During 1974, the most notable thing about the Albuquerque popular concert scene was what wasn't seen.
The biggest names passed us by.
For the previous three years, that wasn't so. We had been spoiled by landing a date on nearly every major concert tour, with the notable exception of the Who.
Over the past six years, we've had the opportunity to see just about Anyone who is Someone - the Rolling Stones, Three Dog Night (seven times), Jethro Tull (three times), Elton John (twice), Led Zeppelin (twice), the Grateful Dead, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Alice Cooper, Jefferson Airplane and many more. Few could resist playing the cavernous and profitable University Arena.
THIS PAST year, if you wanted to see Dylan and the Band; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Eric Clapton or George Harrison, you had to go to Denver or Phoenix. With ticket prices for these shows sky high, and adding in transportation and overnight room and board, you're talking about a $30 concert, minimum. Every concert you lay down money for is a gamble, but you'd have to want to see someone awfully bad to risk that much.
The only one I felt warranted that much expense and effort was Dylan. He had appeared only a handful of times, usually unannounced and hadn't toured since his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. With the Band backing him up, the combination was too much to resist. Ecstatic reviews of the early tour shows won over many who were teetering on the brink of indecision, and Row 8 on the floor of the Denver Coliseum was entirely filled with Albuquerque people, with many more familiar faces scattered throughout the huge arena.
The ecstatic reviewers were dead right. I could sympathize with their falling all over themselves in attempting to grope for the proper superlatives.
From reviews and first-hand reports I've heard of the other shows, the Dylan/Band concert seems to be the only one of the Big Four that missed us that was unequivocally worth the trip.
AT SOME POINT, there was a possibility of all of them hitting Albuquerque. For a Dylan date, it was mostly speculation in the early stages of setting up the tour. For Clapton and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young it was much more definite with tentative plans being made up until a couple of weeks before they would be in this area.
The nearest miss was on George Harrison. It went as far as the Harrison people offering a date on which he would play in University Arena, but it conflicted with Lobo basketball practice. Lobo Coach Norm Ellenberger and UNM's Popular Entertainment Committee Chairperson Steve Schroeder could not work out an agreement and the Harrison people would not offer another date so Albuquerque lost its chance to see a real live Beatle.
The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young date was nearly as close to happening, until someone set off one or more tear gas canisters at a five-band concert in University Stadium last May. That was the first concert held in the stadium in years, and others were planned (Crosby and friends among them) if everything went smoothly. But after residents south of the stadium complained about the "noise" - not to mention the 9000 unhappy people in the stadium who were in the thick of the gas - all other stadium concerts were cancelled.
IT'S MUCH more difficult to determine why other big and lesser-name performers did not appear here. The tangle of third- and fourth-hand information starts locally with promoters, ticket agents, and those who control the bookings of facilities like University Arena, Civic auditorium, Popejoy Hall - and goes up the line to out-of-state promoters, record companies, agents, managers, and the artists themselves.
Another factor was the weakened market here. Formerly known as the town where the Stones packed 16,000 into University Arena and even Sly & the Family Stone drew 12,000, Albuquerque now has the reputation of being the only city on Joni Mitchell's tour that didn't sell out. Even the Allman Brothers Band drew only 7308; Leon Russell, a pathetic 4790.
Surely the general state of the economy has a lot to do with it, with New Mexico, one of the poorest of the 50 states, being hit very hard. Scheduling was often a factor; Joni Mitchell played here during a six-week period when there were 11 concerts scheduled - fine for L.A. but absurd for an area with 350,000 people to draw from. Many concerts drew well during the last half of the year, however, and Albuquerque is rebuilding the image, which was never critically damaged, of a city where the big acts can play and at least make expenses.
None of this meant to imply that only the big shows are worth seeing, not that no second-level stars made their way to this arid outpost in 1974. There were a lot of smaller concerts here, and over a dozen of them could be rated "very good." That's an average of better that one a month, a goal which seemed unthinkable for Albuquerque five years ago.
Most of the best, as it turned out, were the big-name attractions. My list of excellent concerts seen here in the past years includes: Santana; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; the Allman Brothers; Joni Mitchell; Loggins & Messina (both concerts); Van Morrison-Little Feat; and Randy Newman-Ry Cooder.
Picking the two best among them was fairly easy, but deciding between those finally became impossible. So I'm co-awarding Best of the Year honors to Santana and Joni Mitchell, with separate categories that may better explain the dichotomy.
Santana - a rare, truly inspired performance, of such intensity and precision to its form that the only comparisons I could draw would be with the Dylan concert (though in most ways they were very dissimilar). Carlos Santana has been an intriguing figure in the music world recently, metamorphosing on several levels from a long-haired, Latin hard rock guitar player to a jazz-playing short-cropped follower of Sri Chinmoy.
He dropped his old, immensely successful band recorded with Mahavishnu, John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane along the way, and showed up here again with a large (eight-man) band, with a few of the old people. But this time he was the leader in a very different way, standing off to one side and grabbing no more of the spotlight than a one-eighth share. His playing retains its intensity, but is much more refined now.
The Santana band was a musical machine seemingly incapable of being the slightest bit out of focus, a credit to Carlos's leadership as much as to the considerable individual abilities of the other seven. R.E.O. Speedwagon started the show with a surprisingly tasteful hard rock set, but not good enough the make the Santana R.E.O. concert as a whole the year's best.
Joni Mitchell - she toured with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, who backed up her performance but also opened the show on their own. That gave the concert a sense of flow and unity that you don't get when the opening act is whoever happens to be in the area. Scott and his friends are an aggregation of highly respected veteran sessions musicians - unknown except to those who follow popular music closely, they nonetheless won the attention and enthusiastic applause of a crowd who came to see Joni Mitchell.
The lady herself was as charming, talented and just plain real as anyone could have hoped for. She displayed a dozen facets of her seemingly limitless talent, playing guitar, piano and dulcimer, telling stories, treating us to a song she warned was still unfinished, effortlessly leaping to those unexpected high notes, appearing for one half of the show in denim and kerchief and for the other half in an elegant, soft blue floor-length dress.
Johnson Gym was a horrible place to have such a concert, but she and the band rose above the frighteningly bad acoustics to deliver the best night of music seen here in 1974.
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer - the show of the year, or any year, in a theatrical sense. The British trio brought 30 tons of equipment, set up in quadraphonic, and blew even the most skeptical minds with a pyrotechnic display that far overshadowed their limited musical ideas. Great fun.
- Van Morrison-Little Feat - more interesting than totally pleasurable. Little Feat, who popular appeal lags way behind their critical acclaim, showed they are without question one of the best American bands today. Van Morrison pulled surprises all night, from his physical appearance to his musical arrangements, climaxing his quixotic behavior by seeming to walk off stage because of hassles with the audience, only to return with a long, amazing encore set that finished with "Gloria." I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
- Allman Brothers Band - long acclaimed "maybe the best" American band by critics, their appearance here, though somewhat restrained, displayed the elements that earned them such praise. Seeing and hearing guitarist Richard Betts was worth the whole show - his skill and immersion in his playing are reminiscent of the mellowed Hendrix.
- Loggins & Messina - played twice, with Jesse Colin Young in January with Poco in December. You've got to respect anyone who always expends so much energy to give a good show, especially when the musical talent so deserves to be heard. Their range of style is outstanding.
- Randy Newman-Ry Cooder - only those two on the Popejoy Hall stage, but they delivered a totally satisfying evening of entertainment. Newman delighted old fans and demolished those less familiar with his benignly sardonic songs and manner in racing through a record-setting 23 songs in an hour. Cooder showed that his blues singing and audience control have improved amazingly since his last appearance here four years ago - considered with his fine instrumental ability, you had to give him equal billing for the evening with Newman.
OTHER CONCERTS missed the mark of excellence but deserve mention:
- Jackson Browne-Linda Ronstadt - later appearances tarnished the gleam; Ronstadt came back twice more last year, and Browne was so bad the second time here (with Bonnie Raitt, who was excellent) that it made the first concert seem like a fluke.
- J. Geils Band - the two groups preceding them, Brownsville Station and Stray Dog, were bad enough to empty the hall of everyone over 18, but waiting for the Boston boogie men was worth it. R&B/R&R '70s style, as only they do it, led by non-stop frenetic Peter Wolf.
- Waylon Jennings et al - an event. The first concert held in the Dukes' ballpark in five years, the first in ages where beer was available, starring the punk of country music, set against a sunset and lightning background such as Fillmore patrons never witnessed, with a crowed that seemed evenly split between ropers and dopers. Zero acoustics outdoors, but a good time was had by all.
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