Live Music Is Better?
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor
Sept. 19, 2001
As Neil Young’s rabid hyperrust.org fans have long proclaimed, “Live music is better.” I’ve always bought into the notion, but for the first three-quarters of Williams’ two-hour set, I was beginning to question it. Sitting in the beautiful, yet sterile Michigan Theater, sitting for way longer than I’d think someone who pays $28 to see a show would want to, I started to get antsy. Is this show ever going to rock?
Well, it did rock, eventually, and I left satisfied. I never did get up out of my seat, and neither did anyone else. No dancing in the aisles, and of course, no smoking or drinking in the theater—only in the lobby or outside on the street could one indulge any vices. Which brings up a point far more important than any analysis of Lucinda (in a nutshell: She’s sexy, she can play, she’s got a great band, and her voice is far more amazing live than it even sounds in her very good recordings). What are we doing going to see musicians play in stuffy theaters, bland concert halls, and venues that don’t allow the sex and drugs? Is this rock and roll, man, or what?
The thing that makes rock rock is that it’s inherently dangerous. Not necessarily violent dangerous (which it can be), but dangerous like it might shock you or bring about unintended consequences. In a good way—cause you to get up out of your seat, move a little bit, have another beer, shake your ass, dance with a stranger, break a sweat. Rock might just exceed your expectations, it might sound better than it did on that CD. It might make you stop and say, “Damn, I oughtta quit my job, buy a guitar and move to Austin.” Now we all know we’re not going to do that, but we might just have a flash of fantasy where we consider leaving the wife and kids and the mortgage payment. . .
So Lucinda is a prime candidate to bring those emotions, those vibes, to even the most corporate-free-ticketed yuppie type. Hell, that’s what her songs are all about. And with a pretty damn near full house, a lot of enthusiastic fans, during an emotionally-charged week, this was rock and roll waiting to happen. But we all just sat there, politically-correctly clapping enthusiastically after each song and then fading to a silence, waiting eagerly for the next track on the, err, set list. Two second pause. The band resumes playing. Why is this happening?
I can blame it partly on Williams. I realize she’s got to warm up those pipes, but to come out and play the first two songs on Car Wheels in order, sounding exactly like the album, well, that wasn’t such a good way to set the tone. Especially when you figure she’s got a lot of slower songs and ballads, and she’s obviously not going to let the band loose on every joint. So for the first hour and a half, the rocking numbers that could have whipped up the crowd kept getting deflated by the next song. Great tunes all, but the set was seemingly designed to inspire passive listening, as if two songs in a row with guitar solos might have caused civil unrest. (A thought, perhaps more true than it might seem.)
Now you might be thinking that I’m being hard on Lucinda, just bitching about a set list that wasn’t in my preferred order. Or wanting her to be something she’s not, a reckless rock and roller the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn. But that’s not it at all. Get this: Williams comes out for the encore, tells the audience that the next song is the best explanation of her “feelings” that she’s ever heard; it was written by Bob Dylan. And as I whisper, “Masters of War,” she starts to strum the opening chords. The audience goes wild and she and the band deliver the statement I’ve been looking for all night: This is a dangerous lady; she wants peace.
I’ve been thinking about Williams’ performance all day now, and I keep wanting to compare it to when I saw Neil Young’s Ragged Glory tour. It just so happened that we were in a similar state of political unrest when I trecked out to Auburn Hills to see Neil play with Crazy Horse in 1991. He came out of the darkness with a distorted guitar note that rippled into another of Dylan’s songs, “Blowing in the Wind.” Charging up the crowd from the draw, he and the Horse told it straight: Support the troops, think twice about the war. Not unlike Williams, his set had some slow numbers, some rockers, some electric, some acoustic. But we didn’t sit on our hands, because Neil had given us reason to stand in patriotic pride, in defiance, in awe. Williams may have given us just as much, but she was already half out the door when the message came. And part of me doesn’t blame her, because part of me doesn’t think the audience or the promoter would have wanted it differently.
After all, just one more song and it was eleven o’clock—time for the respectable people to go home and return the babysitter—and the lights came on. Lucinda had delivered, at truly the eleventh hour. We were all happy, but as I scanned the crowd, there were a few that had the same look in their eyes as I did. Again: What are we doing here? We should have been sitting down at the bar right now, trying to carry on a conversation over the ringing in our ears, debating the merits of Essence and Sweet Old World. We should at least have been able to light up, smoke that after-climax biscuit, and rub our weary eyes.
And this problem is not just here at this show, but everywhere. Good old venues are disappearing, replaced by clean and corporatized places in neighborhoods where people with good jobs aren’t afraid to park. Promoters aren’t willing to take any chances, and when the non-mainstream, usually-NPR-backed artists do tour nationally they all seem to get stuck into a sort of pre-fabbed concert experience that’s about as exciting as going out to get a frappucino. Williams’ statement is downright daring in this climate. Even in a place as supposedly progressive as Ann Arbor, there’s just no space for the sort of venue or band that might push the limits of social acceptance. Don’t believe me? Ask Chris Robinson why he plays in neighboring Ypsilanti when he comes to town now and whether it has anything to do with the Black Crowe’s “no-enforcement” of marijuana laws requirement at their concerts.
Audiences are perhaps even more to blame. I remember going to see Johnny Cash at a county fair a few years ago and being told to shut up by some jackass in front of me because I was singing along to “I Walk the Line.” That guy seems to turn up more and more with every show I attend. He paid his Ticketmaster service fee* and damn it, that gives him a right to sit on his ass and be pissed at anyone who wants to Stand Up and Shout. Considering that everyone can already “see” the artists on VH1 and MTV, the ostensible reason to come to the show is to see and hear something bigger, something more than what you can find on the recordings. Yet it’s almost as if a sizeable chunk of the people come to shows to sit and listen with the expectation that things will be “as seen on TV.” Are artists afraid to fuck with a song (in the fashion of Wilco’s amazing “punk” version of “Passenger Side”) because some radio-listener might not recognize it? Tell me it ain’t so. . .
There’s trouble everywhere in the music biz these days, from radio banality to blockbuster-oriented sales tactics to independent record store failures to ridiculously-priced pay-TV mega-concerts. Add the deterioration of the local live concert to the list. If things continue this way, I might just have to move to Austin…
*My ticket was bought at the box office without paying Ticketmaster one red cent in service fees. Fuck Barry Diller.