Saturday, November 2, 2013

It's a pity there's nobody here to witness the end

To paraphrase a lyric from Brazilian electro-rockers CSS, music often feels very much like my imaginary friend. I listen to music constantly to the point where sustained silence has become unbearable and maddening. I’ve also been going to concerts since a very early age; the thrill of being in the presence of the talents behind my favorite songs was intoxicating. In the years that I’ve been working in my chosen corner of the entertainment industry, my concert attendance has unsurprisingly skyrocketed. Oftentimes I will be invited to go to shows by label representatives, PR pushers or the artists themselves. The experience of live music is something that has yet to grow old, despite the fact that the experience itself has changed quite drastically over the last few years.

This week, the Los Angeles-based Fitz and the Tantrums made their third visit of the year to Philadelphia, following a supporting slot on pop superstar Bruno Mars’ arena tour and a performance at the Jay Z-curated Made In America festival. My girlfriend and I have been longtime fans of the R&B-tinged group, having seen them several times at venues of ever-increasing size. As this was the band’s first headlining gig in town since the release of their latest album, we put aside our lukewarm feelings for their newfound slicked-up/major label-backed image and acquired tickets. The show sold out quickly, thanks to the inclusion of fellow L.A.-ers Capital Cities to this leg of the tour. After their opening set, I can safely say that what Capital Cities did that night could be the future of live music.

The show took place at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory. Not to be confused with the much-loved venue that stood at 22nd and Arch streets until 1973, the current Electric Factory is a converted warehouse just steps away from the never-ending hum of I-95. Despite its cavernous dimensions and resulting notoriously awful sound, the space nonetheless remains a destination for touring bands that can easily sucker 3000 people into doubling their ticket price in the name of ‘convenience fees.’ When I say this show was sold out, it was like society had collapsed and the 21+ wrist stamp was king. An oversized pair of sunglasses frames appeared in light-studded silhouette at the back of the stage, standing as a silent indicator of the excitement that was sure to follow.

Capital Cities are the kind of band that only major labels and commercial radio stations would classify as ‘indie rock.’ On their recordings, the band is the project of singer/keyboardist Ryan Merchant and drummer Sebu Simonian. In their live iteration, the duo is bolstered by a guitarist, bassist and, most notably, a trumpeter. Their brand of disco- and new wave-influenced pop exploits the fact that their fans are all too young to know that those styles of music are from different decades. A few pleasantly poppy numbers gave way to an unfortunate medley of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song),” as well as a piece reminiscent of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” that could only generously be referred to as a ‘song.’ Even though they’ve only been around since 2009, Capital Cities know the cardinal rule of live performance: save your biggest song for the very end of your set. Capital Cities biggest song is one of their first, a rave-ready slice of vapid pseudo-inspirationisms called “Safe And Sound.”

For the three minutes and change of the song, the band was lively and the audience was extremely responsive. But then something happened. Instead of finishing the song, wishing the crowd a good night and leaving the stage, the band transitioned their live performance of “Safe And Sound” into a pre-recorded remix of the very same song. All six members abandoned their instruments and stood at the front of the stage, dancing and leading the crowd in their makeshift party. Merchant could even be spotted taking the now-requisite ‘crowd shot’ on his phone, with the implied intention of posting it to Facebook or Instagram shortly thereafter. Music, vocals and all blared over the sound system, with the crowd dancing, clapping and celebrating. Those tickets, bought with hard-earned money, had granted admission to what became a glorified nightclub. But it was not Capital Cities’ gall to close their set in such a way that bothered me most. The worst part was that no one else seemed to care. Nobody felt fleeced that the band they came to see just popped on a track of their hit song and danced around onstage like everyone else. I get that, when Queen used to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” live, the elaborate middle portion would be played from a pre-recorded tape. But that was the ‘70s, and Capital Cities had just played the song.

I realize that, since I got complimentary tickets, I have little room to complain. Still I can’t help but think that bands are using audiences as societal Petri dishes to see just how much they can phone in their performances and get away with it. If you see Capital Cities (or any other band, for that matter) try to pull a stunt like this, call them out on their bullshit. The future of live music performance depends on it.

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