For me, with spectacle versus music, the music always wins.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’d like Prince quite so much if he wasn’t so immaculately turned out. And I don’t Iron Maiden would be quite the same without a giant robotic zombie strutting around behind them, belching fire and so forth.
There’s definitely something worthwhile in a big show and a well turned out gentleman. But the music has to take it. The best stage shows I’ve ever seen have often involved little to no theatre.
Looking back, I’m beginning to suspect that’s a lie.
Fever Ray (which is my least favourite musical incarnation of Karin Dreijer Andersson) bolted me to the ground in fear with a combination of lasers, smoke, hefty analogue synthesiser and monstrous costumery. In fact, it was the setting that made the show. The lasers and smoke (generated by incense, and so spinning into a slice of fractal chaos where it touched the lasers) formed a roof above us, and the stage was decorated with lampshades and homely lighting of all sorts. When Karin steps out, with a line of mosters, dressed something like the weird guy behind the diner in Mullholland Drive, it felt like I had accidentally slipped into the terrible living room of some kind of dark force. The music only had to do so much to petrify me.
Múm, the same weekend as Fever Ray, bought the exact opposite feeling into my heart, a sense of freedom and light and bouncy childness. Their stage show consisted of little more than a smiling group of friends singing and dancing and playing music together. It was incredible, so much better than any kind of practiced or controlled or fabricated stage show. Their honest enjoyment made me feel at home.
The Boredoms at ATP, performing a version of Boadrum with 9 drummers, (only nine, pretty pathetic really) including a moment where Zach Hill was actually carried from the back of the auditorium on a palanquin whilst drumming. That was actually pretty much a spiritual experience for me, or as close as a heathen like me is ever going to get. Though I think it was less the spectacle and more the sheer purity of noise. I gazed transfixed, but it was the music that bathed me and tore me to shreds.
Best morning ever, that.
Just the other day I saw AK/DK at the concorde 2, and due to costume mismanagement I was sans glasses and effectively blinded throughout. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them. The wall of noise, travelling through electro, punk, Eno-esque soundscapes (including one Bowie referece), Glass motifs and sounding a bit like every great live band you’ve ever heard of rolled into one glorious raucous electronic ball.
On the whole, I think you only need the stage show if the music isn’t quite as good on it’s own. It’s like a crutch.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Illustrated by Adam.