Jukebox: Unexpected delights are what keep us going to concerts

I believe most ticket-buyers, especially at expensive pop and mainstream rock shows, are so invested

My old friend Dwight always — and only — visits at this time of year. Though he’s lived in Austin for years, he grew up in Brooklyn and near Boston, so he seems to want a taste of real winter and comes here for it.

Whether he arrives direct from Austin or from seeing his sister in Boston, our visit always starts with a long lunch and taste of old Albany at Jack’s Oyster House. Since my day job moved to Corporate Woods (won’t somebody please name an office park “Oxymoron Orchards?”) I miss downtown and Jack’s, so it’s fun to meet Dwight there to launch each visit.

As predictable as that meeting may be, this time I changed things up by inviting Dwight to a show. I had barely delivered the invitation, without details, when Dwight impatiently waved off any further information and said, “Sure, I’ll go — but don’t tell me who’s playing!”

Now, music is not Dwight’s thing: He leaves Austin during South by Southwest (SXSW) to avoid the music mobs invading his town, clogging his favorite morning coffee joint and lunch spot with out-of-town hangovers and talk of bands he has no interest in seeing. He has his 1960s and 1970s vinyl albums: He’s all set.

Nonetheless, he was aware of the show I planned to take him to see, because he commented on my preview story about Jerry Douglas playing at The Egg. Dwight knew about Douglas: He has all the albums Douglas released on vinyl, and some CDs, and thinks Douglas falls just a hair’s width short of greatness, on the conceptual level.

Keeping the secret

I didn’t argue the point and managed not to give away the surprise. However, delivering the show as a surprise was tough, and I still don’t know where Dwight may have figured it out.

Was it when Jennifer in the box office handed over the tickets with a wish that we’d enjoy Jerry? Dwight was loitering, probably out of earshot then, while attracting some attention by strenuously avoiding reading all the signs promoting future shows. Was it when the friendly, well-informed elevator operator Kevin made a quip about our going to see the Nutcracker and pointed to the sign inside the elevator announcing Jerry Douglas in the Swyer Theater and the Nutcracker in the Hart Theater? Was it when Jerry himself waved at me in the lobby and said “Hello?” (We’ve met before and we’re both fans of my Nashville resident musician brother Jim Hoke.) Was it when friends talked about Jerry?

At some point well before Douglas led his band onstage, Dwight must have figured things out because he seemed completely unsurprised once the show started, until surprising things happened in the show. The uninhibited, jet-lagged charm and fantastic voice of Maura O’Connell amazed Dwight. The sheer skill and cranked-up zip of the music would have amazed anybody, and so would the incongruous participation of John Oates.

This one wasn’t as ragged and strange as Aimee Mann’s Christmas show last year in the Hart Theater, but it was certainly strange enough.

I liked Dwight’s desire to be surprised, because it’s really rare among concert-goers.

Specific expectations

I believe most ticket-buyers, especially at expensive pop and mainstream rock shows, are so invested in the performer they’ve paid big bucks to see that they bring very specific expectations to the show. Performers know this and they know they must deliver: jukebox-perfect renditions of their hits.

The first show I ever reviewed with a hundred-dollar-plus ticket price — the Eagles at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on their “Hell Freezes Over” Tour — was such a show. Picture-perfect, without a lick or a hair out of place, it was also soul-less. Yet everybody loved it, including those who came in late, smelling like good restaurants, moving slow — the better to be seen taking their pricey up-front seats — and talked throughout, stopping only to applaud wildly with everyone else, after songs they hadn’t bothered to listen to at all.

How do you suppose hyper-consumer fans of this variety will react if Elton John and Billy Joel don’t play their hits at the Times Union Center?

On the other hand, in the happy-consumer department, how pleasant a surprise is it that former Dire Straits guitarist and singer Mark Knopfler — who hasn’t played here for years — will play Albany’s Palace Theater this spring? Now that’s a surprise worth celebrating.

So, here’s to surprises, and to Dwight’s attitude.

If the logistics of work and family dinner and babysitting weren’t so forbiddingly complex — and tickets so pricey — I’d love to see what would happen if a venue were to send out tickets at random, inviting the receiver: “Show up at the Palace Theater on Friday at 8 p.m. and see what happens. Bring earplugs, drinks optional.” Imagine the ears that would be opened; imagine the new performers who would build their audiences by playing, rather than paying for hype; through the power of their performance, as bands, rather than the power of their brands.

That’s why I love it when superstar bands play incognito in clubs under phony names to test new tunes, or when free shows bring the unsuspecting into range of something fresh and unpredictable. When the Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet played in Amsterdam on my birthday two summers ago, rainstorms drove the show inside into a nondescript hotel ballroom and hundreds of people showed up with no idea what to expect and were knocked right out. That’s also just about what happens at every Music Haven free show in Schenectady’s Central Park.

Here’s also to opening acts, who are often surprises by nature and intention on shows by better-known stars.

Sometimes they’re locals, like towering-voiced troubadour Sean Rowe opening for Boz Scaggs at The Egg this year and making the most of his chance to shine on a bigger stage than the bars he usually plays. Sometimes they’re relatively unknown out-of-town acts, like the Brooklyn soul singer-keyboardist Jonah Smith who opened for the New Orleans funk-a-teers Dumpstaphunk at Revolution Hall and amazed everyone.

I don’t think anyone who went to see Joan Armatrading at The Egg several years ago will ever forget Scrapomatic’s fantastic opening set. And if Scrapomatic opens for Gregg Allman (who had the great David Lindley open for him at Proctor’s decades ago), I’m going! I know: They surprised me once, that first time, and nothing can be altogether new twice. But it’s also extra-cool when an artist I’ve seen before manages to surprise me.

That’s why I keep going to shows.

Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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