New Year’s wish: More live music

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The scene is instantly familiar, clichéd even: After two hours of blood-on-the-floor rock and roll, the band members lay down their instruments, wave to the crowd and slowly amble off stage, beer bottles and sweat soaked towels raised in salute. Before the last member has disappeared backstage, the chant rises from the crowd—the band’s name repeated over and over with increasing fervency and volume, calling the musicians back to the stage for one more song, one more moment to stave off the inevitable slow exodus to the parking lot.

I was witness to, and eager participant in, this very scenario several months back at a concert by one of my favorite groups, Drive-by Truckers, during a show at The National in Richmond, Virginia. Though I’ve seen the band a half dozen times in similar settings, there was still the same, familiar adrenaline rush when the lights rose and the five members picked up their instruments and took their places once more, as though their reappearance had been anything other than a forgone conclusion. After two and a half decades as a concertgoer, it’s more than a little heartening to know that, with the right band in the right venue, that old black magic of the live concert experience is still as potent as ever.

It’s an experience, however, that’s grown increasingly rare for many music fans who happen to live outside of a major metropolitan city. As more and more live music venues close their doors across the country, to be replaced by Starbucks, karaoke bars, and nail salons, the opportunity to see the flesh and blood embodiment, the very life force behind one of America’s defining art forms, is being lost to an entire generation of fans.

I came of age during a time, early-mid-80s, when live performance was still the yardstick by which all bands, of all genres, were measured. Studio albums were important, but if a band couldn’t cut it live, no amount of studio trickery or number of hit singles could ever redeem them.

The true measure of an artist’s talent was what they brought to the concert stage—talent, showmanship, energy, and whatever that transcendent element is that raises some live performances from the merely adequate to the sublime.

The Mad Monk in Wilmington; The Attic and Peasant’s Café in Greenville; Ziggy’s in Atlantic Beach: These are just a few of the clubs where I spent numerous nights watching bands that ranged from local teenagers barely out of the garage to internationally known groups as diverse as southern rockers Government Mule and Molly Hatchet, hardcore punk innovators Bad Brains and eighties pseudo-metal acts Great White and FireHouse.

Unfortunately, one by one over the last decade, each of those venues has closed its doors and sold off its sound and lighting systems, leaving a gaping hole in a once flourishing eastern North Carolina live music scene.

While large concert venues, such as Time Warner Music Pavilion in Raleigh, are still thriving, music fans wishing for a more personal and up close experience, or bands looking to get up in front of an audience for the first time, are by and large, out of luck. I’ve seen some of the biggest music acts in the world in stadiums and sports arenas, from Pearl Jam, Metallica and Guns and Roses to R.E.M., Santana and Bob Dylan, but somehow those shows just never measured up to the smaller scale pleasures to be found camped out in front of an amplifier at stage left as a hungry group of newcomers, has-beens, or never-weres, gives everything they have for several hundred appreciative club patrons.

The reasons for the decline in live music, I suspect, are largely economic. But it’s also obvious that the culture at large simply doesn’t value unscripted, raw performance the way it once did. The music industry in general has deemphasized the importance of  live performances for years now. One look at the recent  “New Year’s Rocking Eve” show on ABC, with its parade of lip synching, choreographed one hit wonders, was enough to convince a casual music fan that the day of the spontaneous and genuinely “live” performance was long since past.

All of which is a sad shame, not only for myself or others my age, but for those younger fans who are left wondering when someone like myself describes how a concert actually changed their life. Unless you’ve been down in the thick of it, it’s impossible to understand the gnarled beauty of a truly great live set, how on any given night any given band can catch fire and rise above themselves, taking the crowd and seemingly the entire building right along with them.

I’ve now worked for newspapers in two eastern North Carolina counties that have struggled with the issue of how to keep a live concert and events venue operating profitably. In the first, Halifax County, a beautifully constructed theatre that is now seven years old sits surrounded by empty fields that were once planned as the sites for accompanying restaurants, shopping malls, and hotels. Half a dozen managers and millions of dollars later, its future still remains in question.

In Kenansville the situation is much the same. The Duplin County Events Center, once thought to be an economic and cultural boon for the county, has struggled to find its feet amid controversy and management shakeups.

The importance of these and similar venues goes beyond mere dollars and cents concerns. They offer a chance to experience something beyond our everyday worries, an immediate, unpredictable ritual that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Like live theater or stand-up comedy, the live music concert is one of the few entertainment experiences that allows for the possibility of both abysmal failure and transcendent achievement.

So here’s a New Years wish for more success stories like the music club Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, which has hosted everyone from Nirvana to Joan Baez and is still going strong after 40 years. And here’s hoping for more bands that demand a place to practice the neglected but ever vital art of live performance.

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One Response to “New Year’s wish: More live music”

  1. Only got into the Drve-By Truckers recently, but heartening to know they are a fine live band – in an odd way their records give that impression, don’t know why. The live scene over here in the UK is in fairly robust health, all things considered, though the big venue experience is just as homogenised as you describe above. Nothing beats a great band finding that transcendant moment in a small venue!

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