While I’ve never found concerts themselves to be anything less than exciting and wonderful experiences, I spent quite a bit of my life not fully understanding the appeal of live recordings. For some people, I know the draw lies in the energy of the performance, but that’s never come through for me outside of direct concert experiences. Instead, my mentality was just that a good live rendition would sound as good as the studio recording, in which case I’d have no reason not to defer to the original track while the live one eats up space in my library.
As time’s progressed, I’ve developed a greater understanding of and appreciation for live renditions as well as acoustics, demos, and all varieties of alternate presentations. In some cases, the atmosphere and context itself carries the song; for example, an acoustic version excels because it’s stripped down, a live version succeeds because of its energy, or a demo is effective because of the raw emotion it conveys.
But what I’ve come to value most is the minutia (and occasionally larger changes), something that I’ve been thinking about a good deal since I saw Colin Hay in concert for the first time last weekend. The singer-songwriter is exceedingly talented (and funny), but what made his performance stand out was not just his musical talents, but also the liberties he took with the songs he played, shifting cadences and improvising notes. I previously loved each song on his setlist, yet I left the concert with an entirely renewed love for them all because his renditions let me feel like I was listening to them for the first time all over again.
“I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” was one of the best examples of this, and I’ve found myself unable to stop listening to it since the show. Like with each song he played, he sang the lyrics in shorter bursts rather than the more consistent pace of the studio versions; it’s ultimately not a change that I necessarily think makes the song better (or worse), but simply the act of changing that makes it feel more natural, more fluid, more like an artistic and emotional expression than just a static set of sounds. But what struck me more was the vocal improvisations, particularly on the titular line; the studio version features consistently low notes, but in concert, he climbed to higher notes and created a poignant contrast. You can sort of hear what I’m talking about in this performance, though none of the videos I’ve watched have sounded quite the same as my show. This only serves to further my point, however, as I feel one of the great things about songs being performed live is that they get to grow and evolve, becoming something different every time the artist goes onstage.
I could describe in detail all of the songs that Colin Hay played and why they were so effective, but that would turn this into a review of his concert and do a disservice to my point. The gorgeous thing, to me, is in so many facets of this phenomenon, facets that come through regardless of the specific performer. Hearing your favorite song reimagined can give new life to a song you’ve listened to the point of complete memorization; as much as it’s wonderful to sing along at concerts, I think it can sometimes hinder my appreciation for the performance in front of me. I knew “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Get Over You” pretty well before the concert, and had Colin Hay simply performed an approximation of the studio version, my brain would have focused more on recognizing a song I already knew than appreciating his performance.
Even for songs you may not already be head-over-heels in love with, the right live version can have this impact. I discussed in my review of Vanessa Carlton’s Earlier Things Live EP that “Marching Line (Live)” was a clear but unexpected standout, and her unexpectedly gorgeous performance struck me so powerfully that the song changed from being one I hadn’t paid much attention to and is now one of my absolute favorite songs by her.
As I said, this is true for any performance of a song that allows for improvisation or an alteration of tone; however, I focus on live versions here because they have been the best example of this phenomenon to me in recent history, and because it felt valuable to reflect on how much I once underestimated the true artistry that can come through in a live performance. I once saw them as merely a way for artists to prove that they could sound just as good outside of the studio, but the real value lies in versatility, in being able to bring the song and its emotions to life. A live version that’s creative but not technically perfect is far more likely to strike me than one that sounds exactly like the studio version.
But I’d love to hear others’ input on the matter; what do you think about live versions? Do you love them, and if so, do you feel the same as I do, or are there other reasons you appreciate them? If you’d prefer to just listen to the studio version, I’d be interested to hear your perspective on that as well.