A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Dinosaur Jr. at Delmar Hall in St. Louis. I was well aware of the band’s reputation for stage volume, so I made sure to prepare myself properly. In fact, this might have been the best investment I’ve ever made prior to a concert:
They cost me 40 bucks, but they were worth every penny. I left the show with my hearing perfectly intact. Normally after a show like that, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy music properly for a day or two. But that didn’t happen this time. I even went to bed with jazz playing in my headphones as I dozed off that evening. A rare treat after such a loud performance.
As happy as I was to see Dinosaur Jr., I found I was left wanting. I have several of the band’s CDs (Farm being my favorite), and I noticed a huge difference between the CD and the stage. There could be no doubting Dinosaur Jr’s power in the studio. But the sound of the power trio was balanced with the dynamics that made hearing and understanding J Mascis’s vocals possible. That balance was lost in concert. The band played for 90 minutes, and I think I understood six words J sang that night. It wasn’t just the earplugs. The sound was out of balance. What I heard coming from the mic that evening could not be comprehended.
I suppose it’s plenty impressive to crate a wall of sound from two 100-watt Marshall amplifier heads, one 100-watt Hiwatt head, and six 4×12 speaker cabinets. But they (along with the bass and drum rigs) overpowered the PA system, which was where the vocals were coming from. Frankly, I have no idea how J and the band are able to stand in front of that rig and play coherently.
I also wonder how much the audience was into the stage volume. Given the size of the audience, their reaction seemed a bit … tepid. I saw more than a few people leave within half an hour of the start of the set (why they came into the room without hearing protection continues to baffle me). I also noticed the average age of the fans in attendance was older than I thought it might be. Many of them were at least my age (50) and perhaps older. This makes sense, given that Dinosaur Jr. has been around for more than 25 years. I’m sure those fans were looking forward to capturing a bit of their youth. But not at the expense of their hearing.
There was a time when the massive speaker cabinets stacks used to thrill me to no end. But that was before the veil was taken away from my eyes, and I realized many of those speaker cabinets were either plywood fakes, or weren’t turned on at all. I remember seeing a picture of one metal god’s guitar rig, its backline lined up with Marshall stacks. Only later did I notice a single microphone had been placed next to the cone of ONE speaker cabinet. Everything else was window dressing. At least J was using all of his amps and cabinets. That being said, did he really need to?
I have the same feeling when I hear guitar players riff at lightning speed. It’s impressive to watch, but at some point I find myself asking the same question: what’s the point? I actually find myself yelling at the speakers, “Okay, you can play! Why don’t you DO something with it?” It’s at times like this I really appreciate guitarists like David Gilmour, who says more with eight notes than many guitarists say with 80.
My point is this: bigger, louder, and faster is not necessarily better.
When I mention my feelings to my musician friends, I’m almost always greeted by a knowing smile. One of my friends went as far as to laugh and say, “Don’t worry about it, Ced. You know what this means? It means you’ve matured! You understand the music means more than the volume or the speed. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
So I’ve got that going for me.
By contrast, I caught Victor Wooten at the Old Rock House a couple of nights ago. I was literally leaning on the stage for his performance, whereas I retreated to the rear of the room for Dinosaur Jr. When I saw Victor’s rig, I knew I was in for some volume. I was also less than ten feet from Dennis Chamber’s drum kit. Was the show loud? Yeah, it was. But it wasn’t TOO loud. It was powerful, but balanced. I could make out every note from Victor and Dennis, and I could hear the saxophone and flute of Bob Francheshini.
I went home with no ringing in my ears, and the willingness to listen to more music that evening. Perfect!
I’m not trying to rag on Dinosaur Jr. They’re a great band, and I’m glad I got to see them live. I just know they’re capable of a more balanced sound, and I would love to hear them play that way. It would be nice to hear a song like this with balance and clarity:
I imagine I will have a similar problem when I see Fishbone on Sunday. I’ll be “plugged up” for certain. I just hope I can hear Angelo Moore’s vocals clearly. Given the size of the room (small), I’m optimistic about my chances. But I could be wrong.
It would be nice to know my favorite bands (and the younger ones following in their footsteps) have been bitten by the maturity bug, and realize they don’t have to play louder in order to be better. I also hope they choose their notes carefully and considerately. There’s a fine line between quality musicianship and just showing off. I’d prefer to stay on the quality side of that particular line.
I blogged about The Band recently and one of the points that Robbie Robertson made in his book is how important it was for the band to be able to hear each other. It was one they sat in a circle at Big Pink that the freshness of hearing each other’s instruments came to the fore.
To your point, I wonder if during sound check, any members of the band walk out into the audience while playing and hear what it sounds like from that perspective.
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