I’ve long thought that opening act has to be about the worst gig possible. The audience isn’t there for that band, so they generally alternate between rudely ignoring the performance or, even worse, loudly announcing their impatience. Slogging through a set that’s met with nothing but indifference has to be incredibly disheartening, perhaps almost as disheartening as killing time on a music stage during a county fair.
Which brings me to the best opening act set I ever saw: Blue Rodeo before an Edie Brickell and New Bohemians performance in Milwaukee, circa 1991. Brickell and the boys had recently put out their second and final album, Ghost of a Dog. It was exactly the sort of record that generated enormous airplay at our college radio station, so the label secured us free tickets that settled me and my cohorts just a couple rows away from the stage, positioning that inspired much debate over which one of us fellas Brickell was training her dreamy, hippie eyes on while she sang. Honestly, that’s about the extent of what I remember of the main act’s set.
The openers, however, were spectacular. Blue Rodeo were touring to support their album Casino, and they pounded and strummed their way through a big, exuberant set, pushing each song to its limits and playing their instruments with an incredible urgency, as if they were likely to get them stripped away forever when they walked off the stage so they may as well make the most of it in their waning moments of opportunity. At one point they played the song “What Am I Doing Here?” and explained the derivation of the song. It was inspired by a gig they played at a fairgrounds in America to colossal disinterest from the people walking across the dusty ground to get from one carnival attraction to another. It’s enough to make any musician to question their chosen profession, and find a sadly fitting metaphor for the futility of their existence in the endlessly spinning Ferris wheel they’re forced to stare at throughout the disheartening show.
It’s a great story, and a great song. It was especially nice to hear it in that environment, where they were playing a show that could have easily been equally as sour. And instead they played their hearts out and stole the show.
(Disclaimer: Casino doesn’t appear to be available from most online retailers, although you can get it from the band’s website, along with most of their catalog, including the highly recommended Diamond Mine. So if you like it, you should go give some money to the band and make me feel a little less guilty abut posting this song for free. My guilt also guarantees that if anyone with due authority to do so asks me to remove this from the Interweb I will quickly and sheepishly comply.)