Let me start this new series by telling you – for a fact – there’s no one Best Gig Ever. If there had been then I’d not be continuing to attend concerts; maybe I keep going in the hope that one day there will be a Best Gig Ever. But I also know there can’t ever be one best. The best Faith No More show is not the best Elvis Costello show is not the best gig by Ray Charles.
Live gigs are different from albums too. That should seem obvious of course – but what I mean is that a really great show can happen by a band you just couldn’t care about on record. Like Machine Gun Fellatio.
Anyway, my first Best Gig Ever was my first international act. In 1990 I was a massive Eric Clapton fan. That compilation The Cream of Eric Clapton was doing the rounds in our house. The record introduced me to Derek and The Dominos and Cream and the best of seventies and early eighties EC. I was a disciple. I mean, we’re driving up to the gig, the whole family, right, and I’m pondering – seriously – whether they might actually play Peaches and Diesel, the instrumental that closes off Slowhand. And I’m serious. (To be fair, I was serious about everything when I was 13).
I ask the car.
My folks chuckle – the instrumental is playing in the car as I ask the question. They doubt it. But they are a bit tickled by my enthusiasm. Either that or they’re frightened but too proud to show it.
We are off to Australia for a holiday and by fluke of timing the EC gig is the night before we fly out from Auckland. So we’re going. At that time in my life this was the biggest thrill there could ever be. I’m a music nut, already. But I never thought I’d get to see one of my favourite acts. Not living in a big city I just haven’t quite fathomed that one day I’ll get to see the acts live. I certainly haven’t thought that 15 years on from then I’ll be some cynical, jaded hack who’s seen most things twice and is known for hating everything. (Even the things I love. Apparently).
The opening act is Midge Marsden. And he’s good. And his band is good. And Burning Rain is of course the hit song. I had the tape.
Half-time comes – the interval, the wait between the opening act and the main act and I’m such a concert-newbie, I’m so green, I lean over to my dad to enthuse over the opening act. And he says, “yep, great band actually”. And I say, “imagine how good they’ll sound with Clapton?” And my dad politely suggests that he might even have his own band; one that might even be a bit better.
Fuck me, that band he had was sensational. Of course it’s the best band I’ve ever seen because this is my first international act, but after the gig I’m off researching them, finding out where else the drummer and bass player have played and who with (the answers: everywhere and everyone). And a year later when I see Dire Straits I’ll remember that the same guitarist had been part of Eric Clapton’s band.
They open the show with Pretending, the first song from Journeyman, the new album of the time. A good record. My brother had it. So we’re all pretty familiar with it and just as well because No Alibis and Running On Faith and Before You Accuse Me and Bad Love and Old Love are all on the set that night; all from that album.
But it’s the fifth song in when things really stir. White Room. I’d been bashing along to it in the back room, trying to cop Ginger’s feel with the record playing so loud the neighbours can hear it. And they can hear my drum-bashing too of course. So anything by Cream on this night will be the best. And we also get Badge and Crossroads and Sunshine of Your Love.
But even songs I didn’t really like, even then, are great. The version of I Shot The Sherriff is tremendous and I don’t even really care for Bob Marley’s version. Clapton’s is turgid. But not in this big tent. Not on this night. It’s electric.
It’s a kick-ass show. It’s before Clapton “went Unplugged”. It’s before his son died. It’s before he became a total snore-fest.
The band is killer-good and his performance is shit-hot too. Yes, yes, he’s already the Armani Bluesman and his foppish hair and millionaire nonchalance are a million miles from the source material he’s meant to be representing – but like that matters right now. Or then. I was 13. And a whole world of music was opening up to me: that idea, too, that the music could just mean so much in that moment, at that time – that a live show was a happening. Here we all are, strangers, a crowd of some 10,000 or whatever. And we’re all hooked on this sound. All in it together.
Holy shit that was exciting. That was it. Made an instant convert of me. I would have to wait another year before the next big gig. And then another year from there. But once I got out of that hick-town and hit the capital I was at shows every week if I could be. I was phoning home to borrow money, taking a part-time job to get money for gigs. I was buying up all the music when a band came to town, going for the full experience; needing to have all of the music and know it all. Ready for if they did play their Peaches and Diesel, say. Even though hardly anyone ever did.
That gig was my first. And like any first it’s a memorable thing. Either for good or for bad. If you say you want to forget something – because it was so bad – that usually means you can’t and never will. If you say you’ll never forget something – because it was so good – that usually means you’ll do your best not to. Just like Clapton and that astonishing band (Nathan East and Phil Palmer and Greg Pillinganes and Tessa Niles and Katie Kissoon and Steve Ferrone) did their best on that night. Or close enough to it.
I almost never feel like listening to Eric Clapton these days, certainly nothing much past 1970 anyway. But I smile anytime I think of that concert. It lit a fuse. It started the fire. And though some nights – and this will always seem like a strange complaint to anyone else – I could think of anywhere else I’d rather be I still love, for the most part, the chance to see a live gig. The chance being that it might be more than just good; it might be special. It might be – for a time at least – The Best Gig Ever.