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“.

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  1. avatar
    Andy Frank 7 March, 2011 at 16:11

    Well written, David. I attended a concert by a local up and comer on Saturday night who, I’ve been told by a super-respected veteran producer/musician, is the hottest thing to emerge from the local Toronto scene since Justin Rutledge, and his audience interaction was nil, except to request money via the bucket pass. It takes so little, and means SO much to an audience to feel acknowledged as part of the evening’s activities.

  2. avatar
    Jeff Robson 7 March, 2011 at 16:37

    Amen! Shows like this are part of the reason that live music (and the music “business” in general) are in such trouble. Too many performers phone in shows, so it’s hard to get people to take a chance and spend their hard-earned money. Lucinda can put on a good show (I’ve seen good ones), but she’s notoriously hit-and-miss.

    But what about the performers who are all “miss”? When was the last time you read a glowing review of a Bob Dylan show? Ol’ Bob’s been putting on terrible shows for YEARS, yet people keep going. I don’t get it.

    Me, I’d much rather take a chance on someone young and fresh, someone willing to EARN an audience, than throw dough at some “legend” who knows that they’ve already got you on their side, so they can do whatever they want, no matter how boring/terrible it might be. Worst case scenario: at least it’ll cost you a lot less if the show turns out to be a waste of your time!

  3. avatar
    CVM 7 March, 2011 at 17:34

    couldnt agree more about the lack of real ‘entertainers’ out there. its not enough to write the songs, certainly not enought to sleepwalk through your set. i also miss banter when its not there…i like learning about the songs, or even the artist’s impressions of the city they are touring through. all of that makes it worth leaving the house, standing in smelly places drinking over priced booze from plastic glasses.

    that said – of all the hundreds of slackers out there, and all the opportunties to roast them, did ya have to pick a woman the day before the 100th international women’s day to make yer point???

  4. avatar
    Shari Ulrich 7 March, 2011 at 17:56

    I only saw her live once, and would never bother again. She spent most of the show with her back to the audience and never spoke ONCE. I have HUGE respect for her as a songwriter but she clearly does not “get” what performing live requires – or perhaps does and either can’t or is not willing to give it. (She may suffer from terrible stage fright or be paralyzed to talk to the audience.) It does mean revealing who you are – which is one of the main things the audience has spent their money on experiencing.

    That was about 15 years ago that I saw her, and clearly her albums are so great that it doesn’t stop folks from continuing to come, so I guess she carries on that way because she CAN. But jeez – she’s had fantastic success and I can’t help but feel she owes her audience more if she’s going to take their money for the honour of seeing her live. So I’m totally with you David! If you’re not willing or able to give that then you shouldn’t be taking folks money to see you live.

  5. avatar
    Paul Corby 7 March, 2011 at 19:37

    See, David? It makes me so sad to see people inferring from this piece that problems Lucinda once had are continuing 15 years later. You don’t know me. Talk to someone who was there Saturday. We were blessed. Friday was problematic, but harsh words about the band and her performance style are, in my opinion, out of line.

  6. avatar
    Bob Rper 7 March, 2011 at 22:25

    I attended the Levon/Lucinda show at Massey Hall on the Friday night. And loved it.

    Lucinda and band were sloppy. She read most of the lyrics. She mumbled her between-song comments and really only introduced her songs by title. So what? Was I disappointed? Yeah a little…but I did not spend my $90.00 to see her headline. She was a bonus…an opener. I knew from reputation that she is not a great stage entertainer. I also knew by reputation that she writes amazing songs. I wasn’t expecting a Lady Gaga “spectacle” whose focus is on entertainment and has liitle to do with songs.

    And yet, at the end of her one hour set she received a very loud, lengthy, passionate, enthusiastic and rousing standing ovation. An encore that was very well deserved. The set started out slowly, came together wonderfully, and kicked some rather serious ass by the time it was over.

    Would I shell out big bicks to see her headline in the future? Probably not. Would I go see her at a smaller venue (say a Hugh’s Room in Toronto) for a reasonably priced ticket? Yes…most definitely. Will I buy her noew record? Yes. Because she played four new songs from the record and I was impressed by all of them both lyrically and musically.

    So…the Levon/Lucinda show worked for me and I got my money’s worth.

  7. avatar
    David Newland 7 March, 2011 at 22:42

    Nice reply Bob.

    You’re right, she sure did get a huge ovation. I was mystified, but different strokes for different folks.

    Funny how many people have focused only on this article’s critique of Williams, and not the kudos for her songwriting, or indeed, the bulk of the article which highlights the great strengths of a number of other performers.

    Shrug. Different strokes, again, eh?

  8. avatar
    Holy Rollers 7 March, 2011 at 23:14

    I had the privilege of seeing Lucinda and her band in fine form in Calgary in 2009. They were tight, energized and rocking. On the other hand, watching her performance on Austin City Limits a few years back put me to sleep. Not sure what it is about some bands – an off night, bad vibes between band members, haven’t rehearsed enough, rehearsed too much, have a hate-on for TO, bad drugs…? The Grateful Dead come to mind, as do the Cowboy Junkies and JJ Cale, whose concert at the Commodore in Vancouver in the mid-80s still ranks as one of the worst of my life. And as another commenter said, Bob Dylan has been forgiven for bad shows for 30 years or more. The problem these days is that it’s a lot tougher to accept a bad show when you’ve just shelled out 90 bucks, as opposed to a tenner and another ten for some good smoke to make you forget the mediocre tunes.

  9. avatar
    steve 7 March, 2011 at 23:46

    I’m scratching my head. Now KISS..they put on a good show..lights, fire bombs dry ice, blood!!
    My feeling is the writer of this article has some “s’plainin”: to do as for some reason he has found a bone to pick with Lucinda. Agent Provocateur Ifigure! Its clear the man has never seen her and cant get over the fact that she has a hard time remembering the lyrics to her songs…so?? what the problem?..she didn’t jump up and down and scream out “hellooo TORONTO”…so? .She emotes soul!!..its a shame he missed that!
    The last time i saw her at Massey Hall Colin Joined her on stage for some impromptu blues…maybe ask Colin what he thinks..or Don Was?

  10. avatar
    Andy Frank 8 March, 2011 at 07:53

    Re David’s last comment : No surprise to me that the focus in on the negative. Next, I think RMC should write a critique on Charlie Sheen, I mean, it’s what people want, isn’t it, dishin’ the diss, or work that appears to do so? Look what it’s done for the Idol franchise and Twitter! What *were* we thinking about by running a site that extols the virtues of our great, largely unknown Canadian artists? DOH! Back to the drawing board 😉

  11. avatar
    John Zytaruk 8 March, 2011 at 11:37

    I guess I’m lucky. I saw Lucinda in Montreal at Club Soda when she was touring behind “Car Wheels” -probably her greatest work. Her all-star band was super tight and she was in great form-at least musically. True, not much patter and she did have a big song-book on a music stand in front of her but who cares? That’s her choice. I do agree though that performers have an obligation to entertain and not just run through the set-list and if you’re not going to engage in patter, then the music better be SPECTACULAR and that night, thankfully it was.

  12. avatar
    Ashley Alford 9 March, 2011 at 13:28

    I have to agree with David Newland on this subject. Being a singer/songwriter myself there is no doubt that whether you are in the songer/songwriter category of music or whether you are in the strictly performing side of music like Lady Gaga and Rhianna, etc. you ALL have a responsibility to the audience to do your very best to entertain them.

    To choose to be in this industry is a choice that must be made wisely and is NOT for the faint of heart. I’ve struggled with severe stage fright in my time already, but what it came down to for me was I wanted my audience to always be transported to that other place in life, like David mentioned in his blog, and I never wanted my audience to walk away thinking I had EVER half-assed a show. I’ve watched in horror as other amazing singer/songwriters “call in” their shows, and despite all the advice that gets given to them to work on and improve their stage presence and audience interaction, they believe they are above it and as a result, they inevitably suffer the huge consequences.

    One reply said that he didn’t care because he didn’t pay the $90.00 to see her headline as if it was supposed to somehow be okay for her to give a half-assed performance. But I would want to point out that he just re-iterated David’s whole point. You paid to see someone else! So there you go. Would you have paid that $90.00 if you knew Lucinda was headlining instead of opening???? I’d venture a guess that you wouldn’t. But hey, that’s just a guess, not an assumption and I’ve been wrong before.

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