On Live Music

by Brian

Last night I saw Alan Holdsworth play with Alan Pasqua at The Triple Door. I love Holdsworth. I’d never heard of Pasqua before a few days ago, but I’ve since explored his music and been blown away. And The Triple Door is just about the best place I can imagine to see a live act.

I got there early, met a friend, and we got our seats. We were at the foot of the stage. In front of me was my beer, my dinner, and then the musicians. Amazing. Holdsworth and Pasqua started playing at 7:30. The sound was good—about the best I’ve heard live. The other musicians were amazing, too: Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip. The set was 1:30 long, varied, and interestng. And by the time the show ended, I found myself thinking, “I’m not doing this again. Ever.”

I just don’t get this whole live music thing. I’m a Martian or something, I guess. (Other evidence for this hypothesis: I don’t like The Beetles. Yeah. Really. I know: I was shocked when I learned this, too.) I would rather listen to music at home, in a comfy chair, with headphones or in a park somewhere with an iPod. It’s odd, but there it is.

So what was I thinking as I was watching the show? Well, the guys come out. Clap clap clap. They do the usual thing: bow, introduce each other looking slightly embarrassed, and then start to play. I’m sitting right in front of Holdsworth. I love his playing. I’m starting to get into it and then we go over to Pasqua for a solo. Pretty good. Then we go to the bassist for a solo. He’s playing a six-string and his tone is really nice, so I’m able to actually hear the notes. Nice.

The mix is good—again, better than I’ve ever heard live. But the drums are too in front for me. I don’t need to hear them that much. And it’s too loud, too. I have a fairly low startle point. I’ve noticed this when I’m in the car with someone and they turn up the radio. I’m like, “What are you doing?” I can enjoy it better at mid-volume. I don’t need to be blasted to enjoy it. Again, I’m a Martian: most people like this loud music thing.

As I watch, the waitresses are coming by and the diners next to us are munching on their spring rolls (The Triple Door gets its food from Wild Ginger, upstairs, so the food is good) and I’m listening. But I’m not feeling it. Not like I do when I’m calmly listening at home. There, I really notice the little changes—the chills from certain harmonies, the tension before some melodic line is resolved, the changes in tempo. Sitting at the live show, I just feel… not much. Just a lot of noise. My body is physically vibrating—not just my tympanum. And those spring rolls next to me look awfully good. I wonder if he wants them? He’s lost interest. Maybe I should ask….

The “light show” begins: some sort of amoeba appears on the black background. It moves around a little. Like, dude! Awesome! Doesn’t do much for me. I can see better graphics in iTunes. Then the amoeba disappears and we see a faux night sky full of twinkling stars. Again, this one just falls flat. I am so, so, so not outside under the stars.

The musicians go through the predictable sequence of solos. Now, just once, I’d like to see each one not take a solo, or maybe just one solo per tune, or something that makes it a little bit less predictable. As it is, I’m listening to the bassist do his thing and thinking, “Shit. That means the drummer is next.” Then we do the clap clap clap thing to show them how much we adore their solos. The clapping is sporadic, since, as with most jazz shows I’ve seen, much of the audience doesn’t know whether the musician has finished soloing or, rather, he is just pausing so he can, say, pick his nose quickly.

And so on. And then they do their last number. What’s coming next? The encore ritual. They leave the stage. Clap clap clap. Then—surprise—they come back and do another number. Didn’t see that coming. How about this: just play the extra number, then call it a night. You know you’re going to do it anyway unless you’re playing in a nursing home or something.

I know, I know: How can I be such a prick and not get it? I don’t know. I have no idea.

At the end of the performance, we leave, exchange platitudes about the show—“That was sick.”—and go to our cars. And I think, Was it worth it? Let’s do the math. Ticket: $28. Dinner: $80 with tip and drinks. Parking: $0. Time spent: approximately 3 hours. Total hedonic return on a 0-6 scale, where 6 is a continuous THC-enhanced orgasm and 0 is being unconscious and not dreaming? I’d say 1 or 2. For comparison purposes, I’d say watching The Wire with my wife and cat at home on the couch is a 4 or a 5.

Playing looked like fun. But worth seeing? I feel like Auden commenting on men touching down on the moon (in “Moon Landing”):

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers

about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories, where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective

The benefit that some seem to get from these live shows didn’t accrue to me, it seems, and it never does:

  1. a sense of belonging to the crowd/loss of self;
  2. physically feeling the music;
  3. the spectacle of it (So loud! So bright!)
  4. the contagious enthusiasm of the crowd,
  5. getting out of the house (perhaps away from the kids);
  6. the “synergy” of the performers (seems like a myth to me);

So when I add it all up, I feel like I would have gotten a lot more utility from spending that $108 and 3 hours on something else musical, such as buying 108 well mixed, well recorded, well executed Alan Holdsworth tunes, going to Discovery Park, and listening to the music there. And that is why I suspect I won’t be doing this again. At least until I forget this lesson.