Friday, August 21, 2009

HWS Concerts Fall 1971 Part I.

Sept. 15 Spider John Koerner. This was the first concert I booked as chairman. Basically the idea was to do an inexpensive ($500), easy (PA and a couple of mics), and low-risk (held in on-campus auditorium – at most the show would end up costing us a few hundred dollars). John showed up in a big pre-historic SUV that he'd borrowed from Bonnie Raitt (pre-environmental awareness) and did a Jerry Jeff – getting progressively hosed while rambling through a really long set. John was an early influence on Bob Dylan when Bob first left Hibbing and arrived in Minneapolis to (nominally) attend college. I wasn't aware of this at the time so Koerner was spared any line of questioning I might have had on that front. (At the time Dylan was almost in semi-retirement and I was trying to learn all I could about him.) Rookie mistake: I accidentally deposited John's check with the gate receipts so he didn't get paid that night. Didn't seem to bother him. We mailed it on Monday...

Oct. 6 ( Fall Weekend) Billy Preston, Leo Kottke. This somewhat odd double bill (in hindsight) has been on the end of quite a few "who thought that was a good idea" comments – even on blogs 37 years later. So listen up – I'm the guy who thought it was a good (not great...that idea didn't work out) idea. And here's how it all went down...

My original target for this show was Loggins and Messina. They'd just released their first album and were starting to catch on. They were touring like crazy and their fee was $4000. I also really wanted to bring in Leo Kottke, whose Takoma album was a campus favorite. Pairing the two seemed like a great double bill. I put in offers for both – this would have been in July when the booking for the Fall was really heating up. Kottke confirmed immediately and the agent I was booking through, who was doing a lot of L&M dates for colleges, thought that they would confirm fairly quickly also. But they didn't. They were getting hotter by the week, getting flooded with offers (some more lucrative), and adjusting their routing by the day. I've since learned through experience over the past few decades that the longer a date takes to be confirmed, the less likely it will happen. That's what happened here. What seemed like a sure thing fell apart when they decided to hit the West Coast. So now faced with a booked theater and and opening act I went looking for a headliner in my price range. In the HWS tradition I was wanted someone on the way up like Loggins and Messina. Two names came to the forefront: JoJo Gunne (with some ex-Spirit members – 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus had also been a campus favorite) and Billy Preston. Preston had the Beatles connection, had torn it up in the Bangladesh concert movie (like my favorite Leon Russell) and had a summer hit record (Outta Space). Given that he had worked with musicians across the spectrum, from Ray Charles to the Fab Four, in my mind I was picturing a rock'n'soul gospel show like Leon (this was before YouTube, when you could check these things out if the artist hadn't been to your town yet). What we got was something a bit off that mark.

The show did not run smoothly. It was the first date of Billy's tour and the band's equipment didn't arrive from LA. They rented equipment out of Albany and it arrived late. Billy's road manager said he wouldn't play unless the piano was tuned just before the show (it had been tuned that afternoon – today I'd play the piano myself and then tell the manager to stick it if I thought it was in tune – but one learns these things over time). I ended up having to pay a tuner (the only one available on short notice on a Friday) from Rochester $75 (big amount for back then) to come down and basically fake tune just to appease him. The show was considerably less than sold out and the audience was more polarized than you'd normally get back then. There were people there to see Preston and people there to see Kottke. Period.

This became a show that you just wanted to get through. Kottke did okay for his fans but both Leo and the listeners had to work really hard to connect. There didn't seem to be a lot of energy in the hall. Billy Preston came out with the attitude (and the volume – really cranked up) that he was already a rock star (talk about a wig!) The set went by in a blur (that happens when you're watching a concert that isn't working out the way you had hoped) but my overall impression was that he wasn't really interested in working the crowd on an organic level – just blast them into submission. He was disappointed that the hall wasn't packed with adoring fans ready to rubber stamp his certain superstardom – which is probably one reason why despite a few more hits it never really came (the following year some guy named Bruce took a crowd the same size and sent them into orbit). The band was just there to back him up – any chemistry they shared had occured backstage. A few years later I saw Billy playing keyboards for the Stones when he literally jump-started a crowd that was enduring a lethargic Stones set (they have to be the most overrated live band of all-time) with a couple of numbers that brought the crowd to their feet mid-set and forced Mick and Keith to try to match him. (But then Mick and Keith fired him after he started showing up with his own soundman just for the keyboards.) At the end of the evening I found out that I'd underestimated how much business we were going to do at the door – in order to pay the security etc. I literally had to use the very last quarter we had taken in (tickets were probably in the range of $2.50 or something on that order) to send everyone home paid in full.

The bad vibes lingered. Early the next morning I was awakened out my slumber by a call from my faculty advisor Al Beretta who wanted to know "what the hell had happened." As it was being reported in that morning's Geneva paper, Billy had been arrested after kicking his door down at the local Chanticleer Motel. Turns out that he'd gone to the Twin Oaks (local bar), downed many shots of tequila, became progressively bummed out that there were no groupies in sight, and then took it out on the door (with his six-inch platforms no doubt).

This is the origin of why when I book an artist today the second question I ask (after the fee) is "How are they to work with?" Life is too short...

Coming up: Buddy, Junior, and bad bad whiskey...




1 comment:

btlecat said...

Bruce: your behind the scenes insights are great.

You left out one of the more fascinating occurances of the Kottke/Preston show. Kottke opened to, as you say, a polarized crowd. Those who came to hear Preston weren't listening to Kottke and those who came to hear Kottke could only hear the Preston fans' chatter as they ignored Kottke.

Suddenly, Kottke stopped playing, look into the audience and said quite firmly into his microphone "SHUT UP!" and then immediately broke into the complex Vaseline Machine Gun. The music turned the heads of everyone there, earning Kottke immediate audience respect and attentiveness throughout the rest of his performance that evening.

Preston had a pretty bad experience at the Oaks after the show, where the clientele pretty much ignored him. Someone stopped at his table asked him "So what?" and just walked away. His people should have directed him to Cozzie's, or perhaps Superdorm.

btlecat@gmail.com