Singer-songwriters, ‘splain this
Mike Regenstreif over at FolkRoots/FolkBranches says Lucinda Williams‘ new album Blessed is a winner, and I don’t doubt it. She’s got a totally unique, plaintive voice, for one thing. And I admire her songwriting: she’s a careful crafter of memorable three-minute wonders that combine rock & roll edginess with real roots emotion.
But after hearing Lucinda Williams’ lackluster live show at Massey Hall this past Friday, supporting the brilliant Levon Helm Band, I was deeply disappointed. Her songs seemed poorly rehearsed, her drummer, bass and guitar players seemed distant from one another, her patter was curt and uninspired, and she literally had to read some of her lyrics from the printed page.
One lone voice cried out from the balcony “Lucinda, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!” as she took the stage – song sheets in hand again – for an encore with Levon Helm after his band’s superlative performance. That disappointed audience member was probably wondering what happened that night.
But here’s what I want ‘splained: when did live shows stop being about entertainment?
Lucinda Williams is a damned good songwriter, who’s been blessed to have made her name in the era of the singer-songwriter. Ever since Dylan brought down the Brill Building, so to speak, roots musicians have enjoyed the opportunity to make their names on the strength of their songs.
The upside is that we’ve had the opportunity to hear the likes of Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco and others whose unique gifts didn’t lend themselves to performing standards or covers.
But here’s the downside: the old formula of “three chords and the truth” is not, in itself, a recipe for entertainment.
The truth is that to fill a house like Massey Hall with a waiting audience, all of whom have shelled out hard-earned cash, is to make an implicit deal with the audience.
The deal is this: we, the audience, give you our money and our attention, both of which are harder to come by these days than ever; you, the performer, give us a night of great entertainment. You can make us laugh or cry, but you’d better transport us to somewhere other than where our everyday lives take place, here in the streets and alleys of ordinary existence.
If all we’re getting is an ordinary (at best) performance, why wouldn’t we just stay home and play the CD? It costs a quarter of the price of a live show at Massey Hall, and we can listen to it endlessly.
I want someone to ‘splain this: Who is so hooked on “character” or the peculiarities of anyone’s individual perspective on the world that they are willing to pay for a bummer show?
I’m not claiming any of this is easy for the performer. I’ve done tons of gigs as a singer-songwriter, for little or no money in terrible venues as often as not. It’s a tough row to hoe, and those who make a living at it have my deepest respect.
So long, that is, as they continue fulfilling the bargain between audience and performer, in a win-win scenario.
I recently heard a fine Canadian songwriter complain that the business model is broken for singer-songwriters: too many miles, too few people listening. Granted! But ‘splain this: who asked anyone to hit the road and stand on stage, anyway?
Another fine Canadian songwriter shot to fame a generation ago with a song that ironically described the challenges facing a singer-songwriter on a rock & roll stage. But Valdy‘s “Rock & Roll Song” wasn’t a complaint about the plight of a folk-singer; it was a self-empowering take on a bad programming call that put a singer of songs about “flowers and beads” in front of the wrong crowd.
And all these years later, performing singer-songwriters should take their cues from the likes of Valdy, whose sound-checks alone are worthy of a Juno award. Valdy knows the deal, and he delivers. His dancing feet and clever patter are as delightful to the eyes and mind as his flying fingers on the strings are to the ear.
Valdy still gives it all – despite the fact that his audiences are smaller now than they were back in the day, when his very first record was a hit. Valdy knows a live show is not just about playing his material. It’s about putting on a SHOW, and loving it.
Which is one reason the Levon Helm Band is such a great live act. The material they play varies, including Dylan tunes, old Band favourites and recent Helm originals, but it’s all uniformly brilliantly played, fodder for a musically diverse, endlessly entertaining live rock & roots show. Levon never stops smiling, and it’s that little bit of sparkle that really makes it magic.
True, Helm (like Lyle Lovett, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon, all songwriters who put on brilliant stage shows) can afford a big band. When you put a horn section, two guitars, a B3 player, an upright bass, two extraordinary backup singers and even an understudy drummer together with Helm’s legendary back beat, you’ve got something special happening.
But that’s precisely the point: something special is happening on that stage, something you can’t get on a recording. That’s what the audience paid for.
And as Valdy proves, every night on stage alone, in venues both little and big, you don’t need a whole band to make something special happen. You just need to put the show first. And it’s the joy that makes it great.
Another case in point: Levon also brought local legend (and Band fanatic) Colin Linden up on stage to guest on a couple of tunes at that Massey Hall show, including the encore. Now there’s a singer-songwriter who doesn’t need to be reminded about the joy. His bouncing step and wide grin declared him to be the happiest guy in Canada that night, and why not?
I’m grateful that the likes of Lucinda Williams, crafters of songs that defy the conventions of previous eras, can stand on that Massey Hall stage today. But if all they do is stand and sing, glancing over at their notes for the next line, I’d rather keep my money and stay home.
Or better yet, spend half the price on an act that’s prepared to give it all they’ve got – someone who knows they’re blessed to be there. Can anyone ‘splain why I shouldn’t?
Like it or not, that’s entertainment, folks. As Steve Poltz – perhaps the most entertaining solo singer-songwriter I’ve ever seen perform – declares, quoting Hyman Roth in The Godfather II, “This is the business we’ve chosen“.
Links of interest:
- Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams share Massey stage by Jane Stevenson, Toronto Sun
- Blessed: A Conversation With Lucinda Williams, by Mike Ragogno, Huffington Post
- Levon Helm lives up to legendary status at Massey Hall, by Lucas Samuels, BlogTO