Peabody Opera House opening evokes memories of Kiel’s glory days

The Peabody Opera House

By Daniel Durchholz, Special to the Jewish Light

R.E.M. broke up last week, and when I heard the news I naturally started thinking back to the half-dozen or so times I saw the band that, for all practical purposes, created the indie rock scene in America. As it happens, the first time was at the Kiel Opera House, which later this week will reopen under a new name: the Peabody Opera House.

The date was November 17, 1985. I know because I still have the ticket. By that time, R.E.M. had already released most of the albums that would cement its critical reputation. And even though the band was making the leap from clubs to small theaters, its aesthetics remained intact. I remember that there were no spotlights at the Opera House show – the band was only backlit, making no one member stand out from the rest. That was true of the music as well. Michael Stipe’s vocals were no more prominent in the mix than Peter Buck’s guitar or the vigorous rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry.

I remember being baffled by this at the time, and I proclaimed the show a disappointment. I can now feel justified in that pronouncement, because more than a quarter century later, the band broke up. Shows what I know, eh?

But back to the Opera House itself – I still have the tickets for the other shows I saw there, too. I’m not that much of a saver, but when it comes to musical memorabilia, I made an exception, even before I started writing about music for a living. I started going through my old tickets this past week, and before long, the kitchen table was covered with bits of torn cardboard, each one carrying a memory. But that’s a story for another time.

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Looks like the first time I set foot in the Opera House was August 7, 1979 for a show featuring the Cars. I had already been going to shows at the much larger Kiel Auditorium for years, and to the Mississippi River Festival at SIU-Edwardsville before that. I still marvel at my parents’ tolerance for me driving (or riding with others before I could drive) to these shows far away from my hometown of Washington, Mo.

My next show there was September 2, 1979: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, with opening act John Cougar (you know him as John Mellencamp). My friends and I were fans of the Jukes because they were compatriots of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, whom I’d already seen a couple of times at other venues in town. On October 18, 1980, the Boss himself came to the Opera House, and appropriately enough, I watched the show from Row E. Or most of it, anyway. I recall at some point pushing my way to the front, which I can admit now that the statute of limitations has expired.

I didn’t get back to the Opera House, or to any St. Louis venues for a while after that. These were my college years, and most of the shows I saw then occurred in Kansas City, Lawrence, Kan., or Columbia, Mo. But on July 7, 1982, I saw English band Squeeze at the Opera House, with A Flock of Seagulls opening. And yes, frontman Mike Score’s odd swoosh of a haircut made at least as much of an impression as the band’s music.

The next two shows I saw there both featured Elvis Costello. I don’t remember much about the first one – August 5, 1982 – but the second – August 27, 1984 – became infamous when Costello pointedly dissed concert sponsor KSHE (which didn’t actually play his music on the air) and instead thanked KADI (which did). Wackiness must have ensued backstage, because after that, Costello didn’t return to St. Louis for 15 years.

On November 24, 1984, I saw one of my musical idols at the Opera House: Frank Zappa. I’d seen him once before, in Kansas City, but seeing Zappa, an incomparable guitarist who always employed a top-notch backing band, was as much a treat as ever. That show was in stark contrast to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert I saw there – February 7, 1986 – in which the famed guitarist, plainly in the throes of heroin addiction, played a crushingly pointless and disappointing set. Sadly, it was the only time I’d ever see him. Vaughan got blown off the stage that night by his big brother Jimmie, whose band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, opened the show.

I saw a couple more shows at the Opera House, again after a break of a few years. But by then I was a music journalist, interviewing the bands that were performing and, if I was lucky, going backstage to say hi afterwards: bluesman Robert Cray – March 5, 1989 – and k.d. lang – Januuary 26, 1990. Lang, after lighting up the stage with an electrifying performance, was shy and quiet as can be backstage.

It’ll be great to get back to the Opera House, even if it will take a while for me to get used to calling it the Peabody. I won’t make the grand opening on Saturday, which features Aretha Franklin and Jay Leno. But I’ll be there next Tuesday for Wilco and Nick Lowe. Lowe, incidentally, opened that 1984 Costello show. I know, because I have the ticket.

For upcoming events at the Peabody Opera House, go to www.peabodyoperahouse.com