On a lazy afternoon, a few weeks ago, I was flipping through cable channels and I went from watching the Sundance Channel’s intimate sessions of the Live from Abbey Road series to watching live concerts filmed at venues with hundreds of fans cheering and I started to wonder…
Is it how, when or where it takes place?
Does the number of people in the audience determine an official concert?
Is it what we do at the concert that defines it?
Is soundcheck part of the concert?
Big questions. I know.
But I still have to ask them because so much has changed when it comes to what we classify as a live concert.
Sometimes we see them live.
Other times they take place in small confined areas where we wouldn’t think a concert can take place (NPRs Tiny Desk Concert).
Other times the environments are morning shows, late night shows, online podcasts or live streaming broadcasts (NPR, Sound Opinions, Pitchfork.tv, Daytrotter, Stereogum, Daily Habit, Live From Abbey Road)
But one thing is always constant in all forms, environments and venues.
There’s always some type of element of community, a communal cord that connects us all.
And depending on the size and tastes of the community or audience, the concert can mean so many things to so many different people–and still accomplish the goal of uniting us all under a universal love for live music.
So whether you call it an event, a concert, a gig, or a show, always know that your experience is shared not only with those around you at that moment, but also with millions of others in the big communal concert community.
So tell me…what is a concert to you?
Do we expect anxiety and tension at a rock show?
If it’s not there at some level do we feel jipped?
In a Paste interview Of Montreal’s front man Kevin Barnes revealed that your emotions are at the center of his performance plan to create large amounts of “confusion and tension” during their live show.
“Yes, it’s possible we’re taking away from the music,” [Barnes]says as we discuss Of Montreal’s Langerado performance, “but I don’t really care. If people just want to hear the songs, they can listen to the record. Most performers aren’t really that ambitious as far as what they want to do for the audience. For this new tour, we’re going to play more with tension and try to create anxiety in the audience, so it’s not always just happiness, but also moments of fear and tension and confusion, which comes closer to the emotional depth we all have within ourselves.”
Seeing Of Montreal at Pitchfork 2007 was quite the experience to say the least. And I did experience all of those emotions he mentions (in various ways and at certain levels) whether he’s using face paint, a large horse, buckets of confetti, or his band of interpretive costumed dancers. Even though I didn’t write about it, what Barnes created made the Pitchfork show unforgettable and deepened the album experience as I’ve revisited Of Montreal albums ever since.
And when I listened to this NPR All Songs Considered live show and interview I began to wonder even more: to what extent and how often we expect artists to sacrifice their “music” just so we can have a deeply emotional experience?
This NPR All Songs Considered live show and interview with New York rock quintet Ra Ra Riot gave me a good look into the emotions a band encounters when performing before a national audience for the first time.
I first saw and reviewed Ra Ra Riot during a show close to their home in upstate New York at moe.down festival in 2007. As an indie-rock band with an eclectic rhythmic section they seemed a bit out of place in weekend of full of jam bands, but they still put on a great show that swept me off my feet and caught my attention ever since.
This moe.down show was also a few months after their original drummer John Pike died, so during the show I was wondering how they were dealing with the grief and sadness. As they unloaded their gear from the trailer and quickly set up, I wondered how much those emotion fueled their show.
So when I finally got around to hearing this NPR backstage interview before their Washington D.C. show this past October, I was pleased to hear them talk about what goes through their minds when performing and how they handled being under the national live concert spot light in 2008 as they promoted their debut album the Rhumb Line.
Have you had any insight into a concert of your favorite band lately?
Hey, here’s something to think about as the concert season begins to move inside to the clubs and the baseball season heads into its last month with a few pennant races heating up(and I’m glad I have live music to numb the pain should the Cubs choke in the home stretch).
But what I want to ask you is…did live music borrow from baseball broadcasting?
This question came to mind when I was listening to NPR live concert series.
As host Bob Boilen intro’s the shows—describing what’s going on onstage or the vibe in the venue—he does so with a style that reminds me of how baseball play-by-play announcers call a game.
So there I was, caught with a double dose of pleasure and I wasn’t even at the show!
Experiencing two favorites—baseball and live music—intersecting simultaneously I got jazzed, so I looked a little deeper into how this intersection impacts live music, specifically when we’re not there to see or hear it in person and have to rely on a commentator like Boilen to paint the picture for us.
But before we get to Boilen’s style of calling a NPR live show, let’s back up a bit first, and start with baseball’s broadcasting groundwork.
Baseball got its broadcasting start on radio in 1921 and it was on the strength of the announcers that fans listened with rapt attention as the leather popped and the ball clicked against the bat as announcers gave eyes to what the fans were hearing over the radio waves thousands of miles away.
And the dialogue between the color and the play by play announcers was awesome. Guys like Vin Sully and Mel Allen and others, would tell mix in status and clubhouse anecdotes and jokes, while the game carried on and the game unfolded with each wind-up and pitch.
But most of all, I loved how those announcers painted the picture of what the game sounded like. Their words and emotional inflexions gave the game that added intensity you couldn’t get if you weren’t there. Using phrases, like “the wind and the pitch” or describing how a team was carrying a player off the field on their shoulders after a walk off homerun as the crowd roared in the background.
Through the speakers of the radio came the game. A sort of storytelling audio High Definition.
And it was, and still is, the play-by-play commentator’s job to define how the game sounds on your ears and what images are created in your mind.
And when I realized that music broadcasting came first circa 1906 but was fully functional and commercial in 1920 with baseball following suit in 1921, had to back track on my initial thoughts of Boilen borrowing.
It wasn’t a case of Boilen borrowing from baseball but it was the other way around, in fact.
But in any case was radio announcers—sports or music—have such a huge impact on how we perceive the game or live show.
And I ever since I’ve been wondering if Boilen was applying a similar style to live music because calling a live concert like a baseball game does have a impact on us as listeners. From how the music is prefaced to how he wraps up the show at the end, it all is crucial to how absorb the moment as it unfolds.
The only real difference is that the concert goes on uninterrupted without any commentary during the show while the baseball announcer is there on every pitch telling us what’s happening.
Is seems like a small difference but I wonder what it would be like if Boilen was to interject at every chord change or in between songs. Would this annoy us? Possibly.
But if you think about how crucial his intro and wrap up are to the show then thinking about what some sort of actual concert play-by-play would be like makes you wonder if we would hate it or love it once we got use to it.
And whether it’s the Raconteurs or Fleet Foxes, Spiritualized or Black Mountain, Boilen takes the liberty to tell the listener what’s going on onstage, from the stage set up to the mannerisms and body language of the band members, mirror the method of baseball play-by-play announcers describing a wind-up and the pitch….
Would the concerts be as enjoyable if Boilen didn’t do any calling at all and the concert just started with the band playing? How would the listening experience be if it was just the amp hum, the crowd roar and then the music?
Do we depend on guys like Boilen to paint the picture for us at the venue just as much as we do when a play-by-play announcers go through a dramatic homerun call?
The things I like about how Boilen begins the show is how he does paint the scene; he also ends the show with a dramatic outpouring and likeable euphoric flowing, a rush of expression that is sometimes a few words or a steady stream that always illustrates how he’s feeling in the wake of the show, as the crowd claps and roars in the background.
It’s always interesting to see how live sports intersect with live music, learning how one has influenced the other over the years.
And it’s even more interesting when this intersection somehow creates a new aesthetic for enjoying live music.
And in NPR’s case, it works as an effective way to include all the fans–in the venue or listening at home, or weeks later on a podcast—together in one communal live music experience.
And looking at this from a five senses perspective, it really makes you think about which sense is most important to enjoying a live show.
Sight or Sound?
In this case—and I think Mr. Boilen would agree—that our eyes are just as, if not more important than our ears.
If you haven’t had a chance to enjoy NPR’s live music series hosted by Bob Boilen, I highly suggest checking them out either via the NPR site or their podcasts on iTunes. A recorded March SXSW performance and interview with the Brooklyn-based Yeasayer, provided insight and an opportunity to explore a long-time curiosity of mine; how a band can sound so different from its recorded version to its live performance, giving fans an entirely different experience. The interview also shed light on how Yeasayer writes and performs their songs.
Specifically, Boilen also makes a comment about how after seeing Yeasayer live, he better understood how the band writes songs and that they don’t “improvise” as much as he thought they did. And after he saw them live, it was also clear that the band makes every intention to carefully craft where the songs are going, live and recorded.
Yeasayer’s had this effect on others too, like Justin with Live Music Blog who recalls a similiar revelatory post-concert experience.
I’ve had many instances where seeing a band has increased my interest in their music or allowed me to experience a different aspect of the band; I’ve also had the opposite experience where a band I absolutely loved on album turned out to be a downer live.
And when that happens, I usually find myself asking a series of very quick questions during the performance.
Is it the sound? The venue? The crowd response? My emotional state at that moment?
Sometimes it’s a combination or just one of these and many other factors. But after a performance that throws me in either direction—appreciation or depreciation—I’m always awestoned for awhile after the show, especially if I stuck my neck out and told a friend that they had to see this band and then show ends up really sucking.
To end this post I’ll give an two examples from Lollapalooza 2007 that made me listen to each artist’s music in a completely differently light ever since seeing them live for the first time—one positive and one not so positive.
I reviewed Apostle of Hustle’s sophomore album National Anthem of Nowhere and was excited to hear his performance at Lollapalooza, and I had gone so far as to tell a musician friend that he had to check out his set. Well, we did and ended up leaving halfway through because frontman Andrew Whitman spent too much time telling silly stories of political metaphor and the rhythmic power and intensity I heard on the album was barely present, resulting in live depreciation.
Regina Spektor’s performance, however, took me in the opposite direction. I wasn’t completely sold on her pop solo piano style since I had casually lumped her style in with the rest of the femme-piano pack. But Spektor put on a show that blew me away and was so full of energy and charisma. She gave me no choice but to better appreciate the ubiquity and catchiness of “On the Radio.” I’ve also had to swallow my pride and ask my wife if I can borrow her Regina Spektor CD, the one with that song about remembering how she used to smoke Marlboro cigarettes and tangerines.
So what bands have you seen that turned out to be different live than on record, or vice versa? Have you been to a show that’s changed—appreciated or depreciated—an artist’s music?