Who was the most famous performer or group to play a concert at UMBC?
—Eric Messner ’01
UMBC has had many amazing musical acts play at various venues on campus, including the now-vanished Gym I, the University Ballroom, the Quad, and the Retriever Activities Center.
But if we had to narrow it down to five performers or groups that have achieved worldwide fame, cultural influence, and super-sized records (in some cases, all three), and played on our campus during their respective heydays, here are our answers to this question:
1. Otis Redding: The legendary soul singer, who died so tragically at the height of his fame in December 1967, played UMBC’s Gym I during the university’s inaugural “Spring Week” in April of that same year. Redding’s UMBC show was less than two months before his electrifying performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 – a concert that made him a crossover superstar in the few months before he died.
The Retriever Weekly enthused that the performance by Redding “was without a doubt the highlight of the social year at UMBC,” though strangely took more note of the decorations for the occasion than the music itself.
2. Quadmania 2004: A double bonus for UMBC students. Kanye West may be a globe-trotting, always in the news, stadium-headliner now, but back in 2004 when he played at UMBC’s Quadmania, Kanye was still an up-and-coming rapper who’d literally just rocketed to stardom (and the top of the Billboard charts) with his first record The College Dropout and its breakout hits “Through the Wire” and “Slow Jamz.” John Ellis ’06, history, who reviewed the show for The Retriever Weekly, wondered if West could reproduce his layered and sophisticated sound in concert, but concluded that “all in all, Kanye put on the best hip hop show I’ve seen in a long time…”
Ellis also caught another performer at the same Quadmania who has had just as much subsequent musical and cultural acclaim (but perhaps not the notoriety of marrying a Kardashian), writing that renowned hit maker Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) – along with his crew N.E.R.D. – “ made “the RAC glow with the neon greens and blues of hundreds of cell phones (the poor man’s lighter).”
3. The Velvet Underground: The musical and cultural influence of the Velvet Underground is immense. Not only were they the first rock band to truly immerse themselves – via the interventions of Andy Warhol and actor/singer Nico – in the world of avant garde graphic art, performance, and filmmaking, but their impact on dissident writers and politicians (most notably Vaclav Havel) continues to this day.
The version of the band that played at UMBC on September 20, 1969, was without Nico and co-founder John Cale, but main songwriter Lou Reed was playing new songs from the band’s eponymous third record, The Velvet Underground – an LP that features classics including “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Beginning to See the Light,” and “I’m Set Free.”
4. Snoop Dogg: Since his debut on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic in 1992, few American hip hop artists have exerted the gravitational force of Snoop Dogg. So his April 29, 2011, appearance at UMBC ranks as one of the biggest shows in university history. Snoop sported a Washington Capitals jersey at the show.
The Snoop Dogg concert was also a special event for UMBC students because of a campus-wide step show competition that offered a chance to open the show as its prize. UMBC’s Kappa Alpha Psi walked away with the honors and had a chance to perform on the same stage as one of the godfathers of rap.
5. Chicago Transit Authority (later “Chicago”): Long before their jazzy and slow dance radio hits of the 1970s (“Saturday in the Park,” “Colour My World”) and later easy listening earworms of the 1980s (“You’re the Inspiration”), Chicago were a rock band that went by the name Chicago Transit Authority – and they played two shows at UMBC shortly after the release of their million-selling debut album of that name on October 19, 1969. (Just a night before The Velvet Underground played UMBC, in fact.)
Chicago Transit Authority already had a smoother and more melodic sound than other jazz-inflected rock bands of that era (such as Traffic), but they also had strong countercultural bona fides. That may be a reason why a full-page ad for the show appeared not in The Retriever Weekly (which did not review the show) but in the radical campus newspaper, The Red Brick.
— Richard Byrne ’86