Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does live music have to be seen to be made?

To the O2 to see Pet Shop Boys and marvel at the staggering number of great records they have made. Most of the music is actually coming off an invisible hard disk. Neil stands still and sings. Chris stands behind a podium which could be a Hostess trolley for all we can see of what he's doing with his hands back there. Terrific as the show is, it's difficult for an audience to demonstrate its enthusiasm as it normally would when the show continues as if on castors. The audience likes to feel it can influence what's going on on stage by applauding bits of the performance it particularly likes. Clearly, such observations are the maunderings of a survivor from an earlier age. However it's clear that other people feel the same atavistic impulse, judging by the way the applause swells when the dancers do something spectacular. They are clearly doing something that we know we could never do ourselves. Our traditional expectations of a concert involve music not merely being done, but being seen to be done.


  1. I've had this debate many times with the kind of people who think that electronic acts like the Chemical Brothers are suitable fare for festival headliners.

    It turns out that for many people, it doesn't matter. Just being in a roomful of like minded people enjoying the same music is enough. They could happily dance with their backs to the stage (although the lightshow is also an attraction). They do believe that this kind of act "feeds off the energy from the crowd", and will twiddle a knob or trigger the change to a different sequencer loop at a different time in response...

    In response, I've loosened up, and can treat such gigs as a step up from a DJ set.

    But I'd rather see music being made. I like to see a direct hand-to-note cause-and-effect. I'd rather know that a performer could fluff a bar, or that the whole band could go off-set-list on a whim.

  2. My wife and I went to see the Pet Shop Boys at Hammersmith a couple of years ago. It was one of the dullest things I've ever seen. We went out to the bar after about 45 min and didn't bother going back.

    It's exactly as you say, the only visible activity was the dancers, and even they appeared to be pre-programmed.

  3. I saw the Mighty Chems headline a festival about ten years ago, and John H is quite right. Consoles notwithstanding, it works if the artists respond to the audience by DJ-ishly using breakdowns and triumphant bass returns at just the right time. Otherwise, it doesn't. The PSBs don't really have that option, stuck as they are with sticking to the tune of all their hits. It's what people want, but it also takes all the spontaneity out of the live-show experience.

    Interestingly, the two acts on before the Chems at that festival were Alanis Morissette in full hair-hurling mode and Muse with all their then-still-burgeoning bombast. But the Chems came on and showed them how to "do" a festival - despite their being so physically restrained on stage, their setlist was a lot more fluid and able to both follow and direct the crowd's mood and responses.

  4. I saw TCB and Daft Punk at a festival in Barcelona a few years ago. My main reason for going was to see Rufus Wainwright, who was great, but he's never going to wow a festival. Both "DJ" sets (on different stages) certainly delivered what the crowd wanted though. Daft Punk were physically about as far removed from the crowd as anyone could ever be, standing up high in conical towers, and wearing Darth Vader-style helmets and cloaks. It wasn't for me (I thought they could have sent anyone along) but they got 80% of the crowd there going. As Archie says, they were able to respond, they were in tune with what (most of) the audience wanted. At the same time, Razorlight were playing the largest stage (after the Cardigans or something) with only about 1000 people watching. In the end, people vote with their feet.