The “cool” answer to the question, “Is music today as good as music then?” is generally “yes.” No self-respecting hipster would dream of claiming Jack White is any less cool than the Rolling Stones. Even though some may claim we’re at the pinnacle of music history, it would take a miracle for any post-millennial artist to replace Sgt. Pepper atop the lists of the Greatest Albums of All Time.
This begs the question: Are musical performances at Northwestern today as good as they were decades ago?
Any list of student-produced shows that includes last year’s Dillo Day performers, The New Pornographers, evokes the same vein of quality and hipness. I wish I could have seen them.
Many of the smaller acts, DJ sets and student bands in recent Dillo Days had an energy to them I wouldn’t necessarily tell my grandkids about. But I’m sure any NU alum who saw The Grateful Dead perform here in 1973 is still telling people about it.
Yes, you read that correctly. In the early ‘70s, The Grateful Dead stopped by Northwestern multiple times. Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, a self-proclaimed “Deadhead,” probably just fainted reading that last sentence. It turns out that Stephen Colbert isn’t the greatest celebrity to appear on campus. Notable entertainers have actually been coming to Evanston for a while.
Quite frankly, the ‘70s were the best time for Northwestern musical performances. During the ‘70s, Amazingrace Productions, a student group created in response to the Kent State shootings, dominated the entertainment scene. As atmany universities across the nation, Northwestern students protested in response, and Amazingrace founders created a coffeehouse in the basement of Scott Hall.
The coffeehouse’s founders attracted many student musicians, one of whom always conclud- ed his sets with a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” providing inspiration for the coffeehouse’s name.
As the decade went on, Amazingrace moved from Scott Hall to Shanley Pavilion to a storefront at 845 Chicago Ave., and the fame of the folk and jazz performers progressively increased. Eventually local folk acts like Bill Quateman appeared. Amazingrace gained a national reputation as a prestigious small jazz/folk venue. By the time Amazingrace ended, it boasted performances by musicians like jazz bassist Charles Mingus and singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris. Oh yeah and the Grateful Dead, too.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Amazingrace went under in 1978.
Although Amazingrace went bankrupt, its underground sensibility survived. The ‘80s saw the separation of the mainstream and the auteur in American culture, as Paula Abdul’s music videos became all the rage and alternative rock took to the shadows. Northwestern’s music scene man- aged to stay on the indie and underground side. The spirit of Amazingrace’s jazz shows survived with performances by Wynton Marsalis and Keith Jarrett. Other bands like Meat Puppets and Trip Shakespeare never broke through themselves but influenced big ‘90s acts like Nirvana and Semisonic. The biggest name to perform at Northwestern during the ‘80s was R.E.M. Even so, they only seem big in retrospect. When they came in 1985, they’d just released Fables of the Reconstruction and were still years away from the breakthrough albums Document and Out of Time that would solidify their fame.
Northwestern in the ‘80s retained some un- derground coolness in its musical acts but lacked Amazingrace’s soul. As a result, it was undoubtedly a less fulfilling decade.
The list of Northwestern concerts in the ‘90s looks exactly like you’d expect it to look: Cake, Violent Femmes, Counting Crows, They Might Be Giants. In other words, bands that were popular then but haven’t exactly aged well. Then again, ‘90s musicians all kind of sounded the same. Can anyone tell the difference between the vocals of Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder? Back then, grunge fans would tell you there was a world of difference. More than any other era, ‘90s music was a product of its time and place and defined the phrase “You had to be there.”
The new millennium began with a performance by Outkast, which ended up being the post-Y2K equivalent of R.E.M.’s 1985 performance. Both bands would go on to dominate pop charts and woo music critics. When Outkast performed at Northwestern, those years were still ahead of them. In 2000, Stankonia wasn’t even out yet, Andre 3000 was still going by Dre and their biggest hit at the time was “Rosa Parks.”
After all, campus groups only have so much power. Most Northwestern performers are either a few years away from their prime or a few years removed from it.
Outkast’s performance, however, was actually representative of a diverse decade of music. While Kanye West or Radiohead dominated the decade, Outkast struck a great balance between mainstream recognition and critical acclaim. With music splintering into all kinds of niche interests, it’s impossible to say who’s the best or most popular band at any given time.
You’ll probably never get the chance to see a huge band at its apex, but the potential is always there for another 2000 Outkast performance, where you can catch a glimpse of an epochal group on their way to fame. Northwestern’s music during the last decade has reflected the variety the school’s students have become accustomed to. Take last year’s Dillo Day, with pop rapper B.o.B. performing alongside Canadian indie rock supergroup New Pornographers. At this spring’s A&O Ball, the only similarity between performers Method Man and Major Lazer was that both their names start with “M.” This shows the unpredictability that we can expect going forward.