How an epic gig changed my life

In Blog, Lifestyle, Music, Travel by jennisheppardLeave a Comment


It was announced last week that Queen — well, Brian May and Roger Taylor — are going on a world tour. Possibly the last of their career. If it wasn’t for the gaping hole left by Freddie Mercury, this would have the word “epic” written all over it. But what is an epic gig anyway?

It’s a question I’ve been mulling over for years. As a teenager growing up in Britain in the ’90s, when I so desperately wanted to have been at The Beatles gig in New York’s Shea Stadium on Aug. 15, 1965. Or years later, as a grown-up freelance writer whiling away another rainy day here in Vancouver, where I sit wishing I had been at London’s Wembley Stadium on 13 July, 1985, when Queen gave the world’s greatest live performance in the history of rock for Live Aid.

In terms of epic gigs, it’s tempting to think it’s all been downhill since then. But I refuse to believe that we need rock legends to die young and crowd sizes exceeding 100,000 to qualify a gig as epic. Nor, as Live 8 proved, does global poverty alone an epic performance make. With that in mind, I’ve narrowed down my own top three epic gigs:

  • Foo Fighters at Hammerstein Ballroom, New York 2003
  • Basement Jaxx at The Other Stage, Glastonbury 2004
  • Muse at The Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury 2004
  • Mumford & Sons at The Gorge Amphitheatre, Sasquatch 2013

There are other gigs I could name that have been special….Rodrigo y Gabriela, playing undiscovered in a tiny tent at Glastonbury 2004…Brian Wilson in the ‘California sunshine’ at Glastonbury 2005, the Marley Brothers, enjoyed with rum and ginger beer at Glastonbury 2007…Fun Lovin’ Criminals for the backstage party at Koko in London in 2010…and many others. But they weren’t epic.

So what made these gigs epic?

Loud noises

I want the music to thrash through me, I want to dance, sing and feel moved, in a positive way. At Mumford & Sons, I danced my feet off to those bluegrass banjos. At the Foo Fighters gig, I headbanged so much I had whiplash for a week afterwards. At Basement Jaxx, we jumped around like maniacs to Where’s Your Head At. At Muse, the thunderous sound of Time Is Running Out ripped through us and out the other side.

Location, location, location

The venue has to make me feel special somehow. This is a given at Glastonbury, where even at its big stages you feel like you’re in a very unique place. Presumably all those ley lines are supplying good mystical energy. And at Sasquatch, which is situated in a spectacular river gorge that takes your breath away at sunset.  But the venue can also be small, more intimate, more personal. Seeing the Foo Fighters at the Hammerstein Ballroom meant I was headbanging only a few feet from Dave Grohl – how cool is that?

The Gorge Amphitheatre at Sasquatch!

The Gorge Amphitheatre at Sasquatch! – one of the best outdoor venues in the world (Photo: Conrad Olson)

A one-off

I need to feel like no one will ever see this gig again. Festival gigs lend themselves to this idea. Basement Jaxx, Muse and Mumford & Sons were all only playing one night at Glastonbury or Sasquatch. The Foo Fighters are the exception that proves the rule. They played the Ballroom on a couple of nights, but I had no idea until now. Maybe that fact fell out due to all the headbanging. It doesn’t matter –  I felt like it was a one-off and that’s what counts.

Twist of fate

Otherwise known as the “I wasn’t even supposed to be here” clause. Or the “every great gig has a story” clause.

On the day of the Foo Fighters gig, I had no idea who they were, wasn’t a fan and didn’t have a ticket. We were visiting a friend in New York, who woke up that day and decided it might be a fun thing to do. We miraculously procured tickets cheaply from a tout outside. He got in trouble with his boss about it. We got into the gig. The rest is history.

At Glastonbury 2004, Basement Jaxx was scheduled to play on the Other Stage at the same time as Paul McCartney was on the Pyramid Stage. The choice was clear – everyone went to see McCartney. Except us. Instead, we got right to the front of the Jaxx gig and danced like crazy, bonding as outcasts with the others who had  – for some odd reason – chosen electronic dance over Beatles classics. And McCartney? Apparently, he sucked.

Muse at Glastonbury 2004 was a similar deal to the Foo Fighters back in New York. I knew nothing about them, I wasn’t a fan and even when we got to the front I was put off by the somewhat violent nature of the crowd. But then we shuffled back. I took a deep breath, looked up at the stage… and felt the power of Matt Bellamy’s guitar heading straight for us like a nuclear warhead. I was sold.

Finally, to Mumford & Sons at Sasquatch and possibly the most meaningful gig of my entire life. In contrast, the months before Sasquatch were some of the worst in my life. My father and my grandmother had both died. I had been ill. Life had completely sucked for a long time. But I was trying to embrace life again, so here I was camping, drinking and gigging with a small group of festival friends.

I did my best to enjoy myself, but the sad distractions were always there. The Arctic Monkeys, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Sigur Ros, The xx, Bloc Party….all great, but none quite made it through the haze. On the third day, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros briefly broke through with their song Home, exactly reflecting my feelings towards the world in that moment.

Then Mumford & Sons took to the stage. The reason we bought the ticket. The reason we had fought and won our way to the best position, close enough to the front and central to the singer, with an unobstructed view and plenty of room to dance. It’s hard to describe what happened next. Mumford played their infectiously energetic but emotional melodies, while we danced bluegrass country jigs till we dropped.

An enormous wave of euphoria scooped us up and we rode it with abandon. This was crowdsurfing for the soul. By the time Dust Bowl Dance rolled around, we were completely ecstatic and exhausted. It was already one of my best gigs of all time.

Me and a friend dancing at Mumford & Sons at Sasquatch!

My friend Maddy and I dancing to Mumford & Sons at Sasquatch! (Photo: Conrad Olson)

But then came the encore. A cover of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain. Mumford & Sons, joined now by the Zeros, were inexplicably singing the one song that meant the most to me at that moment.

I didn’t have a lot in common with my father. But as a teenager, I did, for a while, share his love of Formula 1 motor racing. We would watch the Grand Prix on the BBC together every week, cheering for Britain’s Damon Hill, even though we secretly preferred Brazil’s Ayrton Senna. And the theme tune of that Grand Prix show? The Chain by Fleetwood Mac.

Fast forward to Sasquatch, and my feelings transcended the euphoria I had previously felt. Suddenly Mumford & Sons were speaking directly to me with this song. Lyrics about being separated from someone you love, despite the chain that binds you, took on a whole new meaning. The universe was speaking directly to me.

For the first time in months, I felt entirely, truly happy.

Afterwards, as we were swept away in the elated crowd on the nightly march back to the campsite, someone started a singalong. Soon hundreds of people around us were all singing from the top of their lungs – and so were we. The song? Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody of course.

In the end, a gig can be so much more than just words and lyrics. It can transcend a mere entertainment experience. It can speak to you in ways you never imagined. And that’s why we’ll be getting a Queen ticket. Because having tasted that truly epic feeling, I know it exists and I have to hope there is more to come – and this time, I intend to chase it.

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