Why Do We Go See Live Music?

There was a great article in the Sunday Washington Post magazine by former Post music writer David Segal -- unfortunately titled "Memoirs of a Music Man" -- in which he talks about his time as a music critic and ruminates on what exactly is it that makes us go see music performed live.

It's a good question, especially as we, ahem, grow older and less inclined to work through hangovers and miles of traffic and teenyboppers and dudes in cut-off jean shorts and mullets. Gwydion touched on this in an earlier post, but I think Segal's story really gets to the heart of why some of us are still willing to deal with all of that, and why we were willing to all along, to see a little of the old "rock and roll magic."

Segal starts off with what's wrong (in my mind, at least), with live music today, and that's the fact that so much of it seems no different at all from what you might see on Broadway. He talks about an Aerosmith concert, in which Steven Tyler wowed the crowed by swinging on a trapeze over the first few rows:

It's fair to assume that Tyler rode the same trapeze in the same spot during the same song at every concert that summer, Nissan included. The whole trapeze thing was almost surely dreamed up before the band strummed the first note on the tour. There was probably a trapeze roadie, with instructions that read "9:15, hand Perry an Aquafina. 9:18, go get the trapeze."

That's the way pop concerts are these days, especially large ones. Everything is choreographed, even the parts that seem unchoreographed, and there is no room for unplanned derring-do.

He goes on to say:

I have nothing against musical theater, but when you're expecting a concert, it seems silly and very much against the impulsive, unruly spirit of the genre. Broadway's "Mamma Mia!" never pretends to be free-forming it every night. U2 does, though a U2 concert is essentially the same thing, night after night, right down to the encore.

This is the thing that's driving me crazy lately. Actually, that was the thing that originally drove me crazy. The thing that's driving me crazy now is that nobody seems to care.

Anyway, Segal goes to talk about one of the reasons we should care, and why it is we're willing to deal with all this: what he calls "The great Live Concert Moment."

What's the great concert moment?

(It is) born of something heartfelt and in some important way spontaneous. Not necessarily made up on the spot -- although that's never a bad idea -- but improvised to some degree. You might catch something similar in Boston next week, but it won't be exactly what happened in D.C. This is what sets a great concert apart from a great album. It's about music, but it's also about an experience that's ephemeral and communal, that you share for a couple hours with a bunch of strangers who, at some level, you feel like you know because they have the same idiotic glint in their eye when the lights come up. It's the sense that this whole evening means as much to the band as it does to you. It's great songs multiplied by killer performance multiplied by giddy fan reaction.

I have to admit I've been going to shows for a long time now and I've had only a few of those Great Concert Moments, and some of them definitely include planned, staged stuff that I saw when I was too young to realize it was not exactly spontaneous (most of those involved the hair metal band Kix, so, you know, what can you do).

A few that come to mind:
  • Joe Strummer playing a third encore (Redemption Song) that I'm almost sure wasn't planned, since they had turned off the stage power and there were no lights and it was only him and an acoustic guitar standing at the lip of the 9:30 club stage.

  • Jerry Garcia playing a Manhattans song in the middle of a typical Dead set (see -- say what you want about the Dead, but at least they could surprise you)

  • Tribe Called Quest just walloping the RFK crowd after a flaccid REM set at the first Tibetan Freedom Concert; Red Hot Chili Peppers coming on at the very end of that same show (digging into Pearl Jam's set) as a surprise guest

  • The Replacements in the early 90s, clearly hating each other to the extent that my friend leaned over and said "we're watching the last Replacements show ever." We weren't, but they were arguing onstage, and at one point they all just left Paul Westerberg up there, seemingly in disgust. Westerberg played three or four solo acoustic songs, with the highlight being Skyway, and you could have heard a pin drop. They broke up soon after and Westerberg pursued his solo career and we felt like we saw a little, or maybe a big window into that happening, live, onstage.

  • The Staples Singers taking the gospel stage at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and all of the sudden feeling like the whole place just got plugged in, like some kind of switch was flipped

That all may sound a little silly and, well, innocent, but I think that's what the Great Rock Moment is all about. What are yours?


aaron said...

A Steve Earle concert I went to at the 930 club a few years ago was just fantastic. The set and the multiple encores were perfectly calibrated so that each song became less country and folk and more rock n' roll, until when he came out for the second encore the whole place was rocking as he, well, played rock.

I saw George Jones up in Lancaster around that time and it was okay. Later I tried to look up a review of the show online and stumbled across what I thought was an article on the show, until I realized that the show being discussed happened 2 years before, yet it reported that George said the exact same things between sets that he did at the show I attended. I hate to jump on an old man, I mean, after all I did get a George Jones shot glass for 5 bucks, but he could have tried just a little harder, maybe. He couldn't remember all the lyrics to his songs so he had a five minute medley where he pieced together the choruses and verses of 4 songs into one mishmash. The guy can still sing, and I think at his age there's no shame in a teleprompter.

Dan said...

In 2003, I saw Ryan Adams at the Electric Factory in Philidelphia on the tour for Rock N Roll. He was hammered but still putting on a fantastic show. At one point, he climbed up onto the monitors while Brad Rice was soloing, pointed to the crowd (exactly where I was standing in my own drunken mind) and fake whispered that he was going to stage dive. We all cheered him on, but then the lyrics kicked back in and he jumped back onto the stage.

That was an amazing show including highlights like a Roadie's birthday celebration (he joined the band on the Stones' Brown Sugar), a special request by a pair of newlyweds(When the Stars Go Blue was thier wedding song), and an encore ending with an aborted version of Avalanche that was just Adams at the piano trying to remember the chords, then saying "Fuck it. Thanks" and walking off stage. Rock N Roll Tour indeed. A few days later he fell off the stage in Liverpool and broke his wrist, cancelling the rest of the tour.

A great book on why we go to concerts, concert culture and rock criticism in general is Air Guitar: Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey. It's hilarious, smart, and totally on point.

Kistulentz said...

Great rock moment #1. 1989-ish, Difford and Tilbrook from Squeeze playing an acoustic show at the old 9:30. Sting, in town doing the Threepenny Opera at the National Theater, arrived early and spent the show with the crowd on the floor--maybe 80 people saw the show.

Which was a shame, because as an encore, the three of them performed Tempted, with Sting on lead vocal, Roxanne as sung by Glenn Tilbrook and Sting, Black Coffee in Bed, and Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, with Sting on piano.

Great rock moment #2. Replacements at the Bayou, circa 1984...One hour of unrehearsed Kiss covers, and Tommy Stinson throwing up.

But what Dave points out--the sterile, overly rehearsed stadium show--has been a staple of big tours for years. Often, it is the result of the TicketBastard(TM) problem--the promoter does not necessarily own the arena, and performance contracts actually have curfews in them (Merriweather's curfew has been as early as 10pm).

And all I can say about Ryan Adams is that he's a stone prick.

joe said...

The set of the last show the Dismemberment Plan played at the Blackcat was composed entirely by the audience who was encouraged to shout their requests between songs. It was like Travis Morrison had invited everyone to his basement and asked us to make him our jukebox. They ended up playing for close to three hours. It wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen, but it was by far one of the most memorable.

TMC said...

Toronto, 2003, huge benefit concert to raise money to fight SARS (which, as far as I can tell, is the equivalent of a really bad cold), the Stones headlining and playing in front of 500,000 people. Not as self-important as Live 8, and especially cool because we were in a different country where my friends could drink underage. Plus, it was the freakin' Stones, with Mick threatening to shatter his artificial hips with every strut, and Keith slurring incoherently between songs. But it quadrupled in awesomeness when Angus, from AC/DC (don't know how to type the lightning bolt... I apologize to the purists), joined them on stage in what, at the very least, appeared to have been relatively spontaneous, since the two bands weren't on any kind of tour together. Angus + The Stones + road trip + 500,000 people = awesome.