Remember the death of live concerts? Portable music players were going to kill them off, because no one would pay to sit or stand in a crowded place and listen to an inferior live version of music they could already hear anywhere, any time. That was about 10 years ago, and since then those little players have become ever more widespread and omnivorous. But the live concert didn't die; in fact it has emerged as the most durable part of the music business.
Concerts survive in part because they can't be copied and leaked on the Internet. But that's just the seller's reasoning. It doesn't explain why we still want to line up and buy pricey tickets, and get fleeced for parking, and pay too much for watery beer, and spend the whole evening on our feet because no one else will sit down. We do all that because concerts give us things that no recording can. They restore actual presence to an experience that has become more and more dematerialized.
There's something magically immediate about witnessing a musical event, as compared with letting your iPod shuffle through your stored playlists. Part of the thrill of being present at a great concert is knowing that it's happening in this place and time, among these people, and can never be experienced the same way again. It's both a celebration of singularity and a reminder that life is finite and lived in one direction only.
Every concert is to some degree a speculation, because musicians have off nights, and things go wrong in even the most tightly scripted shows. Glenn Gould hated concerts because of what he called the gladiatorial side of the experience: the need to conquer the music and the audience; the potential for failure; and the public's fascination with failure. But I think most people go to concerts not to keep score, but to enter a realm in which everything is vital and meaningful. We go to reach that point at which we feel: Yes, this is how it really is.
Everyone has a story about a great concert. It's impossible to say how much burnishing is done in memory, and it doesn't matter anyway. But I tend to distrust any recollection of a famous or momentous event - Woodstock, say, or Vladimir Horowitz's last recital. History's finger seems to press a little too heavily on the scale. My own favourite concert experiences are mainly fragments, this song or that opera scene. But for many people, it's most satisfying to point to a whole event, to have that feeling of remembered fullness from one magic night, and to say, "You should have been there."
We asked musicians, artists, music mavens and committed fans to recall their favourite show and to say what rang the cosmic bell for them. Here are their stories.
Robert Everett-Green, Globe music critic
Since I have to pick just one, I'll choose the only concert I know for a fact God had a hand in producing. Radiohead's concert at the Molson Amphitheatre on Toronto's lakeshore last August had everything: a great band at the height of its powers, intricate, strong music played with spirit and clarity, and a natural sky-high light show that cued the band's latest album, In Rainbows , with two actual rainbows and a huge storybook moon. Andi Watson's innovative LED light display was magic itself.
J.D. Considine Globe jazz critic
For me, the Clash's Pearl Harbour Tour (Feb. 15, 1979, at the Ontario Theatre in Washington, D.C.) was the real British Invasion. Despite being bedevilled by an electrical system that shocked Joe Strummer every time he put his hand on the mike, the music was incredible, from Mick Jones's guitar anti-heroics to Topper Headon's relentless drumming. Bo Diddley's opening set was equally incendiary, especially after his old bassist, Jesse James Johnson, leapt to the stage to join in.
Carl Wilson, music writer
The Ex with Tom Cora at Lee's Palace in Toronto, Spring, 1992. Whenever Amsterdam's 30-years-young, polyglot-improv punk collective the Ex plays, it's the greatest. But never like that night with New York's Tom Cora, who played cello with the lyrical liquidity of Chet Baker's trumpet, melodies that melted under the guitars' jackhammer heat and fell like a net over the crowd, our breaths in sync as if we'd all just fallen in love. We'll never hear its like: Cora died in 1998, aged 44. But this fall, the Ex returns with Ethiopian jazz legend Getatchew Mekuria - maybe I'll have a new favourite concert.
Alan Niester, music writer
Crowbar at The Red Pheasant Indian Reserve in North Battleford, Sask., July, 1971. I was just beginning my rock writing career as a stringer for CREEM Magazine in Detroit. When primordial Canadian roots/boogie band Crowbar offered a free seat on their bus during their tour of Western Canada in return for a feature story, I (the token Canuck) was recruited. Crowbar's front man Kelly Jay was buddies with Canadian stage actor Don Francks, who was living the aboriginal life on the Red Pheasant reserve. After a Saskatoon performance, a side trip was arranged and an impromptu concert, from the back of a flatbed truck, powered by diesel generators, in front of maybe 150 people, under the lowest and brightest night sky I had ever seen. Crowbar did their full onstage show in the most amazing setting possible. It was the ultimate Canadian rock performance.
Brad Wheeler, Globe music writer
Chris Whitley at Nietzsche's in Buffalo, N.Y., 2003. The show took place at an old coffeehouse, and Whitley had a couple of unsmiling Germans with him. The music was bluesy, deliberate and grungy, with brushed drums, rumbling electric bass and Chris on earthy, open-tuned guitars. There was a hushed, intense restlessness - the Germans were homesick, Chris told me months later. It was all so vivid, in black-and-white, and I remember clouds of his cigarette smoke. Two years later, he died of lung cancer. He was 45.
INSIDERS, MUSICIANS AND PURE FANS
Roger Mooking, host of food show Everyday Exotic and former member of Bass is Base
James Brown on tour, 2002. I was fortunate enough to go on a short five-city tour across Ontario seven years ago before he died. It changed my life. Seeing how he runs his ship and what he does to reach that level of professionalism was just incredible. After we performed, I spent each night next to the sound board and the security guy would say, "Look at him tapping his foot or using his pinkie finger to cue the guitar player." He was orchestrating everything with his fingertips and the audience had no idea. No music experience will ever compare to that as long as I live.
LIGHTS, music artist
Mew at The Mod Club in Toronto, 2006. I had just moved to Toronto and didn't have many friends; I was all holed up trying to discover my music. I knew of Mew, a band from Denmark; their sound is dreamlike but energizing, melodic but with a strong beat. They paired their music with lights and screens - all perfectly timed visuals to go with every song. At one point, a band member put on a giant cat's head and rode around on a unicycle. It was one of those shows that was satisfying on every level, so beyond creative. The show totally inspired my ambitions for my concerts going forward.
Melissa Auf der Maur, rock musician
The Smashing Pumpkins in Montreal, 1991. The beer bottle that changed my life: It was a Loonie Tuesday at Foufounes Électriques, and the Smashing Pumpkins' first show in Montreal. There weren't more than 50 people in the crowd and the band blew my mind - the music was epic, dramatic, psychedelic and intense. It was a language I needed in my life to communicate my feelings and visions. My roommate had the opposite reaction: "Drop the fucking attitude," he yelled between songs while throwing a beer bottle at the singer. A strangling fist fight ensued, but they took the stage for a last song. "Good night, Montreal, we have one more for you," and that's the one that did me in. "I apologize on behalf of Montreal, and I am now a devoted follower of your music," I told them after the show. We kept in touch and I joined the band 10 years later. (It's also the reason I joined Hole in between!)
Sophie Milman, jazz chanteuse
Stevie Wonder in San Diego, August, 2007. The best concert experience, hands down. My fiancé and I absolutely idolize Stevie, and San Diego was the first stop on his first concert tour in 12 years! I happened to be on tour in California at the time, and my fiancé flew down and surprised me not only with two tickets, but backstage passes, which he'd been working on for weeks. I grew up with Stevie's music in Israel and in Canada. His songs have always been the soundtrack to my life. So to be there, watching him do his thing live, with a mere 1,200 other people was fantastic. And then to meet him and give him a hug. I was crying all night and felt like I was floating on a cloud for weeks later. I don't care much for celebrities. Madonna can walk by me on the street and I wouldn't blink. But, being at that show and meeting Stevie was akin to a deep spiritual experience.
Steve Jordan, founder and executive director of the Polaris Music Prize
Prince in Toronto, October, 1988. If I must pick one, it's Prince's Lovesexy World Tour concert at Maple Leaf Gardens. No concert of that scale before or since has matched it for intensity, depth, drama, skill, magic, feel and pure joy. It was like a perfect meal where you want to eat it again but you know that you never will. It left me both questioning my existence and with a huge grin that stayed for weeks.
George Stroumboulopoulos, host of CBC-TV's The Hour
Metallica in Toronto, April, 1989. I was 16. It blew my mind. It was a sold-out Maple Leaf Gardens show - and the band had no songs on the radio, no videos on MuchMusic; they didn't even make videos. It was one of the first times where, as a kid, I felt the mainstream wasn't necessary any more. That even though a lot of people in later years have gone on to make fun of Metallica …, it was a band that demonstrated to my generation that radio didn't mean anything, that TV didn't mean anything, that it was all about the quality of the band and the ability to mobilize an audience.
Dan Kurtz, bass guitarist with bands Dragonette and the New Deal
Paul McCartney at the Electric Ballroom in London; 2007. He's always been my superhero, so to see him play for 400 people was pretty rad. It was the hottest ticket in town. Right beside my wife was [actress]Emma Thompson. To cap it off, we managed to slide into his after-party at a nearby restaurant where we met him and talked to him, which may have been the greatest moment of all time. It was hilarious, actually; we were surrounded by rock stars David Gilmour and Jeff Beck and [supermodel]Kate Moss, and they were all just standing around eating vegetarian food. As everyone left, they covered their faces for the paparazzi but Paul made peace signs as the flashbulbs went off.
Riley O'Connor, chairman of Live Nation Canada
Genesis at Amsterdam's Carre Theatre in 1975. I was working with Patti LaBelle in Europe, and on a day off, I caught Genesis on its The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour, in a historic theatre. It was everything - sound, music, the visual effects and the pacing of show. It was absorbing, and I was absolutely mesmerized. At one point I really needed to use the bathroom, but there was no way I was going to leave my seat. I didn't want miss a thing.
Ron MacLean, CBC sportscaster
Blue Rodeo at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre in 2002. The band was debuting material from their soon-to-be-released Palace of Gold record, which had a bigger, bolder and braver sound, complete with the Bushwhack Horns. The band didn't have to try that hard, but it did - and pulled off a fantastic performance, seemingly energized and renewed. Glad to Be Alive , a Dylanesque ode to gratitude, stood out. It was a beautiful late summer night, where one truly did feel glad to be alive.
Joel Plaskett, indie rocker
Femi Kuti at the Great Escape Festival in Sydney, Australia, in 2007. He had this huge Afro-beat band, with his little son playing saxophone. Femi was prowling the stage, shirtless, so insanely fit, commanding the whole thing. There were two or three beautiful gals in tasselled bikinis playing percussion and shaking for an hour. The whole thing floored me. … The band was so furiously danceable … unstoppable.
Leila Getz, concert impresario
The very, very first concert that ever blew me away was Solomon, when I was 11 years old. I was in South Africa, and he came to Cape Town and played a recital. It was the first time in my life when I was awed into silence. He was one of the only historical great pianists I heard, and it left a lifelong impression on me. The other thing was Grigory Sokolov, when he played his debut at the Vancouver Playhouse about 12 years ago. His Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 was the ultimate performance at the piano that I've ever heard. The colours, the rhythm, the shape - everything that Prokofiev wrote in that sonata was there.
Emily Haines of the band Metric
Roger Waters at California's Coachella Festival in 2008. He did Dark Side of the Moon , from top to bottom. You can imagine the scene - it's the desert, it's so beautiful and it's the height of the festival. The show itself was sonically incredible, all done in surround. As well there were narratives being carried forward on a screen. He wasn't self-aggrandizing - it was the opposite. He made the content of his mind into such a force of imagination. It was epic.
Jim Cuddy of the band Blue Rodeo
Neil Young with Crazy Horse at the Desert Sky Pavilion in Phoenix, Ariz. on April 21, 1991. We were looking at the darkening sky on the red-rock landscape and his giant stage with the big road cases for the amps. He did mostly epics, like Cortez the Killer - amazing versions, and made funny by the guy in front of me who yelled for Cowgirl in the Sand in a drunken voice after every song. (Young did not play it, thank God). Almost the highest I've ever been at a concert, and with no pharmaceutical help.
Anton Kuerti, classical pianist
For me, it was the American debut of Emil Gilels with the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing the Rachmaninoff third concerto, when I was a student at the Curtis Institute [of Music in Philadelphia] I'd never heard the piece before, and I'd never heard the piano played like that before. Gilels was not really one of my favourite pianists, but there was something extraordinary about the electricity of that performance. It was almost frightening. His mastery of the keyboard, and his strength and total involvement were phenomenal.
Larry LeBlanc, senior writer, CelebrityAccess
James Brown played the Mimicombo dance hall in Mimico on Nov. 9, 1965 - the night of the blackout. After classes at Dunbarton High in Pickering, I hitchhiked across Toronto. I got to the arena at 8 p.m., relieved to see Brown's buses. Power was restored near show time at 9 p.m. Following opening acts Vicki Anderson and Elsie (TV Mama) Mae, Brown, shimmied, shook and wailed through Night Train , I'll Go Crazy , Think and Please, Please, Please. None of us had seen anything like him before.
Cadence Weapon (Rollie Pemberton), rapper, Edmonton Poet Laureate
Last summer in Denmark at the Roskilde festival, I went to hear Neil Young for the first time. There were maybe 100,000 people there, and I got all the way to the front. We're in this huge field in Denmark listening to a Canadian legend, and he's kickin' it. He played all the great songs, it was totally tight, and in the course of the show it went from day to night. For me, a great concert isn't just the music; it's the circumstances and the atmosphere, and this one was just unbelievable.
Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics/Five Hole Band
My best concert ever was the Gang of Four at the Palais Royale in Toronto in 1980. [The album] Entertainment had just been released, but only two radio stations - CFNY and CKLN - would play it. The band used shitty guitars and drums, cheap Fender copies, and they probably sounded shitty, too. But it didn't matter. Their music was like a bell jar of thunder, always threatening to shatter. Within the first 20 minutes, singer Jon King leapt five feet in the air, hitting his head on a ceiling pipe. He came down in a heap and just laid there. The band's lone roadie dragged him off the stage bleeding, and then drummer Hugo Burnham - built like a mailbox with a face that could polish stone - came out from behind his kit and sang a cappella: songs about the miner's strike and other Thatcheralia. King was revived and he returned a few minutes later. At the end of the show, Andy Gill pulled every string from his guitar, threw it at his feet and left the stage in disgust. The rest of the band followed.
Jenn Grant, singer-songwriter
The first that comes to mind is k.d. lang at the Metro Centre in Halifax, about two months ago. I listen to her a lot in my head now when I'm performing, because she inspired me so much. I really liked her personality, and the way she treated her band. My favourite concerts are usually those with a really great band, and hers was killer. She's so serious and committed, but she doesn't take herself seriously. She was hilarious, she was flirting with everyone, she didn't have shoes on. I went with my boyfriend and my mother, and my mother cried when k.d. lang sang Hallelujah .
Suzanne Boyd, editor-in-chief, Zoomer magazine
Bryan Adams at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, summer of 1994. I had just met him in Jamaica when I was down there on a shoot for Flare [magazine] When he came to Toronto, he invited our crew to a show. I knew his radio hits but I had never seen him in concert and I didn't know what to expect. Well, my friend Ian Hylton and I were dancing on the seats. I was blown away by his energy and voice and sheer joy; he's really electric onstage. It was a real revelation. Plus, it was the quintessential Canadian scene: open air with the CNE in the background. I have seen him a few times since and his MO is always the same: to come out and rock out.
Joseph Boyden, novelist
Direct Action and the Young Lions at Larry's Hideaway in Toronto, early 1980s. I was 17, and I snuck into the bar to see my first punk show. It was loud, fun and it felt kind of dangerous, especially to a young guy. It was the first time I'd witnessed the power that live music can have over a crowd. It excited me, and it scared me too - I wasn't sure what I was getting into.