Monday, February 13, 2012

What To Make Of A Diminished Thing

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
--Robert Frost

When a musician or musical group sets a playlist for a concert, there are really only two possible paths to take:

1. perform some or all of the past.
2. perform some or all of the future.

Random facts and observations:
--I saw the Who in '75 put on a great show of great hits.
--I did not see Neil Young perform Greendale in its entirety to a befuddled audience, though I enjoyed watching a DVD of the same thing.
--If you are now playing the casino circuit or reunion shows, it's pretty clear that your audience wants a healthy dose of your most popular work.
--If you have a reputation as a songwriter, maybe people like to know that you're still writing new songs, still growing.

So I make no strong judgement about those two paths, circumstances being different depending on outlook and the musician's location on his or her career arc. My clear preference, though, as a concertgoer, is for some blend of past hits, rarities, selections from the most recent CD, and a new song or two that no one has heard. I like to be both rewarded for being a knowledgeable fan and surprised (pleasantly, I hope) by the future.

There's a quirky thing that happens, though, when I hear songs in concert first. I have no interest in hearing any eventual studio version. Hearing a live version of a song first is akin to the genie escaping the bottle. Good luck getting him back in. Why even try when he's so full of magic? When I hear a new song live, especially if it's a very good song, the experience is so transcendent that it can never be equalled. Having first experienced songs like Neil Young's "Powderfinger" and "Out Of The Blue" live or Springsteen's "Point Blank" or Steve Forbert's achingly-beautiful "Oh, To Be Back With You," I didn't crave polished studio versions in the days and months that followed when I couldn't get the memories of those songs out of my head.

I wanted copies of live performances, preferably the one I had seen, but if not, another one from the same tour. Young figured this out: his "album versions" of those songs are, from what I've heard and as far as I can tell, live versions with the crowd edited out. He knew the magic was in the live.

This phenomenon can happen in other ways, too. By chance, I heard the live version of "Midnight Rambler" before I heard the studio version, courtesy of a friend's copy of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out. Why in the world would I ever want to go back to the Let It Bleed version, which sounds so restrained and tepid? So boxed-in. The pleasures of the song, from where I sit, are Jagger's interactions with audience and the extended jam.

Bruce Springsteen's new CD, Wrecking Ball, due in about three weeks, will contain three songs (including the title track) that he has played regularly in concert, one of which I heard him sing in Nashville. He opened the show with it. I was blown away. I wondered where the song had come from and why I had never heard it before. I wanted the song. The live version, of course. I've heard the other two songs, too, and can't imagine why I want studio versions of them.

At some time in the past, this might have played out differently. I might have been one of the lucky people who got to hear him live or I might have heard the song on a bootleg. But that would have been before YouTube, before the Internet. I went looking for "Wrecking Ball" on YouTube. Not only did I find it, but I also found the official Springsteen-released video of the song. Huh? You released the song a few years ago, but now you're recording it? And when it was written to commemorate the demolition of the Meadowlands Stadium?

Even stranger is the inclusion of "Land Of Hope And Dreams" on the upcoming CD. This song, in its live version, was released on a popular live CD about 13 years ago during Bruce's reunion tour with the E-Street Band. One wonders what there is about the song that needs revisiting so many years later since the first version was pretty much kick ass, expansive in the way only a live song can be.

It's a curious strategy from Springsteen, though he is certainly not the first one to do it. But it kind of makes me feel like he's treading water. I may be proven wrong; I often am. But the odds are with me, given the power of live music and how difficult it is to capture that same kind of energy in a studio without a live audience to feed off of. Especially given that few performers thrive on that audience energy more than Springsteen.


Billy said...

While we often bring differing perspectives to the conversation of Live v. Studio, in this I cannot disagree.

I can't think of a single time when the live version, heard first, was trumped by the studio version.

Hell, there's not a single song off Cheap Trick's "At Budokan" that sounds half as good in studio. Most of Rush's "Exit Stage Left" is the same way. Because I heard the live recordings first.

I don't quite have the memory capacity in an actual live show, where I've never heard the song before, to savor all the morsels, so the studio versions in these cases aren't quite as troubling. But still, it's there, and you're right.

Bob said...

Yeah, At Budokan and even Frampton Comes Alive are great examples of this last-minute-I-need-a-blogpost theory.

troutking said...

I did respond in longer form to this but it got lost and I don't feel like retyping. In summary:
1. I agree with you on Bruce. I think he needed a couple songs to make an album so he could go out and tour. I'm psyched that he's touring, so I'll let it slide.

2. What about bands that really use the studio and suck live? I doubt a live version of Good Vibrations for example would ever be better than a studio version. A good live performance is usually better than a good studio performance, but not all live versions of good. I hate a lot of live albums, especially when I know the studio version well.