When I was in high school I lived in a small, boring town. My classmates found entertainment in after school clubs and sports, parties, even bible studies. None of these activities held any interest for me whatsoever, so I found myself spending a lot of time staring at my ceiling, listening to music, or watching John Hughes movies. I think it must have been my sophomore year when I discovered The Backstage at the Capital Theatre in Olympia, Washington. The details escape me, but I imagine that my friend Joe and I were aimlessly wandering the streets and found ourselves drawn down the graffiti covered alley way by the raw, distorted riffs of local bands.
This was in the 90’s, right before Olympia’s popularity blew up with Kill Rock Stars and K Records leading the charge. As a teenager I was drawn into the gritty nightlife of the local music scene – but more importantly I became enamored with live music. I found myself thrashing in punk rock mosh pits, swaying to acoustic folk sets, and mesmerised by larger than life hippie rock. What I discovered was that the genre of music didn’t matter to me, it was the passion with which the artist performed. As I grew up and became employed, I found myself going to any and every concert I could. I have been lucky enough to have seen amazing bands that faded away, bands on small stages that soon would be playing stadiums, and even legends. Of all these shows, I have found that my opinion on a live show has very little to do with the released albums, or even my predilection for the band at all. Actually, I have found that some of my favorite acts to see are bands whose recordings I would never actually listen to even after seeing live.
I first realized that there was a disparity between albums and performances when I saw Blink 182 live. To this day, I do not own any of their music. I can’t even remember the last time I listened to one of their songs, and I really can’t even stand Tom Delonge’s voice, but their live performances are among my favorites. Musically, they are true to their recordings, which I can’t say of many of the bands I have seen; but more importantly, they are highly entertaining because they are so comic.
Gogol Bordello is another example of a band whose show I will never miss, but whose music I have yet to own. I had never even heard of Gogol – a friend of mine offered me a ticket if I would drive him to the show; never one to turn down a free show, I went and subsequently had my mind blown. Here is a band whose albums are unrefined at best, and whose videos look like sheer, chaotic nonsense. To see them live, however, is a musically exquisite experience. The pandemonium of Gogol’s performances is a harsh contrast to the precision of their intricately arranged instrumentation. Violinists and accordian players dance around scantily clad women playing large bass drums. One of my favorite Gogol moves is when frontman Eugene Hutz plays percussion on water buckets that are suspended in air by the feet of his dancers. The frenetic energy of the band is overwhelming, but through the stunts and the choreography comes flawlessly played music – their shows are political, passionate, and nothing short of awe inspiring.
Conversely, I have seen Eric Clapton play live. His recordings are amazing and yet his performance was one of the worst I have ever seen. For a legendary guitarist, I expected, oh, I don’t know….a performance. I don’t know if he was sick or depressed or what his problem was, but he sat down on a stool in the center of the stage at the Tacoma dome and didn’t move until the set was over. In all seriousness I’m not even sure if his fingers moved. For all I know he was lip synching, and I had REALLY good seats. Even the crowd was lame. They sat in their chairs smoking pot and barely moving. I remember the opening band was a saxophonist named Curtis Stigers – he was a one hit wonder at the time. I was so dissappointed at the end of this show that a one hit wonder had upstaged a legend of guitar.
Since I have been attending concerts I have held the belief that the performance should be something special. If I want to listen to a band’s music being perfectly played, I will buy the album. When I go to a show I want creativity and passion as well as good artistry. I don’t want to see an artist play through a routine cadre of hits. I want to hear new songs and old songs sprinkled with stories the way I do at Leo Kottke and Bruce Cockburn shows; I want insanity, humor and antics like Gogol Bordello, Sum 41 and Blink 182 offer; I want to be moved to dance the way I am at Neil Diamond or Sky Cries Mary; I want to be rocked the way I am rocked at Incubus or Tool. When I go to a show, I am not impressed unless the performance is magic.