13 January 2005

Big big rock

MKB has a review of U2's new album where he makes some reflective comments on the nature of a good rock 'n' roll band.

I've seen a lot of talented bands (or decent bands with great material) who simply don't have the presence to fill up a huge venue. Love them or hate them, U2 can do it. There aren't many others in their league: The Rolling Stones. By many accounts Led Zeppelin could do it on a good night. There aren't too many more. I don't care how great your favorite band is, I'm betting they don't have the same larger-than-life quality that enables a select few to project their energy to more than a few thousand fans at a time. Don't feel too bad, my favorite bands can't do it either.

Too true. My two favorite bands are the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. Big shows nearly killed the Beatles: at the peak of their career, they simply give up on performing altogether. And the Velvet Underground never played anything bigger than a warehouse party, and didn't exactly tear down the walls at those.

On the other hand, I haven't bothered to own a single Rolling Stones album, but I saw them do an arena show once, and I have never seen anything like it. They rocked the house --- a hundred thousand people --- and they did it in spite of the lights and giant screens and fireworks and other BS that was supposed to make me feel like I got my money's worth. Mick hit me with more energy from thirty yards away than I've felt in most shows where I've been close enough to feel the performer's sweat and spittle hit my face.

Riding BART back after the show, I was sitting next to a mother and daughter. Apparently the trip was Mom's idea, as the daughter "didn't like rock 'n' roll." But the young lady was mightily impressed. “Who,” asked the daughter, “was that really tired looking guy with the bandana? He's cool.” Everyone within earshot laughed.

How does that work? Life is full of mysteries.

Reya of Goldpoppy writes:

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band could and did energetically fill huge arenas, probably more stylishly and with more excitement than U2. So can (could?) Prince and Elvis Costello. If you want to move into the realm of funk, I could name a handful of bands right off the top of my head that utterly filled the arenas (how about Funkadelic, for instance?). And I'm willing to bet there are a dozen other bands that someone with more rock n roll moxie than me could think of in a flash.

Springsteen, no doubt: he has a reputation for rocking a big stadium with power and panache. I'll certainly take the point about P-Funk, though I don't know whether they've ever done a venue with an audience in six figures. (Do any readers know?) Likewise, Prince can certainly work the house, but his territory is venues in the 20-50,000 seat range; I have no idea if he can take on the giant stadium show and really make it sing.

Elvis Costello, though? I once accidentally ran into him playing an outdoor concert on the street in NYC, and he worked the crowd pretty darn well for a guy whose favorite composer is Burt Bacharach. But I didn't see the kind of juice that the Stones hit the crowd with when I saw them.

(Reya also confessed to me her Secret Rock Star Crush. No, I'm not telling. But I will make a confession of my own. Living in San Francisco, I'm occasionally asked how exclusively heterosexual I am. I usually shrug and say that I'm just saving myself for David Bowie, who, now that I think about it, is another rocker who can work an audience in a 40 yard radius.)

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