Sunday, September 11, 2005

Great Gigs I Have Seen

It has long been a plan of mine to try and list all of the major gigs and concerts I have seen in my life - just as a memory exercise if nothing else. Such events are amongst the most intense and important things that have happened, after personal relationships, and I often think that for our generations born after the Second World War, that the onslaught of music in the 60s and 70s was the biggest thing in our young lives. Not that that has changed in the intervening years.

What triggered me on this thought was the fact that last week my friend David was kind enough to give me a ticket for the Prome at the Albert Hall where we saw Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philarmonic perform. I may never have seen a full classical orchestra live before (its hard to remember) but it's certain that such performances could be counted on the finger of one hand. The programme was in three parts - some Haydn (take it or leave it), extracts from Wozzeck by Berg (the last piece of which was mesmerising).

The orchestra increased in size between the two performances, then there was an interval, and an even bigger orchestra came back on stage for the piece de resistance of the evening - Stravinsky's 'Rites of Spring' - which is what I was waiting for. I had not realised that this would be one of the great musical experiences of my life.

Those familiar with the piece will know of its savage intensity, its deep emotion, its mixture of pagan and modern. I had not prepared for the effect that it was to have, reaching inside ones heart, stirring up deep and nameless emotions.

To see a vast orchestra at work is a wonderful thing - a big six piece percussion section, ranks of brass players and woodwinds, a rank of big double-bass cello players and, of course, a flock of violinists.

Mehta was like a demon. Working without score, he danced, gestured, jabbed, swooned and flourished his baton, bringing this swirling, disjunctive, poignant, frightening piece to life, by turns, with such elegance and splendour that it brought tears to the eyes and gasps to the throat.

One image in particular stays with me. Mehta, standing like a heron when he uses his wings outstretched to shade the water in his search for fish, surrounded on three sides by the string players, with what seemed like a thousand bows making short vibrant strokes, an urgent and scary sound of great intensity - the whole like some scene from 'Lord of the Rings' , like some vast rhythmic army, soon to be joined by the elephants and the war machines, until the whole orchestra became one vast percussive instrument. Breathtaking and electrifying by turns.

In the interval, I escaped from the hot interior of the hall to the cool wind outside, where members of the orchestra were smoking chatting and laughing, all dressed in the black tail coats, looking like a cross between a pianting by Degas and Jack Vetriano.

What gigs have I seen that could match that? There is a long list ( so here's some of them): the first electric band I ever saw, the original Californian Byrds at the Assembly Hall in Worthing; the Buena Vista Social Club at the Brighton Dome; the legendary Iggy Pop gig at the King's Cross Cinema; Ray Charles at the Royal Festival Hall; Led Zeppelin at the Bath Festival; Bert Jansch at the Gardner Theatre at the University of Sussex; Alice Cooper, Manassas, the Who and Steely Dan (separate gigs) at the Rainbow; Bob Dylan at the Brighton Centre; the MC5 at Phun City; the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park; Parliament at the Hammersmith Odean; Elvis Costello at the Dominion Theatre. My life is marked out by such moments.

On the Turntable:

Road to Ruin - Supergrass
The Rough Guide to Afro-Peru
The Best of Fela Kuti
Calcutta Slide Guitar - Debashish Bhattacharya
Where the Humans Eat - Willy Mason
Ballads - Omar Sosa
No Direction Home - Bob Dylan
500% Dynamite [Soul Jazz Records]


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