Long Live the Live Show: Part 1
by Kira Grunenberg
The thing that can make choosing a favorite concert so daunting, especially when “live” is included in the mix, is the extra layer of uniqueness that comes along with any in-person and on-the-spot execution. The “live layer” presents us fans with all these factors that go beyond any downloaded, studio mp3.
- Solid musicianship/ad-libbed solos
- Stage theatrics, costuming and appearance
- Artist or band anecdotes
- Venue atmosphere
Even in singling out live music, the reasons we have our favorite concerts all depend on what makes the experience memorable. Sometimes, the biggest takeaway can simply come from thinking about the people with whom we shared the experience, but, more often than not, some combination of these other four elements is what makes a show worth recalling. Not all bands look to execute each element with the knobs cranked up to 11 because their styles of live artistry vary, (You won’t see the guys of Lifehouse tear off their shirts mid-concert the way Justin Timberlake or Adam Levine might.) but, that being said, my personal favorite live show was for John Mayer, during the first half of his “Born and Raised” US tour. I believe for this tour, Mayer hits on each piece of the live package with enough punch to stand out, while never compromising his artistic self to the point where it feels like someone else’s live performance.
One of the biggest draws in your choosing to attend a live show, is the unpredictable and never identical playing done at each individual show. Yes, the songs are 99% played how you know them and often have memorized them but there’s always the opportunity for things like lengthened solos, extra dressed up drum breakdowns, those one or two spur of the moment high notes hit by a back up horn player…these fleeting moments are not on the studio album in your car, or, on the radio edit played through Spotify and a musician like John Mayer is made for this kind of non-repeat draw.
Any ambivalence one might have about Mayer’s personal life aside, the man has exemplary guitar skills that, listen to them enough, are identifiable and characteristic to just him. When a solo or bridge comes up in a song, you know you are in for anywhere between an extra 30 seconds to two minutes of ornate solos and fancy fretwork, that, should you also be lucky enough to see closely, makes the shows worthwhile all on their own. Add the signature quality of John Mayer’s voice (and the impressive recovery of his sound post-granuloma) and it’s hard not to want every moment saved for posterity in a box wherein you could take them out to listen again anytime, soaking up each note because it’s impossible to get it all in the single play through.
When it comes to visuals, since Mayer and his band are so keen on their playing and execution, somersaults and exploding flare effects are not his expected cup of tea. Still, a creative, vibrant and thematic set of backdrops can do the trick just as well and ensure your eyes don’t get bored or strain trying to focus on small figures standing far away on stage, absent other things at which to look. The “out west” musical and lyrical themes of “Born and Raised” lend themselves well to backdrops used on this tour, providing scenic stage setups emulating starry skies and desert backdrops with a few abstract patterns to boot. The visual “wow factor” is there and connects with the lyrical narrative but is restrained enough to not distract from the music.
During the breaks between songs and roaring applause, besides trying to snap photos of the stage or people on stage, those of us in the audience can often be found holding the record button on our smartphones to capture our favorite artist speaking, possibly sharing a joke, story behind a song or a personal anecdote that pops into their head. Again, some artists do this more than others but regardless of the amount, these tidbits provide transparency that you can’t necessarily take home if the show you are at is not being made into a live DVD.
How can we as fans and the companies that support artists contend with this conundrum? Come back for Part II to discuss the other half of “the live package!”
About the author: Kira is a music journalist out to highlight the threads that connect all the arts, through writing and provocative discussion. She is the Executive Editor for the AAMPP™ Music Network, which recently partnered with her website, ThrowtheDiceandPlayNice.com and a regular contributor to SoundCtrl.com. Follow her on Twitter: @shadowmelody1