Live Shows: What Do Fans Deserve From A Gig?

Danny Wright assesses the value of a live show, and what fans have a right to expect.

Over the past couple of weeks The Boss, Neil Young and Pet Shop Boys have all put on long shows for their fans in the UK. For hours their fans have watched on in deliriously rapt attention as they played the big hits, cherry picking from back catalogues that defy belief. These are showmen, masters of their craft and they know what their fans want. Hits – and lots of them.

Yet at Rock The Garden this week fans were, to put it mildly, a little less enthusiastic about Low. The beautifully understated Minnesotan band decided to simply play a 30-minute version of their drone epic “Do You Know How To Waltz?” to the rainsoaked thousands. It’s safe to say it left some audience members a little angry. According to reports a large section of the crowd was indifferent. Some were genuinely furious.

The reactions were so brutal that Alan Sparhawk gave an interview defending the decision. “It was a big show, so we wanted to do something big and different. If I was there in the audience, that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see a band do.”

But were fans right to be angry? What is the transaction for a gig? You pay your money and what do you expect in return? Where do we draw the line over what we think we deserve from a gig? Whether it’s at a grotty bar, a massive stadium or at a festival, buying a ticket isn’t a guarantee of your favourite band playing X number of hits, and while we may not expect to contract oral herpes or get struck with a microphone (all in Rihanna’s oeuvre, apparently), are we right to feel that we’re owed a particular kind of show? A particular level of effort?

Disclosure caused controversy recently when they were found out for miming their set at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball at Wembley stadium. After fans complained they didn’t even plug in their mixers Guy Lawrence posted a lengthy comment under the photo on Facebook saying they were ordered to fake it by the event’s organisers.

He also emphasised that the band never attempted to make the performance appear live. ‘We left the f***ing plug on the floor on purpose, didn’t even plug phono leads into the master out, turned all the EQs fully down and the master out AND DIDNT EVEN TAKE HEADPHONES for god sake!!’. Which seems a pretty valid response (which has been defended by our very own Jamie Milton).

Miming isn’t something new but in a social media world it doesn’t take long for these things to become known. Justice also got caught out with their equipment not plugged in a couple of years ago and it seems to be known in the trade as doing a David Guetta.

Yet with ticket prices going up it feels like people are demanding more for their money. A shopping website has even investigated which of this summer’s biggest music festivals will offer fans the best value for money by comparing the price of a weekend ticket with the cost of seeing the nine biggest headline acts individually, which seems a very misguided way of finding the best festival experience (though it’s Glastonbury, if you want to know).

How would you ever go about working out value for money? Is there a minimum time that they should play for? Do they have to play their big hit(s)? We’ve all been there. You and your friends get to the gig early and queue for hours in the freezing cold so you can get a good spot near the front. You’re expecting them to play a handful of songs off the (admittedly patchy) new album along with plenty of classics. But instead they decide to play the entire new album from start to finish, including the b-sides. On top of that the sound in the venue is terrible and it’s £16 for a pint. You leave thoroughly dejected.

Then there are the bands with two albums that still insist on playing too long, dragging out sets to an hour and half that would have gone down much better if they’d just been an hour. I suppose it’s the knack of a band not confident enough in the music they have, so in terms of ticket-moneys-worth it’s a safe bet to fall back on.

‘Noodling’ is another pet hate of mine and a criticism you’ll hear people often use when they’re disappointed with a show. Playing out your jam session fantasies is never as much fun for the audience as it is for the band. Or it could end up going the other way – the first time I saw Crystal Castles their headline set lasted all of 19 minutes.

Some decide to not even play at all: Child Of Lov recently cancelled playing live shows, including a planned performance at Glastonbury, altogether (for the time being). “If there’s one thing I know,” the limp-haired Dutch troubadour said, “it is that I have to be able to express myself in what I do musically. I’ve come to realise that playing gigs cannot occupy a rewarding role if it is not exactly as I envisioned it, exactly as I want it, and exactly the way I know the audience deserves it.’ Is this being too precious? Surely the way to hone your live show is to, you know, play live.

After all, if we all accept this is art, then the only thing we can really expect is that they offer something unique – something that surprises you and takes you out of yourself, no matter how self-indulgent it seems. If we went to shows knowing exactly what was going to happen what would be the point in even turning up? It’s the excitement and the very fact that anything could happen that make live shows so thrilling.

Every fan who goes to even a few gigs will be as tired as me of pretending to care as you chant for a band to come back on for an encore when you already know they definitely will. We want the unexpected and the challenging. Say what you like about Kanye but his rant at Hammersmith Apollo earlier this year (along with the fact that he wore a diamond encrusted balaclava) was what made that show so memorable.

The Knife’s live show was equally as baffling to those who watched it as Low. It drew controversy all over Europe with the band hardly on the stage and accusations of miming. To me, it fluctuated between the astonishing and sixth form theatre. Yet what was fundamental to it was that it was their prerogative to push their art in whatever way they felt inclined. It alienated fans but it completely captured the feelings of the new album and offered surprising thrills.

The fact is that we can’t really demand anything – with the pointless encores and saving the best songs for last there’s a standard, tried and tested structure in place. But this is art and the shock of the new is what makes the really great gigs so special. Wouldn’t Glastonbury be amazing if Mick Jagger zip-lined down to the Pyramid Stage wearing a Mexican wrestling mask before playing a thirty minute version of ‘Monkey Man’? Yes. Yes it would.