This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
When I first read about Live Music Blog writer/photographer Andrew McMahon’s attempt to see 20 concerts in 20 days back in mid-September, I saw his audacious attempt as a heroically intriguing two-week experiment done in the name of live music fans who love and live for live music.
Unfortunately, when covering live music, I don’t get to sit down and talk with other fans or music writers very often because I’m usually writing about what’s going on onstage and not in the minds and hearts of the fans, so I also saw his adventure as a chance to explore and discuss the universal emotions felt by live music fans. As I vicariously watched and read through his blog post during his trip, I was both curious and excited to see how the trip would turn out. Would he end up loving live music more or return wishing he never attempted such a feat?
As we talked at coffeehouse on Chicago’s Northside a few weeks after his trip, Andrew’s adventure turned out to be an excellent platform to discuss why, as fans and critics, we spend so much time, money and energy, thinking, photographing and writing about live music.
From his pre-trip emotions to his first concert experience ever at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in 1992, he explained what led him to attempt his 20days/20bands goal, which ended up falling short when Mother Nature tossed a welcomed wrench into his plans. Our chat also encouraged me to think more about what it means to walk the line between fan and critic when writing about live concert experiences.
When did you first think about trying to accomplish the 20 bands in 20 days trip? Had you been thinking about this for a long time?
Not really, it was something that just happened to be on my calendar and I was looking at my schedule to the next few months and realized that I was going to be seeing a lot of concert in the next few months. Live Music Blog is always trying to find interesting things to give our readers. Of course, with a blog like ours your want to be posting everyday and you want to provide the type of news that music addicts crave and the reason we’re writing is because we’re music addicts, too. We also want to be doing something unique every once in a while. My adventure just sort of blossomed out of my Google calendar because I was also planning a trip with some long-time friends from home. We were going to camp in the southwest and it just so happened that we were going to see a lot of shows, too. One-third of the shows were here in Chicago and two-thirds we’re in the southwest.
What were some of your emotions, thoughts and expectations before the trip?
Before something as crazy as this, you always think it’s going to be easy. I was also wondering whether or not, I had the energy to tackle this and stay awake to 2 a.m. for five nights. The first three days of shows in Chicago was the easy part. As you know, going to the shows isn’t always the hard part, the hard part is afterwards, and finding time to sit down and write about the shows, going through the photos, editing them and getting everything up on the site.
When did the hard part of the trip set in?
It didn’t start to get hard until I got to the Monolith festival. Festivals are physically exhausting to cover and Monolith might the one of the most exhausting to cover along with Lollapalooza because they’re so big. I haven’t had the luxury of covering a camping festival like Bonnaroo or Rothbury. I’ve been to Bonnoroo but I can’t imagine covering it because it’s so huge. Going to a festival like Lollapalooza, just as fan and tying to see the bands you want to see is tiring. And I’m not like professional photographers who carry around 30lbs of camera equipment for 12 hours. At Monolith you have to go about a mile up going from the parking lot to the venue. After a few beers, and the up and down on the stairs, your hamstrings really started to feel it.
What was your overall plan?
Our itinerary was to see three bands in Chicago, go to Monolith in Colorado, go camping in the southwest and then head to California for My Morning Jacket in LA and Street Scene in San Diego. So the camping aspect of our trip really allowed us to rest which was nice.
You mentioned in your last post about your trip that Mother Nature kept you from accomplishing your goal.
The reason that we came up short was that we were supposed to go to San Diego but we decided to stay at Lake Powell for an extra day. Once we got there we realized that missing a few concerts to enjoy the beauty of nature was well worth it. I also ran into a problem when we got into the dessert and I couldn’t post without internet service. I’ll have to factor that in next time.
In your second post during your trip, as you were heading to Monolith festival, you mentioned your editor Justin Ward’s experience struggling with “live concert burnout.” You were concerned about your adventure becoming a “task” or a” race” and having it negatively affecting your relationship with live music. What type of impact did the trip have on your relationship to live music?
It’s tough for me to see really understand what burnout means from Justin’s perspective because I don’t have the burden of running the site like he has, with getting tons of emails, figuring out the direction of the blog, editing our posts. And he doing all that while trying to maintain his relationship, trying to keep it untouched and growing. But I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have that cathartic moment like he did and start to feel like it’s turned into a job. I know that nobody who loves live music ever wants to feel like that.
For me the stress in my life comes from trying to balance covering live music with being a Graduate student at University of Chicago. It’s nice to be able to go to a concert from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. after getting crushed by hours of reading. Being in school allows me to have that type of schedule; but I never get into the mood where I feel the work or the music writing part of going to concerts is overwhelming. The ‘20 bands adventure’ was a little experiment to see if being 25 was actually catching up to me or not. I’ve heard from older friends that you start to feel it more around my age. [chuckles] And I found out that it was truer than I originally realized or wanted to admit before the trip.
What made you want to start writing about your concert experiences on Live Music Blog?
For me writing about my concert experiences is my way of getting experience in music writing and media and have a creative outlet in something I really like to do. Because when you get older you can’t just get drunk, have fun and go see a band; you have start asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ ‘why am I spending a thousand dollars a month and not get anything out of it.’ So you incorporate something like writing for a website and taking photos which gives it more consistency and meaning. I’ve only been doing this for a year.
Have you had moments yet where it felt like a job?
Not yet. I think that might happen if I did do this full-time but right now I get to choose what shows I go too which keeps it fun. I haven’t felt too overwhelmed yet, but I was tired after the ‘20bands’ trip.
How long have you been going to concerts as a fan before you started writing and photographing your experiences?
I got caught in the tail end of the Phish phenomenon, which appears to be coming around again. I went to undergrad in Boston and went to a lot of shows there. But I’ve never gone to as many shows as I do now. Chicago is awesome because you have so many venues and styles of music within a close radius. I can just hop on my bike and go to a show.
You wrote about your experience at Red Rocks during Monolith with a lot of wonder and excitement focusing on how the surroundings had an impact on the music. How much of an impact did the atmosphere play in making it a memorable live show for you?
I always think it’s cool to experience music in new venues. I had never been to Red Rocks or the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Those two places are really mystical when you grow up listening to music, especially if you’re trading tapes like I was, and you see the name of the venue written on the tape you wonder what that place is like . You get to go there and check it off your list is one of the best parts of going on trips like I did. Seeing the sun go down at Red Rocks and you can see Denver starting to light up while Holy Fuck and White Denim played was a beautiful experience. The White Denim show was my favorite show of the year. I hadn’t seen them before. That’s what I love about live music: it has a progressively moving forward aspect, where you discover new bands when you least expect and that new band becomes one that you look forward to absorbing and seeing live again. The White Denim show was definitely one of those moments.
Were the friends you traveled with big live music fans like you are?
Not really. They’re music fans but not at the level that I am, necessarily. I pushed my buddies to accomplish the goal because it’s hard to push non-music fans to see that many shows at once. I was surprised at how much fun they really had because my buddies are not as big as music fan as I am. It worked out better than it could have because festivals can be fun to go to even if you’re not a huge music fan because there’s a lot to enjoy beyond just the music.
In your final post you wrote that “…with every great plan, there are changes, compromises and unexpectedness…” How did you feel when you realized you weren’t going to accomplish your goal, coming up five bands short?
We went to LA and camped for an extra day and after that stop my friends were reluctant to drive back to San Diego for the Street Scene Festival because we had already driven 2,000 miles at that point. We had a mini-argument when we had to discuss what we were going to do. It was really hard for me to concede because of the commitment I made to the Live Music Blog readers; but we had traveled as a team. My other friends had hit the wall with the concert going and that made me the odd man out so I had to go with the majority vote and skip the San Diego portion of the trip. After awhile I felt pretty good about staying in LA to enjoy the rest.
In a pre-trip post, you joked about “…warming up my rock and roll legs here in Chicago where I have a “solid fan base…” Did the trip allow you to experience any similarities to what a band might experience during a tour?
I realized how expensive it is to travel across the United States. When you’re growing up you always think how sweet it would be to travel like a band does. But a lot bands would probably tell you that mid-tour it’s not all that great; you’re dirty and tired of sleeping in a van. Sure you’re doing what you love and you wouldn’t sign up for it if you didn’t but it gets really hard after awhile. I would image that what makes a band soldier on while traveling are the moments when they play for a great crowd and have that electric connection.
But after a while our trip started to make me think of how hard a band works to deal with traveling and touring constantly. I also thought about my days in Washington D.C. when I would help my friends breakdown their gear after a show. To do that and then get in the car immediately drive to the next show must be a real grind. This trip made me have a real respect for the van warriors who live hand-to-mouth.
What was your first live music experience?
Red hot chili Pepers Blood Sugar Sex Magic tour in 1992. My dad took me to it. He thought the song “Suck My Kiss” was called “Suck My Dick” It was pretty funny finding that out.
He wasn’t too familiar with their music, was he?
[chuckles] No he had no clue. He was the old dude sitting in the stand the whole time. But after the show he said “Hey, it was pretty good show except for that “Suck my Dick” song.” I thought that was pretty funny and I told him the right song title. My first show by myself was Widespread Panic and then I also went to the first Lollapalooza tours in 1997. I’ll always remember those as some of my favorite shows even though I can’t believe I actually saw The Offspring.
Why is live music so important to you? What do you love about it the most?
The best part about for me, and just music in general (and this is true of a lot of mediums of art) Your either getting the studio production part of it or the performance production. For example, ballet, musicals and stage theatre, you never get to see how it would be if they could do takes and perfect it. And with sculpting you see the final piece but don’t see them in action. But with music not only do you get to experience the studio version, you also get to see the fallible side of the artist. And that to me is what makes live music so special. A band can get up there and play like shit live or be geniuses at improvisation. There are several bands that can make a great album but just can’t pull of what they do in the studio live in concert. There are bands like Phish or the Grateful Dead who never really made a great album that was better than their live show.
Live music also offers the great opportunity for the transfer of emotion between a band and an audience, and that is probably the best and most unique part about it. It’s what keeps fans coming back because you can truly feel connected to what the artist is doing on stage.
Did you have any of those moments during your trip?
No, not really. Aside from the White Denim show I really took the whole trip in stride. I think when you’re younger you’re on a quest to find that perfect improvisation that you can’t find in the studio so you find it elsewhere. And when you get older you’ve seen so much music that you get a little more pragmatic about it. You know a good show when you see it and you lock on a song or two and you’re not drinking a beer or doing some other thinks that would keep you from seeing those moments, or the flipside which is drinking heavily during a show, doing that can make you think a terrible show was the best show ever. But when you’re covering shows as writer or photographer, drinking or doing drugs makes it really hard to do your job. And the truth is that after awhile doing a lot of drinking or drugs starts to detract from the show experience and getting the most out of music as an art form.
It is hard for you to separate being a fan and enjoying the show versus going as a reviewer of art?
Sometimes it is. But I’ve really enjoyed it writing about concerts and a lot of time I merge the two because there is a fine line between a live concert being just a social event and a performance of art.
What do you think is the most important of the Five Senses when it comes to enjoying live music? If you have to give up one sense what would it be?
That’s an interesting question. Of course one of the benefits of live music is seeing the music performed but anyone who really enjoys live music is there to hear it, so I’d say hearing is the most important. I wouldn’t think taste would be important unless of course you’re doing one of the things we were just talking about. I’d take an obstructed view of Phish’s Hampton show in a heartbeat just to be there and hear it live. I think about the people who went to see Radiohead at Lollapalooza, minus the TV screens, they were like ants on the stage but the fans still piled in to Grant Park to hear them.
Since you came up five bands short would you ever try doing this again?
I wouldn’t necessarily plan it again. But if the opportunity was there again, I would give it another shot. [chuckles] I’m always up for a good challenge.
What would be your live music dream assignment?
I would like to do is a photo essay of a band from the beginning of the night to the end. I’m thinking of the Brazilian band, CSS, who’s lead singer LoveFoxx wears unbelievably colorful and outrageous costumes. I’d love to follow the band during one of their shows to capture them getting ready before a show.
A special thanks to Andrew, Justin and Live Music Blog for making this conversation possible.