Opening acts. They're supposed to get the crowd revved up and ready for the main attraction. It's a daunting, and sometimes thankless, task. After all, from a certain point of view, the opening act is the "visiting team" while the headliners are the "home team." People usually don't pay to see the opening act, although there are exceptions. A lot of people even schedule their evening to intentionally skip the opener. ("Well, the show starts at 8, but there's an opening act, so we'll have time to...")
Automatically writing off opening acts is a mistake. There are some stars in the making out there cutting their teeth on the tour circuit by piggybacking with bigger names.
The best opening acts are the suprises, the ones you've never heard of who blow you out of the water. They're so good, the next day includes a mandatory pit stop at the record shop to get their CD.
Sometimes, though, the opening acts are either a bad match musically with the main attraction or they're simply unable to get a crowd energized. In those cases, the openers can receive anything from cold indifference to borderline hostile rejection from the audience.
Here are some notes and recollections of the more memorable opening acts I've encountered, the good, the bad, and the middling. This section is intentionally less organized than other parts of the site and serves as a kind of dumping ground for some random thoughts.
All-Time Favorite Opening Act:
A3 opening for Chumbawamba, Boulder Theater, Boulder, Colorado, March 6, 1998:
This was a classic case of discovery. The name A3 meant nothing to me beforehand and their performance convinced me they are one of the most underrated and underappreciated acts in music today.
Yeah, I did recognize one tune from the radio, Ain't Goin' to Goa. But this concert was before A3 gained greater exposure with Woke Up This Morning serving as the theme song for The Sopranos.
More than music, these great Scots have created an entire world in which to play. It's a world that reveres Elvis Presley, Jack Daniels, and sweet, beautiful country-acid house music.
Sadly, A3 came back to Denver a couple years later as the headliner - and hardly anybody showed up. Such anonymity provides an added bonus for fans in the know: Easy access. They were quite personable over post-show beverages at the Goosetown Tavern.
The Faint opening for No Doubt, The Fillmore, Denver Colorado, April 3, 2002:
Thank goodness The Faint is around to revive that classic Omaha Goth sound that has been absent from the music scene since... oh...uhh... Wait... There was never an influential movement out of Omaha.
These guys were fun, but for all the wrong reasons. The lead singer, from a patch of floorspace in the general admission crowd, looked kind of like David Spade.
The keyboardist was one hip and happenin' dude with a 'fro (more akin to Greg Brady than Jimi Hendrix) and a pelvis that was in perpetual swivel mode. With his right hand he'd bang on the keyboard, with his left, he'd gyrate his arm around in a fashion that was part lounge lizard, part orchestra conductor.
The sound? Virtually a carbon copy of acts '80s acts like Sisters of Mercy and The Cure. The Faint were like a timewarp... or maybe "wormhole" is a better term.
Ryan Adams opening for Alanis Morissette, Magness Arena, Denver, Colorado, May 11, 2002:
Ryan is one cool dude. He was wearing a blue and white checkered shirt with a wide collar, a black tie, blue jeans, brown boots, and an admittedly weird jacket, a striped affair that probably had a life as a sofa back in the '60s. This eclectic ensemble was topped off with a mop top that would make the early Beatles cringe. Jokingly, he told of being relegated to selling shoes in a department store because he was challenged by fashion accessories and he couldn't cut it in the suits department.
He might look like a bit of an eyesore, but he's got soul in addition to a genuine sense of humor and fun about the whole thing. At one point he cracked a joke, while lighting a cigarette, about the floor being an all-girl skating rink and boys would be tapped on the shoulder to leave - and invited to enjoy nachos with a special government cheese off to the side. Then there was the one about Darth Vader. Why doesn't he drink milk? Because he's galactose intolerant. Ahhh... an Adams original. It's a joke he recommends not be used on a first date if you want a second one.
During his performance, Ryan discovered a hair in his gum and stuck a freshly lit cigarette in a notch on his guitar while he played away. Cool. Unassuming. Or, as Ryan would say, "Right on!"
The Magness Arena on the University of Denver campus was at about 75% capacity for the night and the vast majority was there "early enough" to see Adams. The crowd was overwhelmingly in his favor and Ryan enjoyed the reception.
As for the music, what can you say about a guy who can move from the punk classic I Don't Wanna Work to the twangy Nashville strains of Lovesick Blues in a single brush of the guitar? He's got talent to spare and his own work bears that out. Of special note was New York, New York and his modern-day classic, When the Stars Go Blue (a ditty even The Corrs and Bono borrowed for a recent concert in Dublin). Adams starts the tune as a mellow love song and ends it as a full-blown rocker.
His 55-minute set was a total treat. He's one to watch.
At the end of his performance he urged the crowd to take care of his "crush," Ms. Morissette. And we all did just that. Her 95-minute set ran through all the hits and some of her new material. She repeatedly thanked the crowd for the enthusiasm and remarked on how great it was to be back in Denver, where we rock!
Thanks go out to both of them for performing music with heart, soul, and meaning.
Nikka Costa opening for Jewel and Barenaked Ladies (95.7 KISSmas Freedom Bash), Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado, December 20, 2001:
Nikka broke all the rules.
She couldn't figure out what it would take to get the crowd on its feet and chose to find fault with the audience instead of her presentation. She repeatedly insulted those who stuck around for her schtick - and the Greater Metro Denver area - with comments about our obvious lack of enthusiasm for her and our apparent lack of party spirit in general.
Nikka's sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll routine and her jive-ass sound that reeked of the '60s didn't fit in with the other performers on a bill that was to include Jessica Simpson (absent because she chose to entertain the troops in Afghanistan instead), Jewel, and Barenaked Ladies. The power geniuses who thought this was smart programming should be fired.
The bottom line: Nikka Costa was a skank with a 'tude and she found herself in the wrong venue at the wrong time with the wrong crowd and she didn't know how to deal with it. I'd imagine she had one fifth too many before the gig.
The sad part is some of her music is actually good, particularly the clap-happy Like a Feather. She would do herself a favor by toning down the attitude (or at least adjusting it for the audience on hand) and letting the music speak for itself.
Better luck next time, Honey. You ain't no stinkin' Janis Joplin.
On the plus side, Jewel out-classed Nikka by a longshot. Highly entertaining, sweet, and playful, Jewel worked the crowd and managed to get them to their feet. That's something Nikka got only when people had to go to the bathroom or leave the arena for fresh air or a quieter environment in which to carry on casual conversation.
Jewel lightened the place up with jokes about how she shoulda learned to dance instead of play guitar (a gentle ribbing of Britney and her ilk), the latest girl fashions and plumber's crack, finding love at the Denver Stock Show, and expectations of joining Kenny Rogers on an old-fogie tour in a couple years.
Also, Barenaked Ladies put on a show that lived up to their reputation as a fun-loving, high-spirited, and energetic band. Their return to Denver is eagerly anticipated.
Citizen Cope opening for Nelly Furtado, The Fillmore, Denver, Colorado, February 5, 2002:
"White Rap" is one of my least favorite genres of music. Thank goodness Citizen Cope is out there trying to make a difference. His performance opening for Nelly Furtado was a pleasant surprise. He was alone on stage with his quitar and a keyboardist with his electric keyboard.
It was clear Citizen Cope (real name Clarence Greenwood) had a lot on his mind musically and he was totally focused on presenting his music the way he wants it to be heard. That is always cool to witness.
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