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    Favorite Venues, Part Three: Madison Square Garden

    Issue 166

    After completing my relocation back to the East Coast, I was in closer proximity to my brother and we had the opportunity to commiserate more often, usually on the front porch of the family cabin, smoking our one and only favorite substance – meat. The smoker required constant supervision, not because of its own nature, but rather because of nature. There is a path that runs through the front yard frequented daily by black bears. The neighbor a half-mile north feeds stale donuts to them and the bar a half-mile south puts out garbage for them to amuse their patrons, who stand at the back door and take pictures through the glass. You never know when a bear will come wandering through, and we were hungry for the baby back ribs ourselves and didn’t want them purloined by nature’s vandals.

    As we sat there, tasty adult beverages in hand, we came to the startling conclusion that we weren’t getting any younger. This also meant the musicians we wanted to see perform were also not getting any younger, as reinforced by the tickets I once had for B.B. King and had to return because of an illness that prevented him from playing. What sealed this realization was when I saw a photo of Keith Richards’ arthritic knuckles, which make you wonder how he even takes the stage now, much less how much longer he can continue to play. Far too many artists were passing right before our eyes or retiring and we determined, right then and there, we would do everything we could to take in their acts the next time they were within driving distance, rather than lose the opportunity after their last performance. Like the Blues Brothers, we were on a mission from God.

    This required a new strategy, which was quite easily derived (QED). Between the two of us, we had 1.5 good eyes. Since my brother had the best vision, he would drive when we got close to “civilization.” We would take my MINI Cooper as it could hang a U-turn on a dime; well, at least on a quarter. I’d buy the tickets, which probably had been scalped at least once before I would have the chance to buy them, so they wouldn’t be cheap. We’d split the cost of the meals and he would pay for the hotel. Seriously, I got the better part of the deal. He usually paid for the hotel with airline miles, and had to sit on an airplane for countless hours of international travel to earn those miles.

    After securing tickets to Eric Clapton’s 70th Birthday Tour performance on May 1, 2015 at Madison Square Garden, we headed out in the MINI, sneaking up on New York City from the west. Our destination was the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Chelsea. Feeling like we were in a Stephen King movie, we spiraled down into the gates of hell – the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel – making sure to stay in the far-right lane. Into the darkness we went, a world covered in white subway tiles stained the color of diesel exhaust. Immediately upon exiting the tunnel, we took an exit to the right, made a quick left, a quick right and went down an exit ramp. We were now on West 30th Street.

    You cross over Seventh Avenue and the hotel is on your left. You’ll know you’re there as New York City has its Traffic Task Force headquarters on the right and there will be a large number of police cars parked perpendicular to the street, on the sidewalk. Really. Don’t even think of trying it yourself. Instead, pull over to the left curb, hand the keys to the valet and check in to the hotel. You won’t be needing the car until it’s time to leave NYC. Just be prepared for sticker shock on the valet parking fee.

    If you’ve arrived early, you can play tourist, as there are numerous attractions in the area right around the hotel. The Empire State Building is a couple of blocks away and has some amazing views from the observation deck on a clear day. For us, it was time to rustle up some grub. Koreatown is only three blocks to the east and you can get a nice bowl of Jjamppong, a seafood stew in a fiery red pepper broth. Or better yet, you can get Korean BBQ, USDA prime beef cooked to order right on your table at Baekjeong NYC.

    Next, we went to go shopping at Han Ah Reum, Korean for “one arm full of groceries,” or H Mart as it’s more widely known, with 84 locations throughout the US. H Mart is an Asian grocery store that packs more specialty items into a small storefront than you would ever consider possible. The one in NYC’s Koreatown is small. They are usually big-box stores. I shop for items I can’t get anywhere else, not even on Amazon. We take the goodies back and stuff them into the mini-fridge at the hotel.

    Then, we were off to Madison Square Garden. And here’s why we picked the hotel. You exit out the front door, take a right, go to the corner, take a right and go one block. You’re now standing diagonally across the intersection from MSG.

     

     

    Madison Square Garden is what you’d expect of a multipurpose arena designed for professional sports. The seats down low are designed to be used for flexible seating arrangements, since different sports have different-sized playing areas. Consequently, they are all folding metal chairs and they really pack them in there for a concert. Seating is cramped. If you’re big and tall, you most likely will have your knees in the back of the chair in front of you. However, you get a good view of the stage from most areas, especially if you can get seats about stage-high, or just below the first mezzanine. Getting to your seat is easy, as there are relatively few stairs to climb for an arena this big, and escalators in well-lit corridors.

    The concert was exceptional. Steve Gadd (drummer extraordinaire), Paul Carrack (multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, and former member of Roxy Music, Squeeze, Ace and others), and Nathan East (one of the most-recorded bass players of all time) were members of Eric’s band; all of them on our bucket list of artists to see. John Mayer, Doyle Bramhall II, Jimmie Vaughn and Derek Trucks were special guests. It was a great evening of blazing guitar intensity. Clapton played a mixture of hits, blues standards and deeper cuts including “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Layla,” “Key to the Highway,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Let it Rain” (which he rarely played in concert) and many more. It was spectacular.

     

    Eric Clapton in concert at Madison Square Garden, May 1, 2015 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Steve Proctor.

    Eric Clapton in concert at Madison Square Garden, May 1, 2015 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Steve Proctor.

     

    The acoustics aren’t bad for a big arena, and the sound system was excellent. There are only two downsides to attending a concert at MSG. First, the cost of a beer will set you back the cost of both your first- and second-born children. Second, when the concert is over, you’re ushered down poorly-lit fire escape stairs and the locals are in a big hurry to catch their trains. Hang on tightly to the railing as they will run over you as if fleeing a burning building.

    After sleeping off the exposure to a massive amount of humanity, we were up and at ’em at 5:00 AM. Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s the game plan: first, call down to the valet and have them get the car from the parking garage; it could take a while and since you arrived early, it’s probably many layers deep in the queue. They might need to move 50 cars before they can get yours out. Pack up and head downstairs to get explicit instructions on how to find the Lincoln Tunnel. Your car has been deep underground all night and the GPS has gone brain dead. It has no idea where it is as it can’t see the satellites. It will believe it’s in a network of slot canyons between tall buildings, so you need to know exactly how to get out of there. It’s easy. Three left turns and a right turn and you’re in the tunnel. However, you can’t rely on signage to get there. The only signs you’ll see, until you’re at the tunnel, are maybe 18 by 24 inches and are on light poles on the side of the streets, not overhead where they can easily be seen. And most likely, at that hour, it’s before sunrise. Hence, the need for explicit instructions from the valet.

    After you climb out of the far side of the tunnel, you’ll realize why you left bright and surly in the morning. You’ll want to be on the journey home by 6:00 AM. That’s because there are seemingly, or maybe literally, hundreds upon hundreds of busses headed into NYC and once they drop off the commuters, you will no longer be able to make a left or right turn at an intersection. That’s no joke. Once you climb up from the tunnel, it’s two or more lanes wide of busses coming at you until you get well into the salt marshes. The crosswalks will be completely full. Keep going, confident you made the right decision to hold off breakfast until you get to central New Jersey. By then, you’ll notice that everyone is going in the opposite direction. Congratulations, you’ve survived it. And the traffic won’t be getting any less intense in 2022. There’s a lot of cheap real estate in NYC these days, but that won’t last for long. Nature abhors a vacuum.

     

    We would return again that fall for Clapton after he threatened to discontinue touring because of his arthritis. The show was an add-on to the tour, and with the same lineup of artists in the band as he had for his birthday concert. Once again, a great performance. We hadn’t initially planned on this concert, but we were in Newark, New Jersey the night before to see Roger Waters at the Prudential Center and it was just a short swim across the Hudson River.

    The first half of Roger’s concert was great, playing many of the songs you’re accustomed to from Pink Floyd. The second set was disappointing, to say the least. It began with the launching of the pink pig helium balloon with the Star of David on its back. The set consisted entirely of a political diatribe. By the end of the second song, there were quite a few empty seats as concertgoers just got up and walked out.

    We also saw Sir Paul McCartney at the Prudential Center, another great concert, even if he started 45 minutes late. He played a double set with a six-song encore of Beatles tunes. I’d like to write more about these concerts and give them their own article, but I have been unable to contact the venue’s media relations people for information I need.

    Our last foray into NYC before the pandemic was to see Jeff Lynne’s ELO at MSG. It was another fantastic concert replete with a laser light show. There was some humor here as a guy in front of us stood up and danced to every ELO song, proudly proclaiming that one to be his favorite. During “Telephone Line,” he finally collapsed and was silent for the remainder of the concert. We were worn out, too, just from trying to see around him.

    We remember the ELO show as being wonderfully balanced. Clapton was all about the music with little show to get in the way. ELO was about the music as well, but it also had the light show. So many concerts are so much about the show that it gets in the way of the music. I’m sure that Eric and Jeff would have a choice of the best musicians for their band. Both had stunning sound and were well-rehearsed. I’m sure the old adage applies of once you think you know the music, play it again another one thousand times just to be sure.

    Next issue, we’ll move on to a venue with really comfy seats and legroom for the big and tall. Can you guess what it is? Hint: my grandmother took me there as a small child to see the Christmas and Easter pageants.

    For Clapton fans who are interested, Eric will play MSG again on September 18 and 19, 2022. Tickets are already on sale.

    Previous installments of this series appeared in Issues 164 and 165.

    Header image courtesy of MSG Entertainment.

    2 comments on “Favorite Venues, Part Three: Madison Square Garden”

    1. MSG is a legend in my mind. My first show: Queen, News of the World Tour; and then countless others. I have been back to the Garden in ages, since I had a professional connection to Barclays in Brooklyn, but I almost don’t want to go back to MSG because I know how different it is. I’m glad you found H-Mart, best supermarket in the west.

    2. Good piece. As a UK dude, it’s always been a pleasure to attend gigs at an iconic venue. Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi and Linkin Park thus far, with hopefully more to come. The guided tour was also enjoyable. Just back from Newcastle on Tyne and Roger Daltry at the legendary City Hall. At 68 he’s no spring chicken but can still swing a microphone, play for over two hours and sing like it’s 1968. Long may live music last, although I’m not sure it’ll be the to the same calibre of these old timers.

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