Monday, June 02, 2008

6/2/08 - When to go see live music - part 1

I saw a lot of live music in college and the year following. I've seen a lot less of it in the last couple of years, but the corresponding quality has gone way up. I was having this conversation with a friend the other day, about what kinds of bands I like to see live, and I figured I would set down my personal ground rules/guidelines.

1. Communal Experience

If it's the kind of music that everybody sings along with at the height of the party when it hits the jukebox at the bar, go see it. It was this rationale that led me to the Def Leppard/Bryan Adams show at Coney Island, which is probably in the top 10 moments of my life. As a card-carrying musical elitist for the bulk of my high school listening life and a devotee of the small rock club show since my initiation by way of a thundering Less Than Jake show at Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, I had kind of missed out on the big arena show. As is true in most things, my brother David was a step ahead of me despite being years younger. He had the good sense to go see AC/DC rock Walnut Creek Ampitheatre, and had nothing but raves. As my musical tastes expanded throughout college, I reached the position where I was ready to get rocked, unapologetically, with lighters 'n' all, with what seemed like half of Brooklyn. Bryan Adams opened with a solid set of cheesy overly earnest rock, making sure to hit the high notes of his catalog (prompted a hilarous overheard gripe in the men's bathroom from a guy wearing a Ratt shirt, who was REALLY PISSED that the Lep had stooped to playing with someone as non-rocking as Bryan Adams). Our rock receptors warmed up by "Summer of 69", we were ready for the Leppard to rock us.

They did. Oh how they did. It was like being engulfed in a gigantic wall of pleasure. Every single note in the Def Leppard catalog is calibrated expertly to hit the caveman (or cavewoman) part of the brain that grunts: mmm. good. more. To hear this notes with thousands of other people at top volume while aided by copious amounts of Bud Light - well, let's just say I've never felt prouder to be an American. Yes, Def Leppard are British, but this was summer at Coney Island, damn it. I was ready to go fly a fighter jet right then and there. One of the guys I went to the show with had brought small packets of brown sugar, and during "Pour Some Sugar On Me" ripped them open and threw the sugar like wedding confetti over the dancing throngs in our section. I could have shed a tear for the beauty of the moment. And then he proceeded to start making out with a girl who looked like she was about 17, and the moment became about 3 times as wonderful.

So - if it's going to be a massive communal experience, it's an almost guaranteed good time. Don't be fooled and think this category applies to the yearly flash-in-the-pans that show up and everyone is into because they're new and it's the thing to be into - those shows are usually pretty terrible. The ones that I'm talking about are ones where the back catalog forms half of any given classic rock radio playlist (or the equivalent to whatever genre).

Some bands that fall into this category for me: AC/DC, Van Halen, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Violent Femmes, Weezer (even though they now release terrible music, although that can pretty much apply to every band in this category)

2. Live Energy.

If a band's music doesn't lend itself to high-energy performance, I don't go. This was a rule I put in place for myself after I saw a Spoon show. I like Spoon. They're a good band, with good songs for the most part. They're very tight. But they play low-impact indie "rock". They're not going to blow the doors down, nor are they interested in doing so. They're interested in exploring wiry guitar pop songs pared down to their base elements. All very interesting when I'm walking around the city with my headphones on. Boring and unremarkable in person. I had the same experience with Ryan Adams. I love a lot of Ryan Adams's stuff, but when I saw his solo show, I realized that I was just watching Acoustic Guitar Guy - a very talented version, but still. When he set up an electic guitar and played a solo version of "Like A Virgin", my resolve hardened. No more of this. So I try to see bands that have the prospect of a live show propelling high-energy songs even higher. These shows are even better in small clubs, when the energy packs down tight.

Bands that this rule applies to: White Stripes, The Hold Steady, Local H, The Hives.

These rules will not serve you wrong. "Hmm, should I see the Shins live?" you ask. The correct answer: "Heck no. I will go home, make myself some hot tea, fluff my loofah, run the bath, and turn on the shins to waft through the bathroom door as I relax."

"What about Stone Temple Pilots? They're doing a reunion tour, that seems kind of lame." Correct answer: "Where do I sign? They want money which means they'll play all the good songs off of 'Purple' at volume 20 and Scott Weiland will writhe like a crazy person and I will hold up a big 'Food and Gas Available' sign above my head during 'Interstate Love Song'."

Rules and examples. What more could a person ask for?

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