Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The seven most embarrassing artists I've seen perform live

Attending a concert is always a crapshoot. Even if you’re seeing an artist whose work you love deeply and who you’ve seen kill on stage a dozen times, there’s still a chance you’re going to catch a rare off-night. There are some performers, however, who can sully your reputation by their very proximity. I’ve been to a lot of shows in my day. These few stand out as the ones I least like admitting to. In my defense, there were extenuating circumstances involved in most (but not all) of these experiences. Please don’t think less of me for having shared their airspace.

Better Than Ezra
This would be mildly embarrassing if I’d seen them in the mid-1990s, when their hit single “Good” was riding the top of the pop charts. But no, I saw them in 2002, when most of the nation had long since moved on. In my defense, I only went as a friend’s guest. Also, I saw them in New Orleans, the band’s hometown and the one spot in the nation that never stopped carrying the BTE torch. Seriously, Better Than Ezra was still huge in New Orleans in 2002, maybe because they’re still pretty much the only local alt-rock band ever to break through on the national stage.

They played under a gigantic tent in a parking lot near Lee Circle. The music was tolerable, but an obnoxious, fratty crowd that screamed along with every lyric more than compensated. There are people out there who can recite the entire Better Than Ezra songbook. Think about that.

Goo Goo Dolls and Dishwalla
I know that Goo Goo Dolls had a big hit song. I know that it was called “Iris.” I know that it’s a song I would recognize. But if you played “Iris” for me right now, I would not be able to identify it as a Goo Goo Dolls song. They’re a band that has simply never held my attention long enough for me to form any kind of lasting impression. I am quite certain that I sat through their opening set while waiting for Violent Femmes at the 1997 Milwaukee Summerfest, but the only thing I remember clearly from that performance was the portly man in front of me, who spent the whole show gyrating suggestively in ludicrously short jean shorts. Oh, and Dishwalla was there too. Everything I said about Goo Goo Dolls goes double for them.

Michael W. Smith
When I tell people I used to be a regular on the Christian rock festival circuit, the first thing they ask is usually, “Did you ever see Amy Grant?” (No.) The second thing they ask is usually, “Did you ever see Michael W. Smith?” (Yes. Twice.) I make no apologies for my youthful experimentation with Contemporary Christian music. It was what was available to me, and some of it was actually pretty decent stuff. I take no shame in having seeing acts like Randy Stonehill, Bride or SFC do their thing on stage. But Michael W. Smith is in a different league. For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the male face of cheesy, overproduced Christian pop, one of the only God Rock performers identifiable even to secular audiences.

His live shows were pretty much exactly what you’d think: bland and affable and laden with synthesizers and saxophones. I first saw him play at the Agape Festival in Greenville, IL (actually a very important formative experience for me as a young music fan), but the real standout was a Target Center gig in 1993. I recall a lot of glittery outfits, at least one keytar solo (though that might have been part of Petra’s opening set) and a moving walkway extending off the front of the stage. MWS used the latter as an ingenious prop, strenuously walking against the grain as an illustration of his struggle to keep within reach of Jesus. Or something like that. I was never too clear on the metaphor.

No Doubt
I saw maybe two minutes of No Doubt while wandering the grounds at the 2002 New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience. That was long enough for me to hear Gwen Stefani shrilling about how “fucking awesome” it was to be in “New fucking Orleans,” or something to that effect. Her ostentatious street-smart pose was so obviously forced and artificial that I immediately moved on to another stage to catch a few minutes of the only slightly less embarrassing Macy Gray. Or maybe it was Counting Crows. Damn, that was a lame Voodoo Fest lineup.

Sum 41 or maybe Good Charlotte

In 2002, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn taped a week of programs in New Orleans. I got tickets for the Wednesday episode, which turned out to be the weakest of the run. Not only was Craig’s guest played-out prankster Tom Green, the musical guest was one of the abovementioned weenie punk acts. I honestly can’t remember which one. I suppose I could find out pretty easily online, but hell, why bother?

If you’ve never heard of Carman, and I have no reason to assume you have, imagine a Christian version of Neil Diamond, except about 75% tackier and more theatrical. He specializes in elaborate story songs like “The Champion,” a hammy, histrionic, eight-minute account of a boxing match between Jesus and Satan.

It’s baffling to me to think that I – or anyone else, really – was ever capable of appreciating Carman unironically, but at 13, I was a hardcore, fist-pumping fan shouting along from the upper decks of the La Crosse Center.

Vanilla Ice
By the time I saw Vanilla Ice in 1999, he was already a walking punchline. This was during the grotesque period when he was trying to reinvent himself as a Limp Bizkit-style thrash rapper. I purchased my $10 ticket ironically, as did virtually every other smirking scenester who filled the Hollywood Theater in La Crosse, WI (he was originally scheduled to play the smaller, hipper Warehouse, but the demand proved too great). That show went a long way toward convincing me not to spend money ironically anymore. Simply put, it was an embarrassing experience for me, for Vanilla Ice and for pretty much everyone involved.

Vanilla spent much of the set stomping around the stage declaring himself free from the mental slavery of celebrity and music labels. “No more puppet!” was the refrain of the evening. The crowd was openly hostile throughout. Several onstage security guards were kept busy fending off an endless stream of aspiring bum-rushers. When Vanilla Ice’s hype man (yep, that was an existent career in 1999) was foolhardy enough to try crowd-surfing, he was instantly dragged down and enveloped. The security guards had to physically pull him back on stage to spare him a beating from the drunken front-row hooligans.

The band played “Too Cold,” their hard rock revamp of “Ice Ice Baby,” halfway through the set, after which at least 3/4 of the crowd immediately filed out. By this point I was feeling pretty sorry for poor Vanilla, so I stuck it out. I’m glad I did. The folks that left missed out on a live performance of “Havin’ a Roni,” and that’s just not something you see every day.


  1. 2002 sounds like a rough year. There had to have been more memorable shows, esp in NO. Ratio? or was this your year of suffering?

  2. I consumed entertainment at an unparalleled rate when I lived in NOLA. With a full-time job and no more college, I had more free time than I'd ever had before. I was also writing for an entertainment magazine, so I got into a lot of shows free. I saw so many bands in those couple of years that there were bound to be some clunkers in the mix.

    I was even worse with movies - films I watched in the theater during that period include 'Swimfan,' 'The Banger Sisters,' 'Tuck Everlasting' and many more things I wouldn't even bother to watch on TV nowadays.

  3. Ziggy Marley 1991: No puppet no cry. No even show up.

  4. Peter Tosh's kid would never have been so inconsiderate.

  5. First concert ever was 8th grade year. Martika (of Toy Soldier fame) opened up for Rick Astley (of, "jesus christ, he's white?" fame!) - SIL Amie

  6. I saw Godsmack and Stone Temple Pilots in concert once when I couldn't have been older than 13. Disturbed opened for them. They spent ten minutes staging an elaborate mock-execution of the lead singer for killing "over twenty people" with a fake electric chair that makes the stage lights flicker when you sit in it. Boy I wish it had killed him for real.

  7. That would be lame even if it wasn't a rehash of a 25-year-old Alice Cooper shtick.

    1. First thing I thought of was Alice Cooper bite...

  8. Amie, I'm a tad confused. I was under the impression that there has never been a whiter entity than Mr. Rick Astley.

    1. Nope, I can assure you that being exposed to Rick Astley without seeing him can leave room for doubt about his whiteness. Lisa Stansfield is beloved among black USA-icans. She's a better singer, but still...

      ...Vanilla Ice on the other hand... ;)