Notes on tracks and risk in live music
So, reading this tribute to hecklers and the comedians who know how to handle them, I was drawn to this passage:
I am always secretly thrilled (and nervous!) when someone else does it… Heckling throws a big, honking wrench into that and suddenly — record scratch! — here’s a moment that feels unpredictable. What is going to happen? I also think heckling separates pros from amateurs. It gauges how fast a comic can think: How funny are you really when your back is against the wall?
My reaction to reading this was to nod my head instinctively and think immediately that something very much like this phenomenon is what makes good gospel music … well, good to and for me: watching not just performers but professionals handle the one-unpredictable-thing-and-then-another-unpredictable-thing-ism of genuinely live performance.
I was talking to a gospel-loving friend over the holiday and he ended up at one point regaling me with a story he remembers about watching Gerald Wolfe handle the dreaded dome of silence at the beginning of a NQC set that should have been filled with a band track kicking off (this was back when tracks were new enough that such moments were neither considered routine by audiences nor widely met with a reflex of lame audience banter by front men). My friend positively beamed recalling this event, whose vividness was undimmed after lo these many Louisvilles
We’ve all got these stories, I suspect. They make for the loriest of lore: There’s the one about the Cats back in the 80s coming onstage at one of the outdoor theaters in the old OpryLand just as it clabbers up and rains. George grabs his microphone, shakes the mike chord in front of him as if to clear a space for what’s about to happen, and then growls over to the rest of guys: “gather ‘em up,” and off they go … “I want to thank Jeeeeezzzuuuusss. For the plan of salvayyyyyyshunnn.” And the fleeing crowd stops and turns and stands as if momentarily stunned in the rain, and then they began to move as one, to flow back to the theater and then were gathered unto them as if in a Biblical parable.
This is the live concert analog to handling hecklers.
The live moments we really remember function as revealing tests for performers and audiences: is their favorite singer a sheep or goat on stage? Is he the caliber of talent who has his lines and material down so cold, so naturally, that he has the reserve mental and emotional capacity to establish and then constantly monitor an open line of sensitivity with the room and his audiences, and, using the contant instreaming flow of data from those particularly precise fans, then take the same material, and mold it into distinctly memorable musical moments that match and meet and finally exceed and transform the disparate minds and moods of Molene one night and Marietta the next?
For every magical moment in OpryLand there are a dozen duds and dropped notes and flubbed lines and missed cues and general disappointments. But you pays your money and you takes your chances. Both as a fan and a performer.
From the performer’s perspective, today’s highly digitized style of creation and performance must surely be a lot less stressful than trying to stick the landing of a song with not just two or three other voices (unsupported by backing tracks), but also one or two or four or more instrumentals banging away around you. And as an academic, I see all manner of fascinating questions about how the means of production and consumption change the form and function of the music as a cultural signifier.
As a fan who loves to be lifted out of this life for a moment in gospel music, in that digitally averted risk resides the elusive prize of live performance: when it works, when everybody gets where he or she is supposed to be on time and in tune, without the musical equivalent of photoshop to help things along, when the tonic takes hold and the bass line sets in and the roof lifts and the sky parts and babies fly and folks fall out and others have running fits … well, glory!
I think one source of my latter-day impatience and my love-hate relationship with so much of gospel music is how so many performers arrogate to themselves the perogatives and bearing of a marquee artist who has a proven capacity to gather ‘em up, without actually being able or willing to take on virtually any of the risk associated with authentically live music, without - as it were - being able to handle the hecklers of live gospel performance. Or to quote James Baldwin (himself a serious student of gospel from way back): “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that it is to say, without risking oneself.”
The feeling persists: the gospel group that gets on stage night after every Jesus-lovin’ night and sings from behind the safety of a digitally induced force field essentially asks me to expect something they’re unwilling (and, I suspect, increasingly unable) to give, with the added indignity that everyone is supposed to act like this unlive music has never been livelier.
Southern gospel clearly retains a not insignificant following, and these fans have shown themselves as happy with tracktastic canned bands and vocal tracks as they were when Hamill and the Kingsmen were taking the stage with a six-piece band. And bless their hearts for this loyalty. But whatever it is about the music that both these fans and the performers who sing blood-bought karaoke for them are seeking and finding in this approach, it is not the glorious experience of being gathered up in the unlooked-for good-fortune that comes from a great gospel song imprinted on the memory during a genuinely unrepeatable live-music moment.
Every time I show up to a gospel gig, I arrive thinking and expecting and hoping this time, at last and finally, today I’ll hear something new and live from southern gospel that takes the top of my head off. The last thing I can remember getting all excited about? Hearing the way-back Hemphills on the radio singing, “Gawd Can Change the Picture Overnight.” Perhaps, but even He can’t change the tempo or key or pacing or arrangement of the song on stage once its set in stone of digital band tracks.Email this Post