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Frank Zappa playing guitar

Rock N Roll U

Billy Joel performing on stage at UMass Lowell
Billy Joel performed at Durgin Hall before teaching a Master Class in 2011.

By David Perry

The Kinks left a recorded legacy of their UMass Lowell concert. A little-known Tom Waits opened for Frank Zappa at Costello Gymnasium. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder serenaded a capacity crowd in Cumnock Hall. Aerosmith and Cheech & Chong got randy in live interviews on the campus radio station. Talking Heads were rendered powerless and the Grateful Dead melted the ice at the Forum hockey rink in Billerica.

And the shows go on. Since UMass Lowell took over the Tsongas Center in February, 2010, dozens of concert tours have pulled through, including Drake, the 1975, Katy Perry and Bob Dylan.

In one of three performances he selected from dozens of bidding colleges, Billy Joel used story and song to commandeer Durgin Hall on Dec. 14, 2011 to serve up a two-hour master class.

There is more to come, including Schoolboy Q and country artist Kip Moore, acts that will descend on campus this fall, with dates booked at the Tsongas Center.

“It’s great that students come together to enjoy music they love,” said Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. “Young people today embrace music as a way of life, much like the students of the ‘70s did. The experience of seeing a concert can be important. Music is important.”

As an undergrad student at Lowell State College, she was in the crowd for Jethro Tull’s October 1971 concert at Costello Gym.

“We had some really great concerts when I was a student. I recall sitting on the floor of Costello Gym to see Jethro Tull, who were just getting big at the time. I remember thinking, ‘What an amazing thing that we could have Jethro Tull at our gymnasium.’”

It’s nearly impossible to track down every show on campus, but there are some notables:


Gerry Garcia playing the guitar
Writer, historian and former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, author of “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead,” knows well the reputation of the Dead’s performance at the Forum in May 1979. Not their best. In Dead lore, a show that was a bit … shaky.

The venue was not designed for concerts—it was home ice for the university’s hockey team in addition to year-round community skating—but it would do for the university-sponsored show.

“So when the band came to play, the ice was covered,” says McNally from San Francisco. “Apparently, not very well. And certainly not effectively.”

Typically, lighting is hung from the ceiling of concert venues.

“For whatever reason they did not do that in Billerica,” says McNally, “I don’t know.”

The lights were stacked on a truss that sat on the plywood covering the ice.

“And as the show progressed,” says McNally, “the ice under the truss melted. They were playing a rock and roll concert and the lights began to sway. And when the lights are glaring down at you when they aren’t supposed to be, this creates some anxiety. So there was considerable concern onstage that night. That may be what people heard in the music.”

Bob Dylan performing at UMass Lowell

Bob Dylan brought his Rolling Thunder Revue to Costello Gym in November 1975, a storied show among fans and alumni who saw it. The highly anticipated tour featured a ragtag band including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett and others.

Tony Janeczek ’76, ’86 (electrical engineering, computer science) recalls the buzz that swirled on campus in advance of the show. He was in a buddy’s dorm room when a Student Activities committee member walked in and said, “Be in front of Cumnock Hall at 8 a.m. Monday.”

He was. Tickets for the Dylan show were sold from a bus.

“It sold out quick,” he recalls.

“It was general admission and people started lining up that morning. We got there in the afternoon, and when the doors opened, you just sort of rode in on the crowd, like a wave. Great show.”

Read more about Bob Dylan's connection to Lowell (pdf).


Joan Jett performing at UMass Lowell
When Talking Heads took the stage at the Forum in 1983 they opened with their hit “Psycho Killer.” Six songs later, the building’s power blew, forcing the band to hit pause. Eventually, the show continued with a second set of 12 songs and the encore, “Life During Wartime.”

Laura Dyer ’87 (computer science) recalls the joy of having easy access to live music.

“I remember being so excited that music was right on campus. I loved going to concerts and eventually served for two years on the student activities committee. Having concerts on campus meant there was something to do right there. All you had to do was walk across the street.”

Other performers to hit campus during the ‘80s included Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Squeeze, ’Til Tuesday and Huey Lewis & The News.

Hip-hop legends Run DMC were among the performers on campus in the ‘90s.


Rachel Chandler ’95 was studying sociology when Pearl Jam blew through a 75-minute set in Cumnock Hall in April 1992. Seattle, and grunge, were about to explode and Pearl Jam was on the brink of stardom.

“And I had no idea who they were,” Chandler says. “I was not a Pearl Jam fan. I was probably listening to show tunes and my boyfriend at the time liked hair bands.

I stood way in the back, much more interested in the social aspect of it.”


Cheech & Chong rolled through Cumnock Hall in 1972 with their edgy, stoned humor. A member of the WLTI campus radio station talked the duo into visiting the studio for a post-performance interview, to the surprise of the student disc jockey.

“Cheech & Chong just took control and hammered the interviewer. The DJ was inexperienced and it was hilarious,” says Nick Fountas ’75 (plastics engineering), who worked at the station, including a stint as music director.

Janeczek remembers it was not particularly funny to Dean of Students Leo King. “He called the station and said, ‘We’ve got to talk.’ ”

Similarly, a year later, Aerosmith played a show at Costello Gym following the release of their first album. A live interview on WLTI featured a slew of seriously off-color puns and juvenile humor, recalls Janeczek. “And we got another call from Dean King.”


Then there was The Kinks, who played a university-sponsored show at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in March 1979.

“You never knew how good the sound would be when an act played the LMA,” says Dean Johnson, a freelance writer and radio host. “But the Kinks were clearly on fire the night ULowell brought them in.”

So hot that the band included two classics from that evening—“Where Have All the Good Times Gone” and the blazing “You Really Got Me”—on its live double LP, “One for the Road.”

Fountas says during his time on campus, the shows were memorable despite the challenges of often being held in a gym, general admission seating and less-than-perfect acoustics.

“Enthusiasm carried the experience and we had some great acts come in,” he says.

He recalled Zappa’s November 1973 show at Costello Gym as, “his free-jazz work, amazingly complex stuff. Either you let it flow over you or you didn’t like it.”

“Frank Zappa didn’t need to come to Lowell but they got him, and it was right here on campus. You didn’t have to go to Boston.”