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June 24, 2011

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More to it than simply songs

WITH live music performances ranging from close and casual affairs to spectacular displays of showmanship, Brian Offenther questions whether bands should aspire to do more than just play their songs.

I knew something was up when all the lights went out. Standing in the back of Yuyintang live house at about 9:15pm, I wasn?t expecting anything extraordinary: That early hour at any rock club usually denotes excited but unpolished performances. But what was this?

After the lights came the sound, but not correlating to the still empty stage. A canned cinematic score was piped in, something from a long-lost Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with thunderous drums and lightning strings.

Suddenly, silence. A dramatic beat, and then bam! From stage wing the band appeared, hitting a power chord on their guitars which gave an opening punch to the proceedings.

The band, I came to find out, was OOC (Out of Control), a Beijing outfit that plays a grab bag of hard rock originals and covers, including a throat-shredding take of òAll My Lifeó by American band Foo Fighters.

Bands in Shanghai and elsewhere often take the stage like they would take a seat on a couch in their living room. There is a casualness to the procedure that reflects a few different things, but here I?ll focus on one element ? that a connection to the audience is created by removing the pretense associated with performance.

In òYour Cheatin? Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams,ó Chet Flippo posits that the country music legend wore cowboy outfits resplendent with rhinestones by costumer Nudie Cohn so he could both identify with his rural American audience ? but still always stand above them with the help of a little showbiz glitz.

That attitude has gone in and out of fashion in pop music, but especially for rock bands that follow the strain of punk rock, which perhaps has a founding principle of òno glitz.ó

And there is indeed something ridiculous about the whole thing. OOC put effort into the theatrics of their show ? for the maybe 30 people who were there for most of the set.

One wonders if it?s worth it. It?s difficult for their large poster backdrop to truly create ambiance when the ripped tape holding it up is readily apparent.

Later that night, another touring band played with a similar strategy of shock and awe. Norwegian rockers VOM?s approach included handing out muffins before they went on stage, singing from garland-wrapped mic stands, wearing costumes, standing in front of a backdrop and smacking balloons back and forth with the audience all night.

Along with their music, which was party-friendly with danceable rock rhythms and singalong hooks, the efforts to win the crowd over with theatrics were successful, leaving the audience satiated.

I think what VOM and OOC touch on is something important, and that is creating ambiance goes a long way to setting the mood for a performance.

Sure, it is somewhat contrived, and that contrivance is exponential when the crowd is small or simply not warmed up, but all art is like that. There is an element just as ridiculous when performers barely acknowledge they are on stage at all as when they bring attention to it.

More so, even if they avoid traditional showmanship in favor of a stripped-down approach, it doesn?t erase the fact that music is an abstraction.

No one sings a song with a band outside of a performance, so deciding that the musical element of a show respectable, while another element (such as creating a visual or dramatic element to go with that sound) isn?t, seems somewhat trite.

So while it might go down a bit forced in a small club, the effort to put on a show is certainly appreciated. Cue the lights.


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