We assume risk when we choose to see an artist live in concert more than once. Live performances can be cathartic, life-affirming, hopeful and motivational, but sometimes they’re not even worth the increasingly high “service” fees. The house’s odds increase exponentially towards this unfortunate outcome each time we see an artist again, for multiple reasons.
Artists are human, despite our equally disgusting tendencies to forgive and condemn them. In the same way that a plumber or restaurant server is susceptible to the shifting tides of emotion, so too are artists, perhaps more so. Some days, you’re just over it. While you may have caught them on a “bright” day a few months back, there’s a wealth of stress from touring that can instigate a sour performance. Bad days will happen and we cannot fault an artist for that.
My main concern, though, is another common phenomenon at repeat performances: stagnancy.
Nothing makes me cool on an artist like watching the same performance twice. It betrays the aura of creativity that drew me to their work originally. We’re attracted to artists when they take the mundane occurrences of existence and color it with hints of meaning, impressions of insight, and odes to pain. To see artists show the same amount of care in repackaging their performances as breakfast cereal advertisers is extremely antithetical to our attraction impulse. Falling into the habit of repetition for repetition’s sake is a dangerous cycle in any aspect of the creative journey, though.
Let me qualify what I’m saying to lessen the diatribic tone. It's not that I was sorely disappointed in a specific performer for this reason (recently, at least). Quite the opposite in fact. This piece was inspired by positive, unique, live performances that highlight the importance of keeping your show fresh.
The festival climate is changing, with each year bringing a slew of novel destinations for music junkies to make their pilgrimages. This makes the lasting ones—Coachella, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury—gleam with the sheen of history and mystique to the uninitiated. This past weekend, I traveled to Bonnaroo, the South’s holy ground of aged festivals. While consuming hours of live music in the course of a few days turns the sharp edges of memory to goo, I was pleasantly surprised that all of my repeat viewings were unique.
While I experienced this feeling for a wide range of acts, hip-hop is my first love and those sets are the only relevant data for my purpose here. For brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on Noname and Travis Scott, two artists existing on opposite ends of the spectrum characterizing the art form in 2017. I’ve written about the power of Noname’s live performances and I honestly thought I’d exhausted that wellspring. Well, that is, until her Sunday afternoon set in the summer heat of a Tennessee field humbled my assumptions.
Though she’s been quiet on the new release front since I first saw her, Noname offered up a brand new experience independent of the location or the material performed. The backing band had a jammy, summer vibe to their instrumental play that mirrored their past contemplative performance in spirit but not manifestation. Noname took the heat like a true performer too, and somehow exceeded the energy level she maintained in an air-conditioned venue. She peppered her setlist of Telefone tracks and feature verses with a pastoral rendition of “fuck bitches, get money” that replaced the misogynistic undertones with a sonic equity. She brought variety to her familiar tracks too, adding new, politically-charged verses to “Diddy Bop” and letting her funky musician companions dictate the cadence with which she delivered “All I Need.” Considering her reclusive nature offstage, Noname is a completely different person when the lights come on. While her setlist was pretty much the same as the show I attended in March, I didn’t give a damn because she provided such a new, unique experience. The Chicago native proved that you can keep your setlist consistent without disappointing fans.
Switching gears, everything about Travis Scott’s music suggests his shows tap into our primal tendency towards raging. He does not mislead. The first time I saw Travis was fresh off of his Rodeo release in Atlanta. It was a “pop-up” at a small, repurposed wedding venue, so naturally much different than a pre-headliner set at a music festival with tens of thousands of people. He’s released new music since then too so, unlike Noname, the setlist was much different. It was mostly Birds tracks and only the hypest highlights off of his earlier projects sprinkled in with some loosies. Still, these tracks were presented in a fresh manner. Travis didn't add any new verses to his songs, but he did alternate his cadence by toying with his Auto-Tune harmonization.
Travis, at his level, faces different challenges than Noname. To date, he’s made hits by following a very specific formula and deviating from that blueprint could cause mixed reactions among “fans” who only want to hear the Apple Music stream through larger speakers. I was happy to see Travis playing his music for people that respect artistry and appreciate the nuance in good repeat performances, though. Was I surrounded by semi-annoying kids that made me feel old at only 24 and question my taste in music? Of course. But the joy of seeing an artist gain popularity and retain a desire for creative diversity gave purpose to all the “bro” elbows I took to the face.
Apart from legitimizing your decision to drop money on expensive tickets, watching fresh performances undercuts our tendency towards cynicism and restores our youthful faith in the magic of experiences. If you’re a blossoming artist preparing to string together live performances, keep this truth in mind. You might please the shallow ones with recycled sets, but you develop a connection with your true audience when you show your creative tendencies in every aspect of your artistic expression. Cover a dope track (Smino covered T-Pain’s “Chopped and Skrewed” on his latest tour), freestyle a few bars that spur crowd participation, or (tastefully) add vocal harmonizing to your tracks. The creative investment will pay handsome dividends in the future.
As fans, there’s nothing we can do to guarantee our gamble will pay off when purchasing tickets to see an artist for a second, third or fourth time. Like true gambling, though, the dopamine rush keeps us engaged and willing to try again. Maybe these words are just as futile as placing our hope in a white ball spinning around a wheel, but I’m willing to take the risk.