Remember the death of live concerts? Portable music players were going to kill them off, because no one would pay to sit or stand in a crowded place and listen to an inferior live version of music they could already hear anywhere, any time. That was about 10 years ago, and since then those little players have become ever more widespread and omnivorous. But the live concert didn't die; in fact it has emerged as the most durable part of the music business.
Concerts survive in part because they can't be copied and leaked on the Internet. But that's just the seller's reasoning. It doesn't explain why we still want to line up and buy pricey tickets, and get fleeced for parking, and pay too much for watery beer, and spend the whole evening on our feet because no one else will sit down. We do all that because concerts give us things that no recording can. They restore actual presence to an experience that has become more and more dematerialized.
There's something magically immediate about witnessing a musical event, as compared with letting your iPod shuffle through your stored playlists. Part of the thrill of being present at a great concert is knowing that it's happening in this place and time, among these people, and can never be experienced the same way again. It's both a celebration of singularity and a reminder that life is finite and lived in one direction only.
Every concert is to some degree a speculation, because musicians have off nights, and things go wrong in even the most tightly scripted shows. Glenn Gould hated concerts because of what he called the gladiatorial side of the experience: the need to conquer the music and the audience; the potential for failure; and the public's fascination with failure. But I think most people go to concerts not to keep score, but to enter a realm in which everything is vital and meaningful. We go to reach that point at which we feel: Yes, this is how it really is.
Everyone has a story about a great concert. It's impossible to say how much burnishing is done in memory, and it doesn't matter anyway. But I tend to distrust any recollection of a famous or momentous event - Woodstock, say, or Vladimir Horowitz's last recital. History's finger seems to press a little too heavily on the scale. My own favourite concert experiences are mainly fragments, this song or that opera scene. But for many people, it's most satisfying to point to a whole event, to have that feeling of remembered fullness from one magic night, and to say, "You should have been there."
We asked musicians, artists, music mavens and committed fans to recall their favourite show and to say what rang the cosmic bell for them. Here are their stories.
Robert Everett-Green, Globe music critic
Since I have to pick just one, I'll choose the only concert I know for a fact God had a hand in producing. Radiohead's concert at the Molson Amphitheatre on Toronto's lakeshore last August had everything: a great band at the height of its powers, intricate, strong music played with spirit and clarity, and a natural sky-high light show that cued the band's latest album, In Rainbows , with two actual rainbows and a huge storybook moon. Andi Watson's innovative LED light display was magic itself.
J.D. Considine Globe jazz critic
For me, the Clash's Pearl Harbour Tour (Feb. 15, 1979, at the Ontario Theatre in Washington, D.C.) was the real British Invasion. Despite being bedevilled by an electrical system that shocked Joe Strummer every time he put his hand on the mike, the music was incredible, from Mick Jones's guitar anti-heroics to Topper Headon's relentless drumming. Bo Diddley's opening set was equally incendiary, especially after his old bassist, Jesse James Johnson, leapt to the stage to join in.
Carl Wilson, music writer
The Ex with Tom Cora at Lee's Palace in Toronto, Spring, 1992. Whenever Amsterdam's 30-years-young, polyglot-improv punk collective the Ex plays, it's the greatest. But never like that night with New York's Tom Cora, who played cello with the lyrical liquidity of Chet Baker's trumpet, melodies that melted under the guitars' jackhammer heat and fell like a net over the crowd, our breaths in sync as if we'd all just fallen in love. We'll never hear its like: Cora died in 1998, aged 44. But this fall, the Ex returns with Ethiopian jazz legend Getatchew Mekuria - maybe I'll have a new favourite concert.
Alan Niester, music writer
Crowbar at The Red Pheasant Indian Reserve in North Battleford, Sask., July, 1971. I was just beginning my rock writing career as a stringer for CREEM Magazine in Detroit. When primordial Canadian roots/boogie band Crowbar offered a free seat on their bus during their tour of Western Canada in return for a feature story, I (the token Canuck) was recruited. Crowbar's front man Kelly Jay was buddies with Canadian stage actor Don Francks, who was living the aboriginal life on the Red Pheasant reserve. After a Saskatoon performance, a side trip was arranged and an impromptu concert, from the back of a flatbed truck, powered by diesel generators, in front of maybe 150 people, under the lowest and brightest night sky I had ever seen. Crowbar did their full onstage show in the most amazing setting possible. It was the ultimate Canadian rock performance.
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