You can feel the kick drum in your chest. Thousands of watts of light flash in a mesmerizing display of color. The body heat and sweat from the crowd around you turns into a primordial ooze of flesh. Somewhere in the middle of all this, there’s four guys with instruments trying to tell you something they think you need to hear.
It’s easy to forget the thrill of live music when digital downloads and myspace pages make recorded music so easy to obtain. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the fifteen bucks for the cover charge when an iPod has all of the music in the comfort of your own home. But there’s a reason that we keep on paying and traveling to see live music, and it comes down to a few basic truths.
One reason is that we want to be part of the crowd itself. It’s the same reason that when your favorite song comes on the radio you listen more avidly, regardless how many times you’ve heard it. If other people are listening with you, its a different experience, a more communal feeling. True, more often than not the crowd that you’re a part of is primarily old fat guys doing “the white boy shuffle” (Extend right arm, snap fingers. Extend left arm, snap fingers. Repeat endlessly). But if these people are going to the same concert as you, enjoying the same artist then they’re kindred spirits for the duration of the performance.
And then there’s whats happening on stage, most obviously is the visual aspect. Go to any Bruce Springsteen or Fishbone concert and you can experience firsthand the thrill of being controlled by an impossibly charismatic frontman. You want to watch these people to see what they’ll do next or even just to see them. Seeing a performer as a flesh and blood human being is a unique sensation that a record won’t ever quite duplicate.
But it can’t just be visual. There’s a reason people keep on going out to see Les Paul, even though he never dances, and sits down for most of the performance. It’s that thing that makes us drive two hours in a blizzard to see our favorite band at some shitty dive bar. The attraction is simple. It’s people playing music. Anyone walking past a bar can judge in an instant whether the music coming through the door is being performed by a human or a jukebox. That feeling of spontaneity and excitement is a inimitable rush, and you don’t need a degree from Berklee to sense it.
The bottom line is that music is people communicating with people. I don’t know the formula or equation that makes live music so special, I doubt there is one. But whatever is happening on that stage is special, and it’s not the same as what’s coming through your headphones.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org