Feb 4, 2014

5 life lessons for enjoying affordable live music

It’s no secret that I love music almost as much as I love travel.  And nothing beats seeing great music live.  But sometimes that can be a challenge to do on a commoner’s budget (and let’s face it, these days I’m operating more on a peasant’s budget!). 

So, while I rarely splurge to see a high-dollar concert at a massive arena or a cavernous convention center (and even more rarely would I have the desire), I have learned a few life lessons that have helped me enjoy a lot of great shows over the years – and made these experiences more memorable and personally rewarding.

1. Go to music festivals

Weather never seems to discourage to music lovers at Beale Street Music Festival

I don’t think you can get more bang for the buck than some of the great music festivals we have annually across the country.  Take the Beale Street Music Festival held the first weekend in May every year in Memphis, for example.  The advanced price for a three-day pass for the 2014 festival is $65.  Soon, they will go up to $75.  If you can survive the horrible weather that plagues the festival every year, it’s a steal.  You get three stages of major acts from across the musical spectrum, and a damn good blues tent, too.

Jazz Fest crowd on the way to see Jimmy Buffett in 2008

I have no idea who these girls were, but they didn't mind my company when I got displaced from my group during the Buffett show.   
On a larger scale is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, held on the last weekend of April and the second weekend in May.  This year, I’m returning to Jazz Fest for the first time since 2008, primarily to see Eric Clapton headline the first Sunday.  An advance one-day ticket costs $55.  Where else am I going to see Eric Clapton for $55, not to mention all of the other great acts playing that day – Vampire Weekend, Irma Thomas, John Hiatt, Tab Benoit, Rebirth Brass Band, North Mississippi Allstars, Bonerama, etc.  Yes, even though the price goes up a little every year, it’s still a steal. 

The best way to approach a festival like Jazz Fest – pick a day, and understand you won’t see everybody scheduled to play the festival.  Heck, you won’t even see everyone you plan to see that day.  You’ll probably see someone you never heard of before, and love it.

2. Go to smaller venues

There’s nothing intimate about seeing a show at an arena designed more for an indoor football game.  That’s one reason why I prefer to be selective and watch for some great shows that occasionally pop up at smaller concert venues that are designed to bring the audience close to the action, no seat is a bad seat, and standing room only in not a bad option. 

Two of my favorites nearby are the Pageant in Saint Louis and the Castle Theatre in Bloomington, Ill.  The Pageant’s website claims it can hold up to 2,300 people depending on the event, and you’re never farther than 70 feet from the stage.  The Castle is a little smaller, hosting as many as 700.  Both venues feature their share of emerging artists, alternative rock, Americana, blues, etc., and occasionally a big name act or two (I saw Black Crowes at the Pageant in 2013).  Depending on who’s headlining, your average ticket price at the Pageant may be anywhere between $15 to $50, with most around $25-$30.  The Castle’s shows tend to be cheaper, averaging $10-$20 to see most performers.

More recently, two different places in my hometown of Springfield, Ill., are earning their reputations as good small concert venues – Boondocks and Donnie’s Homespun.  Boondocks seems to be doing a good job drawing rising and mid-level country acts here; Donnie’s prefers to be more eclectic, booking acts ranging from Los Lobos to the Wailers and Rebirth Brass Band (for free!).           

So, while you won’t see Paul McCartney any time soon at these types of venues, you might see Paul Thorn – and that’s a good thing. 

3. Go local

Whether you’re in your hometown or travelling, get the local weekly entertainment guide and see what’s out there.  You might be amazed at who’s playing at a local bar – often for a dirt cheap admission.  This is one of my favorite things to do in New Orleans.  I can always be sure to see a great band – and often a twin-bill at a club for $10-$15.  That same band may cost you $20-$25 if you catch them touring elsewhere. 

Alternatively, if you don’t know anything about the band that’s playing for free or for a $5 cover at the local dive, give them a shot.  You may be discovering the next great thing right before a record producer does.   

4. Go early

Don’t want to pay a large cover, but still want to catch some music?  Sometimes you can catch the early performers at some pretty well-established clubs for a very small price, or possibly for free. 

Peterson Brothers at Continental Club, Austin Texas
This was the case when I went to Austin last fall.  I was determined to visit the Continental Club because I had heard so much about the bar and all of the famous people who played there.  I originally wanted to see Dale Watson, who would have been worth every penny of the $7 cover.  But I went early for happy hour instead and discovered the Peterson Brothers instead, for no cover (and a few Lonestar beers, of course). 

5. Go with the flow

Sometimes, you just have to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves out of the blue when you’re traveling. This is a commoner’s travel credo, and it holds true for finding great live music, too.  

2013 Crestone Music Festival -- that speck you see on the stage is Tab Benoit.
For instance, the last thing I expected to do when I traveled with the fake wife to Crestone, Colo., to see her daughter was to attend a world music festival in a town of 100 people.  Furthermore, I really didn't expect to see an artist I was fan of like Tab Benoit headlining.  It was meant to be. 

Actually, the last thing I expected to do on that trip was sleep in a yurt.  But that is another story, recounted in another post

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little rant on finding great affordable live music.  Maybe I also provided some food for thought as well.  Now if winter ever gets over, I have some festivals to attend.  

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