Were we nervous? Probably, but not as nervous as one would expect playing in front of an audience of 2,000 at the spring all school talent assembly. The reason we were not overly nerved up is because a couple of months earlier, we had played for a crowd of 4,000 who had come from all corners of the Upper Peninsula. Playing for 2,000 students and staff at our own school proved to be much less nerve racking and the truth be told, we actually found playing for these two large audiences rather intoxicating. Stage fright may paralyze some performers, but once the adrenaline kicked in, we got over the butterflies and had a ball.
Wandering around the wilds of YouTube recently, I was reminded of this memory watching a clip of AD/DC playing for a large stadium crowd in 2011, well before singer Brian Johnson was sidelined by the threat of complete hearing loss in the spring of 2016. Watching the crowd surge and jump as one during Highway to Hell, I couldn’t help but feel the energy that the band was absorbing on stage. True, there are musicians who play for the love of playing and do so in much more intimate venues. It is also true that one can feel gratified playing for no one at all, but playing for tens of thousands of people has got to produce a huge rush of adrenalin.
Not all musicians can inspire this kind of surging energy. I had previously watched a very young Peter Frampton playing for a sold out stadium in Oakland, CA around the time that his Frampton Comes Alive album was released. I recognized the same band that I had seen in Marquette on the tour that he had recorded his seminal double live LP. I also recognized most of the songs on his set list. The show he gave, however, was dull and uninspired. He spent a large part of one 20 minute song wandering around the stage from place to place looking more than a little lost. At one point disappeared behind his stack of amps. He ended up swapping spots with his drummer and after a couple of jamming verses that seemed to go no where in particular, he wandered back to the stage front where he tried his hand at tamborine for a bit. The crowd roared on cue when he prompted them, but it was not a great show. I am glad I got to see him play for a much more modest crowd at Hedcock Fieldhouse. Perhaps he had to work harder in Marquette as his second guitarist/keyboard player Bob Mayo was ill, forcing Frampton to cover a lot more parts and put on more of a show than normal. The contrast between the Marquette show and the one I watched him put on for the full stadium was very obvious: if you are going to perform for that many people at once, you better do something to keep their attention.
Big screen technology has come along way since Frampton was filling stadiums. There isn’t a festival or stadium show around now that does not employ one or more of the huge screens available to project what is happening on stage to even those in the cheap seats. When they employ these big screens behind the stage, I wonder if it is a distraction to the musicians themselves when they turn around and see their own thirty foot tall image. Massive amounts of stage lighting and pyro are also used to spice up big venue shows, but these have limited effect if one happens to be playing an outdoor festival during daylight hours.
Being lucky enough to be in Marquette during what I still think of the ‘golden age’ of the Upper Peninsula music scene, we were fortunate that there were promoters like Brass Ring Productions. Brass Ring’s Bob Fox was a mover and a shaker in the Detroit music scene and many people don’t realize that KISS owe their breakout Live album to his vision. Fox, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 62, was a young promoter with big dreams. He was willing to work with smaller local promoters in places like Marquette so many bands that went through Detroit made one off concert swings through the U.P. I can not remember a concert I attended at either Hedgecock Field House or Lakeview Arena where the crowd reaction didn’t elicit stage banter along the lines of, “We should come here more often”. Artists like Bob Seger, Brownsville Station, J.Geils Band, Savage Grace, Triumph, and Blue Oyster Cult all made good on that promise. When BOC’s Eric Bloom stepped forward at Lakeview Area, surveyed the crowd and announced, “Man, we gotta get out of New York more often,” it didn’t sound like the typical, “Hey (insert city name here), how ya doing” pandering. Indeed, they were back in support of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow a year and some later. Rainbow cancelled at the last minute forcing BOC to play two sets and to this day, I count both of their Marquette shows in my top 10 live events.
J.Geils sat opposite Johnny Carson and answered Johnny’s question (“have you had any notable gigs lately?”) by stating, “We just did a show at a college in Marquette, Michigan and the crowd was so great, we can’t wait to go back.” When the band feels the energy on stage, they would rather go through a little more trouble to play in the hinterlands than a so-so gig in areas where the crowds are more jaded (and sometimes snobby) about the concert scene.
While the WOAS West Coast Bureau was still in Los Angeles, I was able to catch two Black Crowes shows when they were still talking to each other. The crowd reaction was good and the band was clearly enjoying themselves but to my mind, there was a lot of posing going on in the audience. I go to see the show, not watch the crowd. There were a significant element at those shows who seemed to be there to be the show. No doubt, some of this goes on at shows everywhere, but I probably was too wrapped up in the music to notice. The bands, however, always notice when the crowd appreciates what they are doing.
When Gordon Lightfoot was touring as a trio in the years before he started putting hits on the radio, he actually yelled at the crowd seated at Hedgecock. It wasn’t a large crowd so they had a small stage in the corner and everyone just sat on the floor. They started clapping along with a song and Lightfoot actually hollered, “Shut Up.” He finished the song and then somewhat contritely explained that he couldn’t hear himself in the monitors. He was clearly uncomfortable knowing he had alienated his audience. He more or less apologized a couple of tunes later when he said, “Let’s see if you sing better than you clap” as he slid into the chorus of Me and Bobby McGee. The moment was quickly forgotten, but I would bet Lightfoot learned from it.
As for playing in front of an audience large or small, my experience was always pretty much the same: a few butterflies before we started, a little less so once we had a song started and then pure enjoyment when things were in full swing. With a double gym full of bodies, one really can’t see more than the first few rows in front of the stage. Even playing a teen dance at Lakeview Arena gave us a peek at this phenomenon: there were only 200 or so kids at the dance, but with the house lights down and the stage lights on, we had the illusion of playing a gig in a bigger venue because all we could see was the crowd at the front of the stage. The UP Winter Games dance in the Marquette High gym was the same way: knew it was a large crowd but didn’t really process what an audience of 4,000 people looked like until they lights came up at the end of the dance. Bass player Mike took the words right out of my mouth when he surveyed the mob heading for the exits and exclaimed, “Boy, I am glad they didn’t turn the lights on before we started!” Maybe that is what spooked Peter Frampton in Oakland those many years ago: he was playing in broad daylight and had no choice but see the tens of thousands of people in attendance!
The first time Measured Chaos appeared at the Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts, the size of the crowd was perhaps 1/3 of the house or slightly larger. Band leader Al Jacquez peeked out from stage side and stated matter of factly, “Yeah, we can play for this house.” The band must have liked the reception they got because they came back a couple of years later to do an afternoon matinee for the Ontonagon Area School kids and an evening show for the general public. As Al told the crowd on their second visit to Ontonagon, “Man, I wish we could start all of our tours, here!” Anyone who has had the privilege of performing on stage can relate to what Al was feeling.
Top Piece video: Brian Johnson era Highway to Hell FOR 2009 – AC/DC could get a good crowd reaction and I am sure they felt it from head to toe on stage!