Column

Best I've Ever Seen

Talking with artists about concerts they'll never forget

Gary Stoller is an award-winning editor, author, and journalist. He's written for USA TODAY and loves Bob Dylan and Blue Rodeo.

Best I've Ever Seen

Talking with artists about concerts they'll never forget

Gary Stoller is an award-winning editor, author, and journalist. He's written for USA TODAY and loves Bob Dylan and Blue Rodeo.

'The Last Waltz' Has Stood the Test of Time

Nice column. Years ago on Facebook, there was a game in which people were asked to name fifty life concerts they had attended. I was able, without too much stretching to name events ranging from Arturo Toscanini and the NY Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in the early fifties to a dual show by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in the early 2000's. Might be a good time to try such an exercise here. It's amazing how long "living memory" persists. Thanks. 

I had the very good fortune to move to Sausalito in the mid-50's and was thus priviledged to attend many, many remarkable concerts in the late 1950's and 1960's around the Bay Area. I saw Monk, Miles, Mingus, the MJQ, Brubeck and many more thanks to the SF jazz clubs that had special sections for students, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (after an earlier diet of the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters), Bobby Blue Bland, Clifton Chenier, Ray Charles..... I can't even remember them all. Then in the mid to late 60's we had the feast of the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms, Winterland, The Carousel / Fillmore West, where on any given night you could see three bands play two sets of transcendent music. I remember one Sunday night show in 1966 or 67, the first time Bill Graham managed to book B.B. King -- the Steve Miller Band opened, followed by Otis Rush, and then B.B, and then they all  played again, each much better than their first set. I remember John Handy and Ali Akbar Khan playing at San Francisco State around the same time -- they started late, around midnight, and after an hour or more of sounding each other out moved into one of the most remarkable improvisational performances I ever saw, and they went on until dawn. I remember driving overnight from Vancouver and dropping some hitchhikers off at the Panhandle in SF, just in time for Jimi Hendrix to begin playing a free concert. And I remember countless nights with the Dead, Quicksilver and the Sons of Champlin, bands that on any given night could be either transcendent or absolutely awful. But of all of the shows I saw back then, I think James Brown at Winterland in 1964 or 1965 (I know it was before Bill Graham started promoting shows there) topped them all -- James and his band played for close to three hours without letting up, the crowd dancing the entire time -- I had simply never seen or felt anything like it, and while I've seen many wonderful shows over the last 50 years, I haven't had an experience to match it since.

My good friends the Ace of Cups and the Sons of Champlin were the opening act for the Band's first series of concerts at Winterland -- the first time they had played live as "The Band". The first night Robbie was ill and even though he was hypotized he was only able to play a few songs before having to give up -- as a result, The Sons, who were recording for Capitol at the time, got to play two very long sets in front of all the Capitol brass. The next night, though, Robbie was feeling better and The Band played tremendously well -- so many great singers -- and left the other groups gasping in admiration. I was away from the Bay Area in the fall of '76 so wasn't able ot attend the Last Waltz, but everyone I knew who did said it was an amazing night.

Sons of Champlin were a great band...I saw them open for Average White Band back in the 70's...right after Steve Ferrone had replaced AWB's original drummer...Bill Champlin was the epitome of a soulful white guy...incredible voice...band was great too...Terry Haggarty was an amazing guitar player, and the horn players were tight, they were easily as good as BST, Chicago, Dreams, Tower of Power, Champlin was the by far best singer in any of those bands...not sure if spending 28 years in Chicago makes him more legit or less, but I'm sure the paycheck was great...since the rest of the band seems bitter about everyone who left even though they've been over for 20 + years, I'm sure he doesn't miss them.

As for the Band, well...they were on another level from pretty much everyone else...the Last Waltz does endure...I still like "Rock of Ages" just as much, but LW is oging out in style...