And now for a perspective from the other side of the stage.

I recently attended a concert that celebrated Debussy’s works. The concert, organized by the Toronto Heliconian Club, blended performances of Debussy’s pieces with a display of the kinds of impressionist paintings that had inspired the composer. A narrator provided historical and biographical information for each piece, which was interesting and informative. But in all honesty, I went mainly because Margaret (BeMused’s founder and talented pianist) was one of the performers, and I wanted to support her.

Regardless of why I went and even though I don’t exactly dig Debussy, I found myself appreciating some of the performances (particularly Margaret’s solo as well as her duet with the sole violinist in the show, of course!), which to me were worth the price of admission. This got me thinking about why I attend live performances. Why not just put on a CD or MP3 or surf YouTube in the comfort of my own home? Why put in the effort to purchase tickets and make the trek? Why get all excited to go? I’d say for multiple reasons, though they may not be the same as everyone else’s or, for that matter, for every performance, even ones within the same genre.

Connecting with the performer

Let’s take rock concerts, for example, or those of other genres in which the artist or artists both write and perform their own music. I generally attend these kinds of concerts because I am first and foremost a fan of the music, but sometimes the personality or personalities on the stage are almost as much a draw as the music.

It’s easy to feel or imagine a connection with an artist when the songs they have created so resonate with you; seeing your favourite artist or band in concert helps to reinforce that connection. And if there is great chemistry among band members and rapport with audience members to make that connection feel immediate and intimate—rapport built from jokes, anecdotes, stories told in between songs—well, those are some of the things that make a performance memorable and a repeat experience desirable.

One band well-known for their rapport is indie duo Tegan and Sara, who often captivate their audience with witty banter and engaging storytelling. Do a search on YouTube for their concert footages, and you’ll find many instances of this. In one video I came across, Tegan Quin is telling a funny, touching, personal story about herself and twin sister Sara when they were kids. Several minutes are spent talking rather than performing, but the crowd appeared no less enthusiastic for it, responding with laughter, applause, and calls of appreciation.

Connecting with the crowd

Which is another great thing about live shows: the crowd reaction, the way it reflects and amplifies your own, and the sense of community you can get from being part of that. The best expression of this is when the crowd sings along with the artist or the band—sometimes without them too.

I went to a Crowded House concert a few years ago, and during the performance of several of the pop-rock band’s crowd favourites, lead singer Neil Finn conducted the audience as they sang as one (and in tune), while the band stayed quiet. On another occasion where I attended a U2 concert, the audience sang along to practically every song; when the band closed with the song “40,” the crowd kept singing even minutes after the band members left the stage. These were truly memorable experiences.

No two performances…

That I happened to be at the concert where U2 chose to end with that particular song actually highlights another point: the uniqueness of each performance. The song setlist is not always the same from show to show (I believe the order in which songs are played plays a part in the experience, as each song takes you somewhere different), and the best performances, for me at least, are not exact replicas of what you hear on radio or on a CD.

What I enjoy most instead is getting to see the artist’s/artists’ creative genius in action as he/she/they deviate from the musical script set down in recordings. I love the thought of seeing something performed in a way that it possibly hasn’t been before. The live performance is a place that allows for improvisation, for spontaneity, for the unpredictable to happen. Sometimes, this spontaneity even occurs between songs (such as during the aforementioned Crowded House concert when bassist Nick Seymour gave Finn a complete haircut onstage, and Finn responded with an impromptu rendition of  “Hair” from the musical Hair).

Granted, you can just watch a video on YouTube recorded by someone who was there to experience the show firsthand, but watching segments divorced from the whole event is like reading the Coles Notes version of Hamlet rather than the actual play or being allowed only a small bite of the world’s best cake when you’re hankering for the entire slice (or more). Plus, you can’t replace the experience of seeing the unexpected unfold live right before your eyes in the company of hundreds of other witnesses, without even the hint of a clue from a YouTube title or caption.

Sometimes it ‘s all about the performance

Of course, as with the Debussy concert, sometimes it’s the performance that takes the cake. The virtuosity of a performance is particularly palpable in classical music concerts, and it can be breathtaking to watch.

I have also found that with orchestral music there’s an energy and dynamic and grandness of sound that you only get when you’re in the same acoustic space as the 40-plus members of a full orchestra. It’s an energy that’s underscored by the rising and falling of a few dozen string players’ bows in unison, providing an enhancing visual effect. I still remember the experience of seeing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (the Pastoral Symphony) performed in concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I was completely transported, imagining woodland creatures coming out of the woodwork.

Although I’ve focused on music in this post, I imagine similar incentives for watching a play, a dance or even live comedy—the virtuosity of a dance performance, the rapport a comedian has with an audience, the connection one feels for the characters on a stage.

For example, despite the fact that I can catch Craig Ferguson anytime on the Late Late Show (a late-night television show that airs Monday to Friday), I went to see him perform live when he came to Toronto last year. Aside from being a fan of his comedy, I went because he always has great rapport with the audience and with guests on his TV show, because he’s great at improvisation (his show is unscripted), and because he has a very engaging personality. So I knew that a fun time was guaranteed and that anything could happen, such as hecklers or the occasional feather drifting from high above to the stage floor (that last one really happened, and it became part of the act!).

There’s also something about watching a performance without the distance or buffer provided by a screen. There’s no chance of camera tricks or editing either. That’s what makes going to plays exciting: you get to see the actors perform without cuts or retakes, which makes it all the more impressive when they move you to laughter, anger, tears.

Well, these are my reasons for attending live performances. What are yours? (Feel free to post them in the comment box below. :))