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Rockin’ and rollin’ at the Palestra

November 10, 2022
colorful collage of archival photos of famous musical acts, including Billy Joel, Peter Frampton, BB King, Simon and Garfunkel.(University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw)

Musical giants from Simon & Garfunkel, Ray Charles, and the Grateful Dead to Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen have played at Rochester’s iconic gymnasium.

 Since the Louis Alexander Palestra opened in 1930 on the University of Rochester’s River Campus, it has been home to more than 30 All-American student-athletes and one national champion—the 1990–91 Yellowjackets men’s basketball team.

In 2016, it was named one of the top 125 basketball arenas in the nation by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame—an impressive accomplishment, considering there are more than 300 Division I men’s programs.

The Palestra also has hosted famous speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Maya Angelou, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. George Carlin and the Smothers Brothers performed standup comedy there.

But the Palestra also has been a concert mecca, with some of the greatest names in modern music history taking its stage. Solo acts like Ray Charles, Judy Collins, and Billy Joel. Duos like Simon & Garfunkel and Hall & Oates. And groups like the Temptations, the Grateful Dead, and the Ramones.

“The Palestra was just a great concert venue,” says Jeffrey Newcorn ’73, ’77 (SMD), who reviewed a few shows for the Campus Times, the College’s student newspaper, as an undergraduate. “It was big enough to hold a large show but also intimate. We loved it.”

Here’s a look at some of the famous—and those who weren’t yet famous—musical acts who have played at the Palestra.

(photos provided by University Archives, unless otherwise credited)

 

Kingston Trio

October 22, 1959

The Kingston Trio helped launch a folk revival in the late 1950s and scored a No. 1 hit in 1958 with “Tom Dooley.” On October 22, 1959, the trio of Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and Bob Shane played to a sold-out Palestra, their catchy tunes bolstered by a new, $500 sound system paid for by the Social and Traditions Committee that helped eliminate echoes and distortions throughout the building.

 

archival photo of Ray Charles singing at the piano.Ray Charles

November 8, 1963

This concert, two weeks before the assassination of President Kennedy, was the Social and Traditions Committee’s most expensive to date, costing $5,000 (about $47,000 in today’s dollars), with tickets selling for less than $3. The Palestra was packed, and the committee made a profit of $900. Nicknamed “The Genius” for combining blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel music, Charles remarked to committee cochair Hayward Paul ’64, that he enjoyed “the warm, enthusiastic, and controlled” crowd. He would return to the Palestra for another sellout show on November 3, 1966, backed by the female group the Raelets.

 

archival concert photo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on stage.Simon & Garfunkel

April 5, 1968

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performed before a packed Palestra one day after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. They opened with “Mrs. Robinson” from the hit movie The Graduate, which had been released just three months earlier. Other hits followed—”The Sound of Silence,”America,” “Feelin’ Groovy,” and more—and the duo performed two encores. “If it’s possible to give sitting ovations after each song, then this deed was done,” wrote Campus Times reviewer Jan Zuckerman ’71.

 

Judy Collins

February 29, 1968

 Judy Collins’s performance at the Palestra came in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive—a major turning point in the Vietnam War in which an increasing share of the American public came to believe it had been misled about the duration and human costs of the war. The folk singer performed about 20 numbers, including an antiwar song called “La Colombe”, which Collins said was “dedicated to the boy who was to turn 18, like many other boys whose birthdays are coming up soon.” The somber opening lyrics set the tone:

Why all these bugles crying
For squads of young men drilled
To kill and to be killed
Stood waiting by this train?

 

archival concert photo of Dionne Warwick singing at the microphone.Dionne Warwick

October 10, 1968

 Although Warwick performed a beautiful rendition of “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story, which transitioned into “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” Campus Times reviewer Ray Singer found her performance “disappointing,” He wrote that Warwick “tried, but her voice strained and occasionally cracked.” Singer noted that Warwick shone, however, while singing “Always Something There to Remind Me.”

 

archival concert photo of Smokey Robinson, sitting on the stage and singing.Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

November 1, 1968

The smooth quartet from Detroit wowed the crowd with hits such as “Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “Ooo Baby Baby.” But it was their rendition of “The Look of Love”—the first time they had ever performed the Burt Bacherach number live—that drew the loudest cheers. Three photographers took countless shots of the show for possible use on the group’s next album (alas, Rochester did not make the cut).

 

concert photo of Blood Sweat and Tears, musicians playing saxophone, trumpet, and bongos..Blood, Sweat & Tears

February 20, 1969

The blues-rock band had performed on the popular Ed Sullivan Show the week before and had recently released the album Blood, Sweat & Tears, with hits such as “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel.” The recording would reach number one on the charts and be named Album of the Year at the 1970 Grammy Awards. Six months later, the band would enjoy headliner status at the legendary Woodstock music festival.

 

archival photo of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing on stage behind microphones.

Peter, Paul and Mary

April 11, 1969

The legendary folk trio turned in a masterful performance, singing hits such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” As Daniel Smirlock ’72 wrote in the Campus Times, “They put on a show so entertaining and so vital—yet so unlike the majority of concerts today—that it suddenly became 1960 instead of 1969.”

The concert kicked off what the newspaper called a “miracle weekend” for students, with a rising comedian performing the following evening at the Auditorium Theater in downtown Rochester. The comedian was Bill Cosby.

(photo provided by Scott Brande ’72)

 

BB King plays the guitar on stage, basketball hoop in the background.B.B. King

September 19, 1970

More than 3,500 people showed up—perhaps the largest gathering at the Palestra to date—on a hot Saturday evening, and the heat inside forced King to take a 10-minute break. The blues legend dedicated “Please Accept My Love” to his late friend, Jimi Hendrix, whose untimely death had taken place just the day before. Hendrix, King said, “made a lot of us very happy while he was alive.” The crowd was still stomping and shaking the floor when the house lights were turned on. “The gym floor seemed to take abuse equal to 750,000 basketball games,” the Campus Times noted.

 

The Grateful Dead

November 20, 1970

In what possibly is the most memorable concert in Palestra history, the Grateful Dead rocked the building with a concert that lasted until 3:30 a.m. and had fans screaming for more. After the second set, it was announced that “some friends from across town” had joined the party. Jefferson Airplane—like the Dead, a San Francisco Bay Area-based band—had been playing two miles away at the Community War Memorial. After their show ended, guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady learned the Dead were still playing and headed to the Palestra.

Freelance photographer Peter Corrigan remembers a “buzz passing through the crowd” after the Dead sang “Casey Jones.”

Grateful Dead playing in the Palestra, basketball in the background.

From left, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Jorma Kaukonen, and Bob Weir as members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane jam in the Palestra in 1970. (vintagerockandrollphotos.com / Peter Corrigan)

“Casady could be seen behind the Dead’s amplifiers, and when some in the crowd noticed him, (Dead guitarist) Phil Lesh began playing the opening bass line to ‘White Rabbit,’’’ Corrigan remembers. “Jorma came on stage with his guitar, did some tuning, and then they launched into the incredible jam. It was an unforgettable evening.”

Kaukonen and Casady jammed with the Dead for a few songs, including “It’s All Over Now” and “Reelin’ and Rockin,” before an excited crowd.

“It was incredible,” says Jeffrey Newcorn ’73, ’77M (MD), now a psychiatrist in Greenwich, Connecticut, who reviewed the concert for the Campus Times. “I was a Dead freak, and there they were, right on campus! It was phenomenal. And then to have members of the Airplane join them? The jam session was fantastic, just an amazing moment.”

So amazing, in fact, that Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the ninth greatest jam at a Grateful Dead concert.

The Dead would return 11 months later, on October 26, 1971. Fans waited three hours outside the Palestra and were treated to a two-and-a-half-hour show.

 

REO Speedwagon

December 1, 1972

Blues and rock band Canned Heat was the headliner, but it was a young group from Illinois added to the bill just two days earlier that stole the show. Long before it would become a staple on the Billboard charts with hits like “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Time For Me To Fly” and “Keep On Loving You,” REO wowed the Palestra crowd with what Campus Times reviewer Michael Dinhofer called “good old rock and roll.” Dinhofer noted that the band “did justice to every tune they played simply by being down to earth.”

 

archival concert photo of Dave Mason playing the guitar.Dave Mason

October 6, 1973

The former lead singer for Traffic played to a half-empty Palestra. “What a waste!” wrote Vincent Frank in the Campus Times. “You passed up a chance to see one of the most underrated rock performers play an evening of some of the greatest music you’d ever want to hear.”

Frank predicted Rochester students would regret the decision.

“Dave Mason won’t have to play to half-filled gyms very much longer,” he wrote. “Not if he keeps delivering such great performances.”

Frank was right. Now 76, Mason remains a popular act on tour and in 2004 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

The Temptations

March 31, 1974

The Temptations came in fresh off their win as Favorite Soul/R&B Group at the American Music Awards six weeks earlier. Sponsored by the Black Students’ Union, the performance featured the Temptations accompanied by a Motown rhythm section and a nine-piece brass orchestra and included what the Campus Times called “a brief but intense set of about 15 of their greatest hits,” including “Can’t Get Next To You,” “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” and “My Girl.”

 

archival concert photo, close-up of Clarence Clemmons and Bruce Springsteen.Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel

February to November, 1976

There was arguably no greater year for concerts at the Palestra than 1976, when three budding superstars performed within a nine-month period.

Peter Frampton played before a capacity crowd of 3,000 on February 7, 1976—just one month after Frampton Comes Alive! was released. It would be the best-selling album of that year, with hits such as “Show Me The Way,” “Baby I Love Your Way,” and “Do You Feel Like I Do?”

Frampton strode onstage in a yellow outfit, looking “like a lean Roger Daltrey,” according to the Campus Times review, and performed for nearly three hours. “Frampton put on the most electrifying rock performance the Palestra has seen in years,” the Campus Times wrote.

Two months later, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rocked the arena with another two-and-a-half-hour show on April 17. The bearded Springsteen, whom the student newspaper called “a 26-year-old rock and roll poet from New Jersey,” wore a blue suit and turned in an energetic performance, with songs such as “Thunder Road,” “Growin’ Up,” and “Born To Run.”

“Bruce Springsteen turned the Palestra into a sweat rock theater Saturday night,” the Campus Times wrote.

The 1976 trifecta was completed on November 7, when a rising star from the Bronx named Billy Joel played before 2,000 fans, a strong crowd but 500 shy of a sellout. The concert cost the UR Concert Committee $12,500, and $5,200 went to Joel and his band. The rest was used to cover production, advertising, and lighting. Tickets were $3.50 for students and $4.50 for the public. Joel played “Angry Young Man,” “Piano Man,” and “New York State of Mind” among other songs, and he made the crowd laugh with an impression of Jimmy Carter, who had been elected president of the United States just five days earlier.

“Last night at the Palestra, Mr. Joel played and sang with a fury and confidence few performers could match,” Brian Kelly wrote in the Campus Times. “After his fourth encore, Joel shook as many hands as he could grab and took a deep bow before leaving the court.”

 

close-up concert photo of Bonnie Raitt with guitar.Bonnie Raitt

March 2, 1977

Raitt gave Rochester something to talk about with a 15-song concert that included two encores and a preview of what would be her first hit: a cover of “Runaway,” the song made famous by Del Shannon in 1961. The song was included on Raitt’s sixth album, Sweet Forgiveness, which was released a month after her Palestra concert.

 

poster for a 1977 Kinks concert features a photo of the band and a Union Jack flag.The Kinks

December 8, 1977; April 28, 1990

The English group was one of the most influential bands of the 1960s, and their song “You Really Got Me” reached number one on the charts in 1964. The band, led by brothers Ray and Dave Davies, played at the Palestra late in 1977 and again for Dandelion Weekend in 1990.

 

Daryl Hall singing on stage in a black and white yearbook photo.Hall and Oates

November 8, 1980

The popular duo opened their Saturday evening show with a rarity—John Oates on lead vocals—for “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” which had peaked at number 30 on the Billboard charts earlier that year. Other hits followed, including “Rich Girl,” “She’s Gone,” and “Sara Smile.” Campus Times reviewer John Swanson found the show “solidly entertaining” but noted that “many people considered the $7.50 ticket price too high.”

 

R.E.M.

April 13, 1983

The alternative rock band scored chart hits with “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” But in 1983, they were just a three-year-old group struggling for success.

R.E.M. opened for The English Beat, which fused Latin, pop, soul, reggae and punk rock, as part of Dandelion Weekend. The Campus Times review was not kind: “Their biggest handicap seemed to be a lead singer (Michael Stipe) who was hard to understand in the first place and pseudo-esoteric lyrics such as ‘Gardening At Night’ in the second.”

 

archival concert poster advertising the Fleshtones, 10,000 Maniacs, and the Violent Femmes.10,000 Maniacs, Violent Femmes, The Fleshtones

February 16, 1985

It was a New Wave invasion as three bands entertained a crowd of nearly 1,900. The Fleshtones were the biggest “crowd pleasers” according to Campus Times reviewer Chris Bourne, who correctly predicted that the obscure opening act—10,000 Maniacs—had the brightest future. “(Lead singer) Natalie Merchant has great style on stage and is altogether pleasant to watch,” Bourne wrote. Four albums by 10,000 Maniacs would reach the top 50 in the US, and their 1989 hit “These Are Days” reached number one on the billboard charts.


LISTEN: Talking with the Violent Femmes, WRUR

The Ramones

April 12, 1986

The New York City-based punk rock band put on a loud, spirited concert for nearly 2,000 fans. Many engaged in “slam dancing,” jumping in the air and running hard into other fans. The tone was set by opening act The Mosquitos, who emerged from “manhole covers” on the Palestra floor. “Creatures of every color, shape, and size crawled out,” according to the Campus Times. “Some had mohawks, others had chains, some had hair held up in the air through mysterious devices.”

 

archival photo of the Bangles, on stage in concert.The Bangles

March 31, 1989

The all-female band, with hits like “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” performed before a crowd that included hundreds of screaming teenagers. “Thanks for the nice spring evening, Rochester!” lead guitarist Vicki Peterson shouted out on a chilly evening. “We’re not really used to this since we’re from Southern California, but we’ll try our best to heat things up.”

The next day, April 1, “Eternal Flame” became the number one pop song in the US. Six months later, the Bangles broke up.

 

Not just the Palestra

While the Palestra has hosted the majority of concerts at the University of Rochester, other famous acts have appeared at different University venues.

Perhaps none was more memorable than March 16, 1968, when the legendary Jim Morrison and the Doors performed at Eastman Theatre, with tickets starting at $2.25. The opening act was rising star Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys, who one year before had taken the song “Different Drum” to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Footage from the Doors performance appears briefly in Bob Neuwirth’s unreleased promotional film Not To Touch the Earth, and a photograph from the concert later was used for an Acoustic amplifiers advertisement print ad.

On April 21, 1969, just six days after appearing at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Janis Joplin performed at Eastman—18 months before her untimely death at age 27. Steppenwolf (1969), James Taylor (1970), and country music legend Johnny Cash (1993) also performed at Eastman.

Strong Auditorium has hosted its share of concerts, including blues legend Muddy Waters (1967), longtime E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren (1976), and folk-rock singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco (1994).

Douglass Dining Hall isn’t known as a concert venue, but about 200 “Phishheads” were treated to a show by Phish on April 20, 1991. The Vermont-based band was one of the first musical acts to use file-sharing on the Internet to grow its fan base, and Rolling Stone magazine called them the “most important band of the ‘90s.”

Goo Goo Dolls

October 7, 1995

The alternative band from Buffalo came to the Palestra one month after the release of their single “Name.” That song would reach number 1 on the Billboard charts and remains one of their biggest hits. The album A Boy Named Goo was released seven months earlier and was certified double platinum (two million copies sold) by year’s end.

 

Beck

March 29, 1997

Beck David Hansen—known simply as “Beck”—was the headliner for a triple act concert that began with Atari Teenage Riot, who took the stage at 8 p.m. “and did not stop swearing or screaming for a half hour,” Campus Times reviewer Otis Hart ’97 wrote.

They were followed by The Cardigans, who had appeared on Late Night with David Letterman the night before. They played their hugely popular song “Lovefood “(love me, love me, say that you’ll love me). At 10 p.m., Beck took the stage, just a month after winning a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance. “Beck was amazing,” says Anne-Marie Algier ’16W (EdD), associate dean of students at the College. “He walked through the crowd in a hooded sweatshirt when Atari Teenage Riot played, and no one knew he was there. When he returned backstage, he said, ‘These people deserve a great show, and I am going to give them all I’ve got!’”

Hart wrote: “Beck put on what might have been the best concert UR has ever held.” Algier agrees. “That was the best sounding show in that space,” she says. “Beck brought his own soundboard, and it was top of the line.”

 

Lifehouse, Michelle Branch, The Calling

September 23, 2001

A trio of rising acts played the Palestra just 12 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Lifehouse had a big hit with “Hanging By A Moment,” which peaked at number two on the Billboard Top 100 that June. Branch’s “Everywhere” was climbing the charts and would peak at 12 on Billboard’s Top 100 that November. The video from the song won the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards “Viewer’s Choice Award.”

 

Janelle Monáe

October 1, 2011

The multi-talented singer, songwriter, science fiction author, and actress came to the Palestra just a year after winning an MTV Video Music Award. She would go on to earn eight Grammy Award nominations and win the Billboard Women in Music Rising Star Award in 2015.

 


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