Leisure

Breathing life into rock

By the

February 8, 2001


Word on the street is that the times they are a-changin’ in the world of music. Informed sources suggest that there’s a renaissance of the live band afoot, and the days of over-produced superstars may be coming to an end. It may be wishful thinking, but there’s some truth to the rumor that live music is becoming more and more viable. Concert grosses are at an all-time high, led by bands like Dave Matthews and Santana who have cultivated loyal hordes of suburban youths disenchanted with the sound of FM pop radio.

More power to ‘em, I say. The tradition of the huge stadium band is alive and well, having descended from Garcia et. al through Phish down to today’s more pop-sensible jam bands. But there’s an even more important phenomenon going on in the nightclubs across this country, one that bodes well for the return of forward-thinking music to commercial viability. Bands who have never had a song hit the radio are selling out shows from here to Los Angeles. Word of mouth is still enough to grow a fanbase, and bands who tour incessantly are rewarded for their hard work, provided their music doesn’t suck. Witness: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is sure to sell out the 9:30 Club on any day of the week, but they’ve never had a song hit the radio. Elliott Smith tickets sell out days after they go on sale, but save a freak Oscar appearance, he’s never had commercial success.

Following in this proud tradition is New York-based Luna. These kids have been at it since 1991, playing shows like it’s going out of style. On a recent trip to New York, I saw ads for Luna shows at three different nightclubs. Turns out they had been playing across the city for the past month, at any venue they could book. This intense devotion to touring (albeit a tour of downtown Manhattan) hasn’t really converted to huge record sales, but who needs sales when you play sold-out clubs every night? Their local popularity was enough to get them a deal on Elektra Records, a major label; they’ve recorded a series of albums throughout the 1990s, none of which have received critical acclaim comparable to their live shows. Recognizing this, the band set out to capture the je ne sais quoi of the live performance with a disc, released last Tuesday, culled completely from two performance last year at the 9:30 Club and the Knitting Factory in New York. This record does a more effective job of showing the uninitiated why it is that so many people are into Luna. They create a unique blended sound, influenced by the Velvet Underground and French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg, whom the band covered on 1999’s Pop Romantique. The result is progressive and distinctive enough to be memorable, while being pop enough to hold the ear of many listeners.

Live albums have been a staple of the pop formula for a while now: the artist who has achieved some measure of popularity releases a live record to take advantage of the fickle tastes of the listening public. If you liked The Monkees’ studio album, the logic goes, imagine how much their live record will rule! Well, the inherent problem here is that most bands suck live. There’s a reason why some bands don’t tour. Nothing about writing a catchy pop song means you’ll be able to perform it well live and vice versa. It’s a nice coincidence when we, as listeners, get to hear a record that’s really good and then see the band play and come away with the same feeling.

Likewise, some bands can rock a venue but not be able to translate that energy onto a studio album. Luna has made some quality records to date, but they have never been able to equal the feeling of their live performance. Their live album approaches the equation from the other side, then. They have a reputation for being one of the best live bands in the country, and they want you to buy their album for that reason. My advice: take the $15 you would have spent on the record and go see them play live. If you still like it that much, then go buy the album. But check the show out first. They’re guaranteed to rock you out.

Luna: Saturday night at the 9:30.



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