Joni Mitchell jokes on her 1974 live album, “Miles of Aisles”, that the major difference between the performing arts and being a painter is that a painter paints his painting and then it’s done. That’s it. It might get bought or sold, hung in a gallery, it might collect dust in the artist’s loft until he or she dies, but nobody ever asked Van Gogh: “Paint a starry night again, man!” For that matter, nobody ever asked him to chop his other ear off for another self portrait either. “He painted it and that’s it!”

Joni was responding to incessant shout outs for Carey, Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning, the audience seemingly oblivious to the impeccable set list they were being treated to that evening. When an audibly annoyed, very hippy-sounding woman exclaims: “Play what you want!” Joni replies with an appreciative and almost relieved: “All right!”

Dropping Hey Jude?

So what becomes of those artisans of the performing arts who, show after show, know full well they have no choice but to play that song – or if they’re lucky – those few songs that were hits that the crowds keep asking for? Imagine, for instance, if McCartney decided to drop Live and Let Die, Hey Jude or Yesterday from his set, or, what if Metallica chose not to play One or Enter Sandman? Who would go see Billy Idol if he refused to play Rebel Yell and White Wedding? Who would want a Corey Hart show without Sunglasses at Night or… well, you get the idea. The answer is, according to this writer: the real fans.

I remember seeing my first Fleetwood Mac show back in 2003 with the band having just released their critically acclaimed album, “Say You Will”. The band’s musical visionary, Lindsey Buckingham, had reportedly been gung-ho about performing as many new songs as possible on the tour, eager to prove the Mac was still a relevant and vibrant creative force. Of course, we’ve all seen this happen with various artists: when the band launched into a newer, lesser-known song, a large chunk of the crowd would rush to the washrooms and concession stands or take the opportunity to rest their legs and take a seat. When Buckingham launched into his bombastic new number, Come, a man behind me yelled out: “They play this heavy metal crap but they can’t be bothered playing ‘Seven Wonders’!” My blood boiled as, being a passionate fan, I was thrilled to see and hear the band thrash through this exciting new song – I even sang (correction: screamed) along to every word.

The argument, of course, amongst the casual fans, is: ticket prices keep getting higher, play me what I paid to come hear. But does an artist not have the right to follow his or her artistic vision? What if Jann Arden doesn’t feel like singing Insensitive? What if Roch Voisine doesn’t want to tell you about Hélène and the things she does? What if Thom Yorke groans: “F*ck off, we’re not playing it!” after repeated, insistent shout outs for Creep as he did at the Molson Center back in ’98? Does that make him a bad person? Does it make him a selfish performer? Or rather, is it cool that he walks to the beat of his own drum, abides by his muse and simply couldn’t be bothered with so-called fans obsessed with the one major radio hit they had back on their debut album, by then already not representative of their sound and aesthetics?

Losing the momentum

This debate rages on every single message board, fan page and blog dedicated to everybody from Bob Dylan to Louis-Jean Cormier. Fans want to hear that song they had on repeat that first time they got drunk, that song that kept playing on the radio on that road trip they took back in the day, that song they lost their virginity to. Other more intense fans get upset at their favorite artist’s refusal to play the obscurities. I remember Gene Simmons once saying that the obsessive KISS fans always pined for obscure album tracks but then when the band attempted them live, they’d all but lose the crowd and the show’s momentum.

kiss

Like most debates, both sides have their merits. But isn’t the beauty of live performance the unpredictability of it all? Isn’t the artist taking us on a ride into his or her world? Aren’t we supposed to simply appreciate being in the presence of these artists as they bare their souls for us? What a treat it would be that they might play us a song they’re currently working on, one that hasn’t had a chance to lodge itself into your subconscious yet because it was just created! What about when an artist dares to completely re-invent one of their songs? I remember seeing the Counting Crows is the mid-90s and concert goers being outraged that they’d played the ubiquitous Mr. Jones as a dirge-like acoustic number, rife with vulnerability and completely devoid of its radio-friendly jingle-jangle. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t the artist be free to play it the way that they feel it?

There is an undeniable, defiant heroism about the artist that plays whatever the hell he pleases but, ultimately, if he or she wants to sell tickets, the real challenge is to strike that delicate balance between the crowd pleasing and the eternal pursuit of the muse.

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About The Author

Max Comeau
Blogueur - RREVERB

Intensely passionate about music, Max is in constant search for new sounds yet he never tires of his idols whom he calls his “Pillars”. A musician himself, he released, as singer-songwriter, an album with The Calm in 2007 and, this past June 2015, released his first solo album, “You”. Max has also written a few plays and adaptations which he staged with his theater troupe in the early 2000s. He is thrilled to be part of the RREVERB team to further explore the great classics, as well as the newer classics-to-be, whether ‘en français’ or in English.