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My Arena Rock Boycott Is Over

<strong>In Flight:</strong> Pete Townshend of The Who during a concert in 1975.
<strong>In Flight:</strong> Pete Townshend of The Who during a concert in 1975.

I've seen thousands of concerts over the years but none of them, since 1978, have been in an arena. I never had that eureka moment, I just stopped going. That means for 34 years, I've passed on major, monster acts. No McCartney, no Springsteen, no U2 and no Led Zeppelin (that one hurts the most).

I did go to arena shows before '78, and saw George Harrison, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Who, David Bowie, The Electric Light Orchestra and more. It was kind of cool to see my heroes and some of the shows were good, but the the sound systems at big arenas back then were almost always terrible. Plus it was always hard to see the kind of detail I liked to see from the seats I could afford.

I was already getting tired of big shows when along came the Atlantis Club. The opening of the Atlantis Club (soon to become the 9:30 Club) in Washington, D.C. meant that every week I got to see bands up close, to hear the sound of guitar amps and the sound of drum skins from just a few feet away. I started to think of concerts in a different way
. Before 1978, you'd be hard pressed to hear original music in a bar or club. Bars catered to bands that could pull in a drinking crowd and most people in those days — certainly bar owners — were more interested in bands who would play popular cover tunes. But as the the punk and new wave of bands from England and the U.S. started playing clubs, there was no going back to the impersonal, soulless arenas for me.

That is, until now. A few weeks ago, Peter Gabriel was in town and agreed to play DJ on All Songs Considered. Those type of interview shows works best face to face, but Gabriel's schedule didn't allow time to visit NPR's studios. So they set up a room for the interview at the Patriot Center, a 10,000-seat sports arena in Fairfax, Va., with two microphones, a mixer and some headphones. Once I was there, I wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to see an artist I've admired for so long. I actually enjoyed it. The sound was clearly better than it was 34 years ago, and despite my misgivings towards video screens, I was able to glimpse some of the details I love to seeing in smaller clubs, to see facial expressions and look into the eyes of the performer, albeit by proxy. And Gabriel's aesthetic struck a fine balance between spectacle and musicality.

Now that the arena door is open, along comes The Who, touring my favorite Who record Quadrophenia. The tale of mods vs. rockers and the coming of age of Jimmy, the multiple personality-afflicted protagonist, will be performed in the corporate-sponsored Verizon Center, just blocks from NPR. And the following week comes the always unpredictable Dylan, again at the Verizon Center. One of the last memorable arena shows I saw was Dylan in 1974, a set that included "Ballad of a Thin Man," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Like a Rolling Stone" in renditions that actually sounded like the songs I knew, something that happens less often these days. I'm looking forward to these two shows with a bit of apprehension. Frankly, if The Who, playing one of my favorite records front to back, can't rock me then my brief affair with arenas will end forever.

Do you like big venues? Does being around 10,000 or so people sharing
an experience a plus or a minus? What's your favorite arena rock show? What was the biggest disappointment?

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