Friday, June 24, 2011

Two live reviews

I have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to reading live reviews. Now admittedly, I don't always post very professional sounding live reviews on this space, but after all it's a blog and not an actual newspaper or journal, so sometimes I tend to goof off a bit.

But no matter what tone of writing I'm aiming for, there are some things I *never* do when I write about live shows, because these so-called criticisms and pointless and stupid in any context. This includes:

1. Whining about the setlist. Example: "why didn't they play [reviewer's favourite song by the band in question]?"

2. Complaining about the band's lack of interaction with the crowd, or disinterest in interacting with the crowd. Examples: "the singer had his back turned to the audience", "the band never said so much as a 'hello' or a 'thank you for coming'".

3. Lamenting that that X (who may or may not have been the opening act) isn't as famous as the headliner(s). Example: "I am so over the hype for the headliner, why couldn't X (who may have opened earlier in the night) have been the headliner?"

4. Beating a dead horse. Examples to follow.

I would hope that it's obvious why it's lame when a reviewer stoops to these sorts of lows, but here's a brief summary:

1. Why don't you just review the show that you saw, rather than the show that you wanted to see?

2. Silly platitudes are almost always irrelevant when it comes to the quality of the show.

3. Nobody cares about your forecasting. Just tell us whether the show was good or not, without trying to pimp your own agenda.

4. Yes, we know that already. We knew that ten years ago. Nobody cares about that anymore. We didn't even care back then. (examples to follow)

These annoying bits of reviewers' detritus were on display in a couple of recent reviews.

Bob Dylan's concert in Ramat Gan stadium near Tel Aviv (his first show in Israel in about two decades) was reviewed twice in the Jerusalem Post, both times by David Brinn. The short review (which appeared on the front page of that day's paper) was a simple puff piece with nothing but praise for the performance. The long review is a bit harder to pin down. A discussion about Dylan's perceived aloofness (#2) bookends the review and is presented as an obstacle that one must overcome in order to enjoy the concert. He also addresses the set list (#1), notes that there were no "left field" choices, and seems puzzled that some songs have been reinterpreted over the years and now sound different from the well-known recorded versions.

The review seems to have been written for the non-music fan who never goes to concerts but is nonetheless curious about what goes down at a stadium show by a major international artist -- which in fact, describes most of JPost's English-speaking readership to a tee. The third to last paragraph appears to be a take down of many of the sentiments that Brinn mused over in the rest of his review (has this article been edited since it was originally posted? This paragraph seems ... longer and different from what I first remember reading). I can't say I disagree, I mean yeah, if it's news to you that Dylan's voice sounds like a phlegmatic latter-day Miles Davis being choked under a pillow, then you probably shouldn't be going to his concert and complaining about his singing.

Steve Kerr's review of MUTEK 2011 for LWE is part text, part photo essay -- yeah, it helps remind me how much I enjoyed writing my own review of the festival last year. Let's begin with his extremely odd assertion in the opening paragraph that this year's festival was inferior to last year's because of the preponderance of "headliners either past their prime or commanders of cult fanbases". Um, doesn't that describe just about every MUTEK festival? Or most 21st century techno festivals for that matter? I could have sworn that I saw Nurse With Wound and Mouse on Mars headlining MUTEK last year. Anyway, the review hasn't even gotten going yet and he's already started complaining about the festival lineup (basically the same as #1).

Later on, he arrives to the Friday night event at Metropolis -- the marquee event of the festival -- and when it comes to discussing the headliner, he's all "I'm so over Plastikman at the moment, how about we check out some bass producers you've never heard of in the next room?" (#3). Eventually, he returned to the main room of the club, noting that "the floor was a mess and the atmosphere was appropriately post-apocolyptic". That line really whets my appetite for hearing more about the most anticipated performance of the entire festival, too bad Steve Kerr wasn't there to fill us in on the details because those of us who weren't there are dying to know ... oh wait, he WAS there but couldn't be bothered to watch and review the performance he (and/or LWE) paid $50 to see.

Kerr reports that some of Mika Vainio's gear was stolen, and comments that "perhaps as a result his set was entirely devoid of visuals, performing in near-darkness." Vainio never needed visuals when he performed as part of Pan Sonic, and anyway, nobody watching their shows could pay attention to a video screen because they were too busy trying to hold their skulls together in one piece thanks to the deafening volume. Nevertheless, "[i]n spite of this, he effortlessly proved that audiovisual spectacle is little match for technical mastery." Do we really need to say this in 2011, especially on a dance music oriented site like LWE (#4)? Perhaps we do, maybe people are so fixated on the quality of the visuals that are accompanying the performers and their music (i.e. the stuff that draws people to these events) that we need to have the whole laptop performances vs checking email arguments all over again. Was Kerr pleasantly surprised by Vainio's performance, or is he pointing out what his readership should already know about what makes for a top quality techno set? I'm not sure, considering on how many words he spills on describing the visuals in several other performances in his review. My views about this remain unchanged -- if the music isn't any good, then the visuals won't rescue the performance. It's never happened and it never will happen. Some might argue for exceptions like Caretaker's performance from last year's MUTEK, but when a guy stands on stage for an hour doing nothing other than taking swigs from a whisky bottle, it's clear that there is no performance apart from the visuals (and the whisky, and the decadence, which was the whole point of his video). And aside from all that, the music was great!

Kerr's review ends much as it began -- "it seemed like a disproportionate level of attention was paid to marquee staples like Plastikman and Modeselektor, overshadowing exciting new artists such as Hype Williams and Elektro Guzzi who would’ve otherwise stolen the show." Yeah, a disproportionate level of attention was paid to them because they were the *headliners*. How can this be so difficult to grasp? Even so, his point is baseless because techno audiences aren't like rock audiences. Rock fans are much more prone to tunnel vision when it comes to the role of the headliner. Many fans don't even bother to show up for the opening band(s), and they're much more difficult to win over when they're watching a musician they've never heard of before. Techno fans aren't like that, and you can most definitely steal the show from an opening slot. Last year's MUTEK set by Actress (which Kerr praises in the first paragraph of this review) was second on a five-act bill.

Kerr has a lot of interesting things to say about the festival and did a fairly good job of explaining how varied and creative the lineup (and the attendees) of MUTEK tends to be compared to other electronic music festivals. But this? "Overall, MUTEK 2011 offered five days of superb, nuanced performances and fulfilled its promise, if not my fantasy line-up." Say it with me: "nobody cares what your fantasy line-up is ..."

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