There are times when to be a fanatical music lover is akin to being a seer of the supernatural—someone who can look through walls or witness magic at a moment when others see nothing. A performer onstage can—on a good night, the very best of nights—both commune with the spirits of those that came before him/her and at the same time weave a spell with his/her own voice and instrument. Very rarely does that happen for the entire length of a show; quite often, the magic is sustainable only for a portion of a set, or even just a song or two at a time. In fact, the magic is most intense and meaningful when the right artist plays the right song at the right moment and the audience responds, throwing a little bit of that magic back onstage.
I bore witness to such a moment in August of 2008, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band closed their main set in Hershey, PA with “Badlands.” There’s a breakdown after the sax solo, when the audience typically whoa‘s its way repeatedly through a descending five-note melody for a few bars before Springsteen works his way back into the song. We in the Hershey audience obliged that night, and were part of a truly great, particularly ferocious performance of the song.
Something funny happened, though, as drummer Max Weinberg hit his extended fills to end the song—the crowd wasn’t done with it. Check it out here, in an audience recording of the performance. Around the five minute mark, Springsteen tries to close it all out, but the audience—30,000 strong—is having none of it, and continues the descending five-note melody for two more minutes, through at least one more attempt to shut the song down. We turned the mighty E Street band into our backing group, and fed a little bit of the band’s power back to them. For all I know, the audience at every show might get to do that, but on that night, the moment was all ours, and we managed to play with a rare and beautiful magic.
A few other such moments come immediately to mind:
- Queen playing “Radio Ga-Ga” and “Hammer to Fall” at Live Aid, July 1985. I’m going to write about their amazing 20-minute set later this year, but I must mention it in the context of this discussion, because it’s one of the great live performance I’ve ever seen, and because the band’s communion with the crowd for these two songs (and in Freddie Mercury’s between-song call and response) is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
- James Taylor playing “Fire and Rain” at the Concert for NYC, October 2001. A month and change after 9/11, Taylor stepped out in front of a Madison Square Garden audience of NYC police, fire, and port authority employees, sat down, and sang his great, cathartic ballad of mourning, confusion, loss, and understanding. The looks on the faces of those listening in that room said everything that needed to be said about what they had been through, and what they had lost. To say Taylor hit the nail on the head that night is an understatement; I’m not sure there are words for how perfectly suited his song and performance was for that occasion. The tears shed throughout the arena said enough.
- Prince performing “Purple Rain” at the Super Bowl halftime show, February 2007. I never thought I’d see a better halftime performance than U2’s poignant, empathetic, post-9/11 take of “Where the Streets Have No Name” in 2002. Prince playing “Purple Rain” in the teeming rain, with 70,000 lights swaying in the stands around him, however, was nothing short of perfection.
Unlike Springsteen, Queen, Taylor, or Prince—all of whom take up considerable space in my music collection—I am sad to say I just don’t get why Robbie Williams is so popular. He’s not popular in this country, mind you; we like our British imports to tell us what they want (what they really, really want) or fistfight with one another, or layer their prog excursions in noisy dissonance. Williams is a straight-up pop star, a boy-band exile with a penchant for narcotics and the well-timed rude outburst. He is a massive pop culture presence in virtually every region of the world other than North America.
But brother, can he hold a stadium full of people in the palm of his pasty little British hand. Witness his set at Live 8, in July of 2005, in London’s Hyde Park. Watch what he does with an audience of about 130,000 people as he performs his contribution to the power ballad arts, a song called “Angels”:
It’s not just the singalong. It’s the crowd moving as one organism, raising its voice as one, taking the song from Williams, lending it back to him, and reclaiming it again for its own. It’s Williams as tease, as romantic, as choir leader, his exuberance overflowing, his mastery of the moment complete. “Angels” is powerful but a little corny, yet the way Williams and his band lean into the buildup of tension and its crescendo, you’d think it was the greatest song ever written. I can’t speak to any other stadium show Williams has done (he is a regular performer at UK summer festivals), but for these five minutes, he is the king of Hyde Park, possibly the king of the world.
For Robbie Williams, it was indeed one of the very best of nights. It was one of those moments.