. Anyway, the bill included several Mekons, including Langford and Sally Timms, Rosie Flores, host work from Neal Pollack, and a headlining appearance from Ryan Adams. All went well until it was Adams' turn to play. First, he didn't come out, forcing the always-affable Langford to make awkward small talk. Then he took a stage that included a guitar and a piano. Adams brought with him a notebook, a drink, a pack of cigarettes, and an ashtray. He opened with a song on guitar, a slow, dirgey number about a prison, which he might have written backstage. It was good, if not exactly the most gripping way to open the show. He then decided to move to the piano. This involved a separate trip each for the notebook, the drink, the cigarettes, and the ashtray, all performed at the speed of too-much-scotch (or something). Then it was back to the guitar again, which necessitated another series of epic journeys to retrieve all the items without which he seemingly couldn't perform. Between the few songs he played—each of them as slow as the first—Adams performed rambling monologues. The one I remember involved a gripping tale of getting high with a cell-phone sales clerk in Colorado. Amazing, it was not. After intentionally sitting out other Adams shows, I saw Adams again last year, post-cleanup, and he put on a great show, playing late into the night and singing with passion and commitment. I like that Adams much better.
Um, how about nearly every time I've seen The Fall? Really, out of the five shows I've witnessed from my favorite band, there are only two that escape condemnation: The first was October 2001, when I blew my meager savings to fly to New York and see them at the Knitting Factory. It was the first stateside appearance since that infamous 1998 Brownies gig where Mark fought his entire band onstage (memorably chronicled, albeit slightly fictionalized, in Camden Joy's Pan), then ended the evening with a domestic-abuse charge for beating up girlfriend/keyboardist Julia Nagle. Naturally, after an epochal disaster like that, it was important to me to witness their return, be it triumphant or terrible—especially because I thought I might never get the chance again. Honestly, the show was just kind of mediocre, but I was stoked to be there; considering 9/11 was still hanging over the city, even minor joys felt life-affirming. (Oh yeah: I also got to shove Julian Casablancas, which was both totally deserved and awesome.) And their next gig in Austin turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life: I was paid $100 to DJ beforehand, and Mark handed me the microphone during "Dr. Buck's Letter," letting me do the entire song for a surprisingly responsive crowd. (I've still got the bootleg; give me a few Wild Turkeys and I'll play it for you.) Anyway, I probably should have just stopped there, but the very next night—which also happened to be my birthday—some friends and I drove up to Dallas to see them at the Gypsy Tea Room (R.I.P.). It seriously could not have been more of a train wreck, and fans know that that's really saying something for The Fall. When Mark finally tottered onstage, he looked haggard, hammered, and every bit the deteriorating, speed-damaged troll he is. Barely mumbling two lines before he'd run out of steam, he spent most of the 15-minute show petulantly fiddling with his bandmates' amps, chewing his dentures, or staring blankly into space. Adding to the "crazy homeless guy" vibe, his pants bore a giant piss stain that never quite went away. I might have pitied him if he hadn't then pulled the most petulant rock-star bullshit I've ever seen: After four songs, Mark simply walked off, never to return, and one by one, the band stopped playing and followed him. Eventually, his current wife/keyboardist Elena came back out to say that Mark didn't like the room, and either they moved everything to the giant ballroom in back, or the show was over—a ridiculous proposition considering only about 50 of us had stayed. So yeah… That was that. We'd driven three-plus hours to see a cranky old man piss his pants. (Epilogue: And almost every Fall show since has been exactly the same, yet for some reason I'm always there.)
Mine might be weird, but the first thing that jumped to mind and stuck was the Grateful Dead concert I never saw. That would be all Grateful Dead concerts, since I didn't ever see them, or ever even try for a specific one. I never even really liked them at any point when they were around. But I remember in college first becoming curious about their live show just for the sake of it—realizing I wanted to see the Dead before they were dead, and feeling really disappointed and regretful the day Jerry Garcia died. The point now being that the desire to see the Grateful Dead in their zone as a social phenomenon struck me then and even more so now as an early realization that my own taste wasn't necessarily the best or only metric to defer to when it came to music, especially live music.
Maybe the worst concert I ever saw—and in some ways the best—was The Lemonheads on the Lovey tour. Evan Dando was in a foul mood, and convinced the monitors weren't working properly, so on nearly every song, he'd sing the first couple of lines, then retreat from the mic and play the rest as an instrumental. This went on for about nine songs—roughly 20 minutes—before he said goodnight and left the stage for good. If it had gone any longer, the show would've been intolerable. If it had been any shorter, I'd have really felt ripped off. As it was, at 20 minutes, I kind of felt like I'd gotten my money's worth, if only because it gave me a story to tell.
I'm one of the few Les Savy Fav fans who believes the band hit its high point way back in 1997 with its debut full-length, 3/5. The angular guitars, anthemic breakdowns, and sing-shout lyrics were an easy sell for a post-punk-bred music type such as myself. But by the time The Cat And The Cobra (1999) and Go Forth (2001) were released, I had pretty much lost interest in their music, though I was still greatly looking forward to seeing their oft-lauded live performance for the first time. (Frontman Tim Harrington, I had been told, was a zany, unpredictable character who was, like, "totally awesome live.") Call it a typical case of D.C.'s crossed-arm music snobbery, but Harrington's yawn-inducing onstage antics—which included risqué outfits, incoherent ramblings between songs, and the beating of front-row fans with the end of a makeshift broomstick mic stand—were a crushing disappointment. It wasn't just that Harrington's third-rate shenanigans failed to impress (and killed off my remaining love for the band). They left an impression that still stands with me seven years later: Beware the "awesome live band." More often than not, all you'll get is some crazy-haired asshole jumping off a kick drum while the rest of the band slugs its way through generic, riff-heavy rock music. (At The Drive-In, anyone?) Perhaps bands can wow audiences with that kind of thing in other cities. But when you bring that budget bullshit to Washington D.C.—home to notable frontmen such as Ian MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Ian Svenonius, and Chris Thomson, among many others—you'd better have actual music to back it up with. And you wonder why the crowd looks bored?
Does getting Maced during a riot count as "disappointing"? If so, my most disappointing concert was Propagandhi at a VFW hall in Denver on May 18, 1996. An old band of mine was opening for the notorious Canadian agit-punk wiseasses that afternoon, but the promoter grossly oversold the show. While we were inside playing—this, by the way, was upstairs in a huge, barn-like room that felt like a convection oven packed wall-to-wall with over 400 sweaty kids—a bunch of the snubbed ticketholders in line started yelling and tossing bottles, which prompted the local PD to go into freakout mode, wade in, and start busting heads. But rather than just carting off the few dozen troublemakers outside, the cops decided to charge upstairs to stop the entire show. None of us inside the VFW had any idea what was going on; all we knew was, a bunch of cops popped up out of nowhere, yelling and throwing kids around. Some of those kids resisted, so the cops naturally started squirting Mace into the middle of this extremely crowded, unventilated room. Within a few seconds, the spray had spread throughout the entire audience, and everyone started screaming and stampeding toward the single narrow staircase that served as an exit. My bandmates and I somehow managed to smuggle our equipment out through the kitchen. The scene outside, though, was just as horrifying; there must have been a hundred kids—some as young as 13 and 14—face down on the parking-lot blacktop, hands cuffed behind their backs, bawling their eyes out. To top it all off, of course, Propagandhi didn't wind up playing at all. So yeah, thanks, DPD. Love you guys.