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My Love/Hate Relationship with Concert Reviews

11 August 2006

I’m always impressed by writers who write about every concert they see, collecting each detail of the night in an article. I love reading about a show: what the band played, what their demeanor was like, what the crowd was like, what the venue was like. Yet I have a hard time writing concert reviews myself. The reason: it’s hard to write about a concert without it turning into a journal entry. That is, there are so many factors that affect my enjoyment of a concert, and many of them have little or nothing to do with music.

Last week, I went and saw THE CLIENTELE play at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. They’re one of my favorite bands, and they put on an excellent performance. Yet so many other things colored the night for me. I got there late, and they hadn’t even opened the doors yet. The show was supposed to be in the sanctuary of the church, and they moved it to the basement without comment. The place doesn’t have air conditioning, and was absolutely uncomfortable, even with the sparse crowd. But it was still cooler than outside, so there was no escape.

None of these details would be interesting to me, as a reader. Yet they’re inescapable. I didn’t have the best night, and those are the reasons why. Oh, what about The Clientele? They were great; they played some interesting brand-new songs, and a version of “Saturday” that sent chills running up and down my spine. The opening bands? Good too, especially GREAT LAKES. But it’s hard to get to these points, to ignore all the other factors and get to the heart of it. And is that even the heart of the night, when you spend most of it waiting and sweating?

When you write about a concert, do you have a duty to write about the whole experience? An example: you go see a band you love, and the opening band is horrible. Do you write about them, or just ignore them and write about the headliner? If I had chosen its CD to review, that’d be one thing; I’d have a sort of duty. But when the opener is not the reason you came? I’d say it’s better to just let it slip by. But maybe that’s playing a shell game with the facts… and whenever there’s an opening band I like, and I read a review that skips over them (particularly in newspaper reviews), I think, ‘What’s the deal? Did the writer show up late?’

Then again, maybe this is all about the line between journalism and criticism. I’ve done newspaper reporting in my time, and I mostly hated it. I enjoy interpretation and analysis. With writing about concerts, it’s easy to let it become reporting: a record of what happened.

At the same time, if I ignore that side of it, and just try to do some kind of frou-frou interpretation of the show, I’d feel like I was kidding myself and doing readers a disservice. They don’t want to know my interpretation of the songs, they want to know whether their favorite band played song X, and whether band Y was really as good as everyone says they are. Those are the things I want to know when I read a review. Maybe I’m trying to make this more complicated than it really needs to be. Maybe my problem is one of over-thinking what should be a simple art.