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Friday, November 02, 2012

Bands are like tree surgeons


I don't want to manage any bands but there are times when I wouldn't mind being a coach. Last night was one of those times. I was a guest at the Mercury Music Prize show at the Roundhouse. Twelve acts did one song each, which gives you a rare chance to compare and contrast.

Most of the bands took to the stage with the slightly self-important air of tree surgeons about to perform a delicate operation from which you'd be best advised to stand well clear. They further resemble tree surgeons in the way they appear to be preoccupied with important matters while hoping against hope that you're admiring them. When you consider how far technology has advanced in the last thirty years it's remarkable that musicians still look so burdened by the increasing amount of kit they take on stage with them and distracted by the fear that it might go wrong. This is of course even worse when it's a TV taping.

Does this self-consciousness matter? Only if you think the musician should be reaching out to the audience rather than operating a machine. The folk singer Sam Lee clearly does. When he began his number he looked directly into the audience and defied them to look away. In doing this he proved it was possible to establish some kind of relationship, even with an industry crowd.

I once went on a public speaking course taught by an actor. He was full of all kinds of drama school tricks, the sort that make normal people roll their eyes and blush. At one stage he said, before a performance I like to go on stage and cast my net over the audience. Here he mimed flinging a Biblical fishing net over the front stalls. I find it helps me project myself into the room, he added. To conquer the space.

We all sniggered, of course. Nonetheless, whenever I'm about to talk to a room full of people, I fling that net. Only in my head, of course. Something similar makes athletes believe in the power of visualisation. I wonder if any member of any band has ever thought about their performance in those terms.

22 comments:

Archie Valparaiso said...

At the other end of the spectrum from the acts who need to establish a rapport with their audience are those for whom it's a longstanding given.

I've sometimes wondered what would happen if an audience responded to, say, Bruce Springsteen, the way they'd respond to an unknown support act. Imagine the piano intro to "Thunder Road" coming to it's here-we-go-lads end, but instead of 18,000 people in unison intoning "The screen door slams....", there's complete silence, waiting to see what the lone, nonplussed man at the microphone might do next.

Someone should arrange it as an elaborate April Fool at a Springsteen gig. Not a single "Broooooooce!", no mass whooping at every recognised intro, not one female willing to be plucked from the mosh pit for "Dancing in the Dark".... How many songs would he last before he said, "OK, this is some kind of a joke, right?"

Simon said...

The success of some bands has led a lot of bands to think that the audience is there to listen to them, so don't have to 'work the crowd'. Whereas in other entertainments it's expected that you're there to entertain, to engage to hold their attention.

At acoustic nights I've been to I've seen singer songwriters and venue hosts get annoyed when people talk through their music. 'Show some respect'. I've always thought though that if people aren't paying enough attention it's up to you to get their attention. Best artists do this I think, at all levels. You would never have ignored Bruce and his band for instance. Nor John Lydon or Hendrix. All different ways of doing it. But all connecting in some way.

Jon said...

A lot of bands these days could do with the Kaisekeller's Bruno Koschmider yelling 'mak shau!' It did his protégés the world of good...

Lucas Hare said...

It wasn't Nicholas Craig, was it?

David Hepworth said...

The thing with actors, I find, is to ignore the way they say it and concentrate instead on what they say.

bingojesus said...
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Lucas Hare said...

Speaking as someone who has a little nervous twitch every time an actor speaks of the 'space'; yes, you're absolutely right.

bingojesus said...

I did a bit of band management and have worked around music and musicians for over 30 years. And my advice to anyone who's been willing to take it has been - "it's all entertainment". Doesn't matter if you're Dean Martin, Steve Earle, or Slipknot, the rules are the same. You have to engage with the audience right from the very start.

I used to tell a band that I was involved with (great songs well performed, but much prone to shambling on, dicking around with the gear, tuning up between numbers, not talking to the crowd etc) that playing a gig was like having a fight. You have to come out and punch them in the face, then come back before they've had time to draw breath, and do it again. Spend more than 20 seconds between songs without either engaging the crowd with a bit of chat, or starting the next number, and you'll start to lose them, and then have to begin interesting them all over again.

Tell you who's a master of this - Chris Isaak. Seen him a few times, and the phrase "eating out of his hand" springs to mind. Yes, he can be a bit corny, but he grabs that crowd and won't let go...

Nigel said...

I saw The Muttonbirds the other day and seeing Don McGlashan on stage made me aware of the power of personality as well as the songs, in connecting with the audience. There were times when I thought he did look uncomfortable, times when the songs did ramble, but others when he swung his euphonium around his head, beamed out and invited the audience in. But it wasn't something he managed the whole performance, and it suffered because of it.

That other great NZ songwriter, Neil Finn, never has this problem. Every time I've seen him he engages the audience completely and authentically. His songs are great, but some of The Muttonbirds' are just as good. Finn always connects with the audience in a bigger, more powerful way. Maybe that's why he has a much bigger audience.

John said...

Richard Thompson's brilliant at this. I heard Linda in an interview once say something to the effect of - if Richard found a boy and his dog on the street he'd put on a show for them.

David Hepworth said...

Some really interesting points here. I wonder whether bands are more backward in coming forwards because they're more self conscious in front of each other than they are in front of the audience. I was talking to Don McGlashan last week and he told me that they had a version of Don't Fear The Reaper but they didn't do it because one member of the band was embarrassed by it. It seemed amazing to me that you wouldn't use all your best shots every time you went on stage. Richard Thompson is indeed a natural communicator despite being, to all intents and purposes, a shy man. He says that on stage he plays a character who's just a slightly heightened version of himself. I've also come to the conclusion that people who wear sunglasses on stage are frightened.

Nigel said...

The other side to it is perhaps that the thing that inhibits these performers is the thing that makes their great songs great. You mentioned that great Mutton Birds song 'A Thing Well Made' recently. It's an astonishing song of paranoia and privacy, I feel, and the person who wrote it is in touch with those particular feelings, which is the thing that made it so great, and yes, authentic. Now, maybe the thing that gave us that song meant he went along with whichever band member felt embarrassed by 'Don't Fear The Reaper'. (Hard to understand that at all, too, as it's a great cover). But would 'A Thing Well Made' exist at all if McGlashan didn't possess those same feelings?

It's a notion that has always fascinated me. It's why Finn is such a hero of mine - that ability to be authentic and to communicate with such a wide audience in an emotionally profound way. But's that just who is is - in his songs and on stage. And perhaps we shouldn't be critical of sunglass wearing singers, although your use of frightened doesn't imply a criticism really. Your initial post seemed to express, though, a frustration at the performers who didn't engage the audience. Perhaps they couldn't, or if they could maybe they wouldn't have produced the songs they did that work so well with their audience, in the privacy of a recording.

David Hepworth said...

There have always been brilliant songwriters who weren't cut out to be performers. The success of the Beatles and others persuaded them that they were somehow not the real thing if they didn't go out and sing them. It doesn't matter how talented your are, as far as I'm concerned if you don't want to entertain your audience you've no business going on stage. There are lots of other, no less creative, jobs you can do. Nobody expects Tom Stoppard or David Hare to get on stage and perform their plays.

Nigel said...

Yes, I do hate paying money to see a performer who gives me nothing. In fact, the only time I was truly repelled by a performance was when I wen to see June Tabor. I was literally slowly repelled by her manner, towards the back of Dingwalls, up against the bar and then out of the door. I can still listen to her recordings, just. And maybe performing in a studio only still counts as performing, for a particular type of song?

I'd never dream of telling her to give up being a performer - on record. And of course David Hare did perform Via Dolorosa on stage. He clearly felt he could give more to the audience by doing it himself. There are better actors than him, but maybe he got bitten by The Beatles thing?

Paul Martin said...

I was watching a group of my students playing in a pub the other night, all 15 & 16 and just finding their way musically. I wondered to myself why this was one of the last artforms where we don't work with young people on performance technique? The musical theatre students I work with improve phenomenally once they understand the simple idea that they are telling a story through their song and in addition remember who they are telling it to. Simple concepts but they can be difficult to implement (that's where the teaching begins). I see many good bands who could be great if they had someone to coach them on these basics. Maybe in the corporate world that music has become this is a trick that is being missed and unless it is addressed we may be doomed to our limited big stadium acts becoming older and older. (if that is possible)

David Hepworth said...

I suspect nobody works on their performance technique because within rock and roll there's a deeply-buried and rarely-challenged misconception that this would be a concession to "show business" which would compromise the purity of their self-expression. In the theatre nobody labours under that misapprehension.

bingojesus said...

Paul, exactly what I think. One of the basic rules I used to bang on about (in this case, my son's band) was treating every gig, no matter how humble, as a show, right from the start. Assuming at this level no crew to assist, at its simplest this means: finish setting up, tuning, taping down the cables, getting your drinks etc etc, then everyone clears off stage for two full minutes. Then, everyone appears together and, without any further ado, starts the show.

John Connolly said...

In Lynn Goldsmith's book of images from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, there's an image of Springsteen practicing one of his 'spontaneous' stage moves in front of a mirror. In her introduction, Goldsmith revealed that this was something he regularly did.

That was 1978. Earlier this year, in his SXSW speech, Springsteen admitted (jokingly, it seemed) that he still does this. However, looking at his collection of daft new moves in concert this summer I don't doubt for a second that it's true.

Perhaps having your own dressing room on the road makes the difference. By the time the band get to respond to what you're doing, the audience have already roared their approval.

Huw said...

It also helps if the band look like they are having fun themselves. I've seen Snow Patrol a few times because my wife is a big fan. Personally I can take them or leave them musically, but I appreciate the fact that they genuinely seem to be having a great time and know just how lucky they are to be able to make a very good living doing something they love. And they really make an effort to connect with the audience, and the audience respond because they look like they mean it.

Larry Heliotrope said...

But they might well spend hours practising their looks of cool insouciance…

dokan sam said...
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John Clark said...
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