By Chaz Kangas
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At a live music event, your eye naturally is drawn to what's happening onstage: guitarists thrashing and sawing at the air, vocalists preening between yawps, drummers keeping time with fills and kicks. But last week, two acts came to town that had audiences drawn to the action offstage; large video projections dominated the visual landscapes of both shows, and spaces normally thought of as mid-level venues were given an arena feel.
Portishead's visuals during Wednesday night's show at the Hammerstein Ballroom were similar to those used by the band at the Coachella festival in 2008, shortly after their breathtaking album Third came out and during the smart phone's relative infancy, but the warming glow emanating from the stage during both shows also, thankfully, helped take attention away from the annoying illumination of set-to-record phones and cameras studding the audience.
The band used the projections to great effect, even though they were for the most part simple—close-ups of the band members, particularly lead singer Beth Gibbons, who clutched the microphone while crumpled in front of it, letting her impassioned wail loose over the cacophonies of the rest of the band. Watching Gibbons perform in front of a 20-times-larger version of herself magnified the pain evident in her vocals, turning her emotions up until they were fully in the red; the bleakness of Portishead's music became slightly terrifying, only breaking its spell when, at the end of the show, Gibbons jumped into the crowd during the Krautrock churn of "We Carry On" to thank those audience members clustered up front.
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On Friday, the Canadian producer/DJ Deadmau5, performing during the fourth night of a six-concert run at Roseland, brought similarly dazzling visuals to the table, although the means and the result couldn't have been more opposite. Deadmau5 himself operates under a cloak—or, really, a giant mouse head, with ears styled to look like bitten-away chunks of cheese. He stood atop a giant set of light-up boxes, and they flashed along with the music. Here, instead of depicting close-up realism, the projections onstage illuminated the fantasy that a grinning eight-bit version of himself was a lost Super Mario Bros. 3 character or a key element of a particularly pixel-riffic screen saver. But the spectacle enhanced the pulses and bleeps emanating from his DJ equipment and made his performance better for dancing along with than merely watching.
Of course, using video to enhance the live-music experience isn't exactly new; any arena act worth its JumboTrons has been touring with its own camera crew for years now. But consider that screens in the audience have become a depressing fact of life at concerts, with the annoying glare of smart phones showing up no matter how locked-down a show tries to be. (Jeff Mangum's set at I'll Be Your Mirror in Asbury Park two weeks ago was accompanied by a flurry of security guards trying to shut down any recording of the performance, a double distraction that nearly broke the spell the long-reclusive performer had instilled in Asbury Park's cavernous Paramount Theatre.) These glowing screens interrupt; they instinctively draw the eye away from the spectacle at hand and instead result in shaky documentation of what's happening mere feet away being watched instead, a level of meta-experience that really shouldn't be dignified with a cover charge. (Even when performers ask the audience to whip them out for the purposes of commemorating a particularly meaningful song, it's hard not to feel nostalgia for the pre-smoking-ban days, when this sort of illumination would have been handled by good old lighters.)
These shows were by two acts with roots in electronic music, but they hold different public profiles—Portishead are the British geniuses who meld hip-hop, Krautrock, and Gibbons's blistering yet weary voice into a singularly harrowing aesthetic; Deadmau5 is the Snooki-beloved producer who isn't above using Daft Punk samples and characters from Pac-Man to make his audience feel comfortable. And I realized that the onstage presence of the huge, eye-drawing screens resulted in me being slightly less distracted by the flickering phones in my line of vision. (Although, if I'm going to be truthful, I did whip out my own phone during both shows for the purposes of checking in on the Internet, which was, to my relief, still pumping out the #depressingsitcoms and other bon mots during my absence.)
It's probably not too much of a stretch to say that while the twin innovations of YouTube and cheap, high-quality portable video cameras have been great for the live-music connoisseur who doesn't feel like leaving the house much (or who does leave the house, but to do things like go out to dinner or get manicures) the live-music experience has been degraded substantially for people actually in the audience. The focus becomes documenting the experience instead of experiencing it, on live-blogging the experience instead of living it, an uncomfortable truth that can result in those people who are present feeling like they're missing something simply by being out.
Which is why the use of video at these two shows was a marvel, something that both usurped the focus from others' documentation of what was happening and helped further the worlds in which each of the acts operated. That it might be something necessary for all acts to employ in order to get the crowds focused on them, and not their documentary device of choice, is slightly troubling, though, if for no other reason than the privileging of aesthetics that are enhanced—and not diminished—by the cool, glowing specter of the screen.