While fans will listen to CDs, turn on talk shows and read reviews to get to know more about their band, one of the most important facets of the music industry for any group is the live concert. Not only is it one of the largest revenue streams for artists, above the music royalties (although, if you think about it, this is about as twisted as paying 16M a year to Barry Bonds while a teacher or fire fighter makes under 100k), but it’s one of the most seminal ways for an artist to grow their reputation and fan base. Of course, what you hear on a CD that has been produced, mixed, mastered and tweaked by any number of sound professionals isn’t necessarily what the group will be able to present during a live performance, so it makes the judging criteria even tougher for listeners.
Take Hip-Hop for example. 75% of all hip-hop shows I have seen are garbage. Rather than fully rehearsing songs, artists will perform the first verse, maybe two of a song before launching into the next radio single. More often than not, the back-up singers are there because the rappers constantly forget lines and need someone to fill in the gaps for them. Furthermore, rather than put on a show that gets the crowd moving and dancing through sheer enjoyment of the music, most artists will constantly fall back on crowd gimmicks, “Put your hands in the air, wave them back and forth,” and other involvement tools of that nature, forgetting that if they rip the microphone, the audience will do what it feels, which is way more important than having them wave one finger in the air.
But Hip-Hop isn’t the only genre where live performances come up flat. Wide is the range of artists who just can’t translate themselves in a live setting in any way that resembles the studio work that they’ve patched together with the help of numerous technicians and producers. Songs come out unrehearsed, or the band is incapable of reproducing the sound. Even worse is when artists, dealing with personal excess or some sort of stage fright, get completely obliterated with substances on stage and turn into a mess by the end of their set. But who puts on the greatest live act? Is it the group that can seamlessly reproduce their album note for note, or the group that can take something stationary and make it into something much more on stage?
Take for example the Rolling Stones. They’ve been touring for around 40 years now, and I’ve seen them in concert twice. While the crowd is into it simply from a historical and pop standpoint, and I think the energy these guys give, even past their prime and middle age is solid, it doesn’t come off as anything I couldn’t hear by listening to an old recording of theirs. On the far extreme are groups like The String Cheese Incident and Phish, which jam and improv so much in their concerts that one is left to wonder if they even have a CD with tracks on it. But let’s not forget consistency. If you go see three shows by a group, a great group will give you three different shows that were all excellent. But some of the best artists happen to be inconsistent on stage. Take Del the Funky Homosapien for example. He might be one of the most talented lyricists and freestylers in rap, but all the times I’ve seen him, he’s hit or miss. Either he’s on that night and no one on the stage can come close, or he’s not and he fades into the background.
So what makes an incredible live band? In my mind, it needs to be a group that brings energy and presence to the stage. Anyone could get up and sing karaoke on a track, but can you bring that true sense of musician and celebrity to the set? Beyond energy and presence, the group needs to be well-rehearsed. A concert that ends up coming off as un-prepared as an elementary school talent show isn’t giving the fans what they paid to see. There needs to be set diversity (unless someone is doing a full album, but I’ll get to that later.) And finally, they need to be able to present their material in both studio form and a live, extended format.
And all of those things are a lot to live up to. When you consider the fact that these groups go on two month or more tours where they need to pull out all of those factors night in and night out, the type of money made touring starts to make sense. With these things in mind, here’s a list of some of my favorite groups to see live, what makes them great and what could make them better.
GZA: A member of the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA a.k.a. Genius is most known for his solo album Liquid Swords. Knowing this, GZA will, on occasion, do tours where he performs the entire album from start to finish. This is an example of an exception to the set diversity rule in that most people have come to see that entire album. When I saw GZA do this at the Independent and the sound glitched 5 seconds into the second track, he was so intent on giving the audience the full version performance that he had the DJ start over from track one. While his delivery and stage presence isn’t the greatest in this bunch of performers, his preparation and ability to go through an entire album in order is nothing short of impressive for a performer in a genre where most live acts shrink and cut their music as much as possible.
Blue Scholars: This rap duo out of Seattle performed at the same show as GZA and offered a stark contrast in what hip-hop performances can be without lowering the bar. Focusing on a diverse set list derived from their two albums, Blue Scholars brought more stage presence and energy to their set, getting the crowd involved through good music and verbatim vocals. Many rappers seem to forget this when in concert, but most fans know the words to their songs. If they don’t, or they try to change the words, the fans inevitably lose interest and focus. While GZA was flawless through the album, he lacked the same energy that the Scholars brought. This enthusiasm, combined with faithful representations of their work made them an excellent hip-hop show.
Zion I: Hands down the best performers I’ve seen in the hip-hop genre. What’s even better about this rap duo is that they’ve slowly progressed their stage presence. When I first saw them, they were a two man gig, beats and raps. However, as they’ve evolved their sound, they’ve evolved their show and now feature a live drummer, vocalist and keyboard player. They’ve been creating music for the last 10 years, and show incredible set diversity. They use material off their newest album to form the backbone of the show, while sprinkling in old favorites that keep the long-time fans happy. Their energy on set is supreme, with Zumbi rapping with every part of his body and Amp creating every imaginable sound. But more than other hip-hop acts, Zion I isn’t afraid to improvise. Both on beats and lyrics, every show has at least a portion of freestyle, and it doesn’t come out weak. While every hip-hop group I’ve seen has one or two of the characteristics of a good set, only Zion I brings them all together in a hip-hop show that feels more complete than the competition.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: This group is a wonder to see in concert. Between their wacky instrumentation (Banjo and Drumitar) and their incredible improv skills, no two concerts are ever the same, and every one is always amazing. But with the range of material they have, it can be hard for the new fan to get involved without knowing some of the songs. The group often does a good job of getting around this by introducing songs and making them accessible, but it can be a bit daunting. More importantly though, these four (Béla Fleck, Futureman, Vic Wooten and Jeff Coffin) are incredibly tight on their instruments, and unbelievably well rehearsed. They can feel the music as they play it, and the result is a palpable energy in the audience.
Dave Matthews Band: If there was ever a band that showed the power of concert revenue and touring in order to engage fans and enlarge a fan base, it’s this one. There’s a lot of back and forth on DMB. For starters, their live shows always pack an energetic crowd, and they always play longer set lists than most live acts (always over 2 hours.) Furthermore, there’s a great mix of songs that are played straight up as they appear on the album, and the improv songs that end up extending upwards of 20 minutes. This not only shows their ability to reproduce the album sound, but also the talent of the musicians that is sometimes constrained in studio recordings. But if there’s one drawback to this group live, it’s that the studio recordings have lost some of their luster in recent years, and the set lists are becoming slowly more filled with new material that is honestly a bit weak. The band doesn’t seem to know this though, putting new songs that sound like shadows of their former creators next to amazing catalog songs that show the band as they were in their prime. It is this drawback, the inclusion of too much new music, that remains this group’s one fault live. It should also be noted that the group tours more than almost any other, and has consistently set records for concert revenue.
Radiohead: Where the Flecktones might improv too much, and Dave Matthews Band relies on old material too little, it is my firm opinion that Radiohead does their shows just right. Old material and new material all find their home in a Radiohead set, and pieces of studio coexist with pieces of improv, demonstrating a remarkably well-rounded band. Radiohead routinely employs some of the most advanced lighting systems in their stage show, bringing both visual and aural entertainment with the price of admission. The Flecktones let their chops do the talking for them, Dave Matthews Band likes to let the Dave speak for them, but Thom Yorke and Radiohead prefer the method of pure, unadulterated energy. Every member of the band is fully engaged, and their energy comes out in their instruments. Old cuts sound re-booted and the new songs rip with electricity, and the preparation of it all oozes through the crowd. In short, when it comes to all of the factors that make a live performance, Radiohead manages to find and balance the important parts of all of them.
In the end though, every fan has a different moment of enjoyment in a live set, and a different set of standards that they hold their bands up to. Some will be happy as long as they play every radio single, while others won’t be happy unless they hear that one song from an album five years ago. Some fans don’t want to know what’s coming next, while others are bored if an improv goes on too long. One thing is certain: it’s only when musical ability, preparation, energy and presence come together on stage that a performance transcends the idea of “concert” and fully realizes the ideal of “live act.”