Saturday, May 07, 2016

Just Watch. Just Listen.

In the course of a given year we go to a good number of concerts. Most are smaller as opposed to big arena spectacles. Some are part of a "coffee house" series, held in small spaces from all-purpose rooms in libraries to activity spaces in churches. Others are jazz performances on little stages tucked into the corner of a restaurant. And our favorite series is held in a park, where several hundred people gather weekly to hear all types of music, with the audience arrayed on lawn chairs and blankets with home-made picnics, take-out food and bottles of wine.

But regardless of the venue, the audience at most of these gatherings is made up of people who came to hear the music. I know that sounds like a no-brainer: you go a concert to hear the music. That's because, like sporting events, live music is one of those things where attending in person produces a very different experience as opposed to participating remotely. That's not say that watching on a screen is all bad. There you get better and varied sight lines, and are able to enjoy views you can't experience in person. The sound is perfectly mixed and transmitted, and optimized to be heard where you are sitting. And the experience isn't marred by the fat guy with the beer singing off key in front of you. That is, unless you invited your brother-in-law over to the house.

Still, there's a reason that some people have attended 32 Bruce Springsteen concerts. It's partly because every performance is a little bit different. It's partly because they like the shared experience that comes with gathering with other like-minded individuals. And it's partly because they are fans, and that's what fans do. But whether it's a major name like Coldplay or Beyoncé, a well-respected niche performer like Cecile McLorin Salvant or Hot Club of Cowtown, or a dogged touring artist like Sloan Wainwright or Mayer Hawthorne, it's also a chance to do something you don't get to do every day, and that's to experience in person a little magic.

At least to me, talented musicians are practitioners of a mystical art. They speak a language among themselves that defines beauty and ease, what ever the genre. To get the chance to listen to them display their talents, whether it's a full band in a stadium or a guy with a guitar in the corner of the room, is an opportunity that shouldn't be taken lightly. And one which can truly only be appreciated if you do nothing but focus on the space where the lights and the microphones converge with just your eyes and your ears and nothing else.

That's why I was dismayed at one recent performance in Nashville. I really didn't even know the performer; I had to look him up online. But he was a true talent, and had been around for a long time. The theatre was first rate, as was the sound system. And so when he came out and sat at the piano and started to sing, even without being a fan, I gave him my full attention.

But there was a distraction. It looked like a hundred giant fireflies had snapped on. Fully a third of the audience whipped out their cell phones and pointed them towards the stage. They proceeded to watch song after song on a four-inch piece of glass. After each number, a bunch flipped their phones around, and spent half of the next song uploading what they had just shot to their social media pages. They may as well have been at home as in the theatre. Fans or not, they weren't there for the music; they were there to say they had been there.

In one of my favorite essays entitled "The Cerebral Snapshot" Paul Theroux notes that a friend with whom he was traveling who took photographs had to ask Theroux what was happening around them. That's because he was too glued to his eyepiece to take in the bigger picture. And so it is in a concert. It's right there before your eyes and ears. To reduce it to the view through the viewfinder is to miss the bigger experience, the nuance of the performance. Put down the phone. Listen. Watch. And see how it makes you feel. As opposed to a shaky video with bad sound, then you'll really have something to post.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves live music. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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