Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2021 (194 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I collect ticket stubs. Those little artifacts from all the concerts I waited months for, all the concerts I nearly missed getting tickets for, all the concerts I travelled great distances for.
I have exactly one ticket stub (a piece of paper, really) from 2020: Wilco at the Centennial Concert Hall, which, like many others, was my last concert before everything was cancelled and live music venues became the first to close (and likely the last to reopen).
My colleague Dave Sanderson got us thinking about our most memorable concerts — the big-ticket ones. Seeing Pearl Jam for the first time in Fargo when I was 18, weeks before high school graduation, ranks up there. So does being a dancer onstage at a Flaming Lips concert. Seeing Bowie at the old arena. Seeing Prince at the new one.
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Every now and again Stu Reid, who jokingly refers to himself as a semi-professional music nerd, posts a rundown on his Facebook page citing concerts he’s attended through the years under a variety of categories.
One entry, “First concert — Kiss w/Cheap Trick 1977,” will obviously never differ. Others, such as “Most surprising — Hall & Oates, Toronto 1981,” haven’t varied in a while. There’s even a listing for “Loudest concert — Motörhead 2005” — that Reid’s 58-year-old ears hope doesn’t change any time soon.
But some of my big-concert memories are a bit different because, from 2013 to 2015, it was my job was to tell you how they were in the pages and pixels of this newspaper.
Reviewing a concert to deadline is a specific skill, and also poorly understood. A lot of people think we concert reviewers attend the show in our plum seats, jot the occasional deep thought into a notebook, then sit down at our desks to reflect on what we saw.
This is not at all what happens.
It’s more akin to maintaining a bunch of spinning plates while walking on a tightrope. When it’s showtime for them, it’s showtime for me. If an act takes the stage at 9 p.m., I have one hour and 15 minutes to make our 10:15 print deadline for the next day’s edition. That’s a tight 75 minutes to write a thoughtful, entertaining and factually accurate review while the show is happening, in real time. It’s a mix of reporting and opining, on steroids. Every time the lights went down, I said, under my breath, "Here we go."
You are not always familiar with the acts you are dispatched to review. You prepare as best you can, of course, with the time you have. You listen to the new album and identify the tracks that will, for sure, send people for beer. You look at past setlists for patterns.
Deep cuts occasionally sent me to Google, frantically searching snippets of lyrics. And, if all else fails, you recite what I call the Concert Reviewer’s Prayer: "Lord, please let the title of the song be in the chorus."
Despite ever-changing odds stacked against me, I never blew a deadline — not even the time I showed up to review Kanye with a laptop with a 32 per cent battery and a forgotten charger.
Live reviewing is an adrenaline rush like nothing else, but like anything that taxes your adrenal system, it’s easy to get burned out. Some months had me at the then-MTS Centre multiple times a week. My tenure as music writer overlapped with the Bro Country Autumn of 2014; finding new ways to describe the inevitable hologram duets and big, dumb, fun country songs about sunshine, beer, or drinking beer in the sunshine was getting more difficult for me.
"Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life" the adage goes. Really, it should be "Turn what you love into work, and you’ll love that thing a little less." Or, at least, a little differently. Don’t misunderstand: I got to see a lot of great music I otherwise wouldn’t have — and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the divas of pop. But there’s a wide gulf between going to a concert strictly for pleasure and going to a concert where you also have to perform to next-day reviews. Music fans are harsh. If I had a dollar for every "Were you even at the same show???" email I’ve received, I could treat myself to multiple steak dinners. With wine!
I miss reviewing them as a professional. I crave that feeling of being up in the pressbox and watching all of you watch your favourite artist or band — because it’s always someone’s favourite artist or band.
For a long time, I couldn’t go to a concert without mentally writing my opening line, or reflexively checking my phone to see how close it was to 10:10 p.m., a.k.a. "at press time..." The stress of the pressbox was still in my bloodstream.
But you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Not only do I miss attending concerts as a fan, I miss reviewing them as a professional. I crave that feeling of being up in the pressbox and watching all of you watch your favourite artist or band — because it’s always someone’s favourite artist or band. A concert is a communal experience, something that happens once and never happens exactly the same way again. And we’ve been short on communal experiences lately.
That moment when the lights go down is a feeling I’ve chased since I saw my first concert (Offspring, Edmonton, 1999), that liminal space between anticipation and arrival. It’s a space not unlike the one we’ve been living in since vaccines were first announced; think of how good — how memorable — that first concert will be when it can finally happen.