by JT Ellison
Randy and I went to a concert a couple of Saturdays ago, one I’d been looking forward to for weeks. Months! Billy Joel, with Elton John.
Now, for the record, I adore Billy Joel. Adore the music, the stories, the way he engages the audience. I’ve seen him in concert before, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It was at the Cap Center (now US Airways Arena) in Landover, Maryland. I was in high school, which meant a limited allowance, so I could only afford to purchase the cheap seats. Obstructed view. Behind the stage. I was a little bummed, but figured I’d be able to hear, even if I couldn’t see.
Boy, was I surprised. Billy Joel set up his stage with pianos on all four corners, and made a point of playing to every section of the crowd. Even though my seats were “obstructed,” I had a great view, and for a quarter of the concert, Billy sang directly to me. He was funny, self-effacing and charming. The music was outstanding. I went home feeling like I’d been a part of something special, something unique. He’d touched me, without ever having set eyes on me, or knowing I was there. Now that’s power.
Fast forward to current day. We can afford better seats now, though through a timing error we ended up in the nosebleeds. My vertigo and I enjoyed that. Thankfully, the lights went down quickly, and out came Billy and Elton. They played two songs in duet, then Billy exited the stage and Elton took over.
And I mean it when I say Elton took over. The lights. The flash. The pure, unadulterated rock. The individual songs that went on (and on, and on) for fifteen to twenty minutes. And after each song (finally) finished, Elton ran around the stage, banging himself on the chest and inciting the crowd for applause. If I had a microphone near his mind, it would have very clearly screamed LOOK AT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We slipped out, took a break, got a drink, walked around, and still he played. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of Elton John that I like. But this was a full-on Wembley Stadium show sandwiched into the Sommet Center. And there was this crazy thing that was also supposed to be going on….. Oh, right. Billy Joel.
Elton played for an hour and a half, and after every single song, he paraded around, basking in the adulation. It just felt so forced, so unnecessary. And in contrast, when Billy Joel finally was allowed to take the stage, he started a conversation with the crowd. He apologized to the people with the crappy seats. He told jokes. He talked about his love for, and connection to, Nashville. He took a moment after each song to introduce a band mate. He made it about us, and them, and not about him.
He had the crowd eating out of his hand in two seconds, simply because he seemed to grasp something Elton John didn’t. Billy was there for us. He was playing for us. Elton, sadly, played at us. Elton was a performer, but Billy was an entertainer.
We’ve all met those kinds of people, the ones who ask you how you are, then immediately launch into a recitation of how they are. The people who self-aggrandize, who bang their chests and do everything to get people to notice them. The people who are desperate for any kind of attention, and will do whatever it takes to make sure they’re at the center of it all.
There’s a lesson to be taken away from this. We authors, for better or for worse, are public figures. There are expectations, and challenges, along the way. It’s a heady, heady experience to have people read your work and appreciate it, to gain fans, to entertain strangers. And it’s very easy to fall into the “me” mentality: to think your life, your work, your stories are more important, more entertaining, and more appreciated than anyone else’s at the table. To let your ego take over and run away with your reputation.
I just hope that no one ever comes away from a conference, or a panel, or a signing that I’ve participated in and think that I’ve pulled an Elton John. Give me Billy Joel any day.
And speaking of Mr. Joel, I am most definitely in a New York state of mind. Literally, and figuratively. As you read this, I’m traipsing the streets of Manhattan, one of my favorites cities in the whole world. Lots of events on the plate: meetings galore, signings, and hopefully, a night to ourselves to have a quiet meal and some good wine. I’d like to squeeze in an afternoon at MOMA, a trip up the Empire State Building, and if my ankle holds up, a walk through Central Park. So please don’t hold it against me if I don’t comment in a timely fashion.
Your questions for today –
What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen? Why?
And what’s your favorite city in the whole wide world???
Wine of the Week: Chateau Ross 2005 Big Bitch Red
One of the first concerts I ever saw was Procol Harum, warmed up by Golden Earring and Billy Joel. The standout performance was most definitely turned in by Joel. The next day I went out and bought his Piano Man album, and have since purchased it on cassette tape and CD, as technology has changed. He’s an amazingly talented man.
But the best concert I’ve been to, hands down, was Willie Nelson and John Fogerty, who has to be one of the most energetic ever performers. My brother-in-law was given tickets in the summer of 2007, but he doesn’t care for Willie, who I have a not-so-secret crush on, so he gave them to me for me and a friend. I couldn’t think of a single Fogerty song, but once he started singing it turned out we recognized nearly every one of them, and sang along like crazy people. I had no idea he’d been with Credence Clearwater Revival, and had written many of their songs. It was a solid blast.
Funny…when I saw Billy Joel in the late 70’s, I thought he was an arrogant shithead. Maybe it was the goosestepping and mock-Nazi salutes during "Big Shot". But I got high at the show with my cute French teacher, so I’d have to put that concert in the top 10 for that alone.
I’ve seen so many good ones, it’s hard to pick one. Probably the one I saw at Kenan Stadium at the University of North Carolina in, I think ’83. Todd Rundgren was the headliner, and the opening band that preceded him onstage was an up and coming outfit from Ireland called U2.
Right before U2 came on, it started pouring rain. They opened with "Gloria", which climaxed with Bono climbing a stage support and singing the last chorus from 40 feet in the air in a driving monsoon. And that was the first song.
Poor Todd. He did his best, and there was a great moment when he pulled people out of the crowd to play percussion on and extended version "Bang on the Drum", but there was just no way to follow that.
Funny JT. Billy had that same conversation with the crowd in St. Louis last week, or was it the week before? Great concert and I enjoyed Elton John. A bit over the top, but he was good.
I’ve been to so few concerts… But when I worked for Anheuser Busch, we had a Christmas Party at ou local hockey arena three years running. They featured John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow and Sting. I thought the Mellencamp concert was awesome. Small venue, we were allowed to stand right at the stage.
From my youth I remember getting rocked in front row seats by Supertramp.
Favorite city…. Hana, Hawaii (Maui)
Hard to single just one out, JT, but here’s definitely one of the most memorable ones for me.
It was in the early 70s. Bob Dylan (a god to all of us then) had had a very bad motorcycle accident, and disappeared. Rumors flew for many, many months about his condition, noone knew if we’d ever see him again, if he’d ever be himself, if he could even sing. Then we heard: He was going back on tour. Nothing about what shape he was in, just…he was going to be there.
We crowded into Boston Garden…and (backed by The Band, of course), he was just extraordinary, ripping through the songs, raising the emotional level. And then, partway through, he began to sing "Like a Rolling Stone," and on that anthemic musical line, "How does it FEEL?", suddenly all the lights on the arena shot on, and there we all were, tens of thousands of people singing full-throated, united with the singer, celebrating his return. Man, gives me a shiver even now.
My favorite concert has to be the Rolling Stones, back in the early 70s playing in the Mobile Alabama Municipal Auditorium. To this day, I’ve never seen another human being perform at the level of excitement and energy as Mick Jagger. BTW, their warm-up act was Stevie Wonder.
Favorite city: Amsterdam.
George Harrison, first solo tour, Olympia Stad. Detroit……….2nd row center!!! Ravi Shankar opened.
First off, I’ve not been to as many concerts as I would have liked, second, you have to remember I was born in ’81 and didn’t attend my first until I was almost out of high school. That being said, my sophomore year in college, my ex’s brother won tickets for the Kiss reunion show (while it was still all four original members) and gave them to us. I was so not interested in going, but it happened to be down the street from the apartment I was moving into so I reluctantly agreed.
It totally rocked! It is, to this day, the best concert I have ever been to. I missed out on all the action when they were really big and was surprised to find that the reason I thought I didn’t like them was because I’d only heard 1 song, ever. I’m a big Kiss fan now. The performance was so over the top and fun, it’s one of the most high-energy shows I’ve ever been to. And it was an arena concert compared to the other hillside shows I’ve been to.
One other that I really enjoyed, and again, it was an after-he-was-big show, was Billy Idol. Super fun.
Probably my favorite thing to do ever.
When Donald and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary I made him a collage using all our concert tickets for shows we had seen up till then.
It’s tough to pick a favorite, but I agree with Joe that it’s pretty hard to top the energy Mick Jagger brings to the stage.
But bursting into tears at a concert is pretty memorable; which is what I did at the "Eric Clapton Sings Just the Blues" concert when he walked out on stage and sang "Ain’t Nobody’s Business." A capella .
The Procol Harum concert was in 1974, at the very beginning of Billy Joel’s fame. I mean, he was a warmup band, for heaven’s sake.
As a recovering musician, I’ve been to more concerts than I can remember. Standouts (in no particular order):
The Who at Folsom Field, Colorado University 1989
Maynard Ferguson in Vandergrift PA 2002 (Took my daughter to see him for the first time)
Maynard Ferguson at a Holiday Inn in HArmar Township PA in 1973
Pittsburgh Symphony playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, circa 1977
Boston Symphony playing Mahler’s Second, fifth, and Ninth symphonies. (Different nights, of course)
Canadian Brass with the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic principal brass players at Wolf Trap, 1990-ish.
Tower of Power at the Burchmere in Alexandria VA, 2004
(Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.)
Favorite city: Pittsburgh. I miss it every day.
Favorite City I Didn’t Grow Up In: Chicago. By a mile.
Damn, that was a good posting! Not only have I met those kinds of people, I’ve been those kinds of people, at different times in my life. From my experience, that kind of chest-beating comes from feeling insecure. Why else would someone feel compelled to read you their resume unless they felt insecure about who they were? I think it’s a very fine line we authors walk, because we need to get the word out about ourselves via websites and blogs and bios, and yet we want to retain some sense of humility. This is something I struggle with daily. Maybe it’s a newbie thing – I feel like I need to give people a reason WHY they should read my book in the first place…it’s like, "hey, you can trust me, look what I’ve done already."
I also saw Billy Joel when I was in high school – I was fourteen years old. And I had the nosebleed seats, too. And he was as you described. A gentleman. And he moved around the stage even then, so that everyone could see him play. Same experience. And I’ve seen Elton play and, while he was fantastic, he had no personal relationship with the audience.
Best concert experience I ever had – I saw Pat Metheny play at this little outdoor venue in Santa Fe, New Mexico during a lightening and thunderstorm. He could only play for fifteen minutes before they had to abort. But in those fifteen minutes he played a duet with God–riffing off the thunder with his thunderous guitar solos. Lightening struck in spots nearby, not too close, but close enough. The rain was pouring. I thought I was going to be able to tell my friends that I was there the night Pat Metheny was struck by lightening. It was the best fifteen minutes of music I ever heard.
Kid Creole in DC — 1986-ish
Jane Siberry (now known as "Issa") in DC — 1985-ish
Janos Starker playing the Kodaly cello concerto written just for him — in Ann Arbor–1983-ish
Just about any performance of the Tokyo String Quartet
Favorite city? I love DC because I know it. Love San Francisco because it’s so darn beautiful. And though it wouldn’t qualify as a city per se, Antibes is probably one of my favorite places in the world.
Oh, and Stephen,
You’re talking about the Paolo Solari amphitheater. I’ve seen Melissa Etheridge and Ladysmith Black Mombaza there — both superb concerts.
Of course, the Santa Fe opera house is a magnificent venue too (though the original structure was much better than the one they built after the fire).
Bonnie Raitt gives great concert, in the same way that you describe Billy Joel. She engages with the audience, talks to us, plays for us – you walk away feeling as if you’ve spent the evening hanging out with a good friend.
All time favorite concert ever is a tie: my very first Aerosmith concert; I’d never been to a full-tilt rock concert before, and what an eye opener – in a good way. They’re another group who really works hard to entertain their fans. The other favorite is also an Aerosmith concert, when by some lucky quirk of fate our seats were right up against the stage, so we got to see Steven and Joe up close and personal. Lenny Kravitz was the opening act; he does this thing during his show where he jumps off stage and parades around the arena (not in a “LOOK AT ME” way, more in an “I’d like to greet some of my fans” way). So, he got to where we were sitting, and the 16 year old who was with us – and who idolizes Lenny – leaned over to wave to him. Somehow, he heard her say it was her birthday, so he took the time to come and give her a hug. That was one happy 16 year old.
Favorite city? No contest – Paris.
Oh, I almost forgot – favorite city continues to be San Francisco. Just came back from there yesterday, spent a night at a cool little hotel called Boheme, in North Beach. Ate at The North Beach Restaurant. Wrote at Cafe Trieste. Drank at Tosca.
Oh, JT – before you leave NY, go to Bar and Books on Lexington on the Upper East Side – get yourself a scotch whiskey and a cigar. You’ll dig the place.
Favorite concert: Cleo Laine
Favorite city: My hometown, LA.
Second fave: NY. Did my acting stint there. Looking forward to ThrillerFest.
Re: Billy v. Elton. It’s that way in our fiction, too, isn’t it? We want readers caught up in the story itself, and not in our insistence on being acclaimed. Take care of the former, and the latter will follow.
Stephen, you came to San Francisco and didn’t stop to say hi? Shame!
Favorite concert? Tina Turner just after Ike’s departure.
Favorite city? That’s tougher. Paris. Sydney. San Francisco. In turns.
What a wonderful post, JT, and I hope you continue to have a fabulous time in NYC. My favorite concert ever was the Big Sur Folk Festival at Esalen, with the Allman Brothers. I think I was five. Joan Baez was pretty great at that, too. She sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" a capella, and made her voice bounce off the canyons.
Living in LA, had a chance to see some great bands — Damien Rice, Twilight Singers — in small venues like the Troubadour. And Roger Waters closing out Coachella Festival with pyrotechnics, an inflatable pig and airplane fly-over was memorable.
But my all-time fave has to be "The Beautiful South" (former members of the English band "The Housemartins") playing The Belly-Up, a small San Diego venue. My ex was a concert reviewer for the local paper, so we’d been to a bunch of mediocre shows and were burned out on the scene. But for that show, I was able to sit next to the soundboard, spitting distance from the band, and they rocked the house. Singlehandedly renewed my faith in live music.
Fave city has got to be Paris. Been a half dozen times and would go back in a heartbeat (if not for the baby and toddler at home).
Hi guys!!! Thanks so much for carrying on the conversation in my absense. You are the greatest!
I’m on my phone so this will be short New York is great, and BEA just as overwhelming as ever. It doesn’t feel much smaller at all. Rainy days and fevered nights-Gotham’s been putting on quite a show.
My all-time best concert? U2 at Red Rocks.
Next time I’m in town for more than a night I will show up on your doorstep looking for cookies and good company, so be prepared…
Best concert ever is kind of hard, but I’d have to say Barry Manilow at Radio City Music Hall in 1984. I was a big fan of his and to see him in NY was really the greatest. Sure, we were up in the upper atmosphere, but I didn’t care.
Favorite City: My hometown, Santa Barbara. I really tried to think of others, I’ve lived in enough places, but I always go back home, so I guess it wins.
I’ve seen Billy and Elton before. You nailed it, though I really, really love Elton’s music.
Best concert? Hmmm…toughie. Probably The Cult, Robert Plant, and Lenny Kravitz in 1992. Love the Cult, Plant played his stuff and Zep, and then we were all wondering who this Kravitz guy was who tore down the stadium. Great show!
Favorite city? Hmmm. Very tough, but I would have to say London. There is just something about it. You get all the European flavor without having to muddle your way through another language.
And I have been back and forth with a certain NYC resident who asked for more time on a certain manuscript because of a certain Expo…I am DYING!
Have a great time!!!!
The first concert I ever saw was Elton John back in 1978. It was awesome, and, you’re right, he was all show. But the setting was appropriate for that then. (And he was skinner and younger, so probably moved around better.)
Best?…hmmm….loved the two times I’ve seen U2. Absolutely LOVED KT Tunstall at the WIltern in L.A. I’m stumped. I have no idea what my favorite was.
Favorite City? Can I name a couple?…Berlin, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh CIty, New York, San Francisco, London, Paris…all for different reasons.
(Obviously I’m having a hard time making up my mind today!)
Yeah, KT Tunstall does great work. I’ve only seen her PBS concert, and really admired her energy. Sharp citizen, she gave a good interview to ‘Acoustic Guitar’ last year.
My life was genuinely changed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia in summer of 1974. James Levine conducted, and he brought out a young mezzo named Maria Ewing to sing ‘Scheherezade,’ Maurice Ravel’s trio of orchestral songs.
I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t understand the mystery in the music. I didn’t understand the power of Ewing’s performance – but, by ghod, I was going to!!
And every good thing in my life today has, one way or another, followed from that moment.
Favorite places – Santa Fe and Sonoma, and I can’t make a living in either one.
I am totally shocked that you had that experience, JT. Michael and I saw EJ and BJ together just a few months ago and I thought they worked perfectly together – they enjoyed the hell out of playing together, they traded off on songs, they switched leads on songs – they were a perfect team.
I must admit I love EJ’s flash and to me – I felt he was the warmer and more interesting performer by far. But I always love extreme personalities, so it might be a case of chacun a son gout.
Still… I just had to leap to his defense because that was SO not my experience.
I haven’t been to many concerts. I know, shock. I love music. But I was a girl after my time–all my favorite bands were dead or dying by the time I was allowed to go to concerts. My first concert was YES in San Francisco. For those who know me (cough *Toni* cough) would be surprised that I’ve seen the Grateful Dead more than a dozen times. (okay, I can just hear Toni laughing hysterical–don’t cough up a fur ball now.) Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and The Who were my three favorite bands in high school and they weren’t touring when I was allowed to go to concerts. I’m extremely jealous of my husband who saw the later two in concert in L.A., including Pink Floyd’s THE WALL which I would pay a million bucks to time travel back to 1980 to see. I was 11.
My husband bought me tickets to the Steve Miller Band when they came to Sacto in the mid-90s. But maybe my favorite of the few concerts I’ve seen was Jimmy Buffett (fun) . . . or Robert Plant when he had his solo album. Not that the music was spectacular, but . . . there’s something about the 70s and 80s rock bands that were so unique. The musicians then actually had to PLAY AN INSTRUMENT. They KNEW music. I took my teenagers to a concert at Arco with a variety of pop performers and I was floored–most of them couldn’t even play guitar. Sorry, but to me a musician HAS to to be musical. But these performers came out and danced with an entourage. The ONLY one who actually played an instrument for one of her three songs was Kate Perry. Shock. And she has an incredible voice. She’d have given Pat Benatar a run for her money in the past. But it’s all an act–everything. It made me miss the past that I wasn’t even part of.
Okay, it’s late . . . time for bed! I like both Elton John and Billy Joel, and I’m glad I didn’t see the concert to be turned on (or off!) by either.
BTW, as an aside, maybe Elton John felt like he had to be "on" the entire time because everyone is illegally downloading his songs and the only way he makes an income is through concerts like this . . . just saying . . .
My favorite show was getting to see Harry Connick Jr. in Shreveport. Just a blast. His dad came out to sing a song and forgot the lyrics halfway through, which was high comedy. As Harry Junior explained, "That’s how scat singing was invented!"
And as much as I love various other places, I gotta go with Shreveport for my favorite city, warts and all.