28 August 2009

Live Music

What can I say? I am a sucker for live music. So I decided why not say a few words on it.

For the most part, I never fall in love with a band until I see them perform their music. Now I am not a snob when it comes to this – I don’t care if you want to have twenty dancers on a mega-stage or the most sophisticated light show in town or play in a dark room with no lights that reeks of stale beer and vomit, at the end of it all, it comes down to the music. You may put on the greatest spectacle in history, louder and more obnoxious than my childhood Thanksgiving family reunions, but if you cannot deliver that actual music, it will all fall flat. When I was impressionable, I went to see a lot of bands live, but it was in 1992 that I really came to understand the power of live music. It was the Jesus and Mary Chain (with Spirtualized and Curve) at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC, and though the music was not spot on (about two or three false starts), when they got into their head space and played, it was magic. You were no longer in the Roseland Ballroom; you were transported to a world of sound and emotional power for an hour and a quarter. I realized that it is that ability to connect with your audience through the music and not the few words in between songs that generates the power; I realized that the light show (or dancers) are only secondary to the music – if even for a moment they distract from the music, instead of adding to the experience of the music and performance, it is all for naught.

There is always a few bands on my list that I know will always dish out a near perfect show: The Cure, Depeche Mode, Manic Street Preachers, Muse, and Placebo to name a few. But there are two kinds of shows, and this is an important distinction: the theatric show with dancers and the straightforward performances. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any official video clips of recent (2009) theatric performances, but I still want to say a few words on them. The show can be completely, seriously thought out and sophisticated, like Madonna’s Confessions Tour (in my opinion her best), or the show can be a campy, hilariously ingenious experience, like Erasure’s Phantasmagorical Tour. But the music never suffers. On both of these examples, electronic equipment is used to produce much, if not all, of the music. But what you do not get is an exact replica of album versions – actually, the best electronic bands update the sounds, the beats, and even the arrangements (often extending the songs) for live performances. Never does the enactment on the stage or the prancing in creative costumes distract from the music; in fact, the goal is to augment the meaning or feel of the song, and/or to bring out a never imagined new dimension of the song. Unfortunately, most “theatric” shows fall short of this, using cheap, tawdry, wannabe Burlesque to titillate the audience. So it is very easy to always see who rises to the top in this field, without argument.

Then you have the flip side of live performances – the straightforward performances. Regardless if they are done at small spot like the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ or large venues like Wembley Stadium in London, the ultimate challenge to put together that perfect set, that perfect grouping of songs that will satisfy the audience, demonstrate your artistic integrity (hint: no greatest hits shows!), and generate a feeling of bonding individually with each member of that audience, regardless if it is 10 or 100,000. For many electronic bands this is a challenge – at once most people still expect to see a “band” on stage, not electronic gizmos, but on the other hand when done right, the power that flows through is amazing.

La Roux’s “I’m Not Your Toy” (iTunes Festival) from their YouTube page: larouxofficial.

La Roux delivers spotless pop music live, with no gimmick or tricks. She is captivating on the stage in much the same way as Annie Lennox was in the Tourist and early Eurythmics (this is one of the highest compliments I could ever give). Zoot Woman, on the other hand, use their electronic elements to generate a darker, moodier sound. Live, however, they bring an organic sound into their music that is not present in their studio recordings.

Zoot Woman’s “Nobody Knows” from the wantingforsomething YouTube Channel.

So you need a front- man/woman who can help bring that connection (check), you need to bring an element into your music that is not present in the studio recordings (check), but you also need presence on that stage. When you are on that stage, that audience needs to know who you are without doubt.

The Horrors’ “Three Decades” from their YouTube Channel: WatchTheHorrors.

Presence, check – but you need a perfect set list, from opening to close, and that can be tricky. Should you leave the big single for last? Should you play your hardest song? Should you play the least expected song? Or should you play the song that people are going to remember the most at the end? Check, White Lies already mastered this.

White Lies’ “Death” from their YouTube Channel: whiteliesofficial.

But you have to play those singles, and when you do, you have to make sure it feels like the first time the audience ever heard that song… make people fall in love with the song again. Trent Reznor has always had this effect on me; yes, I have been a NIN fan since the late 80s, but his ability to deliver a song in a consistently fresh way makes the performance all the more worth it. (Check)

Nine Inch Nails’ “Survivalism” from their YouTube Channel: ninofficial.

By the way, I have seen Trent do some very dramatic things live with his visuals. Once he was sandwiched between two screens (the back screen with images, the front screen with static hiding him from the audience) that would clear as he mimic wiping an area clear so you could see him and then he would sing a few lines and “toss” the clearing (it would glide across the screen as if tossed aside). It was a perfect moment of choreography that you would not expect at a NIN show. But what else do you need? The “cojones” to get on the stage, smash through a set that is longer than my sluttish neighbors black book, and playing every time like you have something to prove – that you are one of the best. No one does this better than Fat Boy Smith… umm Robert Smith, The Cure.

The Cure’s “It’s Over” from the NMETV YouTube Channel.

With truly legendary shows (between two and three-quarters to three full hours), the Cure has not lost their competitive edge live. Ultimately, whether a band will survive the test of time rests not only on their ability to write relevant music, but also on their ability to deliver live. Few bands are as competitive as the Cure, and fewer bands can say that their music on the stage can span from 1977 to present. The Cure has not become big because of radio or MTV; actually you can say they even became big in spite of Robert Smith not wanting the celebrity. But when you are that competitive live, when you can check that list of what makes good live music and check competitive as well – well then, you got a winning combination, no?

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