The Joy of Performance

The first time I heard Craig Finn say, “There is so much joy in what we do up here,” during an instrumental break in “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” at a Hold Steady show, I thought it was a nice sentiment.

By the fifth time I heard him say it, I grew suspicious of the canned nature of the rehearsed statement and just wanted them to get on with the fucking song already.

However, although Finn says the same exact thing night after night after night, I don’t doubt that he means it. And more importantly, I think it’s one of the factors that make The Hold Steady such a great live act.

In the past week, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden, and Fucked Up at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. Although the two bands don’t have much in common, they’re united by the energy and passion of their concerts. Both shows were among the best I’ve ever seen, and they were tied together by the sheer joy that the bands (and particularly the frontmen) so obviously took from performing live before an audience.

That joy is often what separates good live acts from great live acts.

That doesn’t mean that every show has to be a dance party, or that every song in a set needs to be ebullient. The singer doesn’t have to profess how happy he or she is to be there, or smile through the whole show. But the thrill of playing live music is palpable, and audiences can tell when it’s there and when it’s not.

In the age of indie rock and shoegaze, Beach House and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, too many shows feel like chores for the performers. It’s as if they think that enjoying playing will make their music seem less serious or authentic, and they’ll lose their Pitchfork bona fides.

I mean, watch this…

and this…

and tell me how many bands you’ve seen in the last few years with that kind of energy and enthusiasm. Too many bands emulate The Strokes, and stand as still and emotionless as possible — and there is a place for that kind of affect, but it’s become rampant. Part of the job of the performer is to convey the idea that they want to be there, and it goes both ways. It’s the audience’s responsibility to give something back to the artist too, instead of standing there with their arms folded tight, as Arcade Fire have pointed out.

The truly great live bands understand that a rock or pop concert is something to be cherished, something that shouldn’t feel like just another night out at a bar. We should anticipate shows, and together the band and the audience should attempt some kind of communal experience. That doesn’t always happen and it can’t always happen, but when it does, it can elevate a concert above just about any other art form we have. Damian Abraham understands that. Bruce Springsteen understands that. Craig Finn understands that. Who else does?

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Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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