When you go to a show, what are you paying for? Are you paying for the music? Are you paying for the songs which can easily be streamed or purchased for far less than the cost of a ticket, or are you paying for an experience? To get dressed up on a Friday night, go dancing with friends and just soak in a vibe. This is something I've been wondering recently, because I've gone to a string of shows that have really let me down.
When I go to a show I usually go to be entertained. Different parts of a performance can be entertaining: stories told in between songs, musical solos, covers, or even just songs that are played a different way than what's on the record. I hate when I go out to a show and the band hits the stage and plays their album and nothing more. It's honestly offensive the way some bands go out, play their songs perfectly, have the sound guy queue it up just like the album, and then move along. It creates an air that "this is just one stop along the way" and that they're on auto-pilot. Live performance should be about discovery for both the artist and the audience, and when you're a big enough band that your crowd knows your music, neither you nor your audience is getting anything if you just play the songs and leave.
Discovery can be defined by the unexpected. When a band polishes their live performance, this "unexpected" can be lost. I've been to shows where if I closed my eyes, I wouldn't be able to tell it wasn't just the album. This puts up a huge wall between the audience and the performers. If I don't feel your presence, either through the music or on the stage then there is no reason for me to be standing in a room full of strangers. I've worked all week, saved my money, bought a ticket, and took the time out of my weekend to see you, so let me see you. Lots of hip bands play the "I'm too cool to talk to the audience" or the "I'm gonna act shy because it's endearing and mysterious" game and honestly, it's lazy. The music isn't enough, the music doesn't create the experience, the performer and the audience does. And if the performer decides to just phone it in, the whole thing fails.
I've debated with friends about the importance of dialogue in between songs. Some people just want the music to "speak for itself," whereas I would like the occasional back story or anecdote about the song, the venue, your day, or even what you had to eat this morning. When I listen to your records, I put myself into the songs and the meaning along with everything else becomes subjective. But when I go see the songwriter who wrote this song, that I've inhabited up until this point, I would like to know their idea of the track. What prompted this song or where were you when you wrote it? Literally anything so that when you play it, the song will take on a new meaning and be something different from when I first heard it on the radio. This goes back to the idea of discovery. The creative process is based in this discovery, bring me back to when you first discovered this song, let me in a little bit so that I can feel apart of your music. If you noticed, so many great albums last year used the technique of sound collage in between certain songs. Spoken word sets a certain tone, gives meaning, and more than anything lets the listener take a break from you music, allowing the songs to not blur together and be more special.
Musically, we also want something different than what's on your record. I'm not advocating for every band to turn into Phish or some jam nightmare like that, but the occasional guitar solo helps. Add a verse, subtract a verse, maybe create a musical bridge between songs? If the only thing that has us wondering what's coming next is your set list, then I will likely just leave after you play my favorite song. One of the reasons that live albums are so popular and so many artists release them is that they give their listeners a different look at the music. When the instrumentation is sent in a different direction because of resources or size of the space, you get a sense that the band is human, that there are actual human beings making this music for you. And that's kind of what we want, we want human connection.
You can kind of think of live performances as a form of theatre, whereas albums are like movies. You can't interact with the screen the same way you can interact with a live actor. Your laugh or gasp isn't heard by the film crew. That's why live performance is so special. Concerts and plays grant us this permission to interact with the artist and the artist to interact with us. So why disregard that? Why strip away all the control you had in the studio to bring your music to a stage, and then not capitalize on the advantages you have on this stage? The live musician has so much more control of an audience than a recording, to just ignore this capability, bang through your songs and then leave is like throwing away a winning lottery ticket.