A stage, a sound system, musicians and a crowd. That's all you really need to put on a concert. Everything else — $12 beer, nachos, jumbo video screens, light show, 3-D glasses, VIP meet-and-greets, merch, vapor pen for your "medical marijuana" — is gravy. Even the $75-million renovation of the Los Angeles Forum isn't going to guarantee a good show.
As a rule in watching musicians at work, a smaller space is usually preferable. This is creative expression, and at its best it's the most intimate nonsexual exchange you can have with a stranger. It's not a game like the Olympics or spectacle like Cirque du Soleil. These are songs, and we're paying good money to hear and watch you perform them. We want to be as close as possible. Awe us.
A venue that over its life has hosted Led Zeppelin, Duke Ellington, the Beastie Boys, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and hundreds of others, it has been redesigned by owners Madison Square Garden Co. with utmost attention to the experience. At a capacity of 17,500, the Forum will become the largest indoor space in the L.A. area specifically employed for concerts, and its owner has gone to extravagant expense to make it shine.
When it arrives, though, then what? All the cushy seats, Pink's Hot Dogs and acoustic tiles won't be able to control the chaos currently going on out here in the crowd. The Forum's return offers a timely chance to explore questions of live performance in the digital age.
These days we don't know whether to watch, listen, tweet, text, tape or talk. As we stand in the cheap seats, are we supposed to gaze at faces on the overhead screen, stretch to see past the mass of raised arms aiming small-screened devices at the stage, dodge the drinkers spilling beer down the aisles, or keep an eye on the Instagram from your nemesis with better seats? And if we're just watching big and small screens, then why are we here?
Whether or not the Forum's update will succeed in upending the L.A. concert business, improvements in the experience are certainly necessary. Musicians are increasingly making snide comments about smartphones and talking, at least those who care more about spirit than virality. Arcade Fire's Win Butler urged the crowd at a recent L.A. gig to ditch the taping and live in the moment, eliciting grand cheers. It's hard to dance while trying to keep a steady hand, after all, and difficult to focus on music when unsteady hands keep bumping your head.
For me, a recent nadir occurred at the Shrine Auditorium during KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, where the dull, rude indifference during most performances was, first, infuriating, then just sad. People not only wouldn't shut up, but during Lorde's quick set attendees surrounding me may as well have been at Dave & Buster's watching the Super Bowl. If they weren't talking, texting, shooting selfies or junky video, they were vocally judging Lorde's performance to one another — a kind of obnoxious real-time criticism that is becoming all too familiar.
It was a world so invaded by competing attentions that close listening was impossible. Focus was so split that a sense of community was absent. Worse, I felt like a grump for actually caring. Though that's true at club gigs and arena gigs, for me, the bigger the venue the bigger the problem; deep listening and musical immersion suffers in direct proportion to the size of the venue. Seldom at a Staples Center or Nokia Theatre or Wiltern show does the rumble of a chatty crowd subside.
To make matters worse, the whole problem feels like a feedback loop. When it becomes impossible to dazzle with tight verses, mean riffs or wicked breaks alone, artists resort to more and more fantastical light shows with big images designed to divert and shock, stuff so far removed from the energy exchange of performance as to be a whole other discipline. Just because your gig translates well on Vine doesn't mean it's satisfying in the moment. Performances that look good on a tiny screen thousands of miles away aren't the kind that move from lips to ears in a single bound.
This isn't an argument against spectacle or visual innovation. The rafter dwellers rightfully deserve video screens to bring them closer to the action. When Beyoncé tours she better bring some high-concept sparkle. The wild innovations in digital synchronization now link sound and vision in ways that artists like Bassnectar and DJs like Peanut Butter Wolf are currently exploiting to amazing effect. But too much eye candy and it starts to feel like you're trying to distract a bunch of kittens with a laser pen.
What's the solution? I like the ArcLight Theatre approach. Before a film starts, an usher appears in front of a screen and kindly requests that attendees turn off their phones. Largo at the Coronet enforces a cellphone ban, and the relief in the room as the announcement is made is palpable. Unfortunately, neither of these will likely happen when the Eagles open their gig at the Forum (though demographics suggest a mature, Snapchat-less crowd is likely), let alone when Timberlake arrives.
If the Forum truly is interested in offering the optimum concert-going experience, though, ownership would be wise to take measures to minimize the interruptions, even if it's just a few well-placed signs or pre-show announcements. Just because a fan bought a ticket, after all, doesn't give him the right to turn your concert into his private playground. People appreciate rules, even if they're only lightly enforced guidelines.
There are all kinds of venues, and I've sampled my share. I've floated on musical plateaus in grand halls and basement bars, wandered with an all-access pass through a Guns N' Roses arena show and gladly battled mosquitoes during a late-'90s rave at an abandoned Bible camp while techno minimalist Richie Hawtin examined 5 a.m. musical space. To hear Terry Riley improvise on Walt Disney Concert Hall's grand organ is acoustic bliss, to say nothing of Daft Punk bringing the pyramid to the Los Angeles Sports Arena or Timberlake's "FutureSex/LoveShow" tour at Staples Center.
These moments, recalled not through digital archive but tranquil recollection, provide a memory buzz far finer than an archived YouTube clip.