Tripping on the (Prerecorded) Wire
Watching two bands perform last night at Evantson’s SPACE – a splendid venue, by the way – I noticed how dependent live performance has become on prerecorded tracks. This is nothing new, of course, as even bands with reputations for being authentic – whatever that means – have enhanced their shows with the extra hands that sequencing and loops provide. The band Rush has been relying on prerecorded tracks for decades. Geddy Lee sings a lead vocal, and suddenly two more Geddys join him in the background. And watch closely when he plays the keyboards and you’ll notice that often he’ll press one note on the keyboard that triggers a more elaborate arrangement. Modern cover bands often employ the same tactics – backup vocals sound especially impressive when they’re dubbed over a layer of lush, prerecorded voices.
Neither band I saw last night – headliner A Silent Film and opener Hands – relied so heavily on prerecorded tracks that it diminished the talent or energy displayed on stage (both bands were excellent), but it doesn’t take much for live performance to become predictable, and this is exactly what playing to prerecorded tracks demands: predictability.
Back in the day, recordings were meant to capture live performing, but along the way that method was turned on its head; soon, live performing was meant to emulate the recording. Some bands – The Cars come to mind, but almost any top 40 band could be an example – performed their songs exactly as they sounded on the record. Others – The Who and Led Zeppelin, for example – managed to perform a high wire act that took listeners on a journey that could either flop or mesmerize but never bore, as they played songs that were contradictorily both recognizable and an exploration of new territory.
There’s room enough in the world for both strategies, but more and more it seems that bands are relying so heavily on pre-sequenced material that any hope to elevate a performance to transcendental levels is squashed from the outset.
And this is a problem. In an era when the recordings have become disposable and live performing has become the one think keeping both listeners and performers invested and interested, the need for spontaneous performances has never been greater.
Sure, Hands did a fine job last night, and there’s no question that the band has talent and live chops (particularly drummer Sean Hess), but the songs relied so heavily on Geoff Halliday’s sequenced synth tracks, that each song was undoubtedly performed exactly the way it had been performed the day before and the day before that. There’s simply no room for improvising. No possibility of a happy accident. If a particularly inspired groove or guitar solo happens to develop, there will be opportunity for it to flourish.
Hell, even The Who can’t be spontaneous with songs like Baba O’Riley or We Won’t Get Fooled Again, since they have to rely on the synth tracks Pete recorded over forty years ago. Luckily for The Who, back in the day these songs were the exception to an otherwise spontaneous performance.
A Silent Film, which relied much less on prerecorded tracks than their opening act, announced a few songs into the set last night that they were going to perform without a set list, insinuating that this was A Big Deal. Perhaps these days that’s what passes for spontaneity – playing songs exactly like the record, but in a different order.
But will it keep audiences coming back? Will it breathe life into a faltering industry?