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A Tale of Two Concerts October 22, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Music.
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It was the best of times, it was the best of times. I cannot start my tale like Dickens, because the two experiences I want to tell you about were both superlative. Both were live music events, and at first glance they had very little in common.

The first show featured a sound booth the size of a bus. The second had a single mixing board.

Before the first show, a battalion of roadies constructed the largest stage ever built for a concert tour. Before the second show, one of the performers set out a little guitar stand to hold the three guitars he would use later.

The first show was the 36th stop on a tour that had already featured multiple dates in Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and Dublin. The second show was jokingly called a “world tour”, and was the fourth stop. Ever.

The first show cost me $55 for a ticket behind the stage. The second show was free. Over 70,000 people paid that price or more for the first show. A hundred or so came to the second.

The first show featured a band called U2. You’ve probably heard of them. The second featured an erstwhile band called Andy and the Andys. I would be most impressed if you’ve heard of them.

There were certainly marked contrasts. U2’s show is epic in every measurable way. I was raised on the music of these four punks, and I knew every word to every song they played. The show was all bombast and lights and sounds – oh, the sounds! Andy and the Andys isn’t even a real band. It’s three singer-songwriters who happen to be named Andrew and who are good friends. They like each others’ music, and they like to write songs together every now and then. Their show used house lighting and sound in a massive church’s little chapel, and bombast was nowhere to be found.

It was challenging to make out all of Bono’s words when he spoke, and facial expressions were hard to come by, even through binoculars.  By contrast, Andy Osenga was a good ten feet from me, and I could still have hit Andy Gullahorn or Andrew Peterson with a spitball. Not that I would, mind you.

However unlikely, these contrasts somehow bred striking similarities. Some were superficial. In each show, there were three singers. Adam Clayton doesn’t sing, but Larry Mullen Jr. appeared to be wailing at times from behind his drum kit. Bono you know about. But man, the Edge? Dude can sing. I’ll admit I did not know he sang the falsetto chorus on “Stuck in a Moment”. To the Edge (is the “The” supposed to be capitalized?) does U2 owe much of its longevity. Similarly, all three Andys sing, with unique and effective voices that just floored me when they merged.

Other similarities were subtler. Neither show featured overt sermonizing on God or spoken prayer, but both had strong spiritual undercurrents. Grace and Love are themes that run through much of U2’s music, and the Dome could not have felt more like church than when “One” bled into “Amazing Grace”. For their part, the Andys are all Christian musicians on Christian music labels, but this was not a “praise and worship” concert. It was really more about stories of the faith and the honest experiences of three sojourners.

Both bands pulled off remarkable feats out of contrasting necessities. The Andys played guitars. Some acoustic, some electric, but that was it. Osenga did occasionally kick a drum pedal (while singing and playing the guitar), but there was an obvious lack of a rhythm section – the bass and drums that drive a song and keep all the players in time. It’s a testimony to the quality of these musicians that each song did have rhythm, that they did keep remarkable time, that they sounded so polished on songs that had only recently been learned. I was thrilled to hear a couple of new songs from my hero Andrew Peterson, and I marveled as his similarly-named bandmates added their own little riffs and fills. Was this improvised or rehearsed? Peterson mentioned that one of the songs, a lovely homage to the relationship between songwriter and listener, had been written only 4 days ago. How could Gullahorn and Osenga complement it so well? Through an extraordinary and intimate understanding of the craft of a song. Since that’s not a material possession, is it wrong to covet that?

U2 had rhythm in spades. Clayton’s bass and Mullen’s drums reverberated in my head hours after the last encore. Their challenge was in creating intimacy and relationship in that most overwhelming of settings. I can think of no other group who could pull it off so admirably. Every band mentions the town they’re playing in for cheap applause. Bono even threw in an occasional “y’all” for similar effect. But then there was the mention of the other musicians who had come to see the show that night, and the accolade for their activism. And the tangible resonance of the playing of “MLK” just a few blocks from Ebenezer Baptist Church. Moreover, the mammoth stage itself was built for contact. A circular racetrack circumference was used to satisfy every corner of the Georgia Dome, and I was thrilled to behold “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, recast as a protest for the current political oppression in Iran, since all four band members gathered behind the stage to play the song, not just for the 20,000 people back there, but for me. In fact, it was all those people who inexplicably fed that intimacy. We were all there for music, for entertainment, for spectacle. We united for a common cause and the cause rewarded us.

In the end, the strength of both shows rested not on staging, or even personality, but on music. U2 played for hours and hours, and we sang along and we never sat down because we love these songs. The Andys played songs few of us had ever heard, but they were so visceral and meaningful that we responded. Sometimes we laughed, heartily.  How can one not laugh at Gullahorn’s deadpan ode to Osenga’s severed toe? Other times we were devastated. The group performed a Peterson song called “Golden Boy”. It’s not my story, but the fact that it is someone’s story shook me deeply. Whether you’re with 70,000 people or 100, we’re all in this together. Didn’t John Donne say “I am involved in mankind”? It is music, our common language, that moves and unites, which is why it is such a joy to see brilliant practitioners of music at work.

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