Summerfest 1971 and beyond

Summerfest is an annual music festival held in a permanent, seventy-five acre Festival Park along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The festival runs for eleven days, on eleven stages, with performances from more than 800 acts with over a 1,000 performances.  Since the 1970s, it’s run from late June through early July.  Summerfest attracts between eight and nine hundred thousand people each year, making it “The World’s Largest Music Festival,” a title that’s been certified by Guinness World Records since 1999.

My first experience at Summerfest was in 1971. Though memories of these things sometimes fade, I located newspaper clippings published at that time to corroborate my recollection.  Among other things I recall, it was a very wet experience.

710726 MilJour Summerfest.jpg

Admission to the festival grounds was a dollar fifty at the gate or an even dollar if you bought a mail order ticket in advance. There  were no additional postage or handling charges.  Just mail a buck with a SASE.  Postage was eight cents back then.  A savings of just thirty-four cents, once you subtract the cost for two stamps, wasn’t even enough incentive for a college kid to plan ahead.  Besides, my summer job at the local cheese factory kept me in enough pocket money to enjoy an occasional concert spontaneously.

This event was on a Sunday, the final day of the festival.  Early on, it had been promoted as a “Surprise Rock Spectacular.”  The acts were revealed just two weeks before the show. They were John Sebastian, recently gone solo from the Luvin’ Spoonful; Poco, founded by some former Buffalo Springfield members; and Mountain, four loud, hard rockers led by behemoth guitar shredder, Leslie West.  A band named Tayles, from Madison, Wisconsin, and Mylon, a southern gospel-rock group were the opening acts.

Fifty thousand music fans were gathering at the Lakefront Amphitheater stage when my date and I arrived late Sunday afternoon.  It had been raining intermittently all day, leaving a sparkling sheen on every exposed surface.

Like today, Summerfest was sponsored primarily by Milwaukee’s famous breweries.  Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon are perhaps the only originals still around.  Unlike today, festival beer was served up in glass bottles.  A new minimum drinking age of eighteen had been enacted recently, so there was plenty of bottled beer consumption, resulting in plenty of empty bottles.

One newspaper account had listed John Sebastian as the concert headliner, clearly an error as we’d suspected and confirmed by handbills posted on the festival grounds.  Mountain would be the main attraction. We missed Mylon who, I learned recently, was managed by Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, the concert headliners.   We arrived instead near the end of Tayles’ set.

I’d really been looking forward to hearing Poco and hoped the concert wouldn’t be affected by the rain which had started up again.  After a lengthy delay, Poco came out on stage, tuned up a bit, and began playing.

After just two songs, Hurry Up and Hear That Music, frontman Richie Furay tersely announced that Rusty Young, their pedal steel guitarist, had been hit by a beer bottle.  To my great disappointment, Poco abruptly left the stage as loud booing and buckets of rain began to pour forth.

When the rain eventually eased up, a soggy audience cheered as John Sebastian, acoustic guitar in hand, strolled out to a microphone and announced, “I’ll play for ya. Jus’ don’t throw no bottles at me.”  He played an entire set and two encores without incident.  Memorable songs included Younger GirlDarlin’ Be Home Soon and Red-Eye Express.  Sometimes all it takes to tame an otherwise unruly concert crowd is politely asking not to be a beer-bottle target.

Finally, as rain continued to fall, Mountain took the stage.  Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi, Corky Laing, and Steve Knight simply blew us away.  If any bottles were thrown toward the stage during Mountain’s set, the high decibel sound waves might’ve stopped them in flight.  I could still hear Nantucket Sleighride, Mississippi Queen, and For Yasgur’s Farm ringing in my ears on the long drive home after the show.  It helped me forget about how wet and cold we were.

In four decades of semi-regular Summerfest attendance since then, I’ve heard such notable artists as Roy Orbison, the Moody Blues, Robin Trower, Linda Ronstadt, Kansas, Michael Franti, the Freddy Jones Band, Green Children and many others, including jazz, folk and blues musicians from all over the world.  There were rising stars and those at the end of long careers.  I saw comedian Billy Crystal perform there early in his career, and heard Linda Ronstadt announce to the Milwaukee crowd, “It’s so great to be here in Indiana!”  We were quick to correct her geography.  My wife saw comedian George Carlin arrested by Milwaukee police for performing his Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television routine.

The biggest stars continue to perform at Summerfest in what’s now a 25,000-seat amphitheater at one end of the festival grounds for which tickets are sold at much higher prices than Summerfest’s nominal gate cost.  And though it’s no longer just a buck fifty for general admission, Summerfest remains one of the best bargains for live music around, still hosting hundreds of musical acts on eleven different stages, over eleven consecutive days.

On my July 2, 2018 radio show, Life Out of Tunes on Asheville FM, I’ll be spinning songs from that first Summerfest experience and from other artists I’ve heard at the festival over the years.

Dark Side of the Moon: Forty-five years on

March 4, 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s North American debut performance of their seminal work, Dark Side of the Moon.  Rather than open the tour in New York, Chicago or other large city, it premiered in a 9,000 seat venue in Madison, Wisconsin.  I lived only forty miles south and attended the concert with some friends.  It was a show I’ll never forget.

The first I heard that Pink Floyd was kicking off their 1973 North American tour in Madison, Wisconsin probably would have been on a Radio Free Madison broadcast.  Radio Free Madison was an “underground” music program on WIBA-FM that began broadcasting on Halloween night 1969 and continued into the mid-70s.  It was on for only a few hours every night and played more album-oriented “head” music than anyone else was doing at that time.  We’d been enjoying various tracks from Floyd’s Obscured By CloudsAtom Heart Mother and Meddle on Radio Free and there was buzz about their forthcoming album, the title of which was announced as  Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics.

“A piece for assorted lunatics?”  I was all in and so were three friends.  The radio station was already spinning a promotional copy of the song Money.  It featured an interesting time signature, 7/4 alternating with more typical 4/4 for the solos. Apparently, the 4/4 solos were done because David Gilmour thought it would be too complicated to write them in 7/4 time. Some music critics said the single dynamic of maintaining tempo but changing from seven beats to the bar to 8 beats added to the track’s unique appeal.  It also featured some pretty good sound effects which were expected to be even better in quadraphonic (four-channel) sound, a format that Floyd had been working with for a while and was becoming popular for vinyl LPs.  I couldn’t afford a quadraphonic audio system then, but a friend eventually set up one and it was pretty impressive.

Before we got it together to buy tickets in advance, the concert was cancelled. This announcement was in the January 25, 1973 Madison Capital TimesWhat a bummer!  At least we hadn’t shelled out any money yet.  We waited patiently for more details about the album release or a rescheduled concert date.  At last it was announced that the band had cleared up its visa issues.  The concert was back on and the following ad was published in Madison newspapers.

The lunatics were psyched!  We still hadn’t bought tickets in advance, so we traveled to the Coliseum from Janesville on the evening of the show thinking we’d arrive in plenty of time to buy them at the door.  We never expected an endless line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot.  (Quick… roll the windows down and let the air clear!)  As the car inched forward with each vehicle ahead of us stopping at the gatehouse to pay for parking, it seemed like an eternity.  Eventually we paid, parked and hoofed it to the ticket window.  There were plenty available, but it required waiting in yet another line.  The concert had already begun by the time the four of us entered the dark arena.  The venue, typically used for sporting events and exhibitions, featured “festival seating,” a euphemism for finding someplace to stand on the seatless arena floor along with 9,000 others.  Alternatively, we could have chosen to sit in a seat around the perimeter, but we wanted to be in the center of that ground-shaking quadraphonic sound system.  With pink smoke and a laser light show in progress, an extended jam of Obscured By Clouds followed by When You’re In was underway.  Weaving through a mass of humanity in the dark, someone bumped my elbow and an unlit chunk of “sensory enhancement” flew from the pipe in my hand into the abyss and on to the floor, lost under a dozen shuffling feet.

According to author Glenn Povey in his book Echoes: The Complete History of Pink Floyd, the band’s equipment for that tour was hauled in two forty-foot articulated trucks, with two drivers in each.  They would meet the road crew at the venue at ten in the morning, usually after driving all night.  The road crew, who traveled with the band, would be there when the truck arrived and then would begin setting up the equipment. Upon completing the setup at around four in the afternoon, the band would show up for their usual sound check.

On stage for this 1973 North American tour were: David Gilmour (vocals, guitar, synthesizers), Nick Mason (percussion, tape effects), Roger Waters (bass guitar, vocals, synthesizers, tape effects), Richard Wright (keyboards, vocals, synthesizers), Nawasa Chowder (backing vocals), Mary Ann Lindsey (backing vocals), Phyllis Lindsey (backing vocals), and Dick Parry (saxophone).

Inside the Coliseum, music and lights were at full throttle.  Following Careful With That Ax, Eugene the band took a short intermission.  They returned to the stage and the lights dimmed as the opening sound effects of Speak To Me filled the arena from a massive quad sound system.  Floyd performed Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, lasers blazing through the pink stage lights and into the upper regions of the hall.  Among the most impressive auditory effects, were the cash register and money-changing sounds that chased around the four massive speaker banks hung from the ceiling, all pointed toward the center.  The quad sound was mind-blowing as the introductory bass line segued in, followed by the other instruments and vocals.  Visually and aurally, that show was a peak experience, the intensity of which I had never witnessed before and have not witnessed since.

Eyes blurry and ears buzzing, we drifted out after the encore, One Of These Days, from Meddle.  I’ve forgotten many things, but that Dark Side of the Moon experience remains vivid in my memory, forty-five years on.

There is no dark side of the moon, really.  Matter of fact it’s all dark.

On Thursday, March 1, 2018 I’ll be sitting in as DJ Joey Books for “Professor of Prog,” JD, to host his award-winning, progressive music show, “Closer to the Edge.”  The following Thursday, March 8, when JD returns to host his program, he’ll have a special guest.  Asheville author Bill Kopp recently published his book, Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to the Dark Side of the Moon.  Bill will read from his book and chat with JD.  I’ll be there as well, to answer phone calls and chat.  “Closer to the Edge” is on Asheville FM from 2:00 to 5:00 pm every Thursday.  And don’t forget my weekly radio show, “Life Out of Tunes,” Mondays from 2:00 to 3:00 pm on AshevilleFM.org .

Tune in and turn it up!

From Sweetbottom to Genesis and beyond

While researching some background information for this week’s Life Out of Tunes radio program, I ran across a Wisconsin connection in one of the songs on the playlist.  In 1981, a group of musicians and other entertainers staged a show to raise funds and awareness for Amnesty International that became known as the Secret Policeman’s Ball.  One of the activist musicians participating was Phil Collins who had recently parted with the band Genesis to pursue a solo career.  Two songs performed by Collins for this show were among those preserved on an LP entitled The Secret Policemen’s Other Ball, which I purchased new in 1982.  As I recall, the album, which includes live solo performances by Sting, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Donovan and Pete Townsend among others, didn’t cost much and proceeds went to a good cause.

I’ll be spinning a Phil Collins track from that LP on Life Out of Tunes.  It’s just Collins on piano and vocals, accompanied by a banjo.  It turns out, that banjoist is Wisconsin native Daryl Stuermer, whose career began as guitarist for a Milwaukee jazz-fusion band, Sweetbottom.  Sweetbottom recorded a couple of albums and performed regularly at Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest music festival in the mid-1970s.  One of their shows caught the attention of keyboardist George Duke who was then touring in Frank Zappa’s band. Duke introduced Stuermer to jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty who was impressed enough to ask Stuermer to play acoustic and electric guitars on Ponty’s best-selling Imaginary Voyage album released in 1976.

Daryl Stuermer’s career led him to the progressive rock band Genesis in 1977 as a replacement for departing guitarist Steve Hackett.  He toured with Genesis for twenty years, but never appeared on any of their studio recordings.  He did play guitar (and sometimes banjo) for Phil Collins on virtually all of Collins’ records and tours.

We’ll hear Wisconsin native Daryl Stuermer pick a banjo and play soaring electric guitar on this week’s Life Out of Tunes.  I’ll also be uncovering some other Wisconsin connections, along with tunes from Chris Rea, Brandi Carlile and other gems.  Tune in and turn it up, Monday, December 11 at two o’clock eastern time on AshevilleFM.org.

Violets of Dawn

Around the time it was released in 1967, I brought home an album by The Robbs, a regionally popular band from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.  At least two songs from that record were being played on top forty radio often enough to make me fork over some cash for the LP.  My band even learned to play one of the tunes.

The Robbs (1967) liner notes

The Robbs had a regional hit single that year, Race with the Wind.  It’s a great song, but it wasn’t my favorite.  The album’s opening track, Violets of Dawn, turned out to be the one that grabbed my attention.  Scanning the liner notes, I discovered Eric Andersen was the songwriter.  The name meant nothing to me.  I’d never heard him on the radio, but I sure liked his song. The tune was catchy and the lyrics painted images in my head.  One phrase in particular, …petal sprays of violets of dawn, stuck with me like fireworks illuminating an early morning sky.

A year passed.  I’d wasted an evening pretending to study in my dorm room when a student from down the hall stopped by with a record album. It was an Eric Andersen recording.  He placed the LP on my phonograph and I heard the original Violets of Dawn for the first time.  It moved me.  Just Andersen singing with his guitar, accompanied by some light percussion from a snare drum and a piano.  There were three more verses than what the Robbs had recorded.  It was like hearing Bob Dylan sing Mr. Tambourine Man for the first time, after having known only the Byrds’ abbreviated cover.

Over the years, I’d kept up with Dylan’s music while at the same time losing track of Andersen’s, much to my regret.  On a recent fall evening, that oversight was rectified.

Eric Andersen performed in concert at a small music hall, accompanied by a violinist who doubled on mandolin, and a percussionist whose bare hands provided a subtle rhythm.  While time may have stolen the youthful innocence of his voice, along with my stamina for drinking more than one beer, his performance was a sonic fireworks display of poetry, at times dark and sparse, but consistent in its imagery.  The fourth song into his set was Violets of Dawn.  Again I was moved, transported back in time, a wave of chills rushing down my spine.

Eric Andersen (center) in concert – Isis Music Hall

Andersen performed two sets, each a wonderful blend of old and new material.  He delivered songs from his past catalog, of course, and debuted a select set of newer material.  He unveiled three new songs invoking the spirit of German writer and Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, works commissioned by Böll’s descendants and shrouded in sharp satire of the nationalism he despised, especially in a song titled, “Thank You, Dearest Leader.”  “The Rebel (Song of Revolt),” inspired by French philosopher Albert Camus, was a call to resist even in the face of hopelessness.  Before finishing the evening with his classic “Thirsty Boots,” Andersen turned to the romanticism of Lord Byron, taking Byron’s poem, “To a Lady,” and setting it to music.

It was at once an entertaining and intellectually stimulating evening, one which might have happened fifty years ago in a dingy coffeehouse, illuminated only by …petal sprays of violets of dawn.

Broadside #59 The national topical song magazine

Electric and Eclectic: A Concert Review

Martin Barre, guitarist of Jethro Tull for more than 40 years, has recorded several solo and collaborative albums. His latest effort, Back to Steel, was released in 2015. I saw Barre and his current touring band at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina on March 24, 2017. The band included Dan Crisp on second guitar and vocals, Alan Thomson on bass and harmonies, and Jonathan Joseph (formerly with Jeff Beck) on drums.

Alan Thomson (bs), Martin Barre (gtr), Dan Crisp (gtr/voc) and Jonathan Joseph (dr).
They played two sets that were heavy on Jethro Tull classics in addition to material from Barre’s solo work. Opening with the driving instrumental “Hammer” from Barre’s Back to Steel, his guitar virtuosity was immediately displayed. “Hammer” was followed by two Tull numbers, “To Cry You a Song” from Benefit and “Minstrel in the Gallery” from the eponymously named album. As Barre doesn’t sing, Crisp handled the vocals and made each song his own, capturing the intensity and inflection of Ian Anderson, without coming off as a mimic. Arrangements were appropriately modified to suit the twin guitars, bass and drums format of the band. In that regard, there were several instrumental breaks during which Barre and Crisp sounded much like the famous twin guitars of Wishbone Ash.

Their next selection was the 1961 blues classic by Bobby Parker, “Steal Your Heart Away,” a song the original Moody Blues recorded in 1964 when they started as a R&B band. It’s been covered more recently by the likes of Joe Bonamassa among others. Crisp’s vocals were pure hard rock blues.

After “Steal Your Heart,” Barre stepped to the mic to welcome everyone and to introduce the band before launching into “Back to Steel” from his most recent album. It was followed by “Love Story” from Tull’s This Was.  Then it was back to Barre’s creative improvisations on the instrumental “After You, After Me” from his third album release, Stage Left.

Another brief interlude found Barre at the mic introducing a Beatles composition, “Eleanor Rigby” which the band performed with a Tull-esque flare quite unlike the original before segueing into “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” rendered as the title implies, heavy. It was followed by two Jethro Tull songs rarely heard in concert. One was “Sweet Dream,” the first Tull single on the Chrysalis label which made #7 on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1969. Recorded around the time of their Stand Up sessions, it never appeared on an album until Living in the Past was released in 1972. The second was “Sea Lion” from the 1974 War Child album.

The set closed with an extended “end bit” from Tull masterpiece, Thick as a Brick, featuring all the vocal and instrumental frenzy leading up to a subdued finish.

Martin Barre
After a twenty-five minute intermission, Barre kicked off their second set with a brilliant cover of Porcupine Tree’s “Blackest Eyes,” a tune only vaguely familiar to me. They dove back into the Tull catalog with well-known favorites “Nothing to Say” and “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day).”

On the guitar rack near Barre I’d been spying a mandolin. Barre finally set down his electric guitar and picked it up. Someone in the audience shouted a request for “Fat Man,” a Tull song in which the mandolin is featured prominently. Barre and the band, however, chose a different path. They instead performed a mesmerizing cover of the delta blues classic, “Crossroads,” before segueing into “Martin’s Jig,” Barre’s electrified mandolin and Crisp’s lead guitar and vocals filling the venue with multiple sparkling ear treasures.

For their next song, “Bad Man” from Back to Steel, Alan Thomson handed over his bass guitar to Crisp, then picked up a Fender Stratocaster from the stand behind him and placed a slide on his pinky finger. Thomson played the Strat with reckless abandon in a more rocking version of “Bad Man” than what’s heard on the studio recording. It was followed by a bluesy “Song for Jeffrey” from Tull’s This Was release before returning to the Back to Steel album for Barre’s “Moment of Madness.”

Heading into the big finale, they played three Tull classics in a row with new arrangements that only Barre’s band could pull off successfully: ‘Teacher’ from Benefit, and “Fat Man” (sans mandolin) and “New Day Yesterday,” both from Stand Up.  Exiting the stage to a standing ovation, (not much choice as it was a standing room only show), the band returned for an encore, “Locomotive Breath” from Tull’s classic Aqualung album.

Their polish, professionalism and performance left nothing more to be desired. Barre and his band put on more than just a Jethro Tull tribute show, offering new arrangements for every song, Tull’s or otherwise, sound fresh and new. Martin Barre rocked it all the way home.

Disturbing the Silence

Letting go of the past can be a challenge.  We’d like to think the music we grew up with was the very best and most innovative.  To some extent it can be argued that certain songs and musical works set a standard that might never again be achieved.  Mozart’s innovative symphonies and operas are held up as examples of classical innovation.  At least that’s what I learned in a “Classical Masters” course many years ago.  Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were innovators and giants of jazz.    Their music is still regarded among the best in that genre.

When modern orchestras and opera companies perform Mozart’s works, they may tweak portions here and there, but the result is still the same breathtaking music that we can only assume sounds the way it did in its original form, perhaps taken to new sonic levels through vastly improved acoustics or recording technology.  When contemporary jazz ensembles perform the music of Ellington or Davis, we anticipate new, uncharted improvisation, for that is the very essence of jazz.

In popular music, we cling to the past more than ever.  Who can top Sinatra’s interpretation of the American songbook?  Tony Bennett perhaps?  Who can surpass Elvis and his Jailhouse Rock?  No one else has ever done it justice, though I must confess I’ve enjoyed the Jeff Beck Group’s cover of it on their 1969 Beck-Ola album.  Or how about any originals by the Beatles or Dylan?  There are some “prettier” covers of Dylan tunes that have been released, but the originals still endure.

A music video has been circulating on Facebook recently, linked from within a “Society of Rock” online music zine article.  The video is Simon & Garfunkel performing Sound of Silence in a 2009 reunion performance at Madison Square Garden, fifty-two years after they first introduced the song.  It’s usually accompanied by comments like, “Nothing beats the original,” or something similar.  The zine article that many ignore is about this year’s Grammy-nominated, live cover of Sound of Silence performed by the metal band “Disturbed” on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show.

While the band’s name and heavy metal music may be disturbing to some, Disturbed’s live performance of Sound of Silence was one of those “Oh, my!” moments that made me wonder why I don’t listen to more metal music.  Granted, nothing can approach the seamless, soaring harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel in their 2009 performance.  But for me, the orchestral crescendo backing the unique vocals of Disturbed’s singer, David Draiman, snatched away any preconceived notion that there are no other ear-worthy versions of that song.  I’m only sorry it didn’t win the Grammy for Best Rock Performance.  It might have led to a greater appreciation for the original artists by Disturbed fans too young to remember them.

Here are both performances, snatched from YouTube, so you can watch as well as listen.  Simply click on each of the links below to enjoy.  If there’s a favorite cover version of a song you like, feel free to share it in a comment.

Simon & Garfunkel (Live at Madison Square Garden- 2009)
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Disturbed (Live on Conan O’Brien- 2016)
disturbed

Leon Russell: First and Last

I didn’t know who he was at the time.  A couple of other musicians listed among the album credits were familiar though.  Nino Tempo and Sonny Bono were the two.  It wasn’t until many years later I finally noticed Leon Russell”s name.

xmas-gift-for-you-3The album was Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You which I bought new sometime in the mid-sixties.

xmas-gift-for-you-1A Christmas Gift for You was a collection of traditional and new Christmas songs performed by three of Phil Spector’s vocal groups.  It featured the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and, of course, the fabulous Darlene Love whose song Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is still among my favorites.  That was my first encounter with Leon Russell, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I listened to Leon Russell more from the late sixties on.  From his work with Joe Cocker, throughout his solo career.  We were fortunate to hear him in concert in Schaumburg, Illinois on October 2, 2010 at the Prairie Center for the Arts.

101001-dailyheraldThat was a real encounter.  Unfortunately, my first and last, captured only in a photo from the show…

101002-leonrussellI love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for in my life you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you.
~Leon Russell – A Song For You