Wednesday, 10 August 2016

What a Live Music Event Is!

I hardly dare breath as I enter...
Tonight has a homemade, improvised feel. I’m at Café Oto in Dalston. The trendy Hackney café bar with its carefully designed ‘work in progress’ style is already nearly full as I arrive part way through the first of three acts, Paul Abbott and Ute Kanngiesser. Their set is an improvised piece, of such intensity that I hardly dare breath as I enter, and I certainly don’t make for the bar. Ute has limited herself to live improv for the past 10 years and the piece is as fascinating to watch as it is to hear. Live music normally adds to its recorded counterpart through the performance, but in this case nothing has ever been recorded! Here, the artists have to focus on, and take their lead from each other, bringing an immediate intensity into the room, such that no one in the audience wants or dares to break. There is so much beauty, passion and depth to the piece and performance that when it is finished there is not so much a round of applause as a corporate exhalation. Only when we have been freed to breath again can we express our appreciation.

I definitely need a beer after this and some time to process what I have just experienced! Eventually, with a pint of home-brew, I find a seat. For the first time this evening I am able to relax. As I realise that I did actually enjoy the intense experience of the opening act, I am suddenly struck by a revelation, a moment of seeing the trees for the wood. We are all part of the creative process.

Most gigs are about seeing and hearing talented people recreate what they have prepared earlier. In this case however, the music was as homemade as the beer and the surroundings, and we were all part of it’s development. As we strained to see Paul Abbott reach for one set of sticks only to change his mind as he listened intensely to Ute, our reactions, our presence in the room, our concentration - all these things helped to form the piece.
A gigantic crash as the homemade pendulum swings the other way...

And then, as I dwell upon such lofty thoughts and accommodate these delusions of grandeur, we are all brought back down to earth with a gigantic crash as the homemade pendulum swings the other way. Suddenly from the sublime creative studio of Abbott and Kanngisesser C Joynes and the drone of his guitar rudely awaken us. We are no longer part of the process, just onlookers. The only intensity is in the face of the artist as he appears to be wrestling each song from some deep part of his being.  It is fruitless however, because regardless of how deep he digs nothing communicates with the audience. Time for another pint and to move swiftly on!

With a second drink in hand I move to the front and claim a chair on the front row. There are those who love to examine every piece of equipment their musical heroes use, and my new seat certainly affords me such an opportunity as I have a clear sight of the stage. Well I say stage… in actual fact it looks far less like a stage and more like the inside of a man shed! There is an upturned packing case, various different lengths of tube, sheets of sandpaper, hammers and a collection of all those little plastic and metal things you keep thinking will come in useful one day and never do! As their name suggests, the headline act 75 Dollar Bill are American. 

They explain that on arriving in Europe they had the universally dreaded nightmare at baggage reclaim – missing baggage! On this occasion their beloved percussion instruments. What else to do but visit the nearest hardware shop to the airport and buy all the bits they needed and simply recreate the percussion set! At least to my left there are a couple of guitars, although even these are not standard fare for a normal gig. This act promises to be interesting.  In fact, they turn out to be mesmerising.  At times the junkyard percussion is like listening to the start of Genesis’ 1974 avant-garde free-form improvised ‘The Waiting Room’ live. At others it blends with the guitar in a glorious rhythm (much like listening to the end of Genesis’ 1974 avant-garde free-form improvised ‘The Waiting Room’ live!). The homemade motif just continues to flow through the evening!
Their final song is an epic masterpiece that sucks the whole audience in as it flows freely around the venue, reaching out and round and through me until I feel one with the band and the music. There is a very real sense that I don’t want the track to end but when it does it brings such closure that I know I have been part of a special experience and my life is richer for it.
The lack of a new CD in my bag...

I leave the venue and pass the merch. stand without purchasing anything, which is most unusual for me. Reflecting on the train home on the lack of a new CD in my bag it dawns that this has been the truest ‘live’ event I have been to during my 50/50 challenge year.  The completely improvised first set - heavily concentrating, not daring to breathe in case any single breath changed the composition for ever - and the total submersion of 75 Dollar Bill’s final song is not anything I could properly experience on vinyl or CD. The second act I wouldn’t want to and the less said about that the better!

All 48 previous gigs have offered slight variations on albums and songs I had or now have in my iTunes library and there have been some very special moments at those concerts. Tonight, on the other hand, is an experience that will not be repeated and it feels so much more significant for it.

Confession time! A few years ago I went to see Cher live - let me just say I brought tickets as a present for someone! It was a spectacular spectacle as you can imagine. What I noticed (which, incidentally, was not that I was quite possibly the only straight guy there!) was that everyone was trying to capture the experience on their phone. It was a perfect example of the post-modern generation as they recorded the current high before they searched for the next one. People, it seems to me, are so scared of missing ‘that’ moment that they fail to live every moment.
Tonight I lived the music. I have nothing but my memory of the gig, no CD, no handheld video - I didn’t try and record it, running the risk of diluting it every time I showed it to unimpressed friends who could in no way be expected to understand, not because they are musical philistines, but simply because they were not part of the experience!  Of course, I can only revisit it in my memory, but it is etched there because I lived it. Tonight remains the truest live event I have been to this year - partly beacuse of the improvisation, partly the homemade nature of the whole evening and partly because the memory won't be worn away by listening to a CD again and again.
I once thoroughly upset a friend who left me an answer machine message of white noise (she thought I would have a clear recording of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For!) at a U2 concert because I said I didn’t appreciate the message! Her defence was that she wanted me to experience the concert! She was at the concert, I was at home. I was glad she was there, but no amount of white noise on my answer machine made me part of that gig or could help me experience that unique moment in time that she was sharing with thousands of others and U2!

So I’ll stop blogging now as I suspect that the 2 or 3 of you who have read this far were not at this gig with me tonight and nothing I can do will let you fully into the marvellous memory I have of it! But I will encourage you to go to your next gig, not intent on recording it all for later consumption and Youtube but instead to be part of the experience because that is what a live music event is…

Concert: 49 of 50
Date of Gig: Mon. 29th February 2016

Cafe Oto

75 Dollar Bill
C Joynes
Abbott and Kanngisesser 
Running total of artists seen 100

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Groundhog Day with Added Deja Vu!

Each tune crashes on the rocks and dissipates...
The venue is full. The red lights flood down through the smoke. The expectation of the audience is high. The stage is set. The band take the rapturous applause and strike the first chord…

Even though I am on gig number 48 and 11 months into my challenge I still love the day leading up to a gig. However mundane, difficult, or long the day is at work the knowledge that in the evening I will be listening to live music is compelling. If I have seen the band before I recall high points of previous gigs, or possibly, if I have been there before, I relive great gigs at the particular venue that I am going too. The day bristles with expectation and as we near that first intro from the headline band it is near bursting point. At most gigs, a few songs in, I catch myself, before total immersion, enjoying the moment of realisation that the expectation has turned into reality.

But not tonight. A few songs in and I am wondering why tonight is different. With each new song I try hard to float away on the wave of expectation that normally carries me on its crest to musical delight. But tonight there is no crest of a wave with white horses charging only a nagging feeling that this gig is going to be a disappointment, as each tune crashes on the rocks and dissipates.

I soul search. Am I in a foul mood? No. Am I distracted? No.  Am I gig-weary after 48 in as many weeks? No. I recognise some moments of beauty and high points in the songs.

Is it the venue? No, I love this place. The last time I was at the Roundhouse was a tremendous experience. There are venues that have a wonderful atmosphere when you walk in and the Roundhouse is one of those venues for me.

So is it the band?

A 2 dimensional feel... 
Well, it’s very hard to catch the mumbled introductions. This hinders any rapport with the audience and gives off the feeling that they are just here to tick the songs off the set-list. The sound seems unbalanced. The brass instruments cut through, and drown out everything beneath them. So much so that I fail to recognise the sound I enjoy on the band’s CDs. It gives the whole gig a 2 dimensional feel, and each song seems shallow. It is in this mire that the appearance of mediocrity surfaces. The gig appears lacklustre and the musicians as if they are going through the motions.

The highlight is ‘In the Mausoleum’ (perhaps it is the highlight because the title resonates with my feeling about the gig!) the penultimate song of the night. It is too little, too late, and this gig is confined to that particular file of ‘disappointing’. In 2009 Lonely Planet named Beirut as one of the 10 liveliest Cities in the world to visit. Unfortunately the band that bears the city’s name, on this showing at least, has a long, long way to go before they can be named in the top ten liveliest live bands.

As I write this blog I fear I have been too negative, and think I must be to blame for not engaging properly. So I search for a review of the gig to see what others thought and I find one on the Guardian website. The first inclination is that I have got it wrong, as the reviewer gives Beirut 4 out of 5 stars. However, on closer examination I feel slightly vindicated in my assessment of the gig: Maddy Costa writes, “most of his between-song chit-chat is garbled by the oddly balanced sound system, which is besotted with trumpets and careless of all else. 

Groundhog day with added deja vu... 
On reading the review more closely I discover this is in fact a review from their Roundhouse gig in 2007! Groundhog day with added deja vu! It seems that far from being an off night this is exactly where the band were and where they want to be… Maddy Costa continues, “that's partly down to the venue's soupy sound, which blunts the mandolin and ukulele strings, swallows the double bass and reduces every drumline to a throbbing heartbeat, and partly Condon's choice.

I leave frustrated. The overriding experience of gigs for me is that a band playing live brings an added dimension to their songs, not that a dimension is taken away. And because that added dimension is missing, so I take little away from tonight. It is a very unusual experience for me to leave a gig feeling so disappointed.

Concert: 48 of 50
Date of Gig: Fri. 12th February 2016

The Roundhouse


DD Dumbo 
Running total of artists seen 97

Monday, 8 August 2016

What Does this Music Tell Me?

Maybe it’s the poor restless kid...
I used to work for an organisation that went through a process of rebranding. It was amazing to hear what it meant to have new colours on publicity and how the font and the images would all be ‘on brand’ and this would make a difference to the market share! The brand would ‘cut through’. And everything we said in public needed to be on brand and our words and phrases needed to ‘cut through’ too! Cut through what though? I certainly wanted to cut through the marketing jargon! I never really understood what the branding experts meant by the phrase (maybe that’s why I left!) yet as I sit in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jakub Hrusa I begin to understand the meaning of to ‘cut through.’ Not because the music does, but for the exact opposite reason. It doesn’t cut through…

Maybe its because I’m in the cheap seats and they are quite a way back. Maybe it’s the poor restless kid who has been taken unwillingly to the performance and who disturbs the stifling silence. Maybe it’s the lack of a large PA rig and watt upon watt of power amplifying every instrument!

Actually, I don’t think it’s any of these things. The audience is working hard to create and sustain a chord of silence so the music has nothing to cut through other than my own prejudice. This was a very deliberate choice to come to a classical concert. I am not a big classical music fan and have been to one or two classic concerts before but I wanted to make sure that one of the 50 was classical. Why Mahler? Why his 3rd Symphony? In all honesty because I was free tonight and this is what is being played.  I am trying hard to be open minded and not prejudiced but during the first movement the music isn’t surrounding or engulfing me. I can’t feel it being driven through me, it appears to be happening somewhere in a bubble above the stage!

It is happening at the front of the auditorium without me... 
So much music nowadays is in the background. You have friends round - ‘sort the music will you?’ - and then you sit and talk over it. A long journey in the car – ‘you’re driving, you choose’ - and the volume is kept so low that you can still hear the Sat Nav. instructions over the road noise. In a pub it is somewhere above the laughter, and chatter. In a shop it is there as just another 2 for 1 offer. Surely a gig – or a concert – should be different. After all, the music is the reason we are all gathered and it needs to cut through whatever atmosphere is created. Whether that be the excited drunken frivolity of a festival crowd, the friendly banter across the tables at a jazz venue, the fingers in the ears of a dingy folk club or the studied silence of a classical audience. The problem tonight is that I am not part of this music – it is happening at the front of the auditorium without me.

I listen hard and carefully to the first movement and it leads me up so many cul-de-sacs. Just as I feel the music is building and I can tell that the themes are being explored and expanded, the music stalls to a halt and looks back to see where it missed the no through road sign! The 3-point turn achieved, it sets off again only to find another cul-de-sac! This is a long first movement and when it is over I am left with the same feeling I get after a journey that has been made longer through constant diversions; I have arrived and am thankful for that but I cannot say that I have appreciated or enjoyed the diversion.

Within the following 5 movements - part 2 of the symphony – there are some beautiful moments, but nothing grabs me. In his original ‘programme notes’ for this work Mahler gives each a title;

1.     Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In

2.     What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me

3.     What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me

4.     What Man Tells Me

5.     What the Angels Tell Me

6.     What Love Tells Me

Which poses the question what does this music tell me? If I’m honest it has failed to touch me or tell me anything; it has failed to cut through, and I am left unmoved. I can appreciate the skill of the orchestra, and some of the beauty of some of the piece, but I am not changed by the experience or moved by it. I am not lifted to a higher place. Life with all its tidal, emotional ebb and flow is not suddenly easier to face because I have been immersed, wave after wave, in beautiful heart-warming music. It has not communicated with my soul in the way music should.

Seventh heaven in the middle eight... 
The concert comes to an end and there are those who give a standing ovation. Have they been stirred and lifted above the mundane by this performance? Herein lies an interesting quandary. Have my 37 years of gig going nulled my senses and sensibilities to anything but modern music? Or do I need to learn a new way of listening so I can appreciate what I have just experienced? Or is it just in my DNA that I will not appreciate classical music in the same way as those standing during the applause? 

And perhaps this is the wonder of music – what I want isn’t to be found here, and likely as not, many of those on their feet at the end of tonight’s performance would be left as empty as I am by some or all of the other 49 gigs that have made up this year!  There is an argument to say a different composer, a different venue, a different orchestra would evoke something else for me. After all, I do not respond in the same way to all rock or folk gigs and perhaps I should not place all classical music in the same boat. 

Yes I have friends who listen to rock music and classical, folk and opera and part of me keeps thinking one day I’ll find the key that unlocks the secret world of classical music but until then I will seek delight in drums, bass and guitar. Rapture in the raucous, solace in the screaming solo, intoxication in the extended intro, seventh heaven in the middle eight, communion of chorus and verse and the uplifting of my soul as they all come together to make a greater, indescribable whole!

Concert: 47 of 50
Date of Gig: Thurs. 11th February 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jakub Hrusa 
Running total of artists seen 95