Reflecting back on the music of 2014, I note that many of my live music experiences were rooted in the past. For the most part, however, this was something more than just a dose of nostalgia but a case of more experienced hands showing us how it’s done. Having once been the voice of youthful rebellion or teenage angst, many of these acts are not resting on their former glories but, having passed forty (or indeed fifty or sixty), are still making vital and engaging music, regardless of what radio airplay they receive. What stands out most of all though, is the ability to connect with an audience.
In March, Billy Bragg worked the WOMADelaide set perfectly. Treating us to a collection of his stirring and insightful songs, he gave a master-class in the lost art of talking to the crowd. Similarly, in April Michael Franti powerfully connected with his audience at the Gov, in one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever witnessed. Rarely is a performer so at one with his audience, with Franti and his Spearhead band-mates leaving the stage at show’s end to join the crowd in a jubilant dance party.
While not yet in the post-forty category, Something for Kate celebrated 20 years in the music industry this year and celebrated with a national tour over the winter months. They took fans through their back-catalogue, showcasing hits and rarities, before standing for hours at the merch desk to sign memorabilia and pose for photos (vowing to stay until every last fan had had their moment). The commitment to their loyal following was palpable, as was their enduring dedication to loud and meaningful rock music.
Later in the year we had Nick Cave performing nearly “solo” at the Festival Theatre. Even in softer, stripped down mode, Cave remains a true rock star, replete with swagger and dark charisma. Meanwhile Tori Amos straddled between a piano and a keyboard at Her Majesty’s Theatre, performing with a unique and utterly mesmerising passion.
Then there were bands like The Rolling Stones and Queen with Adam Lambert, who no longer make new music but tour solely on the back of past hits. While the element of nostalgia was strong here, both delivered powerful performances and demonstrated why they once held the mantle of the biggest band in the world with good reason. The Stones were worth the wait, belatedly christening the revamped Adelaide Oval with an exuberant display of Rock’n’Roll bravado. Unfortunately Queen bypassed Adelaide, but their Melbourne performance showed that they can still live up to their reputation for live spectacle, delivering a note perfect performance. While Freddie Mercury’s presence was strong, Lambert is a charismatic and talented performer in his own right, taking ownership of the songs with renditions that were both satisfying and fresh.
In a similar vein, The Dire Straits Experience played the Festival Theatre, proving to be the best tribute band in the world. With former Straits’ sax player, Chris White, guitar virtuoso Terence Reis and some of the finest session musicians imaginable, Mark Knopfler’s songbook sounded fresh and dynamic, taking us back to the heyday of atmospheric stadium rock.
90s pop icon Rick Price also popped up, visiting for Halloween with a performance in the intimacy of the Capri Theatre. Still in fine voice, he was engaging and entertaining, proving himself to be a master storyteller.
The highlight of 2014 for me, however, came in February with Bruce Springsteen. In a truly epic show that lasted nearly three and a half hours, Springsteen surfed the crowd, took impromptu sign requests, skolled a beer, told campfire stories, pulled audience members up on stage and took us on a journey through every phase of his long career. In a blistering performance, the E Street Band sounded as strong as ever, making the 12000 seat Entertainment Centre feel like an intimate, sweat soaked bar; it was everything that live music should be.
As Springsteen’s first visit to Adelaide, there was a strong sense of occasion. The momentum built to a celebratory conclusion when Springsteen pulled long-time manager and producer John Landau up on stage, giving him a guitar to join in the encore. It was a symbolic gesture that brought to mind Landau’s pivotal role in launching Springsteen into the limelight. As a music critic in 1974, Landau saw a much younger Bruce in concert and wrote: “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” He then got out of the music writing game to become Springsteen’s producer on Born to Run and the rest is history.
Both men are now in their sixties, and witnessing Springsteen and Landau on stage together led me ponder: Just what is the future of rock and roll? And could such a thing be written about any acts starting today?
That the musical highlights of 2014 have come from the older generation of rockers is testament to the value of experience, those who have honed their craft on the back of years of hard work and dedication. I’m grateful these acts can deliver such dynamic performances and that most continue to make meaningful music. But it also begs the question: will we ever again see the likes of Springsteen, The Rolling Stones or Nick Cave? Could a local rock outfit form in 2015 and still be rocking as hard to its dedicated fan-base in 2035 like Something for Kate this year?
I am certain that the talent is out there, perhaps more than ever. The local band scene continues to rock along nicely. Some of my most enjoyable nights this year have come from watching a home-grown act at the Worldsend or the Grace Emily.
The problem lies more with how the music industry now operates. It has never been easier to get your music out there but it has never been more difficult to cut through. And with radio’s obsession with electronica, hip hop and pop, rock music finds itself largely relegated to the nostalgic, past glories format. Add to that the glut of reality TV ‘stars’ who clog the airways only to vanish into obscurity after a minor hit and the diminishing significance of the album (despite some very fine offerings in 2014), and it makes it very difficult for a new rock group to establish themselves, let alone achieve any longevity. While it’s nice that the The Very Best of INXS is the number one Australian Album of the year and close to being the biggest seller in this country overall (rivalled only by Frozen and Taylor Swift), this is also cause for some concern.
2014 has been a year that has underscored the value of the rock’n’roll live experience, but it has also made me worry about its future. Despite these concerns, however, I do spy some reasons for optimism and, having posed the question here about the future of rock, I will follow up shortly with a piece suggesting some possible answers.
But if there is to be any future, music consumers also have a vital role to play. If we demand a quality product then that’s what we will get. Make it your New Year’s Resolution to find a band you’ve never heard before on Spotify (or whatever streaming service you use) and then go and buy their album. Even better, turn off the TV talent quest show and go out and see a home-grown band live, you’ll have a great time and it could just help a local act take the next step.
Even Springsteen had to start somewhere.