Every once in a while I hear someone say, or even read online that a certain audio system actually sounds better than live music. I am amazed at how often people ask the wrong question. This would have to be one of the more obvious examples. I’ll try to explain what I’m saying at the end of this article, but let me first tell you about an incredible three weeks of live music I had in June.
Man, what a great time I had in June listening to live music. It all started on June 3rd when I took my wife Becky for one of her many Steve Tyrell fixes. No joke, there was a time when every tray in her 6-disc CD changer had a different Steve Tyrell disc in it. If you don’t know who he is, you should google him, and you’ll be amazed by all he has done in the music industry for the last 49 years. He started working for Burt Bacharach at age 18; he also worked a lot with Jimi Hendrix and Rod Stewart. Most of these years he worked as a producer, but after the movie “Father of the Bride” he became a recording artist, singing songs from the “Great American Songbook.”
I have heard Steve at Yoshi’s in Oakland and San Francisco. I have heard him at Jazz Alley in Seattle, but this was the first time I had heard him in anything bigger than a jazz club. This year he came to the SF Jazz festival and performed at the Herbst Theater. I have to admit I’m not as big a fan as Becky and I love to tease her about how much she and many other women over 45 like him. Still, he puts on a great show and I always enjoy it more than I think I will. This year was a special treat, though. He had never sounded better than he did in the Herbst Theater. His band has been with him long enough now, and they play together in a way that is simply superb.
My next great treat in June came on Sunday June 5th when I had the privilege of attending a service to launch a new Spanish-speaking church. The small band, and especially the lead guitar and the drummer were just incredible. They played with such passion and ability that I was thankful we weren’t expected to sit in our seats.
Then, on Wednesday night June 8th, Becky and I went back over to the city to see the Blue Man Group perform at the Golden Gate Theater. I have to admit I wasn’t all that excited about hearing them. A few years ago it seemed like every room I went in at audio shows played something by them. It just sounded like people banging on huge drums to me, and I grew tired of it very quickly. Still, friends of ours convinced us to give them a chance live, and boy do we owe them a word of thanks.
I would still never buy their music to listen to at home, but they surely put on a dynamic, audience-involving show. I probably wouldn’t go again, but I enjoyed the performance. Let me comment on the bass and dynamics. If you’re hoping to reproduce this at home, good luck. Good luck in finding a system with enough dynamics that plays that deep. I have never heard such a combination, not even with amps over 500 watts per channel. Still, if such a system exists, good luck keeping the pictures on your wall, stuff on shelves, and even your windows from rattling and vibrating. The obvious thing for me anyway is that I can’t imagine why anyone would want that in their house. Now, this gets to one of the wonders of live performance or even live sporting events. While it wasn’t the best sound I have ever heard, and while it wasn’t my favorite musical performance, still seeing it with friends and among a great audience gives you an experience you can never have at home.
Then on Saturday evening we went to Yoshi’s in Oakland to hear Karen Allyson. I think this was our fourth opportunity to hear her and as before, Karen provided us with a great evening of music. I particularly like her voice, and the quartet was just superb. A good bite of the intensity and interplay between the musicians can be heard on my system, but in no way can you get the feeling of interplay there is between the musicians and the audience.
The following Wednesday, June 15 we went back over to the city to Davies Symphony Hall. As supporters of the San Francisco Symphony we get to attend the dress rehearsals for free. This was one of the rehearsals I enjoyed most. It was called “Many Strings Attached” and was a musical history of string instruments. The night featured works by Gabrielli, Telemann, Haydn, and Gershwin. One of the best things about these dress rehearsals is that at the breaks you can move to different seats in the hall. If you have never had this experience it is simply amazing. The first few rows were up front sounding and the soundstage was very wide and deep. Move back 10 or 12 rows and you get the kind of sound I associate with really good full-range dynamic speakers. Move on back another 10 or so rows and you get a sound more like the Quad 57s: A sound where the symphony seems to float in front of you. For many, I expect this will be the preferred sound. The thing that really surprised me was when I moved to the balcony. Even in the good seats in the balcony the sound reminded me more of really good mono classical recordings. A big sound, that was warm and comforting.
On the Saturday before Father’s Day we went back to Yoshi’s. This time Becky and I were accompanied by my son Michael and his wife Lyz. We started the evening by walking from Yoshi’s ticket office over to Miss Pearl’s Jam House for some great Creole food. Then back to Yoshi’s to hear Tuck and Patti. For years I have wanted to hear them, but they always played Yoshi’s on Thanksgiving weekend when I was out of town. Then they didn’t play for a couple of years. So, I was so pleased to finally hear them. They did not let me down, especially Tuck Andress. He is one heck of a guitar player. Then on Father’s Day we went to church with my oldest son, his wife, and my two-year-old granddaughter. After church they had a big BBQ and a big Bluegrass concert. How can you beat a day at church with your family, great food, and Bluegrass music?
The following Friday evening, my oldest son and I went back to Yoshi’s to hear the incredible Hugh Masekela. I hadn’t seen him in several years, but even at 72 he just seems to keep on getting better. If there has ever been a performer that makes a case for the quality of live music, it has to be Hugh Masekela. As much as I enjoy listening to him at home, there’s just no comparison to being in the crowd, the energy, the just pure fun of the event.
Becky and I finished up these incredible three weeks of music with a Saturday and Sunday trip to Seattle for our anniversary. While there, we went to Jazz Alley to hear Hiromi. This is wonderful venue for jazz and our first visit there. Again, we enjoyed the thrill of hearing music live.
The reason I have shared all this is to talk about the joy of live music, not the importance of it as a reference. Many times when I write something about how music sounds at a live performance versus the system I am reviewing, someone will email me and saying something like, “wasn’t the performance miked and played through as sound system?” Well of course it was. I haven’t been to a live performance that wasn’t enhanced by sound systems in a long time. Heck, I was at a coffee shop that could only hold about 30 people and the guitar player/singer still felt the need to mike his guitar and voice. That’s not the point; the point is that good live music is emotionally involving; it has great pace and rhythm. Most of all, it simply sounds alive. Now that’s what I’m looking for in my system, and it’s why I love live music.
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