King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker

by Tim Van Schmidt

February 19- Fort Ram. David Lindley.

The group of people that Jonie and I associated with in Fort Collins all had one thing in common- we liked to dance. So several times a year, we would host parties at our house that would eventually fill the small living room with loud music and happily gyrating friends. A friend owned a hi-fi shop and would bring over the most powerful system in the store and then I would spin records, the volume going up with each new selection. One of those records that would always work on the crowd was David Lindley’s “Mercury Blues” from his “El Rayo-X” album. The song featured not only a pounding beat, but also the full-on electric power of Lindley’s slide playing. The sound was familiar particularly because of Lindley’s contributions to Jackson Browne’s music, but Lindley’s solo music cranked up the intensity several notches. Lindley also had a wacky sense of humor as well as the occasional social comment.

Therefore, it often took very little coaxing to see Lindley play live, as I would several times over the next few years. The first encounter, however, was at a place in Fort Collins called Fort Ram. It was a big, ugly warehouse style building that was a part of a chain of similar operations in western college towns. The good part about Fort Ram was that it was decked out with a huge wooden dance floor. For Lindley’s concert, there was plenty of room to dance, and sure enough, “Mercury Blues” achieved the desired effect- reckless abandon. Besides a big rock sound, Lindley also balanced things with reggae and his tune “Quarter of a Man” provided a much-needed break from the rock ‘n’ roll.

April 11- The Safari. Neville Brothers.

The nightclub scene in Fort Collins, because we were much more off the beaten track than a city like Denver, was very hit and miss as far as national acts were concerned. One club, Linden’s, specialized in blues and often brought in touring acts, but most of the club dates were filled by local or regional acts. But thanks to the ambitious plans of a local promotion company- Quantum Arts, the organization responsible for bringing acts like U2, the Talking Heads and Missing Persons to town- there were the occasional special events. One of those special events was a date with the Neville Brothers at a little club called the Safari.

The Safari had a reputation in town as the one place in the area that catered to an older crowd. They often had big band dances there and the facility was decorated with exotic stuffed animal heads and zebra skins. The Neville Brothers, however, turned it into something entirely different- a hot and steamy New Orleans nightclub. The Nevilles had been around so long in the New Orleans scene that they were considered elder statesmen. But in Colorado, they were news and the Safari was packed. So much so that when the band started playing, there was very little room to dance. However, several people acted simultaneously to remove and stack some tables and chairs and the dancers filled in the space like water.

This club date ranks in my mind with another great nightclub performance I had seen in Fort Collins at Sam’s in 1982- Gil Scott-Heron. But the Neville Brothers experience was not as intellectual and it’s very possible that I lost ten pounds of weight in that single night. The tiny dance area carved out by the fans was right in front of the low bandstand. We were eye-to-eye with Cyril Neville beating out the rhythm on the congas and Aaron Neville was wailing on his cowbell only three feet away. In fact, at some point during the show, a friend reached out and gave the conga a slap and Aaron leaned over and told him not to play the instruments. The poster for the show promised “New Orleans R / B, soul, funk, reggae and Mardi Gras revelry” and the show delivered in full. The Nevilles’ music was based on a funky, bumpy rhythm that was physically irresistible. On top of that were the soulful vocals, especially sweet thanks to Aaron Neville’s amazing range.

June 8- McNichols Arena. A Conspiracy of Hope: Neville Brothers with Joan Baez, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams, Peter Gabriel, Sting, U-2.

The dreaded day had finally come- I was going to turn thirty years old. To celebrate, we hosted a party that lasted, in various stages, for several days. That included a hot tub that remained active 24 hours a day, lots to eat and drink and plenty of music and dancing.

But even better, there was a concert not to be missed on my thirtieth birthday itself. This was called “A Conspiracy of Hope,” a traveling showcase concert highlighting a hefty package of stars, including U2, Sting and Peter Gabriel. The whole thing was a benefit for Amnesty International and is another shining example of the musicians of the 1980s banding together to “make a difference” with the thing they did the best- rouse the crowd. The ad for the concert explained the beneficiary succinctly: “Amnesty International is a worldwide movement which works on behalf of prisoners of conscience, secures prompt and fair trials and continuously campaigns to abolish torture and execution. 1986 marks its 25th anniversary.”

Key moments in the concert became strong memories. For example, the Neville Brothers, who I had seen in a tiny nightclub date only a few months before, had just turned on a big, powerful sound, performing the dynamic tune “Midnight Key to the City,” and then vocalist Joan Baez joined them on stage. Her voice was shrill and grating compared to the smoothness of the Nevilles and a cover version of Tears for Fears’ song “Shout” was an exercise in patience.

Peter Gabriel’s set started with the big and bold sound of “Red Rain” and closed with an emotional and riveting version of “Biko,” the whole arena standing and singing along. Lou Reed performed a scathing, scorching version of “Video Violence,” from his current album at the time, “Mistrial.” During Sting’s set, I was particularly impressed with the amazing clarity and deftness of pianist Kenny Kirkland’s playing.

U2 took the stage to finish off the evening. Our seats were close to the stage on one side and at one point, in the reverie of performing, Bono bent down to scoop up some flowers that were decorating the front of the stage. Unfortunately, the flowers were artificial and were glued into place. Bono snatched at the flowers, couldn’t tug them free and came up with a handful of leaves. It didn’t bother him, though. He just shrugged, threw the stuff aside and continued to stalk the stage.

In Denver, the most trustworthy voice in regional rock ‘n’ roll writing was Denver Post writer G. Brown. Brown earned respect from me when just prior to “A Conspiracy of Hope,” he published an article that pleaded with area music fans to buy tickets. The price was high for the time- $35- but Brown reasoned that the talent that was to take the stage was worth every penny. Besides, it was all for a good cause. The concert wasn’t sold out, perhaps due to the ticket price, but the crowd that attended got more than just good value. This was an emotionally satisfying, ultimately inspiring evening and ranks as one of the best single concert events I would attend.

Brown’s review in the Post included some meaty interview quotes from backstage that night, including some rock ‘n’ roll musings by Bono: “Some people say rock ‘n’ roll music is just noise…Out of the doors that rock ‘n’ roll opened came the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Beatles and John Lennon- people who were and are our heroes. We’ve got to keep those doors open, not let them close…” Brown praised U2’s effort at helping stage the six-city tour, of which the Denver show was the third stop and reported details of their set list including Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” the Beatles’ song “Help,” as well as their own “Bad” and “Pride (in the Name of Love).”

In his review, Brown also mentioned details of Lou Reed’s set which included “Walk on the Wildside” as well as “Rock and Roll.” Brown particularly praised Peter Gabriel’s debut performance in Denver which included “Sledgehammer,” “Shock the Monkey” and “Biko.”

June 11- Paramount Theater. Tangerine Dream.

In my first year in college at Arizona State in 1974, I met another music fan in the dorms who turned me on to progressive music of many kinds. That included ECM jazz as well as progressive European bands like Can, Amon Duhl and Tangerine Dream. The Tangerine Dream stuff in particular attracted me and fit right in with my taste for esoteric Pink Floyd-like music. Like Floyd, Tangerine Dream produced records that unfolded in long movements of sound, but with much less reliance on vocals, if any. The music created moods and atmospheres, like movie soundtracks, and occasionally rocked as well. My favorites were the “Atem” and “Phaedra” albums.

Twelve years later, I joined some friends for a trip to the Paramount Theatre, a wide, old-style theater in the heart of the downtown district in Denver. By this time, Tangerine Dream was a group of three musicians- Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Paul Haslinger. Each one had their own performing pod which encircled the performers with instruments- mostly keyboards. Laser light units were fixed onto the top of the equipment and stage smoke pumped out into the room. The lasers spread out in the mist and created swirling, brightly colored effects. The atmosphere in the Paramount was that of a formal concert, the audience there not for star power, but for a sound/art experience. Tangerine Dream responded by playing without fanfare, creating intense drama with their music. The sound rose and fell, built up and disintegrated in long suites of electronic fancy.

The tour book for Tangerine Dream’s 1986 North American tour was jammed full of pictures of Tangerine Dream in its various incarnations and tours. One thing was clear, Tangerine Dream sought out cool places to play throughout the world, such as the Royal Albert Hall, an ancient amphitheater in Athens, in Berlin in front of the Reichstag. The program also detailed the history of Tangerine Dream, from Froese’s first band, formed in the summer of 1966, to the addition of a new synthesizer player, Austrian Paul Haslinger. Haslinger had made his stage debut with Tangerine Dream in Great Britain in March of 1986 and the group started their North American tour in June with a concert at the world exhibition EXPO ’86 in Vancouver, Canada.

July 25- Lincoln Center. Bruce Cockburn.

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn first became known for his low-key, yet intense acoustic-based recordings, many of which won Juno Awards. But as time went on, he developed more and more of a taste for electric instruments and by the time his 1984 album, “Stealing Fire,” was released, he had achieved his transformation into a more mainstream artist. That is, Cockburn’s sound had become glossier, punchier and more mainstream, but the attitudes he expressed were not mainstream at all. Affected by a trip to Central America, many of the songs on the album, particularly “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” were critical of American political action in other countries. This made Cockburn the darling of the more radical fringe, people who wanted politics and music in the same package.

As some few handfuls of artists did, Cockburn had gained a foothold in Fort Collins and would visit the city often on his tours. By the time I got to see Cockburn, he had already released another record since “Stealing Fire.” The new one was titled “World of Wonders” and included an even more strident expression of politics, “Call it Democracy.”

At the Lincoln Center, Cockburn’s politics took center stage and his performance was significantly colored by the intensity of his opinions. The crowd seemed to react with enthusiasm to every one of Cockburn’s comments, however, and the politics tended to overpower the music. Cockburn maintained a calm, yet simmering self-righteousness that turned most of his patter in between songs into social awareness lessons. While expressing important messages, Cockburn neglected the joys and trials of everyday living. His performance was therefore somewhat stilted and cold, inspiring intellectually, but ignoring the real root of music- celebration.

September 20- Lincoln Center. John McLaughlin, Weather Update.

Weather Report had become one of the most successful bands of the jazz rock fusion years thanks to strong record sales. But by 1986, fusion was definitely on the wane. The final Weather Report album, “This is This,” had just been released  and after a breakup with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who had also helped found the group, Zawinul formed Weather Update. The band still featured founding keyboardist Joe Zawinul, along with drummer Peter Erskine and guitarist Steve Kahn. The music still combined swirling electronic effects laid on top of driving rhythms, while remaining melodic, accessible and generally upbeat.

Opening the show was guitarist John McLaughlin. Since seeing McLaughlin with Shakti in 1977, I had lost track of this great guitarist. But here he was back with a new version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But gone was the heavy electric stew of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. Also gone was the exotic world music flavor of Shakti. Instead, McLaughlin had developed a light and melodic sound based on his acoustic guitar playing. While the music did not inspire with electric fury, it was sweet to hear McLaughlin’s crystalline guitar runs, ringing clearly and crisply in the sound mix. His album release at the time was “Adventures in Radioland,” featuring saxophonist Bill Evans and drummer Danny Gottlieb.

October 24- Pacific Amphitheatre. Steve Winwood.

A brief trip back to California yielded the opportunity to see a few shows in my old stomping grounds. Or rather, some new stomping grounds. For example, I made a trip to Costa Mesa in Orange County to the Pacific Amphitheatre to see Steve Winwood. The Amphitheatre didn’t exist when I lived in California in the 1970s and it was nothing very special- just a big bowl-type venue without much in the way of distinguishing characteristics other than a layer of seating crowned by a grass area. The distinguishing characteristics of the night, however, were on stage.

Since seeing Winwood as a part of Traffic in 1974, Winwood had become known for both studio mastery and an infectious white soul sound. His solo album, “Arc of a Diver” established his solo career with a bullet in 1980. By 1986, Winwood had developed the sound to an art and his album “Back in the High Life” scored big-time with hits such as “Higher Love” (a favorite at our dance parties) and “The Finer Things.” At the Pacific Amphitheatre, Winwood played all the new hits and the reaction around me was telling. Winwood’s music was evidently very sexy because the couples around me in the crowd were pretty much glued to each other throughout the show- even when dancing. The opener was Level 42, a slick pop rock band relying on sharp, dramatic and funky instrumental arrangements.

October 25- The Coach House. Moonlight Wranglers, Blasters.

The next night I would drive down to San Juan Capistrano to a club called the Coach House. The Coach House was a big, wide-open room with a tall ceiling and a stage against one wall. Since first seeing Los Lobos in Berkeley in 1983, I had kept an eye on the roots rock movement that had been developing in southern California, including the Blasters. Neighbors in Colorado had been Blasters fans and had recommended the band as a guaranteed good time.

At the Coach House, the Blasters revved up their rock and roll machine and did not let up until it was time to go home. Vocalist Phil Alvin still lead the band , though his brother Dave was no longer on the guitar. Instead, a guitar player named Hollywood Fats took over. The band’s set had plenty of energy, Alvin’s slicked back hair and retro-looks emphasized by the passion of his vocals. Hollywood Fats shook and shimmied as he dug into his guitar. Opening the show was a quasi-country unit called the Moonlight Wranglers.

October 27- Universal Amphitheatre. Michael McDonald, Richard Pryor, Patti Austin, Bobbi Humphrey, James Ingram, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder.

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I capped off my trip with a return to the Universal Amphitheatre. After all, I had seen shows there in its first two seasons- “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the Grateful Dead- and I was looking forward to a night under the stars, with the lights of the Valley below. I dressed warmly, ready for an outdoor venue. The Amphitheatre had changed significantly since I had last been there last however. The Amphitheatre was now an indoor venue and there were a lot more seats. I was overdressed and in shock from the surprise.

The occasion was a benefit concert supporting Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley’s bid for governor and the black entertainment community came out in force. The headliner for the evening was Stevie Wonder. Master producer Quincy Jones also appeared with a band that backed up guest artists such as vocalists Patti Austin, Bobbi Humphrey and James Ingram. One surprise guest was former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Jones himself directed the full stage band as the guests came and went. The MC for the evening was comedian Richard Pryor, who freely joked with the audience.

As Stevie Wonder’s band was playing, I took a double-take while scanning the band and recognized one of the keyboardists. Many years before, I had met him in Phoenix in a garage, where he was rehearsing his high school band. A few years after, I saw him again in Fort Collins, playing keyboards for a touring band from Arizona called the Jetzons. Now he was playing in Wonder’s band.

Wonder was most certainly the main attraction and the crowd was good and lubed up by the time he took the stage. So lubed up that the woman sitting behind me spilled a full beer down my back. Needless to say, I found a new seat to the side of the venue. I had not seen Wonder since a Boulder concert in 1980 and he had dropped a great deal of the funky rhythm stuff in favor of more traditional song styles. At one point, Wonder was down on one knee, the spotlight beaming down on him, while he crooned a sad love song. Wonder’s most recent album at the time was the 1985 release “In Square Circle.”

November 30- Fort Ram. Little Women, David Lindley.

My enthusiasm for David Lindley achieved mixed results after seeing him in Fort Collins in February. For example, Jonie, Kaitlin and I took a grand August road trip to California, visiting friends in northern California, southern California and Disneyland. While in the Bay Area, we decided to try to see Lindley at the Cotati Cabaret- the same venue where I had seen the Looters and met Kate Wolf in 1985. For some reason I had the insane idea of taking our two year old child with us. The people at the Cabaret were open to it, but Kaitlin was not and the evening yielded plenty of baby holding and very little chance to pay attention to the music.

Wisely, we got a baby sitter when Lindley came back to Fort Ram in Fort Collins in November and because we had had so much fun there before, thanks to the huge dance floor, we organized a big group of friends to go. Unfortunately, luck was not with us or Lindley.

The opening band was Little Women, a reggae rock band that had often played a little blues and rock club in Fort Collins called Linden’s. Their music was rough and ready and vocalist/leader Jerry Joseph had a world-wise attitude that colored everything with a sarcastic grin. After their set, the wait in between bands began to get oppressive. Finally, someone got on stage to explain the situation. It seems that Lindley and crew had gotten stuck on the interstate north of Fort Collins thanks to a vehicle break-down. They were on their way, it was explained, but patience was being requested. The long wait took a lot out of our group and by the time Lindley made it to the stage, the excitement had been dampened. It became a case of better luck next time.