There are many aspects that make a good concert experience. Primarily of course, is the music. How does the artist and the band sound? Is what I’m hearing on stage like what I hear on the vinyl?
Maybe we all have different criteria, though. I am particularly fond of hearing an artist sing the hits live. I want see and hear Hall & Oates sing “She’s Gone” and “Sara Smile”; I want to see and hear Brian Wilson sing “Surfer Girl”; I want to personally witness Elton John sing “Rocket Man”; I want to be in the stadium and experience “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen.
As a music writer, there are several other aspects of a concert that add to the experience for me. Oftentimes, I interview the artist and write a story for my media group advancing the show. Was the interview a pleasant experience and did I get a lot of good information? The stories are personally important to me, so if I’ve had an enjoyable and informative conversation with the artist and written a good story, then I’m even more anxious to see the show.
Also contributing to my concert experience are where I’m sitting and if I’m allowed to take pictures during the show, many of which can be used in the volumes of The Vinyl Dialogues. And then sometimes, I’ll get the chance to meet the artist after the show. That’s always very cool and is a nice bonus to top off a great concert experience.
A special note here: Local artists are the backbone of my concert experience every year, and the Philly area boasts some incredibly talented musicians and performers that I try to see as often as I can. Do yourself a favor and give a listen to Dan May, JD Malone, Billy Burger, Lizanne Knott, Skip Denenberg and Mutlu.
With the close of 2016 then, here’s a look back at what was a great concert season on the national level. I was going to choose a Top 10, but couldn’t keep it to just 10. So these are the Top 12 concerts I saw in 2016:
No. 12 – Bob Dylan
July 13 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA.
I understand the significance of Bob Dylan. I really do. But his music has never really spoken to me on a personal level. Still, it’s Bob Dylan and I felt the need to see him perform so I could say that I saw him live. There would be no interview on this one, but that’s no surprise. Dylan doesn’t do many interviews.
For the show, I enlisted my friend Ted Wolf, who’s a huge Dylan fan, to go with me. Ted knows every song that Bob has ever recorded and has seen him in concert more than 30 times. I’ve said for years that if I ever decided to spring for a Dylan ticket, that I’d want Ted along with me to interpret what it was Bob was actually saying. The thing is, Ted lives in Illinois. So for this concert, he drove all the way to Philly the day before the performance and drove back to Illinois the day after the show. Ted really, really likes Dylan.
The show was typical Bob being Bob, singing with a mouthful of marbles. As anticipated, Ted was an invaluable concert mate, both as the interpreter and with identifying the titles of the songs. The seats were fairly pricey and in the second level nosebleeds. So photos allowed, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway from that distance.
Bob Dylan makes my Top 12 concerts of the year list because he’s Bob Dylan.
No. 11 – Art Garfunkel
May 20 at McCarter Theatre on the campus of Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
I had a wonderful interview with Art Garfunkel, which was good because Garfunkel doesn’t easily suffer fools, particularly those who ask stupid questions, which Garfunkel identifies as pretty much any question about Paul Simon. But I knew that because I had done my homework and was prepared to not ask those questions.
The show itself featured just Garfunkel and an accompanying guitarist. But like Bob Dylan, this is Art Garfunkel. Our parents grew up with Simon & Garfunkel and we listened to those records because they loved those records. And so do we. Simon & Garfunkel were as big as any American artists in the 1960s.
Garfunkel had suffered some serious voice issues a few years back, which he told me during the interview were now resolved. But to my untrained ear, that wasn’t entirely the case at the Princeton show. If you closed your eyes, there were times you could hear that wonderful Art Garfunkel voice and it was truly magical. But there also were times that if you closed your eyes, you could hear what sounded like someone stepping on Art Garfunkel’s throat.
Really though, I don’t necessarily expect a guy that’s 75 years old to sing like he did when he was 25 years old. Garfunkel is also persnickety about photographs and stopped the show at one point to chastise somebody down front who had pulled out a cellphone. So the only usable shot I got was after the performance as Garfunkel was taking a bow.
No. 10 – Boz Scaggs
April 14, Keswick Theatre, Glenside, PA.
This show was a pleasant surprise because it was unexpected. The tickets were a gift from The Blonde Accountant (my wife) because we found ourselves with a cooperative work schedule that presented the rare opportunity to go out on a weeknight. Even at the last minute, we were able to get great seats, 15 rows back, and dead center.
There was no interview, but I got some great photos. Scaggs was in great voice, but he’s doesn’t move around much on stage and there wasn’t much in-between song banter with the audience, neither of which was a big deal to me for this show.
Of course, we all sang along on “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown.” Those are the songs that I wanted to hear Scaggs sing live. But I was particularly struck with the second encore song, a cover of “There’s a Storm Comin’” by Richard Hawley. It’s a beautiful song and Scaggs did a wonderful job with it. It was somewhat unusual to close the show with a ballad, but it didn’t do anything to dampen the enthusiasm of an appreciative audience.
No. 9 – Paul Anka
Dec. 16, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, N.J.
Not only was Anka a great interview, he’s got a direct lineage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, which makes him . . . just . . . that . . . cool.
But what I liked about this show was Anka’s interaction with the audience. He entered singing through the back of the venue, walking down the aisle shaking hands and stopping to pose for pictures. And then about six songs into his set, he came back down off the stage, went back into the middle of the crowd, stood on a theater seat and sang a medley of songs while people surrounded him with cell phones and hugs.
Paul Anka didn’t mind that a bit. I think the audience can sense when an artist genuinely wants to interact with them on a personal level. The audience responded to Anka with adulation and Anka in turn fed off that energy. It made for a special concert, I thought.
And I liked that Anka closed the show with the song that started it all – “Diana,” a song that he wrote in 1957 and one that became his first hit single. All these years later and Anka hasn’t forgotten the song that started it all for him.
No. 8 – The Festival of Soul
Nov. 25, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, N.J.
This show had five acts – Ted Wizard Mills of Blue Magic; Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes (which had no original members but sounded fabulous); The Jones Girls featuring Shirley Jones (not the Mrs. Partridge Shirley Jones); The Dramatics featuring LJ Reynolds; and The Stylistics.
I was there for The Stylistics, and particularly for original lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr. and his high falsetto voice. I loved The Stylistics as a kid in the 1970s and Thompkins has been high on my interview bucket list since I’ve been writing about music.
Cross that one off. I had the pleasure of talking to Thompkins for a story to advance this show, and he didn’t disappoint. Look for a chapter in The Vinyl Dialogues Volume IV on The Stylistics self-titled debut album released in 1971.
The show was highly entertaining, my seat was outstanding and I got some great photos. Russell Tompkins Jr. sounded just as good that evening as he did in the 1970s on those great Stylistics hits “You Are Everything,” “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “I’m Stone in Love With You” and “Rockin’ Roll Baby.”
I did, however, get caught a little underdressed in jeans and a collar shirt. Almost everyone else in the audience was dressed to the nines in some of the most colorful and fashionable threads I had seen in a while. And it made me wish that I still had the pink paisley jacket with the red pants I wore to my eighth grade graduation in 1973.
No. 7 – Steely Dan (with Steve Winwood)
July 3, BB&T Pavilion, Camden, N.J.
This easily could have been higher on list. It was the first time I had seen Steely Dan live, and the band’s music is really, really good. I’ve always liked it.
But our seats were pretty far from the stage, which essentially eliminated any chance of getting decent photos. I had not had the opportunity to interview Dan co-founders Donald Fagan or Walter Becker, so there was no personal backstory for me.
But none of that took away from the great music I heard that night. A good concert is a good concert, and Steely Dan is worth the price of admission. I’d certainly go see that band again.
No. 6 – Brewer & Shipley
Nov. 2, Sellersville Theatre 1894, Sellersville, PA.
This show was special because of the great personal story that goes with it, all centered around Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley’s hit single, “One Toke Over the Line,” from their 1970 album “Tarkio,” which was featured in Volume I of The Vinyl Dialogues.
After that song became a hit, it was featured on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” sung by the duet of Dick Dale and Gail Farrell. Because the Welk show and its stars had a squeaky clean image, I tracked down Ms. Farrell to ask her if she knew she was singing a song that featured a drug reference because I wanted to add that information to the “Tarkio” chapter. But she wouldn’t tell me because she is writing a one-woman show for herself and the answer to that question is a prominent part of the show.
I kept in touch with Gail and her husband Ron Anderson, also a Welk Show singer in the 1970s. When I found out that Brewer & Shipley were scheduled to appear in my area of Pennsylvania, I emailed Gail and Ron and suggested they fly out from California and go to the show with me.
To my surprise, they decided to do just that. Gail had actually never met Michael and Tom, so we arranged with their manager to meet before the show. It was a wonderful get-together and all of us were invited to have dinner with Michael and Tom. It was great for me to sit at the table and listen to Michael, Tom, Gail and Ron exchange entertainment stories.
During the show, Michael told the “One Toke” story and introduced Gail to the surprised audience. It was a very cool epilog to a story that began 45 years ago and I was fortunate to be a fly on the wall and experience the whole thing.
No. 5 – Brian Wilson
Aug. 27, Caesar’s, Atlantic City, N.J.
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are responsible for my very first music memory – listening to a 45 rpm record of “The Little Girl I Once Knew” around 1965. And I’ve been in love with those harmonies ever since.
I’ve interviewed Brian three times, met him on two occasions and have seen both him and the Beach Boys in concert more times than I can remember. And I have just about every record he and the Beach Boys have ever made. Seeing Brian Wilson in concert is something I experience every time I can.
This show featured a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of the landmark “Pet Sounds” album, which Brian and his fabulous band performed in its entirety.
We had great seats, eighth row stage left, that gave me a great angle for pictures. Brian’s music, and that of the Beach Boys, has been an important part of my life. If this had been the first time I had seen Brian, it would have been my No. 1 concert experience of the year.
No. 4 – Hall & Oates
July 10, BB&T Pavilion, Camden, N.J.
Just a week after the Steely Dan show, I was back at the same venue for Hall & Oates, and with much better seats this time, thanks to H&O management.
Next to the Beach Boys, I’m totally in the bag for anything Hall & Oates. I have been fortunate enough to interview Daryl and John several times over the years. Two of the most favorite chapters I’ve written in The Vinyl Dialogues series have been about Hall & Oates albums: “Abandoned Luncheonette” in Volume I and “Daryl Hall & John Oates” (The Silver Album) in Volume III.
These guys are so good in concert. They don’t miss a note or a word, and the band is tight. They sing all the hits, and that’s what one gets at a H&O concert.
This show included a special surprise during the first song of the second encore: an appearance by the great Chubby Checker. Imagine that, Hall & Oates singing “The Twist” with Chubby Checker.
But that wasn’t all. With the second song of the second encore, and the final song of the evening, Hall & Oates stayed true to their Philly roots and did a cover of “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” a 1969 single by the Philadelphia group the Delfonics, a song originally produced by the great Thom Bell, who also wrote for and produced The Stylistics and The Spinners.
Hall & Oates never disappoint. We all left in a Philly mood.
No. 3 – Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
June 11, The Tropicana, Atlantic City, N.J.
The high ranking of this show may surprise those who know me, particularly because it’s ranked ahead of Brian Wilson and Hall & Oates.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. were members of the highly successful group The 5th Dimension, which had some great hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “Up, Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
The husband-and-wife team broke away from the 5th Dimension in the mid-1970s and had a hit single with “You Don’t Have to Be A Star” from their 1976 album “I Hope We Get to Love in Time.” I had interviewed Marilyn and Billy about the making of that album for “The Vinyl Dialogues Volume II: Dropping the Needle.”
Here’s the thing about Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.: they are not only talented artists and singers, but they’re first-class individuals. I can’t say enough about the class and grace of these two stars. And they’re great interviews. They’ll be featured again in the next volume of The Vinyl Dialogues talking about the 1969 album “Age of Aquarius” by the 5th Dimension.
Not only that, they still sound the same today as they did in the 1960s. Both their voices are strong and vibrant. We had great seats, courtesy of Marilyn and Billy, fifth row dead center. We got to meet them after the show, and they were as gracious in person as they have been in interviews.
This was the one show of 2016 that had all the elements of a great concert experience by my standards: outstanding music, singing and stage presence; some of the best seats in the house; a wonderful interview experience that made for a great advance story; and getting to meet the artists after the show.
It easily could have been the best show of the year. But it took two really big heavyweights to put Marilyn and Billy at No. 3.
No. 2 – Elton John
Sept. 23 at the Giant Center, Hershey, PA.
Elton John performed in the first concert I ever saw, at the Chicago Amphitheater in 1976. I’ve seen him live in every decade since. And I’ve never had a decent seat.
Until this show. And it was planned and executed just like I hoped it would be.
Elton has been a big arena and stadium concert performer during his career. I’m really not fond of stadium concerts. There are just too many people and if you want to get close enough to see anything, you have to spring for the big money tickets.
And Elton is usually a big money ticket, even for the cheap seats. But this time I got lucky because I made my own luck.
The Giant Center in Hershey is a hockey/basketball arena. For this show, the venue sold tickets behind the stage that were reasonably priced at $75. Although I’d never sat behind the stage for a concert, it struck me that those had the potential to be decent seats for the price.
Fortunately, the venue has a virtual seating chart on its website. I knew from past Elton concerts and from watching his performances on TV and online, that he usually positions his piano on the far left of the stage. If you’re out front and sitting to the right of center, you’re looking into Elton’s face as he sits at the piano. But there’s a good portion of an arena crowd that is looking at Elton’s back for an entire show.
So I got on the online virtual seating chart, chose a seat that was stage left behind so that I was looking into Elton’s face, and checked out the virtual view. It looked to be the right angle for photos. I hit the button and bought the tickets.
And it worked out perfectly. Although I was looking at the backs of the band members for the entire show, I had a perfect view of Elton’s face. And he’s used to having people sit in the seats behind the stage because he plays to that part of the crowd quite a bit. I was as close as I’d ever been at an Elton John show and I got some great photos.
Elton has been on my interview bucket list from the get-go. I’ve always been a big fan and I’d love to write about his 1975 album “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.”
Every time I’ve seen him perform live, Elton brings it. And this show was no exception. Outstanding from the first song to the last. And I got a good view this time.
No. 1 – Bruce Springsteen
Sept. 7, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA.
I’ve come to the Bruce Springsteen party later in life. But now I’m a believer.
Springsteen is a pricey ticket and plays in big stadiums. As previously stated, I’m not not fond of either of those concert experiences. So I had never seen him perform live, much to the consternation and ridicule of the Springsteen faithful among my friends.
But from the first note of his opening song, “New York City Serenade,” I was hooked. I felt it in my heart. I finally got it.
We were fortunate enough to be there the night Springsteen and the E Street Band performed for four hours and four minutes, which currently stands as the U.S. record length for a live concert performance.
And Springsteen and the band left it all out there on the stage. He gave us everything he had, which is how it is for him every time he performs. The guy has an endless energy and it wears one out to just watch him. It was the quickest four hours of entertainment I’d ever witnessed and more than worth every penny spent on tickets.
I had written on The Vinyl Dialogues blog after the show that my first Springsteen experience was so good that my initial reaction was that I would hesitate to go see him again. I don’t want to mess up that special first Springsteen experience.
There’s a reason he’s called the Boss. He’s just that good.