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Backstage: Seven Classic Shows From the University of Miami's Past

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: UM's glorious past 

In past columns, I've touched on my musical encounters while attending the University of Miami from 1969 to 1973. And in fact, much has been written by the UM in the mainstream press, whether it has to do with the schools sports programs and the change in its coaching staff, President Donna Shalala's campus crusades, or, sadly, the recent tragedies that have occurred on the streets surrounding the school. But what's often downplayed and not as well known is the fact that the UM was once an impressive showcase for live music. During the years I attended, the playing fields adjoining the 1960 dormitories were the playing fields for some of the biggest bands of the era. Here's brief rundown of some of the acts that performed at the UM during that era. It's not all-inclusive; time has a way of diminishing some memories, but the acts listed here are, I feel, impressive enough.

Jefferson Airplane appeared immediately after the release of their milestone album, Volunteers. The band's classic line-up took to the stage -- singer Grace Slick (who turned her appearance into a homecoming of sorts, being that she had briefly attended the U in her nascent college days), vocalist Marty Balin, guitarists Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen, drummer Spencer Dryden and bassist Jack Cassady, who, I recall, strutted the length of the stage looking like the cosmic crusader he was. With the centerpiece of their set culled from the insurgent anthems that dominated their latest outing -- "Volunteers," "We Can Be Together" and "Eskimo Blue Day" among them -- it remains one of the most stirring sets I've ever witnessed. 

Jethro Tull hadn't hit their commercial crest with Aqualung when they strode out on the stage gracing those playing fields, but they had a great warm-up effort in the form of Benefit, possibly their greatest album of their earliest incarnation. Ian Anderson, in his shoddy raincoat and codpiece, created quite a spectacle as he perched himself on one foot and posed and postured while playing his flute. Evan so, the band's flamboyant keyboardist, John Evan, effectively competed for the crowd's attention. This excerpt from Wikipedia describes what he was like that night. "During concerts, Evan's wildly rendered pantomime gestures would conjure visions for audiences of a cross between Harpo Marx and The Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (sans the hat). Because of the familiar white suit, Anderson was known to jokingly refer to Evan (during band member introductions) as "everyone's favorite ice cream salesman." Suffice it to say, he made a formidable impression. 

Newly crowned Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John put on a psychedelic show despite his apparent inability to respond to my press interrogation prior to his performance, an encounter I detailed several columns back. Nevertheless, in his guise as the so-called Night Tripper (a mix of magic and gris gris that provided his calling card before he took on the role of revered archivist of New Orleans jazz and soul), he swept across the stage in full Mardi Gras regalia, complete with make-up, flowing robes and the craziest accoutrement, all to the delight of a crowd whose substance intake made them all the more appreciative. 

The Allman Brothers were at their creative zenith under the guidance of Greg Allman and his brother Duane, at the time one of Rock's most stunning guitar virtuosos. Duane died in a motorcycle accident less than a year after the band's UM performance, and ironically, the group's bassist, Berry Oakley, was also killed almost a year to the day after that... and near the same intersection. But when the group played on campus, revisiting songs from their self-titled debut and their stunning sophomore album, Idlewild South, it was in their original incarnation, a moment in time that's yet to be bettered. 

The Byrds had arguably passed their prime when they played on the patio of the Student Union, having moved at least half a decade beyond their nascent hits "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn Turn Turn" and "Feel a Whole Lot Better." Founder and eternal mainstay Roger McGuinn was at the helm of a newly reincarnated line-up, one that had turned towards the just emerging sounds of crossover country. It was a new sound for the time, and the twangy echoes that ushered in their recently unveiled double disc Untitled seemed like a less than fitting replacement for the chiming 12-string that marked those earlier entries. Nevertheless, their performance was a precursor to a sound and stance that would mark a milestone in their trajectory. 

John McLaughlin epitomized the work "fusion," a synthesis of rock and jazz that bore the intensity of the former with the intricacies and daring of the latter. Billing himself under the banner of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he put on a dazzling performance in one of the student union cafeterias that had been reconfigured for the occasion. Billy Cobham, still one of the most remarkable drummers I've ever witnessed, practically stole the show. 

Peter Frampton had yet to attain the big breakthrough that would come with Frampton Comes Alive, the mega-selling live album that would make him one of rock's biggest superstars, when he played the patio at the student union. Consequently, it was a sparsely attended show, although ironically, he and his three-piece band played most of the songs that would grace that upcoming album. It was an enjoyable, if somewhat perfunctory performance, offering little evidence of the rock god persona he would eventually assume. 

He wasn't the only would-be-icon the campus hosted that year. Curtis Mayfield, James' baby brother Liv Taylor, iconic comedian George Carlin, American Pie procurer Don McLean and Bobby Whitlock, lynchpin of Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominos, also made appearances those semesters. 

That said, despite the stellar line-up on campus, controversy continued to plague the concert series and eventually the shows were moved off campus to the Jai-Alai Fronton. Administrators continued to voice their concerns about inefficient security arrangements and the predominance of drug taking, outside intruders, traffic snafus and alleged threats of violence that came about as a result. A performance by the J. Geils Band had to be reshuffled at the eleventh hour as a result. And yet, at the time, cultural correctness appeared to be the first casualty of what became a long-running controversy. It's telling that the brouhaha first erupted after a campus concert by B.B. King and the Afro-Latino fusion band, Mandrill. And that when one administrator warned of possible trouble during an upcoming concert by jazz virtuoso Cannonball Adderly, he cited the University's proximity to the large Black populace that lived in nearby Coconut Grove, expressing fear that the youthful inhabitants of that area might be tempted to invade the University environs.

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Lee Zimmerman

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