02 October 2006

john and sharon: live and in person

01. in d.c. this weekend, i got the chance to see and hear two of my favorite performers: the mountain goats and sharon jones and the dap-kings. in both cases, a total treat. the latter was particularly lovely; not only was the concert free and outside (on the terrace in the back of the kennedy center), i hadn't known it was happening until the night before.

and sharon sounded better than ever. her singing was at its most dynamic and technically impressive; it seemed like her vocal chops have improved in the months since i've seen her. and the band - tight as ever, of course - appeared more comfortable on stage; binky griptite's emceeing was more commanding, the horn section choreography less put-on, and the interplay between sharon and individual band-members - in a spotlighting series of solos that i think was a new addition to the show as i'd seen it - more substantial and touching. despite her weirdly formal pale green pants-suit, sharon's characteristic playfulness and uninhibited pre-song banter (the first thing she told us was that she loses her mind when she gets on stage) won over the demographically mixed and potentially awkward haute-d.c. crowd of mostly daptone neophytes right away. (the incongruous and futile six-count swing dance lesson before the show hadn't made matters easier.) still no sign of "N.B.L." or "all over again" in the live show, but that's a drag i've come to expect by now, and there were several promising new songs that were almost as exciting. oh yeah, and her dance breakdowns on "there was a time" (ooh, checkit) and the bit about her ancestors are as awesome as ever.

as for the mountain goats, they're riding the wave of their growing popularity (a sold out show at the black cat, definitely the largest venue i've seen them at save the pitch4kfest) with typically casual aplomb. which is to say the show wasn't appreciably different from the intimate set i saw at haverford last year (not different, in "mode", let's say, except that that show was many times more special and awesome, partly because of its intimacy.) the setlist drew about equally from sunset tree and get lonely, reminding me how much i like the former ("lion's tooth"! "love love love"! ...as if i needed reminding) and gently enhancing my positive take on the latter, either in spite or because of its lyrical cohesiveness-bordering-on-monotony. (i liked how he introduced "moon over goldsboro" as a song about a guy who walks to the gas station and wishes he could keep walking, but ends up having to walk home.) a couple of older selections too, though nothing older or more potent than "baboon" from the coroner's gambit (a treat) - and an excellent new song (key chorus line: "hold onto your dreams 'til someone beats them out of you.") the set was cut short (i'm pretty sure) by the glitchy twofer of a sound snafu (no guitar in the house) and a broken string. but they pulled through (rather than dealing with these issues) with a bass-and-vocals only closer and encore, including "best houseguest" or whatever that franklin bruno song is called, and an audience sing-and-flip-off-along to "no children."

2. this was my seventh time seeing the mountain goats and my third time seeing sharon. i'd wager you can't see musicians that many times (or else you don't - and certainly not thrice in one year!) without developing the sense of a "personal" relationship with them that affects how you experience their concerts and (perhaps to a lesser extent) records. it's hard to characterize, but it definitely adds a dimension to the "typical" artist-listener relationship, and i imagine it has a lot more to do with why people like going to live concerts than the straightforward pleasure of watching music be created.

i started off by calling sharon jones and the mountain goats two of my favorite performers, but i have to say it feels incongruous to leave that as an unqualified description, and particularly that something rubs me a little funny about using that word to describe john darnielle. and that's the thing i'd like to tussle out a minute here.

3. darnielle (who still, effectively, is the mountain goats) presents himself as an ordinary guy. i hesitate even to say "presents," but you've gotta know that anything that happens on stage, particularly if it happens night after night for years (and seven times in my presence) is some sort of presentation, just as much as 19th century realist fiction involves construction and artifice, as i've spent three hours every recent wednesday being made to realize despite spending [1000 pages in three weeks times ~20 pages per hour averages to] roughly seventeen hours a week (!) allowing tolstoy to try to delude me otherwise. so darnielle's performance mode is "unaffected" - he gets up there, plays songs on his guitar, talks to the audience (or to himself, or to peter) in a witty but off-the-cuff manner that one gathers is not dissimilar to the way he speaks in everyday life (except insofar as he probably doesn't spend much time in everyday life introducing songs), responds to things people in the crowd say, and sometimes acknowledges the artificiality of the concert setting and an awareness of the broader context (for instance, before playing the new song he suggested he'd prefer for people in the audience not to post the song on the internet right away.) that's about it.

"the dap-tone super-soul revue" on the other hand - which apparently is the title of every sharon jones concert even if the "revue" part merely consists of the band playing a number or two (with binky singing) before "the brightest star in the dap-tone universe" takes the stage - is obviously a very different, and much more complex, kind of presentation. one could of course talk about the mountain goats show in terms of costuming, set composition, pre-planned routines to accompany songs (parts where peter sings back-up on a line, for instance), and the deliberate creation of a persona - and it would be a mistake to assume that john and peter don't put thought into these things, even though they don't call attention to them in the way the dap-kings certainly do. but it's perhaps more interesting to consider the more overt ways in which their performance styles are similar (and different) and how these affect their relationship with the audience.

4. for one thing, both concerts have a similar type of predictable conventionality: without having seen either performer before, i could have told you which parts of each show were "standard" (that is, which ones happen at every SJ or MGs concert) and which were unique to that evening. in the goats' case, it's easy to predict (correctly) that the setlist varies from night to night, with some songs turning up at a majority of shows and others only making rare appearances - a traditional approach for singer-songwriters attempting to balance the desires of a "cult" following and newer fans hoping to hear the "hits" - and that the "banter" is effectively different at every show, but that the basic format is fixed and unchanging. at the dap-tone revue, it's possible to distinguish sharon's off-the-cuff banter from the more "scripted" (or at least standardized) patter which probably makes up at least 60% of her talking on stage. and the complexity of concert-going conventions require that we on some level "suspend disbelief" and pretend that her extended monologues-cum-dance-demonstration routines are completely impromptu, something special she's deciding to share with us on this lucky night, even though it's obvious they aren't.

of course, in both cases, this conventionality is only "predictable" with a large amount of cultural conditioning about how to interpret these performances in context - and i can't really speak to how someone with a different set of cultural expectations would understand these concerts. there are definitely concerts and performers that willfully attempt to defy conventional expectations or else at least engage with in novel ways (although eventually every "experimental" performance styles develops its own conventions) but these two are notably standardized modes - folk/singer-songwriter performance and funk/soul revue - that are drawing on well-established traditions.

5. in sharon's case, the relationship with historical tradition is an especially pertinent consideration. everything about daptone records - the music, the stage shows, the visual aesthetic, the preoccupation with LPs and 45s, etc. etc. - is based on (or should i say "taken from"? their website says "channels the spirit of") the culture of soul music in the mid- to late 1960s. this is overt - or, well, obvious - but not quite explicit in the sense that, for example, there is nothing in the "daptone revue" show that says this kind of music and presentation is not standard practice in 2006. it's presented neither as nostalgia (though it could certainly serve as such for the appropriate audience members) nor as "retro" revivalism, but, straight-facedly, as living and contemporary music, albeit music with strong roots in tradition. i would say this choice of presentation is exceptionally canny, since it neither limits nor presupposes their audience (thereby allowing their appeal to range broadly, without the assurance of a given target market), although describing it as a "choice" raises issues as thorny as those it addresses. it's worth noting that daptone is an artist-owned and -run independent label, a manifestly self-propelling and, one imagines, somewhat communal organization whose labor-of-love ethos does wonders for the sense of authenticity purveyed by the music. and authenticity, predictably, is one of the largest issues at stake in all of this.

one significant factor i have yet to mention is the unique position of sharon herself: born in 1956 (i was at her 50th!) in augusta, georgia, she wasn't quite old enough to have been a performer in the "original soul era" (or whatever), but she was sure old enough to have been around for it, which affords her a free pass beyond the quagmire of authenticity issues that plague james hunter, for instance - a young and british musician working in a similarly "spirit-channelling" vein. it's even to her credit that she wasn't a known figure in the old days (she did some back-up singing in the '70s, but didn't record under her own name until the late '90s), since she can't be a "comeback" (read: nostalgia) artist like candi staton; also, even at fifty she's got plenty enough youthful spark to convey the adolescent excitement of classic soul along with its "mature" aspect.

[there's a lot to say here...and i'm getting off the immediate topic of this post...but i've just realized that i'd really like to and ought to think and write more about daptone, and then propose to deliver a paper about it at next year's EMP! fits in perfectly with the theme of history, time and place.]

[EDIT: another thing to think about: sharon and agency/authenticity w/r/t ashlee/paris/et. al., considering her songs are all written/arranged/produced by bosco mann. who's also the bandleader, even though he never says anything on stage, just hides behind his big shades. looking vaguely sinister: like a spector/svengali. she acknowledged him at this show - saying that whenever anything's going on in her life she tells bosco and he writes a song about it - which i hadn't her do before.]

i have no problem whatsoever accepting sharon jones and the dap-kings as fully legitimate, authentic (proviso caveat) and (even!) relevant musicians. actually, it's almost weird to feel it necessary to state that, but i can easily imagine someone taking a different view (seeing them as "nostalgic," "novelty," "niche," or whatever.) and - to get back on track - i'd attribute a good chunk of this willingness to my having seen her now three times, to the relationship we've developed (i mean, even apart from bringing her flowers and being pulled on stage to dance with her) and my investment in and awareness of her as a person. put another way, when you've actually seen a band and recognize them as "just people"/artists trying to make it - even though their onstage presentation belies that image (because they act like they're the biggest stars in the world playing at the apollo) - it fosters an artist-to-audience/community relationship that's decidedly different from the cultural-phenomenon-to-consumer-of-culture relationship. whew. (i'm not sure i want to privelege and valorize the live concert experience the way i seem to be doing here: it's not necessarily so that a concert will change one's relationship with the performer in the manner i'm describing; furthermore there are other ways of that change occuring, including just by listening to the records.)

6. i said a while ago that john darnielle presents himself as an ordinary guy. that's not quite right: he presents himself as "himself." or just as himself (maybe). in any case, he's quite clearly not an ordinary guy. except for being white, male, having a guitar around his neck and writing songs about relationships between men and women. (all of which is more than enough to relegate him to rockist purgatory in case somebody wants to make this into a post about rockism, which i don't really feel like touching.) alyssa once said that being a mountain goats fan is about liking (or at least being interested in?) john darnielle himself, which i think is very true in a way it's maybe hard to see with respect to even other similar artists (i'd have to think about this more thoug - i do see some parallels with dylan, especially q.v. the dylanology essay in best music writing 2002.) given that, the live show is an especially significant locus of the fandom experience, the opportunity to encounter the goathead (?)

more specifically, the live show simultaneously furthers and, in moments, seems to diffuse the mystification that i see as central to the mountain goats' appeal - that is, the tension between fiction and lived reality in darnielle's songwriting. to what extent are john's songs autobiographical versus purely fictional? are they based on emotions and situations that he's experienced, but with details reinvented or obscured? these questions are hard to ask about most of his lyrics, as elliptical as they tend to be, and to be honest they aren't especially relevant to enjoying his work - the flawed logic of "guy with guitar => confessional songriter" trope has been plenty dismantled elsewhere. still, i can't help but wonder, in the wake of two widely-hailed "autobiographical" (but still markedly abstruse) albums and a third that sure feels starkly confessional but flies in the face of the fact of his happy marriage - unless it's a tortured and album-long revisitation of a past breakup(s) in which case i wonder what lalitree's thinking - where, exactly, is john in all of this.

plus, if goats-fanboy = darnielle-spotter, there are tantalizing glimpses of the carefully-selectively-hidden man himself that come in his confessional song introductions (i reckon maybe two or three per show are revealing in some way - his banter at the haverford show last year significantly changed my understanding of the sunset tree, and even if there's something distasteful in the smack of "detective work" i'm sort of surprised there isn't more of an online community devoted to exchanging such "clues") and even in the emotionally charged delivery of certain lines. there may not be much "content" conveyed in his passionate delivery, but the unmistakable intensity (his forceful whisper, his removed glasses, his clenched face and taut, raised palm, his open mouth and its 'silent shout') confirms the emotional resonance of songs whose lyrics only hint at the possibility of great emotion. i love the way he seems to inhabit each of his songs as he performs it; the sense that he is re-living (even the fictional?) scenarios whose essence they capture. that way that, although their substance may remain ineffable, their impact is unmistakably there in that moment, and if you're there, you can share the moment with him too.

key example of this at the black cat show: he introduced "baboon" with the repeated mantra, "hope it never happens to you" - solemnly proferring the wisdom that, though we can't know another's hopes, he hopes we share with him the hope, that "it" never happens to us or to anyone else, hope it doesn't. the song is wonderfully intense, as performed there and on album, and although the lyrics are hopelessly elusive about what's actually happening, darnielle's spoken prologue attests to the gravity of its horror, and affirms the underlying sense that even his most impenetrable songs are about something deeply real to him.

7. john darnielle's mystery is that he's an ordinary-looking, overly articulate, jovial and wisecracking but - it sometimes seems - also painfully introverted, bespectacled, place-name-obsessed boxing fan and classics geek who has the ability to craft marvelously concise and - if you surrender to them - hauntingly poetic songs about the emotional experience of contemporary life and relationships. sharon jones' mystery is that she makes soul music not only vital and relevant, but personally meaningful as a contemporary individual. these mysteries - not all that mysterious, perhaps, but entrancing nevertheless - are at their most pronounced in these artists' respective live performances, where they are, in turn, perpetuated, complicated, investigated, rendered insignificant, debunked, reenacted, and never, we hope, quite resolved... but that's why you gotta go back and see them again.

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