One of my little brothers once went to see a Pink Floyd cover band (not something that I could imagine myself doing…) and I asked him how it was.
“It sucked,” he said. “They were too good. It’s like someone put the CD in and pushed ‘Play.'” I completely understood where he was coming from. What he described didn’t sound like a concert at all, but some sort of “musical experience” or whatever.
The best concert experiences I’ve had don’t just involve music, but the performers getting on stage and dazzling the audience with that ineffable charisma that makes them so good at what they do. Not only do musicians have to be good at, well, music, but they have to be engaging and fun to watch in a sort of ineffable way. (Of course, musicians aren’t the only ones who have to do this. Actors, lecturers, comedians, etc. also have to be able to work a room.)
Last weekend I saw Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley play at the Crystal Ballroom. I’d seen both of them last year (albeit in an entirely different fashion) and I was happy that I decided to catch them again. Both Palmer and Webley have charisma in spades- not only are they great at playing music, but they exuded waves of charm, presence and charisma on stage. I was amazed at how much the room liked them. Really, really liked them. Granted, the deck was stacked in their favor- I think every hipster/goth/geek in Portland was in that room that night, but still.
A good part of winning over the audience came from the fact that the concert was not simply a concert per se, but also a theatrical performance. In the middle section of it, Palmer and Webley were dressed as the fictional conjoined twins Evelyn Evelyn, each of them wearing matching wigs and piled into the same huge dress/bag costume. As conjoined twins, they performed using Webley’s right hand and Palmer’s left on the piano, accordion, and ukulele. This added absolutely nothing to how they sounded, but it was a neat party trick and the crowd loved it.
They played up their persona as fictional twins as much as possible, singing about their backstory and predicaments, occasionally accompanied by shadow puppets. There was comedy, weirdness, and a freakshowy vibe to the whole thing that just worked, even though (well, maybe because) it was extremely silly.
By the time they took the stage as their actual personae later in the show, the crowd was completely prepared to shower them with love and adoration. When Jason Webley told everyone put their arms around each other, sway from side to side, and sing a drinking song, we all cheerfully obliged. When Palmer prattled on about the story behind her songs, I didn’t care. I liked her too much. I know I’m not going into details, but it’s late and I don’t really know how I can effectively explain how utterly charmed the audience was.
That feeling of being charmed and disarmed, of being compelled by a performer’s raw charisma is exactly what I want out of a show. And, again, I feel like a completely lousy writer for not being able to fully articulate it right now, but I think that’s part of it. It’s not about how well you play or what you say or anything like that. It’s about sheer power of personality. It’s about being utterly charmed by a man with an accordion who tells you to sing along, and then joyfully doing so. It’s about rooting for the artist, about being utterly engaged (and them engaging you) with everything that they’re doing.
I’m sure actors and whatever talk about this a lot. I hope that in my own oratorical pursuits I can be half as compelling as Palmer and Webley. The sheer moxie that I saw on display last Friday is the reason why I will always be willing to get out of my house, open up my wallet, and go to a show.