Christopher Borrelli: Taking my daughter to her first concert, and what I learned

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — to a rock concert if you want, my grandmother urged, sardonically.

Go and see: You will wish you had never gone. Most likely, you’ll be murdered in the restroom. If I was lucky, she said, I would just be mugged, punched and have my sneakers stolen. Either way, whenever I asked about going to some big arena show, she warned: You think you’re going to hear music but you’re actually going to hang out with 15,000 serial killers who will force you to snort angel dust then stab you to death. At least that was the implication. My grandmother was a nervous person, the sort who, when I was in college, would mail articles clipped from the newspaper about killer bees migrating north. If her newscast reported a crime two states away, that was reason to skip the supermarket.

Still, a rock concert, that was the worst thing a person could willingly attend. My mother had been to a festival years earlier (in the 1960s) and just look how that turned out? (A minor riot.) By the early ‘80s, a handful of harmless bands became so notorious — Alice Cooper, the Grateful Dead, Kiss — that to see them live was to buy a ticket to your funeral.

So, I was scared to go to my first concert.

It didn’t help that I was going with a friend and his older brothers and sisters on a school night. Or that I told my family I was sleeping at his house to finish a school project. Or, that the concert was two-and-a-half hours away at Shea Stadium (meaning, we would have to drive home that night). It didn’t help that the band we were seeing was The Who, still infamous after 11 people had been crushed to death at their Cincinnati show a few years earlier. It didn’t help that The Clash was opening: Before punk became the soundtrack to AARP commercials, it was unworldly and threatening, at least to parents.

And everything went OK. I was not set on fire or drugged.

I was wide-eyed at the scale, and deafened by the time The Clash left the stage. The seats were so bad — decent video screens were still a dream — the musicians were more like abstractions than people. After The Clash, I remember a flood of punks leaving before the now-geriatric Who went on. I remember people dancing in pogoing wave, the skunk of marijuana and the revelation that bands in concert didn’t sound like records. I remember an older brother so anxious about driving back, we left before the encore.

At last, I was a concertgoer.

This summer is looking like a big summer for first-time concertgoers. Mostly because of Taylor Swift, playing three very sold-out shows at Soldier Field. Like every other stop on her Eras tour, ticket demand has been, to put it mildly, nuts. But what’s scary about live music these days has less to do with homicide than income inequality. I recall those Who tickets were not easy to land, but they were also around $15. If you don’t have Taylor Swift tickets by now, you are probably never going. Last time I checked concert resale websites, the cheapest ticket I could find was $1,100.

But that doesn’t mean a first concert is out of range.

Anticipating Taylor-geddon, and maybe to alleviate any potential Taylor-centric ticket angst, last winter I took my 6-year-old daughter to see her first concert. We saw Carly Rae Jepsen at the Aragon Ballroom, and the moment the lights went down, the state-of-the-art stage effects pulsed out a moody halo, and Carly bounded out — physically small yet larger than life — my daughter’s jaw dropped and eyes bugged. Like some cartoon wolf.

By the fifth song, my daughter was annoyed whenever I would ask her what she thought. She shouted the few lyrics she knew and muttered the rest. And when the set ended, she clapped and clapped and clapped, in hopes that if she clapped hard enough, a probably tentative Carly would shrug in surrender and return for an encore.

My daughter was learning the routine.

I felt vindicated, because, as my wife pointed out, 6 years old is young for all this. But I doubt I’m alone, right? If you want to take a kid this summer to Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Lollapalooza (god help you) or better, I recommend it, but with caveats: Go for a show with lots of spectacle, more zazz than Zzzs. Think of this concert as the gateway between Disney on Ice and Rage Against the Machine. I picked Jepsen at the Aragon because it felt like an accessible middle ground. Rather than have my daughter assume that live music needs to be seen from a distance, the Aragon is relatively small.

To avoid tall people and a general admission crush on the floor, we found a balcony view. If a show is general admission, be aware: even the most chill audience pushes for a better view. You avoid this at a Soldier Field or United Center show, but depending on the seats, you could sacrifice the immediacy that captures the heart of the new concertgoer. (You want them watching live performers, not video screens.) Similarly, pick a first concert where the audience is likely to be out of their seats most of the show, dancing.

Give them earplugs.

Depending on their age and fidgetiness, recognize there will be a wait between openers and headliners; some parents avoid opening acts entirely. But most important of all, go to something they want to see. You may be raising a child whose musical taste mirrors your own, but the world is full of kids in AC/DC hoodies who prefer Dua Lipa. Besides, taste changes, and that first concert is not predictive. Bob Gendron, who writes music reviews for this newspaper, told me that a lot of people want to lie about their first concerts. Every boomer went to Woodstock, every Gen Xer saw Nirvana play a tiny bar on a Tuesday night. It’s almost a generational thing, and it’s not as fun as the ugly truth.

After that first show, my mother took me to see Loverboy.

I hate writing that, but it’s true. She also took me later to see Judas Priest, Rush, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty — so things even out. The irony was, as soon as I was old enough to be allowed to see a concert without a parent, I was robbed. At a Scorpions show. I bought a shirt, someone rushed by, ripped it from my hand and vanished into the crowd.

The arena concert feels more benign today.

Clouds of smoke that once hung over the floor appear mostly gone. Drug use — however ubiquitous — is less obvious. The last time I saw Kendrick Lamar, a guy beside me asked his neighbor not to blow weed toward his son — and the guy with weed apologized! Concert anxieties are felt now in handling fees, merch prices and parking.

But a first-time concertgoer knows none of this. When a singer says Chicago audiences are the best audiences in the world, a first-time concertgoer doesn’t know Milwaukee heard the same thing. A first-time concertgoer wonders how long the ringing in their ears lasts. And if they just clap hard enough, maybe the show will go on a little longer.