This week’s question comes from reader Jason Gross:
“I’m biting the bullet to see two bands that I don’t really like (Mötley Crüe and Barenaked Ladies) only because I really want to see the opening bands: Alice Cooper and Violent Femmes. I’m open to the possibility that I might actually like Crüe and the Ladies but I’m also prepared to walk out on both of them pretty quickly if I’m wrong. I’m a little embarrassed about doing this and have mixed feelings. To help me (and I’m sure plenty of other people) get over this, I need to know something: Have you ever gone to a show where you hate the main act but you want to see the opener? What was the outcome?
I’ve gone to shows solely for the opener numerous times, but never has the gap between my desire to see the first band and my lack of desire to see the closing band been more pronounced than when my barely teenage self attended the MTV Alternative Nation Tour. The opening group was Screaming Trees, still one of my favorite groups to come out of Seattle in the early ’90s. Their intensely bluesy version of grunge rock has aged well, unlike many of their contemporaries, due in large part to the ragged pipes of Mark Lanegan; I would listen to him read the phone book. The second act, Soul Asylum, was also pretty great, though it came at the tail end of the band’s run of solid records. But within 30 seconds of the headliner’s opening song I was running down the aisles for the door. And that headliner’s name… was Spin Doctors.
Like Alex, I’ve got a number of these as well, including the time I went to see Luna open for Screaming Trees! (Pretty sure I stayed for a while, as I do like Screaming Trees.) But the one that sticks out to me most prominently is the mismatched Flaming Lips/Candlebox tour. It was 1994, and the Lips were just starting to see some real success, and clearly the only reason they took the tour was to try and take their career to the proverbial “next level.” Of course the Candlebox crowd only maybe wanted to hear “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and none of the band’s weirder songs, which at the time was all of them. The crowd was flummoxed if not outright hostile, and Steven Drozd remembers it as the band’s worst touring experience yet, with “unreceptive, sometimes hostile meatheads” making up the audience. (It occurs to me that a lot of readers won’t even remember Candlebox, which is heartening, actually; the band had some huge hits in the early ’90s, and apparently are still around, but no longer part of the public consciousness.)
Prior to The Lumineers soundtracking Blue Moon beer commercials and every urban-rustic soiree in America, a friend suggested I catch the band in concert. I was living in Minneapolis at the time and welcomed the excuse to take a break from teaching and grad school for live music. I headed to First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry on a Wednesday to watch the suspender-clad trio open for a group I cared even less about—Kopecky Family Band. The Lumineers, when paired with the good company of an old friend and plenty of beer, were serviceable in the pint-sized venue, filling it with enough sound and energy to be worth the $10 ticket price. One Kopecky Family Band song, however, was enough to send me home early, as I had a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call the next day and no interest in continuing to watch six people crowd a tiny stage with what was advertised by the local radio station as “clanging tambourines and guitars, booming percussion, intelligent string arrangements, and triumphant horns.” I mean, really, watching three people do the same thing just minutes before was enough for one night.
In the early days of MTV, I immediately knew who my new rock idol was going to be: INXS’ Michael Hutchence, who slithered over the band’s first videos for “The One Thing” and “Don’t Change.” I was smitten by his Australian mullet and warehouse dance moves, and quickly scooped up the album Shabooh Shoobah. So when INXS opened up for The Go-Go’s at Chicago-area outdoor venue Poplar Creek, there was only one band I was going for, although I didn’t feel hatred for the girl band as much as misguided indifference. Hutchence and his Aussie bandmates were as captivating in person as I expected, but to this day I find it hard to believe that I saw The Go-Go’s in person and barely paid attention. I remember they were a lot showier than their opener, and guitarist Jane Wiedlin twirled around a lot, as Jane Wiedlin is wont to do. I did purchase Beauty And The Beat afterward, and once I realized the extent of that band’s awesomeness, I kicked myself, a lot. But something like a Go-Go’s/INXS tour was as fleeting as Poplar Creek, which also doesn’t exist any more.
I have an instant answer for this question, and although I wouldn’t say that I truly hated the headliner, I can say for certain that I never would have gone to see Edie Brickell & New Bohemians if their opening act hadn’t been Aztec Camera. More specifically, it was Roddy Frame sitting onstage by himself, delivering an acoustic performance of the best stuff from his back catalog, along with the requisite new tracks from the album he was supporting at the time, 1990’s Stray. When Frame finished his glorious set, it became immediately clear that a very substantial chunk of the crowd had come solely to see him, due to a mass evacuation as soon as he departed the stage. I felt guilty bailing quite that quickly, so I stuck around, and Edie Brickell & New Bohemians were just fine, but I still ended up leaving before they were done. The post-script to this story is that I later interviewed Frame and in what I felt was a good-natured manner, I mentioned the abrupt exodus. I soon realized I’d either delivered the story poorly or he took it wrong, because he immediately leapt to Brickell’s defense and—with a slightly prickly tone—said, “Don’t dis Edie!”
I can’t say I’ve exactly done that, but I can speak to the relief of attending a show where you’re not that invested in what lots of other people are there to see. Last summer I went to a single day of The Governors Ball NYC Music Festival, and though one headliner, Outkast, was a major reason I went in the first place, I had (and still have) absolutely no interest in the day’s second-biggest main stage attraction, Phoenix. And not caring about Phoenix was great. It really tied the day together. I was able to get good spots for Janelle Monáe, Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, and TV On The Radio, while Phoenix provided a set-length break during which I felt no anxiety about getting something to eat and sitting on a hill. And you know what? Sitting on a hill eating takeout Chinese food in the early summer evening was by far the most enjoyable time I’ve ever had while sorta-listening to Phoenix. While I’m sure there’s a tipping point where paying headliner prices for the smaller acts on the bill becomes less worthwhile, sometimes the added value an unexciting headliner provides is the freedom to walk around, get something to eat, or even leave if you want to beat the crowd out the door.
There’s nothing wrong with Lewis Black or Dave Attell; they’re both funny guys, even if their anger-fueled sensibilities don’t entirely run to my stand-up tastes. But I definitely wasn’t a fan, and the idea of driving two hours and paying 40 bucks to see the duo headline a Comedy Central tour back in 2003 was well outside the realm of possibility. That is, until my roommate Tom and I discovered who would be opening for them, his name bizarrely kept off of the tour’s big promotional push: the now late, lamented Mitch Hedberg. If memory serves, there wasn’t much in the way of new material in Hedberg’s set that night. But it was still amazing to see the man in person, working at the top of his precisely lackadaisical form. After the show (which included legitimately funny sets from both Black and Attell), I waited in line in the hopes of meeting the notoriously shy Hedberg and getting an autograph, but he never showed. And that’s how I ended up with an absolutely hideous Western-themed T-shirt, the only piece of merch there with Hedberg’s face on it, that’s signed by two comedians I only sort of like.
I ran my college radio station for two years, alongside two of my roommates, who also moonlighted as “local reps” for record labels. A local rep was a college student who put up posters before shows, handed out CDs to local radio stations, and did whatever promotion they could in advance of a gig, as no one from Sony was going to schlep out to Buffalo just to get a few more people to see one of the bands they accidentally signed in the post-Nirvana frenzy. The pay was low to nonexistent, but that didn’t matter, because there was an unending stream of promo albums, which became so devalued in our household we once used a stack of not-yet-released Pearl Jam CDs to prop a window open. There was also the occasional guest list, and one of the biggest tickets was an outdoor show where we got to see The Reverend Horton Heat. The Rev’s high-energy rockabilly and flair for showmanship (his bassist played an upright bass, painted fire-engine red, with flames painted on the side) always makes for a good show, and the fact that he was third on the bill meant there was plenty of room at the front. Of course, the rest of the crowd had paid big money to see the other two bands on the bill—Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, but jaded indie rock snobs that we were, we crept steadily further from the stage during the (admittedly good) Soundgarden set, and split as soon as we realized Nine Inch Nails’ live show was indistinguishable from their album played at high volume.
I honestly don’t think I would use the word “hate,” but for my 17th birthday, I went to an Avril Lavigne concert in Tampa solely because I wanted to see Butch Walker (my favorite musician) and Gavin DeGraw (my favorite example that dates this story) perform as her openers for this tour. I knew the only other way I’d be able to see Butch Walker in concert (solo) in Florida was if I could have someone with a car drive me to Orlando. No one at the time was going to drive me to Orlando just to go see Butch Walker, and this was my first chance to see him live, which is the best way to experience him. The tickets (which I still have saved in a box back in Florida) weren’t exactly cheap and a friend of mine paid for them as a gift, but I seriously would have tried to convince her to bail after the opening sets if not for the fact that I knew Butch would come back to sing a cover of “Song 2” with Avril on drums later in the night. The Avril concert itself wasn’t bad, but I’d already winded down on my teen “Avril phase” at that point, and it felt like the longest concert ever at times. As for Gavin DeGraw’s set—you wouldn’t believe how many moms were into it. Or maybe you would.