From the Archives: Rockin’ through the decades: A musical journey at Notre Dame
Get ready to rock as we journey through the music history of Notre Dame’s concert scene. From the 1970s to the 1980s, the biggest names in Rock ‘n Roll, country and pop graced the Joyce Center. Some performances left students wanting more, while others left them disappointed. Elvis Presley, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen were among the performers that left students in awe. While Willie Nelson’s concert received criticism for its brevity and poor quality, the likes of Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Chuck Berry delivered some of the best shows in Notre Dame history. Join us as we explore the unforgettable concerts that rocked the Joyce Center stage.
Rock ‘n Roll at Notre Dame in the 1970s
April 19, 1979 | Observer Staff | Aug. 28, 1974 | Observer Staff | May 4, 1972 | Joseph Abell | Feb. 12, 1973 | Joseph Abell | Oct. 27, 1975 | Patrick Small | Sept. 12, 1978 | Stephen Belmont | Sept. 24, 1973 | R. Thomas Thues | Researched by Cade Czarnecki
Notre Dame has played host to some of the most significant names in Rock ‘n Roll history. The 1970s kicked off the trend with a decade of performances by artists still well known today.
The Athletic and Convocation Center (ACC) that has since become the Joyce Center sold out over and over again as students flocked to see artists such as Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Chuck Berry.
Elvis Presley even stopped by South Bend, Indiana, to play two shows at the ACC between a Friday and Saturday night. There was fierce competition among students to get tickets to his 1974 shows that were priced $10, $7.50 and $5.
Still, Notre Dame students were often harsh critics even when they had the chance to see era-defining bands.
Elton John was apparently disappointing in 1972 where he showed up with his flamboyant personality in a bright pink coat and proceeded to speed through his hits like “Tiny Dancer” with little regard for the crowd in front of him.
Similar complaints were leveled at Santana in 1973 when he apparently placed a picture of Jesus Christ on a speaker and proceeded to intently focus on it throughout his performance.
Students were once again critical in 1975 when the Beach Boys were lacking in instrumentation as they only played “oldies,” having not released a new album in three years. Students also lamented the hypervigilant South Bend police that confiscated marijuana paraphernalia from many of those trying to make the night one to remember — or forget.
Yet, there was one performance that nobody had anything negative to say about: Bruce Springsteen in 1978. Stephen Belmont, a student at the show, reflected, “[it was] one of the best rock and roll shows I have ever seen.” Belmont further noted that this was his 15th time seeing Springsteen live. In typical Springsteen fashion, the show lasted three and a half hours and every second of it felt as if the whole of his being was poured out into his music.
While students gave mixed reviews of the performances, it is undeniable that Notre Dame was a hotspot for the biggest names of Rock ‘n Roll in the 1970s. Even if the Irish were a tough crowd to please, they certainly did not scare anyone off as performers at Notre Dame in the 1980s would prove to be just as significant to music history.
1980s: A spectrum of musical legends
The concerts at Notre Dame in the 1980s featured musical legends from a variety of genres at various stages in their storied careers.
To kick off the eighties, Bruce Springsteen once again graced the Joyce Center stage. According to Tim Sullivan, Springsteen’s previous concert in 1978 had been “the finest rock show produced in the ACC… [a] three-hour extravaganza of nonstop vitality and drama [that] displayed the possibilities of the rock’n’roll motif.”
However, The Boss’ subsequent showing was even better. For Sullivan, this four-hour performance in 1981 “contained too many musical and theatrical highlights to properly list them all” and showed that Springsteen had “reached the crest of his career. The only question is: How long can he maintain his dominance in the popular music industry?”
The answer: quite long. With 63 shows scheduled around the world in 2023, Springsteen, while perhaps not “dominant,” remains musically and commercially relevant.
In many ways, Springsteen’s current status as an aging star that can still draw a sell out crowd mirrors that of two other artists who came to Notre Dame in the 1980s.
In 1984, Willie Nelson performed a Wednesday night show at Joyce. Contrasting with Sullivan’s Springsteen review, Mark Worscheh (’85) was critical of the country legend’s concert in front of a predominantly non-student crowd.
Worscheh argued that Willie appeared rushed, as he cut off the crowd’s clapping by starting the next song after a few seconds. The show ended up being just two hours long and there was only one encore.
Recalling the spectacular concerts held at the same venue in recent years, Worscheh expressed disappointment with Nelson’s effort.
“Even though he’s no Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen in terms of stage performance, Willie owed it to the crowd to be a little more of a showman,” Worscheh wrote.
A few years later, an even older artist proved that you didn’t have to jump around on stage a la Springsteen to give a great show.
In 1987, 71-year old Frank Sinatra performed at Notre Dame for the first time in his storied career.
Like Willie Nelson, Sinatra crooned for a primarily non-student crowd, something that made concert reviewer Tom McDonald (‘88) “uncomfortable” as he glanced around the Joyce Center. However, McDonald seemed to forget about his elderly audience mates as he listened to Sinatra’s legendary “baritone voice, periodically lacquered with whisky.”
“Sinatra remains the consummate performer… [and] did not require such distractions as smoke [or] lasers,” McDonald noted. “Sinatra proved to his audience that a 71 year-old man can still belt out a tune.”
Overall, while they received mixed reviews at the time, the concerts of the 1980s are, in hindsight, an impressive demonstration of the spectrum of star power that Notre Dame could attract to northern Indiana.
Echoes in the Dome: U2 rocks Notre Dame in the 2000s
Excitement was in the air in 2001 as rumors started circulating that the legendary Irish rock band U2 would be performing at the University of Notre Dame’s Joyce Center. Students eagerly awaited confirmation of the concert, and their hopes were soon answered when it was officially announced that U2 would indeed grace the campus with their presence.
As rumors about U2’s performance at Notre Dame circulated in 2001, Joyce Center events manager Joe Sassano braced for a stampede of interest among students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross. In an effort to quell any anxieties, Sassano issued a reassuring statement, promising that “any student who wants a ticket will receive a ticket.”
However, despite the attempts at organization, the ticket-buying process devolved into chaos, with students enduring long lines and hours of waiting.
Students were nevertheless determined to secure a spot for U2’s highly-anticipated concert, with many waiting in line for over eight hours. “It’s utter confusion,” said Notre Dame junior Maria Mahon, but the excitement and anticipation for the concert ultimately prevailed.
With anticipation running high, the big day had finally arrived; Joyce Center was packed to capacity with excited students and fans eagerly anticipating U2’s performance. U2 did not disappoint, putting on an electrifying performance that had the entire crowd on their feet, singing and dancing along to their hits.
During the concert, U2’s frontman, Bono, gave a moving speech about changing the world through education programs like the Alliance for Catholic Education and aid to impoverished countries. In the concert almost a month following 9/11, he also paid tribute to the heroic firefighters and police officers of New York City, challenging the audience to use their bravery to combat poverty.
Bono’s speech was followed by the performance of “One.” The emotional and powerful song, combined with Bono’s inspiring words, left a lasting impression on the Notre Dame community and reminded them of the power of music to inspire change.
Joanna Mikulski (‘03), a columnist for The Observer, praised U2 for not only putting on an incredible show, but also using their platform to convey a meaningful message to the audience. The band’s focus on social justice and activism resonated with the Notre Dame community and left a lasting impact on many students.
“The songs of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and N*SYNC offer no particular message… They sing of themselves,” noted Mikulski.
The concert was a testament to the enduring popularity of U2, who had been entertaining audiences for over two decades by this point. Their blend of rock and roll, social commentary and meaningful lyrics had won them countless fans around the world, and their performance at Notre Dame was no exception.
“They are once again the best band in the world and have taken their place alongside the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artists of all time,” said Notre Dame student Tim Collins (‘02) in an editorial review.
For many students, the concert was not just a night of music and fun but an unforgettable experience that they would cherish for years to come.