Jukebox: Same-night concert choices still make me crazy

Missing out on Joni Mitchell, but catching a new kid named Springsteen
Bruce Cockburn plays The Egg on Friday -- one of many good shows that night.
Bruce Cockburn plays The Egg on Friday -- one of many good shows that night.

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

On Aug. 21, 1979, I went to see KC and the Sunshine Band at SPAC rather than Joni Mitchell at Tanglewood. I know! Five years before ex-Police-man Sting formed his Blue Turtles jazz band, Joni led her own great jazz crew at T’wood: Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Elias; the Persuasions opened and sang backup. Music pals who saw the show still lower their voices and bow their heads when they mention it, trying not to make me feel bad that I went instead to see bland disco of vapid cheerfulness behind a mediocre singer who’d mostly lost his voice.

Jaco, Michael Brecker, Don Elias and some Persuasions have died, while illness has forced Mitchell to retire from performing. (Resilient as a ’57 Chevy, she seems on the mend, but I digress.)

That night won’t come again.

Neither will this Friday, when Bruce Cockburn plays The Egg, Of Montreal plays the Skyloft, Bella’s Bartok plays the Parish Public House, Magpie plays the Eighth Step, Project Trio plays Caffe Lena and dozens of other acts play maybe 50 venues here.

Of Montreal — super-prolific, neon-intense, beyond-indie, pop-theater ensemble of Kevin Barnes — might be the most intriguing band of the bunch when they play at Skyloft (1 Crossgates Mall Road, Albany). Barnes made “White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood” (his 23rd album since 1997) mostly alone rather than with the touring band (likely a quintet) he’ll lead here Friday. He has said it was influenced by “extended dance mixes” from the 1980s. Locate S,1 opens. 8 p.m. $20 advance, $25 door. 518-869-5638 www.skyloftny.com

Sometimes even the wrong choice goes right.

Oct. 19, 1974 — 45 years ago last Saturday — I went to see the fusion bands Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever at Albany’s Palace. Both were past their sell-by dates, faded from their glory days just two years before when the MO played a super-loud, brilliantly dynamic show at Union College’s Memorial Chapel and RTF opened for Weather Report at the Lenox Music Inn. THEN, after their Palace show, I raced to the Union College Memorial Chapel and caught this new kid, Bruce Springsteen, in his area debut. Still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, it was better than I deserved after choosing another show first that night.

Another hard lesson, now that I’m confessing show-night miscues: Get a damn ticket. When a carful of friends and I went to Saratoga one spring 1964 night to hit Caffe Lena on impulse, we climbed the narrow rickety stairs into a reverent, reverberant room, a sold-out hushed and holy space. Mississippi John Hurt mesmerized, alone onstage. To this day, that was the deepest, spookiest, starkest music I’ve ever heard; all two minutes of it, before Lena chased us out.
Other times, you get lucky.

When the Rolling Stones played Buffalo’s Rich Stadium 1981 with Journey and George Thorogood, their tour publicist Ren Gravatt agreed to provide the press ticket I requested by phone. Then he said, “The Grateful Dead play the War Memorial Auditorium the night before; want to see that?” Yes; yes, indeed — maybe the sharpest, tightest Dead shows I ever saw. 

Publicist Rene Pfefer had to explain her invitation to “Christmas With Cockburn” at Bearsville Theatre in mid-December 1991 in arm-twisting terms and with more patience than I deserved. It would be radio-broadcast around the world on a network Columbia Records built for the occasion. “OK, I’ll go” — and OMG! Deluxe! Cockburn played originals and Christmas carols, alone and with opener Sam Phillips’ great band: T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield, Richard Bell, Miche Pouliot, John Dymond and Colin Linden — who produced a session I saw at Keb’ Mo’s Nashville home studio in January; my brother Jim Hoke played piano, accordion and pedal steel. Check Keb’s “Oklahoma” album, but I digress.

After the Bearsville show, I spotted T-Bone, Sam and the Traum brothers at a nearby table in the Little Bear Café, where I toasted my great good luck for saying yes to that extraordinary show.

And raise a glass of the good stuff to producer Zeke Kubisch for “The Scene,” which WMHT-TV premiered Sunday and is streaming now.

In just 30 minutes of interviews with artists, fans and impresarios; vintage photos; live footage; posters and other publicity, it felt like a fantastic appetizer, thrillingly evocative of old friends and vanished scenes.

If you were there, for example, a photo of U2 onstage at J.B. Scott’s brought back the thrill of seeing those Irish kids start to take over the world. Seeing Bobby Dick reminisce reminded me of walking into Lorenzo’s Lounge on Broadway with my fake ID just in time to hear him and his Sundowners start “Hey, Little One,” a love song of heartbreaking poignancy. I remembered Dick telling me how he caught a Stones roadie stealing a tube from his guitar amp when the Sundowners opened for the Rolling Stones at the Palace. I wondered if I were in a long line pictured waiting to get into J.B. Scott’s, and I remembered the excited preshow buzz there. Yeah, I remember the leopard backstage at the Hulla Balloo, but the wild, music-crazed exuberance of Vinnie Birbiglia welcoming us into J.B. Scott’s made just as vivid an impression back then. Bluesman James Cotton taught me how to drink tequila shots at that bar.

“The Scene” showed a lot because a lot happens here.

As with any such overview, viewers might quibble with what it showed or omitted. No Knickerbockers? What about that night Syd Straw played QE2 until 4 a.m.?

Remember that talking jukebox in the University Twist Palace? Through that box, you’d tell a person across town, somewhere, what song you wanted, and it would boom out at you. Blotto and the Units/Fear of Strangers deserve their own shows, or series. … But I found “The Scene” rich and fun. Best moments: joyous fans bouncing to energized music and the reflections of Michael Eck and Al Quaglieri. First time I met Al, he whipped out a list-in-the-making of area bands and players, and I felt proud I could fill in some of the blanks. Both Al and Mr. Eck are veteran participants and shrewd observers, and they beautifully describe the loud, electric dynamism and competitive/cooperative vibe of that time and place.

How perfectly apt that the last face and voice in “The Scene” is the late, great Greg Haymes.

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