Plenty of Bang for the Buck

OK, Mashable. While I respect your seemingly limitless desire to cover all things social-media-related, such zeal is really clogging up my Google Reader. I took a break from the internet during the week before Christmas (filling my time with roughly 300 versions of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” instead), and came back to about 500 new posts of varying importance. “It’s not that I don’t care about Jalen Rose’s take on the five athletes who would’ve been social media mavens…” I just wonder if maybe you’d like to get out of the house once in a while.

This incessant reporting does have its benefits, though. I’m especially a fan of the Spark of Genius series, highlighting startups from across the web. A recent one that caught my eye was a January 5 entry on SaveFans!, “an offer-based ticket platform that allows users to negotiate the price paid for live event tickets.” Nothing about the idea is particularly new, as folks have been haggling over ticket prices since well before Craigslist. But as someone who hates dealing with scalpers and lacks patience for endless emailing with strangers, a service that puts buyers in control is appealing.

It also gets me thinking. Unless I’ve scored free entry somehow, I’ve pretty much paid full price for every concert I’ve been to over the past several years. Sometimes, I’ve regretted the purchase, and sometimes, I would’ve paid more. As we might soon be able to dictate the price of concerts and other events, I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at how much some of my most memorable musical experiences of the last decade were really worth, with the benefit of hindsight. I knew I was saving all those ticket stubs and e-receipts for something. Note: Prices listed are for one ticket each, without broker fees. SaveFans! does charge $5 per transaction.

Bob Dylan

31 October 2000; McGaw Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Estimated price paid: $20

What it was worth: $50

You know Bob Dylan is old when even his well-past-his-prime shows are fogged by nostalgia. This was the first concert of my college career, and thus bound to be remembered fondly, regardless of how well he played. But it’s good to know that my positive recollections aren’t too far off, if these reviews are any indication. Still, I’d guess that any approximation of Dylan’s former greatness would’ve been enough for me and for the nine dorm-mates who were packed into a single cab with me on the way to the show. You can’t buy memories like that.

Wilco, Elliott Smith

2 May 2002; Riviera Theatre, Chicago, Illinois

Estimated price paid: $20

What it was worth: $40

To quote from Marc Hogan’s farewell to Elliott Smith, “if the Riviera concert were a pop song, its chorus would be ‘I can’t feel my fucking fingers.'” I’ll remember this show mostly because of Smith’s perplexing, abbreviated and ultimately saddening opening set, but I didn’t go to see him. I went to see Wilco, and no matter how bad the atmosphere was as the hometown band took the stage that night, the ensuing performance turned things around in a big way. It’s usually hard to pinpoint the moment that you fall in love with a band, but with Wilco, I can come pretty close: Jeff Tweedy singing a transcendent “Ashes of American Flags” while standing in front of the Stars and Stripes on that Riviera stage.


20 September 2002; TT the Bear’s, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Estimated price paid: $15

What it was worth: $35

As I looked over my concert history, I noticed an unsurprising pattern: as the bands I liked got more popular, their ticket prices got higher. While I paid just $15 for this, my first Spoon show, I’d later pay $23 (2004), $26 (2005) and $32 (2007) for subsequent concerts. Not only did that $15 get me a heavy dose of the band circa Kill The Moonlight in an intimate environment (so intimate that one audience member tossed her bra onstage, to Britt Daniel’s utter astonishment), but also some great openers: John Vanderslice and The Natural History (originators of Spoon hit single “Don’t You Evah”).

The Ruffness

November 2002, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland

Price paid: ₤5

What it was worth: ₤15

Three slightly bored American students, studying abroad for the quarter, walk into the University of Edinburgh student union one night. On a whim, they follow some other students down to a ramshackle concert venue, where they spy a poster advertising a local dub/funk/rock band they’ve never heard of. Nothing better to do, they decide to pay the entry fee and see what happens.

Twenty-four hours later, one of them is back in the exact same spot, with three more friends in tow.

Seven-plus years later, he still owns the two EPs he bought that first night, plus a t-shirt too small even for him. He’s still hoping The Ruffness comes to the States sometime.


18 July 2003; Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, Wisconsin

Estimated price paid: $80

What it was worth: $20

“You know, my mother has a saying: Don’t cry over spilt milk.” This was my friend Scott’s advice when I discovered, an hour or so into the two-hour trip from Evanston to East Troy, that I’d left my ticket to the show at our apartment. While Scott’s childlike belief in his mother’s wisdom (for the record, I wasn’t crying) was worth a few laughs, it wasn’t worth the $40 I had to drop on a new ticket once we reached the venue. Even if the band did jump on trampolines.


December 2003; Orpheum Theater, Madison, Wisconsin

Estimated price paid: $25

What it was worth: $25

Just past midnight on the day of the last final exam of my undergraduate career, I was standing in a cold parking lot in Madison, Wisconsin, anticipating a three-hour drive back to campus – if the AAA truck ever arrived. That’s because, instead of cramming, I’d decided to join a couple of friends on a journey north to see my favorite hip-hop act at the time. The show (which also featured Brother Ali) was everything I hoped it’d be, and I was successful in pulling my friends away from the bar afterward, but none of that mattered when we realized we’d forgotten to turn off the car’s interior light hours before. Had that truck not arrived, I might want my money back (and my parents might ask for a bit of the tuition bill they paid). But it came. And Mom: I got an A-.

Better Than Ezra, Pat McGee Band

18 November 2004; House of Blues, Chicago, Illinois

Price paid: $30

What it was worth: $0.50

Note: Do not pay top dollar to go to bad shows just to appease girls you are semi-dating. Have some pride.

Orchestra Baobab

25 March 2005; HotHouse, Chicago, Illinois

Price paid: $0

What it was worth: $40

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The same can be said of concerts, especially if you’re a reviewer. In this case, I wasn’t attending as a writer, however, but as an usher. My job was to maneuver around the small, brightly colored performance room at this non-profit venue (whose closing I wrote about a couple years back), helping people find seats and absorbing the glares of those who I’d ask to share tables with others. It was a stressful task, but I’d ask the biggest guy in the room to stand in the corner if it meant I could relive that show again. Somehow it was the perfect mix of cold beer, beautiful music and a great crowd; it helped that I felt like I’d gotten away with something.

People Under the Stairs

8 December 2005; Double Door, Chicago, Illinois

Price paid: $15

What it was worth: $30

I got lost on the way to this show. This would be unremarkable but for the fact that I lived about a five-minute walk from the venue. I’m not going to get into the reason for the disorientation, but I will say that I’ve long been a fan of this PUTS song. In any case, my meandering didn’t detract from the show because it was winter in Chicago and the duo’s plane was significantly delayed. By the time Thes One and Double K came on around midnight, I was fading – but the show was worth the wait. If I’d known I’d have to wait more than four years to see them again in Chicago, I’d have paid even more.

Jonathan Richman

12 March 2008; Abbey Pub, Chicago, Ilinois

Price paid: $15

What it was worth: $25

It’s always nice when you’re at a concert with someone, enjoying the performance, and you look at your companion and she’s obviously enjoying it as much as you are. This isn’t so hard to accomplish at a Jonathan Richman show, because the man is so damn likable, whether he’s singing about dancing in a lesbian bar or just bantering with the crowd in his childlike way. He’s so likable, in fact, that he got my girlfriend to stay up way past her normal bedtime just to hear every last note. Many other artists (including Sharon Jones, 15 November 2007, $25) have failed to do the same.

Blu & Exile

22 March 2008; Subterranean, Chicago, Illinois

Price paid: $10

What it was worth: $20

Talk about a pretty awesome first date anniversary: a delicious Ethiopian dinner followed shortly after by a performance from one of the year’s hottest up-and-coming rappers. What I remember most about this show was the fact that we got there at the perfect time – just as the last opening act was finishing up – so we had a chance to grab a beer, find some friends who we didn’t even know would be there and secure a spot before the real action started. This is in stark contrast to the next time we saw Blu, in October: same venue, but this time we arrived far too early and had to endure several opening acts. By the time the main event rolled around, Angela was slumped on the floor, fast asleep. I’m not sure how much it’s worth for people to think you’ve drugged your girlfriend, but it’s probably something less than $10.

The Mountain Goats, John Vanderslice

1 April 2009; Portage Theatre, Chicago, Illinois

Price paid: $16

What it was worth: $30

Otherwise known as “The Whitest Concert of the Decade”, this show didn’t appear to have much promise at first glance. Moved from a cool setting in a Chicago church (which was why I’d bought the tickets in the first place) to a cavernous old theater on the city’s Northwest Side, it seemed to be lacking in atmosphere and acoustics from the get-go. But these two great songwriters showed that they could be commanding performers as well, particularly John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats), who arrived via the center row wearing a Zorro costume recently procured from a nearby costume shop. The theatrics didn’t end there, but the show did have to end sometime – and it did, with the crowd on its feet in the aisles and a certain fan singing “No Children” into his girlfriend’s ear. Yup, that’s the one that goes “I hope you die, I hope we both die.” Who needs Irving Berlin?