So last night I trekked out to Jackrabbits to catch The Birthday Massacre in concert. I've been a fan of theirs for a long time, even if it's not the kind of music that I might listen to on a regular basis.

Don't get me wrong, I like their songs -- but I think one of the things I really enjoy is the sound of their albums. Between their songwriting style and some deft Pro Tools work, The Birthday Massacre do a really great job of walking the line between straight ahead guitar rock and gothy synth-pop, blending the two into something that has a definite edge, yet still comes off feeling really smooth -- like a perfectly blended caramel macchiato that tastes so good when it first hits your tongue that you immediately have to go back to the barista and ask,
You know that fake Italian/Spanglish you people use
to describe your portions? -- What's the word for keg?
Maybe this is gonna come off sounding a little negative, but TBM fit into a personal category of mine that I like to call soundtrack music. That is -- their lyrics are predominately narrative, so between the words they sing and the moods the music creates it's easy to visualize stories in your mind -- almost like a personal music video theater.

Or to put it another way, a lot of their tunes would fit perfect at the end of a movie where the heroes (fresh from a hard-fought victory over the villain) come together to look out over the horizon, make a joke like "You just had to blow up that last jetcycle didn't you? Now we're all gonna have to walk home!" before the camera pans back and the credits start to roll.

Of course the risk with those kinds of songs are that they're sometimes so easy to link with a specific set of visuals that they almost can't exist without them. Think about "Dont You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds, which is a great song and goes almost perfectly with the ideas and mood of the movie The Breakfast Club -- but at the same time became the only song anyone ever wanted to hear when that band played a concert.

Fortunately, every time I listened to the Birthday Massacre I found myself interested in more than just the visions it inspired in my mind. I love their sound and always caught myself thinking, "How cool would it be to see this band live?"

Just imagine the energy they could punch out if they weren't being confined by producers and recording engineers piling on layer after layer of compression and filtering to help create the overall feel of the album they're recording? What if they added a few guitar solos, or played a cover song in their own style?

I arrived to at Jackrabbits just as the opening act was starting up, a very cool group called theSTART. I grabbed a beer and hung out, taking in the crowd. For my part, I had first checked out The Birthday Massare after a series of rave reviews from Satorical -- but it was clear they had a pretty big following around town. If the lack of room to stand was any indication, we were all in for something good.

Then the room went dark, colored accent lighting from fixtures on the stage cut through the clouds left by the fog machine, and in the shadows you could see the drummer, bassist, guitarists and keyboard players make their way across the stage towards their instruments. Then the intro music coming though the speakers rose to a crescendo, the houselights came up..
And the members of The Birthday Massacre proceeded to play each
one of their songs
exactly the same way they sounded on the album.
I don't just mean note for note (because there are times when that can be exciting) -- I mean it sounded exactly like the disc. The same peaks and valleys, the same tones, inflections, and accents to each song. It's hard to explain, because it's not like they weren't playing the right notes. It's just that all they were doing was playing the right notes. There was no urgency. No presence. They didn't so much attack the performance as much as they came out on stage and pressed the play button.

Chibi, the singer was adorable to look at -- but she didn't really talk a lot between songs other than thanking us all for coming out and telling us what album the tunes were coming from. Her voice was great, but she didn't step out of the songs to show us just how versatile she could be with her instrument.

It was frustrating because the songs sounded good, but to be honest they were actually louder when I was listening to them on my car stereo while I drove to the show. But it wasn't just about the lack of volume or energy -- the players didn't take any opportunities to embellish their parts. There weren't any flourishes or signs that the music had evolved or grown over the the course of the tour.
Hell, I would have been happy to feel like they were sick of playing them
While I was listening to the show it occurred to me that if there were any people in the crowd who had never heard this band before it would be the perfect opportunity for them to be taken in, but many of the tunes were in the same musical key, with similar tempos and constructions. They might not have intended it, but after a while the show started to sound like one really long song.

The singer would motion for the crowd to clap along with the beat, and people would join in -- but once she stopped clapping we did too (which is never a good sign). There was lots of dancing going on, but it wasn’t crowd dancing. It was closed-eye personal dancing, enjoying the lyrics and the beat all within your own little space on the floor.
It was club dancing.
..Like the band wasn’t even there.
There would be an initial point of excitement when I realized I recognized the song they were starting to play, but as soon as they got into the tune that mood sorta deflated as I realized that I already knew exactly how it was going to sound for the next 3-4 minutes. By the end of the night I found myself mixed between the excitement of finally having the chance to see this band live, and the disappointment that came from realizing I hadn’t really gotten to see anything I didn't already know about them at all.

I don't know -- maybe the problem is me. I like to think that I’m open-minded to all sorts of different things, but the simple truth is that once I decide something I’m listening to isn’t all that great, I’m usually all too eager to point out all of the reasons I have for why it isn't -- which sometimes can be endearing, but normally ends up with me bagging on someone's favorite band without realizing it until it's too late.

Live performances are an odd thing though, because there are so many different aspects that can affect the experience. The band can be great, but the crowd could suck. The crowd and the band could be fully into it, but the mix coming out of the speakers could be faulty, too loud, or too quiet. If it’s a band I don’t know who has a singer who’s hamming it up too much, or a guitarist or drummer who overplay their parts so much that it takes away from the songs themselves it's gonna sour the quality of the whole show.

Worst of all an entire band can be too subdued, standing still like rocks and holding their instruments as if they're afraid to touch them, making me wonder if they enjoy making music at all, or they just do it because it's the only job their High School guidance counselor could find.
"Miss Spears, your grades are atrocious and you have the typing skills of a drunken mule. Life after
graduation may prove difficult. Have you ever considered a career as a drug-snorting pop singer?
But then you flip the whole thing over and start thinking about what turned certain shows into great concerts – and the list is almost exactly the same. A crowd that’s really into the performance can make a bad show fun, hearing a singer whose talent shines in a way that makes them worth paying attention to almost at the expense of the rest of the group can easily raise a performance to an above average place. Guitar players who impressed me with their skill, a great sound mix -– all sorts of things that make a group or it’s individual members stand out.
In the end what I look for the most in a live music performance is a sense of intensity.
That feeling you get that tells you this performance is unique. Not so much in the material played, but in the amount of energy given, taken, and exchanged with this particular audience. That this show you’re at right now is your show, and that the next one will be nothing like it, because it will be a completely different audience and mood.

The best concerts are the ones where the performers show you how much they honestly love playing the music they are performing. In a way they have to give part of themselves to the music, which in turn gives part of themselves to the crowd as well. And it’s not like these performances have to be perfect. It’s not always about accuracy or professionalism (even though a lack of either can easily ruin a show). Led Zepplin were notoriously sloppy live, and a huge part of Nirvana's appeal came from the fact that despite the fact that they rehearsed 4 to 5 days a week they approached their shows like a jam sessions in their Mom's garage.

In other words, no matter how many times they played a given song they they always managed to maintain a sense of the energy and excitement that went into writing and playing that song the first time around. But more than that -- the best live bands always feed off the energy of the crowd and let it seep into their performances -- which creates not only a sense of intimacy between the artist and the listener, but enables the audience to share in the emotional intensity each performer puts into a show.

After all, I have the album. I know what the songs sound like. I came to your show so I could see how much it means to you, to feel the energy you put into creating and performing it (without the hinderances of producers, time-limits, or whatever), and to enjoy the emotions that it creates inside of me while I'm hearing it performed in front of me on the stage.

If it’s aggressive music I want to feel the aggression. If it’s dance music I certainly don’t want to end up standing still with my arms crossed, wondering if I might have been better off saving my money and listening to the CD at home. And if it’s sexy music I want feel at least part of the heat and desire that went into writing it. Or to put it another way, should Sade ever do another small club tour, I think I'd pretty much feel cheated if by the end of the night I didn't end up wanting to get naked with another person in the room.
OK, to be honest that particular fantasy always
involved Sade herself, but that's another story.

[Listening to:    theSTART"Wartime (It's Time 2 Go Now)" ]