A gent named Channing Kennedy recently wrote a piece called Face It, Live Music Kinda Sucks for Talking Points Memo in which he went to great lengths to discuss how the live music experience falls short of expectations. I shared it because my wife and I don’t see eye to eye about going to gigs. For her the hassle of getting to a gig even for a band she really loves and standing up for several hours is not generally outweighed by the joy of listening to musicians who really love what they’re doing do it well.

Kennedy puts forth his bona fides: ran a small record label, played in a few bands, and has been to a lot of gigs. On my part: I’ve bought a lot of music from small labels and I’ve been to a lot of gigs. From my first, Donna Summer at the Hollywood Bowl in (I think) 1980 to my most recent, Kraftwerk in Amsterdam two weeks ago.
He then asserts that “musicians you don’t know will bore you to death.” Could be. I saw Mr. Mister in 1984 (an opening slot for Adam Ant), just a couple years before their hits. I wished I’d known to watch the drummer. He has manned the sticks with King Crimson since the mid-90s and is mind-blowing. Was he in ’84 (or even in ’87 when you couldn’t escape Broken Wings and Kyrie)? Not sure. I’ve seen plenty of acts whose music I didn’t know, but whose work I happily purchased after the gig. A couple years ago I saw an EBM crew called Covenant because a friend played keyboards for the opening act. Bloody brilliant. A few years ago I saw  Sunn O))) for (what I hope is) the first time. I’d heard their shows were quite intense and decided not to listen to anything they’d done before the gig. Mindbending. Allow yourself the whole experience.
Consider the jazz made in the late 40s and early 50s. Even if you’d heard recordings by Miles or Dizzy before seeing them, what you heard on any given night bore little resemblance to those sides. The same is true of music with any improvisational aspect today.
What distinguishes your experience of musicians you know vs. musicians you don’t is your openness to what the person on stage is doing. Close yourself and it’s dull; open yourself and oh gracious, what a beautiful thing that guy just did with his voice.
Kennedy’s next point is that “the musicians you love will disappoint you.” Live performance is a risk. Musicians have off nights; audiences are capricious; venue policies can spoil even the most well-conceived evening. He describes one of his first gigs: They Might Be Giants, who were just two middle-aged guys playing clever music. The complaint: The show didn’t resemble Van Halen’s Jump video. Did he not notice David Lee Roth’s multiple costume changes in the course of one 3-minute pop song? TMBG disappointed because the writer wasn’t up for the experience of the evening. (Note also the writer’s admission that he attended with a girl he’d just broken up with. That’d put a wet blanket on any gig. I saw David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails with my wife (previous) and a guy she was having an affair with. It was a fantastic show, but I was not the ideal audience. Next time Bowie came to town, I went alone.) The artists you love offer you nothing more than the opportunity to see and hear them perform (depending on your place in the venue). Adjust your expectations accordingly and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re grown up enough to do so.
The writer’s comments about TMBG and Van Halen, however, come from  his  next supporting argument: Live music, as a medium, is structurally flawed. His assertion here is that the tension between an audience wanting to hear exactly what’s on the album goes head to head with their desire to hear something new in the music and the artist’s desire/lack thereof to actually perform. In the 80s, Bruce Springsteen released a slow, mournful arrangement of Born To Run which he used briefly in his live sets. Artistic freedom, yes, but I was also relieved that the version he played when I saw him the following year was closer to that on the album. Springsteen might be an exceptional  case because of his sheer showmanship. Few young artists can dredge up the experience Bruce’s thousands of road hours provide him. Again, there’s got to be a trust between performer and audience that the experience is not one way.
Kennedy then goes after the nature of the booking system. Acts get booked based on a lot of factors that aren’t talent or entertainment value. Fair enough, but that has little to do with live music as a whole being lousy. What it means is that, especially at the low-budget end of the live music spectrum, there will be surprises no matter the gig. And that’s part of the experience. To be fair, he talked about hustling for gigs and getting cut slack because his band were “two white males with college-town cultural fluency”. That doesn’t speak well for him or his band, but one clapping to him for acknowledging his privilege.
His concluding advice to bands, venues, and audiences is an effort to make live music kinda suck less and points up that he’s not so much against all  live music but against the aspects of it that have become unbearable. I’m with him on that.
And Neil Young’s Union Man, from which we get the line “Live Music Is Better Bumper Stickers Should Be Issued”.