For me there is no better way to experience music than in a live setting. I have seen some incredible live shows since I started going to concerts almost 20 years ago. Being a very visual person who is also completely addicted to music, I started going to see bands as soon as I had the means to do so. My first real concert was Pink Floyd at the age of 16. Anyone familiar with Pink Floyd knows their visual identity is completely inseparable from their music, mostly due to their live performances. This experience left an impression on me that will last until my dying day.
A lot of time has passed between now and that first impressionable concert experience; I graduate High School and College, got married, had a child, and finally found a career I love. So much has changed in my life, but one thing has remained constant; my love of music and art. I can’t just pick up and take off to see a band any old time I feel like it the way I used to, so I am much more strategic about my choice of concerts. Not only does it have to be a band or artist whose music makes a huge impression, but the venue also plays a big part in what concerts I choose to attend. I have learned that the right combination of music and setting can make for an unforgettable experience.
This year I was lucky enough attend two extraordinary concerts that exemplify the ultimate combination of music & setting. The first was Florence + The Machine at Fox Theater in Detroit. I am normally more familiar with a bands music before I decide to see them live. But when I saw this band would be playing at The Fox, I knew it was I show I needed to see. I was crazy about the songs I had heard by the band and the videos I had seen were visually stunning, but for one reason or another I never found myself drawn to their albums. Lead singer Florence Welch looks and sounds like a concoction of my favorite rock sirens; ranging from Kate Bush & Siouxie Sioux, to early-Sarah McLachlan & Sinéad O’Connor, so I knew it would be a great show.
For those unfamiliar with The Fox Theater, it was built in the late 1920’s. It’s the most ornate, gold-plated, over-the-top concert venue you are likely to come across. The theater is the largest surviving movie palace of the 1920’s and was completely restored in 1988. If you’re even vaguely familiar with the city of Detroit you know this place is truly a diamond in the rough. There could not be a more perfect setting for Florence + The Machine with their darkly romantic sound and a stage set that looked like it came straight off of a poster for the 1927 German film Metropolis (slightly visible in the photo I took above).
The show exceeded any expectations. The combination of setting and music provided a full sensory experience like nothing I could have imagined. Florence commented on the obvious beauty of the theater and you couldn’t help but believe it inspired a great performance. At one point she jumped off stage and ran up the center isle and was not more than 10 feet away belting out her song to drive home this near religious experience.
The next show I saw that fully embodied the music & setting experience was The Shins at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. About a year prior my wife and I took a mini-vacation to Nashville on our five year anniversary. We are both fans of early country music (she turned me on to it) so we decided to take a tour of the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman is a living piece of American music history. It is the former home of The Grand Ole Opry. It originally opened it’s doors in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. From 1943 to 1974 it was used for the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. After the Opry relocated to a larger venue the building sat nearly vacant until it was restored in 1994. After touring the “Mother Church of Country Music” we both decided we had to see a show there. We checked who was playing during our stay but none of the acts were worthy of the great building.
Over the next year the venue stuck in my head and I would occasionally check their lineup to see who would be playing. Lots of great acts play there but in order to make that long trip back to Tennessee it had to be the perfect artist to see in that amazing historic setting.
One day I was working on my laptop and checking out some new music and I finally got a chance to hear the latest album by The Shins, Port of Morrow. I was a fan of their first three albums and actually saw them in a small club in 2001 when they were touring for their first album, Oh Inverted World. That show was unfortunately memorable for the wrong reasons. It was a hot summer night in an upstairs venue, The Magic Stick in Detroit, and it was so unbelievably hot in club that it was hard to even concentrate on what the band was playing. That was a huge disappointment because I was so addicted to that first album and had such great expectations. In this case the setting actually ruined the experience.
I had followed the band since that first album. They had put out three solid album of diverse indie pop, building on their sound with each album. But I wasn’t quite ready for what I heard when I first listened to Port of Morrow. I was expecting another solid album but was amazed by what I heard. James Mercer, the primary force behind the band had come up with his strongest collection of songs to date. There had been major lineup changes that had deepened the sound of the band. Most notable of these changes was the addition of guitarist Jessica Dobson. I was so blown away by the album I immediately jumped screens on the laptop to see when and where they would be touring.
Fast forward… a few months later and I’m seated in the balcony of The Ryman taking in my surroundings and waiting for the gift of sound and vision. And from a church pew that was built by hand in the 1890’s, this non-religious music lover had a truly religious experience (see photo above).