It was a Monday night in April, 1982, my eighth-grade year. The J. Geils Band was playing in Ahearn Fieldhouse, and my friends and I had tickets.
We were just getting to the age where we even thought about live rock-and-roll; we had seen Shooting Star in McCain a few weeks before.
Shooting Star put on a damn good rock show, but they were small potatoes compared to J. Geils, which had big hits at the time. “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold” were all over the radio and MTV, back when MTV played music and the radio was really the only way to hear new stuff. I believe one of those songs was #1 on the charts at the time of the show.
It was my introduction to the way a big rock concert can lift you off the ground, when a band really hits its groove. Because they sure as hell hit one, Peter Wolf spraying champagne on the crowd, the harmonica guy blowing the roof off, and the tornado sirens in “Sanctuary” threatening to rip open the seams of the old barn.
I still rank that as one of the best non-Springsteen shows I’ve ever seen. Bruce is in another category, but that’s the subject of about 87 other columns I’ve written.
I’m reflecting on J. Geils because the era of big concerts in Manhattan has ended. The Country Stampede left, saying they could no longer make the economics work here. That event brought all sorts of major headliners to our area for 23 years.
Aside from that, though, it’s been years since big acts came to town. Ahearn Fieldhouse and Bramlage Coliseum over the years provided a venue big enough for those shows, but the guarantees required by big-name artists have made it unworkable in our market.
That’s a major shift since my adolescence. Awhile after J. Geils, there was a show in Ahearn with Huey Lewis, who was a top act at the time, warming up for Joan Jett, who I remember as even cooler.
Chicago played Ahearn twice; not my thing, but they were certainly big. A few years before my time, Three Dog Night played Ahearn. So did Seals and Crofts, Bread, the Doobie Brothers, Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane or Starship, I don’t remember which. The Stray Cats played there, when they were briefly big.
The opening of Bramlage amped it up, in terms of prominence, frequency, and, frankly, the banging of heads. At the height of the hair metal era, Def Leppard played the Bram, as did Van Halen, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Ratt, Queensryche and AC/DC. (AC/DC is not hair metal, I realize.) Garth Brooks played two nights in a row.
These were huge arena acts in the late 80s and early 90s. I missed them all; that was during my coastal wanderings. That’s why this is not a column ranking them. If you want to engage in that discussion, check the Mercury’s Facebook page, where there’s a long thread of discussion.
Alan Jackson. Dave Matthews. Bad Company. Eddie Money. The Beach Boys.
Bob Dylan, for goodness’ sake. Well, both the Beach Boys and Bob were far past the peak of their popularity, and Bob was only half-awake at his show here, by most accounts. We can certainly still attract acts here either on their way up or over the hill. Billy Squier and Tone Loc actually played at the old stadium — Memorial Stadium, right on campus — in the years after their time in the sun.
I’m also not saying live music is dead here. Far from it. McCain might be doing better than ever at bringing in some really great acts. Buddy Guy? That man can play. “Foreigner,” which I put in quotes because it didn’t include any original members, nonetheless rocked. Kerry Livgren conducting an orchestra playing “Dust in the Wind,” well, that’s legendary.
There are also cool shows around town, just as there have been for years. Lots of my friends talk about seeing The Clocks, or the Rainmakers, or Arthur Dodge and the Horsefeathers, in Aggieville. Chubby Checker played Arts in the Park.
I’m talking about the big arena shows for headliners. They’re done.
It’s not that K-State, or Stampede, or concert promoters generally, are incompetent or biased against Manhappiness. It’s just that the economics of the music business have changed. Artists hardly make anything by making albums anymore, since consumers just swipe songs or pay 99 cents for a single. Nobody’s selling millions of albums for $14.99 each. So the artists make their bank with concerts; that’s why ticket prices are through the roof. Only major markets can fork over the guarantees required.
Well, K-State could fork it over from time to time, particularly in conjunction with a game or something. They did that with the Zac Brown Band a few years ago. Back in the day, they tried to goose ticket sales by putting Willie Nelson on after a football game. We lost to Austin Peay, and it rained on Willie, and...well, that was all pre-Bill Snyder, when everything always went wrong. They could still do it now, if they wanted to, every once in awhile. Maybe they will.
But the point is, the era of the big headliner in town is dead. Stampede was the last gasp.
Turns out that that magic J. Geils show — the one that introduced me to the idea of a rock concert — was the beginning of a generation of the big shows. That generation, friends, is over.
Sure was fun.