Sunday, 22 May 2011

Sit Down. Stand Up. Red Stripe: Gigs are sometimes the worst way to hear music

Last month I wrote about the Halls gig at the Old Blue Last for L&Q, and felt kinda bad about having to conclude that it was mediocre. Essentially, I thought they'd done the music a disservice by failing to turn their bedroom producer fare into any kind of live show. I'm seeing them again tomorrow, same place (according to the line-up that's been floating around), supporting Beat Connection and the rather good Entrepreneurs. If bands ever took advice from sideline snipers and blather-boxes like myself then I'd expect them to rock up with some freshly-honed stage moves and stunning visuals at the very least; ideally they'd make their entrance from the door of a 35 ft mirror ball lemon. But somehow I think this will not be the case.

Last night, at the other end of the synth-dude spectrum, I caught Emeralds at Village Underground. This arpeggio-humping synth/ambient/drone trio came to my attention last year with their album Does It Look Like I'm Here (s'on Spotify), but they've been around for a few years and apparently have about 40 releases behind them on various small labels, including Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace imprint. So they're a little more established than Halls, shall we say. But how much better was the live show? Well, there were no laptops involved (that I could see) and they had wisely set up the synths side-on to the audience so that we could seem them pressing stuff, a bit. And they have a guitarist! He sways around in a post-rock sorta way. 

All the same, I don't think more than a handful of people could have been described as 'engrossed' in the Emeralds live experience. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with it - at the very least it's cool to see how such complex, textured tracks are brought to life through the beating heart of analogue - but it makes me wonder about the limitations of the standard gig format. When Brian Eno patented his Ambient music it was all about creating sounds that could happily exist in the background, while the listener splits her attention with something else. Likewise when you're listening to a DJ in club surroundings you're free to dance and chat and move around without looking over to the booth (unless you're one of those creepy booth-snoopers with your eyes fixed on the decks. Weirdo).

And on and on - so much music is designed as part of an overall experience, not as the experience itself. Like in ballet or dance where music is just one of the required elements. Or in many non-Western musical traditions where participation is expected and there's no performer-audience divide. Or, in fact, in its recorded state as the soundtrack to your day. Music doesn't need to be 'Ambient' to be literally 'ambient' - how much time do you spend listening to music while doing nothing else? Most of my listening happens while I'm getting on with other things.

So when it comes to the music of Emeralds, or even Halls, I just wonder if its anti-flamboyance, evolving textures and slow-burn dynamics wouldn't be better served in a less straightforward 'gig' situation. If there's nothing to look at, why are we all facing the same way? Are there other ways of presenting live music that are better suited to the actual sounds being made? By way of example, a couple of memorable gigs: Yo La Tengo at the Royal Festival Hall, providing a soundtrack to a '70s French documentary about marine life. Lucky Dragons at the Scala, handing out homemade electronic instruments to the audience. Both were totally engrossing and gave the audience a sense of purpose and belonging, as though it really mattered that we were there, creating an atmosphere together (ergh, what a hippy I'm becoming). But without that, we risk reducing the gig to something functional and replicable, a simple product to be touted now that CDs are virtually worthless.

Wow, downer post. I'll dish up some happy clappy shit next time!

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