Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Best AAA Concerts I Attended (News, Views and Music Issue 177 Top Six)

Talking of live albums, there’s a slightly more personal top five for you this week (actually six because I couldn’t make my mind up which one to leave out). Yes this issue I shine a light on the small minor moments of musical history I was actually present for and talk you through six of the best AAA concerts I’ve ever attended. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not one of those fans who only lives for live music. I’ve only been to 14 gigs in my life (I’ve just counted) which is probably less than most of you reading this list (although we might well disagree on what counts as actual ‘music’). My problems with live music have always been that if a gig is bad then you’ve just forked out the money with which you could bought half an entire artist’s back catalogue which would take years to enjoy. If its good then you want to taste and savour it for far more than the three hours it took to listen to (I’m very much a collector rather than a casual music fan, for better or worse – probably worse actually now that I think about it...) I also have the added complication that I wasn’t even born when a majority of the acts I love and have devoted this site to were at their hey day (there’s no way I’d have missed out on the Dead or The Who at their peak and I’d have definitely bought tickets for the Monterey Pop Festival even if I’d had to walk all the way there myself, the Atlantic ocean included). You may note too that these gigs die off quickly somewhere around 2006 – which is when I fell poorly to the clutches of chronic fatigue and couldn’t cope with travelling to concerts anymore so, understandably, this list isn’t quite as impressive as it might be.

However I have at least been there for several chosen nights, I still have the memories (what memroeis chornic fatigue haven’t taken from me anyway!) and – me being me – I have a written record of what was played at pretty much all of these concerts, hastily scribbled down either during the shows or pieced together immediately after one has taken place (although sadly a few notes have got lost down the years so apologies if bits are missing!) For the record the other gigs that didn’t make the cut are two Hollies shows in the Midlands 1989-90 (fab – see below!), Paul McCartney in Birmingham 1990 (slightly marred by the fact we turned up to the gig a day early and effectively travelled there twice – well, it’s better than turning up a day late!), The Moody Blues in their home city of Birmingham in 1997 (they were a bit tired at the end of a gruelling tour – and some wally sitting in the back row sang along to everything. And I mean everything!), 10cc in Birmingham 1999 (nice, but only Graham Gouldmann and Rick Fenn were still in the band), The Searchers in Wolverhampton 2000 (the highlight of a four artist package band, which sadly meant they only played half an hour) and Ray Davies in Liverpool in 2006 (who turned up an hour late spent most of the three hour set changing his shirts!) If you attended any of these gigs too why not get in touch and say hi! So here, for one week only, is a guide to the six best AAA concerts I attended in order of importance:

1) Nils Lofgren (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Birmingham, 1998)

Set List (Part and not in order): No Mercy, Damaged Goods, Blue Skies, Run This Race, Shine Silently, Little On Up, Keith Don’t Go, Black Books, Cry Tough, Girl In Motion, Man In The Moon, A Shot At You, The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet, Moon Tears, What A Wonderful World, To Your Heart, I’ll Arise, Soft Fun, Goin’ Back, I Came To Dance, I Don’t Want To Talk About It)

My first choice might surprise many – but all I can say is, you weren’t there. Alas the full electric gigs featuring full bands and trampolines (I kid you not!) are long gone by 1998 when Nils was entering his mid 40s but the guitarist was arguably getting his second wind in this period, building up his reputation despite not having a true record deal (though the ‘Acoustic Live’ album is a pretty near match for this record). This was indeed Nils in acoustic mode, performing to a mere hundred or so people in two hour-long sets with only his brother Tommy in tow and punctuated by breathtaking elongated solos between the brothers that are among the best playing around. Among the songs were a handful of new ones Nils had only been playing for a few months and sadly never appeared properly on record (the ‘Acoustic Live’ album is the only place to hear them) – with ‘Little On Up’ sounding particularly strong. This was also the period Nils covered the Louis Armstrong classic ‘What A Wonderful World’ in his setlist. I don’t know it yet but at the time I heard it I was six months away from being driven crazy by that song after studying a speeded up version for my music A Levels wich I must have heard twice a week for the best part of a year (I still hear it when I close my eyes at night sometimes!) I happened to see the first of two nights Nils played at Ronnie Scott’s that week by the way – the better one, if the radio broadcast of the second gig is anything to go by (although both are pretty fab!) The highlight was a mournful ‘Shot At You’ extended by some seven or eight minutes with solo after solo – I can’t say I’ve ever cared for this song much on record but it took on a new life here, with Lofgren at his charismatic best. I must confess I didn’t really know Nils’ work that well at the time I saw this concert – I had a handful of LPs I’d bought from the much-missed Beano’s second hand record shop for a pound I’d played a handful of times (Grin’s 1+1 being the only Lofgren album I knew well back then) and only really knew Nils from his work with Neil Young (which, sadly, didn’t feature in the set bare a stark and spooky version of Crazy Horse’s ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’). This concert did the ultimate you can ask of any gig and made me want to learn more, properly kick-starting a love affair with Nils’ music that still continues to this day (I will track down the last Lofgren album I need for my collection – and I will review more of them on here soon I promise!)

2) Paul McCartney (Birmingham NIA, 2003)

Hello Goodbye/Jet/All My Loving/Getting Better/Let Me Roll It/Lonely Road/Your Loving Flame/Blackbird/ Every Night/We Can Work It Out/Mother Nature’s Son/Carry That Weight/The Fool On The Hill/My Love/Here Today/Something/Eleanor Rigby/Here There and Everywhere/Calico Skies/Michelle/Band On The Run/Back In The USSR/Maybe I’m Amazed/Let ‘Em In/She’s Leaving Home/Can’t Buy Me Love/Live and Let Die/Let It Be/Hey Jude/The Long and Winding Road/Lady Madonna/I Saw Here Standing There/Yesterday/Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band/The End

The DVDs of the ‘Back In The USSR/USA/World/Whatever The Heck Macca’s Decided To Call It This Time Around’ tour simply don’t do McCartney’s 2000-era band justice. Fiery from the first note and energetic to the last several hours later, this concert was about as far from a grainy poorly rehearsed 20 minute Beatles bootleg gig as its possible to get. Macca never sounded – or looked - this young, (even when he was) and the energy and commitment levels were a world away from the polished but rather too cautious band he’d taken out on tour in 1989/90 (I was there for that one too). The set list was virtually the one you can find on the official CD of the 2001 US tour (‘Back In The World’) with the addition of the Beatles song ‘Birthday’ (which was rather apt, seeing as it was the day after my dad’s!) The highlight was undoubtedly the trio of ‘tribute’ songs: ‘Here Today’ for Lennon (one of the best McCartney songs of the 1980s), ‘My Love’ for Linda (who’d only died four years before this) and ‘Something’ on a ukulele for George Harrison (who’d died less than 18 months before – the feelings were still raw for much of the audience). One thing that surprised me, though, was that after the opening ‘Hello Goodbye’ Paul rarely played bass throughout the show (Brian Ray doing the honours while Paul played guitar or piano). The gig was also notable for Macca forgetting the words to ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ – or so I thought until noticing that he makes the same ‘mistake’ on every bootleg/official release to date! The ‘other’ difference to the average setlisting of the time is that the band didn’t play ‘Coming Up’ – a pain for me as I still rate it as among the top three things Macca’s ever done (it was probably cut because a ‘preview’ of the gig in a local paper moaned on and on about how awful they thought that song was on an earlier date -these music journalists have no taste!) This was still a very special night, though, with Macca on strong vocal form (he can get a bit ropey on long tours; this was about the middle of a 30 date tour and he never sounded better) and, frankly, he could have sang ‘The Frog Song’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ for three hours and I’d still have loved it.

3) The Hollies (Stoke-On-Trent, 1990)

Set List (Part and not in order): Just One Look, Here I Go Again, Bus Stop, Stop! Stop! Stop!, On A Carousel, Too Young To Be Married, I’m Alive, We’re Through, Carrie Anne, He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother, The Air That I Breathe, Sorry Suzanne, Gasoline Alley Bred, King Midas In Reverse, Wasted On The Way, Soldier’s Song, Purple Rain, Shine Silently, Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress, Misery (extract), Pinball Wizard
The Hollies were my first love. They go back almost as far as I do (or at least as far as when I got a copy of their 20 Golden Greats album aged five) and we’ve rarely spent a day apart in all that time (believe me, I play a lot of Hollies albums – it’s just as well that there’s a lot of them to play). Fittingly they were my first gig too, albeit just, and looking at my old programmes I see that I saw them three times within a short period (the gig I mention here is my second, winning by a nose though the setlists of all three were more or less identical). I’m blooming glad I did – the likes of Graham Nash and Terry Sylvester are long gone but Allan Clarke is still proving his worth as one of the greatest singers of all time, Bobby Elliott still whacked the drums like a teenager and Tony Hicks still looked like one (age has caught up with him since – he now looks about 35; can you believe he’s actually a day older than Keith Richards?!) Alan Coates was the harmony singer then and together the Hollies sounded amazing. Now being the Hollies anorak I am I was always a little upset the band never seemed to do any of their gorgeous B sides or album tracks (you casual fans may think the A sides are good – honestly that’s nothing on their forgotten stuff) but at least the band threw a few oddities into this show. As usual the band paid tribute to CSN fans (not me at the time) by playing one of Nash’s post-Hollies songs; not ‘Teach Your Children’ for once on this tour but ‘Wasted On The Way’ a song with as much resonance for Nash’s first band as his second (a ‘King Midas’, complete with recorder, was a second Nash tribute on the night). Nostalgia for 60s pop stars was just becoming big when I saw this concert and the band had spent the tour asking for fans to nominate a great song of the 60s, playing a handful of them on different nights – luckily for me I got ‘Pinball Wizard’ even though I must admit I wasn’t actually a Who fan at the time (I partly owe The Hollies for that pleasure too). This gig also took place on what would have been John Lennon’s 50th birthday, the same night a memorial was taking place in Liverpool, causing the band to joke between sets about how much ‘he’d have hated having to watch Kylie Minogue for four hours’ and singing a burst of ‘Misery’ (little did I know it then but the band later revealed that Lennon and McCartney had co-written it with Clarke and Nash backstage at a 1963 gig in Merseyside). The highlight of the set, though, has to be ‘Soldier’s Song’, more dynamic than the record and slightly slower, with Elliott’s rattled tom toms, Clarke at full scream (this could be why he lost his voice by the end of the decade, actually) and the best synthesiser-depping-for-an-orchestra I’ve ever heard. All that and a light show too – fantastic!

4) Crosby-Nash (Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 2005)

Military Madness/Marrakesh Express/Long Time Gone/Just A Song Before I Go/Immigration Man/In My Dreams/Carry Me/Jesus Of Rio/They Want It All/Cathedral/Deja Vu/Cold Rain/Guinnevere/Milky Way Tonight/Puppeteer/ Wasted On The Way/Don’t Dig Here/I Used To Be A King/Delta/To The Last Whale/Wooden Ships/Our House/Almost Cut My Hair/Teach Your Children

No Stephen Stills that night, no Neil Young either (in Britain! As if!) but I actually preferred it that way as reducing the trio to a duo meant we were left with far more unusual songs than normal in a CSN concert. This was Nash’s first homecoming gig for a while and he was his ever confident self, joking about local places between songs and all the dreary rain-soaked places he remembered showing a shocked Califonian sun-tanned Crosby on their first gig together in the early 70s! What most surprised me was how uncomfortable on stage Crosby was, mostly singing with his hands in his pockets and agreeing with Nash, a long way from the comedy firecracker he is on the duo’s 1970s shows (Cros, notoriously, has to swallow half a chemist shop every day to fight off his medical problems, so perhaps he was just having an off night). The band were on good form too, featuring Crosby’s son James Raymond on keyboards (Crosby’s CPR spin off band had sadly folded by the time of this tour). The band were plugging a new CD ‘Crosby*Nash’ which inspired possibly the worst reviews I’ve ever read (I even got told to put it back and buy Neil Young’s ‘Greendale’ by the shop assistant in Virgin when I bought it; half an hour of abuse about why ‘Greendale’ is Neil’s worst album ever and CSN are the greatest band in history later the shop closed with me still ranting). The album’s songs sounded pretty good in concert though, especially ‘Live On (The Wall’) – although ironically that wasn’t sung on this show as Nash substituted a moving solo version of ‘Cold Rain’, written for the rainy Manchester streets half a mile away from the concert hall instead (I know because I also attended the Birmingham show of the tour, which was a tad more muted as it wasn’t Nash’s homecoming – and yes, it did rain on both occasions!) The highlight, though, has to be a mesmerising ‘I Used To Be A King’ a song that – as far as I know CSN/Y had never performed with a full band before this tour (though Crosby and Nash did an acoustic version together in the mid 70s) – although Crosby’s thrilling held note on ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ cuts it close (I’ve heard it on live albums and bootlegs a dozen times over, but this version filled the concert hall and nearly had the roof in Cros held it for so long!)

5) Brian Wilson (Birmingham NIA, 2002)

You’re Welcome/Wonderful/CabinEssence/Sail On Sailor/Friends/Dance Dance Dance/Our Prayer/Heroes and Villains/Your Imagination/The Night Was So Young/Melt Away/Meant For You/Busy Doin’ Nothin’/Good Timin’/Forever/Don’t Worry Baby/Do It Again/In My Room/Please Let Me Wonder/ You’re So Good To Me/My Diane/California Girls/Surf’s Up/Marcella/Wouldn’t It Be Nice?/You Still Believe In Me/That’s Not Me/Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)/I’m Waiting For The Day/Let’s Go Away For A While/Sloop John B/God Only Knows/I Know There’s An Answer/Here Today/I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times/Pet Sounds/Caroline, No/Good Vibrations/Surfer Girl/Surfin’ USA/Help Me, Rhonda/I Get Around/Fun Fun Fun/Barbara Ann/Love And Mercy

They say that Brian is back sang Mike Love in 1976, but it was actually more like 2000 that Brian Wilson was properly back to anything like full form – and ironically it was touring (the very thing he fled from in 1964 after a nervous breakdown) that helped nurse him back there. This wasn’t the first or even the second solo tour Brian had done by this time (backed by the wonderful Wondermints, a 60s cover band who knew their Beach Boys songs backwards and can play almost any instrument between them). But Brian was still new enough to touring for this to be a ‘new thing’. Alas for me this wasn’t the ‘Smile’ tour (that was to come) and it wasn’t the one plugging his under-rated ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ album either (that was to come too) – it was the Pet Sounds tour. Frankly I’ve never liked that album much (the gorgeous ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ aside) –here comes that late-into-the-night debate on Twitter again, with about half of you agreeing and half disagreeing with me- and seeing Brian sitting at a keyboard nodding his head, unsure where to look, for two elongated instrumentals, was unusual to say the least. Much better were the Beach Boys songs in set one that zipped by at breakneck speed (by my reckoning he did over 50 songs at this one show!) including some rarities: ‘Marcella’ was the absolute highlight, ending the first half on a sea of overlapping harmonies, the sound bouncing off the walls in true quadraphonic sound – if the Wondermints still aren’t quite up to the BB sound circa 1970 then heck they’re still the next best thing I’ve heard. ‘Good Timin’ and ‘Forever’ were particularly lovely, sung in tribute to Carl and Dennis respectively and Brian had never sung them before this tour I don’t think (quick check of reference books...hmm think I’m safe on that one), while ‘My Diane’ is a rarity from the ‘MIU Album’ that I’ve never heard any of the band play before and one of Brian’s most emotional songs of all(it’s all about the split from wife Marilyn but with the ‘twist’ that Brian refers to her using her sister’s name. For those who don’t know it was Diane Rovell he started dating before he fell for her older sister). Admittedly I saw the reunited BBoys on TV rather than in concert this year but I bet they weren’t anything like as good as this (even with the Wondermints still backing), throwing some delightfully rare material as well as all the expected hits. I just wish I’d been there for the ‘Smile’ tour a year or so later, as it’s still my favourite album of all time even 300 reviews into this site...but hey I did get to see a real live Beach Boy at the top of his game so I’m not too upset.

6) The Monkees (Birmingham NEC, 1997)

Last Train to Clarksville, Circle Sky. Regional Girl, Sunny Girlfriend, Mary, Mary, You and I (JustUs song, not Instant Replay), Randy Scouse Git, Shades of Gray (Davy lead vocal), You Just May Be the One, Oh, What a Night, I’m a Believer, Two-Part Invention in F Major (Peter Tork), Rio (Mike Nesmith), Since I Fell for You (Micky Dolenz), Daddy's Song (Davy Jones), For Pete's Sake, A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, Goin’ Down, Your Auntie Grizeld, Shades Of Gray, Valleri, Listen to the Band, Porpoise Song, Daydream Believer, (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone, Pleasant Valley Sunday

No one was more shocked than me when the Monkees announced their first tour together as a quartet since 1968. The British music press were so shocked they sat in stony silence the whole tour before at the end slagging the band off just as badly as they had in 1967 when the ‘Monkees don’t play their own instruments because – durrrrh – they’re actors on a TV show’ scandal first reared its ugly head. What the press didn’t bother to research was that this was one tour that wasn’t just for the money (after inheriting the liquid paper millions from his mother after the Monkees split – ironically after a childhood spent in poverty – Nesmith never needs to do anything ever again and the other three had made enough in the 1980s to keep them going for a while). Like 1967 the band overcame their sceptics and played all their own instruments on stage (barring the solo section) and had a ball doing so, even if their performance was more that of gifted amateurs than accomplished hardened musicians. Frankly, though, any band who hadn’t played together for 30 years would have sounded rough and I’ve heard plenty of supposedly better musicians sound a lot worse. By and large the setlist was just a collection of the songs you’d expect and was rather too heavy on the current ‘JustUs’ album (an unexpected travesty of time and talent, the worst Monkees album of all in my opinion and proof positive good intentions alone don’t make for good albums), though note the songs you might not recognise in the middle of the set listing above which saw the band repeat their 1960s live strategy of giving all four members a turn in the spotlight. Tork played Bach (again), Nesmith went to Rio (nice), Davy unexpectedly reprised his Harry Nilsson cover from ‘Head’ (interesting) and Micky sang a song he remembered his mother singing to him as a baby (well, at least it was a lot better than ‘Pillow Time’, the song she actually wrote for him to sing). The musical highlight, though, was a spellbinding ‘Shades Of Gray’ – a 20-year-old Davy coped well with the song on ‘Headquarters’ but his older, wiser 50-year-old self brought the house down on this superb version, the one time in the whole show the Monkees stopped playing for laughs and reached for the heartstrings. The non-musical highlight? The quartet somehow managed to do the ‘Monkee walk’ without tripping over, even if they did it slightly slower than they had in 1966. A bit of trivia for you: Mike Nesmith’s son Christian appeared in the opening act ‘Nancy Boy’ – the band have recently reformed after a 10 year hiatus. Just thought you might like to know.

So there you have it. What are your memories of seeing AAA bands live on stage? Are you mature (kind word for ‘old’) enough to have seen The Beatles on a screaming package tour, The ‘orrible ‘oo in windmilling style or are you young (kind word for immature) enough to be one of the many millions who came of age watching Oasis play Knebworth in 1996? Drop us a line! Till next week then, thank-you for reading – see you again next week!

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