It’s hard to say precisely what was the best era ever for popular music in the Lehigh Valley area.
It could be argued it was in the 1980s, when Bethlehem’s Stabler Arena ranked as the busiest hall of its size in the United States, bringing in top acts such as the Grateful Dead; Billy Joel, who came to sing his then-new song “Allentown”; and Bon Jovi and KISS, who started tours there.
Or perhaps in the 2000s, when Allentown’s Crocodile Rock Cafe also ranked among the top venues its size, with top pop, rock and even rap acts coming through with amazing frequency.
But we can say this much: As long as we’ve been doing our ranking of the Top 10 concerts we’ve seen in a year, never have as many taken place in the Lehigh Valley as they did in 2016.
This year, eight of the Top 10 concerts we’ve seen this year — in all we saw more than 130 —took place in the Lehigh Valley. That’s compared with four or five in recent years.
That’s largely because people from the Lehigh Valley no longer have to travel to Philadelphia or other areas to see the biggest concerts.
When 2016 clears, Sands Bethlehem Event Center will be among the busiest club-sized venues in the world (it was No. 2 last year), as it brought top acts such as Rod Stewart in his only East Coast show this year and Stevie Nicks, who later played Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
Allentown’s PPL Center also hit a stride, with the most concerts (11) in a year since it opened in 2014, with top draws such as Carrie Underwood, Elton John and The Brand New. Top-drawing pop-rockers Twenty One Pilots also will play there on Jan. 24, top country act Florida Georgia Line on March 16 and New Kids on the Block with Boyz II Men and Paula Abdul on July 5.
And stalwarts Allentown Fair and Bethlehem’s Musikfest continued bringing in top talent — together having three of our Top 10 concerts.
So 2017 looks like it will be another good year to see concerts in the Lehigh Valley. And 2016 was one of the best.
Here are our Top 50 concerts we saw this year:
1. Bruce Springsteen, Sept. 7, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia. (Also, Feb. 2, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.) For all the great concerts the Lehigh Valley had, this was the best we saw this year. Clocking in at a massive 4 hours and 4 minutes – a record for his longest U.S. show and just two minutes under his longest ever – could easily have been two concerts. And in many ways, it was. Through the first hour and 50 minutes, Springsteen played deeper cuts from his first two albums, the 1973 double-shot of “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” And the second half of the 34-song set was a full-throttle celebration on his career that ran through not only some of his biggest hits, but also his most-beloved songs in a stretch that seemed to give fans hope it would never end.
2. Bob Dylan, July 9, Sands Bethlehem Event Center. Dylan has never been an artist who in concert performs what fans expect to hear – or, even more so, how they expect to hear it. But those open to hearing what Dylan offers in concert also have been wonderfully surprised – especially in recent years, when his performances, and especially his singing, have seemingly found new life. That was the case at Sands Bethlehem Event Center, where Dylan offered anything but a rote performance of the past. Instead, in a set that leaned heavily on the material from his two most recent albums of Frank Sinatra standards, Dylan gave a 20-song, 95-minute (plus an intermission) concert that had him performing enthusiastically and singing as well as he has in years – especially on the songs by Ol’ Blue Eyes.
3. John Mellencamp, F.M. Kirby Center, Oct. 14. It’s fair to conjecture that, 34 years ago when John Mellencamp wrote the song “Jack & Diane” with its lyrics “Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone,” he wasn’t envisioning a time when he would be twice the age he was then and still performing it. At F.M. Kirby Center, Mellencamp, now 65, played a 19-song, 95-minute show that included many of his early hits, but often presented them from an older, more wizened perspective – but made them no less successful. And with them, he offered newer songs that resonated perhaps differently, but just as strongly with a sold out audience that, like Mellencamp, also has grown older.
4. Rod Stewart, Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Aug. 26. Stewart captured it perfectly when, as the second song at his Sands Bethlehem Event Center show, he performed his 1984 hit “Some Guys Have All the Luck.” Clearly luck is with the 71-year-old singer. In an hour-and-40-minute set in which he sang 16 songs (and had his backup singers do another), Stewart was endlessly entertaining, piling hit upon hit from his 45-year career while performing with swashbuckling swagger that made the show not only fabulous but fun. It was his first Lehigh Valley show in 17 years.
5. Don Henley, Musikfest, Aug. 10. Few are the music artists whose songs remain relevant for more than 40 years. Fewer still are those who still are making great music those years later. And most rare are those whose songs through the years take on new meaning as they, and you, age. Henley, former drummer and vocalist for seminal 1970s country rock band the Eagles, showed himself in that final category with his Musikfest concert. On a hot, unsettled summer night, Henley’s music in a 23-song (plus another song by his backing singers), two-hour-and-15-minute set sweltered like the weather, then became the cool breeze that broke the heat.
6. Richie Ramone, Gin Mill, Northampton, July 13. It wasn’t just the year’s biggest shows that were the best. In today’s world, where real music is essentially nonexistent and punk rock an even more endangered species, former Ramones drummer Richie Ramone at The Gin Mill and Grille in Northampton was a fresh breath of authentic air. Ramone and his three bandmates captured what punk was (is?) all about —and what made it so good — with a powerful set that blazed through 20 songs in less than 55 minutes, yet conveyed more than most bands can do in a concert three times that length. That’s because the concert followed the classic Ramones’ template: Minimalist music with a total lack of pretension, yet full of spirit and energy. And fun.
7. Carrie Underwood, PPL Center, Allentown, March 19. For entertainment and a full concert experience, country music singer Underwood’s concert was PPL Center’s best so far. It was a supremely talented artist at the top of her game giving an enthusiastic performance. But even more, it was a spectacle. Presented in the round, with a huge, rotating stage in the middle of the arena floor, with massive towers and walkways, lighting, display screens and pyrotechnics, packed to what promoters said was a sellout of about 10,000 people, it made PPL Center feel big — and big time. Underwood was big time, too. In an hour-and-40 minute show, she performed 20 songs that put her talent on full display: A dozen No.1 hits from throughout her decade-long career and more.
8. Stevie Nicks, Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Nov. 19. Nicks sang in 1975’s “Landslide” that “time makes you bolder/Even children get older/And I'm getting older, too.” Now Nicks really is getting older — she turned 68 this year — and all those things she sang about 40 years ago (!) seem to have been realized, both by her and her audience. Nicks may no longer be the bewitching young beauty she once (though she’s still stunning). But her concert Saturday at Sands Bethlehem Event Center showed that those insights that made listeners marvel so long ago still do today. In an 18-song, two-hour show, Nicks played many of those songs that so mesmerized.
9. Chris Stapleton, Allentown Fair, Sept. 2. In a time when the feel-good tomfoolery of “bro country” dominates record sales, country singer Stapleton has taken his genre back to its blues and bluegrass roots – and very much for the better. No wonder, then, that his show was so good: a night of stunning music and even better vocals in songs that spoke far more about hard living and the human condition than about having a good time.
10. KISS, Allentown Fair, Sept. 1. “How are you doing, Allentown?” KISS singer Paul Stanley asked the Allentown Fair crowd, two songs into the band’s’ first concert in the city in 26 years, first in the Lehigh Valley in 24 years and first in makeup in more than 40 years. “We’ve got some catching up to do.” And KISS’s 17-song show certainly made it seem like the band was making up for lost time. Its 97 minutes was filled with blood spitting, fire breathing, members flying, drum sets levitating, smoke, sparks, explosions and the biggest confetti shower the Lehigh Valley has likely seen. And, oh, yeah, music. But what made the show most successful was that KISS, now more than 40 years into its career, seemed enthusiastic about performing all of that.
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