Thoughts In Concert

As indicated by my previous post, I recently saw Ryan Adams and the Cardinals perform live.  That same weekend I also saw another favorite band: Aerosmith.  While both rock concerts, they are vastly different styles and what made up the setlist for each band represented an interesting conflict of what to play in concert when it comes to established acts. 

Aerosmith has been around for much longer than Adams, so they have a larger catalog of songs to choose from, but with his prodigious output, Ryan Adams is no slacker either.

As a long time avid (one might say "hard-core") Aerosmith fan, I participate in the Aeroforce One fan club forums from time to time, and one of the on-going debates is about "deep tracks" vs "the popular stuff."  Those of us who are long time fans and have seen Aerosmith perform many times (I’ve lost track at this point – 11 or 12 I believe) would like to see them pull out a few deep tracks from a great album like Rocks or Toys in the Attic or Draw the Line, and not play songs like "Pink" or "Livin’ the the Edge" or "Cryin" (or "Crazy")… and just about any Aerosmith fan worth his Aero-wings would rather hear ANYTHING than "Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing." 

However, last year, Aerosmith cut their classic song "Dream On" from a night or two of the tour and a virtual brouhaha broke out.  Many of those who had heard the song performed live dozens of times were ambivalent at best about about it, many others who had seen Aerosmith for the first time felt disappointed and let down that they didn’t hear that classic song.  They may as well have left out "Walk This Way" and/or "Sweet Emotion." 

Then  you have Ryan Adams, who performed a set list two nights later that consisted of a few well-known songs (at least to his fans) but shunned other, more popular songs like "New York, New York" (his "breakthrough hit," if you will) and "Let It Ride," the first single off of his highly successful double album "Cold Roses."  As my first time seeing Ryan Adams live, I would have liked to hear those songs, along with a few others that are his "hits."  I have no complaints about the set list, but if you were a casual fan, you may have been a bit lost.

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure if there’s such as thing as a casual Ryan Adams fan.  The people in the audience were having some serious music geek conversations from what I heard, with people comparing their favorite songs and albums, Ryan or otherwise.)

On the other hand, I may have actually traded out "Sweet Emotion" at the Friday night Aerosmith show in order to hear "Kings and Queens" or "Combination" instead.  And I LOVE "Sweet Emotion" – it may be one of the most "essential" songs to hear performed live at least once in your life (along with "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath, "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers, "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple and "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns n’ Roses), but dammit, I’ve heard it performed live a dozen times, and there’s over 15 albums worth of material for them to choose from – break something a little deeper out.  Joe Perry and Steven Tyler launched into a slightly abbreviated and acoustic version of "Hangman Jury" from the Permanent Vacation tour that was phenomenal to hear for a change. 

At the same time, I can understand where  casual and/or first time Aerosmith concert attendee would be upset if they didn’t heard "Sweet Emotion," "Walk This Way," "Dream On" etc. etc. 

There probably isn’t a right answer to this – other than that bands with a big back catalog should satisfy the majority of the audience but throw at least a little bone to the long-time, hard-core fans that make up their most loyal following.  It could be considered a matter of artistic integrity, but just because a song is popular doesn’t make it bad, and just because it is a deep track doesn’t mean that it good – might be interesting to hear Aerosmith play "Cheese Cake" live, but I could live without it, thanks.

What’s the right mix of "popular" vs. "deep tracks"?  Is it dependent on the band?  Do younger, more contemporary acts have more of a right to perform deep tracks since they don’t have as many hits, or should older acts play more deep tracks since it is more likely that people have heard the hits many times over already?  And what about the hometown crowd factor?  I saw Aerosmith on their Boston "hometown" stop and they only difference between that show and any others so far on the tour was the addition of "Hangman," which wasn’t even a complete song.   Should bands play deeper songs from their catalog just because they are on home turf where you many have people who have been following them since the beginning?

I have one other concert-related rant that I would like to close with.  This has nothing to do with set lists or song selection, but rather with audience behavior.  The Ryan Adams show was a pretty mellow event, with most of the audience sitting and enjoying the music.  It’s not like it was proper like a classical concert, but it was very mellow.  By contrast, Aerosmith, as would be expected, was a high-energy show with much higher production values, both in the personal performances and the stage production. 

However, when it comes to whether to sit and listen or stand up and move to the music (dance, headbang, play air guitar, whatever), you need to follow the crowd.  There’s been a few times where I’ve been frustrated that I can stand and rock out to a favorite song from a band.  There have also been a few times where I’ve led the charge in a section to get up and rock out when a particularly great song is played.  But if I was faced with fellow audience members who didn’t want to stand, I’d take my lumps and sit down.  Friday night, every single person in the audience was sitting except for these four absolutely obnoxious people who insisted on standing.  And they weren’t even moving that much – they were occasionally playing some slight air guitar or swaying a bit, but other than that, the only thing they were accomplishing was blocking the view of the people behind them. 

When a fellow concertgoer (and fan presumably) asked them politely to sit down they responded with "no" which made me want to get up and slap them.  They weren’t affecting me directly, but it made me angry.  I want everyone to enjoy the show as I was, and for these four selfish individuals to just stand there, screwing it up for others, was brining inconsiderateness to a new level.

The rule is: you sit down when EVERYONE ELSE is sitting and you stand when EVERYONE ELSE is standing and if you really like a particular song, feel free to stand for a song, but be considerate… move off to the side if you can.  Everyone is there for the same purpose: to enjoy the concert.  Don’t be a jerk and do it at the expense of others.

Ryan Adams at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, MA

This review started to write itself before even leaving the venue – one of those times where there are so many moments of inspiration, the difficulty is not in coming up with something to write about, but rather, picking the right things to concentrate on.

Ryan Adams has been marked alternatively as a genius, nutcase and rip-off at varying times in his career.  I hesitate at the word "genius" as I believe that title can only bestowed with the vantage of elapsed time, but I will defend my opinion that he is one of the most talented singer/songwriters out there today, and one of the best to come along in a while.  I’m not a country music fan, but have become enamored with the alternative country rock that Adams often personifies. 

After following his career in recordings only, this past weekend afforded me the opportunity to see him live, in the cozy setting of the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, MA.  He went on about 40 minutes after the posted start time, but made up for it with a fantastic set consisting of both popular songs and deep tracks:

1. Goodnight Rose
2. Peaceful Valley
3. What Sin
4. Beautiful Sorta
5. Freeway To The Canyon
6. Mockingbird
7. Cold Roses
8. Off Broadway
9. I See Monsters
10. Wildflowers
11. Rescue Blues
12. Dear Chicago
13. Please Do Not Let Me Go
14. A Kiss Before I Go
15. Games
16. Dear John
17. Easy Plateau
18. Sweet Lil’ Gal (solo) (aborted)
19. Magnolia Mountain
20. Nightbirds
21. The End

Adam’s styles begs comparisons to many other artists, and I can’t resist the temptation – listening to his songs brings up a variety of similar sounding artists, from Bob Dylan to Jeff Buckley.  However, seeing him live, the most appropriate comparison would be Neil Young – not surprising given his country influences and emphasis on strong songwriting – but also the Grateful Dead, an association which I would NOT have made prior to the concert.

During songs like "Cold Roses," "Easy Plateau," and especially "Magnolia Mountain," the performances got stretched out into extended jams, often straying completely from the original melody, developing into new tunes.  Some of them – as in the case of "Magnolia Mountain" – went into a spacey, downright trippy vein, complete with a giant mirror ball reflecting specks of colored light as notes bounced around with equally energy.

I held some trepidation going into the concert – a friend whom I introduced to Ryan Adams in the last year recently saw him live and was left disappointed, seeing only a short set and very little interaction with the audience.  However, that was clearly an off night, as Adams was downright jovial, even though he was performing with the flu, something that became a running joke throughout the night ("this is the first time I’ve had the flu while sober – its cool" he quipped at one point), along with poking fun at his own temperament and trading jibes with the audience and band members.  In fact, at several points, Adams called for the audience to be a bit quieter ("less audience!") but kept his cool throughout, even when a fan replied with "less whining!"

However, the in-between song banter was secondary to the music, which was tight but exploratory, and most importantly, extremely satisfying.  There were a ton of songs that I wish he had played, but I also have no problem with what was played – there were songs that I love ("Nightbirds" and "Rescue Blues") but would have considered too much of a "deep track" to be played live.  But more on that in my next post…