AUGUST 2012: Leonard Goes to a Rock Concert (Sort Of)

AUGUST 2012: Leonard Goes to a Rock Concert (Sort Of)
August 15, 2012 leonard slatkin

Several months ago, I vowed that I would actually take a vacation for most of the summer. That meant little conducting, a bit of study and a lot of sleep. One of the downsides of the conducting profession is the inevitable life on the road, so I decided to spend the majority of down time at home. We have a lovely house located far enough from downtown as to be thought of as an escape from work.

My son was visiting, preparing for life as a college student. He will be attending USC, bringing a part of my earlier life back into play. His course of study includes music management. I am not sure if it will be “My Son, the Agent,” but he has become fascinated with this part of the business. To that end, I was just a little surprised when he learned that the rock group Yes was coming to the Detroit area to perform.

Why the surprise?

For starters, I had no idea that he was interested in performers who were more or less from my early life. I have been hearing about “Foster the People,” Adele and Jason Mraz from today’s contemporary scene. Even the Kid Rock show we did a few months ago held little interest from Daniel. I arranged a couple tickets and realized that I had not actually attended a rock show in quite a long time. Many questions were on my mind as we entered the DTE Music Theater on a hot Sunday night.

Who would come to this?

What group would be the warm-up act?

How different would it be from the time in the late 60’s when I was involved in booking events for the Mississippi River Festival?

Yes, you read that last one correctly. When I arrived in St. Louis as the assistant conductor, the orchestra was about to embark on a new summer venture. The campus at Southern Illinois University, across the river, would host a multi-platform festival that would embrace many different musical styles. The orchestra played on the weekends and diverse acts performed during the week. The SLSO was responsible for booking many of these and I was the only person on the staff who had a working knowledge of what was popular at the time.

Janis Joplin, Jim Croce, Doug Kershaw, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes were among the acts I engaged. It was great fun getting to know these performers and my taste in music during that time mirrored the young generations listening preferences.

A tent was constructed on the lawn and the audience could sit inside or out, rain or shine. This was the era of psychedelic experimentation so there was usually a screen behind the performers onto which were projected moving images having little or nothing to do with the music. The smell of aromatic weed wafted throughout the venue as well as backstage. There was very little drinking and the crowds were mostly well behaved. Law enforcement was barely noticeable.

During this time I was also serving as a disc jockey at a local underground radio station. The “Slatkin Project” aired every Thursday from 2 in the afternoon until 6. I played almost every style of music and perhaps this helped in my communication skills with young audiences. On occasion, I would introduce the acts in the tent. In other words, I was credible to the throng.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the facility in Clarkston, Michigan, was that it was huge. Most likely it seats about 5,000 people under the roof and probably another 7,000 on the lawn. It is not so far from where the DSO used to play in Meadowbrook. But as the concert time approached, only a handful of people were in attendance. Maybe that accounted for the early appearance of the opening act, Procol Harum.

In my DJ days, I really did not care for this group. My interests were more in line with San Francisco based Jefferson Airplane and the like. The Moody Blues held little interest for me, even though they were part of what was loosely called the “Symphonic Rock” movement.

At 7:25, five minutes before the announced start of the concert, five non-hippie looking gentlemen came on stage. It took a moment to realize that this was actually the group, since only one was left from the original 1967 band. Gary Brooker has aged, now sporting white hair and a beard. But he remains powerful as both a keyboard player and vocalist. Better than I remembered.

They have a sensational lead guitar in Geoff Whitebourn. In fact, I was surprised to hear so much jazz infused music during this 45 minute set. Of course there was the ubiquitous Hammond Organ, the go-to instrument of the time. The majority of their songs came from early days and it was not until the encore that they launched into the tune that defined the groups’ popularity, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” By this time the pavilion was starting to fill up and I could get a better sense of the audience.

To my surprise, it was not entirely made up of people from my generation. Mostly what I saw seemed to be the same crowd that attended the Kid Rock show, with the average age at about 40 years old. But they sure seemed to know the songs. Who would have guessed back in the 60’s that this material would have lasting appeal?

Procol Harum seemed to be having a great time, with the ensemble tight and the solos brilliant. I came away with a much greater respect for them than when I arrived.

After a 20-minute break, the stage was reset and it was clear that the next set would be quite different. Daniel pointed out that there were nine different keyboards stacked up and that the Hammond had disappeared. In addition, the drum set was much more elaborate and the visuals were now in motion.

Last time out, I wrote about the disparity between pictures and music. Usually one has nothing to do with the other. Or, if an attempt has been made to integrate the two, the audience is confused as to which one is more important. In this case I have to say it worked very well. First of all, the screen was located behind the musicians and not over and in front. Live images of the band were superimposed and there were also two monitors on the sides devoted to close ups of individuals. In other words, nothing intruded on the music itself.

When lead guitarist Steve Howe came on stage, I thought that we had entered a morgue. He is quite thin and has a skeletal demeanor that is exaggerated when he stares out into the audience. But he sure can play! Whether on various electric instruments or acoustic, his technique and musicianship were a wonder to behold. The same could be said of founding member and bass guitarist Chris Squire. Keyboard playing was reminiscent of former Yes member Rick Wakeman. Vocals were handled by a young Angelino, Jon Davidson, who more or less stayed in the upper range throughout.

It was a long set, lasting almost two hours. Like Procol Harum, they saved the big hit, “Roundabout,” for last. By the time the concert ended I would guess that about 4,000 people had come to the pavilion.

To some degree the audience puzzled me. Again, they knew all the songs with some people standing and singing along. But these were not the folks of the 60’s. Drinking was abundant, with a few people in front of me passing beer and flasks as the evening progressed. Another surprise was how often audience members got up and walked around. There was also talking during the songs, with two gentlemen behind me seeming to be lawyers rattling on about their latest cases.

Disturbing as well were the number of overweight people in the crowd. Not that I should be pointing fingers here, but if some of them put as much energy into losing a few pounds as they did in bouncing and dancing around during the songs, we would be well on our way to a healthier nation.

The performance was clearly well rehearsed and professional. Like the opening act the group was well knit, but I could not help but feel that Procol Harum had a better time on the stage. Still, it made this almost 68-year-old listener feel just a bit younger for a few hours.

As for Daniel, he seemed to enjoy it and was not embarrassed by his dad on this occasion.

See you in a few weeks.