Almost live.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while but haven’t had the time until now to do so. There’s a disturbing trend amongst the music industry where bands are playing “almost live”. Fans of pop stars like Madonna may be aware that a lot of her concerts are performed to a prerecorded backing track. What is less known is that this trend is happening a lot more in rock and punk music too. When you go and see a band like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath one of the joys of seeing them is knowing they’re playing live. Famously in Rush’s concert video from 1988, A Show Of Hands, you can see a change in the guitar used by Alex Lifeson part way through 2112. It wasn’t careful editing of 2 nights footage, despite the concert being recorded over 2 nights, it was the result of the fastest guitar change I have ever witnessed, live in front of me at the concert. Real music played live, with no gimmicks or tapes.

That’s not to say that some concerts shouldn’t have some prerecorded instruments. Emilie Autumn puts on a remarkable show where she blends recorded instruments with live music. As a classically trained violinist she certainly doesn’t need to use tapes for her own music but as a multi-instrumentalist it’s a bit difficult to play 2 instruments at once while also singing lead vocals. Another trick often used to good effect is loop taping, recording and playing back on the fly to layer music together. When used it can add a dimension to a live show where a single artist wants to expand on what otherwise would be just a single guitar and voice, allowing them to mix into their music a rhythm and bass line to an otherwise one dimensional lead guitar. These tricks all have valid uses in live music when done openly, without any subterfuge.

So it’s extremely disappointing as a fan of live music to hear increasingly of rock and pop punk bands resorting to tricks in order to preserve their “live performances”. At some festivals it has become almost impossible to tell if the band you are watching is actually playing live. The most common trick would appear to be to play along to an entirely recorded track, akin to an old Top Of The Pops appearance where the entire performance was mimed. Famously when asked to mime on a tv chat show the Red Hot Chilli Peppers swapped positions so none of the band members was actually playing their own instruments in protest at being asked to mime. In almost every case the bands will say they play live but “turn down” their instruments to half volume. That is not “live”. It was discovered that many of the bands on the Warped Tour favoured this method. Another trick that I have personally witnessed is that of the “session musician”, where one or more session artists are employed offstage to play the parts that the band should be playing. It’s even more disappointing that this trick was performed by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz’s pet project All Time Low, where for an entire concert their lead guitarist failed to play a single note, seemingly able to mimic the rhythm guitarist’s guitar strumming style while playing and even succeeding in playing a twirling guitar solo without even touching the strings of his guitar. If you look carefully at videos of the band playing at 2011’s Sonisphere Festival you will see at the back of the stage to the far left a much older guitarist who is clearly not a member of the band playing the lead guitar part for the entire concert. It is this complete lack of respect for the fans of live music that I find appalling. Many of these bands will tell stories of how they’ve worked hard playing gigs in small venues and building up a fan base from playing live. If that was true then have the courtesy to trust that your fans will still be fans even if your live show contains the occasional off note or out of key vocal. Not one person has ever said “I wish Ozzy Osbourne had mimed at Download so Black Sabbath could sound as good as they do after months of mixing and production on their album”. When we see a band live we expect to see them as they are. The blistering guitar solo by Alice Cooper’s guitarist Orianthi, Neil Peart’s YYZ drum solo, Pete Townsend’s thumping bass riffs. To have them on stage miming would be a travesty and I know no one who would not feel cheated and let down to find their personal heroes had actually performed “almost live”.

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