Memoirs of a Music Man

By David Segal
Sunday, August 28, 2005

A few months before I left my job as pop music critic at The Washington Post, a reader called to accuse me of a journalistic crime. The message, forwarded to me via voice mail, came from a 20-ish-sounding woman who seemed really worked up. I'm paraphrasing here, but she said something like this:

I don't think that your critic was at the Aerosmith show on Saturday at Nissan Pavilion. In his review, he wrote that in the middle of the show lead singer Steven Tyler grabbed a trapeze and swung out over the audience. I was at the show in Connecticut, and he did that there. But he didn't do it at Nissan. My guess is that Segal went to the Connecticut show but didn't go to Nissan. Bye!

Now, at first, my feelings were hurt. A review has to be pretty lacking in local color for someone to accuse you of skipping the concert. (I called this young lady to discuss this matter, but she never got back to me.) And, of course, the trapeze swing really happened. Tyler had grabbed it, dangling near the lip of the stage, as Joe Perry took a guitar solo during "Walk This Way." The crowd hooted -- Tyler was briefly sailing above the heads of fans in the first eight rows or so -- and it was over in about 10 seconds.

Maybe the caller had lousy seats and didn't see it. Maybe she went to get a beer as the song began. Either way, as soon as I got past my indignation, I felt a wave of nostalgia. This woman believed, as I once believed, that rock concerts are spontaneous affairs where anything can happen. A lead singer might suddenly spot a trapeze and, on a whim, take a ride.

Ah, sweet and innocent youth.

It's fair to assume that Tyler rode the same trapeze in the same spot during the same song at every concert that summer, Nissan included. The whole trapeze thing was almost surely dreamed up before the band strummed the first note on the tour. There was probably a trapeze roadie, with instructions that read "9:15, hand Perry an Aquafina. 9:18, go get the trapeze."

That's the way pop concerts are these days, especially large ones. Everything is choreographed, even the parts that seem unchoreographed, and there is no room for unplanned derring-do. I knew this before I signed on as rock critic in January 2000. But there's something about going to dozens and dozens of concerts that makes the artifice of these productions even more glaring, and when I go to shows now, it's hard for me to see anything else. What we've got here, all too often, is musical theater masquerading as improv.

I have nothing against musical theater, but when you're expecting a concert, it seems silly and very much against the impulsive, unruly spirit of the genre. Broadway's "Mamma Mia!" never pretends to be free-forming it every night. U2 does, though a U2 concert is essentially the same thing, night after night, right down to the encore. Yes, the bonus part that's supposed to be extra because you clapped hard, that's planned, too.

"Whoa! Next you'll tell us that Britney lip-syncs?" I know, I know. These impressions won't exactly shock you jaded longtimers out there, but it seems to me that concerts are getting more ossified and more mannered every year. And the more schematic the production is, the less likely you are to come across the great Live Concert Moment.

You know about the great Live Concert Moment, right? I'm not talking about the kind of show where you leave thinking, "Those guys rule!" and then buy a T-shirt. I'm talking about total-body bliss, a rush so strong it turns brain cells into Jell-O and, for a moment or two, you sort of leave your skin. Art lovers would probably argue that they get the same feeling by looking at a great painting, but they're fools, and you should ignore them. A good part of what I'm talking about here is sheer volume. A painting can be many things, but it will never make your ears ring.

The Pixies, my friend, can make your ears ring.

The great Live Concert Moment is born of something heartfelt and in some important way spontaneous. Not necessarily made up on the spot -- although that's never a bad idea -- but improvised to some degree. You might catch something similar in Boston next week, but it won't be exactly what happened in D.C. This is what sets a great concert apart from a great album. It's about music, but it's also about an experience that's ephemeral and communal, that you share for a couple hours with a bunch of strangers who, at some level, you feel like you know because they have the same idiotic glint in their eye when the lights come up. It's the sense that this whole evening means as much to the band as it does to you. It's great songs multiplied by killer performance multiplied by giddy fan reaction.

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