As it stands, my all-time, top five favourite concerts that it’s been my pleasure to experience in my short musical life:
5. Wilco – Alderney Landing, Dartmouth – July 2006
4. Broken Social Scene – Forum Multipurpose Room, Halifax – April 2006
3. Bruce Springsteen – Sports Arena, Los Angeles – April 2009
2. Radiohead – Parc Jean Drapeau, Montreal – August 2008
1. The White Stripes – Savoy Theatre, Glace Bay – July 2007
These shows all involve different bands, in different settings, at slightly-different points of my life (though there’s only a three year span between them, a LOT happened in those three years). But what connects them all together is that they were all unique experiences that I’ll never repeat in quite the same way.
Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve seen Broken Social Scene and Wilco each twice since those shows on the list, and in both cases I’d argue that the subsequent shows were “better” on a technical performance level. But they weren’t the same. With Broken Social Scene, nothing could possibly beat the thrill of seeing nearly the entire lineup – at one point, over 20 people – cram onto the stage in triumphant, messy celebration on Juno weekend. With Wilco, it was the weather that provided the intangibles: the summer day of the year, the sunset rolling behind the Halifax skyline just as the band found its perfect groove.
There’s a reason that I generally don’t shoot video at concerts. With my photography, it feels like creating something new in collaboration with the artist on stage, stealing a second of the performance and reframing it in a whole new light. Video, in contrast, is a futile attempt to approximate the experience of “being there” that ends up living in the strange netherworld between the real and the dissonant.
And yet, the massive influx of amateur concert footage on sites like YouTube has fundamentally changed my concert-going experience. Though I’ve always preferred to be in the thick of the action, so to speak, in the past I’ve been more content to hang around the middle or the back of the crowd at certain shows. Now, though, I find that distance suffering more often than not. Sometimes I struggle to tell the difference between my physical experience and that of a YouTube video. Does the band in front of me actually exist? Most of the time, I feel like I need to get as close as possible to confirm that I’m actually here, and that this is actually happening.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because a couple of weeks ago I received my White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights box set in the mail, which easily replaces my In Rainbows box set as the most extravagant piece of music geek memorabilia I own. So be it – if there’s a tour that warrants such an impressive document, it’s the Stripes’ unprecedented trek through all ten provinces and three territories (covered with great fanfare here at the blog).
The box set contains the documentary film of the same name by Emmett Malloy, a live album collected from the tour (on both CD and double-vinyl), a beautiful coffee table book of photos of the band traveling and performing across Canada, and a 7” single of “Icky Thump (live)” backed on the Stripes playing “The Wheels on the Bus” on a bus in Winnipeg. And it all comes in some of the most beautiful packaging I’ve ever held.
But the coup-de-grace is a complete performance of the Stripes’ 2.5 hour tenth anniversary show in Glace Bay, Cape Breton. Yes, that’s correct – I now own a copy of my all-time most unique and memorable concert experience.
Although I explicitly bought the box set on the novelty of being able to re-watch something that meant so much to me, I approached it with quite a bit of trepidation. After all, the whole appeal of the concert was how loose and spontaneous it felt. My original review of the show, written in the euphoria of the morning after, reflects my memory of the show rather well, and it hasn’t changed much since then: it felt like I was being taken on an adventure where anything and everything could happen.
Watching it back again on DVD, the things that struck me were the moments I hadn’t recalled – the stage banter, several moments of interaction between Jack and Meg, the sloppy guitar on a couple of songs (no one ever mistook White for a perfect marksman with his axe). These stuck out like a sore thumb, challenging the solidarity of my recollections. The things that I did remember clearly, from the song medleys to the bagpipe-aided performance of “Prickly Thorn and Sweetly Worn,” felt like weird echoes rattling around before my very ideas.
Ultimately, though, watching the show wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be. For one, the footage is entirely in black and white, creating a bit of a distance from the original experience. More notably, the film features almost no perspective on the show’s audience, focusing all the attention on the intimate electricity of Jack and Meg. So much of the passion I experienced that day came from the crowd, jazzed about seeing such an important show by an important band in their small, out-of-the-way town. That sentiment comes across crystal clear in the documentary, but its absence from the concert film is actually to its benefit. It displays a different passion: that of a bizarre, wonderous duo lighting a darkened stage on fire, the flames flickering red, white and black.