Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Upstaged By The Opening Act

Rock ’n’ roll concerts have evolved over the years. There was a time when rock shows were traveling revues of five or six or more bands, playing 20-30 minutes apiece before a headline act capped off the evening with maybe a 40-minute set of its own. This was especially true of soul and rhythm and blues revues on the Chitlin Circuit during the 1950s and ’60s, but it was true for early rock shows as well.

At some point, demand for an extended set by headliners led to fewer and shorter sets by opening bands. Nowadays fewer concerts than ever feature an an opening act, which is just as well. Most people only care about seeing the top name on the marque, and since most musicians tell time about as well as your average 3-year-old, the last thing we need to do is give them another reason to start their set two hours late.

While we’re on the subject of opening acts, we should note that there have been instances over the years when an opening act badly upstaged the headliner. Such a mismatch occurred on Oct. 16, 1971, at Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke. Yes, boys and girls, there once was a time when Cameron hosted rock concerts. In fact, Cameron used to be one of the best concert venues in the Southeast, and a sound engineer’s dream acoustically. The Duke Union’s Major Attractions committee took advantage by booking some of the best shows ever during the 1970s.

This was before Duke hired Mike Krzyzewski as basketball coach. It didn’t take Coach K long to have all the acoustic tile removed from the ceiling at Cameron, turning a sonic dream into one of the worst echo chambers in the country. You can’t blame Krzyzewski. He’s a basketball coach, not a concert promoter. He wanted it loud in there and that’s exactly what he got. But it was ruined forever as a concert venue.

Pardon the digression.

Now, where were we? Oh yes. On Oct. 16, 1971, Traffic played at Cameron Indoor Stadium. This was a pretty big deal at the time. Touring in support of its most recent and arguably most successful album, Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, Traffic was pretty much at its peak as a commercial enterprise. Dave Mason was long gone from the lineup, but Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi still gave the band a star-studded nucleus, and they had a succession of critically acclaimed albums to their credit.

Unfortunately for Traffic, Duke Major Attractions booked the English folk band Fairport Convention as the opening act. Not as widely popular as Traffic but with a devoted fanbase, Fairport was coming off an extended period of upheaval in its ranks. In the previous two years, three of its most important players — vocalists Iain Matthews and Sandy Denny, and guitarist extraordinaire Richard Thompson — had departed, yet still the band soldiered on. With a stellar lineup that included Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Philip Stirling Wall and Dave Swarbrick, Fairport Convention electrified the Cameron crowd with a mostly acoustic set that nonetheless had far more rocking energy than most rock shows of the day.

Traffic, not noted for its stemwinding live performances to begin with, never stood a chance. Maybe without the over-the-top opening act, Traffic might have been able to satisfy the audience that night, but Traffic’s more subtle and nuanced material was overmatched. Fairport Convention’s rave-up performance blew them away.

Two years and four days later — Oct. 20, 1973 — Duke Major Attractions again badly mismatched opening and headline acts, this time with Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen opening for the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

The New Riders (aka NRPS) were riding a small wave of popularity generated in large part by the fact that the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia played pedal steel guitar on their debut album. Playing a laid-back brand of lightweight country-rock, NRPS was a solid unit but not a likely candidate to set the world on fire, far better suited for a 500-seat theater show than the 7,000 or so rowdy fans who showed up at Cameron that night.

Commander Cody, on the other hand, was a powerhouse outfit with a well-earned reputation for incendiary, scorched-earth live performances. Their most recent album — Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas, recorded at Austin’s famed Armadillo World Headquarters — was a dynamo of a live record, one of the best and most underrated live records of the decade. Their show at Cameron that night was even more raucous and frenzied than the record, non-stop roadhouse intensity. By the time the boys from Texas finished their 40-minute opening set, NRPS was toast. Commander Cody wore the place out.

Whoever thought Commander Cody would be a good opening act for the New Riders definitely owes the New Riders an apology.

The moral of the story thus far is not to book high-energy acts as openers for low-energy headliners. That’s definitely a formula for disaster, but what happens when the headliner conspires to make conditions even worse?

On Feb. 15, 1974, Kris Kristofferson played at the heinous Dorton Arena on the North Carolina state fairgrounds. The opening act was an unknown country veteran by the name of Waylon Jennings. You can probably see where this is going already. Despite having more than 20 albums to his credit at the time, Waylon still was so unknown that he was listed on the ticket and concert poster as Maylon Jennings. That would soon change.

Waylon’s most recent album was Honky Tonk Heroes, his stirring tribute to the legendary Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, and it proved to be his breakthrough album. As a live act, Jennings had long ago established his bona fides, thanks to more than a decade of playing the rowdy roadhouses of the South and Southwest. He and the Waylors were a formidable live act and they were sensational on Feb. 15, 1974.

Kristofferson was already an established star by 1974, a huge star, in fact, and for good reason. His first several albums were masterpieces of songcraft, yielding such classics as “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever do Again),” “The Taker,” “Why Me” and “From The Bottle To The Bottom.” That last number proved to be autobiographical, unfortunately, and by the time Kristofferson came to Dorton Arena, his out-of-control alcoholism was a poorly kept secret.

Adding to Kristofferson’s problems than night, he was more of a folkie, singer/songwriter type than anything else. He was not known for high-energy concerts. So when he hit the stage that evening at Dorton Arena, with the building still smoldering from Waylon’s incredible blowout show, the combination of Kristofferson’s obviously drunken state and his abysmal sleepwalk of a performance was embarrassing and painful to witness. He had to stop his band in mid-song several times because he couldn’t remember the lyrics, and even when he did manage to stumble through a song without interruption, his performance was wobbly and unfocused at best. It was an outright disaster.

Happily, Kristofferson kicked his drinking habit a few years later, and even expanded his creative outlets to include a successful acting career. Nowadays he commands the respect and admiration he so richly deserves as one of country music’s all-time great songwriters, but it wasn’t always the case, especially on that 1974 evening at Dorton Arena when he aided and abetted to help an opening act blow him right off the stage.

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