Tuesday afternoon, a friend of ours gave us tickets to a small live music session at famed Webster Hall in New York. The band Company of Thieves gave a performance for about 30 to 40 people, playing about five songs for local radio station WXRP. We sat on a leather couch near the small stage and thoroughly enjoyed the performance, which lasted about 45 minutes. It was a cool New York City experience.
Here's one of the songs the band played.
And here's one of their live performances.
I haven't been to many live concerts. In college there was Big Head Todd and the Monsters, when they were still, well, big. And there have been others, but I don't have nearly enough concert experience to speak about the best live bands or the best live performances I've seen. The pool's too limited.
But I do still remember the worst live music performance I ever saw: the 1989 homecoming dance at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High School. It was in the fall and the setting was the elementary gym in Janesville, long-known as the "little gym." The band's name has been lost to the history books and the files of the school's administrators. That was the first year the students of Janesville and Waldorf-Pemberton came together in a school consolidation that's lasted 20 years, despite many troubles and financial headaches along the way. The football team got off to a great start that year, bringing the towns together and helping with the early, awkward stages of consolidation. It helped smooth the process, as kids from all of the towns involved learned that, hey, we do actually have a lot in common with these rural students who also come from farms and towns with fewer than 2,000 people. And we thought we'd be so different!
The five days of Homecoming Week were always the most important of the year, as the school crowned royalty, devised wacky dress-up days that inevitably involved togas and constructed complicated floats that cruised down the bustling Main Street of Janesville on the Friday afternoon of the game. It was a big deal, complete with powder puff football and a pep rally.
I was a ninth-grader that first year and I think the football team lost the homecoming game in 1989, which always slightly dampers the rest of the night. Like always, the game was followed by the homecoming dance, a chance for horny teenagers to dance to the sounds of Def Leppard and Poison. Later, many of the kids would search for a kegger or a sibling to buy them beer, unless they acquired their goods even before the dance.
For a guy who preferred observing instead of dancing, the event often proved torturous. There was the occasional slow dance with a girl, but I avoided the fast songs, owing to a humiliating night in seventh grade when I actually did break out all my dance moves and watched as every girl watching broke down in laughter, when they weren't begging me to stop, just stop. Describe the moves? I don't know, ask the poor souls who watched it. I guess it probably looked like someone who's just been Tasered by a police officer, only with less grace. Emotionally scarred, I was content to sit in the stands and make fun of others who actually had guts and decent dance steps. If I liked a girl, perhaps I could talk her into dancing with me after the DJ "slowed things down" and threw on "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." Hands on her hips, I'd shuffle with stiff legs in a short circle while Bret Michaels or another long-haired crooner poured out his soul. I'd say something hinting at my true feelings. She might respond with a smile and I was ensured of another dance - perhaps to "Take My Breath Away" - or else she might lean in and whisper the dreaded words, "That's sweet."
That's how nearly every high school dance I ever attended went, including the homecoming dances. The school hired a DJ from a "sound and lights" production company in Mankato and he'd play songs for a few hours while a fancy laser show distracted us and provided the visual setting.
But for homecoming in 1989, the school forgot about hiring a DJ. Instead it went with a live band. All right, cool. Could be a neat experience, something different, having a live band instead of a DJ playing the same songs by the same artists.
Unfortunately, the band we got for our homecoming was a combination of Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, AC/DC, and Anthrax, only louder and without any talent. Each member of the band looked like the kind of guy who dropped out of school in ninth grade and was now happy to triumphantly return to musically indoctrinate young minds into the ways of Satan. They all probably still lived lived with Mom, but they likely wrote songs about killing their parents. If none of them had ever served time, it was only because of lenient plea deals. Instead of an experienced DJ mixing up the slow songs with the fast ones - while delivering entertaining commentary, complete with obligatory shoutouts to the football team - we had four screamers, playing music that damaged ears and minds. Death metal had come to JWP.
Hardly anyone danced. Everyone sat in the stands in horror, entranced by the unkempt youngsters who had commandeered the little gym's stage. My god, the administrators must have thought, in previous years elementary school children entertained their parents from that same stage with stirring renditions of "Jingle Bells." Now we had a quartet engaged in primal scream therapy.
After awhile I sort of felt bad for the guys. Despite our prejudices, they were probably all nice guys just trying to make a little extra beer money for the weekend. It wasn't their fault someone in the school administration had made the most disastrous musical decision since Decca rejected the Beatles.
There was no slow dancing on this night. Only thrashing. A couple of students who worshiped at the altar of Pantera did congregate near the stage. Over the deafening sound, one could be heard screaming, "YOU GUYS FUCKING RUUUUUULE!" It was a minority opinion.
The band eventually finished their performance for the night. The dance mercifully died as the stunned students shuffled out into the night, ready to resume their search for easy alcohol and easier hook-ups. If the football game hadn't depressed them, the music surely did.
The school held several dances throughout the year, not just during homecoming. For the next one, our reliable, boring DJ with good teeth and nice hair made his return, as did Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" and Journey's "Faithfully." All was again right with the world.
No one really spoke about that homecoming dance again, though they surely remembered it in their nightmares.