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Missing live music (Part 1)

The marquee of the Riviera Theater delivers a somber reminder of one of Covid’s worst economic and social side effects: no live music. Pandemic restrictions silenced Chicago’s legendary Uptown entertainment district, which normally welcomes crowds of all tastes and sizes to venues such as the Aragon Ballroom, the Green Mill, and the Riviera.

But seeing this marquee last weekend rekindled two fun memories. The first one recalls a show there exactly 35 years ago last night. The second one is about one of the last shows the Riviera hosted in early 2020 before the lockdown turn live music’s volume down to 0.

Let’s go back to 1986

As I was helping some college friends with a project early that year, background music played an important role in keeping us motivated and focused. We listened to a lot of Sam Cooke and similar soulful music. But when I tried to mix things up and interest them in Forever Changes by the L.A. psychedelic underground band Love, they revoked my DJ privileges.

Upon regaining my turn at the turntable, I fared somewhat better by trying a slightly different route. This time, I’d try to spark their interest in a certain paisley underground band instead. The term “paisley underground” loosely described the 1980’s fusion of garage-band rock and vocal harmonies with an unmistakable tinge of pop psychedelia. I didn’t want to subject them to a group like the The Three O’Clock, whom I had seen the previous summer in Chicago when they opened for R.E.M on their Fables of the Reconstruction Tour. Their music was good but eccentric.

So instead, I put on the debut LP from a somewhat obscure rock quartet whose songs were more fun, refreshing, and accessible. The band wrote its own songs, featured three distinct lead singers, and pulled off some stirring harmonies. My friends accepted it, so I was curious and eager to listen to the band’s second LP, released in January 1986.

Suddenly, the most important time of day in the paisley underground world wasn’t Three O’Clock anymore.

It was Six O’Clock. As in “just in the middle of a dream …”

“Manic Monday” – written by Prince and sung by that no-longer-obscure quartet called the Bangles – soared to #2 on the Billboard charts by mid-April 1986. A couple of weeks later, the Bangles came to Chicago, and I wonder to this day how much the success of “Manic Monday” changed the composition of the crowd on the night of May 4th.

Seeing an inflection point in real time

One of the most satisfying times to see any band is right after they have released their second album. They can comfortably fill a show of 75-90 minutes, and as a friend of mine in high school once said, “I like seeing bands like that because we know almost as many of their songs as they do.” The Bangles did exactly that at the Riviera that night, mixing in songs from the albums All Over the Place and In a Different Light in ways that let every member of the band shine. Hearing them harmonize live was so much better than what a recording could capture.

Personally I preferred Vicki Peterson’s lead vocals at the time to Susanna Hoffs’. Peterson did not disappoint that night on favorites such as “Restless,” but admittedly, Hoffs sings the lead on my all-time favorite Bangles’ song, which is “Dover Beach.” She mined that song for all its emotional power, crafting the illusion that she was serenading the audience rather than performing. Then shortly before the encores, the band cranked the volume to 11 when Michael McKean (from This Is Spinal Tap and Laverne and Shirley ) joined them onstage.

On that upbeat spring night in Chicago, the crowd probably had no inkling that it was witnessing a band in transition, rapidly approaching that career-altering inflection point between rock band and pop band. The following Saturday, the Bangles would perform “Manic Monday” and the single “If She Knew What She Wants” on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” They would not unleash their first #1 single, “Walk Like An Egyptian” on the world until late 1986, and that cemented their transition to pop stardom, however brief it ultimately lasted. A Bangles concert would never be the same after that.

In a Different Light, the second album, went triple-platinum, and their next album Everything went platinum. The single “Eternal Flame” from Everything became their second #1 single. Whether the Bangles sold their souls is open to debate. But after that inflection point in 1986, they sold a ton of records.

Fast forward to 2011

Almost 25 years to the day after that rocking Bangles show, I’m sitting in a ballroom at a Beverly Hills hotel, awaiting the start of an event at the Music Business Association annual conference. My highlight of the conference so far was the chance to meet and chat briefly with Kenny Gamble, one of the architects of the Philly Sound in the early 1970’s. But that highlight was about to get some serious competition.

The event that morning was called Soundstage. It was chance for labels to show off a few up-and-coming acts, and a chance for conference participants to get a break from presentations and breakout sessions. The set-up of the first band left me wondering what they would offer: keyboards, drums, saxophone, bass, a backup vocalist, and a lanky lead singer dressed like he teleported in from a 1950’s doo-wop movie.

They broke into their first catchy song (“Pickin’ Up the Pieces”), but I wasn’t fully blown away until that “backup vocalist” strode to center stage and launched into the second verse of the song. Let’s put it this way. To witness Noelle Scaggs perform less than 10 feet away from you at 9:30 a.m. will forever rank as one of the most overpowering – and damn-near intimidating – live musical moments I have ever experienced.

The next song, if I recall correctly, was “MoneyGrabber.” From that moment on, I have been a huge fan of Scaggs, fellow lead singer and band namesake Michael Fitzpatrick, and the rest of the band known as Fitz and The Tantrums.

Later in 2011, they released “MoneyGrabber” as a single, and then scored mainstream success in the 2010’s with songs such as the platinum-selling “Out of My League” and the double-platinum anthem “Hand Clap.”

Then came Covid

The last live show we attended prior to the Covid lockdown was Fitz and the Tantrums at the Riviera on February 28, 2020, just a few days before the Riviera shut down indefinitely.

The band’s repertoire has grown to such an extent over the last 10 years that the only song they played from their earliest days was “MoneyGrabber.” And 10 years after that first encounter in Beverly Hills, they still blew me away.

When the confetti rained down at the end of the show on that February night, no one could have seriously imagined that over a year would pass before we would attend another show. The Riviera and Aragon have remained shuttered ever since, but the nearby Green Mill has resumed hosting jazz shows.

Part 2 of this series will highlight a recent blues show. It will focus on the gradual return of live music to Chicago, and what that experience was like after a year of only memories to keep us going.

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