Many factors to consider in music reviews
I got an email a few weeks ago from a reader of my columns.
"I notice that you seem to like just about every show you review," he wrote. "You aren’t very critical for a music critic."
I didn’t agree, but I think it’s a reasonable point to explain just what I look for when I review shows. These are mostly music concerts. I haven’t reviewed a play in years, and my one foray into dance review (for another publication now out of business, thankfully) will be my last.
I admit, because I play (poorly) the guitar and (halfway decently) the harmonica, I tend to cut the musical parts of the shows some slack. It’s tough. Playing an instrument and singing is even tougher. A performer really has to screw up to earn my criticism in that category.
The material is a little more subjective. I give a lot of credit to artists like Bob Dylan, whose material has stood the test of time. I give a lot of credit to artists like Katy Perry, whose material has proven to be popular. I may not like it, but somebody does.
In the case of someone like, say, Marilyn Manson, well, I wasn’t wild about his music. But I can’t assume that my taste is universal. So if I don’t like someone, I don’t automatically assume the show I attend will be a bad one. I think I would otherwise shortchange people who have some interest in an artist.
New artists are sometimes a challenge. I think I give them more credit if they know their limitations. I saw a band called The English Beat in Boston years ago when they released their first album. They played a 12-song set. Then, for the encore, their lead singer admitted, "We don’t know any more songs, so we’ll play ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ again!" That was their big hit, and I thought, OK, that was fair.
Energy on stage is big with me. The most disappointing show I ever saw was Leon Russell about 15 years ago at the Mahaiwe Theater. I wasn’t reviewing it, a co-worker was. But Mr. Russell was either ill or had some equally debilitating problem of which I’m not qualified to expand upon. He walked on and delivered "Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms" in the same tempo -- slow -- as "Stranger in a Strange Land." It was unfortunate.
The most energetic show I ever saw was Henry Rollins at Woodstock in 1994. He was so manic, it was almost scary.
I don’t necessarily mean that an artist has to jump around stage and crowd surf (as I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen do for years and years). No, the guys in the Dave Matthews Band stay in pretty much the same place throughout their shows. Well, Matthews does that odd little two-step dance, which is kind of cool.
But the energy comes from their actual music. They blow it out, and you can feel it.
I’m also a fan of connecting with the audience. The absolute worst at it was Miles Davis, who often played with his back to the audience. (Obviously, the material made up for that, in most cases.) And to be fair, he explained that he needed to perform that way to concentrate. I understand it, and Davis was clearly good enough to get away with it.
But there have been some bands who perform as if they’re in front of an empty stage. When The Cars first went out on the road, they were guilty of that. Guitar guru John McLaughlin was a little guilty of that, also. (This was a while ago, so John may be a little better at it.)
I like long sets. Put it this way: The rule of thumb is, if an artist is charging $100 for a show, I need a 100-minute set, or close to it. A buck a minute isn’t too much to ask.
So. Have I ever panned a show? Yes. I didn’t like Elvin Bishop when he played the Mahaiwe about 20 years ago. He ignored the audience, and played for about 35 minutes. LeeAnn Rimes’ material was fine, but a 40-minute set is too short, also. Other than that? I guess I’ve been pretty lucky most of the time.
Derek Gentile is an Eagle staffer. Share your favorite (or least favorite) concerts with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet him at @DerekGentile.