Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Sound matters

I've been rambling on a bit in the comments at love shack, baby regarding some bands sounding drastically different (or just crap) when they play live, compared with their recorded output; it's something that has often left me disappointed with gigs, and equally thrilled when things sound just as they 'should', whatever that is, since naturally, ideas about what constitutes a decent live performance are far from fixed.

I'm not talking about unreasonably wanting a band or artiste (ha!) to faithfully recreate every nuance of painstaking studio artifice, or (bleedin' obviously) about bringing the string quartet* they wheeled in for one album track along on tour; but sometimes I can't help feeling like I ordered steak (medium rare, when I ate meat) & got a frozen pizza from Lidl.

Bit of an awkward analogy that, because you haven't chosen off a menu, there's no contract beyond them turning up & playing, all you've bought, as Ian Hunter put it, is a ticket for the fantasy. Be nice though, if instead of unwittingly crashing your dream party & stamping on collective choc-ices, bands/promoters/venues put some obvious effort into sound quality, & perhaps ensuring that the evening doesn't consist of bad cover versions by err, the original artists. I realise that many people go along for the crack, a shared experience of frantic dancing, shouting, & being squashed against the stage (btdt, albeit many years ago), but that needn't exclude thems who'd rather stand & listen, surely?.

Sooo anyway - who have you seen that managed to combine the sparkle of playing live, with some semblance of being the same guys whose records you paid for, and does it matter?. Here's a short selection of those I remember as being just right, or at the very least, showing that they cared one way or another.

I caught The Jam at Portsmouth Guildhall in late seventy-something, & Paul Weller made such an effort to mimic his double-tracked guitars/feedback on stage, swearing & looking genuinely pissed off when it didn't quite work on one song... top marks for trying though.
When You're Young - The Jam
UK single in 1979/1983

Noo, I'm not that old to have seen 'em first time round, but when some of the original band joined Gary Glitter for one of his tours, they used to do a few Glitter Band songs w/o Gary, (who often couldn't sing to save his life, but was always entertainingly cocky). They were spot-on & tight as can be, managing to get that 'Leander sound' off to a T.
Angel Face - The Glitter Band
Hey! (1974)

Probably the best for onstage energy & buzz, JSBX were outstanding, even when the power went out & they had to play completely acoustic.
Sweet n Sour - The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Plastic Fang (2002)
buy | website

*Going back to how you sound like an album, with (say) strings & horns, MLS took the expensive route & toured with the full 13 piece band - marvellous!.
You Don't Sparkle (in my eyes) - My Life Story (or just 'Sparkle')
Mornington Crescent (1995)
buy | myspace

These days, with a little effort, you can hear samples (at least) of most every album track before laying out your hard-earned, and clearly a lot of skill & time goes into creating them; I just wish that a fraction of that attention to detail went more frequently into live shows - they're more than just public appearances, they cost plenty, and they're highly anticipated hopes & dreams where bigger acts are concerned. We should demand more respect from those who get the cash.

All that apparent negativity isn't aimed at small bands, I should add; often their annual budget wouldn't buy a single day in a real pro studio, never mind enough time to produce an album. They're also often at the mercy of a venue's sound engineer taking a guess at how they'd like to sound, perhaps with the help of a 'spare' band member, if they're lucky... I mean sure, everyone should care about live sound, but those with medium/big label backing don't have much excuse for getting it badly wrong.
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