You Really Had To Be There

Posted by in February's Magazine

How ya doing Edinburgh? You guys are great, it’s great to be back, we love coming here!” The crowd cheers, we hear it at every gig yet we still love it and respond accordingly. We know that the frontman says the same thing at every show, and he/she knows that we know that, but we cling to the fact that this time it could be true. Insincere, or thoroughly heartfelt, it doesn’t really matter. Having said that, if Bob Dylan cracked a smile and said, “I love you Scotland,” we’d all be more than a little freaked out and concerned for his wellbeing!

Whilst we might have albums that we love and hold dear, I believe a live show will always count for more, a gig is special, as the very nature of ‘live’ is in the ‘now’ and the uniqueness of the moment. The less romantic will note in the days of Spotify, free downloads, dirt cheap CDs and online streaming, we’re bound to hear and consume much more recorded music than we are live music, although the flipside (as we vinyl fans say) is that it makes going to a concert all the more memorable.


There are a number of genres where live performances are essential to the success of an artist, where they are judged primarily upon whether they can ‘cut it’ live. The ability to play live is crucial in music ranging from jazz to folk and from rock to opera, where replicating, and even bettering, studio recordings is key to an artist building a reputation with fans. Also, for musicians unlikely to get mainstream media coverage, time spent on the road helps to build their profile.

Some bands sell small numbers of CDs but have such a reputation for live performance that they really make their living from touring and their albums are more of a promo tool for the next round of concerts. This is definitely the case with ‘classic’ acts like Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, artists who’s days of making relevant music are long gone, but who are still a huge draw on the concert circuit. Some acts are better live than on CD, rockers like Iron Maiden and Kiss fall into this category as does, arguably, Bruce Springsteen, whose live box set blows his first eight albums out of the water.

Wrinkly rockers
For pop groups it’s less about singing and musicianship and more about the show/spectacle. The kids don’t seem to mind the autotune, miming, etc. – it’s not always possible to sing whilst dancing – they go crazy for the event. Madonna caught some flack for miming but the rather ironic miming of the likes of Justin Bieber and Cheryl Cole on the X Factor has had no negative impact on their careers. There are of course some acts that can combine spectacle with musicianship: Prince has always been the perfect example of this, Michael Jackson in his prime was a sight to behold, Public Enemy know how to put on a show, and these days Jay Z has really upped his game. The ultimate marriage of showmanship and musicianship was Parliament-Funkadelic; if I had a time machine I’d hitch a ride on the Mothership Connection.

Another recent development is the amazing rise in the popularity of music festivals, from a handful of big ones there’s now at least a couple every weekend from June to September to cater for every taste and budget. Some genres have their own dedicated festival that can help break an artist. As for the über festivals such as Glastonbury, a successful appearance there can take a performer’s career to another level through exposure to a whole other type of audience. Just like theatre fans at Edinburgh Festival, plenty of people choose random shows from the Celtic Connections or Glasgow Jazz Festival programmes on the strength of the festival itself. It’s one of the genuine delights of music to just ‘stumble’ upon something, make that instant connection, and get blown away.

In some types of live performance nobody minds seeing a bunch of ‘older’ performers onstage – jazz, folk, world, etc – in fact it often gives them extra kudos, but in rock and pop it has long been frowned upon (it’s obligatory to call the Rolling Stones ‘wrinkly rockers’), even that is changing though with the continued thirst to see performers in the flesh. Witness the rise in popularity of the nostalgia circuit; we now see nicely packaged groupings of 70s and 80s acts playing to big crowds. Reunion shows are as prevalent as debut gigs, albeit with varying success, for every Take That or The Police there’s a Shed Seven or New Kids On The Block (yup, they’re back). Crazy money is on offer for all sorts of ex-superstars to reform, Led Zeppelin turned down a mint to tour, and the rumour mill is again rife with talk of an Abba reunion, although let’s be honest, that would be bound to descend into the karaoke night from hell. Much better to catch Bjorn Again at a covers band festival. Now there is an idea…what do you mean it’s already been done?

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