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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

From Duke Ellington to Avicii: Live Performances at Dartmouth

One writer investigates the history of live music performances on campus, including both headliners and student bands.

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Duke Ellington. The Clash. Bruce Springsteen. They’re all internationally famous musicians, but they have something else in common — each one has performed at Dartmouth. On campus, live music is a staple of the College’s social scene, with a robust student band culture. Despite its rural location, Dartmouth has also been able to draw big-time artists to perform at both smaller gigs and full-scale concerts like Fallapallooza and Green Key. 

Some of the earliest documented instances of Dartmouth hosting live music is from the early 1900s, when they hosted symphonies and opera singers in various concert series, according to a 1930 article in The Dartmouth. Once World War I ended and big-band groups became mainstream, Dartmouth created the spring-fling weekend called Green Key — with its signature, highly-anticipated event Prom. The entertainment? World-renowned musical acts like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Overall, the ease and cheapness of bus and train travel after World War I made it feasible for the College to snag prominent headliners, as explained by Rauner Library head of Special Collections Jay Satterfield, who helped curate an exhibit in Rauner on musical acts performing on campus. 

“We’re a nice midway point between Boston and Burlington,” Satterfield said. “Artists would go up to [the University of Vermont in Burlington], because at UVM, you could get a big audience there … there were a lot of these trains that were just going along and booking dates along the way.” 

Though Hanover is geographically isolated from much of the outside world, Dartmouth students have remained clued in to music trends, and musical guests on campus over the years have reflected this. For instance, when the folk revival was in full effect, iconic singer-songwriter duo Simon and Garfunkel performed at Green Key in 1967. Later, in October of 1967, they appeared at Leverone for Homecoming, with unreserved seats selling for as low as $2.50, which amounts to $23.31 today when adjusted for inflation — still less than what most spend in a week at Novack. 

“There were so many really big name acts on campus in their prime … from the 1930s up through the 1970s,” Satterfield said. “It was such a wide variety of people. It started with jazz greats. Then Johnny Cash was here and the folk people from the sixties … Simon and Garfunkel, then people like The Ronettes, too. It’s crazy that they all once played here.”

In the late 1970s, as musical tours became more expensive, “limited funds” and “scheduling problems” made it more difficult to lure big-names to rural Hanover, according to a 1981 article in The Dartmouth. The College then resorted to bringing in more up-and-coming artists. In October of 1974, Janis Ian was scheduled to play at the Hopkins Center but canceled at the last minute in September. Fortunately, the then-unknown co-headliner Bruce Springsteen offered to fill in for an extra show. Springsteen’s breakout album “Born to Run” hadn’t been released yet, but according to memos in Rauner, the rock singer still attracted crowds in droves and sold out both of his shows. Since Springsteen opted to perform with himself as the opening act, he was onstage for over four hours. 

If the College wasn’t booking emerging artists, then they were seeking to save money by reserving musicians past their prime. The Clash performed at Thompson Arena, sponsored by the Hopkins Center, in April of 1984. Though the band was disintegrating when it came to Hanover, disbanding a mere two years later, the energy at the concert was still palpable; a teenager “ran the stage” doing “backflips” and subsequently led a “mob” to rush the stage. While the punk rockers happily engaged in the debauchery on stage, they did not engage in Dartmouth’s social life, departing Hanover immediately following the concert for their next gig. 

In addition to College-sponsored concerts, student clubs also work to bring musicians to campus. In the early 2000s, frustration over a lack of consistent live music birthed Friday Night Rock, which promised to bring indie bands to Hanover as an alternative to the “more danceable” types of music being played at fraternities. While FNR began as an oasis for Dartmouth student bands, word soon spread outside the confines of campus, and the club’s current mission of bringing in outside indie bands gradually developed.

“We usually pull a lot from places like Boston, New York, Burlington, but we’ve had people come from California and Florida. It varies by who’s on tour and where they are and if they’re willing to come to us for less money,” Avery Stern ’27, a member of FNR, said. “The booking team then reaches out to either the artist directly or their agent and just sends an email [telling the artist that] we’d love for you to come.”

In addition to performers who visit Hanover through FNR, the College has booked some of the nation’s biggest performers in more recent years. In February 1996, Dave Matthews performed in front of 1500 fans in Leede Arena. And in January 2012, Avicii performed in Foco dark side as part of his House for Hunger Tour. The dining hall was transformed into a pseudo-music venue with the addition of color-changing lights and fog to create a dance-friendly environment. The show was not without its controversy, however. The limited capacity of the dining hall meant that while 800 tickets were initially sold, 1000 students were put on a waitlist for tickets, with only 50 students managing to get tickets off the waitlist. Another result of the unusual space was an increased level of security — there were strict regulations against substance use, and no bags were allowed in the venue. Still, that didn’t stop “glitter-clad” undergraduates from hoisting friends on their shoulders, and students promising “alternative parties” to despondent peers who couldn’t obtain a ticket.

In addition to performers that journey to Hanover to play at Green Key or for a Friday Night Rock event, a thriving student band scene also exists. According to archives of The Dartmouth, while student artists have long been performing at fraternities and other venues, the opening of Lone Pine Tavern in the basement of Collis created a true locale for aspiring musicians, as it boasted a bona fide stage and sound system. Though Lone Pine Tavern was shut down in 2009, the student band culture remains strong. 

“The live music scene is pretty electric, especially considering how few people go here. There are so many student bands per capita compared to other schools,” Witt Lindau ’27, a drummer in three student bands, said. “Most on nights there is a band playing somewhere, and I think that really adds to the campus vibe.”

Though styles and sounds have evolved over the past century, live music has remained a constant on Dartmouth’s campus. Whether it be a famous opera singer, Avicii or a student band, Dartmouth has continued to be a welcoming — if unconventional — home for live music.  

“Live music is so much better than a DJ or just playing aux. It’s real, it’s authentic, it’s happening in the moment. For that reason I’m extremely grateful to come to Dartmouth where there’s a big live music scene,” Lindau said.