Guitars and the Nature of Live Performance

Posted: July 12, 2013 in Bleach and the Sub Pop Era 1987-1990, People Near Nirvana

Flaky blog service this week I confess, purely down to work pressures; would you believe me if I told you I was in this chair yesterday from 8.55am until 1.30am this morning minus bathroom breaks and a 30 minute lunch outing? Then back up to do it again!

I’m presuming everyone has read the interview with Jason Everman in the New York Times by now?

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/magazine/evermans-war.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

And in another aside…Not that I’m fixated on making the comparison, but today I’m musing on one more factor making a crucial difference between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose; guess what it is? It’s 1962 versus 1967. Earlier this week we were looking over and considering the well-known list of Kurt Cobain’s Top 50 albums and it was very visible that the peak of his musical revelations came between 1981 and 1984 – somewhere in amidst his teenage years from age 14 to 17. That five year gap between February 6, 1962 and February 20, 1967 pushed Cobain into the era of the emerging punk-influenced alternative scene. Axl Rose, by contrast, hit age 14 in 1976, the year of Aerosmith Rocks, of Led Zeppelin releasing Presence, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell, Elton John Blue Moves…The Sex Pistols hadn’t even made it over to the States or released an album yet. Basically the generational shift placed each man at one side or other of the great punk divide, one as both the last great hard rock showman and a genuine fan of interesting twists on rock music, the other steeped in punk rock and also gravedigger to the hard rock superstar. The next shift was to the Seventies babies (Fred Durst, August 1970 – Jonathan Davis, January 1971 – Billie Joe Armstrong, February 1972)…What a difference time makes.

Anyways, recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of performance. Despite the near complete (and ongoing) relegation of guitar-based music to a ghetto underneath the avalanche of electronics, or to a hybridised status designed to make it fit for the dance floor, the reality is that it is still guitar-centred bands who are making the money in the live arena. I believe the nature of live performance inherently favours live instrumentation…Why?

As an audio experience, as pure sound, let’s be honest, music will always have greater clarity and detail on a stereo or over headphones. But we go to live shows because the physical kick of organic sound on vast speakers in a room full of juiced up fans is what makes the difference – the human buzz. Related to that, the visual factor in live music is sorely underrated. Music DVDs fail to capture the connection between humans, that’s why they’re such disappointing objects; there’s a flatness to them. Similarly, at venues, seating can kill the mood because it removes a lot of the proximity and press of actual flesh – likewise seats and positions with restricted views will always be cheaper because the absence of sight strips away a crucial part of the live experience; a live performance is about music as it is performed not just about sound as a singular sensory avenue.

With laptop based music and mixing decks, the relative absence of motion from the performer, the relatively static nature of their role makes it a very pure audio experience – which in turn makes it completely unexciting. It’s why most laptop artists perform against video backdrops; they’re aware that something is lacking within the experience. It’s why dance music is still the primary realm for electronics/computer based music because the action and activity of the audience substitutes for the absence of a true performer or performance and reinstates the buzz of human connection.

The predominance of what are, now, traditional instruments (whether in classical performance, rock-derived modes, jazz and so forth), despite their relative death in terms of commercial audio home/portable listening sales, is because they remain absolutely crucial to observed performance. The ‘buzz’ people describe in live music is about the presence of living breathing humans and is at its most intense when one can see those creating the music meaning one’s mind associates the motions seen on stage with the sounds assailing the ears. To quote a friend of mine “if you’re singing, your lips, face, and chest all move; and if you watch the best singers, they tell a story with their eyes as much as with gestures; if you’ve got an instrument then you’re physically interacting with it, your arms, fingers, and whatever else you use to get it to make a sound.” Laptops and table-bound articles obscure movement and involve only limited motion. They’ll never compare to a singer stretching out to catch a high note, a guitarist wrenching notes from the guitar or throttling a riff from it, it’s nothing like seeing a drummer deluging their kit with blows in a spray of sweat.

The best laptop performance I saw was a guy who performs under the name, The Caretaker. The two preliminary acts were fairly traditional laptop acts, cool but not visually that interesting – watching films with some music over the top. The Caretaker (Leyland Kirby being the guy’s name) stepped on stage, chatted to the audience, then asked to be allowed one self-indulgent tradition from his wilder musical days – so commenced a mental karaoke version of “Here I Go Again” the Eighties rock tune by Whitesnake which concluded with him having rolled himself off the stage altogether and being in a heap in the middle of the audience. It was deliberately parodic, undermined the audience/performer gap, wiped away the po-faced chin-stroking aspect of his present music (he manipulates classical music and old 78 RPM records)… Next, he put up a video that commenced with a message explaining it was a video diary of his time living in Berlin and the collapse of his relationship with then girlfriend which gave it a humanity and a poignancy it was hard not to look for…He meanwhile, departed entirely from the ‘performer’ script and simply sat down by the desk on stage, set the laptop going, got a full bottle of whisky and proceeded to polish three-quarters of it while sat on stage watching with us. The initial five minutes of sound were a full blown assault – genuinely nasty – drove the pop fans out the room altogether…And THEN finally he commenced with the softer material he’s been known for recently for those left behind who had been OK to accept the deviations… He was totally and deliberately amateur, genuinely unwilling to stick to the increasingly rigid script to which musicians must work live (i.e, turn up on time, respect commuters, be nice to those bringing their kids, play the hits, be good…) and utterly wonderful for it. It was that rarest of things; a genuinely unpredictable and unforeseeable show. Not many about these days; commoditised performance for ease of consumption.

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