It may seem weird to be nostalgic for an arena. But the Spectrum in south Philadelphia – empty and silent for the last ten months, awaiting demolition to make way for a new entertainment complex – was my big-rock room in the Seventies. What it lacked in comfort and personality, it made up in vibe and a special local communion: Philly audiences had welcoming ahead-of-the-pack tastes with none of New York’s show-me challenge. Ask Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and David Bowie, all of whom broke in the Quaker City first.
And somehow, on most nights, despite the cement and reverb, the Spectrum had great sound. You got everything at full blast but not at the expense of vital details: Danny Federici’s organ lines coursing through the Jersey-barroom fireworks of the E Street Band; the feedback spears poking out of Tony Iommi’s power chords for Black Sabbath.
I had not been to the Spectrum for many years when Pearl Jam officially closed the joint with four concerts last October, now boxed as nine CDs, 2009 Philadelphia. (The set costs $60.00 at pearljam.com – individual shows are also available as CDs and downloads.) I couldn’t make those gigs. But Pearl Jam’s big sendoff may be the top bonanza in their long official-bootleg series: over two hours each night of classic-rock uproar, with 103 different songs running the group’s full timeline from Ten to Backspacer and covers pulled from the Who, the Dead Boys, Neil Young and Devo. The Halloween setlist alone is more than 40 numbers, including a moment in the long second encore when guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready spice the charge of “Better Man” with quotes from “Save It for Later” by the English Beat.
Total immersion in 2009 Philadelphia has also set off flashbacks of my action-packed life in that concrete bowl, before skyboxes, gold-circle seating and naming rights (First Union Spectrum, Wachovia Spectrum) became cheesy and expensive facts of rock-show life. A few memories that will never go away:
• Deep Purple, before “Smoke on the Water” and touring behind their 1971 album, Fireball, in the middle of a bill with the Faces on top and Southern Comfort (by then minus singer Ian Matthews) below. Half of Purple’s set was twenty minutes of “Mandrake Root,” and the Faces were in jubilant randy-R&B form, not yet torn between their pub-gang bonhomie and singer Rod Stewart’s solo success.
• The Rolling Stones in June, 1975, with Ron Wood, about to be an ex-Face and a temporary sub for departed guitarist Mick Taylor. The Commodores were on first, pumping “Brick House,” and eighteen dollars got me two seats in the lower mezzanine, right at the corner lip of the stage – with no service fees or venue surcharges.
• King Crimson in April, 1974, right after the release of their prog-noir monster, Starless and Bible Black, opening for the Kinks, who performed leader Ray Davies’ entire Preservation opera. Peter Frampton came alive at 8 PM, with his pre-superstardom band Frampton’s Camel.
• Boston in 1976, riding the runaway success of their self-titled debut album, warming up for British boogiemen Foghat, who were good sport but not enough to keep a third of the crowd from going home after Boston played “More Than a Feeling.”
• The June ’76 trifecta of, in ascending order, Ted Nugent, Blue Öyster Cult and ZZ Top, the last with the beards still growing and travelling with a Texas-in-your-face spectacle of real cactus and live prairie creatures. There was a baseball game at the old Veterans Stadium next door (gone and replaced) and some big deal going on across the street at the older John F. Kennedy Stadium (ditto). Parking was a nightmare.
There was plenty of Springsteen in 1976 and ’78. (One show I didn’t catch, on August 18, 1978, became a famous – despite the audience-tape fidelity – three-LP bootleg, Philadelphia Special). I also saw the Who perform a large chunk of Quadrophenia in 1973 with Lynyrd Skynyrd opening (imagine the first-time rush of hearing the original triple-guitar front line play “Free Bird”); Bowie on the Station to Station tour; Pink Floyd in 1977, on the night bassist Roger Waters took sick and missed the encore; lots of J. Geils Band blowouts; Aerosmith before the truly-toxic years; and Electric Light Orchestra, who passed through town a lot.
I wish I could have seen one of those final Pearl Jam gigs, just to pay that room some last respects. But 2009 Philadelphia is dynamite-to-go – the right kind of reminder that “arena rock” does not have to be a perjorative. For awhile, that concrete bowl was home. I still have the echoes.