What is it about live music that makes it so special?
Now that’s a question that may be impossible to answer within a bunch of words hammered out on a keyboard in some forgotten part of the country (well, at least by the Tories but shall we keep this apolitical? We’ll see). To truly define live music is only to witness it though, and whilst you may write your reviews or pontificate to all and sundry about how remarkable such and such band was, the truth remains that they will never understand that feeling of actually being there. Sure, they can relate, as can any person who has attended a live gig and had their world turned, but unless they share that same feeling about that same band then they are never going to get it. The only ones who get it are that crowd of people who are in the same room as you at that time, and even then it depends on whether a certain moment hits them at the same time. In the hands of a great live act the odds are that they will, but often it becomes something personal as the music speaks to just you at that moment.
But what defines “that moment”? Picture the scene. . . the opening chords of your favourite song starts. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be your favourite song, it might just be a recognition of a track you happen to like. The music swells, and with it the crowd become some amorphous blob as it sways in time with the sounds emanating from the stage. That crowd could be a mass of 60 or 70,000 or it could be 20 people in a pub, it doesn’t matter. It can even be a singular experience, and we have all been there. . . that lone person lost in the music of some band whilst all other onlookers look on bemused or at the bottom of their pints. I wonder what goes through the musicians’ minds at that stage? Bewilderment that someone actually likes them, or the fact that here they are in yet another shitty gig but at least they are getting paid? (unless it’s for exposure because you know, that’s just what musicians thrive and survive one).
Maybe that defining moment will always be your first experience of live music, although I would argue that to give it some meaning it would have to be the first time you see your favourite band. When I was 14 my favourite band was Marillion, and my first gig would end up being. . . Marillion, and I will never forget that moment when they arrived on stage. The lights went down and the opening chords of ‘King of Sunset Town’ swelled from the keyboards. The stage was obscured by a curtain but as that searing guitar from Steve Rothery burst out, it dropped to reveal the band. There, on stage, were my heroes. OK, they had a new singer but that didn’t faze me. Seasons End was a new beginning, and here was me at the start of what would be a continuous journey of live music through the years. As the blinding white-light cast out over the audience and H stepped up to the mic, all that mattered was the roar of the crowd as they sang the opening line of the song with him. I was there, in that moment, and it could never be relived. Sure, they had a support band (Little Angels if I remember rightly), and sure, I’d seen bands in the local boozer, but my god, here were my heroes in the flesh.
I would see Marillion two more times down the road, and each time they would be absolutely brilliant, and there would be moments during each when I would feel that initial feeling inside, usually during ‘Slainte Mhath’ which stirs something inside so deep; and don’t get me started on ‘Warm Wet Circles’. I would even end up meeting my heroes, and interviewing Mark Kelly, but nothing ever reached the pinnacle of that one moment. I can’t even remember the rest of the gig and have more memories of the second time I saw them as they played some of the second side of Misplaced Childhood. I’d become a gig veteran and now awaited the time when they played that song they rarely played. I became one of those people. . .
OK, maybe I didn’t, but regularly seeing a band does lead down that slippery road, and trust me, as a Springsteen fan, you end up chasing your dream forever and a day. What remained for me though, was a resolute excitement (and still does if I’m being honest) at seeing a band live. Even now, after over 30 years of attending gigs, I still retain a giddy glee at what may be. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in a time when both legends of the past were accessible (at a reasonable price), and new bands have arrived on the scene which would turn the music world upside down. Within that the festival scene has seen the kind of renaissance that everyone thought Woodstock had left for dead and that only a few old hippies continued to attend. The rise and rise of “festival culture” from the early 90s has been nothing short of remarkable; and whilst people will always argue “it’s not like it used to be” the truth is if you go to any major festival these days you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer diversity and inclusion (ok, still work to be done there if we’re being honest). Go to Glastonbury and you will witness not only a festival, but THE best festival on the planet. I went pretty much every year from 1994 to 2008 and the differences between the first time and the last time are immense in terms of scale. In terms of atmosphere and meaning, nothing has changed. It’s a beacon of live music which every artist on the planet aspires to playing, and for a reason.
But let’s go back to “that moment” and how we define it. I guess it can be classed into several groups. The most familiar is the hit single, and one only has to go see James to get a sense of what that means, so much so that they ended up opening their set with the song just to get it out the way. Yes, ‘Sit Down’ is a cracking song but there is so much more to James, so what does it offer that other songs in their catalogue don’t? Maybe it’s the kind of communal atmosphere that draws people in, combined with the simplicity of the chorus. “Oh, Sit Down, oh sit down. . .” and in the past the audience would sit down. Yes, that ultimate defiance of enjoying a band turned on its head by the audience actually sitting down in joy at a song. By not only tapping into the pulse that drives a crowd, they invert that in making the actions of the crowd the opposite of what should happen. Clever bastards.
Of course, there are many more examples of the “hit song” moment and they have come to be known as that “festival moment” in part. Here’s a band, thrown on stage with a 45-minute set, their last weapon in their armoury being their hit song. Of course, they’ll play it last and get that communal feeling, and if they’re lucky some TV coverage. The Kaiser Chiefs cottoned on to this and made every song a hit single. Even at their early gigs before they were famous and supporting such luminaries as Ordinary Boys (remember them?) they had a set jam-packed with those classic hit singles in waiting. Weirdly, the audience was susceptible to starting a riot back then too, which only goes to show the power of a well-written audience song.
Along with the hit single, you get the “fan favourite”. Now, this can be a single (usually not a hit one though), or it can be a cut of the album (usually not a deep-cut one though). It’ll be the kind of tune which the likes of U2 or REM peddle when they want that mass communal feel but also want to keep it low key. The prime example is ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ and for anyone who has ever seen U2 live, this is the moment when the arena comes to life. Not that they haven’t been alive before that and, having seen U2 many times, I can certainly vouch for the audience being totally complicit in Bono and Co’s antics. When those opening chords sound though, the audience becomes one as they raise their hands to clap in the Edge’s guitar. It’s that familiar build and burst as it reaches its climax with everyone howling “I want to live, I want to run. . .”. Trust me, if you haven’t seen U2 live, this is worth the ticket price alone. I’ve been lucky to see them a number of times, including following them gig by gig on the Elevation tour, and this moment has always defined not just a U2 gig, but a live gig, full stop.
The third, and most elusive/exclusive is the “deep cut” and this is where you reach the levels of the constant gig-goer. This is the moment in a gig when an artist plays a song which is probably only known by a percentage of the audience. In the case of Bruce Springsteen, who regularly plays to stadiums expecting to hear ‘Born in the USA’, he might throw in a track such as ‘Thundercrack’ which resides on his Tracks box set. OK, it’s available for public consumption, but for the majority of those fair-weather fans there for the “hit single” or even the “fan favourite” it’s likely to be lost on them. To the hardened fan though, this is manna. This is the moment they have been waiting for. We spoke about that first gig experience; this may be the only one that matches it in the eyes of that hardcore fan. Radiohead go one step further and play songs which no-one knows, and most people don’t care about. There will always be one Radiohead fan opining that it’s the best song they ever did though. But that’s Radiohead fans.
All variations on the above three strands have value; but when you get a song which simply transcends all of it, that is when you are in gig paradise. To “define” that song on a mass appeal, or in a box as we have done above, is impossible as it is a moment which hits you on a personal level. The transcendence happens when each and everyone in the audience gets hit by their own personal emotion. Maybe a good example would be REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’. Here is a song which is full of mystery, with a lyric which is barely perceptible in any sense yet affects the listener as if it is their own personal hymn. It strikes a chord across cultural boundaries bringing different meaning to different people in different countries. It is almost spiritual, if you are that way inclined, and results in an instant in time where you completely lose yourself in the moment and everything outside of that song becomes immaterial. This can only truly happen in the live arena, and maybe it is this, more than anything, that defines the true power of live music, and makes it so special.
In a nutshell, the power of live music can be one that is both communal and personal, sometimes at the same time. It is the breathing force of music and its tendrils reach way back before the existence of recorded sound. It is something to be cherished, and with music venues facing a huge crisis, we should all be lobbying those in political power to ensure that it continues in the form we are used to. Part of me thinks this is a lost cause for many venues, but another part of me knows that through it all live music will survive. Some venues may disappear, but in their place will spring up new and innovative ways of presenting live music. We have seen the opening of pop-up venues, gigs in old cathedrals, living rooms of houses, and many more places outside the traditional concert hall play host to gigs. This in part inspires me and makes me believe that wherever there is a space available, live music can, and will find a way, and continue to bring that special moment that us music fans live for so much. Rainbow may have said ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, I say Long Live Live Music in whatever form it takes.