By Ken Bradbury
It wasn’t my idea. My friends talked me into it. I had no real desire to travel to St. Louis to see a currently popular country singer in concert, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt me. The ticket was way too expensive, but someone else was driving so I told them I’d hop in and go along. How do I say this politely? I guess I can’t. I really didn’t enjoy myself at all.
A few weeks ago, our local PBS station replayed a concert by The Highwaymen … Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Okay, I’m terribly old fashioned, but man, what a joy … what a thrill to see this supergroup in action once again, despite the fact that two of them don’t perform much anymore. Death will do that to you. There they were, just four guys on stage with a band behind them … icons … heroes of American music. No fog machines, no laser lights, no Jumbotron … in fact, no fancy lighting at all. At several points during the concert, the follow spotlights missed their mark and left Willie or Waylon in the dark for a second or two, and there was no distracting video playing on the screen behind the band. Just four guys holding the stage in their own magnificent way. At one point Waylon playfully reached over and grabbed the neck of Willie’s guitar as the longhaired boy from Abbott, Texas, wondered why no sound was coming out. Kristofferson often quit playing and simply looked at his three heroes on the stage. After Jennings and Cash died, he said, “Man, I used to clean those guys’ ashtrays and there I was onstage with them.” It was a magical concert.
And then there was St. Louis. The tickets were the cost of a car payment, the volume was turned up to a volume that surely made the famous arch quake, the light show was an absolute distraction to the music, at times the artificial fog completely obliterated the sight of the guy singing his songs, and my Pepsi cost me five dollars. I only had one wish … to get on the road again.
I know that it makes me sound like the fuddiest of fuddy-duddies, but dog-gone it, I go to a concert to hear the music. Period. Your light show doesn’t reflect your talent, simply the amount of money you spent to hire the tech crew. And whether it’s Busch Stadium, the Arenzville Burgoo or a concert on the Jacksonville square, does ear-piercing volume really make you better?
I can remember years ago going to the old Busch Stadium and hearing a pretty well-known group in concert. They were from England and called themselves The Beatles. (I totally impressed the girl I took with me.) Even above the screaming, I could hear every word without being blown into the outfield. Then there was the enchanted night when Johnny Cash came to the Illinois State Fair. I don’t remember a thing he sang that night, but the sight of his huge shadow coming up the steps when the lights had dimmed was just short of magical. One man, one spotlight, one huge talent … the same thing when Willie Nelson came to the state fair. All the talent is behind the microphone, not in the sound booth or lighting controls.
Sociologists say that when the world gets too confusing we tend to regress to the simpler times, thinking back on and wishing for things as they once were, times when life was more clear and understandable. And of course, it’s a generational thing, as well. When you’re 12 years old and you’ve had your thumbs on a video game all day where whole worlds explode and things blow up every ten seconds, I suppose you’d like your concert to detonate, as well. Can a thing really be worthwhile unless it’s blown to pieces, whether it’s a guitar amplifier or your eardrums?
I’ve spoken of this before, but I remember a night at New Salem’s Theatre in the Park when a lady folksinger from Jacksonville held the huge stage with nothing more than a guitar and her voice. At one point she stopped in the middle of her song and said, “I’m sorry, folks, but there’s a better show going on above our heads than the one I’m doing,” and she asked that all the lights be turned off. When the boy on the lights pulled the switch, we all looked skyward and were treated to a floating blanket of stars that took the breath of even the curmudgeons among us. “Now that,” she said, “is a concert.” God’s light show was more spectacular than any Broadway tech show could equal, and we sat in silence as He played out His beautiful symphony in the heavens.
I think I’ll not return to the St. Louis venue. It’s so much more satisfying and economical to simply go outside on a summer evening and simply look to the sky.