Shows – we go to them. Some are great, some are ok, some suck. Some have a ridiculous bill of 9 bands that impose a silly endurance test on our ears. Some of those 9-band bills are grindcore shows and it’s over in 16 minutes.
I’m always evaluating my approach to the way I watch shows – what I should pay attention to, what I value in music and how that affects my appreciation of a band I don’t know, whether a band I really love is actually bringing it and not phoning it in, etc. Figure you guys are too, whether you realize it or not. Particularly if you are a musician trying to understand what the differences are between a good show and a better one – if so, then you should treat every concert not only as a musical experience, but also as an opportunity to study what works. So here are some thoughts about how to actually watch shows, from the perspective of a musician audience-goer.
Watching a Band that Sucks
For me, when I’m watching a band really blow it (whether it’s a young opener or a seasoned but outta gas veteran headliner), I always ask myself several questions. Does this band not have their stage presence together? Do they sound uncomfortable playing their parts? Did they need to rehearse more? Are the songs simply not quite there yet?
I also pay attention to how the band sounds onstage, because often, bad sound can mask the bad stuff that’s actually happening within the band. So I find it important to check myself and evaluate whether the “bad sound” is coming from the band, or from the venue and live mix. How do they interact with the room? Do they have a good balance between members? Do the guitar and drum tones not suit the actual music?
I’ve found that even when the band is good, but their sound sucks – from either the venue’s end or the band itself – that hasn’t often deterred me from enjoying a set by a band whose music I know and love, or a band whose music I don’t know but am enjoying their overall vibe and presentation. There’s something about being familiar with a group’s output that allows me to take a backseat to enjoying individual parts, which I already know well from their recordings, and instead taking in the performance as a whole. This is often my response to seeing grindcore or mathy bands that aren’t at the Pig Destroyer or Dillinger Escape Plan level.
But if a band sounds pretty “good” and I think the songs sort of blow, I try to pay attention to the intricacies in their musicianship to learn about what might not be serving the songs on a technical level. It’s easy to tell when a guitarist’s picking hands look uncomfortable, if a drummer is tensing up during more difficult parts, or if a vocalist is struggling to charm the audience (read: local band vocalists taking their shirts off, calling for circle pits, etc.).
In every art form, there are people who believe that you can learn a lot from seeing bad art. I’m hesitant to agree – I think there’s much more to learn from stuff that’s really good than stuff that’s bad. The problems with bands that suck tend to be universal: once you’ve seen one bad band, you’ve seen them all.
Watching a Really Good Band
When I’m watching a really fucking rocking band – not a great one, but a really good one – that’s when my musicianship ear perks up a bit. Really good bands tend to have their shit together. Not necessarily in a technical sense, because there are plenty of really good sloppy punk bands that in their own way, find a musical chemistry and cultivate a live vibe.
With these kinds of bands, I tend to enjoy watching the drummer the most. Because even when a good band has a sloppy guitarist or meandering vocalist, what often keeps them from straying into the poopy/sucky category is a badass drummer. This goes for really technical, proggy bands too – your Animals as Leaders(es) of the world – because even when the music is boring, there is something at once entertaining and instructive about a drummer that can bring convoluted ideas down to earth with a kind of “danceable” groove.
Watching a Fucking Great Band
For me, a great show happens when the band forms a transferrence-relationship with the audience; something that Jimi Hendrix called “electric church.” The great bands – Gojira, the Melvins, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, Metallica in their heyday, Led Zeppelin, etc – are able to effect a kind of transcendence, where individual musical parts or sounds exist in service of an overall vibe.
These bands are firing on all cylinders – sound, performance, showmanship – but they effect a trance from moment-to-moment. Take for example Revocation: although Dave Davidson is sort of the de-facto musical hero of the band, when he steps up to solo, it feels less like “we are watching a guitar solo now” and more like we are witnessing a peak in the moment of a song. Great bands write songs that do this like movies, creating a give-and-take, push-pull of tension and release between individual members and the ensemble. Although he’s remembered as a solo guitar hero, Jimi Hendrix was the master of moving between these two, particularly in live, improvised settings.
It’s rare that a bad sound mix or particular tone will distract me from watching these bands. On the contrary, great bands are great despite the unique setting and sound of each room they play.
So with a great band, what I “pay attention” to is the song. Not in a nit-picky, “this part does this, this part does that” way that I would with a pretty good band, but rather from a bird’s eye view. I don’t ask so much as I feel the question, “what is this band communicating to me, and why am I emotionally responding to it?” It’s not a question one can answer really, as it depends on so many factors, but the simple answer is that I’m watching something (don’t laugh) beautiful. That’s what great art is to me, and music’s great moments come in the live setting.