Friday, September 4, 2009

HWS Concerts Winter / Spring 1974. Going to wrap up the stroll down memory lane so I can keep an eye on the sky...the Big Star box set just around the corner.

Earl Scruggs Revue / Country Cooking. This was the Winter Weekend concert. You don't see Earl's name much these days (and the Revue's recordings are out-of-print and not available digitally) which is puzzling given that he is one of the true innovators and pioneers of country music and still living (maybe that's why – he needs to announce that he only has so many years to live and put out a box set and hire Rick Rubin to record him). The Revue was exploring the boundaries between country and rock at a time when most of the acceptance of that was stemming from the rock side (The Byrds, Grateful Dead, Dylan etc.) and the country establishment still looked at the long hairs with disdain (not knowing that a few decades later that "country music" would basically sound like Foghat with some lyrics about pick-up trucks laid and the secret that grandma told to grandpa and kissing your high school girlfriend tacked onto it). Country Cooking was a bluegrass group out of Ithaca with Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, and Russ Barenberg. These guys have all gone onto to big things in the bluegrass world and Country Cooking is revered as sort of a supergroup in reverse.

We actually did some promo on the local country music station and brought in some of the "townies" from the surrounding farm towns for this one. I don't remember much about the concert itself except that Earl was great guy, the band was really good, and a fine time was had pretty much all – the townies and the freaks got on well. The only bad note was that Country Cooking insisted on performing Anne Murray's Snowbird. They did it in soundcheck, I told them it would not go over well, and they shunned the advice. When they played it for the audience, a lot of people made bird noises in protest.

Chick Corea and Return To Forever. I'll let you decide the cause and effect and just tell you how I see it: Chick Corea's work before Scientology is infinitely better than what came after. This version of RTF (the quartet with Bill Connors > pre-Al DiMiola) came after and pretty much defined pretentious, self-indulgent fusion. Rebuffed by the concert committee, a student on campus who was Chick's #1 Fan went to the student government and got the extra $2000 for the show. My one memory of the show was Chick twiddling the knob on his synth and making all these exaggerated faces like he was about to give birth to a cinder block. Those first two RTF albums (with Airto and Joe Farrell) are really nice though...

Stanley Turrentine. This was the feature show for Third World Weekend...back when campuses actually had separate living facilities for minorities (at their demand), which always struck me as odd coming right after the civil rights battle to do away with those sorts of things. I was way into my Pharoah Sanders period (never left it actually) so I didn't give Stanley his due. I later came to really appreciate his work on Blue Note and his much-maligned at the time work on CTI (which were urban hits and thus this booking). I've got Don't Mess With Mr. T on my iTunes right now...

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention / Dion. Spring Weekend. May 3, 1974. When the opportunity to book Zappa for $7500 crossed my radar during the winter, the notion of the traditional student poll went right out the window. Zappa for this price was too good to pass up. Zappa's manager (Herb Cohen) dictated that we book Dion (who also recorded for WB at the time) as an opening act. He was in his post-rehab solo folkie phase. One of these days I've promised myself that I'm going to delve into Dion's long and multi-faceted career.

We were well aware of Zappa's finicky and somewhat demanding reputation so Peter Kapp and I thought it would be a good idea to go see the band two nights before our show at the Broome County Arena in Binghamton. We asked the crew what the band really wanted backstage in terms of food and drink and learned that they were all really big on organic / health food type stuff as well as good beer. We came back, cancelled our catering plans, and went to the local health food restaurant (run by Robert Ward's wife as I recall) planned out a huge dinner. A really fantastic spread complete with gallons of fresh-squeezed juices. I think the total came to around $200 which seemed astronomical at the time but we knew it would be worth the investment. Then we went to the local beer distributorship and stocked up on brew like Bass Ale – imports that weren't all that common. $4 for a six-pack! The food paid off as the band was knocked out, the roadies got over their hangs up about the gig (they thought the venue was too small for a band of their stature), and I knew that all was well when Frank stopped me in the hall and said "You guys are doing a good job." Only the road manager (who else?) was less than completely satisfied, asking "Got any guac?" (a phrase I still use today to express faux-dissatisfaction). This was my last college show but when I started producing world-class jazz artists in the early 90s the lesson stayed with me. I always make sure that the musicians are well fed before the show, going beyond what it says on the rider and getting the preferences from the artists or managers. It's the best investment a promoter can make (besides great sound). A well-fed musician is a happy musician and a happy musician hits the stage ready to deliver.

Frank had a great band with George Duke, Chester Thompson, Ruth Underwood, and Don Preston to name a few. You can hear the group doing the same set on Live At The Roxy and Elsewhere (some of the album was recorded within days of our date) and if you look at the photos on the original album cover you'll see the trademark heating radiators on the back wall of the Geneva Theater stage in a few of the live shots.

Unless Zack Chaikin comes up with a show that I forgot about, that's then end of my run as concert chairman. Springsteen played the theater twice more – in December '74 with a woman violinist in the band and then July 1975 (promoted by Springsteen's manager with help from Peter Kapp). It was a really wild experience pulling into the parking lot. School was long out of session but kids had driven from all over the region to be at the show (on a weeknight), the second night of the Born To Run tour. Springsteen hit the stage like a running back at the five yard line about to explode into the end zone. I'm surprised the theater was still standing by the time he finished the encore.

All of these successful rock shows planted the seed that the Geneva Theater – a run-down movie theater that was eventually sold for back taxes – could be a regional performing arts center. The name has reverted to its original moniker – The Smith Opera House – and there's been a lot of renovations but the theater still feels (and smells) the same as it did back when these monumental shows took place. A few years ago my son and I attended a sold-out performance by the Derek Trucks Band and absent the mushroom cloud of smoke, it felt just like 1973. Looking down from either side of the stage were the backlit statues of Mozart? Bach? Beethoven? The ghosts of performances past hovered in the air. The sound was crystal clear and there still wasn't a bad seat in the house. After two sets and an encore, we walked to our car (past 410 and 385 Main Street, where I'd spent much time) and headed home. Over thirty years had passed and it felt like maybe...three? weekend and then back to Big Star...

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