Sometimes I think I’m becoming an old music snob, kind of like my mother. A lot of artists are more about visuals than actually playing their music. Fans end up going to concerts where the artist or band is playing along with their recorded music and their music videos are a part of the concert decor.
It seems as if most of the singers and musicians are self-conscious or hyper-aware of how they look on stage and to their audience. You can practically see them wondering ‘Do I look cool? Do I look sexy? How does my voice sound in comparison to the album version?’ Music acts are so manufactured nowadays why people bother to cough-up hundreds of dollars to see them live (or lip-synching live) is beyond me.
Yet there are artists out there who understand that playing live is about their performance and the music.
Below is live concert footage of talented singers and musicians that I’ve come across over the years. These artists understand that fans did not come to hear them sing along to pre-recorded tracks or to look like they stepped off a photo-shopped magazine cover. These musicians came to play and thank God for that.
GARY CLARK, JR.
Gary Clark Jr. is an original blues man who somehow combines B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Gil-Scott Heron and Howlin’ Wolf into his own style. He not only sings the blues like he’s lived them he also plays a mean-ass guitar. He’s only been around a few years, but his profile is on the rise. In 2010 he played at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, a one-day event held in Chicago. A lot big name guitar artists were there such as Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Robert Cray and Johnny Winter. Yet, Clark stood out amongst the famous crowd. His cover version of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights” is distinctive and incredible. After he’s done kicking ass on stage, he quietly says “thank you” to the crowd. He makes you want to say “No -thank you!”
Fleetwood Mac was the artist and supergroup of the 1970s. Most of their songs have been relegated to soft rock stations, but at one point in time they were the biggest act on earth. The five-person band had three major successful songwriters in Christie McVie, Lyndsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, which is practically unheard of today. Until Michael Jackson’s Thriller surpassed it, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors (1977) album was the biggest selling album of all time. It spawned several hits such as “Go Your Own Way,” “Don’t Stop,” “The Chain,” and “Gold Dust Woman.” However, before Rumors the Mac had another hit “Rihannon” a song written by Nicks about a Welsh witch. The album version is good, but this 1976 live version is excellent. Nicks vocals are very fierce and impassioned (starting at the 4:50 in the video) and the band plays off of her vibe, speeding along to the very end. Very few artists perform like this anymore.
MARY J. BLIGE
As an artist, Blige’s music output is uneven at times, in that I don’t think her songs really match up to her vocal talent. However, her live performances can sometimes make lyrically-weak songs seem epic, which was the case at the 2002 Grammy Awards. Mary J. Blige decided to perform “No More Drama” which is not a great song, but it was her latest R&B hit at the time. Initially she starts out kind of sedentary, probably thinking about the audience in front of her since Grammy audiences are notoriously quiet and polite during performances. Yet midway through her set Mary seems to forget about who’s she singing to and just goes for it (starting at 2:17 in the video) . When she sings” You demons get out my face. Go get out of my mind. I’m about to lose my mind. Lord help me!” it’s like she’s wailng and praying for strength. She makes you feel the words. At the end of her performance the Grammy audience stood up and clapped – one of the few times I’ve seen this happen. Mary deserved their honor and respect.
By the time George Micheal performed with Queen in 1992 at Wembley Stadium in London he was already a musical superstar. From his days with Wham to his solo work, he was pop and R&B friendly who happened to have an amazing voice. Yet many singers would have been scared sh*tless to be asked to play with Queen as a stand-in for Freddie Mercury, especially at a tribute concert to honor the passing of Mercury who had died of AIDS. Plus the concert was to be broadcast live to over 76 countries with an audience of almost a billion. A lot of pressure, but George was up to the task. His version of “Somebody to Love” was respectful of Freddie Mercury, but it was still all George. His voice sounded clear and joyful which the band obviously appreciated. George knocked this one out of the park. I’m sure Freddie was impressed.
In 1992 Cohn’s self-titled first album did very well. It sold over a million copies. He had a top 2o hit with “Walking in Memphis and two other top 100 hits off the album. He finished up the year with a Grammy for ‘Best New Artist,’ which can be a good or mostly bad thing. Unfortunately for Cohn, a Grammy didn’t help his later albums and he has never come close to his initial success. But he’s still out there writing, singing and performing for his diehard fans. One of his most popular live songs is “True Companion” which is about meeting, marrying and committing to the love of your life. The 2009 version he did in Utah is one of my favorites. It has a quiet, earnest beauty about it that is simply wonderful. It really allows you to listen to the lyrics so that you really feel him singing the song. An understated, heartfelt performance by a real artist.
The ‘Queen of Soul’ is known for “Respect” and “Natural Woman” but those songs don’t really symbolize what Aretha Franklin can do with her voice. Her voice is powerful, but it is also a host of other levels like pain, sorrow, love and anger. Her songs that have more of a gospel flair to them are her best stuff such as “Never Loved A Man.” The first few lines of the song start as “You’re’ no good. Heartbreaker. You’re a liar and a you’re a cheat. I don’t know why I let you do things to me.” You know exactly where she’s coming from and how she feels, especially the way she stretches out certain words. This 1967 two-plus minute live version gives you just a snippet of what she probably would’ve done with this song if she was given a more time, but songs weren’t too lengthy back then. Too bad for her audience and for us.
Like many of his fans, I became aware of Stanley’s talent via the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass artist and banjo player won the 2002 Best Male Country Performance Grammy for his performance of “O Death.” Though the album version is great this 2008 a cappella version he did at a festival in Clintwood, Virginia is even more honest and chilling. All you see is 85 year-old Stanley on stage, grasping his hands while wearing a white cowboy hat asking the grim reaper to spare him for another year. Amazing.
I have always liked Pink‘s voice, but most of her songs just do nothing for me. In fact, I think most of the crap she sings is not worthy of her voice. Pink’s voice is raspy, full of strength, hurt, fun and heartache. It’s too bad most of her music, as popular as it is, just doesn’t measure up to what she could bring to the table. Though I’m sure her bank account is very pleased with her pop success. She really knows how to vocally turn lemons into lemonade. Yet, once in awhile, she shows us that she is the real deal, especially when her song choice is an even match for her vocal prowess. I’ve seen this happen only once with her, when she sang a cover version of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” at the 2007 Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. With her voice it seems like it would be an obvious fit for Pink, which it is. But she makes it all her own while still respecting Janis’ version of it. An awesome feat indeed, which the audience knew by giving her a well-deserved standing ovation.
I became a fan of N.E.R.D. (Nobody Ever Really Dies) the first time I heard “Sooner or Later” – a good song that has a Beatlesque/70s guitar vibe that I really like. This funk, rap, hip hop and rock bank is made-up of three members with writer/producer Pharrell Williams being the driving force of the group. I used to like the album version of “Spaz” until I came across this live version. It’s not a great version of the song in that they took it to a another level. What I really like about this version is the energy of the group and the audience. It has an excitement and rawness to it that makes the album version truly pale in comparison. It makes me wish that I had been at this concert. I would’ve jammed my ass off!