Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen...

It appears that everyone is ready,
Is everybody ready?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the
Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World!!!
The house music comes to abrupt halt. Darkness falls on the arena and the air is pierced by a chorus of screams, clapping, stomping, and wailing. General pandemonium. People making noise. Patrons pour down through the portals scurrying to return from too-late beer runs. As your heart rate rises, you stand more erect and raise your hands. Succumbing to the Thrill of it all, are compelled to cut loose a "WOOOOOOOO!!!!" High fives and hugs are exchanged in your aisle as those around you bounce up and down with anticipation. Lost sheep scamper up and down the aisles trying to read the number off their tickets in the dark. You stare intently into the distance. There is rectangle of light behind the stage - a window into your immediate future. Through the haze of smoke and excitement, the rectangle darkens momentarily as human silhouettes flash through the opening. Impossibly, the din raises a notch in intensity. Instruments are raised and bring themselves in tune. A blast from the kick drum punches a hole in the night and the snare sounds its return. A flutter of notes from the guitar confirms that the roadies have done their job. The bass pounds its rumbling "hello." The place is up for grabs. "How's everybody doin' out there?!" Yes! Yes! Just great! Could not be better. Days and hours and minutes of physical and mental preparation have been reduced to this moment. The Time is here. Everyone is in. In the immortal words of the Lizard King, "the Ceremony is about to begin."

Music is best enjoyed live. According to, a "concert" is "a public musical performance in which a number of singers or instrumentalists, or both, participate." What we commonly call "concerts" (or more commonly, "shows") today were born with the invention of the electronic amplifier in 1906. Things got loud very quickly. By May of 1976, the Who were rocking the "Charlton Athletic Ground" at 120 decibels. That's a tad below a 747 taking off and at the edge of what audiologists call the "pain threshold." (Whatever it was, I'm quite certain it was not as loud as Blue Floyd at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Halloween '99). In any event, ever since amplifiers were invented, mankind has gathered in groups massive and small to see our Heroes do Their Thing, live and in person. I realize that concerts were held before the advent of amplification. Secular music apparently became "pop" during the Renaissance. It's hard, however, to imagine 25,000 barefooted shirtless people gathered around an orchestra in Vienna in 1687. As such, I draw the line when the modern concert started at the time when someone standing behind a "soundboard" started turning a knob that controlled the volume.

Enough history. On to philosophy. The power of live music is undeniable. As I write, tens of thousands of people are standing on a few acres of white sand on the Mobile beach. They traveled from all over the Southeast, the U.S., and likely the world, all to watch small groups of one to eight (or so) people stand on an elevated platform and play their instruments. Sports are the only thing that draw a comparable crowd. The difference is that sports take place on a relatively large stage with big groups of people performing acts of physical grandeur. The musician, by comparison, is engaged in a challenge that is almost entirely intellectual. Where a 230 pound running back blasts through defenders using kinetic energy and brute force, the effort of the musician (at least the non James Brown variety) occurs mostly inside of his mind. Using little more than slight motions of his fingers, the musician can move us; take us on a jersey of 1,000 miles while standing completely still. The point of departure and the destination are whatever he chooses. This is the essence of live music.

On the one hand, live music is an intensely personal experience. Think of the moments spent at shows with your eyes closed, lost in your own thoughts. The song can take you to places of joy, exhiliration, peace, pain, satisfaction, longing, comfort, apprehension, pleasure, and all spaces in between and beyond. The singer speaks to you on more levels than you can comprehend at once. His story momentarily becomes your life. You can import whatever meaning you like into his words or you can ignore them all together and instead focus on their delivery. In those moments, "[i]t's just the way that he sings, not the words that he says, or the band."* The singer can inspire, deflate, forbid, permit, chide, reassure, question, answer. There is no limit. Still, we've covered less than half of the equation. Rhymed verse by itself is poetry. The melody, harmony, and rhythm or what combine with the verse to make it music. Individual notes, meaningless by themselves, are combined to form the brilliant brushstrokes of an infinite mural. And to think, all of this happens inside your mind! "Behind blue eyes ..."** In these beautiful slices of time, it matters not whether you stand with 100,000, or alone. The action is entirely within your own mind.   

On the other hand, live music can be an intense human bonding experience. How many times have you been to a show alone? How many of your friendships blossomed at one concert or another? How easy is it to remember who was there with you? How many times have you looked at the person standing next to you at a good show and thought about how much you liked (or loved) him/her? It does not happen every time. The people around you have to Love It as much as you do. It's a communal thing, and there needs to be unity. A small handful of disinterested or, worse, hostile people in your section can ruin it all. But then there are Those Moments, those times when you look at the person standing next to you with a giant smile on your face, nodding your head up and down, and realize that he was experiencing the, exact, same, thing. It's knowing that the journeys inside your minds ranged far and wide but still managed to reach the exact same destination. Pure serendipity. Sharing that sense of amazement, there's nothing you can do but just smile at each another and mouth an amazed "WOW!"

When you've ridden the Wave to its crest, sooner or later, it crashes to the shore. And so the show ends. The lights come back up and, and it's time to go somewhere else. It can be an invigorating moment, or one drenched by sweat and exhaustion. 
I always leave with something - enlightenment, satisfaction, frustration, resolution, motivation - always something. No mater the emotion, when the artists have shown me something truly special, I leave a slightly different person than the one who walked in just hours before; most often by a little, but sometimes by more than I can grasp. There have been those times when a concert literally bent the trajectory of my life (Fox Theatre, String Cheese Incident, 2002). It's part of the beauty of music heard live. It can change lives, viewpoints, and beings. It gives us extended respite in an ever more complex world. We learn what we want from it, and we take what we find. "What a beautiful buzz."***

* My Morning Jacket, "The Way That He Sings"
** Daltrey/Townshend
*** Jagger/Richards, "Loving Cup" 

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