Character of the month – Heidi Widmer, Miss Front Row

The Love of music in a smile

NOVEMBER (by Alessandro Vailati)

With Buddy Guy at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago. 2007, July

April 25 2023, return flight from Tokyo (14 hours) after a few weeks in Japan, following Eric Clapton‘s tour: not even time to touch down and off we go again. Her very nice husband Jakob is waiting for her for a new adventure. That evening Roger Waters is in Zurich at the Hallenstadion and cannot be missed. Jet lag for Heidi Widmer is an unknown word! The face furrowed by a slight patina of tiredness is immediately rekindled by the enthusiasm for a new adventure.

It sounds unbelievable, but in Heidi‘s life it is normal: music is a second skin for her. Her passion is so strong and boundless that it has taken her everywhere, from America to Japan, she who is Swiss by origin but a citizen of the world. Her face has appeared hundreds of times in the front rows of the legendary Royal Albert Hall and the iconic Madison Square Garden and Budokan.

And after another epic Crossroads Guitar Festival, this time in Los Angeles, and a further stopover in England for a handful of shows, finally, in a moment of rest, Heidi Widmer gives herself to us, for an intimate chat, where a sunny, humble, unique and special person sums up with her enthusiasm the importance and beauty of music for her and for the world.

Here we are, dear Heidi, Legendary Concert Queen! Where does this incredible passion for travelling and live music come from?

Thank you for having me! Well, maybe there was a rebellious streak in me! I was born in 1954 and grew up in a rural village in Switzerland but didn’t like the thought of complying with women’s traditional roles. As a teenager, I read many fascinating books about the explorers of the world and it was my dream to discover the world myself. After my commercial apprenticeship, I first improved my French and then moved to London for 18 months to learn English. I got a job as a low-paid student’s trainee at British Brown Boveri. Back then it was possible to see a show for little money and I loved going to a lot of rock, pop, blues, and classical concerts as well as musicals, opera and ballet. I’ve been a concertgoer ever since and it’s interesting that recent studies have shown that live music can have an impact on your wellbeing and contribute to a longer life. There were times when it was difficult to pursue my hobby, especially when I was living in South Africa in 1977, where many international artists weren’t performing in protest against the apartheid system. After my stay in South Africa, I worked as a flight attendant for Swissair for four years and it was exciting for me to see many parts of the world but my flight schedules often prevented me from attending shows. Travelling and concerts took a back seat when I got married and had two children to look after but once the kids were in their teens, I started working part-time as a check-in agent at Zurich Airport. From then on, I combined travelling and music. I benefitted from staff tickets and cheap hotel rates, that’s why I was able to live this dream, and I’m lucky that my husband shares my passion. I retired six years ago and no longer receive staff discounts but our annual holidays are still music trips.

From Eric Clapton to Ed Sheeran, and how many shows in between. I’m almost afraid to ask you the exact number, I think it’s impossible to truly quantify it. And which three are the unforgettable ones?

I never put a list together but over the past decade I went to about eighty shows per year, often with my husband but also on my own. Even during the pandemic, I managed 25 in 2020 and 37 in 2021. I’ve chosen my three unforgettable shows based on personal experience and historical significance. Number one is the second Cream Reunion concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. I didn’t have a ticket for that night, 3rd May 2005, and close to the date, a front row ticket popped up on eBay at a very reasonable buy-it-now price. I didn’t have to think twice! There wasn’t enough time to have the ticket sent to me but the delivery to my hotel worked out well. It was sold by a man whose wife got seriously ill and he gave one ticket to a friend and auctioned off the other. Fortune smiled upon me! Another unforgettable show was Led Zeppelin at London’s Earls Court on 24th May 1975, one of the five legendary concerts Led Zeppelin played there that month. The people sitting next to me shared joint and a bottle of whiskey with the whole row (it was a seated show)! Imagine that today! The first laser beams were also used at these shows. The Concert for George, the beautiful tribute to George Harrison which was held at the Royal Albert Hall on 29th November 2002, takes third place.

With Ed Sheeran, at Kaufleuten, Zurigo. 2012, January.

I know you’re a big fan of Procol Harum and the late Gary Brooker. How did it feel to meet him? Tell us about your first-hand experiences with artists. Is there one in particular that you would invite to dinner?

The members of Procol Harum always attended fan conventions and enjoyed dinners and after-show parties with their fans. I don’t know of any other band that did the same. There were birthday parties for Gary and even Christmas lunches that fans were welcome to join. This wasn’t just for the inner circle but for everyone who had signed up for the newsletter of the independent website Beyond the Pale, which is still run by fans for fans. Gary enjoyed being in the company of his fans. My first dinner with him and his fellow musicians was after a benefit show in aid of the tsunami survivors at Guildford Cathedral on 16th April 2005. It took place at a curry house in Guildford, The Bombay Spice, which has since closed. A few weeks later I was persuaded into organizing a birthday cake for the first Procol Harum show after Gary’s 60th birthday which was to be held at the Z7 in Pratteln (CH) on 18th June 2005. It was presented to Gary on stage and I met him after the show. To my amazement, he removed the Procol Harum Salty Dog icing sheet and took it home with him!

All the artists I had the pleasure meeting have been really nice. I won some great meet & greets in the past, for example with Deep Purple, Zucchero and Linkin Park, but meeting David Bowie was the best. He was very charming and made everyone feel special. Unfortunately, there is no photo that I could share with you. Who would I invite to dinner? Of course, Eric Clapton would be the obvious answer but that would be beyond my wildest dreams!

With Gary Brooker, Konzertfabrik, Pratteln, Switzerland. 2005, June.

Not only big names, but also remarkable artists, young or old, unknown to most. Your knowledge is boundless, your photos absolutely wonderful and your always stimulating reviews, full of news and trivia, make anyone who reads them breathe in the atmosphere on stage, the joy of the audience present and the beauty of the music. Have you ever thought of publishing a book?

Several people have asked me this question but it would be a lot of work to put a book together and I don’t think I’ll be considering it anytime soon. I’ve been made aware of print-on-demand book services for self-publishing, so who knows?

I get the impression that you have a love for musicians and bands across the board, but I think there is a special place in your heart for the blues…Am I wrong?

No, you’re not! Canned Heat was the band that got me interested in the blues when I was fourteen (1968). When I lived in London in 1974/75, I listened to Capital Radio and also bought the New Musical Express and Melody Maker every week. I often went to see bands that were talk of the day. Not all of them appealed to me but it was a good learning experience and cemented my love for the blues.

In the introduction to your character, I mentioned a few legendary venues that you have ploughed through time and again to enjoy the music. From the best-equipped arena to the most ramshackle club, from a sold-out stadium with a hundred thousand people to prestigious theatres or intimate venues with no more than fifty souls: you have been everywhere, for the sake of your passion. What is the ideal place to listen to artists live? Tell us about the beauty of enjoying a concert in the front row…

The front row is not the ideal place in terms of sound but for a small person like me, it’s the best possible and for taking pictures too! By the way, Richard Cousins (Robert Cray Band) nicknamed me Front Row Heidi! I love to see the emotion on the faces, the musicians’ fingerwork and to be able to make eye contact. The smaller the venue the better, as big arenas often have no soul at all and although I can still stand for hours, I can no longer manage long runs to the stage. The most beautiful venue to see a concert is the Royal Albert Hall in London with a capacity of 5,272 people. I’ve been to about 130 shows there, the first one was Leonard Cohen in September 1974, the last one Hawkwind in September 2023. Of course, there are other impressive venues like the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg but the Royal Albert Hall holds a special place in my heart. My favourite club in Switzerland is the Mühle Hunziken in Rubigen with a capacity of 500 people and a collection of great artifacts.

Heidi at RAH. 2019, May.

Here at MusicPhilò, as you well know, Alberto and I live a special, boundless passion for Eric Clapton. Tell us about your first show, then describe the one that was most beautiful to you. Has Slowhand ever finished surprising you? Maybe that’s what keeps the flame alive for us fans?

My first Clapton show was at the Royal Albert Hall on 23rd February 1992. The trip was organized by the president of the Swiss fan club. There was no internet back then and it was difficult to get tickets if you lived abroad. Our seats were in row 24 on the floor and we were told to rush to the stage after the acoustic set which we did. Never again did the stage rush happen so early! Eric Clapton was handed his electric guitar and sweat flew from his head like a wet dog shaking itself dry. He lit a cigarette, took a few puffs and stuck the burning cigarette under the strings. I got hooked by the intensity of his performance and went to see him live ever since. The most beautiful show was the Cream Reunion front row experience which I mentioned in my answer to your second question. To this day, Eric’s feel and tone are second to none and his solos never the same, which is why I keep coming back to his shows. Of course, age takes its toll but he’s always good for a surprise. At the recent Crossroads Guitar Festival, he teamed up with six different bands, more than at any previous festival. These collaborations were truly exciting, as were the Jeff Beck tribute shows in May 2023 where he also rose to the challenge of playing different material than usual.

With Martin OM-ECHF Navy Blue Eric Clapton. 2014, February.

We met, after much texting on social media, at one of his concerts. You know I still get chills thinking we saw him together with Santana, with the surprise appearance of Marcella Detroit?

It was a magical day in the scorching sun and a pleasure to share this unique experience with you! Thanks to Marcella Detroit we were able to listen to The Core, one of my favourite songs ever. She was in London for her own shows, so we were all hoping for it to happen. I still get chills thinking about it too!

What remains unbelievable is the series of friendships cultivated, the scent of life breathed in by sharing the beauty of a concert, the adventure of a trip together with hundreds of friends scattered all over the world, who the first thing they remember is your unmistakable and extraordinary smile, capable of giving happiness to anyone who comes across you, a wonderful smile that describes everything. You are always in a good mood, I have never seen you, even in the difficult moments that can happen to anyone, lose it. I think this is one of your many strengths that drive you to wake up and plan a new adventure always in honour of music, don’t you think? And speaking of which, what are your next projects?

Thank you so much for the compliment! I’ve had the privilege of leading a very happy life, as my choices aligned with what I wanted! The friends I’ve made through music have enriched my life as much as the music and in difficult moments the music was always there for me, as were family and friends. My next project will be very important, as we are going to bid farewell to Gary Brooker at his memorial concert in Guildford on 4th December 2023. There will be another Eric Clapton residency at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2024 but apart from that, I haven’t made any plans yet. I would love to visit the Brezoi Open Air Blues Festival in Romania and a trip from Chicago to New Orleans is also on the bucket list but none of that seems possible next year.

Dear Heidi we come to the last question: as icing on the cake of your love for music, what is your favourite song?

I’m on the fence about my favourite song, as it’s hard to pick out just one! One day it’s The Core or River of Tears, another day it’s Gin House Blues or A Whiter Shade of Pale. There are far too many!

With Larkin Poe, at Volkshaus, Zurich. 2023, October.

Italian Version: link here