What was the best concert you ever attended? Before you can answer a broad poser like that, it seems to me one must first answer this: What are the things that matter most when it comes to assessing how great a live show was? Well, obviously, there is the band (or if you’re lucky, multiple bands) whose performance has to wow you from the stage. But it’s way more than just that, right? Another significant factor are your surroundings – the energy of the crowd and the vibe of the venue – which, sometimes surprisingly, can make or break your perception of the music. Yet I’d rate a third more amorphous factor as somehow most telling, that being the alchemy of your co-attendees. Good karma there is critical, and a kinetic kinship, perhaps even an unanticipated or spontaneous one, can spark the overall concert along the experience spectrum from just good to unforgettable. Well, I’ve been to hundreds and hundreds of live shows over the years, many truly spectacular events, but as I think about it, if I had to choose just one that sits atop the list in my mental concert archives, it would be this one: George Thorogood & The Destroyers, opened up by The Nighthawks, at The Mann Center outdoor amphitheater in Philadelphia, PA., with my friends Zing and Rosey. I believe it was July of ’82. Or maybe ’84. Some of the details are a bit hazy.
These were, without question, two absolutely dynamite live acts. The Nighthawks, a killer blues-rock quartet from Bethesda, MD. (just outside Washington, D.C.), were a group I’d followed for a while. Mark Wenner, on vocals and harmonica, had two full “sleeve” tattoos, quite a rarity for the times (and even more so for a member of “the tribe”). Jimmy Thackery was a dorky looking guy, but played feral lead on a bitching Flying V guitar. Brawny drummer Pete Ragusa and pretty boy Jan Zukowski on bass looked like the Mutt and Jeff of rhythm sections but formed an unshakable backbone. And all together they played a traditional yet ferocious style that made them one of the earliest bands I really got into when I started obsessing on the blues. I still consider their 1979 album, “Jacks and Kings” (Volumes I and II), which featured blues luminaries Pinetop Perkins and Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, to be one of the greatest start-to-finish blues collections I know.
George Thorogood & The Destroyers (with lifers Billy Blough on bass and Jeff Simon on drums) – impressively self-proclaimed as The World’s Original Five Man Trio¹ – were, of course, plenty well known by then. They had a teeming repertoire of rocking, undiluted FM-radio staples, and nobody wailed on the slide guitar like Lonesome George in his prime. He was indeed bad to the bone.
The dusk sky was cloudless, the summer night was perfect – steamy but not muggy – and the three of us had set up a nicely spacious headquarters on a grassy embankment overlooking the main seating area and the stage. And, notwithstanding Thorogood’s classic show-closing number, we may have had something more than ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch (and) One Beer.’ Maybe one dozen. Or three. We got solidly blotto, as I recall. Nothing too reckless, but perhaps just a tad out of control. It’s a fine line (and a younger man’s game), but conceivably another key variable to be added to the eminent concert memorability factors cited earlier. The aforementioned Zing and Rosey were (and still are) two of my best friends; critically, though, they were from distinctly different, even occasionally rivalrous, friend groups (college vs. high school). Clearly, this was a risky, potentially combustible chemistry experiment, that conceivably could have resulted in an ugly explosion. To my everlasting fortune – be it the air, the tunes, the booze (yeah, there’s a good chance it was the booze) – we were instead immediately bonded as best concert buds: air-guitaring, gambolling around in berserk inappropriateness, and generally making pretty big asses of ourselves. Eventually it devolved somewhere from Thorogood’s ‘Move It On Over’ to, well, just knocking each other over, and repeatedly careening down our own little grassy hill. It was semi-youthful joy. And, for sure, it was also a decent level of outright stupidity. Distant as it may be, I bet we can all remember the feeling.
Lest it not be understated, however, that in the midst of our acts of immature tomfoolery that the music was nothing short of stupendous throughout the night (it’s reasonable that it would be difficult to look back at it as my best concert ever were that not the case). Every last song of both lengthy sets was strictly an overflowing orgy of boisterous blues and rambunctious rock and roll. George & The Destroyers barreled through ‘Madison Blues,’ ‘Who Do You Love,’ ‘House of Blue Lights,’ and, perhaps to please the locals, one of my favorite instrumentals of all time, ‘Kids from Philly.’ And the thoroughly nasty Nighthawks had preceded all that with a slate of blues classics like ‘Dust My Broom,’ ‘Nine Below Zero,’ ‘Next Time You See Me,’ and managed a version of Elvis’s ‘Little Sister’ that somehow topped The King himself. The music, the setting, and some unexpectedly unifying tag-team comradery all registered at the apex of my scale. I couldn’t possibly have projected it as such beforehand, but if my objective for the evening had, in fact, been to have experienced my greatest concert night ever, then I guess I reached my destination.
¹a short time later they added a 4th member, Hank “Hurricane” Carter on saxophone, to at least get closer to the billing