Not music to my ears

by Bill Ralston / 03 March, 2013
Why did concerts have to become quiet sit-down affairs?
Jenny Shipley cartoon by Steve Bolton
“What I’d really like to know is where the other two-thirds of Jenny Shipley actually went?” / Cartoon by Steve Bolton.

There was a time when every concert you went to was a landmark in your life, talked about for years, sometimes decades, after. The Stones at Western Springs, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Joe Cocker (who would have laid money on dear old Joe surviving the 60s, let alone into a new century) and a long line of legends, heard through much sharper ears and seen across a blue blur of dope smoke, back in the day.

The music or your ears, I never quite figured out which, were on the tearing edge of distortion, the air was rank with the smell of patchouli oil and the sweet aroma of burning
grass, as the crowd swayed and writhed, the long hair of boys and girls whipping from side to side with the rhythm of the drums and the screaming guitars.

Forty or fifty years later, I find the concert is a very different experience. Bizarrely, many of the same artists you saw in your youth are still touring, but now you sit primly in a seat, and dancing in the aisles is rare and usually banned by burly high-vis-jacketed security men.

Recently I made a pilgrimage to Hawke’s Bay’s Mission Concert where Carole King and the Bee Gee (now, sadly, singular) were playing. In the natural amphitheatre of the vineyard, there must have been 10,000 or 15,000 greying heads gently nodding and softly bopping to the sound. Actually, that’s not fair, some were bald, others were silver and I counted a fair few 40-year-olds who had either not yet lost their hair colouring or who had reached for the henna bottle.

Ever since King’s Tapestry album, I’ve been quietly in love with her, but as she herself would tell me, “It’s too late.” She is now in her early seventies and her mop of dark curls has become platinum blonde with age, yet her voice has lost none of its power and clarity. However, as I sat listening, I tried to figure out what was not quite right. Finally, I realised the sound level was lower even than I would use on the stereo at home.

Had I suddenly gone much deafer? I bellowed at my wife that maybe the volume was too low and she said, “Don’t yell. You’re right.”

Perhaps it was council noise restrictions or maybe the promoters were loath to whip the senior citizenry into a frenzy, but back in the day, every chord King banged out on the piano would have vibrated through my spine. This time, they merely tinkled out of a speaker and were carried on the wind to my ears.

Barry Gibb struck similar low audio levels, but that was perhaps a mercy as he forsook most of the great hits and played a number of soft melodies that were either new or that had been understandably overlooked on earlier albums.

This provoked a long debate among our friends on the hillside. Should a concert like this simply be a replay of all the greatest hits or should an artist insert newer, less well-known material? The argument fell into two propositions, those who argued people only came to hear the “oldies but goodies” and those who took a loftier stance, arguing if you want to hear the hits, buy a CD, and that an artist should be allowed to try new directions.

I was mulling this over when I realised we’d been talking for 20 minutes and the star was returning to the stage to grind out, finally, his encore, Stayin’ Alive.

Like football fans who have decided they’ve lost before the game is even over, we packed up our picnic hampers and headed for the gate before the rush of the crowd.

We arrived home to find we were sober, our ears weren’t ringing and, deflated, we knew that when it came to concerts we had nothing to talk about any more. They are no longer landmarks.
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