Monday, May 21, 2007

The pleasures and pain of live music

A lot of people -- including myself, when younger -- don't like live music, because they want to hear the performers sounding *exactly* like they do on the record. It's taken me awhile to appreciate hearing performers live, warts and all, but I think that's become one of the most entertaining aspects of trekking to concerts: the unexpected. It's fascinating to see how performers relate (or don't) to a live audience and how they respond when things beyond their control, perhaps, go haywire.

I like getting a little glimpse of how they relate to band mates, how their nerves manifest themselves, or how they conform (or don't) to the mood of the audience on a particular night. You can certainly tell from reading concert reviews (non-pros more than pros) that performances vary wildly from one night to another, one city to the next. The artists themselves recognize that certain intangibles make one show electric and another one completely flat. What makes a performance "transcendent" and what merely good?

I had an excellent opportunity to explore all of these things during a public radio sponsored concert over the weekend that included this wonderfully diverse line-up (in order of performance): Paula Cole (back from "Where have all the cowboys gone?" post-Lilith Fair obscurity); Charlie Louvin (introducing songs he first recorded in 1955!); Suzanne Vega; the trippy rock band Vietnam; and finally, our hero, Ryan Adams.

The anxious fanboys and fangirls had crowded in early for Ryan, and yeah, I was mostly there for him as well, although I was really looking forward to Vega and checking out Vietnam, who I didn't know much about at all. So first Paula Cole: great voice, sexy little black dress, cool heels, and some really bizarre dance moves. As we say in the south, bless her heart. She was a bit hard to watch. She either needs to wear the dress and be a softly swaying songstress or check into some blue jeans more conducive to rocking out, if that's her version of it.

Charlie Louvin broke out the old school country and gospel tunes that your grandaddy might have been singing along to after returning from Korea (the War, that is). He was a treat and such an old hand. He wasn't the least bit confounded by the kids in their baby doll t-shirts and dyed mohawks. Introducing one old love'em and leave'em crying song, he observed wryly to the front rows, "You're too young to have lost anything yet." He served up the stage banter he's been rolling out for a good fifty years, and it still mostly works.

Suzanne Vega is just Cool. She's got a sexy, smarter-than-you, big-city elegance that I wasn't really expecting. She sounds amazing, which I was expecting. Her new CD "Beauty and Crime" is coming out this summer and sounds like it will be strong. One of our household, all-time favorites is "Nine Objects of Desire," which I guess was her last full release, not counting retrospectives.

I liked Vietnam, after my initial fright (two of those boys look like Charles Manson, without the crazy eyes -- although I may not have been close enough). Seriously, there might have been more total hair on display than My Morning Jacket. In fact, they make MMJ look Esquire-groomed by comparison. Plus, MMJ doesn't scare me. Whoa--I don't know what the songs actually said, but their sound is very authentically post-911, the world is fucked, and we're-here-to-witness (they're based in Brooklyn). I also called them "attack of the Allman Bros." because the drummer's blonde hirsuteness was more hippy-smooth than the others. They're sort of Bob Dylan crossed with hairy southern rock with some goth undertones. What the hell? I thought they were creepily compelling and sure to be condemned by the likes of Karl Rove, W., and company, which makes them aces in my book.

Ryan, Ryan. In his defense, he apparently tore a ligament while skateboarding and can't play the guitar. Okay, accidents happen. The show still goes on and the brat boy had such a wonderful opportunity to ingratiate himself by showing up, being charming and self-deprecating (I know, I know). But, no. First of all, I wasn't aware that he'd had any sort of accident, so he and the band gather in near total darkness toward the back of the stage, sitting on stools, making it hard to decipher just which one was Ryan Adams. Finally, his disembodied voice (like an angel, of course) emerges from the crouched and hooded figure near the piano.

So the lights never came up, no one ever said diddly to the audience, and though the songs (new ones) sounded pretty good, we were all too bemused/disappointed/miffed to notice. What the heck is he doing? Is that a splint on his hand? Did he tear an eye-ligament (big-ass, ridiculous sunglasses, despite the gloom)? Is that a shower cap he's wearing under the hoodie? Is he reading the music off a stand (I definitely saw him turning pages)? Is that actually Ryan Adams or a changeling? So many questions. His first and only words were good night and thanks as he and the band left the stage after playing about 30 minutes. If only we'd had pitchforks and torches on us. Who knew?

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