In the Days of Festival Seating, Act II

Our friend Jeff from AM, Then FM (whom I recently met in the real world after over a decade of connection in cyberspace) checked in with a longer list of events over the years at U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee, right from the Arena’s website. Some of the noteworthy shows we missed in our discussion yesterday include the Rolling Stones, who played either the Arena (known then as the Milwaukee Arena) or the Milwaukee Auditorium next door, in 1965; Jimi Hendrix, who played the Auditorium in May 1970; and Queen, who appeared four times, opening for Mott the Hoople in 1974 and headlining in 1976, 1977, and 1980. (Other acts who appeared in my favorite year included David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, Yes, ZZ Top, and Foghat.)

If the Arena (remamed the MECCA in 1974) can be said to have had a golden year, there are a couple of candidates. The year 1977 is one of them. The year started with Queen and Barry Manilow playing six days apart in January, then a return visit by Foghat less than three months after their 1976 gig. Six days later came the first of three Bruce Springsteen shows in the next 18 months or so. Also on the bill in 1977: Elvis, Tom Jones, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes (with opening act Donovan), Frank Zappa, Blue Oyster Cult, Utopia with Starcastle (the ubiquitous opening act of the late 70s), Jethro Tull, and Kansas. Some of these shows took place in the Auditorium.

The true golden year might be 1980, however, with at least one superstar headliner a month nearly all year long: ZZ Top in March, Van Halen in April, Bob Seger in May, Genesis in June, Billy Joel on two nights in July and Heart 10 days later, Jethro Tull in August, Queen in September, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult in October with Springsteen five days later and Tull again four days after that, and Kansas in November.

(What was it with bands making multiple appearances in the same city so close together, like Foghat twice in less than three months or Jethro Tull twice in two months? I remember seeing Emerson Lake and Palmer here in Madison twice in about five months, and they played in Milwaukee a couple of times in that span too, if I’m recalling correctly. Headline-caliber acts would never do that today.)

November of 1981 was: also a pretty good month, with ELO (the show with Hall and Oates we mentioned yesterday), Foreigner, Genesis, and AC/DC, the latter two on back-to-back nights, coming on the heels of a two-night Bob Dylan stand at the Auditorium in mid-October.

In 1983, Milwaukee welcomed Aerosmith and Phil Collins on separate bills in the same winter week; Tom Petty in March and Prince in April (his second appearance, following one in December 1981), Styx in May, and in the same August week, Elvis Costello at the Auditorium and Robert Plant at the MECCA.

The nature of the shows at the Arena complex changed after the Bradley Center opened in 1988, which you’ll see if you check the list for yourself—although the list is apparently crowd-sourced, which means that the closer we get in time to the present, the better our collective memory is going to be. There’s a lot more sports and family-type events, kids shows and the like, but that’s actually a throwback to the early history of the Arena complex, when the place hosted boxing, big bands, and orchestra concerts.

What the list reveals most clearly is that the live music business is a lot different now than it used to be. Bands don’t play as many venues—many of the acts playing Milwaukee in the 70s and 80s would also have played in Madison around the same dates, and that never happens now. Acts don’t return to cities like they used to. Perhaps they don’t have to, with tickets prices astronomically higher than they once were. It costs more for venues to promote shows, and what used to be acceptable in terms of facilities, for performers and for patrons, is not acceptable anymore. You can’t expect Taylor Swift to dress in a dank basketball locker room, and you need VIP seats to sell.

(Many thanks to Jeff, who says he was at the Neil Young show in 1986.)

One response

  1. An interesting entry. Since the economics of selling albums have changed so sharply — and not in the artist’s favor — you’d think acts would want to wring as much money out of touring as possible.
    That would include returning to cities for additional shows.

    I always thought multi-night stands would be a good way to make money, since you theoretically don’t have some of the travel costs the second night (and thus, higher profit.)
    But not everyone has the pull to be able to fill an arena for two nights.
    When I think of Bruce Springsteen playing seven or eight sold-out nights at Giants Stadium, I see rivers of dollar bills floating in front of my eyes.

    Apropos de nada: If I could concoct one single mental image to define ’70s arena-rock, it would be Brad Whitford, tuning up and eating a ham sammich, in the Indiana Pacers’ locker room.
    That’s it, right there.

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