Posted by: deerharas | November 23, 2008

What a concert SHOULD be

Probably my favorite thing about living in the Chicagoland area is the chance I get to see all sorts of live music.  However, being a poor grad student, this plethora of concert options doesn’t always work well with my budget.  I really do need to marry a rich man to support my educational and concert-going “habits.”  🙂  But seriously, this has been a great semester for shows, and thankfully many of them have been relatively inexpensive, a few even free.

What’s been interesting to note, however, is the correlation between ticket price and concert quality.  The concerts I’ve paid the most for (Jenny Lewis, Ray LaMontagne, Conor Oberst), while still enjoyable, were not near as memorable as those that cost much less (Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, Don Chaffer, Over the Rhine) or were FREE (Andrew Peterson, Shawn McDonald).  I was so excited to see Ray LaMontagne … not only was it at the Chicago Theatre (as in the classic sign everyone recognizes), but it was sold out.  I expected the crowd to be ecstatic … communal somehow.  Instead there were a bunch of drunk girls yelling out, “We love you Ray!”  I mean, he was great, so talented, but I couldn’t help but think that the venue wasn’t right.  It was too big for his sound.  There was no intimacy that you hope for between yourself and the artist at a show.  Jenny Lewis felt a little commercial and forced at times, and I didn’t think Conor Oberst was a very generous performer.  It seemed to be about him and not the audience, which to me is a major concert faux pax.

The others, though … let’s just say I have been blown away on several occasions.  Starting with Don Chaffer.  It is a SHAME to me that this man’s music is as relatively unheard of as it is.  Emotional honesty and incredible creativity characterized his whole performance.  Never heard of him?  Download an album (for FREE) here (and then search for Waterdeep or Krusty Brothers). Or pre-order Waterdeep’s newest album and get a pre-release download sent to you immediately.  Yeah, I’ve heard it … it’s good … you should buy it  … now.

And then there was Andrew Peterson.  If I could choose to write like anyone, it would be Andrew.  For his album release tour this fall, he did two weeks of straight shows, all free, in the hopes of getting his music into the hands of those that might be blessed by it.  He played an annotated set, working through his album song by song, explaining the inspiration behind each one.  I could write an entire post about this show alone.  Actually, I could write a whole post just about the inspiration behind the song “Invisible God.”  His artistry extends beyond his music and lyrics and into the stories he tells.  My least favorite song on the album pre-show was “Rocket.”  I hadn’t listened that closely, and it seemed to me some silly boyish ode to a space machine.  However, after hearing his story about how a fan of his (who happened to be an astronaut) invited him and his family to a shuttle launch (as well as promised to take pictures of his albums up in space), I had to give the song a second chance.  I love how Andrew can see stories of resurrection (the album is called Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2) in the least expected of places.  He mused that trusting in Christ is somewhat like strapping oneself to an incredibly complex machine, a human’s only hope of breaking free from the earth that ties us down.  “Gravity binds us, but glory defines us.”  Sharon pointed that line out.  Yeah, I brought a few friends with me, most of whom hadn’t never even heard the name Andrew Peterson.  They all three bought his album and have since informed me that it was all they listened to for weeks.

Last week I saw Over the Rhine for the first time.  It was an unpublicized show at an old converted church in Naperville.  Pretty appropriate as Karin belted out what one reviewer called their “jazz hymn,” a poetic take on the return of Christ.  “The Trumpet Child will lift a glass, His bride now leaning in at last, His final aim to fill with joy, the earth that man all but destroyed.”  From the moment she opened her mouth to sing “I don’t want to waste your time,” I knew this concert would be anything but that.  Every song was incredible.  I’m not overstating it.  INCREDIBLE.  And they were so generous.  It’s like they know how talented they are, and rather than thinking more of themselves and making it all about them, they simply share their art.  Generously.  And the audience really responds to that.  There was a communal aspect to this show that I haven’t felt in a long time.  And while I love, love, love music, never have I really considered a song perfect.  “Trouble” is that song for me.  “If you came to make some trouble, better make it good.  Your sexy cocktail hour stubble is doing what it should.”  Seriously, greatest line ever.

This afternoon I got to see Shawn McDonald perform at a free show put on by Willow Creek.  Other than the horribly bright backlighting and the rude people talking in the back of the room for the first half of the show (until a random girl got up, interrupted Shawn in the middle of a story, grabbed the microphone and proceeded to tell them how rude they were being … in a rude manner herself, I might add, not to mention awkward) I would definitely put this show in the high quality/low cost category.  Give me one musician, a guitar, and a microphone over a whole production any day.  A few songs in, Kristi leaned over and asked if he seemed nervous to me.  He did a little.  An endearing nervousness.  There was such a drastic difference in the speaking Shawn versus the singing Shawn, however.  The former, who would start telling a story and then forget how it tied into the next song, was far outshone by the latter, who with passion and funk would belt out in one breath “takemyhandtothepromisedandonyouIwannastand’causeIcannotdoitonmyown.”  And then there was the skatting.  Seriously, my only exposure to skat is The Cosby Show and Shawn McDonald.  That takes talent, my friends.

I was recently reminded of something Jeff Tweedy said on Sunken Treasure (a DVD of his solo tour down the West Coast) about concerts as I began to reflect on all the shows I’d been to this year.  He compares a concert to what church would be like if church was what it should be.  At one point he’s reacting to some rude background talking at one of his shows (much like the kiddos today), and after chastising them a bit he shares the following thoughts on what a concert should be: “You feel yourself being in a room full of people with all their hearts beating and all of the their thoughts and feelings, and you’re a part of it.  You’re not just you.  You are a part of a group of people in a really beautiful way.  It’s a really wonderful thing to be a part of, but you have to pay attention to it.  It’s not just me; I’m not just being some pissy artist.  It’s what you do when you go to a concert.  You be a part of it.  You don’t set yourself apart from everybody.  You’re part of something.  It’s wonderful.  It’s joyous.”  Amen.  That’s what makes a concert great.  But it takes effort on both ends.  Artists can’t expect that from their fans with a half-hearted performance.  They have to be the kind of performers whose excellence commands that attention and interaction.  And when that combination is there, it’s magical.

So in my remaining year and a half (at least) in Chicagoland, I plan to continue to take full advantage of all my concert options.  Oh, and I’m currently taking applications for a financier, aka wealthy future husband.  🙂


  1. Gotta love the amazing, cheap concerts! So I just found out today that my co-worker is in love with Shawn McDonald! I think I crushed her dreams when I told her he was married and has a baby. So is he coming back anytime soon? – she wants to come with us!

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