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Building The Perfect Concert

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Neil Young and Crazy Horse--"Are You Ready For The Country (live)" (mp3)

Over the next month or so, I begin a fairly intense (for me), if brief, concert season--Springsteen in Louisville, Sufjan Stevens in Chattanooga, The Who in Nashville.  These are all big shows for me in one way or another.  Several of my friends going have never seen Springsteen before, so the chance to experience that with them is exciting.  Our seats are behind the stage; I've never done that before, but Trout assures me it's a satisfying concert experience.  Sufjan is playing Track 29, our newish, popular concert venue for pretty big, not huge, acts.  I saw the Drive-By Truckers there briefly, until circumstances and friendship caused me to have to leave.  He is playing a Christmas show; I love his homemade Christmas CDs.  Seeing the "half-Who", as Trout calls them, is something I was talked into.  It wasn't too difficult; they're playing Quadrophenia in its entirety and that was a seminal album during my teenage years.  That concentration of shows got me thinking, what makes for a perfect concert?

(It didn't hurt that I had to drive a group of boys back from Nashville the other night very late and the only thing that kept me awake was blasting through the headphones a bootleg recording of Neil Young's current tour, specifically his stop at Red Rocks in Colorado. A live music can create an envelope, a trance-like experience that you don't want to leave.)

So, after some pondering while driving a microbus, while cutting the grass, while not watching football all weekend, here's what I've come up with:

1.  Actually, Billy and I agreed on this a few weeks ago: the ideal length for a concert is about 2 1/2 hours.  Unless an artist is a solo performer playing an acoustic show, 90 minutes makes it seem like he or she is doing the bare minimum.  To go beyond 2 1/2 hours, you had better be pretty damn good because you've got to hold people's attention in this modern, fragmented for a long time.  Not easy.  So, 2 1/2 hours.

2.  Of that, I'd say that almost all of that, at least 130 minutes of that, should be the main show, not the encore.  There was a time when an encore meant something, when the chances of it were always in doubt, and the audience had to earn it with their enthusiasm.  Then, for someone to play 2, 3, or even 4 encores represented a real connection between artist and audience.  With encores now obligatory, I'd argue that even the greatest artist should play one or two songs and then get off stage.

3.  A perfect concert contains music that the audience hasn't heard before.  In our world, for anyone with some Internet savvy, that is almost impossible to be true, so what I mean is that the artist is playing songs on the tour that have not yet been released on CD.  If a song has been written during the tour, even better.  Usually.

4.  But, much as I admire Neil Young, the extreme case should not happen.  An artist should not play all new material, or even mostly new material.  That demands too much from the audience.  It even violates a kind of unspoken "social contract."  We deserve some reference points, some reminders, some great songs from the past, even if they only reach the faithful, that anchor the new material and remind us of where the artist is coming from to get to where he or she is now.

5.   I kind of think the best concert takes place outside.  For now.  That is probably because Bruce Springsteen outside at Wrigley Field had a special vibe.  These three shows I'm seeing are all inside, so I'll probably change my mind.  Hard to argue against the reality, though, that when it's warm outside and music is playing, almost anything sounds good.  And that the good can become great.

6.  The easy thing to say about the size of a venue would be to say the smaller the better, the more intimate the more rewarding.  But I've found from experience that isn't always true.  I've seen Led Zeppelin in a baseball stadium and barely enjoyed it; I've seen Alejandro Escovedo with 50 or so people in a very small venue and his apparent disappointment with the size of the crowd also led to an underwhelming experience.  So it isn't the size of the venue, it's what the performer does with it.  Springsteen made a stadium work; being right up on Son Volt in a small club when Jay Farrar was in a good mood and the band was clicking was equally unbeatable.

7.  There needs to be a surprise.  It could be a guest, it could be the set, it could be the setlist, it could be a cover song.  Given that my friend Trout researches every show so thoroughly, I'd like for it to be something that catches even him off guard, like discovering that Eddie Vedder makes a good foil to Springsteen on "My Hometown."  It could be something specific for the town that the concert takes place in.

8.  I'm challenging Billy with this one.  The known songs, at least some of them, as presented in concert, need to expand on their recorded versions.  Whether that means a more extended jam, a reimagining, an acoustic version turned electric rocker or vice-versa, the audience should get to hear some songs in new ways, so that when they get back to their homes and music players, they have a different appreciation for some songs that they thought they knew or that they had ignored.  But sorry, Eagles, it doesn't mean playing "Hotel California" exactly the same, note for note, except on acoustic guitars.

9. Women.  I'll be blunt; I know rock is mostly a man's game, but when a band adds a woman, for vocal contrast, for back-up, because she's simply in the band, because she walks on stage to sing a song or two, it tends to humanize everything. I know the women may not like it, but for us, it goes without saying that a woman enriches the concert experience--aurally and visually. That may not have mattered as much when I was a teenager, but it matters now.  When the Smithereens sing "I'm in a lonely place without you" without the woman who is singing the other vocal on the CD, the song is diminished.  If we could see that voice, even better.

10.  The artist has to have some rapport with the audience.  I'm really not interested in the engmatic, misanthropic performer who can't be bothered to acknowledge that he (or she, though not likely) is actually playing for an audience of living, breathing people.  If that wall is that high, stay home.  I'll listen to your CDs instead and try to pretend you're not a freak show.  Even if all you have to say is "Thank you," say it, over and over again. 

No doubt, concert fans, your criteria would be different.  I'd enjoy hearing what your own standards for a great show are.

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