A week of magic shows
There are nights at shows when everything lines up. You can’t plan it. The sound guy is on it. The band is together. The place is packed – or it’s not, to just the exactly right degree. Everyone is in the right place together, all at once. It feels good to be there. You know the songs, or you don’t and they’re all new and arresting. It doesn’t matter whether you remember anything about the night or not. You’re just there, it feels good, everything fits together. As a critic, you feel inclined to attribute this synergy to the band, but perspective reminds you they have as little control over this animal as you do. It’s organic, it breathes. It’s a thing.
Other nights, it feels like you’re in the audience watching musicians on a stage. People are doing their job and you’re just standing there, letting them. They sweat, you take note. They hit the note or miss it, you take note. Like Jane Goodall in the forest, you stand there and let them do their thing, assess what it all means, or simply take it in. It’s not part of you, except in a universal sense – that you’re both in the same place at the same time, doing separate things. Sometimes that’s even magical; sometimes that can feel like a privilege.
Other times it’s two entities speaking two separate languages. There is no connection. Who do you fault? Are the songs poorly written? Is the band out of sync? Is it an off night? Are the monitors out of wack? Is there a couple arguing somewhere? Is it the weather? The time of year? Is it you?
I go to a ton of shows. I watch live music the way I drink coffee. Long ago, it stopped being an event toward which I pointed my week, my day. Sometimes all three of the nights I described above happen in one night. In fact, this is my preference. In this scenario, however, there’s always a fall guy. An artist whose set is belabored and weak, who struggles against whatever it is – their out of tune guitar, the hecklers, the monitors, the mics, their own fatigue, the fact they forgot to eat dinner or that they really want a cigarette and a quiet night at home. You can see all of that in their face, can hear it in the instrumental breaks between verse and chorus. Which leads to the conclusion that great live music isn’t just live music. It’s a magic show.
In the past week, I’ve run the gamut. It kicked off a week ago. I walked into an organic, breathing Tractor Tavern last Thursday to see the Mother Hips onstage, wielding the magic, whatever that is.
I’ve become familiar with their recorded material, but the live show this night was a whole different animal. But it was an animal, to be sure. A prowling, sly, patient animal which careened through tastefully smooth guitar solos and intuitive lyric affectations. They were followed by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Last time I saw Isbell, I was sick and disinterested in the sheer volume of it all. That first time, the problem had been me. I left that show feeling like nothing connected, like it was all too much, missing the point. This time, however, Isbell and the band rode the Mother Hips’ magic swirling energy through a remarkable set. Playing many of the same songs from the last time, but just doing it better. It had been a few weeks since I’d connected with live music. It was good to be back.
Last night, I parked at the bar at Conor Byrne Pub to catch Lindsay Fuller, about whom I’ve heard a lot of talk. Some to the positive, some to the negative. Joined only by a bass player (the remarkably talented Rebecca Young), Fuller played an energetic set of rather depressing songs (themes included black lung and what was wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys), which outshone the energy and effort of the two bands to follow on the same bill. It was as though she pulled the bar onto a ledge then, upon her exit from the stage, the whole place just fell. It became a night of watching people do their job. Not uninteresting, but the magic was gone.
One neighborhood over, at the High Dive, Jack Wilson and the Wifestealers played their asses off to a half-empty room. It was enough to believe the storm Fuller had churned up during her tenure a few hours prior had since migrated to the High Dive stage. Wilson put on the kind of show that doesn’t care about the weather, the mood, the sweat, the slightly off-tune guitar strings, the size of the crowd. The music just came, the magic just swirled. The kind of show you wish other people had been there to see. I only caught the end of this one, but I saw enough to feel redeemed.
Tonight I’ll go to two more shows, catch four more bands – Westerly, the Parson Red Heads, Final Spins, Grand Hallway. We’ll see where the magic show is.