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The Rockologist: Sympathy For The Opening Band

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One of the things I really enjoy doing with these Rockologist columns is recalling some of my favorite memories from decades of attending rock concerts. I've been going to concerts since I was about twelve years old, and by my most conservative estimate I've probably seen thousands of them.

My very first was a Jefferson Airplane concert back in the Sixties in Hawaii, that my mom only allowed me to attend if I was accompanied by my grandma (true story). To her credit, "Nana" was a very good sport about the whole thing — even if I doubt very much she understood any of it.

As the hippies smoked their pot, and the psychedelic lights swirled behind Grace and Marty, my Grandma — who was actually pretty hip as Grandmas go — sat politely in her seat, making sure none of the joints being passed around came anywhere near her then twelve-year-old charge.

But what I remember most about that night was the guy who played first.

He was a keyboard player named Lee Michaels, who performed on a Hammond organ, backed only by a bank of Marshall amps and this drummer named Frosty. It was really loud, it didn't make a lot of sense, and it was also really great. Michaels, who would have a hit a few years later with the song "Do Ya' Know What I Mean," was the first of my many memorable experiences of being surprised by the opening act at a concert.

For many concert-goers, the opening act is an afterthought at best. It's what the rest of the crowd is doing while you're across the street getting a pre-concert buzz at the nearest bar, or who is finishing up as you're showing up at the last minute to find your seat. Conversely, there is also a certain breed of concert snob who will tell you they are only there to see the opening band, as in "Screw U2, I'm just here to see PJ Harvey."

Sound familiar?

Some bands don't use opening acts at all. Every time I've seen Led Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen, for example, it's always been billed as "an evening with" the headliner. Although, I know for a fact that Bruce once opened for Chicago early in his career. Hell, Jimi Hendrix's first American tour was as the support act for the Monkees.

My point here is, if you've been going to rock shows as long as I have, sometimes an opening act will surprise you.

I can remember, for example, seeing Jethro Tull on their tour for Aqualung, where the opening band was a band then still largely unheard of called Yes. This was one of the rare occasions I can ever recall where the openers were not only called back for an encore, but where Tull's people eventually had to run out and pathetically ask the crowd if "anybody here has ever heard of Jethro Tull?"

Yes were really that good, and as God is my witness, I didn't just make that up either.

I also once attended a show by the great Van Morrison, where Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds' shit-hot at-the-time band Rockpile were the openers. More than half of the crowd in attendance were new wave hipsters who came just to see them. When Rockpile were through with their thirty-minute set, so was the trendy portion of the crowd who came just to see them. Van looked confused when he hit the stage to a half empty house, and showed his disgust by performing with his back to the crowd for most of the show. It was their loss.

The fact is, of all the great bands I've seen over the years, many of them were bands I first witnessed as opening acts. The short list of these would include Yes, Kiss, Rush, Robin Trower, Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Seger, Tower Of Power, Uriah Heep, Black Oak Arkansas, Bad Company, the Eagles, Cheap Trick, Love And Rockets, Tom Petty, Kings Of Leon, and AC/DC.

Yes AC/DC. The first time I saw them, they were the openers for Ted Nugent and nobody had any idea who they were. By the end of their set, though, with Angus hauling Bon Scott through the arena on his shoulders, the crowd was sold. It was the beginning of a long love affair with Seattle for the Aussie bad boys.

On the other side of the coin, I've also witnessed more than my fair share of shows where the opening band was heckled — or far worse. Some of these instances were simply cases of really ill conceived booking on the part of the concert promoters.

I can recall, for example, a J. Geils Band concert which was opened by a guy named Rick Roberts (who would later go on to a brief, but decent career with the band Firefall). Roberts had the unenviable task of serenading the boogie hungry J. Geils crowd with nothing else but his voice and an acoustic guitar. The crowd was merciless. I actually bumped into Roberts in the men's room during the intermission and found myself doing my best to console the poor guy, who was in tears.

The same thing happened a few years later when Graham Parker opened for Thin Lizzy. Parker was greeted by shouts of "punk-rock fag" from the crowd. You have to understand that this was at a time when rock music had become very polarized along genre lines. I ended up buying Parker a drink later that night at the hotel bar, and telling him I thought he sounded great.

Every once in a while, though, the openers will fight back.

Around the same time as the Parker/Lizzy incident, I saw a band called Rubicon open for who I want to say was either Elvis Costello or Patti Smith, and get mercilessly booed by the crowd. Rather than give up, however, the Rubicon boys rose to the challenge and threw it right back at them. The lead singer hurled obscenities into the microphone, before being eventually unplugged and escorted off the stage by security.

One of the more audacious examples I can remember where an opener fought back was when a pre-Licensed To Ill Beastie Boys opened for Madonna's first tour in Seattle at the Paramount Theatre. The Beasties came out and proclaimed themselves to be the "kings of the Paramount" as though they were the headliners, and were promptly booed out of the building.

I had the unenviable task of interviewing them later that night, and they remained unapologetic — swilling beer and slamming their fists down next to my tape recorder during the interview (which I was never able to transcribe as a result).

I've also seen cases where the opening act was so openly dissed by the promoters it was almost laughable. I'll never forget one of the first big stadium rock shows I attended back in the Seventies where a band called Starz opened for Aerosmith and Jeff Beck. As we walked into the stadium an hour before the scheduled start, there were the poor guys in Starz playing with all the house lights up in the 70,000 seat Kingdome.

You simply couldn't help but feel sorry for them.

I guess my point in all of this would simply be this.

As important as I know the whole experience of pre-concert chow and drinks can be, and in fact is — you might want to consider being in your seat in time to catch the opening band.

In addition to knowing the gratitude of your fellow concert-goers for not blocking their view as you search for your seat right when Bruce or whoever is about to go on, you might just catch something to remember.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.kalyr.com/weblog Tim Hall

    I always make an effort to see the support band – often they’re not very good, but occasionally you do run into a great band you otherwise might never have got to see.

    Most UK venues nowadays let you take drinks into the hall; so you don’t have to miss the opening act for the sake of a beer.

    Very few gigs I’ve been to purely to see the opening act, and each time I’ve stayed and enjoyed the headliner. But I can think of a few where the choice of opening act has influenced my decision to go to a gig – one example was when Styx supported Deep Purple a couple of years back. In the event, they blew the headliners off stage.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    off the top of my head, opening bands at the start of their careers, not in a co-headlining or “special guest” capacity: Pearl Jam, NIN, Rage v Machine (didn’t even have an album out yet), Marilyn Manson, Primus, Kings of Leon, Garbage, Sonic Youth…I may be back to this

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    That’s quite an impressive list Bicho. A big one that I completely forgot when putting together mine was Stevie Wonder. I saw him open up for the Stones on the Exile On Main Street tour, and he damn near blew Mick, Keith and the boys off the stage.

    -Glen