King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker

by Tim Van Schmidt


In 1966, my family moved from the small town in Illinois where I was born to the strange, big city of Phoenix, Arizona. Until then, my only contact with the entertainment business had either been the big screen in our town’s one and only movie theater, the little TV screen in our living room, or the radio. Just after arriving in Phoenix, however, my brother and I met a woman touring with singer Roger Miller. While my parents searched for our new house, we swam in the motel pool and made friends. The woman gave me a dollar bill from Australia as well as an autographed souvenir booklet from Miller’s tour. I knew of Miller through radio hits such as “Dang Me” and “King of the Road,” and it was a thrill to have his autograph with a personal inscription- “To Tim, 10 goin’ on 11.”

My first live concert experience came when the entire family went to see Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass at the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in 1967. I had been a fan of the Tijuana Brass after seeing them on TV and I had even wanted to play the marimba in the school band as a result. What I remember most about the concert was the band’s good-natured stage presence, Alpert trading jokes and slapstick bits with the trombone player in between the songs. I also remember the immensity of the space- a big arena with thousands of people in it. This was big time, clean-cut show business.

Times were changing, however. In the summer of 1967, our family took a road trip to California. In San Francisco, I bought a peace sign button and my folks drove us through the Haight Ashbury district so we could “see what it was really like.” “It” was the new hippie culture. A guy tried to shove an underground newspaper through the car window and my mom rolled it up quick and locked the door.

Only a short time later, my brothers, Kirt and Andy, started going to rock concerts- one dressed up in a Nehru shirt his girlfriend had made for a Donovan concert, the other refusing to leave the arena until he heard the Jefferson Airplane play “White Rabbit.” The Airplane obliged.

Andy brought me back garbled, low-battery recordings of Three Dog Night, rousing the crowd with “Celebrate,” and Blues Image playing long, intense jams and their enigmatic hit “Ride, Captain, Ride.” He also took Polaroid Swinger snapshots of a half-sleeveless Alice Cooper (whose drummer, he reported, destroyed his drum kit with a claw hammer) and Iron Butterfly’s bare-chested drummer Ron Bushy doing his famous solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” I was tuned into the rock scene through AM radio (FM was considered “underground” and rarefied,) the Go magazine I picked up at the local record rack, and the 45s I played over and over in my room- “Pinball Wizard” by the Who and “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces. But these new sounds and visions from the concert world were strange and exotic.

It wasn’t long before my turn came to experience it for myself.


July 31, 1970- Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. Crabby Appleton, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cactus, Poco, Ten Years After.

A year after Woodstock, everything was a rock festival including the 6-band bill that would become my first rock concert on July 31, 1970 in Phoenix. The Arizona Republic called it “the biggest concert of its type” and I found myself going to the Coliseum with my brother and his girlfriend to see headliner Ten Years After- certainly a Woodstock standout.

Seating for the event was “festival style,” meaning anywhere you wanted to park it. We missed the first band and it took a while to get used to the surroundings- to the booming volume, the lights and the ever-moving throng of people. I was pretty nervous as my brother sat me in a chair and then took off into the darkness. On stage was the band Crabby Appleton, featuring hot guitarist Michael Fennelly. The five-member group was energetic, playing their familiar radio hit “Go Back.” Big Brother and the Holding Company- sans Janis Joplin- was up next, producing a rock full of instrumental edge.

Cactus then came on with a rootsy, raw, swaggering, unapologetic blues-rock. By the time Poco, with Jim Messina and Richie Furay, hit the stage, the connection was made. Poco revved up this highly electric and driving rock that was fast, honest and positive. The crowd was getting into the music, clapping along, and the room surged.

Woodstock had made rock concerts- and especially “festivals”- front-page news and they were quickly becoming mainstream. The Coliseum concert attracted 14,000 music fans and this new culture was a curious thing, especially to the parents of the thousands of youngsters who were flocking to take part. Arizona Republic reviewer April Daien spent more column inches on the concert as a cultural phenomenon than on the music. She gave an inventory of the fashions-“…bare midriffs and backs; peasant dresses…see-throughs and fringe…tank tops, tie-dyed shirts and brightly colored bell bottoms.” Daien also saw that this was more than just entertainment: “Rock fans, it appears, regard the supporting of concerts as a social and cultural obligation.”

For the money- a mere $4.25- the music was far more interesting to me. Cactus was impressive- hard, rough and extreme; their version of “Parchment Farm” achieved a kind of manic frenzy. Daien noted that Cactus’s “whining guitars, biting harmonica and classic four-part blues” hit when the crowd would have “danced to anything, including the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’” The groove was solidly established for me when Ten Years After came on. They were cool and powerful, playing a riff-based, introspective music. Guitarist Alvin Lee’s round, wiry, triplet-sprayed leads cut right through the smoky darkness. I was truly disheartened when we had to leave the show early to get my brother’s girlfriend home on time. I remember walking out through the hallways of the Coliseum, Lee’s nasal vocals and piercing guitar following behind like an insistent echo.

My own bootleg tapes of the show revealed that Crabby Appleton was very adept at creating dramatic and dynamic refrains. “Go Back” and other songs built to a climax through repetition of the vocal theme, creating a white soul rock sound. Some strong Latin rhythms were also thrown in for crowd-rousing accessibility. During the lengthy percussion solo- drums and congas- the crowd joined in and clapped to the rhythm. Crabby Appleton’s sound was dominated by the organ and Michael Fennelly’s vocals, rather than guitar. They were on stage when we arrived and my recordings include an argument with my brother about what we were doing there. Evidently, I wasn’t very happy about actually being at the concert, but my brother ordered me to chill out: “You will enjoy the concert!” I did.

Recordings of Big Brother and the Holding Company showed that the group made challenging music without Janis Joplin. An organ solo included classical themes, the crowd clapping along. The guitar-based tunes had their roots in rock and roll and boogie, but also fanned out into introspective areas, at one point, bringing the groove down to near silence. An instrumental piece, weaving two guitar lines into each other, had a musical suite-like quality.

Cactus took the stage and in comparison to the previous acts, seemed crude. Still, a drum and bass section inspired the audience to clap along and the group’s version of “Long Tall Sally” showed that Cactus had some artistic ambition. They changed the song’s original groove, and even changed it again for the “have some fun tonight” refrain. Cactus built the climax into a cacophony of sound. They easily illustrated the strength in supplying the stripped down basics at a high volume and break neck pace. Hearing that Poco was a “country rock” band, I didn’t record their set, although it was perhaps the cleanest and most distinctive of the night. A very short snippet, however, echoed the group’s qualities including full vocal harmonies and nimble drum accompaniment.

Ten Years After took a few moments to tune up on stage, then Alvin Lee simply launched into the guitar riff from “Love Like A Man.” The crowd immediately began to clap along. Ten Years After approached their material in the same way jazz was structured- state a theme, repeat it, then solo, then return to the theme and finish. Lee was in charge, starting the tunes with a riff, singing the vocal parts and taking the main spotlight during the instrumental sections. During those breaks, the rest of the band started playing with the groove, then worked to intensify it until reaching a climactic peak. All the while, Lee was noodling around on top. Ten Years After’s music was not pop-oriented and was able to achieve a kind of grandiose power, building on and playing around with repeating themes. Almost as effective as his guitar tone, Lee’s vocals also had a quality that could cut through and ride on top of the instrumental work. It only took one song for the entire band to synch in and jam. The second tune, “Yesteryear,” followed the same format, both the group and the crowd digging into the groove.

These recordings particularly reveal the obvious desire of the audience to become a part of the music, actually looking for opportunities in each band’s set to join in and clap along. It seems that jamming, whether guitar-based, keyboard-based or on percussion, was an expected and even required part of each band’s set. For a first concert, I had been treated to a variety of music and personally changed from a nervous young teenager into a rocker.

October 20, 1970- Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. Sugarloaf, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull.

My orientation to Jethro Tull was a bootlegged copy of the Benefit album that I bought at the dog track swap meet. I played it over and over, reveling in its strange and exotic electric sound. The song “Teacher” was getting some radio play, but most of the music was just too radical for radio. I was pleased with having discovered such a progressive band and I was fascinated with the picture I saw in a magazine of flutist Ian Anderson- one leg raised and his hair firing off into all directions.

I convinced my brother and a friend to go to the concert, extolling the virtues of festival seating: “You can go anywhere that isn’t locked!” My mother agreed to drive us and pick us up and I put together an outfit for the show- blue and green striped polyester bell-bottoms and a T-shirt with an American flag design. That night, a wild, longhaired guy suddenly pointed to me as he passed in the darkness and said “Hippie!” I felt proud.

What lay ahead of us was the new breed of rock and rollers- the new showmen for the masses. In a review of the concert in the Arizona Republic, writer April Daien was succinct in capturing the picturesque appeal of Tull’s flamboyant leader, who breathed fire into his flute: “As he strutted on stage in knee-high boots and a tattered coat with tails, Ian Anderson…looked ironically like the reincarnation of an American colonial.”

Further, Daien recognized that this was a new kind of entertainment. Anderson was the harbinger for a new generation of bands that dominated the stage like never before, while making music that broadened and challenged the changing thing called rock: “Synthesizing profound cynicism and iconoclasm with the unyielding idealism that identifies creative genius, his performance before 11,000 persons evolved into a musical commentary on Western civilization.” I was more aware of the electric punch of “Nothing Is Easy,” the curious introspection of “My God” and the melodic beauty of “Sossity, You’re a Woman.”

Opening the show, and even drawing a standing ovation, was Sugarloaf, whose “Green-Eyed Lady” was radio familiar. Then Leon Russell took the stage.

This was the classic Leon Russell band with Don Preston playing a round, wiry lead guitar and with Claudia Lennear and Kathi McDonald on back-up vocals. But I didn’t know anything about Russell up to that point- other than that he had written Joe Cocker’s hit record “Delta Lady.” In fact, at the beginning of the set, we danced around in mock-revival frenzy, trying to make fun of the music. But it wasn’t long before what had started as a joke became natural and free. It felt good to get some rock and roll religion.

That night, however, Jethro Tull ruled with blasting, explosive music, sensitive and bombastic at the same time. These were four English wildmen who had the stuff to storm America and carve out a piece of it for themselves.

The next day I listened to the rough recordings I had made of the concert with the cassette deck I carried around with me throughout the show. The music was in there somewhere, but what was coming out of the tinny little speaker had very little to do with what we had seen the night before. What happened on stage was meant for right then and there- Anderson twisting crazily under the power of a new and brilliant music. I would search out the widely circulating bootleg record titled My God because I wanted to hear more.

Before Sugarloaf’s set at the Coliseum, my friends and I waited impatiently for the concert to begin and my tape recorder captured the moment. An announcement was made about a bad drug circulating called “m & m reds.” At one point, I made reference to smelling “something sick,” something that smelled like “moldy grass.” My friend assured me it probably was.

My recordings, however, would also yield insight into each of the bands we saw that night. Sugarloaf, for example, was quite ambitious. The organ sound definitely dominated the group’s melding of blues, jazz, rock and even classical music into something that at its finest approached first rate pop. Long organ solos and feature spots revealed virtuoso quality in the keyboard and guitar work. Early in the set, an instrumental suite showed off both strengths. A classical piece by Bach- accompanied by hand clapping from the audience- morphed into jazz and even rock distortion before turning into “Green Eyed Lady.” The song was Sugarloaf’s best defined music, smoothly moving from a distinctive vocal section through a jazzy instrumental section, featuring both organ and guitar solos, and back again. Sugarloaf also had a penchant for vocal harmonies that brought to mind Three Dog Night. A long guitar solo at the end of the set became an echo-filled, feedback-singed workout.

Leon Russell, introduced with reverence as “the Prince of Peace,” took the stage and delivered two solo songs with just the piano and that great, rich but craggy voice of his. He began with Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” then followed with “Home Sweet Oklahoma,” offering some personal storytelling. Then the band joined Russell, adding full power to the quick revival groove he set up. Here, Don Preston’s guitar playing was distinctive- a high-pitched thin tone able to pierce through the rest of the arrangement. The female voices added weight to Russell’s singing, but more importantly responded to the main vocal with phrases of their own, giving a gospel choir effect. Russell’s piano work is also distinctive, characteristically filling each song with a pounding, jangly, honky tonk style. The crowd responded and clapped to the rhythm.

Russell and band included a little section of “Blues Power,” a song Russell had recorded with Eric Clapton, in the process of performing “Shoot out on the Plantation.” Other pieces included “I Put a Spell on You” and Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” from the band’s new album, Leon Russell and the Shelter People. “Hummingbird” was slower and more purposeful than the revival-type material and broke into a rock section not included on the recorded version. This was the most emotional climax of the evening. “Prince of Peace” offered a hippie message to “keep that old love light burning,” and “Give Peace A Chance” broke into a section of “Old Masters,” a song not included on the American version of Russell’s self-titled solo debut album. The most familiar Russell song, “Delta Lady,” completed the set with a strong build up through raucous repetition. The crowd synched in, clapping for an encore. Russell and band then delivered “Roll Away the Stone,” creating more revival furor.

Russell had an expert sense of timing and a band that approached the material with obvious confidence. He also was making music that had a distinctively American authenticity, going back to gospel, rock and roll and soul roots while maintaining an aggressive, contemporary approach.

Like Ten Years After, Jethro Tull’s music and presentation had a grandiose quality. They opened with the dynamic “Nothing is Easy,” a piece punctuated by tradeoff instrumental breaks between the guitar, organ and flute, as well as a dramatic, drawn out ending- forestalling the inevitable climax. The group proceeded to offer extended versions of familiar and unfamiliar pieces. Unfamiliar was the second piece- “My God.” Featuring a long, long flute solo that ranged from beautiful clear notes to speaking gibberish through the instrument, there was also a Gothic element to the music thanks to the introspective nature of the lyrics: a man confronting his god. From the acoustic guitar introduction through to the full band sections, complete with stinging guitar breaks, this piece unleashed Anderson lyrically and instrumentally. The gibberish portion during Anderson’s solo, as well as snippets of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” indicated one important factor in Jethro Tull’s music- a sense of humor. Underneath all the dramatic elements of their presentation was a snicker.

Familiar tunes included “With You There to Help Me,” full of instrumental punctuation in between the vocal parts, which lead into a piano solo that sounded like a silent movie soundtrack, shifting constantly between moods and styles. The flute joined in for some instrumental interplay and then the band came back together to bring it home. “A Song for Jeffrey” started with a jazzy groove, then burst into raging rock, going back and forth several times. This tune was also notable for a fiery harmonica solo. Then “Sossity” showcased the group’s gentler, simpler side, featuring, at first, only acoustic guitar and voice, then with sensitive backing on the organ. The keyboard part took over with a warm, thick tone leading into the melancholy tune, “Reasons For Waiting,” then back to “Sossity.” It’s notable that the audience was quiet and apparently listening to the songs with some intensity.

The showcase piece at the end of the set was “Dharma For One,” a dramatic musical suite in itself, everybody jamming, coming together in a dramatic start-stop, voices suddenly overlapping each other then segueing into an extended drum solo, rousing the crowd to a handclapping frenzy with machine-like speed and precision. The band returned, only to feature a lengthy guitar solo that also inspired clapping. Tull provided dynamic art, personality- Anderson’s introductions to the songs were often long and rambling- and piledriving electricity all in one show.

The fascination with the burgeoning rock culture in general persisted in Phoenix and the Arizona Republic assigned Connie Koenenn to write a feature about the Jethro Tull concert scene. Koenenn composed an outsider’s view of the situation: “Matches flickered like fireflies in the darkened hall that assumed the aspects of a surrealistic costume party.”

Of course, Koenenn also reported on first aid activity in the Terros drug emergency care center, something that was truly unique to rock concerts: “Dazed youngsters, propelled through the doors by anxious friends, were met with incredible gentleness by staffers who talked to them quietly, walked them around the room, and administered ice or sugar cubes.” Even though Koenenn wrapped up her feature with a cynical twist of reality- describing the crush of traffic out in the parking lot afterwards- this was not going to be the last the people of Phoenix would hear about this Jethro Tull concert.

December 31, 1970- Television broadcast. Grateful Dead

Shortly after the Jethro Tull show, my family moved to the Los Angeles area. My father worked for the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that constantly shifted personnel around. We ended up in CanogaPark in the San FernandoValley- just another blot on the metropolitan map.

Ironically, my first significant music experience in California came from watching television. It was New Year’s Eve and a new neighbor and I were playing cards and watching TV. In flipping the channels, I happened on a televised concert by the Grateful Dead. I first heard the Dead via a bootlegged cassette of their album, Workingman’s Dead, that I bought at the swap meet in Phoenix. I popped the tape into the machine, but I couldn’t appreciate the “country” quality of the music. I had heard that the Grateful Dead were one of those mind-blowing San Francisco groups who were involved with LSD and psychedelic music, and I did not understand that the Dead had difficulty transferring their energy onto record.

I did not hear the Dead again until I hit on the televised New Year’s Eve concert live from San Francisco. What I heard opened my mind as the Dead meandered off into long jams. I was used to standard structured music so it was a surprise to come upon music that was set loosely in motion, the results happening with powerful effect, yet seemingly unplanned. The very next tape I bought was Live Dead, the song “Dark Star” echoing everything I had heard on New Year’s Eve.