Several times over the years I’ve seen opening acts blow away a headliner. I mentioned one such concert that involved the original Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart at Woolsey Hall in New Haven in 1969.
Two stand out above the rest though. The more recent was on Oct. 18, 1977. I know the date not because I still have a ticket stub, but because the concert became an album release for the headliner, Robin Trower (left, top), titled King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents, recorded at the now demolished New Haven Coliseum.
I was a huge Trower fan at the time and had seen him in the same venue close to two years earlier after the release of his third solo album. His band included James Dewar on bass and vocals and drummer Bill Lordan, who had played with Sly Stone.
At that concert, most of the material came from the seminal hard blues-rock album Bridge Of Sighs (1974), including Day Of The Eagle, Too Rolling Stoned and others, and a smattering from his latest, For Earth Below (1975). By 1977, Trower had released Long Misty Days, not as popular as his first three, and had just released In City Dreams, which took a decided funkier and not quite as heavy turn.
The opening act was the group Derringer, led by another guitar flash Rick Derringer (left). Since Derringer had released its first album in 1975, they had toured relentlessly and played in Connecticut frequently and New Haven often at the Arcadia Ballroom on Whalley Avenue, which at one time was a Nelke Motors dealership, selling Mercedes cars, and in Waterbury at the Red House.
I’d seen Derringer many times and his band was a solid hard rock outfit, with good songs and outstanding players. The original lineup included Vinny Appice, brother of Carmine (Vanilla Fudge, Rod Stewart) on drums, the remarkable Kenny Aaronson on bass and Danny Johnson on second lead guitar. Neil Giraldo, who went on to play with and marry Pat Benetar, would replace Johnson within a year and Myron Grombacher took over for Appice. By the time of the Trower concert Mark Cunningham was on second guitar.
Derringer had a great stage show, but I always felt it was more suited for small clubs. I’d never seen the kind of pyrotechnics he had planned for this opening slot. In addition to material from the Derringer albums, he also played Rock ‘n Roll Hoochie Koo and Still Alive And Well, prior hits. Early in his set a large group of the audience rushed to the front of the stage where they were allowed to rock out. I was midway back on the floor and though I thought they sounded great, I also thought it was kind of strange that fans were rushing the stage, even for Derringer.
It all built to a heated and intense peak when Derringer and Cunningham stood on opposite sides of the stage and actually flipped their guitars high above their heads so they twirled in the air across the stage to each other, once, twice and them flipped them high in the year and caught them without a hitch. The crowed went absolutely bonkers.
When Trower came out with a band that now included Rustee Allen on bass, the audience was spent. Trower opened with Lady Luck, a scorcher of a rock tune, but the audience reaction was tepid. Not because they didn’t like him, they just didn’t have anything left. To make matters worse his second tune was the moderate tempo, almost laid-back funk of Somebody Calling, actually a track that is one of my favorites with very intricate guitar parts that are overdubbed in the studio, but that he proficiently pulls off live. You could tell he was annoyed at that point but he did a good job of concealing it, thanking the audience profusely for their appreciation. There was a little sarcasm detected.
The recording doesn’t reveal this as I believe they’ve padded some of the audience reaction, and admittedly by the end of the show, he had most of the crowed behind him. But it wasn’t anything like the first concert I had seen him play and it was definitely deflating.
The other occurrence of an opener upstaging the star was even more dramatic and happened much earlier, November 20, 1970 at the Fillmore East. I know this date because interestingly the performance by this headliner, Leon Russell, is also preserved on tape, this time over at Wolfgang’s Vault. It was just after the release of his first solo album, Leon Russell. A longtime L.A. studio musician, he had come to prominence as the band leader for Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Yeah, Joe was great but who is that guy with the long silver hair and the Les Paul standing on top of the grand piano?
His first solo album was nothing short of a revelation. People learned who he was quickly with a rocking gospel-flavored record that included many English guest musicians, unlisted in the credits, and some memorable songs such as Delta Lady and A Song For You. My girlfriend, Archer Rowbottom, and I were dying to see him.
The opening act was someone we had never heard of, but evidently had just released an album in the U.S., actually his second. His name was Elton John. He came out very low key. This was long before he started dressing to the nines. He had just a trio that included himself, Nigel Olson on drums and Dee Murray on bass.
I had never heard any of the material, but when he broke into Take Me To The Pilot, that caught my attention as it did the rest of the audience. Early in his set, he played what would become his signature ballad, Your Song. That made a huge impression. Interesting that both he and Russell had solo ballads with such similar titles.
In the middle of the set, he said he had just been writing lyrics down on a cocktail napkin in his dressing room and he wanted to perform a new song they had never played live. It turned out to be the long and reflective Indian Sunset, which would be released two albums later on Madman Across The Water. At that point, I was mesmorized. He kept building the set and it climaxed that finished with The Border Song. The audience was ecstatic.
Russell came out, also kind of low key, with solo versions of Girl From the North Country and A Song For You, then he was joined by his band, the Shelter People, which included two guitars, organ, bass and two backup singers, Claudia Lennear and Kathi McDonald. He played all material from the first album and it sounded great but he never could build the audience to the kind of high they had just experienced with John.
Elton John was recently interviewed by Elvis Costello on Spectacle and it was fascinating to find out that Leon Russell was his idol when he first came to America and that when they played together for the first time, Russell watched him from the front row and then befriended him and became one of his greatest supporters. Isn’t that cool?
Leon would have his day as far as my seeing him rock the house down. In August, 1972, still riding a high of creativity and popularity, we saw him at the Long Beach Arena in California, yet another performance captured on tape that would become the album Leon Live. This time the show was all his and he shook the place down with a band that by then had expanded to include the Rev. Patrick Henderson, who played a grand piano face-to-face with Leon who when he wasn’t standing on top of it was seated at a second grand piano, and the gospel backup singers of Henderson’s group, Black Grass.