What makes live music “good,” onstage and on-record?

What makes live music “good,” onstage and on-record?

Somewhere around 5 p.m. on the second day of this year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, I was on the verge of falling asleep. Blame an exciting first day, with world-beating sets by Bob Mould (playing Sugar’s Copper Blue in full), X (playing Los Angeles), Lucero, Superchunk, Against Me!, and a reunited Run-D.M.C. But I’d had high hopes for day two, looking forward to seeing Surfer Blood, an uptempo indie-rock band whose debut album I liked very much, and Real Estate, a mellower but generally likeable group. At Fun Fun Fun, Surfer Blood merely sounded good, but didn’t do much besides stand still and play, while Real Estate was only slightly more animated, playing lightly pleasant music that seemed to dissipate into the sunset at Auditorium Shores. Feeling too dozy too soon, I wandered off to the other end of the park, where I happened upon New York hardcore punk legends Youth Of Today, finishing up its set with a scorching cover of 7 Seconds’ “Young ’Til I Die.”

“Finally,” I thought. “A goddamn rock-’n’-roll show.”

From roughly the ages of 16 to 26, I went out to see live music about as often as I went to the movies or watched TV. Then I got married, had kids, and moved to a town with far fewer good live-music options than I’d had when I lived in Athens, Georgia, or Nashville, Tennessee. These days, I mostly get my live music second-hand, through audio recordings of shows, DVDs of concerts, and appearances by musicians on late-night TV and Austin City Limits. Each of these forums has its own unique demands, often different from the demands of a nightclub performance, arena show, festival gig, or studio recording.

Consider the Grateful Dead. A few months ago, Shout! Factory released the 14-disc DVD box set All The Years Combine, containing the 1977 concert film The Grateful Dead Movie, along with several videotaped Dead concerts shot between 1978 and 1991. Outside of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, my favorite Grateful Dead albums have always been the band’s live albums, and my father used to say the Dead put on one of the best live shows he’d ever seen, back in the early ’70s. (My mother, less impressed by musicianship as an end to itself, repeated the same story with decidedly diminished enthusiasm.) I delved into All The Years Combine eagerly, but while I enjoyed some of the anthropological aspects of The Grateful Dead Movie—which includes fan interviews and backstage documentary footage alongside the performances—I quickly realized that the rest of these DVDs were better as background music than as a piece of visual media that rewards close attention.

That isn’t meant as a knock against The Grateful Dead. The quality of the playing on all of these discs (and the sound mix, which mattered greatly to the Dead) is hard to deny. The 1978 New Year’s Eve show The Closing Of Winterland is especially fine, opening with a seamless 30-minute medley of “Sugar Magnolia,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “Fire On The Mountain” as bewitching as anything The Grateful Dead ever recorded. Besides, I’m sure that had I been in these arenas, with these fans, dancing and singing and sharing the vibe (and whatever else the Deadheads might have to offer), I’d have been transfixed. But taken strictly visually, minus the trippy light shows of the late ’60s, the Dead rarely offered much added value—except to music buffs like my guitar-playing father, who just liked to watch skilled musicians play.

Contrast the Dead with Elvis Costello, who also released a DVD this year, The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook. Recorded over two nights at The Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, Spinning Songbook prominently features the title item: a giant wheel of songs that Costello invites certain audience members to spin, to determine the evening’s setlist. Beyond the wheel, the show includes go-go dancers and celebrity guests—including The Bangles, who sing one song and dance to two others, and TV folk Matt Weiner and Sandra Oh, who each spin the wheel. Plus it has Costello, who moves around, tells jokes, works the crowd, and in nearly every way imaginable is unlike the intense-but-inert Grateful Dead. A stirring moment early in the show sets the tone, as Costello sings his ballad “God Give Me Strength” while standing right in front of the first row of seats, showing the kind of performing generosity that could make any audience into lifelong fans. 

Yet as fun as The Spectacular Spinning Songbook is to watch, the accompanying CD is a real letdown, with the music sounding fairly muddy and the performances coming off as much less exciting without the visual component. That’s especially disappointing given that Costello is so dynamic in concert, and so underrepresented by official live albums. The Grateful Dead have flooded the market with excellent live material; but Costello’s live releases have largely been limited to bonus tracks on his reissues.

The “live album” in general is less of a major event than it once was. In the ’70s, some hardworking touring acts like Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band and The J. Geils Band were hailed first and foremost for their concerts. Until they finally starting getting some radio play for their singles, these bands’ live albums were often more acclaimed and better-selling than their studio albums. Even as recently as the ’80s, a good live album—and live act—could garner a young band some respectability. U2 was already on its way to becoming huge when the band released the Live At Red Rocks concert video and Under A Blood Red Sky mini-LP, but the power of both led to U2 being taken more seriously by critics who’d previously dismissed the band as pretentious post-punkers.

A good live act is still important. Just ask The Flaming Lips, who’ve persisted as one of alt-rock’s top names in large part because of their psychedelic shows. See also Jack White, My Morning Jacket, Fucked Up, and many others. I’d been fairly dismissive of The Arcade Fire until I saw the band perform on Austin City Limits, and was persuaded by the grandeur and passion of the stage show. Ditto St. Vincent, who’d eluded me almost completely on record, but was so stunning on ACL that I became an instant fan. Great bands often make the best case for themselves in concert.

Lately, the documentation of these acts has been largely left up to YouTube fan-shot videos, and one-off performances recorded for iTunes exclusives and the like. There’s so much of that kind of material available now that when much-loved concert attraction The Decemberists released an actual live album this year (the double-disc We All Raise Our Voices To The Air), it was less of a watershed moment than it would’ve been for a major rock band 40 years ago.

On the other hand, all of these new technologies and gateways mean that musicians and fans alike have more choices on how to preserve and enjoy a live show. Videos shot by cell phones and posted online sometimes capture the chaotic, noisy fan experience much more accurately than professionally produced videos do. Conversely, in the concert film Shut Up And Play The Hits, the document of LCD Soundsystem’s thrilling farewell show at Madison Square Garden, the sound mix is so crisp that it might as well have been recorded in a studio—which is fantastic, but doesn’t really get across what it must’ve been like to have been in the audience that night.

That’s always been the big question when it comes to a live album or concert film: Is it meant to be a document of a moment, as close to reality as possible, or is it supposed to be a polished piece of music in and of itself? (Personally, I think it should combine the best elements of both, sounding clean yet still explosive and improvisatory.) And what’s a band supposed to do onstage? Reproduce its albums as accurately as possible, even if that means concentrating so hard that its members are standing stock-still, or pull apart and reinterpret the songs, with lots of jamming, all while remaining constantly in motion?

I don’t think any less of Surfer Blood and Real Estate for being passively note-perfect at Fun Fun Fun Fest. I still enjoy their music and understand that the context may have affected how dull their sets seemed to me. In a small club, both of those bands could well be electrifying. (Ditto if they ever get to play on SNL, or put out a concert film.) But easily the best set I saw that day—and second only to X overall that weekend—was by Refused, the arty Swedish hardcore punk band whose frontman, Dennis Lyxzén, pumped up the crowd, leapt about, swung his microphone, did scissor kicks, and performed. At that time, in that place, Refused was exactly what I wanted to see and hear. And even without the benefit of a DVD or CD recording, it’s a show I’m likely to remember.

I wish I did have a DVD of that Refused show. (I do still have my DVD of the documentary Refused Are Fucking Dead to return to, thank goodness.) And I wish more bands realized that how they perform onstage—and how well they capture that live energy on record—can define them for generations. There’s a moment in The Grateful Dead Movie where a fan complains that the presence of a film crew at a concert is the worst thing the band ever did, and an affront to Deadheads, while another Deadhead tries to calm the guy down, saying that in five years, he’ll be glad the movie exists. Even if the angry Deadhead never did change his mind, I’m glad The Grateful Dead Movie was made, because while there’s a lot of footage of the Dead available post-1980, this movie shows a younger, spryer band, in its mid-’70s heyday.

I thought about that angry Deadhead again while watching the recently released DVD The Doors: Live At The Bowl ’68, which cleans up and expands a legendary film of The Doors playing at The Hollywood Bowl shortly after the release of their third album, Waiting For The Sun. This was during a time when The Doors were still honing their act, and not yet completely sidetracked by Jim Morrison’s erratic onstage provocations. Like the Dead, The Doors didn’t move much onstage, but Morrison’s commanding voice and swaying form were riveting. More importantly, this film humanizes a band often spoken of exclusively in larger-than-life terms. In Live At The Bowl, it’s just four dudes playing groovy garage rock on a large stage, while spouting poetry that the audience would sometimes nod along with and sometimes laugh at, prompted in both cases by Morrison himself. On record, The Doors sometimes seem preposterously ponderous and faux-heavy. In front of this crowd, in this film, they come to life.

Filed Under: Music

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