The 10 Best Concerts of All Times: #1

1. John Spencer Blues Xplosion, winter 1997, Barrymore Theater Madison WI

After some so-so opening bands, the huge crowd surged into the small orchestra pit before the first row of seats. This is an old classic theater with a curtain and such, really not built for rowdy rock shows…Everybody is standing, so it’s impossible to tell where the seats start in the front. I am pressed against the stage itself hard and cannot move at all. The pressure builds as the bands walk on stage and fiddle with the Theremin etc then walk back off. Suddenly I feel a jab in my ribs…it’s some kid of deranged frat boy with a scraggly beard and Packers hat twisted sideways and wild drunken fury in his wide eyes. He’s elbowed his way to the front and wants to be where I am. Incapable of human communication he reaches out and grabs my face. I free one arm and swat him away, cursing. He laughs, but in connection to something else that I cannot see. He focuses on me again and tries to twist off one of my ears…the people in between us are confused and scared. No-one can move enough to actually fight, not that either one of us would or could. If we had space we might waltz, delicately…I understand his anger, where the fuck is the ROCK?!!!

Finally the boys stride on the stage and open with a medley of jams from the first few albums…Bellbottoms into Backslider etc…This is a staple of their live act and I sometimes think they improvise the song choices…John just starts blastin’ and the other two keep up. First Russell and Judah come out and get crunk, then the Man leaps out and starts flailing around in front of the Theremin. He plugs in his guitar and hoots—“BELLBOTTOMS!!!” The crowd goes completely apeshit and I take the opportunity to brace myself on the stage and heave backwards as hard as I can, knocking the frathole spinning…the last I see of him he’s waving his full beer over the crowd, spraying his load with glee and hopping on one foot. I thought that would give me some room, but immediately fourteen teenage punk girls and their fatass boyfriend slide into the space in front of me and I am born away into the surging flailing fighting mass. I forget most of what happened after that for a while, except that I keep flying all the way back to the first row and getting slammed in the knees by the edges of the chairs. They play for hours, barely pausing between songs…they are perfectly together. They are barely off the stage for one minute before they come racing back on for the encore…

At some point late they start playing that slow simple song from Now I got Worry…just a single progression played string by string as Russell hunches over the drums playing a plodding 6/8 time thing on the ride and snare. The scrum slows as JS paces on the stage preaching. WTF is he talking about? He says something about rock as religion, about Jesus, about the Blues is #1 (obviously), about praying with your hands in the air…the song goes on and on, 5 minutes, six minutes, Judah looks asleep and John is climbing around on the amps and yelping and screeching like a monkey…he fires up the Theremin, HOLY CRAP IS THAT LOUD. Junx wails into space and then bottoms out into a quavering roar. He’s waving his arms and hugging himself and pointing his guitar at the thing, he falls down and rolls around it like a snakehandler before a crucifix…all this time Russell has been playing as his big curly mop of hair covers his face and his huge body is hunched over awkwardly, playing the same slow 50s love song beat, but louder and louder and now his arm is going higher and higher until he is reaching straight up way into the fuckin SKY and bringing the hammer down on the snare drum as hard as he possibly can– CCCCCRAAACKSSSHSSHSHS!!!!! The snare is so loud I’d believe that he blew the mic for it and is acoustically destroying an entire amphitheater except for the fact that the reverb on that joint is cranked so high that the echoes blast through your skull until the next giant explosion. The mob is swaying crushed together staring in disbelief or screaming blasphemy and utterly soaked in sweat and beer. It’s hypnotism. Finally John leans his feeding-back guitar on the thermin, resulting in a single high pitched shriek, and walks off…but the song keeps going. A minute passes, then another, somehow the whole thing gets louder and louder and louder. John comes running back onto the stage and kicks his guitar over and screams and suddenly it’s over. Russell tosses his sticks at his drums in weird disgust and splits.

The lights come on. We untangle our limbs from each other and start squelching out en masse in our soggy shoes. The place is trashed and so are we. They start playing Mustard Plug or some crap on the PA. I’m about halfway up the aisle when I hear, over the canned music of the loudspeaker…BABY BABY YOU SURE LIKE TO F**K! We all turn as one, confused. The band has snuck back onto the stage and just starts blazing in front of the half-empty auditorium. FULL GRRRRROWWN WOMAN!—F**K!!!! I somehow do not die of trampling in the stampede back to the front of the place. They play for another twenty minutes after that and in the process take my soul and kick it in the nuts. We all die on the spot and are transported to heaven where we wait for our ignorant bodies to stop their twitchin’.

I’ve seen this band many times, from the first tour for Extra Width to the last for Plastic Fang and they’ve always been incredible…but at that show they whipped those people into frenzy like I’ve never seen, outside of police video of hockey riots…It was utter and glorious madness. Rock and roll.

One Response to “The 10 Best Concerts of All Times: #1”

  1. I couldn’t agree more…

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