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What do we want from live musicians?

About the author

Miranda has been a feature writer for The Observer for almost twenty years. She is the paper’s radio critic and writes regularly on pop culture. She is a presenter for BBC 2’s The Culture Show, specialising in contemporary music, art and theatre.

  • Strange fruit
    Peaches is known for her sexually explicit stage antics. For something completely different, she performed a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in London last month. (Photo: Getty)
  • Licence to thrill
    Audiences at Prince concerts expect him to go off piste – it is part of his USP. (Photo: Corbis)
  • Like a version
    At a recent Beck gig, artists including Joan As Policewoman, Guillemots, Franz Ferdinand and Jarvis Cocker re-interpreted his 2012 album Song Reader. (Photo: Getty)
  • Hey Judas!
    Bob Dylan’s world tour of 1966 was the one in which he famously ‘went electric’. Audience reactions ranged from incandescent to switched off. (Photo: Corbis)
  • Rolling moans
    The Rolling Stones set at this year’s Glastonbury festival was hailed as a triumph by those there. The TV audience that joined the gig midway were less enthusastic. (Photo: AP)
  • Better late than never
    Rihanna enraged fans by arriving late to several concerts on her 777 tour in 2012. Turning up three hours tardy to the stage in Berlin, she was booed by the crowd. (Photo: Getty)

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High expectations – and ticket prices – mean musicians playing live play it safe. But real magic happens when the artist gets free rein, writes Miranda Sawyer.

Recently, Beck played a gig at London’s Southbank  arts centre. Well, ‘played’ might be the wrong term  - he invited other artists to interpret songs from his 2012 album, Song Reader, which he released exclusively in sheet music form . He expressly asked the artists – who included Joan As Policewoman, Franz Ferdinand, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker – to pull apart and reshape the songs as they wished. Four were read as poems, by poets. Beck himself played two songs; everyone performed Rough On Rats together. The audience came spilling out with smiles on their faces; the reviews were ecstatic. All agreed it was a fantastic, memorable gig.

A few weeks before, at the Southbank once again, Peaches played a solo concert as part of Meltdown, the festival programmed this year by Yoko Ono. Those who came expected Peaches’ thang: sexual, energetic, audience-baiting, raucous. Instead, she appeared on an empty stage in a white leotard; a solo pianist played accompaniment as she performed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, very sincerely, all on her own. In the second half, she wore gold and was lifted onto a plinth to become Jesus on the cross.

Peaches’ performance was quite a feat; the musical is long and she sang beautifully. “It’s a piece of performance art,” said my companion, who is himself a contemporary artist. We enjoyed the evening, though we’d had to alter our expectations, tune our brains away from our assumptions, and then back in to the gig. There were many in the audience who found they couldn’t, however; we met some of them in the bar afterwards, and they complained. Peaches’ audience is radical, liberal, l and, in this case, mostly British. The most shocking thing you can do to such a crowd is subject them to two hours of Christianity and Andrew Lloyd Webber, presented honestly, without sneering.

Standard deviation

These gigs made me wonder about what we want from musicians when they perform. In 1966, when Bob Dylan moved from acoustic guitar to electric at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, he was famously heckled as “Judas”. Decades on, his gigs are still uncomfortable for many fans. Dylan’s refusal to compromise over what he wants to play and how he wants to play it, his inability to pander to an audience’s preference, can result in an evening  where nobody is happy.

Live performances are unpredictable; they’re live, that’s the point. But audiences are asked to pay a lot of money to see their favourite artists these days: stadium acts cost hundreds of dollars, even mid-sized bands can command $70 per ticket without anyone complaining. That is, as long as the fans get what they consider to be their money’s worth.

There’s plenty of heat for those who under-perform, who turn up late (as Rihanna knows). And so at most gigs, we get a standard procedure, a formula that works. An act that starts and finishes on time; big hits as openers, but the biggest saved until last; the sound and action punched high and energetic; a decent light-show, preferably with some visuals; some off-the-cuff engagement with the crowd. In return, the act can play some of the more obscure songs, experiment with extended guitar solos and B-sides somewhere around the half-way mark (the toilet or time-for-another-drink break).

No satisfaction

Deviation causes disappointment. This was evident when the Rolling Stones played Glastonbury. Those who were there with the set from the start called the concert seminal, amazing, the best night of their life. But the TV audience felt cheated: the coverage joined the gig midway, with Mick Taylor playing brilliantly, but not like on the records. The atmosphere was all wrong for those watching at home. Twitter exploded with grumbles. The audience weren’t sure who Taylor was, they couldn’t recognise the songs, they hadn’t been taken on the journey from the beginning. They weren’t prepared; their expectations hadn’t been adjusted.

In these digital days, we are told that live is the most important element of a musician’s repertoire: that albums are used to sell gigs, rather than the other way around, as used to happen. But that means that gigs are more pressurised, the crowd has higher, more specific expectations. Play the old ones, the ones we love! But it can be hard for a musician to get his- or herself back into the mindset of a track they wrote twenty or thirty years ago. They don’t play the new stuff to get on their fans’ nerves, they do it because otherwise they’d die of boredom. If an older act did exactly what their audience wants, all we’d get are those 80s tours, packages where once-hot stars come on, play three hits and then move aside for the next act.

Many years ago, I saw Prince play for free at an after-show party. He came on after midnight, played amazingly, wildly, for a long time. It was hard to see him; the place was packed and uncomfortably hot, but that was fine. The performance was exclusive, spontaneous, a gift. Just a few days ago, Prince did a similar thing: he decided to play a last-minute gig at the City Winery in Chicago, where he was performing at George Lucas’ wedding. Tickets went on sale at 5pm; he played at 2am, for two hours. The audience loved every minute. Prince, like Beck, is known for being capricious, for playing as, when and what he fancies. His unpredictability is predictable; it’s part of his USP. Lucky him, lucky Beck. When a crowd is willing – delighted – to go along with an artist at a gig, everyone ends up happy.

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