As a life long devotee of live music, I can barely imagine shrinking my "list" down to even a somewhat managable top ten. Many of my favorite artists are performers I have been fortunate enough to see many times. In a few cases; Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Sonny Rollins, Tommy Flanagan, Keith Jarrett, and Ralph Towner I have seen many of these wonderful performers dozens of times over many years. These are my personal foothills. The mountain is Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, whom I saw over two hundred times over almost twenty years. By virtue of his being the bass player for all of the Dead shows I saw, now that Phil Lesh has been playing with his rotating assortment of musical friends, he is the musician I have seen play live the most, by a large margin. So, instead of putting together a Dead dominated list, I'll try to just list some favorite memories from an assortment of my favorite musicians.
1) Patti Smith Group- New Years Eve 1976. Palladium Theater, NYC. This was my first big rock show as a suburban kid. With Richard Hell and the Voidodes and Television, if the concert poster can be believed. I can't say I remember this in enough detail to say one way or the other.
2) Grateful Dead- Englishtown New Jersey, September 1977. This was my first Dead show, and in retrospect, the best in musical terms. Jerry was in a peak period of his playing in 1977 and 1978 and this show offers a priceless memory for me and my friends who all went together. Available as Dick's Pick's Volume 15.
3) Little Feat- Seneca College fall 1978 in upstate NY. It was such a thrill to see the Lowell George era Feat, as my friends and I were literally playing Waiting For Columbus so many times that you could see the record player's mat through the LP in the first copy I owned of this classic American jam band's great live album.
4) Grateful Dead- Radio City Music Hall fall 1980. These shows were unique in that the band opened with an acoustic set, and returned for two electric sets. The acoustic shows were beautifully recorded and have been released as Reckoning, which remains one of my favorite Dead recordings.
5) Jerry Garcia Band- Albany New York fall 1981. I could have chosen many other nights with Jerry, but this show remains my sentimental favorite for various reasons.
6) Richard Thompson and his 80's touring band at the Bottom Line in NY @ 1984 or 85. Seeing this genius up close and personal is always a pleasure. He is someone whose professionalism more or less precludes a bad show.
7) Paul Simon- Radio City Music Hall on the Graceland Tour 1986 or so. Simply majestic music and a triumphant show. I saw Paul's final show on his summer tour last year in Queens, NY, and he has aged well. So many great songs, a great band, and such evident pride in performing well. See him if you can before he retires.
8) Van Morrison- Capitol Theater, Passaic New Jersey- Spring 1986. He was touring with his then current album; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher which was my favorite of his many superb records from the 80's, and he had a great band with him at the time. Transcendent, which Van can reach on the good nights. I really resonate with his 80's material which had a strong spiritual leaning.
9) John Hiatt- Bottom Line, NYC. Touring with the Bring the Family album. An amazing peak of Americana.
10) Bonnie Raitt- The Ritz, NYC- late 80's. She was touring to support her come back record, Nick of Time. This show, in a sweltering night club on a summer night in the city, felt like she won each and every one of us who were there as fans for life.
11) Lyle Lovett and his Large Band- Bottom Line NY. Late 80's on the tour supporting his superb record Joshua Judges Ruth.
12) Grateful Dead- Spring tour 1990. The period from 1987 through 1990 was the great second act of Garcia's life, following his near death in 1986. This has been well chronicled, but is perhaps best heard on the three CD set titled "Dozin' At the Knick" in shows taken from Albany NY, or in Wake Up to Find Out, which was one show on Long Island where Branford Marsalis sat in the Dead to amazing effect.
13) Bob Dylan- There were too many outstanding Dylan shows to pick just one, but for purposes of this list, I'll single out the show he and his superb band played at the Meadowlands Arena on the tour with Phil Lesh opening for him. Dylan was superb and really owned his best material from all eras, which he doesn't always feel comfortable doing for whatever reasons. One of my favorite memories at a concert. He played so many great songs it felt like it made up for many nights where the audience was forced to play the " what song is this" game.
14) Emmylou Harris touring Wrecking Ball in a small club in NYC. It made me a fan for life. She and her band might well have cancelled the gig as they had been delayed on their flight home from Europe and had this one small show before taking a break. Instead of phoning it in, they literally played through their exhaustion and somehow managed to touch into their core love of music and communicated this in a way that is impossible to put into words. She is also a complete professional so her shows are always good, but every once in a while it is as if she manages to channel the Goddess of music directly, which she did that night. It never hurts to have Buddy Miller on lead guitar.
15) Lucinda Wiliams- in a club near Washington DC which served as an unofficial album release party for her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road record. Late 90's. She was an emotional wreck early in the show, so worried that her album would not find an audience, and by the end of the night, she was literally reborn, bathing in the audience's love.
16) Sonny Rollins- Playing on one of his annual free shows on the plaza at Lincoln Center in NYC. What many fans would call the greatest living improvisational musician and on a good night with the master, very few would argue with that assessment.
17) Tommy Flanagan- Village Vanguard, NYC summer of 1999 or 2000. This musician's musician would quietly take the bandstand with his working trio with no fanfare, and then proceed to cast a spell on anyone lucky enough to be in the club with him. A similar show is well recorded by Mark Levinson the man on Blue Note records under the title of Sunset and the Mockingbird; The Birthday Concert taken from a show at the Vanguard in the late 90's.
18) Rosanne Cash- With her husband John Leventhal in an un-amplified acoustic performance at the Rubin Museum in NYC in the early 2000's. She performed my favorite of her songs from her brilliant Interiors album that night and it was as close as I will likely ever get to being able to see one of my favorite artists in their living room.
19) Keith Jarrett Trio- Carnegie Hall Mid 2000's. They were verging on their 25th anniversary as a working band, and played a brilliant show together. ECM has released My Foolish Heart to celebrate this long running band's anniversary, but any number of superb performances might stand in for those on their wavelength.
20) Ralph Towner- at the Jazz Standard nightclub in NYC this spring, playing his superb new solo guitar record, also titled My Foolish Heart. As I said to my friend who is also a Towner fan, "nobody in the world plays like that".
Go and enjoy some live music where and when you can!