All my life, ever since I was a kid, I've loved going to see live performances. Whether it's a play, a concert, an opera, or a ballet – any kind of interesting performance is likely to attract me. And growing up on Long Island, with fairly regular access to first class entertainment in New York City, I developed an insatiable appetite for truly great performers and performances. I've built vacations around seeing certain plays or operas or concerts. Buying tickets to expensive shows is probably my biggest and best vice.
I've seen dozens of great performers over the years, but here are five of my true favorites:
Any blog on "great performers" must begin with Bruce Springsteen. I've seen him only fifteen or so times, and I say "only" because there are many of you out there, and many of my friends, who have seen dozens more.
And they have a point. I've said it before and I'll say it again: "Few things in life are guaranteed, but a Bruce Springsteen show is one of them." (I wonder if he's ever given a bad show. By his standards, perhaps, though I'm sure that the audience didn't know it. I saw him at one show when he had a bad cold and "hocking up loogies" for the entire show – and he was still great!)
Loud rock and roll shows are definitely not the Tiny Goddess' thing, but she makes an exception for Bruce. From the very first show, she got it: how Bruce reaches out to everyone in the audience – almost personally – to make a connection. It's quite uncanny.
And no one works as hard as Springsteen. The Tiny Goddess and I have a standing joke after every concert we see: we say, "They're not coming back to do 'Rosie?'" Springsteen always comes back.
Here's one of my favorite songs of his, "Spirit In the Night." One of his definitive songs, I think, from his first album. It demonstrates that loose, real human feeling that he projects like no one else, mixing rock and soul and jazz; and the band ain't bad either. This is a video from a famous bootleg known as "Passaic Night" or "Piece de Resistance," from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, from September 19, 1978.
The picture on the video is lousy, but the music is sublime. Springsteen was coming back from an almost two-year exile off the road while he was extricating himself from a bad management deal, and he came back with a vengeance. There is still almost nothing like that 1978 tour.
I have hundreds of Springsteen bootlegs, but this show is probably my favorite. Bruce, in Jersey. What more can you say?
ROBERT STEPHENS as King Lear
Going to the theatre is one of my absolute favorite things to do in life. Not only do I "enjoy" it; when it's great, it fills my soul, instructs me, and makes me a better human being.
I've seen literally dozens of terrific performances in the theatre, but I thought I'd single out a particular performance from a Shakespeare play to discuss. William Shakespeare is "the world's greatest writer" for a reason; that's because, as the great director Peter Brook said, he gives us "the most for our money." A great Shakespeare play gives the audience beautiful poetry, brilliant thoughts, wonderful characters, fast-moving plots, lots of laughs, and, generally speaking, a bit of genius every thirty-seconds or so. Sometimes the bits of genius come in blizzards.
I've seen a good number of Shakespeare plays, but by no means all of them. One of the finest and most genuinely moving performances I ever saw was by the late British actor Sir Robert Stephens as King Lear at Stratford-on-Avon in 1994 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Adrian Noble's production. Stephens was a very interesting actor, one time thought to be a natural heir to Laurence Olivier's throne and one of Billy Wilder's favorites. But heavy drinking and the fact that his then-wife Maggie Smith quickly eclipsed him sent his career into a tailspin. But late in life a chance to do Falstaff and this Lear brought him back into the limelight.
His Lear was heartbreaking. One was almost embarrassed to witness his suffering. The Adrian Noble production was galvanizing, and Simon Russell Beale as Edgar didn't hurt either. Stephens' widow said that his death in 1995 was hastened by the hard work and supreme effort that he put into playing Lear, earlier that year. The years of heavy drinking probably didn't help either.
I couldn't find a video clip of Stephens' Lear on YouTube. It looks like it was never preserved: what a shame. But that's theatre: evanescent.
Here's a video clip from another pretty fair Lear I saw, Ian McKellen. (The Tiny Goddess and I had stage seats for this one, so we saw this amazing show from about ten feet from the action.)
I spend a lot of time listening to Keith Jarrett's music, specifically his albums of solo improvisations. I hope it's not an insult to this great musician to say that I use his music as both inspiration and background. What he tries to do musically – sit in front of the "blank page" of a piano keyboard and try to create something artistically interesting from nothing – is analogous to what I try to do in front of my blank page, my keyboard, with my writing. When I listen to Jarrett probe and feel his way through his music toward melodies and harmonies that blossom into song, I am filled with inspiration to do the same thing in my writing. And as I focus deeper and deeper, the music disappears.
I've seen Jarrett three times doing his solo improvisations, one time with his "Standards" trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, and twice one night with the fabled Miles Davis "Fillmore" Band in Paris in 1971. (Ahhh, Paris.)
The solo concerts are famous tightrope walks. Sometimes it takes him a couple of improvisations to get going, but then he'll find a vamp, or a Debussy-like strand, or a deep chord progression that makes brand new music, created right there, in front of your ears. Sometimes he'll throw in an encore like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "God Bless the Child." That's OK, too.
Jarrett is famous for his prickliness, for scolding his audiences, etc. He seems to be another artist I love who is apparently not a nice guy. So again, "Trust the art, not the artist." In his defense, I think that it was quite apparent from a very early age that Jarrett was a musical genius. I guess he decided to put his genius first, above all other normal human concerns. I'm kind of glad that he did.
Here is a video from Tokyo in 1984. They love Jarrett very much in Japan. I have a six-disc box-set – "The Sun Bear Concerts" – recorded in Japan during a two-week tour in 1976 that are beyond brilliant.
I listen to this music all the time. When I'm writing seriously, Mozart/da Ponte operas in the morning, Keith Jarrett in the afternoon.
GWEN VERDON in "SWEET CHARITY"
I love Broadway musicals. I say that with absolutely no embarrassment whatsoever. I resent that musicals are now somehow seen as epicene and soft and unmasculine. In previous generations, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Alfred Drake, John Raitt, Gordon McRae, Howard Keel, Richard Kiley, etc., etc., were paragons of masculinity. There is nothing unmasculine about singing and dancing; isn't that what Elvis and Springsteen do?? Isn't the ultimate compliment for any rock concert that it is "theatrical?" And as far as masculinity, Hugh Jackman dances on Broadway, and he's Wolverine: so there.
I've seen dozens of fantastic musical performances on Broadway, but I think my favorite might be Gwen Verdon in "Sweet Charity." One of the most beloved and acclaimed Broadway stars of all time (four Tony Awards in the span of six years), Verdon was arguably the best female dancer in Broadway history: "the female Fred Astaire." Of course, she's best-known for her work – as principal dancer and muse – for her husband Bob Fosse, one of the most distinctive and entertaining choreographern in theatre history.
Verdon had a charming quaver in her voice, but she wasn't about singing. It was all about the dancing ... and her personal charm. Not to mention her innocent but undeniable sexual appeal. Especially to this fifteen-year-old boy in 1966.
"Sweet Charity" was a big comeback role for Verdon at the age of 41 after taking six years off to have a child. And she came back with a vengeance. It was a big hit (but she lost the Tony Award to Angela Lansbury in "Mame.") "Sweet Charity" is a classic show where the parts are greater than the sum. The individual numbers – including "Big Spender," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," and "Baby, Dream Your Dream" – one after the other, are sensational. But the show doesn't add up to much, other than all the great entertainment and Fosse's best choreography. (Oddly, the Fellini movie that the show is based on -- "The Nights of Cabiria" -- is remarkably touching.)
I saw Gwen Verdon in "Sweet Charity" twice. Once from house seats (my friend and I got into trouble with our folks for spending so much money: $6.00! for a seat!!), and once from standing room. In those days, you could see things twice. Or three times. Or even four times.
Here she is from "The Ed Sullivan Show" doing one of the show's most famous numbers, "If My Friends Could See Me Now." (Ironically, the movie version of "Sweet Charity" with Shirley MacLaine, directed by Fosse himself, is a disaster. Later he learned to direct film.)
Gwen Verdon was pure charm in the theatre. And how she danced!!
I love to go to small clubs to see music. If I have to, I'll go to a stadium to see a show (Springsteen, the Who, etc.), but, generally speaking, the smaller the venue, the better I like it.
For a long stretch in the 90s and the 00s, I used to go to the House of Blues on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. That was/is a great small club, and I saw lots of amazing shows there, from very close up: Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Emmylou Harris, the Mavericks several times, the Neville Brothers (for Mardi Gras!), Nanci Griffith, Rodney Crowell, and many others.
One of the hottest shows I ever saw there was Al Green. Reverend Al, at his finest. In those days, you could stand on the stairs next to the stage. They subsequently curtained off those stairs – damn fire marshalls! -- but before that, you could stand there and be about ten feet from the stage with a perfect sightline. That's how I saw Al. He just killed the audience, including Jack Nicolson, Al Pacino, the Tiny Goddess, and me.
Here's some vintage Al – "Tired of Being Alone" – from "The Midnight Special" in 1974.
I was happy to see Al get Kennedy Center Honors. He deserved it.
(It's been fun, digging out some of these clips. I'll do it again. I've seen a lot of great stuff, spending half my life in New York, half in LA.)