I’ve had the good fortune over the past 17 years to see a lot of great bands in concert. From small club shows to massive festivals, up-and-coming bands to established behemoths of music. It all started my very first “real” concert - Pearl Jam at the Target Center in Minneapolis in 1998. (with opener Frank Black!)
Ever since that show, I’ve been hooked. The experience of seeing a band perform and connect with a crowd, being a part of that exchange of energy and emotion, can be transcendent and beautiful. Pearl Jam may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to deny that they put on a consistently great live show and love their fans. That night, they had the Target Center rocking — literally. I couldn’t hear properly for a few days afterward and lost my voice until halfway through the next day. It was an amazing show with a band I loved and I got to experience it with good friends. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.
Recently, though, I’ve started thinking about bands that I’ve been into and have seen live multiple times, but would not really consider seeing again.
We all have those bands or artists who, in hindsight, we’re a little embarrassed by. While I’m not necessarily embarrassed by most of the bands I’ve seen, there have been a few clunkers here and there. Shifting tastes and all that.
So I decided to put together a list. The criteria include — 1) it has to be a band that I have seen multiple times, and 2) the band must still be active and touring. Pretty simple. Here we go.
Counting Crows. Concert count = 5 Let’s start as close to the beginning as possible. Sure, August and Everything After was the record that got them noticed and led to insufferable amounts of airplay for “Mr. Jones,” but *Recovering the Satellites *was the one that got me hooked. I was a teenager, full of overwrought emotion, the perfect time to fall for a band like the Counting Crows. For that time in my life, they had everything— songs about intense romantic entaglements, songs about the dissolution of intense romantic entanglements, and accordion solos. Now, though? In all honestly, I’m shocked that they’re still around. Still singing about relationships at a teenage-level as you amble toward 50? Still trying to maintain a Sideshow Bob hairdo well into middle age? Meh. Of all the bands I’ve seen through the years, this one I regret the most. But hey, I was young. I didn’t know any better. And in defense of my younger self, “A Long December” still holds up pretty well.
eels. Concert count = 5 We move on to another band that found moderate mainstream success in the mid-90s. From the moment I first heard “Your Lucky Day in Hell,” I was hooked. I’ve always had a misanthropic side and Mark Oliver Everett (the E in eels) wrote songs that had were right up my alley. eels put on a fun, lively show and try to make every tour a unique event. Whether it’s dressing up like mechanics and playing fuzzed-out garage versions of their catalog, or touring with a string section, the eels were always been a band we looked forward to catching when they came to town. I’ll never forget the band trundling onto the stage in pajamas as the crowd was already streaming out the doors. They had already played two encores and had brought up the house lights and “time to leave” music. It was a spectacular fake-out and added a bit of whimsy to the typical concert template. I don’t really know when the switch happened, but the spark isn’t there anymore. And again, in many of these examples, the cause might not be 100% on the band. People grow out of music all the time. What was cool and hip when you were 15, 20, 25 years old can start to lose it’s luster by the time you turn 35. But part of me feels like Everett may be coasting just a little bit at this point. Their last few records have been uneven and treading over well-worn ground. While I know I’d probably still have a good time at an eels show, I’d rather spend my money and time on something else.
Let me take a quick aside here. I’ve always been the kind of person who believes that comfortable, well-adjusted artists are often not great artists. I believe that conflict, external or internal, is necessary to create great art. There has to be a catalyst. Once an artist settles into a comfortable life, whether from monetary success or familial bliss or kicking a drug/alcohol problem or what-have-you, they tend to lose the edge that made them great. It doesn’t mean that they lost their talent. The Rolling Stones still put on great live shows, even if they haven’t put out a truly great record in decades.
We can all point to an actor or musician that was a hell-raiser in their early days who settles down and starts to make bland, comfortable music. COUGH Eric Clapton COUGH.
One of my favorite examples is Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Those early Wilco records, right up to A Ghost is Born - were fueled at least in part by Jeff’s insecurity, drug problems, migraines, and in-fighting with Jay Bennett. Once Jeff got his migraines and substance abuse issues under control and settled in as one of the most critically-acclaimed and respected alt bands of the mid-2000s, he started making dad-rock. Comfortable, albeit incredibly technically proficient, dad-rock.
In a way, it’s too bad that we no longer have the driven, tortured Jeff Tweedy pushing musical boundaries and writing incredible songs like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” or “Via Chicago.” But it’s also insanely selfish and shitty of me to wish that Jeff, or any artist, was miserable just so he could create amazing art again. Regardless, my point stands. Conflict creates great art. Comfort does not.
Anyway, back to the list.
The National. Concert count = 4 I can’t think of a band which I have fallen for and become thoroughly bored by in quicker succession. It was that quick one-two punch of Alligator and Boxer that hooked me, and by the time High Violet rolled out, I was all but done. The National are first band on this list that has fallen prey to what I like to refer to as “Hold Steady Syndrome.” Basically, it’s the idea that certain bands fit certain venues, and once they go beyond those venues, they lose part of what made them great. (more on that later) For example, I first saw The National at a small club, then a mid-sized club, then a larger venue, and then at an outdoor festival. They were too loud for a small club, and too intimate for a larger venue. At the festival, they just didn’t connect. But in the mid-size club, they were perfect. Even if I haven’t been into their last few records, I’d consider catching them if they came through town and played a mid-sized club. Unfortunately, all they tend to play these days are larger venues and festivals.
The Black Keys. Concert count = 3 Now that I think about it, these last three bands all succumbed to “Hold Steady Syndrome.” With The Black Keys, though, the combination of playing larger venues and a shift in their core sound was a tough one-two punch. I liked The Black Keys the way they were at the start — just two guys from Akron kicking out gut-bucket blues. After a few records of just that, they wanted to morph into something else, started working with Danger Mouse, and the rest is history. Don’t get me wrong, Brothers was a great record, but that was the exception, not the rule. Outside of The White Stripes, I’ve never seen two people make so much glorious noise on stage. Then they started touring with backing members, adding layers to their sound when it wasn’t really needed, and, frankly, resting on their laurels. Jack White at least had the good sense to drop the White Stripes and move on to a solo career, realizing that the music he wanted to make couldn’t fit within the red and white candy-cane construct he’d created. While I’m happy for them for their success, I’m just plain not very interested in the music they have to make these days. (unless they’re going to do another Blakroc record, then I’m all in)
The Hold Steady. Concert count = 5 The last time I saw The Hold Steady in 2011, it was pretty apparent they were going through the motions. It was sad. One of the best live shows I’ve ever been in attendance for was a show they played in 2005 at Berbatis Pan in Portland. Tim Fite and The Constantines opened and both played out of their minds. By the time the Hold Steady took the stage, the whole place was buzzing — as much from the alcohol as from anticipation. And they did not disappoint. Friends of the band set up a conveyor belt of shots and beers running from the bar to the stage, and by the encore, Craig Finn was desperately holding onto the mic stand to stay upright. Every time he missed a line, the crowd served it back to him, and we got through that show together, sweaty, inebriated, and euphoric. Lately it feels more and more like Finn is holding onto his gallery of misfits and miscreants (whether it’s Charlemagne in his sweatpants or Holly or Katrina and Nightclub Dwight…) a little too tightly. Finn is an amazing lyricist. Listen to his 2012 solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes. It was a definite return to form. In my humble opinion, the Hold Steady is a band that should’ve existed for 2–3 records and then disappeared, with the members going on to other fulfilling projects. Their last few albums sound stifled and forced. They’d have been better off packing it up after Boys and Girls in America. Yes, I know that makes me sound like a music snob, bashing a band’s latter-day catalog as inferior to the records that hardy anyone listened to, but go back and listen to Separation Sunday and then listen to Heaven is Whenever or Teeth Dreams and try to tell me I’m wrong. The other part, unsurprisingly, is the aforementioned “Hold Steady Syndrome.” The Hold Steady is the bar band-iest of bar bands. The idea of seeing them outside of a dirty, low-ceilinged bar or club is just odd. That’s their sound. That’s their audience. Again, I’m happy for their success. But I fear the only time I’ll see them again is on their way back down, and that’s a damn shame. But that audience connection that Craig and crew cultivate just isn’t the same in a massive venue full of faceless fans. I hope that they move on to something new, because I’m sure it would be fantastic. Of course, a part of me is hoping for a quick LIFTER PULLER reunion tour before that happens…