Here we are, under the stars

For me, experiencing live music has always been one of life’s best pleasures.

Truth be told, I think I love it best when it’s in a small, intimate club, performed in front of an attentive, appreciative audience.  It might be a quiet folk artist, alone at the piano or on guitar, or it could be a spirited blues band, settling into a fine groove.

Then again, hearing live music under the stars on a pleasant summer evening can be Jazz_in_the_park_Milwaukee_6062pretty sweet as well.  Assuming the venue has decent acoustics, there’s something about hearing music outside, particularly if you’re sitting back in lawn chairs with friends.  It’s somehow a more memorable experience.

Now that it’s summertime, thousands of music lovers are flocking to the many dozens of outdoor amphitheaters found in or near just about every city in the nation.  I was surprised to learn from a Google list of U.S. outdoor venues that there are more than 230 “amphitheaters” which can handle crowds ranging from a few hundred seats to more than 30,000.  Some of these are coming up on a century of existence; others have opened just within the last ten years.

With the summer solstice approaching, this seems like an apt time to take a look at some of these outdoor venues, whose schedules typically run from May to September.  Blossom may be celebrating a half-century of existence, but there are at least a dozen other popular outdoor concert sites with histories dating back to the 1930s or ’40s.

First I’d like to mention the amphitheaters I’ve patronized in the past, and then also the ones cited in various polls as among the most popular, either with the artists who play there, or the patrons who visit them, or usually both.  No doubt I’m leaving out some notable facilities, but I feel safe in deferring to the artists and industry folks who know about acoustics and ambience, and what makes a great concert experience.

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Blossom Music Center, outside Cleveland, Ohio

A smile came across my face when I read recently that this year marks the 50th ClevelandOrchestraBlossom-1anniversary of Blossom Music Center, the idyllic outdoor venue nestled in the Cuyahoga Valley 25 miles south of my home town of Cleveland, Ohio.  Built in 1967-68 as the summer home of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, Blossom quickly became an essential part of every summer for Northeast Ohio music fans.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s, I attended a LOT of shows there.  In the early ’80s, when I was reviewing concerts for a local newspaper, I went to about 25 Blossom gigs each year.  These were all popular music artists, some of them fantastic double bills:  James Taylor with Linda Ronstadt, The Doobie Brothers with Heart, Hall & Oates with Kenny Loggins, Boz Scaggs with Southside Johnny.  And the variety was impressive: Peter Paul & Mary, Marshall Tucker Band, Santana, The Allman Brothers, original-793The Moody Blues, Jackson Browne, The Kinks, Bread, Traffic, Santana, Joe Walsh, The Beach Boys, Stephen Stills, The Pretenders, Stevie Nicks, Charlie Daniels Band, Elton John, Jethro Tull, Pat Benatar, Jimmy Buffett, Eric Clapton…

As with most similar venues, I suppose, I remember there being two different ways to enjoy a concert at Blossom.  If you sat in seats under the amphitheater roof, you could see the show and enjoy great acoustics.  If you sat on the lawn, you couldn’t see much of anything, and the sound varied from OK to abysmal, depending on the artist, the crowd behavior, and the year we’re talking about.  The tickets were priced accordingly, and those on the lawn knew they were there for the fun of it more than a quality listening experience.

Cleveland Orchestra concerts, of course, were an entirely different animal.  People behaved and were respectful of the musicians performing.  Even on the lawn, the sound 2was very good.

……Also of interest in the Cleveland market is Jacobs Pavilion, formerly Nautica Stage upon its opening in 1987.  It holds just 5,000 concertgoers and sits directly on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in The Flats entertainment district in downtown Cleveland.  The most notable characteristic is the stark urban/industrial backdrop.  I recall it being a very jaw-dropping moment when an enormous Great Lakes freighter glided by on the river behind the stage during a performance!

Chastain Amphitheater, Atlanta, Georgia

During my 17 years living in the Atlanta area, I saw several shows (James Taylor, Steely cb23bfcb945b9e210dd103210989950dDan, Jethro Tull, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra) at this charming venue, located in Chastain Park, just north of the Buckhead area of Atlanta.  The facility holds 7,000, mostly reserved seating, with limited general admission lawn seating.  For most shows, there are tables arranged in the front half of the seating area, approximating a large cabaret/club environment, and patrons are invited to bring their own food and beverages.  The big drawback here is this invites conversation and milling about, which often can distract from the performances on stage.

New to Greater Atlanta since 2008 is Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in the northern suburb of Alpharetta.  It seats 12,000 and hosts mostly popular music performers.

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, California

In 1922, this historic amphitheater was carved into a concave hillside in the Hollywood View Over LAHills, just a short walk from the bustle of Hollywood Boulevard.  Its distinctive band shell of concentric arches has undergone numerous upgrades through the years to improve acoustics, made difficult by the venue’s sometimes disruptive urban setting.  It now boasts state-of-the-art sound projection and fidelity, with a seating capacity of 17,500, and artists playing rock, pop, jazz and classical genres perform as part of a lengthy annual season, thanks to Southern California’s temperate climate.  The Beatles recorded their famous “At the Hollywood Bowl” LP there in 1964-65, as did The Doors in 1968.  The Bowl has been featured in dozens of films and TV programs as well.  I’ve seen an excellent double bill there of Sting and Peter Gabriel, as well as shows by James Taylor, Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac.

The Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, California

L.A. music lovers are fortunate to have two historic outdoor venues located within a few Unknown-22miles of each other.  The Greek Theatre, part of the master plan for Griffith Park envisioned by its founder in 1898, was completed in 1930, also in a natural canyon setting.  It was rarely used in its first two decades and then underwent significant upgrades in the 1960s.  Since the ’70s, The Greek, which seats a more intimate 5,800, is hugely popular as a venue for concerts, stage shows and even high school graduations.  I’ve been just once, for a Doobie Brothers gig in 2014.

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Red Rocks Amphitheater, outside Denver, Colorado

The striking rock outcroppings that surround the natural Red Rocks Amphitheater date 18423067_10155401153617437_7476940129621660689_oback to Pre-Cambrian times, which gives the place an almost sacred feel to it.  Many performers have selected it as the finest outdoor venue they’ve ever played because of its superb acoustics, its natural beauty and its storied past.  First used for ceremonial events by the Ute tribe in the 1700s, Red Rocks became a primitive concert site as early as 1910, using a temporary platform and rough wooden benches.  The modern amphitheater, built in 1936 and opened in 1941, currently seats 9,500.  Its first rock concert featured The Beatles in 1964, and the visual uniqueness of the setting have made it a popular venue in recent years for live recordings (CD/DVD) by such groups as U2, Blues Traveler, The Moody Blues and Dave Matthews Band.

The Gorge Amphitheater, George, Washington

You read that right:  This very cool venue is located in George, Washington, roughly d3b807f7ec9a36c46127f9e13deb098f-rimg-w720-h720-gmirhalfway between Seattle and Spokane in the Columbia River Valley.  With its spectacular views of Columbia Gorge Canyon, The Gorge is widely praised as one of the most scenic outdoor venues in the world.  It’s also one of the newer sites on this list, opening in 1985, and seats 27,500, ranking it among the largest.  It’s pretty damn remote, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from converging on the venue every summer, thanks in part to spacious campgrounds nearby.

Tanglewood, Massachusetts

Nestled in the Berkshire Hills between the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, Tanglewood 1415658979605is actually a musical arts center with three music schools as well as “The Shed,” the 5,000-seat amphitheater.  Broad lawns provide ample seating for thousands more, with sweeping views of Monument Mountain in the distance.  It opened in 1938 as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has been offering classical, jazz, pop and rock concerts for 80 years now.  Massachusetts resident James Taylor has played Tanglewood nearly every year for more than 40 years.

Jones Beach Amphitheater, Long Island, New York

Opened in 1952 in Jones Beach State Park near Wantagh, NY, this amphitheater was 8-Nikon-at-Jones-Beach-Theateroriginally situated in Zachs Bay with a moat in front and the Atlantic in the distance, and performers were transported to the stage via boat.  It had 8,200 seats and generally staged musicals for its first 30 years.  By the 1980s, the moat was filled in to provide closer seating, capacity was increased to 15,000, and concerts became the bulk of its schedule.  It is currently undergoing a huge renovation.

Telluride Town Park, Telluride, Colorado

Situated in the heart of The Colorado Rockies, Telluride is a famous skiing destination in Telluride_BluesandBrewswinter and plays host to numerous music festivals in the summer months at the Town Park.  Heralded for its magnificent mountain backdrops, Telluride is a tiny town, but the park’s world-class music events put it on many artists’ “favorite venue” lists.  Annual bluegrass, folk and country music lineups are eager to perform in this amazing mountain valley setting.

Ascend Amphitheater, Nashville, Tennessee

The newest venue on the list is Ascend Amphitheater, located on the banks of the 13758Cumberland River in downtown Nashville.  Country star Eric Church played the opening gig in July 2015, and major acts from Train and Neil Young to Widespread Panic and John Legend have performed there.  The facility offers 2,300 fixed seats, 4,500 lawn seating and an amazing view of the Nashville skyline behind the modern, angular stage.

Merriweather Post Pavilion, outside Baltimore, Maryland

Despite its rocky past, Merriweather Post Pavilion (capacity 19,300) ranked in Rolling merriweather-post-pavilion-at-columbia-thStone Magazine’s top ten outdoor venues in a 2013 poll.  It’s also 50 years old (actually 51) this year, and has braved a roof collapse, appearances by controversial political candidates, and rock concert gate-crashers during its history.  But it soldiers on within Symphony Woods, a 40-acre plot of parkland within the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, outside Baltimore.

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Rock ‘n roll at the Hollywood Bowl…

Do you remember your first rock concerts?

I do, but that’s because I’ve always been an incorrigible list maker.  I have a list of every album I ever bought, every CD I ever bought, every cassette mixed tape I ever made.

I also am sheepish to admit that I have a comprehensive list of every concert I ever concertattended — who played, who warmed up, where it was, when it was, and who went with me!

From 1968 to 2018 — that’s 50 years — I’ve been to more than 360 concerts, many of which I reviewed as a rock critic for newspapers.

In this post, I thought it might be fun, and instructive, to share my recollections of the first dozen music concerts I attended.  Perhaps these memories will get you thinking about your first concert experiences.  I’d love to hear about them!

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My first “live in concert” experiences were comedy shows, which don’t really qualify for this list, but just for the sake of completeness, I’ll list them here:

July 1966, at age 11:  Jerry Lewis, at Musicarnival, a tent-like summer theatre in the suburbs of Cleveland, with my parents.

August 1967, at age 12:  Phyllis Diller (seriously?!), also at Musicarnival with my parents.

January 1968, at age 12:  Bill Cosby, at Public Hall in downtown Cleveland, with my friend Ben.  Cosby recorded his classic LP “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With” that night, and once it was released several months later, we were thrilled to have been in attendance for that.  (Never mind what became of Cosby later in life…)

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But let’s get down to the music shows.  Here we go:

October 27, 1968:  Simon and Garfunkel, at Public Hall, Cleveland

sg-backgroundI don’t recall this, but apparently, for my first live music concert, my friend Paul and I went without our parents’ knowledge.  We were only 13, and we went with his older brother and his friend, via his friend’s parents’ car (we assume), into downtown Cleveland on a Sunday night to cavernous Public Hall to enjoy the dulcet harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel.  It was a poor venue for their quiet music, but the crowd was reasonably respectful, so the sound was relatively okay.  We had a crummy vantage point, more than halfway back on a flat auditorium floor, craning our necks to see the two men singing along to Simon’s lone accompanying guitar.  They were touring in support of their hugely popular “Bookends” album, which included “America,” “Fakin’ It,” “Hazy Shade of Winter” and the #1 hit “Mrs. Robinson”, so I was thrilled to be there.  But I must confess I don’t remember much about it…

October 24, 1969:  Led Zeppelin, with Grand Funk Railroad, at Public Hall, Cleveland

LED-ZEP1_1545027cWhat a difference a year makes!  I was in ninth grade, now buying a lot of rock music albums to complement my Simon & Garfunkel stuff, and I was eager to check out Led Zeppelin, the new British hard rock/blues band I’d turned on to only six months before.  My friends Steve and Andy were hell-bent on going, and I eagerly agreed.  I have no idea why my parents agreed to let me go, but sure enough, the three of us headed downtown several hours early that Friday afternoon to the same huge venue I’d been to the previous year.  If you can believe it, tickets were only $4.00 each (!), and they were general admission (!!!), which meant we might get really good seats if we got lucky.  When they opened the doors, there was a crush of people fighting to get in, and once we survived that, we ran to claim seats in the 20th row.  Damn, I was so excited!  Eventually, the announcer said, “Will you please welcome, from Flint, Michigan, GRAND FUNK RAILROAD!!”  I thought, damn, did we come to the wrong place?  But no, this was a warm-up band, so I thought, “Wow, a bonus!”  This trio blew the hinges off the place for 45 minutes, songs like “Time Machine” and “Are You Ready,” and the crowd responded thunderously.  Me?  I was in such total awe, I was almost satisfied to leave at that point.  But of course we stayed, and soon, out came the soon-to-be-legendary Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, still young and hungry, and ready to slay us with songs from their brand new LP, “Led Zeppelin II,” featuring the new single, “Whole Lotta Love.”  We watched with our mouths agape as they played “Dazed and Confused,” “Bring It On Home,” “Heartbreaker,” “Good Times Bad Times” and others from their first two albums.  We inched closer to the front as the evening drew to a close, and by the encore, we were leaning against the stage, watching Plant howling into the microphone right above us as Page wailed away on his Gibson Les Paul only a few feet away.  A life-changing experience!!

November 22, 1970:  Chicago, at John Carroll University, the suburbs of Cleveland

hqdefault-3The huge 1970 hit singles “Make Me Smile” in May and “25 or 6 to 4” in August had transformed Chicago from a cult favorite to a mainstream favorite, but at this stage, they were still finishing off a set of gigs scheduled in college gyms.  John Carroll was a small college only 10 minutes from home in the Eastern Cleveland suburbs, so it was conveniently located, and my friend Ben had just scored his driver’s license, so he drove.  He and our friend Steve and I waited with the crowd outside and, again with general admission tickets, made our way in and sat midway back on the left-side bleachers.  The band, with its original lineup, was in top form, with guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath, bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera and keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm leading the charge.  They performed just about everything from their widely praised first two LPs (1969’s “Chicago Transit Authority” and 1970’s “Chicago”) and a couple from the soon-to-be-released “Chicago III.”  I remember the band exceeding my expectations, especially on “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Know Really Know What Time It Is,” “25 or 6 to 4” and the album tracks “Poem for the People” and “In the Country.”  Great show!!

August 29, 1971:  Roberta Flack, with Cannonball Adderly & Les McCann, Blossom Music Center, outside Cleveland

74309972Blossom Music Center had opened in 1968 as “the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra” in an idyllic plot of land between Cleveland and Akron.  The featured acts in those early years leaned toward jazz and folk artists, in keeping with the wishes of the conservative board of trustees.  (The profitable rock bands showed up in the mid-’70s and have dominated the proceedings pretty much ever since.)  My friend Paul, who had moved to Canada but was back in town for a visit, had become an aficionado of jazz, and he suggested we check out Blossom to see the Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Les McCann, who were warming up for Roberta Flack.  I knew next to nothing about any of these artists, but it sounded like fun, so I agreed.  Neither of us can remember much of anything about the music we heard that night — I later learned to like Flack’s songs, and now have enormous admiration for Adderley as well as McCann and his other jazz cohorts.  But all we seem to recall of that evening is the horrendous traffic jam getting in and out of the place (and it’s been a perennial problem at Blossom ever since).

October 3, 1971:  Gordon Lightfoot, at Music Hall, Cleveland

glThe downtown Cleveland facility that housed the 10,000-seat Public Hall also included a smaller, 3,000-seat theater called Music Hall, which featured artists and stage shows that attracted smaller audiences.  I got my first taste of that venue with my high school girlfriend Betsy when we went to see the great Gordon Lightfoot, Canada’s premier singer-songwriter.  We were crazy about him, and at the time, he was riding the success of his marvelous Top Ten hit “If You Could Read My Mind” and the impressive repertoire he’d built up since his debut in the mid-’60s.  We both recalled hearing just about every song we’d hoped to hear — “Minstrel of the Dawn,” “Summer Side of Life,” “Talking In Your Sleep,” “Me and Bobby Magee,” “Did She Remember My Name” and his tour de force story-song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”  He had a three-piece band accompanying him, and they put on a thoroughly entertaining show.

March 26, 1972:  Yes, at Lakeland Community College, outside Cleveland

Betsy and I had become big fans of Yes, the British progressive rock group, due to their h_00083173amazing 1971 release, “The Yes Album,” which included the hit “I’ve Seen All Good People.”  Then they released the enormously popular “Fragile” LP in late 1971, and “Roundabout” become a big hit single in early 1972.  We jumped at the chance to see them in March of that year, even though the concert was to be held at the brand-new Lakeland Community College gymnasium about 20 miles east of Cleveland.  We had to endure 15-degree weather as we waited outside for nearly two hours (again, general admission tickets), but that afforded us the opportunity to grab seats very close to the stage.  It was an excellent show, with most of our favorites in the set list (“Yours is No Disgrace,” “The Clap,” “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround,” “Heart of the Sunrise,” “America”), but the sound was so insanely loud that we suffered ringing ears for nearly two days afterwards.  This is the show that taught me to try to be more careful of how close I should sit to the loudspeakers…

April 28, 1972:  Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, at Cleveland Arena

hqdefault-6In the spring of 1972, liberal candidate George McGovern was vying for the Democratic nomination in hopes of unseating President Richard Nixon, and Hollywood celebs like Warren Beatty were actively supporting McGovern.  He put together several fundraising events, one of which was scheduled in Cleveland, and to me and my friends, it seemed too good to be true:  Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor all on the same bill!  hqdefault-7We stood in line to successfully snag tickets, but it was clear from the very beginning that this would be a disappointing evening.  It was held at the decaying, acoustically miserable Cleveland Arena, a hockey/boxing venue that, although it had been the site of Alan Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball” in 1952 (widely considered the world’s first rock concert), was well past its prime and was torn down only five years later.  Simon, who had just released 8454c81a75fdf7a005ffd6d27bdb9b25--neil-young-music-concertshis solo debut LP three months earlier, played his hits (“Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard”) and a few Simon & Garfunkel classics, but left abruptly due to the noisy crowd.  Mitchell fared even worse — her music was best suited to small halls and respectful audiences, and the Cleveland Arena crowd was apparently not there for the music.  Only Taylor had much success getting through to the hob-nobbers — he was riding the success of his huge “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” albums and the Top Five “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend” hit singles.  Betsy still has a photo she took of film stars Julie Christie and Jack Nicholson, who walked by our seats near the back of the arena at one point.  Not a great evening musically, that’s for sure…

August 17, 1972:  Bread, with Harry Chapin, at Blossom Music Center, outside Cleveland

hqdefault-4Bread, the soft-rock favorites from LA, were at the peak of their success in the summer of ’72, thanks to multiple Top Ten hits like “Make It With You,” “It Don’t Matter to Me,” “If,” “Mother Freedom,” “Baby I’m-a Want You,” “Everything I Own,” “Diary” and “The Guitar Man.”  Inexplicably, I corralled my ex-girlfriend Jody to come up from Mansfield to join me on a triple date with my friends Ben and Rod and their girlfriends Leesa and Darcy for this second attempt at Blossom.  Harry Chapin, brand new and enjoying success with the hit “Taxi,” warmed up admirably, and Bread put on a solid, thoroughly enjoyable show, according to our collective memory.  Sadly, our most vivid recollection was of Ben’s father’s station wagon overheating as we tried to leave, which resulted in us not arriving home until nearly 3 am, to our parents’ consternation (no cell phones back then!)…

October 21, 1972:  Jethro Tull, with Gentle Giant, at Public Hall, Cleveland

guild1This was my ninth concert, but technically only my second rock show.  Jethro Tull was hugely popular with the stoners and the critics, and their most recent LP, “Thick as a Brick,” had, against all odds, somehow reached #1 on the charts in May 1972, despite it consisting of one 45-minute-long piece of music.  The group, led by the indefatigable flautist/singer Ian Anderson, performed it that night in its entirety before also treating the crowd to several tracks from 1971’s classic “Aqualung” material (“Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Wind Up,” “Locomotive Breath”).  My friends Rod and Tim joined me for this amazing concert, and other friends were there that night as well.  Our seats, sadly, were only average, halfway back on the left side of the Public Hall auditorium.  I have little memory of Gentle Giant’s set, although I enjoyed one of their albums Rock bought afterwards.  We all look back fondly on this gig and were glad we were savvy enough to attend, because Jethro Tull went to become the biggest concert draw in the world for a spell in the ’70s.  I have since seen the band in concert more than two dozen times, and Anderson still performs Tull music today in 2018.

April 17, 1973:  James Taylor, at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

hqdefault-5Kent State, famous for the polarizing National Guard shootings in May 1970, is an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, but my friend Ben and our dates and I loved James Taylor enough to make the drive down there one rainy night our senior year of high school.  Taylor was late in arriving, and put on a rather muted show, which was mildly disappointing, because his most recent record, 1972’s “One Man Dog,” had plenty of additional instrumentation, including horns.  But that night, it was pretty much just Taylor sitting quietly on a stool with almost no accompaniment.  We certainly enjoyed it anyway, even if only because Taylor’s songs back then were so good (“Country Road,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “You Can Close Your Eyes”)…

April 1973:  George Carlin, with Kenny Rankin, Allen Theatre, Cleveland

MV5BMTY3NTU3NDM5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjIxMDU4Mg@@._V1_UY317_CR132,0,214,317_AL_This almost doesn’t qualify as a music concert, because my friends Chris, Fiji and Rock and I were there at the storied Allen Theatre to laugh at the outrageous comedy of George Carlin, who didn’t disappoint (his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” was all the rage at the time).  But warming up that night was label mate Kenny Rankin, an astonishingly talented singer-songwriter whose song”Peaceful,” as covered by then-popular Helen Reddy, was climbing the charts.  Rankin wrote wonderful songs and also was adept at covering songs by The Beatles and others on albums like “Like a Seed,” “Silver Morning,” “Inside” and “The Kenny Ranking Album” throughout the ’70s.

July 10, 1973:  Stephen Stills/Manassas, at Blossom Music Center, outside Cleveland

Menassis-1973-6About ten of my friends and I made the spontaneous decision on this night to head out to Blossom and buy tickets at the box office (I think they were only $4 each) and party on the huge lawn that faced the outdoor amphitheater.  We all knew and admired Stephen Stills for his work with Crosby, Nash and Young, but I don’t think too many of us knew much of the material he did with his erstwhile country-influenced band Manassas at the time.  (I have since gone back tardily and am a big fan of the original double LP “Manassas” from 1972, which includes The Birds’ Chris Hillman, CSNY’s Dallas Taylor and Al Perkins from The Flying Burrito Brothers, among others).  I remember it was a wonderful, good-vibe kind of evening, with plenty of funny cigarettes being smoked.

Share your memories!  Music matters!