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Airbags

What is more important than the in-between-song chatter spoken by musicians at live shows? Some may argue that the music is more important. That is why you dropped 10, 20, or 30 bucks and made plans with friends to go see a live show. That's why you packed yourself into a crowded bar, a smoky club, or a run-down turn of the century theatre with hundreds of other adoring fans. That's why you subject yourself to all the glorious pushing, shoving, and potentially dangerous situations. All in the name of having an experience with music that is like no other, after all, if going to a live show wasn't all that great you'd probably just stay home and listen to the CD. What can and often does make or break live shows is not always the music, however. What is said between songs by artists will ultimately influence your experience of the evening as much as what is sung. Many musicians opt not to say much or offer anything besides their crafted lyrics and music. Thankfully not Rufus Wainwright, The Sons of The Never Wrong, or Mindy Smith. These musicians are not afraid to chat it up while serving up their sets -- for better or worse.

To say that Rufus Wainwright's show at the Rivera Theatre on February 21 was anything less than amazing would be well, just wrong. He has been dubbed "the multi-talented singer and composer" which although cliché and tired, is actually quite true. He is multi-talented. He is a singer. He is a composer fond of opera. One listen and you would have to agree that he is all of those things.

In addition, he likes to ramble. He opened the show, after one song, with a stint about Al Capone, referencing The Riviera Theater's neighborhood and days of yore. He started off the set with this and kept rambling on and on. Imaging what it would be like to be a lonely cigarette girl, wondering the aisles of the Riviera selling cigarettes to the patrons in the Twenties and Thirties. A little odd, a little funny. His rambles took a suddenly bizarre turn when he became almost obsessed with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. OK, I can give him this one. After all, who isn't obsessed with the badness that is Britney and Christina? They deserve a little blather from the multi-talented maestro. But a little blather can go wrong when it spins out of control. Rufus started in on them and wouldn't let it go. "Why can't they just sing about nice things? Why do they have to sing about anal sex? I mean, if anyone should be singing about anal sex, it should be me!" Uhmmmm right. Rufus, we love you, but we would love you more if would just sing and prove your talent and musical superiority over the teen-pop wannabes. A little less talking, a little more singing and we'll be just fine.

The Sons of The Never Wrong are a folksy team of three that have been together playing shows and recording albums for over 11 years in the Chicago area. Their talent shines through in the use of violins, upright bases, mandolins, guitars and their powerful voices. They always offer up a few surprises in all of their shows, and I should know, I've been to five of them. When the surprise is a washboard player or a handmade cello/guitar, it is a happy surprise. Overall, they have good banter. It's usually a funny slightly inside joke or some good-natured teasing. Yet when I saw them at the Abbey pub in December, the sole male member of the group was on and on about being a "metrosexual." It wasn't funny and he wouldn't give it up, but what was most surprising was that the audience actually gave him some laughs. Come on, who by that point had not heard of the concept of a "metrosexual male?" Flash forward to February, change the location to Davenport's piano bar, keep the lame attempts at humor and "being metrosexual." When the banter is this bad, it makes me want to stop liking the band. It makes me want to save my $8 and listen to a CD instead. Their music is refreshing and changing constantly, too bad the shtick isn't quite as fresh these days.

Mindy Smith can do many things. She can sing. She can barely open her mouth and make a voice that doesn't match her petite frame come flying out into the night air. She can break your heart with songs about "all the hard times in life." She can make you cry with her version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." And Mindy has the chitchat down pat. She's fresh, so fresh that her stop at Scuba's in mid-February was her last stop on her first tour. Fans of alt-country (whatever that means these days) may have heard of her, but that's about it. Mention her name in certain circles and it will illicit blank stares and so many hmmmmms that you'll more likely quickly change the subject than explain what her style and grace.

Schubas offers the intimacy that makes idle chatter seem like a private conversation. The room is so small and with the tables removed and a good crowd of folks gathered round the stage it's easy for a performer to feel comfortable and welcomed. Her newness to touring or having larger crowds could have caused some discomfort. She dropped her pick more than once and teased herself for doing so. She spoke to the audience when they cheered her on and shouted out requests. Her newness and lack of experience kept the conversation between songs funny and upbeat. If the whole music thing doesn't work out for her, she could easily fall back on acting or being a comedienne. Mindy Smith has banter down.

It's a fine balance, the need to tell a story through song and the need to relate to your audience. The pressure is on. An audience of 10, 50, or hundreds of fans paid good money to see you and they demand from you an experience that more than makes up for the time and money spent to be there. The fine line is often crossed and faithful fans are willing to forgive. We all know that you didn't mean it. You were only looking for a laugh; you only needed a shock to inspire you to get through the next song. We were just looking for a few songs and some conversation. Then the next day, the morning after, the answer to the question "How was the show last night?" would most likely be a detailed account of the songs with little mention of the silly stories or offbeat comments. Just know that we are out there, listening to every word. So make it good.

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Comments

Ramsin / February 29, 2004 11:35 AM

Suzanne- Interesting article. Music critics often make a point of saying that some performer's banter was grating or rambling etc., unless it is somebody who likes to give insight into the music (I seem to recall when Tori Amos was really big, all the critics saying she was really good at "bringing the audience into her world" or whatever).

For my part, when I was still going to shows I always judged the performers by how successful their banter was. If they could make me laugh I would automatically like them better. Then again I also usually pick my favorite athletes based on how fun they are in interviews, so this just may be my sickness.

 

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