A Tale of Two Concerts…

If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you might have noticed that I have an affinity for music. It really doesn’t matter what the genre is…rap, rock, country, metal, punk, you name it, I probably have an inkling about it. About the only thing that I might be a bit deficient on would be classical music, but I can listen to it an appreciate it. Thus, a couple of shows that I saw within the past month demonstrate both sides of the musical spectrum.

On June 22, my lovely wife and I headed to Amalie Arena to see the rapper Pitbull and the balladeer Enrique Iglesias entertain a packed house. When you can fill a 20,000-seat arena with no problems, you know you’ve made it. And the crowd was as diverse as you might expect for such a multi-cultural show: whites, blacks, Latinos/Latinas, young and old…everyone was there for the party. And, for their part overall, the two entertainers for the night held up their end of the deal.

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Iglesias was, for me, the surprise of the night. Considering that he had his first success back in the 1990s as a younger man, the 42-year old Iglesias was energetic and put on a great show (something that those who have been around the business for a lengthy time don’t sometimes do – that’s what they mean by “mailing it in”). There are those of you reading that might recognize the song “Hero,” which was a massive hit in 2001, but I was a bit surprised by how many of the other songs that I recognized by him. “I Like It (which also featured Pitbull prior to his massive success),” a song that was made popular on the reality show Jersey Shore, and other tunes had the crowd going over the span of his 45-minute set.

There was one moment that was extremely special, however. Bringing the mood down into a very intimate setting, Iglesias and his band slowly trod a path through the crowd to the back of the arena, where stools were arranged for the performers to sit on. From that locale, Iglesias and his band performed a couple of tunes for the entirety of the crowd, but made it special for those in the back who are often ignored during a show. It was a nice touch, especially the “troubadour” walk from the stage to the alternate stage and back.

Between shows, there was a DJ (my wife informed me that he was supposedly Pitbull’s uncle, although I am not sure on that) who performed as the roadies broke the stage. I’m not the biggest fan of watching someone work the turntables – it takes a special talent to do it, don’t get me wrong – and as such I was less than thrilled with this part of the program. It was a good time to go get refreshments, however, and it seemed that many were following my lead.

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As far as Pitbull’s performance, it wasn’t the first time I had seen him. My wife and I had attended the 2016 93.3 FLZ Jingle Ball prior to Christmas, which was headlined by Pitbull. Instead of getting a reduced show (the Jingle Ball lineup also featured Martin Garrix, Fifth Harmony, Walk the Moon, and a few others), this would be the first time seeing the Cuban-American superstar doing a whole show. Let’s just say that I wasn’t disappointed either time.

Pitbull’s music – a goulash of Cuban rhythms with pop, rap and dance stylings tossed in and usually featuring Pitbull rapping while a vocalist fills in the chorus – isn’t for everyone but, if you are someone who does enjoy this genre, then you know how good he is. He was backed by a full band and a cadre of female dancers who changed costumes at least four times by my count. But it wasn’t the accoutrements that made the show great, it was the skills of Pitbull to work the crowd.

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Whether he was using his music – and there’s a lengthy resume of hits he rolled out, including “Timber,” “Hotel Room Service,” and many others – or simply speaking to the gathering, Pitbull maintained control of the show entirely. With this said, it didn’t seem as if it were that much longer than the abbreviated show he delivered when he was performing at the Jingle Ball. It was a fun show and would do it again, to be honest, but it was kind of like cotton candy – sweet to eat but with little substance.

Less than a week later (June 28), I went to a show that was completely the other end of the spectrum. The venue was Skipper’s Smokehouse, a nice little dive with great food and an even greater repertoire of music. Imagine if you will an old tobacco shack with a stage, a restaurant that doesn’t have any air conditioning and an outdoor area looking at a bare bones stage that has a few seats but, for the most part, has its patrons standing up for a show.

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This was the venue for one of the true treasures of the music world. Alejandro Escovedo may not be a household name of the level of Pitbull or Iglesias, but he’s is one of the most respected musicians in the industry, cited by Bruce Springsteen and “Little Steven” Van Zandt as an influence. Escovedo has also been through the travails of the music industry, starting off with the punk rock band The Nuns before joining Rank & File in the early 1980s (whom Escovedo said sounded like “punk rock done by George Jones”). He went solo after leaving Rank & File and, for the past 30 years or so, has been grinding the small venues of Texas and, on this night, Florida, plying his trade.

Pat Puckett, an old friend who backed Escovedo during the 1980s, opened the night with a very bluesy set that was perfect for the surroundings and for opening for Escovedo. Puckett’s guitar work was quite good and it really seemed as if his set was too short. He is a popular performer in the Tallahassee area so, if you’re in the mood for some excellent guitar work and a solid rock & roll show, you should check out Puckett.

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Escovedo came out as a thunderstorm broke out, but you couldn’t have moved any of the roughly 600 people who were massed there from their spots. Escovedo ripped through some songs from his current CD, Burn Something Beautiful, highlighted by his performance of “Heartbeat Smile.” By the time he closed the night’s proceedings with his best-known song “Castanets” (notable as it was seen on former President George W. Bush’s iPod), the entirety of the crowd was on its feet, rocking the shack around them as the skies cleared around midnight.

One of the nicer things about these smaller shows is that the performer will more often than not come out and sign CDs and talk to those who attended the show. Escovedo did that, spending some time with my wife and talking about the Austin, TX, music scene before getting a photo with both of us. It was a great way to end the evening.

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So, which was better?

I lean more to the rock side of things, so Escovedo would get my vote. But what was remarkable about the shows was the complete 180 that each presented. From the stylish, staged, and choreographed show from Pitbull and Iglesias to the rugged, rough and ready rock & roll show presented by Puckett and Escovedo, there wasn’t a thing that they had in common except for one thing…the love of music.

If you haven’t done it in a while, I suggest you get back in the ring and give it a try. Go to a concert at your local stadium – doesn’t matter if it’s a rock show or a pop concert – and go to one of your local venues that has performers sometimes just playing for the drinks they’re quaffing. They are both the heart of the music world and, with hope, you can get something out of both experiences.

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A Treatise Remembering the Thin White Duke

Many years ago, I was but a wee one who was still trying to forge my identity, my signature, my own style, if you will. At that age perhaps it was a bit young to even think about things like that, but everything you go through at that age would help hammer you into what you will become. I always had an interest in the space program – this was a time after NASA had landed astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon, but also just after the failure of Apollo 13 put the kibosh on moon missions for a period. I also was beginning to build an interest in music, although in the beginning only one format was made available.

My mom and father were both avowed country music fans – to the point of using that line from The Blues Brothers where Joliet Jake and Elwood ask the woman what type of music was played in the honky tonk bar they’ve arrived at and she says, “Both types:  country and western” – so there wasn’t much beyond the staples of the time in the house:  Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn…you know, the basics. If there was some “renegade” country music played, it was George Jones or perhaps Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or something along that level. I always knew that there was something else out there, especially when I poked around through my mom’s album collection and saw bands that looked nothing like the country artists she listened to, folks like The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Jefferson Airplane…I knew someday I had to hear those groups.

Fortunately, that day came much sooner than either my mom or father ever thought would be possible. My father had another son by another woman, my half-brother Monty, who sometimes came around when he was “in the area.” On one of those trips, my half-brother and I ended up riding around in his Monte Carlo, for no apparent reason, when he finally said to me, “Hey, you like space…here’s something you should check out.” He pulled out a cassette and popped it into the player. After a few moments, the intro to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and its fade-in synthesizers gently entered my mind for the first time.

From the first listen to that song, I was hooked not only on the artist but on the music. The guitars, the lyrical storytelling, everything was there that was in country music, it just seemed better in this format. Monty would move on a few days later – leaving the cassette with me – and I would wear it out. I only saw him a few more times over my young life and, to this day, do not actually know whether he is alive or not.

When I heard about the death of David Bowie this morning from cancer at the age of 69, I remembered that time long ago in my life and how much that Bowie had been interlaced with my existence. The days of “Space Oddity”, of course, begat the Ziggy Stardust Era of Bowie’s work, where he took on the persona of an outer space alien that came to Earth. The music that emerged from that era – “Starman,” “Jean Genie” and “John, I’m Only Dancing” being particularly memorable – seemed to be something that others in what was called “rock music” weren’t doing.

Then came the stage of Bowie’s career that I particularly enjoyed. Blending the sounds of rock, soul, German and synthesizer music, the Thin White Duke epitomized the cool of the 70s. Supposedly an offshoot of his character from the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Duke was a distantly cool but always in tune person. Unfortunately, Bowie probably was able to draw the ability to conceive such a character – as I learned later in life – because of massive amounts of drug use (while drug use can help artistic performance and development, it can also be the destroyer of those same worlds).

Fortunately for Bowie, he was able to emerge on the other side for what was arguably his greatest phase of his career. Following a few Brian Eno/German influenced albums (especially Low and Lodger), the 80s would be where Bowie would truly bloom. Perhaps because of the video element added by MTV – or perhaps because of his own development as an artist – Bowie would crank out his finest work in this decade. Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks), Let’s Dance, Tonight and his work with Queen on “Under Pressure,” his Live Aid performance and his duet with Mick Jagger on “Dancin’ In The Street” all gave Bowie the credit as an artist that he truly deserved. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and, over the two decades since then, has simply delighted us fans with everything he ever did (and this is completely glossing over all the work he did in films and on stage as an actor).

And I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there for most all of it.

Bowie was formative in my early years and during my career in radio. That era of the 1980s was his heyday and was the apex of my career in Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio and, in reflecting back on those times, it always seemed as if Bowie was just ever so slightly ahead of the curve, as he had been since his days of “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust. Even after I left the radio business, his later work still had that artistic edge, looking forward to the next big thing, that was always the benchmark of Bowie’s life and career, whether it was in music, acting, art or a myriad of other areas he would dip his fingers into.

Perhaps it is a sign of age, or the passing of time, when we begin to lose our heroes, be they athletic, musical, acting or even familial, that it begins to hurt the worst. Even from my time in radio, I’ve been unfortunate to see men younger than me pass away:  Jani Lane of Warrant and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots are two who come to mind off the bat, but their deaths were from their own problems and issues. Even some of the greats that I thought I’d have in my old age, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, were unable to join me in potentially making it to my rocking chair. Lemmy just passed and some of the others, like Bruce Springsteen and others, are on the other side of 60; hell, Bono only has a few years on me!

David Bowie led one of the most remarkable lives that mankind can even imagine. He was at the forefront of his generation, but he was also mindful of his place in the world. He was an artist, but he also appreciated the beauty in the work of others. The world is a much darker place without the visage of the Thin White Duke looking down upon it.