I will readily admit that my father had a huge impact in my life in many different ways. Be it interests, hobbies, mannerisms, ideas, or viewpoints, I inherited many facets of my life from him. One viewpoint that made a strong impression on me was his notion that a band was no good if they sucked in concert.
My father was born in 1951 (he died of a heart attack in 2003), so his formative years were during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was an avid music lover, and even played in a band in high school. Growing up in Passaic, NJ, he had access to all of the venues that were located in North Jersey and New York City, particularly loving the Fillmore East. He attended Woodstock (though claimed that he got sick and never heard a note of music), but failed to ever see Jimi Hendrix in concert even though he had a ticket (the Newark riots were happening at the time). He loved live music, and made bands’ performances the benchmark of their overall quality as musicians. Here are some examples:
- He walked out on Led Zeppelin, and disliked them from that moment on.
- He hated the Steve Miller Band because Miller refused to perform at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s while anti-Vietnam riots were occurring on campus, a concert my dad helped book.
- He had no respect for Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s band, because they were insanely drunk and sounded horrible when he saw them live.
Those are just a few negative examples (and mainly the ones I remember) of how my dad really felt that live shows showed the real talent of a band or artist (the Miller story doesn’t really show that, I just think it’s a funny anecdote). There are some positive examples, like how he was totally blown away by Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade when he took my brother and I to see them, and when he saw Elvis Costello and the Imposters on a whim only to come home and claim that it was one of the best shows he ever seen. He passed on this view of live music to me, and though I am less adamant about it as he was, I agree with his thinking.
There are two major aspects to a live musical performance: musical execution and stage performance. For me, depending on who I’m seeing, I might care about one more than the other, but no matter what, if the musical execution is poor, then the show is ruined for me. I could care less about how the band on stage is acting if they can’t play the songs they’re playing. I don’t pay money to watch musicians act on stage, I pay money to hear them perform their music.
Let me clarify things a bit. I usually get into bands based on their recordings. So when I go see them live, I have the expectation that I will at least hear what I heard on the recording or at least something on the same level (obviously acoustic/solo shows are the exception). If the band/artist cannot meet that expectation I almost always lose respect/interest for them. If this does happen, I almost always stop supporting the act in any way, shape or form.
This may sound cold-hearted, but if a band can’t prove that they are who they claim to be, via their recording, then why should I be supportive? It’s great that their album sounds good, but now I’m not sure if it was a quality musical execution in the studio or a fantastic production job. If you are a professional musician you should be able to reproduce what you record (unless your act is based on what you can do in the studio). Honestly, this is mainly for professional, national-touring bands; I usually have a much more open heart when it comes to local bands since they aren’t playing every night. Of course, there is the chance that the night I see the act they are just having a horribly off night, but unless they have a stellar reputation, it is unlikely that I will give them a second chance (it took me 10 years to see Galactic a second time because they were so bad the first time I saw them, but I’m glad I gave them a second look). However, if a band/artist exceeds my expectations musically, then there is a very good chance that I will leave the show a fan of them.
Now, as I mentioned above, the second facet of a good live show is the stage performance. Normally, if a band has incredible stage presence and knows how to work a crowd, it just enhances the entire experience because I’m mainly there to hear the music. However, there are times when my expectations for stage presence/performance are elevated because I know that the act will execute the music (e.g. Ben Folds playing a show by himself). But if the act relies too much on their stage show (e.g. KISS), then there is a good chance I will lose interest, because it tells me that they are putting on a stage show rather than a musical performance.
Stated simply: I go to live shows to experience music firsthand. Everything else is secondary.
So the best shows for me are usually shows where the band/artist takes their music to a level beyond what their recordings showcase. This could mean expanding on their songs (e.g. Medeski Martin & Wood, The Black Crowes, Robert Randolph) or just putting so much energy and emotion into their performance that you have no choice but to feel it (e.g. The Black Keys, Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings). And really, there is no better feeling than being a great live show.
Now, I’ve kind of gotten off track in regards to my father’s view on live shows, so let me get back to that. I’ve really only walked out of one show of a band that I was going to see, and that was Galactic in 2001. As mentioned earlier, I gave them a second chance based on their reputation of putting on a great live show. Yet, for 10 years I refused to see them or buy any of their albums because I came away from the show feeling gypped. Like my father did with a few bands he saw, I held a grudge. But since they were playing in Lawrence for a reasonable price, had an opening band that I wanted to see (Orgone), and had that reputation, I went, and had a totally different experience than the first time around.
Does this mean that I will never hold a grudge against a band again due to a poor live performance? Probably not, but I will at least try to figure out why the show was so bad and decide whether it’s worth seeing the band/artist again. In all honesty, I doubt I will ever stop using live shows as the barometer for musicians, because experiencing live music is one of my favorite things in life, just like my father.
So bands beware! I will be judging you if/when I see you, and I just hope that you do not suck, so that I can continue to be a fan of yours until my days are done.
Now I’ve been lucky enough to see most of the bands and artists that I like, but there are still those acts that I have not yet been able to see. So to end this post, here is my current bucket list for bands/artists that I want to see live (in no particular order):
- Levon Helm
- Paul McCartney
- Booker T. Jones
- Bruce Springsteen
- Pearl Jam
- Steve Winwood
- Eric Clapton
- The Meters
- Jason Falkner
- John Mayer Trio