Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Playing in Traffic

Waterloo Records, 1/25

I had mixed feelings about going to see Spoon's free parking lot appearance, for one logistical reason and one aesthetic concern. Mostly I was worried about the scene being a total mess and becoming entangled in traffic and humanity to the degree that the entire exercise ended up being more headache than it was worth. Perhaps a lot of others felt the same way, because as it ended up the audience for the performance was just the right size. The security guys were laid back, the sound was way better than could have been expected, and parking wasn't a hassle at all. I don't know if a lot of other cities would have been mellow enough to let all of this come off without a hitch, so I feel grateful again for having moved here.

The other element of my reluctance is more controversial. As much as I admire Spoon's albums -- and they have practically no competition among current indie rock bands as far as the consistency of their recorded output is concerned -- I'm equally convinced of their ultimate incapability as a live band. There's a lot of different reasons for why they just can't get things ignited on stage. The bass players and keyboard players, as often as they rotate in and out, usually appear as if they are terrified of playing one note different from the way the song was originally recorded and being fired on the spot. Jim Eno's role is safer because he's required to provide nominal continuity, but also problematic because he's a lousy drummer who messes up the tempo kind of a lot. I rather suspect that his limitations in a peculiar way preserve his longevity in the group, since he wouldn't be able to try and improvise crazy stuff even if he wanted to do so. Because of Eno's unreliability, the band always follows the guitar rather than the drums, and that's kind of backwards unless you're Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.

Britt Daniel is such a marvelous and thorough songwriter that every last part of his songs is planned down to the precise timing of his trademark amplifier hums. That's what makes their records reliably wonderful, the way that each piece is tweaked for perfection from the tiniest details on up, and at the same time each album has distinct overall goals and production hallmarks. But it also renders the band kind of an anachronism on stage. Daniel doesn't view his songs as eternal works in progress, ripe for reinvention each night. Once the record is finished, they're done, and that's how they're to be played forevermore. That's too bad, because it means there's a lot of songs that the band simply can't play well on stage because they can't replicate the instrumentation or the studio sound. It means there's a bunch of fantastic older songs that are just kind of gathering dust because the current incarnation hasn't considered the idea of drastically rearranging them to bring them in line with the way the band sounds now. (Bring back "No You're Not!")

Daniel also extends the idea of each song having a single definitive "correct" incarnation to the way he moves on stage -- he does the guitar raise at the same time every time out, moves around only when he feels he's supposed to do so, allows the backup players to interact only when the studio version has backing vocals, makes eye contact with the other guys only when they screw up. I can relate -- I feel a spiritual kinship to the man. I'm an introverted intellectual who's too tall and too skinny and whose head and neck jut out in front of the rest of my body too. For people who aren't natural performers, sticking rigidly to a proven template is a natural coping mechanism. But maniacal adherence to precedent is not very rock and roll. It also utterly guarantees that there will never be any pleasant surprises at a Spoon show, only workmanlike performances of great songs and several instances where the band loses step slightly and their autocratic leader glares inscrutably.

This particular show this week was a bit of a new experience, though, since I haven't heard any of Transference yet and I was able to hear the bulk of its songs for the first time when the band was playing them on stage. As many arguments as there are against Spoon's live approach, it can't be argued that the signal element in their greatness is their songs. "Got Nuffin'" and "Written in Reverse" and "Nobody Gets Me But You" and "Mystery Zone" all were immediately memorable and confirmed in my mind that Transference must indeed be another winner in an unbroken decade-long streak. And they played "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb," which has the best second verse of any song written in at least the last twenty years.

Nothing about what made me ambivalent about Spoon in concert before doesn't still apply. But given the price, the beautiful weather, the high concentration of smoking hot Austin hipster girls, and the generosity in the length of the band's set (they played for just about as long as they would have at a club gig) it's hard to say it wasn't worth having to wait in traffic for a couple of red lights. Recalling the crowd now, it seemed like people were more watching impassively than really feeling and moving to the music. The best rock band in Austin, whoever they are, would have had people dancing on the sidewalks and the medians. I'll always feel a little bittersweet about Spoon because as great as their songs are I don't think they're ever going to be capable of overcoming their big weakness. Maybe the same element that guarantees the quality of the songs prohibits the live sets from ever exploding. It doesn't really threaten their place in history. The Beatles quit playing live; XTC didn't tour at all for 20 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment