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Jake Old: What’s more important for live shows, the music or the spectacle?

Jake Old • Updated Mar 9, 2017 at 1:00 PM

When seeing an artist or band perform live, what is more important, the showmanship or the actual sound of the music? 

This is a debate I’ve had with many people, because I’m of the opinion that the music matter most, but I also enjoy the antics of a great performer, even when the music is sub-par. 

I’ve been to a good deal of bad musical performances. Good showmanship can redeem many of those performances, but not all of them.  

The bulk of uninspiring shows I’ve seen are those of amateur musicians, like myself, with some sort of technical difficulties or strange circumstances that put a strain on the music. And I’m actually fine with that, because I’ve pretty much had exclusively terrible live performances as a musician. 

The more important discussion involves big-name musicians. One of my favorite bands is Kings of Leon, and the one time I saw them live, at Bonnaroo, I was underwhelmed. The vocals were a little off, and the instrumentation was sloppy. Granted, even a poor performance from them was still pretty good. 

They did put on a good show, but I felt like I wanted more from the music, because that’s the reason I enjoy the band so much. 

I saw Ozzy Osbourne live in 2005, and although he was among the most entertaining people I’ve seen perform live – even then, at age 93, running around the stage and throwing buckets of water at the audience – the music left quite a bit to be desired. 

Still, I was mostly there for the spectacle, and he certainly did not disappoint in that vain. 

The one show where everything came together for me was when I saw Eric Clapton in 2010. He performed a calm, acoustic set, and halfway through it, Vince Gill came out to join him. 

The way I feel about Clapton’s guitar playing would qualify as a cult religion in some parts of the world. I hadn’t really given Gill much thought before that performance, but after, I realized he can tear up six strings with the best of them. 

Clapton performed just about all of my favorite songs of his – “Running on Faith,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Layla,” to name a few — and he even got me to feel some other songs I don’t typically enjoy as much. 

At the time of the performance, Clapton was in his 60s, with the wear and tear that comes with ascending to rock n’ roll superstardom in his mid-20s. If he didn’t have the same fire as decades earlier, he was at least good at hiding it. 

Sure, he wasn’t bouncing around on stage and trying to get the audience dancing the way Ozzy did (now that certainly sounds like a performance I’d pay top-dollar to see), but his guitar playing was on point and his vocals have truly never sounded better to me. 

Even without the sideshow antics, I think he displayed great showmanship, if in a subdued manner. His banter between songs and the way he got into the music while playing was entertaining to me. 

To a person who puts higher emphasis on the spectacle of the event, the Ozzy Osbourne performance would likely rank higher. 

Me, I put the highest import on great-sounding music live. It’s not an easy thing to do, and there’s nothing quite like witnessing it in person. 

Jake Old is a staff writer for The Democrat. Email him at jold@lebanondemocrat.com and follow him on Twitter @wilsonnewsroom.

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