I went to see Wilco this week at the Wellington Town Hall, just nine months on from their wonderful Keyspan Park show on Coney Island. Yes, I’m a lucky sow. But also, I adore them. I almost didn’t go, thinking that a little local show couldn’t compare to the joy of standing at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, under the darkening blue sky, enjoying the thrill of budding romance and witnessing Wilco and Yo La Tengo go head-to-head during the encore.
But, loveliest of lovely things! A funny and inoffensive opening announcement warned against cellphones, camera phones or any other kind of image-taking device being pulled out during the show. Cleverly, the warning was couched in way that meant the only loser would be the person whose night with Wilco would be curtailed if they were spotted with a camera.
Consequently, this was the first gig in quite a while where I can recall not being distracted by glowing blue screens. What a difference it makes. I’m usually pretty great at plugging into the rhythm, letting the music take me… wherever. But it can be difficult when all around, people are documenting a moment that can only really, truly be experienced then and there.
Case in point: the Keyspan Park gig is all over YouTube. I went back to watch Spiders (Kidsmoke), to experience once again the unbelievably cathartic – and very blimmin’ noisy – guitar swordsmanship between Ira and Nels. It just wasn’t the same. (But it’s here, if you must!) Neil Young rocking Day In The Life at Big Day Out 2009? Same thing. The video can’t replicate the rush of power when he started stomping across the stage, pulling strings out of his guitar, one by one.
I’ve been trotting along to live gigs with my One Good Ear for a good couple of decades now, and while, yes, I have the cassette bootleg of the great Billy Bragg show at Auckland Town Hall circa 199mumble, and I’ve captured the odd moment of other gigs because everyone else was doing it, tonight’s show was an affirmation that I prefer my live music unfiltered, unfettered by the blue glow. Having just come off a tour to discover a few videos of our shows about the place, I feel this more strongly. I knew in the moment that those videos were being recorded. The energy was different, not awful, but just… different.
Thing is, the moment is happening in front of us. What a privilege to be a witness to that! That song you just heard will never be played like that again! That’s why it’s exciting when someone smashes an instrument. You know for certain you’ll never hear that song, that way, on that instrument, in this venue, again. Ever.
From the band’s perspective, every sound-check is different, because every room is different. You take the measure of the room… its size, shape, texture, layout. You consider the expected audience, the way that they’ll suck up half of the sound you’ve just crafted for yourself. You weigh that against the delicacy of volume you need to contain the songs you’re about to play, knowing that human energy feeds human energy, and everything’s going to get louder, muddier, messier.
Then we all arrive together at the show, and we’re in a contract with each other. An agreement that We Are All Here To Have a Fine Time. A mutual give-and-take. A sublime suspension of the outside world. A divine exchange of energy.
It’s not a recording. It’s not a music video. It’s not a documentary, nor a televised performance. It is the moment.
…And then some munter goes and fires up their wank-phone and suddenly the space above the audience’s heads is crowded with tiny screens.
All power to Wilco for finding a way to cut that out.
Not every artist agrees, though. Pop Matters looked into the cameras-at-gigs issue a wee while back and it’s fascinating to see the array of opinions there. Feist, who sings the delicious You and I with Jeff Tweedy on the eponymous new Wilco album, says
“To me, a gig isn’t supposed to be for posterity… It’s supposed to be a bunch of people tossed together in a room, making a mood, and then it’s over. You can’t see the world through a viewfinder.”
And it made me sad that Ice Cube would settle for less:
“You never expect 100 percent of people’s attention… You learn to take 80 percent.”
But then good old Billy Bragg weighs in with a fine socialist perspective that’s all about sharing the joy, man:
“My bottom line is communication… If they want to capture a photo of me and send it to a friend who can’t be at the gig, I don’t have a problem with that.”
Here’s an entertaining write-up from Stereogum about a Band of Horses stoush with a particularly trigger-happy audience. It seems all singer Ben Bridwell wanted was a little eye contact.
Fair enough. But why flip your audience the bird, when you can go the Wilco way and create a joyful, respectful intro that sets the agenda for the night? Or, look to an elder statesman for the key to audience connection. I loved this short but enlightening article from a couple of years back in which Bruce Springsteen (who also has a guitarist called Nils!) chats a bit about the performer-audience relationship.
“The first thing that I do when I come out every night is to look at the faces in front of me, very individually,” Springsteen says. “I may find a certain person and play to that single person all night. I’m playing to everyone, but I could see one or two people and decide, ‘You’re the reason that I’m out here right now, and that I’m going to push myself till it feels like my heart’s going to explode.'”
“On any given night, what allows me to get to that higher ground is the audience… I look for an audience that’s as serious about the experience as we are, which, after all these years, continues to be pretty serious.”
Lordy. Pick me, Boss. I can be serious!