06 November 2009

The unforgettable fire

I'll admit to curiosity. So I clicked on the live YouTube stream of U2's concert at the Rose Bowl. The daughter stood behind me, looking over my shoulder, and about two songs in, she announced flatly, "They're boring."

I still find myself wanting to make excuses for them: it wouldn't be as much fun watching the stream as being there, it seemed like there were some technical issues, they're...er...old?

No, "old" doesn't cut it. I've seen older musicians perform with a lot more heart, a much better sense of fun, and a lot more connection with their audience.

She was right. They were boring. Bono, in particular, looked like he was phoning in the performance, just putting on a show, separate from those who surrounded him. The music sounded dead. The politics were painful, as in painfully stagey, not as in eliciting a response to a call to action. The whole approach seemed so dated, hearkening back to all the concerts I attended in the 1980s where earnest young volunteers from whatever group--Greenpeace, Amnesty International--handed out literature and solicited donations, and I earnestly signed petitions and joined the Sierra Club.

(Greenpeace volunteers were all over the mall today. I had to take the kids shopping for new clothes, and they looked wildly terrified every time a smiling 20-something approached asking the silly question, "Do you want to save the dolphins and whales?" Of course I care about dolphins and whales, but let's get real here. My response to such questions tends to be...honest. And funny. And generally not what the questioner wants to hear, not to mention mortifying to one's teenage children.)

I don't necessarily mind bands wearing their politics on their sleeves and with some groups, like U2, you know that comes with the package. But I prefer it when the message is couched in a tacit understanding that I am smart enough that I don't need to be clubbed over the head with it, that you write and sing words that tell me something and I get it. No masks needed.

I kept the stream on until the bitter end while I was working, and never once regretted not having gone to the show. And no, I won't be going to see them at Angels Stadium next June, either. I own most of U2's albums, saw them live in 1987, and appreciate their work, both musically and for the most part, politically, but this extravaganza? Not for me.

The following day, I read reviews professional and amateur. The professional reviews tended to be rhapsodic. The common folk who attended seemed to be pretty evenly divided between worshipful and dismissive.

Sure, the very thought of trying to get in and out of the Rose Bowl with 94,999 other people isn't exactly my idea of a great time, but I've gone to much greater lengths to attend a concert (like the 48 hours spent flying into and out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, eighteen months ago, and boy, was that an experience).

What makes an unforgettable performance, a can't miss moment? Sure, it's in the eye and ear of the beholder, but I've been to an awful lot of concerts over the last 30 years. I've seen all sorts of gimmickry and pyro and confetti cannons and video walls. I've seen musicians literally swinging from the ceiling, and sometimes losing their clothing. Spectacle has its place, absolutely. Technology has its place. The sheer flood of noise, the sense that the rhythm section is driving your breath and your heartbeat certainly has it place. But nothing, absolutely nothing, matches the connection, the knowing that you and the people performing are there for the same reason: the music. I've been in the back of the hall and in the front of the hall and whether I was watching REM tear up the stage at Radio City Music Hall, Mstislav Rostropovich conduct the National Symphony or Geddy Lee play astounding bass at a Rush concert, there is nothing that replaces the experience of being enveloped in the amazing tapestry of sound that a true and passionate performer creates for an audience. There is putting on a show and there is knowing your audience. It's not the same thing. The performance I want to see is the one where the people on stage know I'm in the audience, whether I'm in the front, the back, the middle, whether they can see me or not. It's the performance where the musicians are there because they want to be, because they love the music and want to play it for those who love it, too. Those are the people for whom I will travel far (and wide). It's the performance where passion meets passion, where politics might exist, but it creates a really unforgettable fire.

Go listen to some good music: "The Unforgettable Fire" from the album Best of 1980-1990 by U2. I really was disappointed by the Rose Bowl show. I wanted U2 to be great, to be bigger than the enormous contraption they performed under. But I'll just keep saving for the next Rush tour.

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