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The Night Of Your Life – What Makes A Good Concert?

We’ve all been there. One morning you’re minding your own business, checking Facebook or Twitter over your morning coffee when BAM! Short of breath, starting to shake, palpitations, hyperventilation: your favourite band is COMING TO YOUR TOWN!! The adrenaline smacks you in the forehead and you suffer an excitement overload. Years and years you’ve been waiting for them to tour, they’ve been to every other city in the world but finally, mercifully, they’ve penned in a date in your home town. The nervous wait begins. You sign up for every newsletter remotely related to the touring company and the venue in the hope of entering a pre-sale, you wake up at 6am and sit on the ticket website all morning clicking refresh, and then that moment. Your transaction goes through, you’ve just booked in one of the greatest nights of your life!

Or so you thought. See the problem is, whilst many artists and bands exude a presence and a quality that you relate to on record, some are unable or even unwilling to transfer this in to a compelling and enjoyable live show. We’ve all experienced a dud, flat night. You’ve had the date written in huge red ink for months, you’ve listened to the bands entire back catalogue, you’re all dressed up and half drunk and ready for an insane night. And the band SUCKS! They forget the name of your city, they don’t even say hello, the lead singer can’t sing and the rest look like they drank cement before going on stage. There’s no movement, no energy, no vibe, and the whole night ends up being a disaster. But why? What makes a good live show? What makes a bad one? Does it even matter if a band sucks?

Yes, it most certainly does. Evolutions in the music industry since the dawn of the file sharing age have consigned the revenue streams of old to the scrap heap – only the mega-artists are making money out of record sales (guys like Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Chris Martin). This places the importance back on live performance, a staple of the commercially unviable band since the 50s. For the best part of 60 years bands have been slogging it out up and down the American coasts, slumming it in the seedy UK bars, playing the dirtiest of German fetish clubs, and braving the bar brawls and snake bites of Australian RSL clubs to pay the bills. This has fostered knowledge and wisdom amongst the journeymen of the industry – a killer live show can make up for a record that’s lead single charted 92. Word of mouth spreads, friends tell friends, satisfied punters start becoming repeat customers, sales lift and moderate to healthy success ensues.

In Australia, legends such as Cold Chisel built a cult following through their tireless and erratic shows.  Overseas fans might have heard of (and subsequently began to despise) an artist called GOTYE, and his SMASH hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” His superstardom appears, to the naked eye, to have been placed in his lap overnight. However, dig deeper and we find that he created a band called The Basics in 2001, a band widely regarded as the hardest working in the country, having played over 1000 shows in the decade they were together. He was honing his craft. Success comes to those who work hard at it. Bruce Springsteen is a household name, still, after 40 years in the game. On the other side of the coin, a poor live show can torch a bands reputation. Creed, who somehow sold 30 million records worldwide, managed to permanently tarnish themselves through lead singer Scott Stapp’s disregard for sobriety and professionalism. Often seen so intoxicated he could barely sing, fans left the bands side in droves. Panic! At The Disco caused a bit of a stir a few years ago on the charts with a couple of catchy songs, but the lead singer cannot sing. Period. Studio magic may save a record, but if the band can’t afford to cart it around on the road with them they, and their fans, will suffer greatly.

Of course, as advancements in music technology have exploded, sounds have become more intricate and much harder to replicate on the live stage. A far cry from the lead singer/guitarist, bass player and drummer of old, who would get up on stage after 8 pints of lager and thrash away for 90 minutes on a Saturday night, new recording techniques make it difficult to translate intricate, delicate, incredible sounds and arrangements. Animal Collective comes to mind. Centipede HZ and Merriweather Post Pavilion are both excellent records, but the band has struggled to convert that to a compelling stage show, despite creating an impressive visual set. Electronic act Daft Punk pioneered the way dance music was presented to an audience by chopping and mixing their catalogue so individual songs were thrown in to a paella pot of blended music that spawned wonderful new songs. Now, huge EDM festivals are built around music produced entirely by a computer. There are sceptics among us (myself included) who are convinced that some dance shows are just a bloke on stage pressing play on his iPod. Somehow, this, more often than not in contemporary live music, makes for an incredible show. By programming drops, slow builds, huge crescendo’s and ground-shuddering bass lines, artists like LMFAO, Skrillex, Steve Aoki and David Guetta can control and move an entire crowd on a whim. Despite what you may think of the EDM trend, you can’t help but respect the popularity and skill it takes to create such a stratospheric spectacle.

With a little background knowledge we can begin to dissect what factors make or break a good live show. Firstly, intoxicants. One of the greatest shows I have ever had the privilege of watching was Regurgitator. Why? I was insanely drunk. Now this is not always a recipe for success. On another occasion, I went to see Snow Patrol in a similar state, and unfortunately spent the night in the bathroom, and then the pavement outside the venue, with my mate who had over-indulged. There exists a happy medium with alcohol, stimulants and hallucinogens. Furthermore, context must be observed and adhered to. You wouldn’t, for example, get extremely stoned before a Hot Chip or Digitalism gig. You wouldn’t indulge in stimulants before a Beach House or The XX show. You wouldn’t drink yourself in to a stupor before an intimate acoustic gig, or a Train show (trust me on that one). That all said, I have been sober for over 2 and a half years and have enjoyed many many concerts in that time. Granted, there have been some that could have been enhanced by intoxicants, but discretion and common sense is advised when experimenting in this manner, it can make or break an experience.

Intoxicants also have a huge impact on the band. A drunken lead singer can create a night of wild, unadulterated fun, or spawn an evening of utter disaster. Twice this has happened to me. Pearl Jam, and Eddie Vedder, the absolute worst culprit. On a 42 (Celsius, he’s Austrailian) degree day in Sydney I watched him consume no fewer than 3 bottles of red wine on stage before they left for their first encore. When they returned, after having played album cuts all night, we were informed that Vedder was suffering from heat exhaustion and wouldn’t be able to perform the usual set list. They then performed a series of covers and collaborations when the crowd was absolutely gunning for “Once,” “Alive,” “Better Man,” and “Daughter” (setlist is here). The other occasion was when James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was rollicking drunk in Sydney and spent the evening yelling and screaming at us, systematically ruining every song they played. On the other side of this, Billie Joe Armstrong admits to using alcohol regularly during shows, and Green Day are considered one of the best live bands in the world. The Rolling Stones have earned platinum status as a touring band, and managed to do this throughout years of prodigious drug taking. Kurt Cobain was a prolific heroin user,  and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, notably Frusciante and Kiedis, also fell afoul of the vicious drug, yet still managed to perform regularly and spectacularly. The best that can be said of bands using intoxicants is it creates a volatile situation. Some nights will be brilliant, most in fact. But if you catch that one bad trip, you’re going to be clamouring for the exit before you favourite band even makes it to their encore.

Stage Presence. Is there anything more important? It can disguise even the weakest lead singer, the most technically flawed guitar player, the laziest drummer. If a band has a swagger about them, if they engage the audience, keep them laughing and involved in the performance, a fantastic night is always guaranteed. But it isn’t just about the between song banter. Guy Garvey of Elbow was a master of that, reacting humorously to audience jibes and telling interesting and at time heart-wrenching stories. The emotion he put in to his singing meant he didn’t need to run around the stage to keep us captivated. Chris Martin, on the other hand, spent the evening prancing and dancing around like a headless chicken, and his magnetism was such that your eyes were always drawn to him. Captivating.  Justin Timberlake told funny golfing anecdotes. Bruce Springsteen told us epic stories and intimate details, and sang whilst crowd surfing. Billy Joel sat us down and gave us a good talking to. Placebo barely said a word, but their intensity and love of the music radiated outwards and infected everyone, drawing us all in to the performance.

A lack of stage presence can result in a disastrous performance and a gigantic waste of money. John Grant, former lead singer of The Czars and creator of two brilliant records, The Queen Of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts was the worst in this regard. So excited I was to learn of his tour I invited my girlfriend and best mate along. We lasted 3 songs. He was reluctant to face the audience, spoke in a monotone and stood like a statue. It was depressing, watching a man with so little self-confidence doing something he was clearly uncomfortable with. The Tallest Man on Earth provided another disastrous night; he barely spoke English and rambled on in a hybrid of that and his native tongue, confusing the audience. The Shins’ James Mercer was also a huge let down. He said 4 words all night: ‘shut the fuck up’, when someone from the crowd heckled him.

Finally, a problem that seems to plague hip hop concerts. Poor sound quality. For some reason, it can be difficult, especially if a hip hop artist comes on before or after a rock band, to get the levels and the sounds right. When I saw Jay-Z open for U2, his vocals were patchy and distorted, and the system couldn’t handle the huge bass accompanying most of his songs. It’s a disappointment, because if the sound is done well, it can be absolutely stunning. The Beach Boys may have required a serious amount of electronic help to sound as good as they did, but it was worth every penny they spent on it because sonically it was the crispest and clearest sound I’d ever heard at a concert. Stunning.

Live music is more important than it has ever been. Bands can’t afford to put on poor quality shows anymore. Social media means that every second they are on stage is being broadcast across the world, and a disastrous performance in Sydney might mean they miss out on being booked for Coachella or Glastonbury. Generally speaking though, if the stage presence is present, the right intoxicants have been used or avoided,  the sound quality is good and your music translates well to a live performance, success and popularity will follow. And for us punters it can culminate in something akin to a religious experience if everything falls in to alignment. If something is out, though, that experience can turn sour very quickly.

The Best:
Bruce Springsteen
Hot Chip
Matchbox Twenty
My Morning Jacket
Fat Freddy’s Drop
Cold Chisel
Jay-Z (widely regarded as a stellar showman, look at the way he took over Glastonbury)
Buck 65
The Beach Boys
Justin Timberlake
The Who
Tame Impala
Rob Zombie
The Darkness
Family Force Five
Forever The Sickest Kids
The Staves
Alice In Chains
Umphrey’s McGee
For more: This list is exhaustive

The not so good:
Pearl Jam
We Are Scientists
The Tallest Man On Earth
John Grant
Panic! At The Disco
Cloud Nothings
Ariel’s Pink Haunted Graffiti
Crystal Castles
Sleigh Bells
Cut Copy
Best Coast
Animal Collective
My Chemical Romance
Bob Dylan (described as great and terrible at the same time!)
John Mayer
Guns N’ Roses

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