King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker

by Tim Van Schmidt

June 21- Sam’s. Waitresses.

By 1982, new wave music was not so new. Still, there were a few last gasps left, including the punky rock and hard-shell attitude of the Waitresses. A group of us piled into Sam’s for an 11 pm show and the band was blasting. From Ohio, the Waitresses were the brainchild of guitarist and songwriter Chris Butler. The band also included ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca as well as innovative saxman Mars Williams, who had played with Fred Frith and Gong.

But the real center of attention was vocalist Patty Donahue, who turned Butler’s songs into sassy one-way conversations with a flat, sarcastic tone. The band, also featuring keyboards and bass, rocked to excess while Donahue strutted and barked. Williams’ sax cut right through the smoky wall of sound with reckless abandon. Predictably, the hit of the evening was ”I Know What Boys Like,” which Donahue delivered with a streetwise tongue in cheek.

July 8- Garden State Arts Center. Peter, Paul and Mary.

Since Jonie was from the shore area of New Jersey, we often traveled back to visit her folks. They lived in West Long Branch, not far from Asbury Park and only an hour or so train ride to New York City. We would often go into the city to catch Broadway shows- waiting in the TKTS line in Times Square for half-price tickets, grabbing a bite, attending a matinee, then riding the train back to Jersey for dinner. We saw the passion of “Evita,” the steamy soul music history of “Dreamgirls” and the riot of songs, costumes and stage settings of “Cats.”

Only a few exits up the New Jersey Parkway from West Long Branch was the Garden States Arts Center. The venue was set back off the highway, a green, bowl-like facility that hosted many of the summer acts that toured the country. A Peter, Paul and Mary date at the Arts Center became a pleasant double date with an old friend of Jonie’s and her husband. I had always liked the gentleness of Peter, Paul and Mary’s music. I had collected a greatest hits album that received a fair amount of play time thanks to the mellowness of tunes like “Lemon Tree,” “500 Miles,” and the wry personal commentary of “For Lovin’ Me.”

There was also a sense of integrity with Peter, Paul and Mary’s music thanks to their early association with social causes. Once at the forefront of protest music, however, they were now at the forefront of folk nostalgia. Social commentary certainly remained a part of the presentation. Indeed, a song about Nicaragua momentarily brought the crowd at the Arts Center up to date, but there was a feeling that this approach to music had seen its day in terms of effecting real social change. Still, a rousing version of “If I Had A Hammer” briefly lit that eternal fire of question and hope. Of course, the show also included a sing along version of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” turning everyone into innocent children for a moment. Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1982 album release “Such is Love” included a version of Phil Och’s song, “There But For Fortune.”

August 25- Auraria Playing Field. Jimmy Cliff. Peter Tosh.

 For my birthday in June, Jonie surprised me first thing in the morning with a pair of tickets to see Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh later in the summer. I already had experienced the deep, feisty reggae of Tosh in 1981 at the Lincoln Center. Cliff, however, had been a favorite long before I knew who Tosh was thanks to his pop radio appeal. Cliff had a strong voice in an upper register that was distinct and highly recognizable. It also helped that Cliff’s music was melodic and often upbeat. “The Harder They Come” had happily blared out of my radio as I drove around the San Fernando Valley during my high school years and I had since seen the movie. Cliff starred in the lead role of a talented young singer trying to make good in the tough, cutthroat Jamaican music world. “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Sitting in Limbo,” “Many Rivers to Cross” were all favorites and this was a chance to see Cliff live- along with Tosh.

The show was being held on the playing field of the Denver University Auraria campus, nestled right against the heart of downtown Denver. The field was green enough and the stage was set with the mountains in the distance, but rising up behind the field was the great mountainous yaw of the city, buildings shooting up into the sky and thousands of windows winking dumbly in the setting day. The irony of the situation did not escape me. While the puny natives gathered on the grass to celebrate equal rights and justice, this was Babylon itself, standing strong and faceless.

Cliff’s new release in 1982 was “Special” and his set in Denver was an upbeat celebration- as expected. But it was Tosh who stoked up the kind of reggae that could stand up to the city. Here he did away with the bad attitude and channeled it into a tough, searing music, electric, rhythmically powerful and irresistible.

September 5- Red Rocks. Joe King Carrasco, Talking Heads.

Since seeing the Talking Heads at UCLA in 1978, the band had morphed into a bigger, more powerful group. Besides the fact that the stage at Red Rocks was filled with musicians and risers, the biggest change was Byrne’s stage presence. At UCLA, Byrne had been glued to his mike stand, his shirt buttoned up to the top, stiff and strained. At Red Rocks, Byrne was big and animated, attracting the spotlight with a nervous, wired charisma.

At one point at Red Rocks, Byrne simply did laps around the whole stage set-up, obviously a man who had been set free. The music itself was revved up, particularly the material from the band’s 1980 release, “Remain in Light.” This was a similar grouping to the one that ended up making the great concert film “Stop Making Sense” and was as confident, powerful and synched in as the film.

Joe King Carrasco opened the show with his energetic Tex-Mex music- called “nuevo wavo.” His power pop had a strong taste of the Southwest to it, but it was Carrasco’s on-stage antics that excited the crowd. At one point, Carrasco, wearing a big crown on his head, was running up and down the side aisles, then he took the time to take a call on a huge stage prop telephone. All the while his cheery, no holds barred party music churned, tongue-in-cheek.

September 23- Macky Auditorium. Mannheim Steamroller.

A friend won tickets to see Mannheim Steamroller from a radio call-in contest, couldn’t go, so passed the tickets along to me. Mannheim Steamroller was part of a burgeoning music revolution based on sound quality. Their independently released records- on the American Gramaphone imprint- were produced with audiophile quality in mind and the pleasant instrumental music had a remarkably crisp, clean sound. The albums used a trademark title- “Fresh Aire”- and became popular as a kind of hip easy-listening music, especially for people who enjoyed showing off the sound quality of their hi-fi system.

This “Concert of Multi Images” was the kick-off show for the Fresh Aire 1982 Fall Tour and the program identified the touring group as composer and producer Chip Davis, playing drums, recorders, beels and percussion, keyboardists Jackson Berkey and Almeda Berkey and Eric Hansen on bass. Carol Davis was credited as associate producer, photographer and multi-media operator. The program also attempted to define Mannheim Steamroller’s unique musical approach: “The Fresh Aire music (Aire…the Italian word for song) is based on ‘Old World’ composition principles but oftentimes with contemporary rhythm patterns and progressive arrangements, therefore, the music is sometimes referred to as “18th Century Classical Rock.”

The venue for the concert- Macky Auditorium- was on the campus of University of Colorado in Boulder. Macky is a very stately, pleasantly ornate classic-style theater that still stands as one of the finest venues in Colorado. As on the Fresh Aire albums, the sound in Macky was crisp and bright as Mannheim Steamroller presented several groupings of pieces that in themselves became rhythmic, contemporary symphonies blending organic acoustic sounds in with full electric capabilities. The instrumentation shifted as the music itself went through various changes and multi-media effects helped illustrate the music movements.

At one point, I was watching a piece showcasing multiple recorder parts and it appeared to me that at the end of the segment, one of the musicians stopped playing his instrument and lowered it before the end of the phrase. Magically, however, his part stayed in the mix. This tipped me off to a kind of performance sleight-of-hand- the group was piping in prerecorded material as a part of the performance. The sound was perfect for a reason. Sure enough the program included a credit for “prerecorded taped sound.”

It should be mentioned that the Mannheim Steamroller operation not only put on an absorbing production, but they were also ready to cash in. Sales booths were fully stocked with products in the most professional display of concert merchandise I had ever seen. By this time Mannheim Steamroller/American Gramaphone had a line of nine albums, all offered on “100% premium virgin vinyl.” The sleeves were printed on “the most dense, protective board stock” and Dolby cassettes were available along with t-shirts, posters and “Fresh Aire Piano Scores.” This was serious business.

Still, Mannheim Steamroller maintained an upbeat, even irreverent attitude about what they were doing. They called their first suite of pieces in the show “Bach’s Aire on a G String.” In the last suite, “Fantasia,” pieces were titled “The Ugly Head of Greed,” “Frenetic Energy” and “Thermal Inversion.” According to the program, the Mannheim Steamroller name referred to the Mannheim School of Music in Mannheim, Germany, echoing the classical characteristics of their truly classical rock. The “Raindrop” poetry used in the production was written by Bill Fries, a.k.a. C.W. McCall, a performer Chip Davis had previously served as co-writer, drummer and musical director for from 1975-78. The Fresh Aire Fall Tour also visited Oregon, California, Washington, British Columbia, Utah and Missouri.

October 9- Sam’s Old Town Ballroom. Gil Scott-Heron.

The lasting image of this show is Scott-Heron standing tall and comfortable at the mike, rapping about his favorite subject- politics- in a simmering version of his famous tirade, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Smoke swirled in the air, while Scott-Heron’s sonorous voice aimed at inciting the need to question authority.

This would be one of the best club dates I had ever seen- much better than the opening slot Scott-Heron did for Stevie Wonder the year before. What made it so good was Scott-Heron’s cool way of drawing the listener in, then shutting the rest of world out while he talked and crooned and his band percolated with funk and soul grooves. In the club, you could hear the words and see his face, the way he’d grip the mike and let the words flow. His latest release in 1982 was “Moving Target,” an album that included a sharp rebuke of the yuppie lifestyle, “Living in the Fast Lane.”