Gimme Five: Unforgettable concerts that drove me deeper into obsession

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Somebody once said that there’s a very fine line between a hobby and mental illness. I moved a step closer to that line back in 1978.

One night during high school I returned home from work (LaVerdiere’s Drug Store, Madison, Maine) with a copy of Van Halen I tucked under my arm. When I dropped the needle in the groove, I had what I like to call an ‘Oh My God’ moment. The sounds that poured out of my speakers shattered my idea of what a rock band could be.

It wasn’t like their lineup was out of the ordinary: guitar, bass, drums and vocals. It was the guitar. There were surely many guitar heroes back then: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore … but what Eddie Van Halen did with that guitar … I had never heard anything like it before. Nobody had. The twists and turns that his solos took practically defied logic. His rhythm work was something else too. A unique blend of metal riffing with a punk twist.

That record stayed on my turntable for weeks. Even now, decades later years later, giving Van Halen I a spin transports me straight back to that night — when I was so damn mesmerized by the music that I had to hang up on my girlfriend and call her back after it was over!

I’ve had quite a few moments like this since. All of them have been cathartic in their own way, either driving me deeper into this obsession or taking me down a new and unexpected area of interest. So here are a few more of the high points — this time, live and in concert — from the history of my, uh … hobby.

THE PAT METHENY GROUP, AT THE CAPITAL THEATRE, CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE: On the tour supporting First Circle, I had my first chance to see the Pat Metheny Group. At this point in time the only PMG record I owned was American Garage … so I’m not sure I knew what to expect. The band entered from behind the crowd … some with marching snare drums, others with various percussion instruments. Pat entered from behind the stage playing his red guitar synth controller — from which emanated sounds that I have come to describe as ‘elephant guitar.’ The group launched into a raucous version of “Forward March.” This is a tune that sounds like your average slightly-out-of-tune high school marching band. (Pat has described it as the marching band from Ornette Coleman High). From that point on I was hooked. Many years (and many albums later), I still have not tired of the PMG sound.

GREG BROWN, AT FAT FREDDY’S, DERRY, NEW HAMPSHIRE: One big guy, guitar, sunglasses. Out of him comes the deepest voice I’ve ever heard (OK, not counting Barry White, who’s off the low end of the chart!) And the voice growls out an ode to being alone … and enjoying it – “Just By Myself.” It was like he was channeling my thoughts. It made the hair stand up on my neck.

JOE JACKSON, LIVE AT THE ORPHEUM, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: This was hot! No, I mean it: it was over 100 degrees outside. The Orpheum’s lack of air conditioning (just what the fuck have they been doing with that damn ‘restoration fee’ anyway?) turned the space into an oven. But the music transcended the heat. The high point came during a smoking cover of the old Fleetwood Mac tune ‘Oh Well’ … which they managed to use as a segue into ‘Nineteen Forever.’ I remember thinking that people who judge Joe solely on the merits of ‘Steppin Out’ are missing most of the story. This guy is able to squeeze every last bit of emotion out of a song and direct it straight into the crowd. I left the Orpheum elated, exhausted (and soaking wet … blech!).

ORNETTE COLEMAN AND PRIME TIME, LIVE AT THE BERKLEE PERFORMANCE CENTER, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: Ornette is a giant of the jazz world — unless you’re a fan of Kenny G. His show at Berklee opened my mind to the infinite possibilities of improvisation. In most traditional (or mainstream) jazz, the improviser uses this harmonic bed (a set of chord changes played by the rest of the group) as a launching point. Ornette’s music rejects this approach in favor of something he calls Harmolodics. What this means is that there is no key center. Group members may improvise over the music of any other player in the group. And the improvisation may be based on either the melody or the rhythm. What does this sound like? I’ve got a close friend who would say that there’s a good reason that Harmolodics begins with the letters ‘harm’ … but to me this form of group improvisation takes on a life of its own. It’s almost like what a Mandelbrot set would sound like. It was most amazing during the show to see the group go off on what sounded like an uncontrolled tangent, only to stop on a dime and then veer off in a completely different direction. Ornette is surely an underrated musician — but in this Wonder Bread world that doesn’t surprise me.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND, FLEETCENTER, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: To me Bruce Springsteen symbolizes everything that is great about American rock music: honest, straight-ahead driving energy, passion, and a cinematic attention to detail. There are so many of his lyrics that drop me directly into the middle of a story: “The screen door slams … Mary’s dress waves…,” “Thunder Road.” (And for you naysayers I’d like to point out that if you think “Born In The USA” is a chest-beating flagwaver … you have totally missed the point). This marked the reunion of the ‘original’ E Street band lineup, and the show at the Fleetcenter was nothing short of spectacular. It’s very difficult to describe the ‘why’ of this. I’ve been to tons of concerts but nobody comes close to Springsteen’s ability to whip a crowd (an older, aging one at that) into an absolute frenzy. The show was also special for me because my wife-to-be, Linda, was able to attend. She was finally able to experience the phenomenon that I had been blathering about for all these years.

So the hobby, obsession (mental illness) that started in 1978 continues today. There have probably been other ‘Oh My God’ moments but none has left the indelible marks that these have.

Hmmm … I think I’ve gotta go listen to Van Halen.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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