k d lang at the CFF, or, What Makes a Great Performance?
I was all ready to review k d lang’s set at the Calgary Folk Fest when she closed the Saturday night show two weeks ago. I figured if nothing else, I should, as a fellow (now transplanted) Albertan (one who also found way better vegetarian menus beyond the province’s borders), and as somebody who regularly writes about her brand of alt/cowpunk informed country music. The more obvious reason to write about her is that I like her a lot, and have always returned to some of my favourite recordings of hers for her big voice and open arrangements that so quickly bring the Prairies to mind.
But I realized, as she swayed about the stage, lost in a reverie that was probably part returning to performing live and part returning to that pinnacle of audiences, one’s hometown, that I could not write a review. lang loosely interpreted her classic recordings for an hour and a half, displaying the virtuosic acrobatics of her voice with ease, moving through difficult and unanticipated melodic twists that only someone with a great ear can achieve.
Those two sentences there are about all I can muster for a review, because, halfway through her set, lang launched into her rendition of “Hallelujah.”
(Before I go further, I am fully aware of, and take part in, the backlash against everybody and their cat thinking they can do a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s classic. I do think lang’s version sits among the best of these though.)
Anyone who had been remotely disengaged at the CFF seemed to be swept into lang’s performance at that moment. Aside from the whistles that punctuated the ends of her verses, the crowd in front of the stage was quiet. I was backstage at the time, gathered with a few others to watch her from the side and on the screen in the green room. All talk stopped. The women beside me who had eagerly been singing along moments ago stood still in silence. We drew in collective breath as she reached the climactic points in the song and exhaled upon their release. Not surprisingly, there were some tears.
I’m a relatively jaded concert attendee. I’ve sat through a lot of crap, many decent shows, and some spectacular ones. I’ve suffered through the bad stage banter, the absent stage banter, the forgotten lyrics, messy endings, and boring solos. I’ve stood for hours in hot crowds waiting for a band to stop getting high backstage (you know who you are) and finally start playing; I’ve been scrunched onto uncomfortable benches and sat through rain to hear just a few songs of someone I like. My point is, I’ve seen a lot of live shows, but these ones that have such an effect on your psyche that the failings of the English language become readily apparent in trying to describe them are few and far between. Why?
What is it about a performance that draws a crowd of 100 or 10,000 or 60,000 together to feel as though they are one? Is it something musical, something performative, something atmospheric? This feeling is presumably why we like music, why we continue to spend great percentages of our disposable income on concert tickets. Are we after a social and musical high that is near impossible to find, but when we do, makes all the other attempts worth it?
I guess I’ve had other experiences like this. The one that I always remember is the Dixie Chicks show at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto after Taking the Long Way came out. Remember the scene in Shut Up and Sing where the Toronto show sells out in a matter of minutes? Yeah, I was one of those ticket buyers. Sandwiched between two families with small girls in a cramped seat at the back of the arena, I and 20,000 others were swept into the frenzy of “Not Ready to Make Nice,” after the girls had expressed their gratitude for Toronto’s loyalty. I had never expected a concert that big to have that kind of effect on me.
What conditions have to be present for one to get goosebumps during a performance? Is it possible if you aren’t particularly interested in the artist onstage? Do you have to be with people you know, or people who love the artist? Can the artist be in a bad mood and still convey great emotional depth, conviction in their delivery? Do all the technical aspects of the performance have to be perfect, or can a moment like this occur with the lights out or an improperly balanced sound? Do some people feel these moments more frequently or more acutely than others, and if so, why?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m happy to be reminded that these rare moments happen.
And I’m sorry I can’t review the concert. I thought she was great. Bah. Great, what a useless word.
k d lang is playing the closing show at the Edmonton Folk Festival tomorrow night (August 7).