Sunday, January 29, 2006

Fist-Pumping Rock Meets Advanced Logistics
Annie and I saw Broken Social Scene this past Thursday night at Webster Hall. It was a fantastic show; perhaps the best compliment I can offer is that they played a handful of songs from their latest record that we didn't like based on the studio versions, but loved in the performance. The whole presentation was much more theatrical than your average club-rock gig, with complicated lighting programs for every song and what sometimes looked like dramatic interpretation on the part of the performers.

Of course, it's easier to add such flourishes when you've got literally 15 performers. While the specific number--and the alignment of who was playing what--shifted from song to song, BSS generally used two seated drummers, three or four guitarists, two bass players, and a keyboard. About half the songs also featured a 3-5 person horn section, and then other folks shaking maracas or other percussion instruments.

And this--even more than the great songs and strong performance--is what I find most impressive about Broken Social Scene. I played seriously, or semi-seriously, in three bands between when I was 15 and 21. The first one began as a cover band playing Jewish youth group events and had five or six guys. The latter two were both power trios, featured about 90 percent original songs, and performed out and about in Philadelphia and Providence. My main songwriting partner in both of them was a very good friend whom I saw just about every day. And it was still damn hard to align schedules for sufficient practice and really refine the sound.

Live performances brought a new set of difficulties. You worried about the mix and going out of tune. God forbid someone broke a string; the other two would try and transform into Martin and Lewis, and in any event it would be five minutes before the rock resumed. Now imagine all these problems with more than a dozen players. While there were some complaints late in the show about not hearing themselves in the monitor, and the mix sounded muddy to me on a few (not all) of the songs, by and large the show kept a brisk pace and you could hear it all.

Finally--and I have to admit this was never a major issue for any band I played in as a kid--there's the simple question of how you make any money with 14 or 15 players. The tickets were $25 each; of course I paid another $12 or so above that for the dubious privilege of buying them online, but that's what hapens when Monty Burns owns the means of distribution. Webster Hall's cut was doubtless significant too, and the band seemed less than thrilled with the venue--possibly because of the high cost (the audible techno dance floor below the stage didn't thrill them either; at one point the cranky vocalist stopped in mid-song to bitch about it). Then think about the cost of accommodations, a sound guy--and he has to be good, with all those inputs, and the feeding and boozing of all those performers. I can't imagine how they even meet expenses, much less clear any money.

And yet the songs are tight, the enthusiasm is evident, and these people have been doing this, albeit off and on, for at least five years. They're clearly either freaks or fanatics.

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