I once heard an interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber in which he talked about how the secret to the long-time success of Phantom of the Opera was how people would attend multiple performances, not to see the same thing happen perfectly every time, but to see the screw-ups. The nights that someone completely missed a line, or one of the many effects misfired were the most memorable. Mistakes make variety, and variety is, to borrow an old and overused cliche, the spice of life.
Yesterday the Boy treated me to a most excellent benefit concert in Dell Diamond (home of the Round Rock Express, the Triple-A feeder team for the Texas Rangers, which you may have heard of recently). The lineup included the Gin Blossoms, Five for Fighting, Collective Soul, and Tonic, which is enough to excite any good alt-rock fan who came of age in the 90s. The first two were excellent, got the crowd properly wound up, and generally put on a high-quality show. Tonic closed the show with a melt-your-face-off rock show like I could not have imagined. But before that was the Collective Soul set.
When it was time for Collective Soul, the crowd shuffled forward toward the stage in the outfield, the techies shuffled equipment, and we waited.
After about half an hour, only two musicians appeared. Lead singer Ed Roland and lead guitarist Joel Kosche tumbled onto the stage, slightly disheveled and sporting guitars borrowed from one of the opening bands. As best I could figure, there had been a scheduling snafu and they just barely made it, fresh off a plane.
For about two seconds there seemed to be some confusion in the crowd. “We love you Joel! We love you too, Ed! …where’s the rest of the band?”
Then they started playing, and we all remembered that even at half-force, these guys are amazing musicians.
The real coup came as Ed proved that he is also a hell of an entertainer.
Early in the set, he turned to the audience and asked, very earnestly, “Now this is serious guys. Does anyone here play the guitar?”
Random dude wearing a Ghostbusters shirt in the front row was the first to raise his hand, and was promptly dragged on stage and handed Ed’s guitar. He introduced himself – Brandon. Joel made sure he knew how to play December while Ed literally let his hair down. They played the most epic acoustic rendition of the song the world has ever witnessed. Brandon was having a complete runaway with himself. Ed was having a complete runaway with himself. Joel was… well Joel doesn’t get all that excited usually, but he played the hell out of every note and rolled with every wacky turn Ed threw at him from that point to the end of the set.
The audience went nuts. We cheered wildly for Brandon when he finished playing. We threw out requests when Ed couldn’t remember how to play one of the planned songs. We sang along to every song – even the impromptu (acoustic) Metallica cover.
Ed messed with Joel. Ed messed with the audience. Ed messed up his hair. A lot.
But when the set was finished – this set that should have been a total disaster with just two dudes and two guitars – we all knew we had witnessed something great, and we loved it. We were entertained.
This is the duty and the art of the performer. Engage the audience, no matter what. It’s not about playing every note perfectly. It’s about playing every note to the audience with complete abandon. It’s acceptable to miss a line if you do it gracefully. It’s more than alright to play only half a concert if the audience has a really fucking good time.