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Top Concerts: Part I

ZZ Top – La Futura Tour (Sault Ste Marie, 2013)

The Essar Centre in Sault Ste Marie Canada, just across the International Bridge from Michigan, was filled to the rafters on a cold night in November, 2013. Home to the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Greyhounds, a team famous for once having hockey icon Wayne Gretzky on its roster, the Essar Centre is on the small side for larger concerts, but perfect for former giant (and now mid-level) acts like blues-rock legends ZZ Top.

In town supporting their year-old album La FuturaThat Little Ol Band From Texas was in fine form. Frontman and incomparable guitarist Billy Gibbons lead bassist Dusty Hill and tub thumper Frank Beard through a greatest hits laced show that had something for everyone. From ’80s MTV smashes “Legs,” “Sharped Dress Man,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” to classic radio staples “Tush,” “La Grange,” “Waitin’ For The Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” ZZ hit all the right notes.

The Trio kept the house rocking throughout the rollicking sixteen song set. Even newer songs like the fuzz-toned “I Gotsta Get Paid,” the gliding “Flyin’ High” and the booze tribute “Chartreuse,” from La Futura, went over big. Mid-’80s and mid-’90s fair such as “My Head’s In Mississippi” and “Pincushion” had the arena swaying. A cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” “Certified Blues” (from the band’s 1970 debut) and a final encore of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” rounded out the set. 

While most of the songs were delivered in tight, short bursts that never veered far from the original record versions, the ragged trio wasn’t afraid to let loose and jam, no more so than on a lengthy reading of “La Grange.” Gibbons’ touch is so fine, it’s almost as if he barely exerts any effort; his fingers float across the fretboard with ease. The axe ace coaxed some of the tastiest blues-infected licks, but it was “La Grange” that really showcased the guitarist skills. 

Dusty Hill worked his four string like the journeyman he is. Hill hasn’t been able to keep his voice in shape like Gibbons, but he took the mic a couple times while he rattled out his elastic bass lines. Frank Beard was a metronome as he casually pounded out the back beat for Hill and Gibbons. Beard, planted high on a riser behind a monster kit with skulls painted on the drum heads, looked unconcerned, but never missed a beat. 

The two best seats in the house, front and centre, belonged to me and my older brother (who generously shelled out $500 for our tickets). Being right against the stage gave us the best view and was the sweet spot sound wise. At one point there was a ruckus in our row when a young guy and his girl tried to push their way into our space. A few words were exchanged and the interlopers left. (Hey, my brother didn’t shell out five hundred clams so people could push their way into our area.)

Backstage after the concert, while my brother and I chatted with the band, Dusty Hill asked, “What was going on down there during the concert? It looked like some kind of altercation.” 

“You saw that?” 

“Yep.”

“Some guy and his girl tried to weasel to the front, but I told them to get back to the cheap seats. Then security came and took care of them.”

Hill shook his head and let out a belly laugh.

*

U2 – Zoo Tv Tour (Toronto, 1992)

“I’m ready, I’m ready for the laughing gas/I’m ready, I’m ready for what’s next.” With these opening lines from “Zoo Station,” U2 brought the nearly sold out (60,000+) Exhibition Stadium crowd in Toronto to its feet. The fans in the floor section, which extended back as far as the eye could see, began – row by row – to stand up on their chairs. At one point security attempted to get the ten thousand or so floor dwellers to sit down, but their effort was futile. 

The Zoo TV Tour landed in Toronto during the 1992 Canadian National Exhibition, an annual fair that brings in more than 1.5 million visitors a year. The trek found the Irish superstars supporting their monumental album Achtung Baby, a twelve song collection that had the four-piece completely reinventing themselves. Anticipation was high for the show, and even though I’d arrived in town only three weeks before the concert for work, I managed to score a floor seat. 

Frontman Bono had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand as he and the band worked the mammoth stage. Giant walls of television screens stretched skyward and flickered behind the foursome as they charged through monster hits “Mysterious Ways,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” and “Without Or Without You.” It was a grand spectacle; one of the biggest stadium tours undertaken to that point. 

Despite the overwhelming stage and countless visual distractions, the band managed to hold the stadium’s attention with a performance that, for me at least, remains unmatched in many ways to this day. I’ve been to concerts that have been as good musically, but nothing as visually captivating as Zoo TV. Guitarist Edge delighted with his unique squeals and shimmering style, while bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. held the beast together with expert precision. 

Despite the band’s air-tight performance, it was Bono who owned the night and the audience. A larger than life personality in videos and interviews, the singer was an elephantine personality on stage as he bounced between political rants and songs. At one point he brought out a satellite phone and dialled the White House, stunning the audience and the woman who answered when he howled, “tell George Bush Elvis is alive and he’s dead.”

*

Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction Tour (Edmonton, 1988)

“I heard you guys went a little crazy the last time your team won the Stanley cup,” the serpentine singer, dressed in black leather pants and a snakeskin jacket teases. “Heard you tore the city apart.” The crowd cheers loudly. “Are you going to do it again tomorrow night if your team wins?” More cheering. Long-haired dudes in black t-shirts, jeans and hightop shoes; girls in painted on jeans with hair teased up to the ceiling, and even the odd parent, yells and raises their fists. The scene is electric.

“I like that shit,” Axl Rose continues. “I’m not telling you to do it. But I like it.” More cheering. “Are you going to turn this place into a madhouse?” The small crowd of just under 2000 raises the decibel level in the NHL arena to an ear-splitting level normally reserved for headlining bands. Then the line everyone is waiting for. “Are you gonna turn it into a F**king jungle?” The place erupts as the band’s top hat-wearing guitarist peels off the hypnotic riffage of “Welcome To The Jungle,” the opening track from the group’s debut album, Appetite For Destruction.

Guns N’ Roses, in all their raw glory, before the monster fame, before they were a headlining act, before the insane worldwide album sales; before booze, drugs and egos tore them apart, were as good as any rock band before or after them. Rose stalked the stage and wailed like a rabid beast; drummer Steven Adler and bassist Duff McKagan laid down a sloppy but steady groove, while rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, the epitome of rock and roll cool, chunked out meaty chords for lead man Slash to slather his razor-sharp licks over.

Equal parts Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses rattled the rafters at the Northlands Coliseum. Songs like the bibulous “Night Train,” the curse-laden “Out Ta’ Get Me” and the epic “Paradise City” warmed up the crowd while most of the headliner’s fans were still filing in for the show. Appetite For Destruction, released the previous year, had yet to ignite. That would all change with the next single, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which on this night was a show highlight. 

Fans who were smart enough to get to the venue early (I was there for Guns N’ Roses and left after their set) witnessed one of history’s most dangerous and controversial bands in its rawest form. Once Appetite For Destruction exploded and GN’R became the biggest band on the planet, there was no going back. With more than 30 million albums sold worldwide when the dust settled, Guns would be a different band, the innocence and rawness (and two of its integral members) gone forever. 

*

Dwight Yoakam – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, 2005)

I’m sitting on Dwight Yoakam’s tour bus outside the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. It’s 2005, and Yoakam, who is set to perform to a sold out crowd in the hallowed hall in less than an hour, is wearing his trademark skin-tight jeans and a western shirt. He wears a cowboy hat as well, but he’s dressed casual compared to the silver suit he will don before he hits the stage. His mood matches his attire; he’s calm and cordial. 

What strikes me most about Yoakam is the attention he pays to the six or seven of us who have invaded his luxurious ride. Whether you are a radio personality, a scribe like myself, or a meet and greet winner, the singer treats all like personal friends. He asks everyone their name and chats briefly with each one of us. Yoakam’s tour manager makes sure everyone gets a photo with Dwight before departing the bus (he even supplies the Polaroid camera and film). 

“No one leaves the bus without a photo,” Yoakam’s manager says. 

A fan of Yoakam’s for many years, the experience is a highlight in my Nashville journey, but it’s nothing compared to the actual show the honky tonk singer-songwriter puts on later. From the opening chords, Yoakam and his trimmed down band – a stand up bass player, a drummer with a kit that consists of a snare, bass drum, high-hat and a single cymbal, a utility guy who plays mandolin, steel and dobro, and lead guitarist Eddie Perez – hold the sold out crowd spellbound. 

Unlike other concerts where the artist tells stories and raps with the audience between songs, Yoakam keeps the talk to a minimum during the roughly 22 song set. It’s one of the longest concerts I’ve been to, although it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Yoakam gives the passionate crowd their money’s worth and more. With every hip swivel or slide across the Ryman stage, Yoakam sends the females populating the crowd into a tizzy. 

There isn’t a bad view in the 2300 seat Ryman, although none of the seats – that I can see – hold any asses. Few artists can hold the attention of a crowd as long as Yoakam does this night; he has the crowd up on its feet for the entire show. The Kentucky native rockets through turbo-tonk hits like “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.,” “Honky Tonk Man,” “Fast As You” and “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” barely stopping to take a breath before launching into the next song. 

Even during the softer numbers, Yoakam keeps the electricity between him and the audience blazing at high voltage. By the time the stage goes dark and the house lights come up, both Yoakam and the crowd are spent. I stumble out of the Ryman and into the cool fall air, convinced I’ve just witnessed one of the best concerts Dwight Yoakam has ever performed. 

*

Blue Rodeo – Casino Tour (Brandon, 1991)

I’m standing next to the monitor mix station on stage left, talking to my roommate who is working the Blue Rodeo concert with me (and is about as uninterested in the band as I am). Out of nowhere a guy pops up with a Gibson ES335. We have no idea who he is. He speaks in a whiny voice and sniffles like he has a cold. He plucks annoyingly on the guitar, which is unplugged. My roommate, also a guitar player, turns to me and says, “who is this guy, he can’t even F**king play?” I shrug. 

Later in the evening we find out who the guy who couldn’t play is, it’s Bobby Wiseman, keyboardist extraordinaire and (then) an integral part of Blue Rodeo. A keys man by trade, it turns out Wiseman can also play the guitar, really well. Later, during Blue Rodeo’s set, Wiseman, on the same ES335 he was plunking on earlier, cuts loose on a rocked up cover of blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.” My roommate looks at me and we both shake our heads. We pull our jaws up off the floor. 

Before Blue Rodeo takes the stage, Toronto folk rockers the Skydiggers warm up the crowd. I’m skeptical of this ragtag group of musicians when they burst through the back doors of the venue shortly before their set. They look more like college students than a band. The group’s singer Andy comes over and chats with us for a bit, while the rest of the band float around backstage and clean up the crumbs from the catering table. They prove to be a tight and entertaining band. 

By the time Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the co-founders, co-lead vocalists and mains songwriters for Blue Rodeo follow Wiseman, bassist Basil Donovan and drummer Mark French out on stage, I just want the show to be over so we can tear down, load the gear out and get paid. Two songs in, I forget about all that. Turns out the boys are more than the simple folk-pop band I’d pegged them as, they are a rock and roll band. Sure they have a bit of twang, but they rock, hard.

Touring behind their album Casino, a disc that was produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, the band damn near wear grooves in the stage floor. I find myself blown away by songs like “Til I Am Myself Again,” “Trust Yourself” and “After The Rain,” from Casino, but it’s “Joker’s Wild” and “Diamond Mine,” from the band’s first two albums, Outskirts and Diamond Mine respectively, that knock me on my ass.

Hearing Jim Cuddy sing is an inspiring experience. The man is one of the best male vocalists, Canadian or otherwise, toe ver record or hit the stage. As for Greg Keelor, his gritty guitar work and raw voice are the perfect match to Cuddy’s. While not blessed with the same vocal prowess, Keelor’s from-the-gut delivery adds a well needed dynamic to the Blue Rodeo sound. By the end of the show I’m converted; a Blue Rodeo fan for life.

(March 2021)

Previous Blogs:

Old Friends

Driving Miss Daisy

Midnight Tain To Nowhere

Breaking The Chains

Shipwreck Music2021

The Grand Tour

Christmas 2020

A Playlist For Armageddon: Best Albums Of 2020

Hotel California

A Nickel In San Quentin

The Mournful Sound

Ghosts Of The Bay

The City

When Dreams Die…

Fear

William

Mother