Being an opening act has to be one of the most unforgiving positions in entertainment.
As a regular concertgoer, I've seen the gamut from electrifying to confusing to nonmusical -- Cirque du Soleil and stand-up comedians, for example.
There are legendary opening performances, too, including one of rock 'n' roll's greatest myths: Jerry Lee Lewis was forced to open for Chuck Berry during a 1957 gig, a decision which left The Killer furious. Lewis whipped the crowd into a frenzy and for his last number, kicked out his stool, played a scalding "Great Balls of Fire" and then literally set fire to his piano. As he left the stage, he walked up to Berry and taunted him with racist epithets, daring him to give the crowd a better show.
I saw nothing quite so raucous, but when I recently saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops (above, playing "Trouble in Your Mind"), a revivalist bluegrass jug band, they received an exceptionally warm and enthusiastic reception. As to their sound, think "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" without George Clooney clamoring for his Dapper Dan pomade.
The Drops won over the audience like few openers I've seen before. By the end of their 35 minutes, the group had so captivated the audience that they received a prolonged standing ovation that continued as the group's members packed up their own gear.
After several minutes of unrelenting howling, clapping and cheering, the band's Dom Flemons sat back down at his stool, called for a dimming of the stage lights and the band gave a genuine, give-us-one-more-song encore.
At nonfestival gigs, such respect and appreciation for an opening act is rare. Their reception made me appreciate more how difficult and complicated it is to be an opening act. The group was good, but there is sort of an odd high-wire act to it.
As is the case with a relatively undiscovered artist as many openers often are they want to show their mettle and win a few new fans.
I've walked away from concerts curious to Google a musician and learn more or buy the group's album. I was vaguely familiar with them before seeing them open for U2 in 2005, but their blistering live show convinced me that a Tennessee rock group named Kings of Leon had the potential for great things.
That's a good example of an opening act being paired well with a headliner. Often, openers are given the advantage of being someone the big name act's fans might enjoy, but that isn't always the case I once saw Andrew W.K. of "Party Hard" fame pogo across the stage in drippingly ironic and energetic fashion before Aerosmith took the stage.
A supporting act's high-wire act, though, comes in not wanting to upstage the headlining act, as Lewis was intentionally trying to do in the legend with Berry.
It is my experience that this is nearly impossible to do. Even a terrible performance by the name on the ticket stub is going to be much more easily forgiven than a flub by an opening act.
I'm a much harsher critic of an opening act. They need to impress me, whereas I know the odds favor the headliner will satisfy. That's why I bought the ticket. The openers are just decoration.
And let me tell you, I have seen some opening acts worth forgetting. I once saw an opening act which generated a series of hits in the 1990s, but the group's live performance was pretty pitiful. So wretched and sloppy was the sound that it was difficult to discern which song was being performed until the singer opened his mouth.
But it can be a great way to discover new favorites, too. It's how I came to appreciate PJ Harvey, The National and Sleater-Kinney.
I also once saw Metallica as an opening act, which was a truly bizarre experience. Stripped of their pyrotechnics and visual flare, it forced the music to stand own its own. It held up well, especially considering the Bay Area metal legends were starting up the crowd for The Rolling Stones.
Lewis' performance if it actually happened has to rank among rock's most successful and impressive upstagings. How did Berry react? The details of that 1957 night seem to be lost, but the rock pioneer still plays sold out gigs once a month at a St. Louis landmark, a burger restaurant named Blueberry Hill.
The fact that Berry (below, playing "Johnny B. Goode") is still out there at 83 goes to show that whether a group's the opener or the headliner, once the house lights come on and the audience heads home, one thing that guarantees an enduring legacy is playing music people want to hear.