King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker

by Tim Van Schmidt

April 4- University of Wyoming. Cris Williamson with Tret Fure.

The dreaded year that author George Orwell has so vividly drawn up in his novel- “1984”- had finally come. But rather than living in a world that was dominated by a strange Big Brother power with its fingers into every aspect of citizens’ lives, Americans were actually living in a world full of promise and opportunity. However, the threat of nuclear warfare remained a very real theoretical danger and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s became the anti-missile crusade of the 1980s. It was widely known that northern Colorado and especially the state of Wyoming was the home of silos to be armed with these new missiles and protest was targeted in these areas. We would join others at an anti-MX rally held in Cheyenne, where speakers like Senator Gary Hart decried the dangers of the weapons. We would also make the trek up to Laramie, to the University of Wyoming, for a concert benefiting anti-MX causes.

Headlining the benefit was singer-songwriter Cris Williamson. I was familiar with Williamson’s music from several summers before, when I checked out the burgeoning “women’s music” movement that was centered around Olivia Records, a company run by women producing music by women. I was entranced by the emotional intimacy and the sonic quality of Williamson’s album “Strange Paradise.” This would lead me to one of the lynchpins of the movement, Williamson’s 1975 release, “The Changer and the Changed,” and so I thought I was well prepared to see Williamson live. What I wasn’t prepared for was the crowd that attended.

The concert, designed “to defeat the MX once and for all,” was being sponsored by a group called Western Solidarity, along with the Women’s Resource Center and the Albany County Bilateral Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. One of the reasons stated in the program for such political activism was that the MX was “a destabilizing weapon with first-strike capability and because it represents a dangerous escalation in the nuclear arms race.” The program also suggested that one of the ways to stop the MX was to “stress the need for the Air Force to study the effect of nuclear war on the environment.” The program also commemorated “Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this 16th anniversary of his death.” The ticket had a cute little logo with a lasso surround an MX.

The show was being held in a utilitarian old-style auditorium, which meant that there just wasn’t enough bathroom space to accommodate all the women who had come to the event. I was standing at a urinal when all of a sudden a large crowd of women entered the men’s bathroom and began commandeering the stalls with a lot of huff and noise.

 Inside the auditorium, the high percentage of females turned into a hearty chorus, singing along to all of Williamson’s songs. Williamson was warm and chatty between songs- one of her best skills as a performer- and she sang with intensity and grace. Joining Williamson on stage was guitarist and vocalist Tret Fure, who added a little contemporary flair and some electric spice. Meanwhile, the audience was in the throes of ecstasy, hearing their favorite songs- most with an uplifting viewpoint- gregariously hanging on every word Williamson said and belting out the vocal parts en masse like one big happy therapy session.

Lincoln Center Mini Theatre. The Roches.

Two shows at the Mini Theatre were not enough for the hot New York City sister trio the Roches. Jonie and I definitely went to the late show because the memory of handing our infant daughter to a trusted friend out in the lobby in between shows is clear. We had been introduced to the Roches, once again, by our New Jersey friend, who had promoted both Kate Wolf and Claudia Schmidt. The Roches’ 1979 self-titled album, produced by King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp, featured songs that revealed close vocal harmonies and soothing melodies while being set on edge by lyrics that revealed a wry, caustic humor.

 At the Mini Theater, not only were the Roches’ songs funny, but the women constantly traded one-liners in between songs as well. They came on strong with that flippant, sarcastic East Coast attitude, all the while making a heavenly blend of voices. Clothing style was another part of it- these just weren’t women who bought their clothes around Fort Collins. Their latest album at the time was 1982’s “Keep On Doing,” a record also produced by Fripp.

April 14- Lincoln Center. Flash Cadillac, Chuck Berry.

 I have always maintained a healthy respect for the historical figures of contemporary music. That’s why I jumped on the opportunity to see the rhyming master of 1950s rock and roll, Chuck Berry himself, right in my new home town. This, however, became a lesson in patience. Berry, unfortunately, didn’t seem to see the need to play a cohesive set in northern Colorado. Instead, he offered a disjointed show, starting and stopping the very familiar tunes at will, mostly leaving them unfinished in favor of some new tangent.

Berry’s type of quintessential rock and roll was custom-made for dancing, but dancing requires a certain amount of continuity. Berry disregarded continuity and it was difficult to “dance” in the confines of the Lincoln Center seats, though his final tune of the night, “Reelin’ and Rockin’” momentarily rekindled his reputation as a rock and roll great. Mostly, his concert was an exercise in paying homage to someone who just did not care about showmanship anymore.

Much better on stage was the opener, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, a band that I had seen at the California Mid-Winter Fair in 1976. Like that occasion, Flash Cadillac delivered an efficient, energetic set that combined roots rock and roll with professional showmanship. In this case, the students had something to teach the master.

Garden State Arts Center.

 Another summer trip to New Jersey yielded the opportunity to check out two excellent events at the Garden State Arts Center, the place where we had seen Peter, Paul and Mary the summer before. The first show was a solo acoustic concert by Paul Simon. Just a few months earlier, I had seen Simon and Garfunkel’s grand retrospective tour that followed on the dramatic success of their Central Park concert. But Simon’s set at the Arts Center, stripped down and simple, carried maximum emotional impact. There was a sense that this was not show business- like the Simon and Garfunkel tour- but was a case of a master musical craftsman at work. Simon’s voice was strong and soothing at the same time and the songs were allowed the space to breathe. I went with our New Jersey friend who had been so kind to turn us on to the music of Kate Wolf, the Roches and Claudia Schmidt. Jonie stayed behind with the baby.

A few nights later, I would make the journey to the Arts Center by myself to catch up with Frank Zappa. Since last seeing Zappa in Phoenix in 1975, he had succeeded in attracting a whole new audience. Young rock and rollers in heavy metal t-shirts now filled the rows, throwing up their arms with their pinky and index fingers extended. It worked for them when Zappa furiously punished a rubber blow up doll. But I had been encouraged by Zappa’s guitar solo album release, “Shut Up and Play Your Guitar,” and was rewarded at the Arts Center with some great stretches of that fabulous convoluted lead work of his. The most memorable music of the night was a version of the Allman Brothers’ “Whippin’ Post,” a guitar rock satire so well done that it no longer was a satire.

July 8- Red Rocks. Talk Talk, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Berlin.

 I returned to Red Rocks for another one of those strangely constructed bills, featuring three widely diverse acts. My buddies and I were there for the guitar rock of Stevie Ray Vaughan, known then as the most promising guitar hero thanks to his dedication to the big, thick electric sound pioneered by Jimi Hendrix. But when we arrived at our seats, a fellow decked out in leather, shiny wrenches hanging from the waistband strap, sat down next to me to explain that he was there to see the opening band Talk Talk.
Talk Talk was of the generation of bands that had come after the general new wave crush. By this time, the new aggressive art rock had been termed “new music,” a term that hinted at music that combined the energetic qualities of new wave with the technological advances in musical equipment and recording. The leather-clad fellow disappeared, but Talk Talk turned in an impassioned and uplifting set, electronic sound underscoring a moody, but aggressive pop rock. Particularly unique was vocalist Mark Hollis’ fragile voice, pushed to the point of strain, but expressive nonetheless. I would seek out Talk Talk’s latest release, “It’s My Life.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan appeared next, guided by some stage hands, propping him up in place and letting him rip on the guitar. Vaughan simply lowered his head, his trademark broad brimmed hat hiding his face, and just dug in. He remained on stage unmoving, an anti-presence. Vaughan’s guitar sound however was very present as he intentionally roughed up the strings and rolled out a gritty, dirty blues rock, accompanied by basic bass and drums. Vaughan’s reputation had certainly preceded him and audience members near our seats kept screaming the name of Jimi Hendrix every few moments.

The atmosphere was tense with the electricity on stage and the restlessness of the crowd. During Vaughan’s set, I got nailed fully in the back by a water cooler someone had chucked at high velocity from the seats above. Vaughan’s latest record at the time was his new “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” which included his loyal version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” By the time Berlin came on, producing a whipcracking, snarling nasty rock, the crowd was getting even looser and uglier. Despite the charismatic power of vocalist Terri Nunn and the aggressive excitement of the music, it was time to go.

August 25- Red Rocks. Simple Minds, Pretenders.

The atmosphere improved for the next show at Red Rocks, featuring Simple Minds and the Pretenders. From Scotland, Simple Minds came on strong with a stylish rock made for outdoor arenas. Vocalist Jim Kerr would half sing, half shout, trying to throw his voice as far into the crowd as possible. Meanwhile the band kept some kind of rolling beat going with atmospheric noodling thrown on top. While designed for football stadiums, the effort seemed overblown somewhat at Red Rocks. Still Simple Minds triumphed with a rock that was generally aimed at uplifting and inspiring the audience.

 I had been introduced to the Pretenders by friends at my record store job in Fort Collins when first moving to town. The favorite party record of the time was the Pretenders’ self-titled debut, someone always reaching over and turning it up during the rough, raw “Precious.” The new album was “Learning to Crawl,” which included great tunes such as “Middle of the Road.” Despite personnel upheaval, the Pretenders still featured a swaggering, unrepentant Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers, now with the addition of a new guitarist, Robbie McIntosh. At Red Rocks, the most satisfying moment was still the tough punch of “Precious.” After this tour, Hynde and Kerr would get marry.

September 8- Jackson’s Victory Tour

Michael Jackson’s triumph as the biggest selling pop artist in history, thanks to the intense commercial success of his 1982 album, “Thriller,” became an excellent excuse to pull the whole Jackson clan back together for a grand tour that included a date at Mile High Stadium in Denver. This was perhaps the biggest concert I didn’t go to and I include it here to make a point. Since getting married in 1980, I certainly had experienced a lifestyle change. Gone were the days when I freely went to concerts as a teenager and as a freewheeling college student. I was still intensely interested in contemporary music, but I was like everyone else- I went to a few select concerts a year. Concerts were meant to be special occasions. I collected a lot of records during this time and would often DJ for parties with friends, so music remained a central distraction for me. But we were also busy with potluck dinners, going to movies and babysitting.

 Who actually went to the Jackson’s Victory Tour concert in Denver was Jonie and several other young mothers from our social group. All of us young fathers took it upon ourselves to care for our infants while the ladies went to have some fun. There were at least three of us that met while the ladies took off for Denver. And we tried to keep ourselves and the kids amused as best as possible. We ended up taking them out in their baby buggies and the scene was probably comical- three young fathers strolling down the street with three carriages full of babies, crying their heads off. Meanwhile our wives were witnessing the King of Pop’s brightest moment. The most succinct review I got from the ladies was that Michael Jackson was a superb dancer. I wouldn’t know because I had been too busy dancing around the diapers.