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Remembering a past springtime concert at UNCC

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By John Grooms

Nearly every spring, as the earth warms and new blooms and pollen greet the eyes and nose, my mind starts to wander to episodes from past springs. This year, I've been pondering an amazing April concert at UNC Charlotte, one I attended ages ago April 10, 1976, to be precise, with some of my now-lifelong friends.

I had only been in Charlotte two months that April and lived with a good friend, Phil, in an old quadruplex located where a huge hospital parking deck now squats. We heard about a free outdoor show at UNCC, as it was called then, featuring Tom Waits and Jerry Jeff Walker. A group of us, baby boomer quasi-hipsters, decided to go. We were in our early-to-mid-20s, doing our best to grow up, and bursting with a deep love of music and the unflagging energy of that stage of life.

he night before the UNCC show, Phil and I drove in my old Pinto to a high school gym in Hickory, where we saw a concert by Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. Afterward, we and a few others talked to Dolly for a while as she stood on the steps of her bus. On the way home, we heard on the radio that one of my favorite artists, folksinger/activist Phil Ochs, had killed himself in New York.

The next afternoon, the two of us drove to UNCC and found the concert venue, a little amphitheater on campus, a classic, grassy bowl that sloped down to a pond, beyond which a flatbed stage was set up. It was as gorgeous a spring day as you'll find anywhere, and we sat in the grass with a cooler of beer and a bottle of bourbon and talked to friends who met us there. We told everyone about Ochs demise, which bummed out our friend Kim so badly, he left during Waits opening set to go for a long walk. His wife, Concetta, who was very pregnant, and their 5-year-old son Gabe stayed with us. At one point before any singers took the stage, two dogs attempted to mate right in front of us, until Phil shook up a beer and sprayed the amorous beasts, getting a big laugh from the crowd.

Another married couple, Mary and Tom (whose names have been changed for reasons that will soon be apparent), showed up, too, and we had a great time catching up and enjoying each other, company. After a few minutes, Mary got me away from our group and talked me into letting Tom stay with Phil and I for a while. Her husband, cocaine habit was nearly out of control, and he was driving her crazy.

Waits, who was barely known in Charlotte at the time, started the show, singing great songs he'd penned like, The Heart of Saturday Night, and the 11-minute Nighthawk Postcards. We clapped, laughed, hooted and took more swigs of beer or bourbon, all of us in and of the moment.

A short break, and then Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band took the flatbed stage. They were rockin' that day and soon turned the show into something close to a musical riot. One great Jerry Jeff song followed another, and by the time he came back for an encore Guy Clark's immortal L.A. Freeway we were in front of the flatbed, the pond behind us. A couple of us were as drunk as LiLo, holding onto the edge of the flatbed and swinging our legs under the stage.

Suddenly the show was over and we were all behind the stage, talking to Waits about his tour. I haven't played a daytime show in a coon's age, I remember Waits growling affably. I took a now cherished photo of Phil, with 5-year-old Gabe on his shoulders, standing next to Waits. Eventually, Jerry Jeff walked over; Waits pulled a whiskey flask from his jacket, took a swig, and handed it to Jerry Jeff. Walker gulped from the flask and straightaway produced a teeny bottle of Maalox and chased the whiskey with it, smiling and explaining, The only way I can drink anymore ...

Today, the amphitheater is still at UNC Charlotte but is rarely used for anything other than students laying out and tanning. Phil is manager of one of Charleston's most venerable and toniest restaurants. Kim and Concetta split up within a couple of years. She has been a vocal activist for feminist causes in Charlotte, and he just retired from a long stint in the textile-dye industry. Tom and Mary divorced about 30 years ago (Tom fought and won his coke battle, thankfully), and Gabe, true to one of the passions he picked up from Kim and Concetta, is a musician as well as former honcho at Tremont Music Hall.

The point? None, really, except maybe that spring is a great time to take stock and remember those we love and youth can be hard, but it's wonderful, too, so take full advantage of it.

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