Monday, August 17, 2009

Hobart and William Smith concerts 1970-71 (Big Star fans see August 5 post for explanation of this detour). Like a lot of kids back then, the most important part of what I took to school for my freshman year was my box of LPs. To this day whenever I hear After The Gold Rush, John Barleycorn Must Die, or Alone Together, I'm instantly transported back to my little single room in Hale Hall. Colleges and universities today tend to spend their budget for concerts on one or two big shows, usually overpaying through the nose (agents commit the equivalent of robbery when dealing with colleges) for a handful of big name acts. But beginning at the tail end of the 60s and going into the early 1980s, colleges were a key touring circuit for artists. Colleges were a vital source of gigs that unfortunately has largely dried up. They presented lots of concerts throughout the year – big name artists (if you could afford them), up and comers, older legends – all kinds of music . A concert committee was expected to present shows throughout a semester and, as a result, the students were savvy bookers. They knew enough not to blow their entire budget on Akon (or the equivalent). Just from my limited experience I can name quite a few college promoters from back then who went on to become prominent in the industry. The kids who were into music lobbied to get on the concert committee. It was the hottest position in student government.

By the time I arrived, Hobart had already begun to establish a reputation as a school that was a step ahead in concert promotion. My freshman year role was confined to being an eager member of the audience. Concerts were held in the small gym on a foot-high stage. Fall Weekend featured Leon Russell, just starting out as a solo artist after his stint with Joe Cocker and Delaney and Bonnie. He started his concert with a mesmerizing solo version of Wild Horses (RIP Jim Dickinson) and then went from there, adding the Shelter People (Leon's second album was mixed by John Fry at Ardent). It was a fantastic performance and made me eager to see him again when he performed at a converted bowling alley in Buffalo the following August (with opener Freddie King). On that blistering hot summer night, just a few days after the Concert For Bangladesh, Leon gave one of the most astounding performances I've witnessed (still one of my top five all-time). I went to see him a bunch of times after that hoping for a repeat of the deep soul he showed at Hobart or the intensity in the bowling alley but Leon never came close.

Music snobs like to brag that they saw a band before they got big, begrudge them when they have great success, and let everyone know that "they were really much better way back..." It's really obnoxious. But, the arc of Leon from Hobart to the bowling alley made me realize that there is really something magical about experiencing artists when they're still on their way up. There's the aura of mystery and discovery that vanishes once an artist becomes established. There's a feeling that the artist and the audience are in some sort of experiment together. There's an unspoken invitation: "I'll keep driving up this road trying to find out who I am as an artist and you come along for the ride if you like what you hear." For the best artists the ride up can be long and dazzling (Beatles, Dylan, even Springsteen). Others hit the plateau pretty quickly. But cherishing that climb up is not just about rock snobbery – it's really an unforgettable experience.

The key of course is latching onto artists who are going somewhere. That's a tricky business that seems to elude most of the record companies today. But for quite a few years, the people who booked concerts at Hobart had the knack. We couldn't afford Elton John but if you wanted to see some news band from Boston whose first album was coming out on Atlantic in a month or so (The J. Geils Band), the Hobart gym was where you wanted to be. To experience a band that good without ever previously having heard a note of theirs, let alone have any preconceptions of what they did was truly mind-bending.

Near the end of spring semester two pivotal events took place. I was recruited to be on the Concert Commitee (thanks to a strong plug by the late George Callahan to chairman Tim Yolen) and I bought a pile of Warner / Reprise promo albums that the college radio station had received multiple copies of. Back then, the Warner / Reprise label was almost a guarantee of quality so for 25 cents apiece a pile of records by artists like Norman Greenbaum, Turley Richards, John Simon, and some band named Little Feat seemed worth the gamble.


1 comment:

Tommy Ling said...

I loved this - I too was a freshman at Hobart 70-71 and went to the Leon show and J. Geils. had a checkered career at school, but having gone to high school in Manhattan i was all over upstate for shows - Rochester, Syracuse Ithaca College and Cornell. So many shows and so much fun - possibly explains extremely dubious academic career.