The performers represented in Wolfgang's Vault trace the full arc of live popular music as it evolved from its roots in honky-tonk Western swing and black country blues to the vital social force it has become today.
Along the way, there have been many seminal artists who innovated major changes in music and how it has been presented in concert.
In the early 1950s rock took root in the electrified Chicago version of the Delta Blues being played by artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf. As American teens emerged as a separate social class, this music and the rockabilly rhythms of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard combined to draw teens as no music had before. With the advent of 50,000 watt clear-channel radio stations with unprecedented reach, teens were exposed for the first time to music from multiple cultures, and the influences began to evolve into new, merged forms.
Records from these early American artists hit England in the late 1950s and early 1960s and rebounded with a vengeance as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals infused rock music with a new energy.
1965: A Turning Point
In the summer of 1965, two separate events changed the course of rock history. At the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan went electric, initially dismaying his legion of folk followers but extending rock's boundaries to groups like The Byrds, The Band and Buffalo Springfield. Meanwhile in San Francisco bands were filtering traditional blues and rock forms through the burgeoning psychedelic experience to create free-form extended jams.
Psychedelic rock melded country, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and Indian music with complexity. Unusual instruments such as the sitar and the tabala, along with strange electronic effects appeared. This era also initiated the tradition of concept albums with linked tracks instead of a collection of singles.
The San Francisco sound that developed during this time was rooted in live performance, not in the studio. Its purpose was to provide a stimulus for the total experience of the people involved, musicians and audience alike. These were not concerts in which people sat in straight rows, separated from the performers. The music was meant to be felt rather than just heard, danced to with wild abandon and experienced visually through swirling, psychedelic light shows. The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others headlined shows that sometimes lasted until dawn and were a far cry from the staged affairs of their predecessors.
Two years later, these and other trends met head-on at the Monterey Pop Festival. Otis Redding, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Steve Miller Band and many others played, listened to and influenced each other as the music began to emerge as a force for social change. Rock became the central symbol for the student rights movement, the sexual revolution, the drug revolution, and the antiwar movement. Acid rock was significant in that it represented a time of great freedom for youth. It was not an affluent movement, which is precisely what the scene of rejecting the materialism of the 1950s was all about. The original blues influence that gave birth to rock was carried on by The Butterfield Blues Band, Cream, Traffic and others, while artists like Sly & The Family Stone and Santana took grittier forms of roots music and brought them to new, multi-racial and cultural audiences.
By 1969's Woodstock Festival, rock was undeniably planted squarely in the mainstream and anything seemed possible. Within two years, however, co-opted by its own popularity and the death of the counterculture, rock and roll entered a period of cynicism that was a marked departure from the era of "peace and love".
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Singer/Songwriters and Metal Emerge
In the early 1970s two of rock's primary influences bore new performers onto the scene. Singer/songwriters like Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne drew upon folk influences to reach a new generation of listeners. Their craftsmanship focused on lyrics, simple musical structures and superb performance to produce music that defined its own, new boundaries.
Of course rock must always "rock." At the same time, the primal blues influence that reached so many early rockers was still working its magic, and new performers, most notably Led Zeppelin, drew upon a visceral devotion to the blues to produce a powerful new version of rock. Their music amplified the raw emotion in the form to new levels. Zeppelin was quickly followed by other metal groups including Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Metallica.
Hard rock developed a large and loyal following, and, true to its roots, the music didn't stay the in one place for too long. As the 70's progressed, a new wave of experimentation resulted in many new forms from artists including David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello and the Pretenders.
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New Decades, New Directions
The 70s and 80s produced great mainstream performers that drew huge audiences. Not as cutting-edge as New Wave and Punk artists, playing less free form jams than their 60s predecessors, the best of these bands put on great shows that enthralled their fans. Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Black Crowes, Counting Crows and others put their mark on the modern concert, touring extensively and producing some memorable shows.
More recently, rock has seen a host of new artists that thrive on live performance; throwbacks to acts from the 60s. Phish, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blues Traveler, Los Lobos, Primus and Incubus all stage powerful shows that create the same connection between performer and audience that characterized the original free-form bands.
Rock and blues music know few boundaries. Their appeal crosses generations; how else can one explain the longevity of artists like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and B.B. King? New artists constantly emerge, acknowledging the influence of earlier performers, and create their own special musical visions. Familiar performers re-invent themselves to play old favorites with renewed vigor for the children of their first fans, or take the leap and compose in new genres. The beat goes on.
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