Among its iridescently numerous other faults, the past year has been a terrible one for live music. With venues shutting down in March and a few efforts at socially distanced (and often car-bound) outdoor performances failing to catch the public imagination, essentially everything that was offered to a concert-starved public was mitigated through screens: television, device, wind-. With another March on the horizon and the pandemic no better ― worse, in fact — than when everything closed, we face the prospect of a full year or more where we all missed out on live music.
But is that always a bad thing? A year without concerts means none of the transcendent thrill that comes from having a communal experience with anywhere from dozens to tens of thousands of strangers, from vibrating on a frequency locked in a feedback loop between the performer on stage and the audience out in the dark. It also means none of the woefully misbegotten train wrecks that are just as rare and magical.
A truly awful live performance is a thing of wonder, and there are no hard-and-fast rules to what’s behind one. It’s not simply an artist you dislike (though: hello, Hinder). Heck, it’s maybe not even usually an artist you dislike. In that case, the onus lies squarely on the listener as the one at fault; you might be having a lousy time, but given the fact that you’re probably there reluctantly — chaperoning your child, perhaps, or trying to win points with your snoogie woogums or because you’re there to see another band on the bill entirely — that’s got nothing to do with what’s happening on stage (unless it’s Hinder).
No, a bad concert is rarely a matter of the person experiencing it simply being at the wrong show. Maybe the artist is phoning it in, unfocused, or preoccupied. Maybe the sound mix never jells. Maybe the venue is working against the performance, either passively (a goth act forced to perform in the bright light of a daytime festival slot) or actively (as when the Bank of America Pavilion yanked the plug on the 2006 Roots Rock Reggae Festival precisely at curfew, when Ziggy Marley was mid-song).
Or maybe the audience itself undercuts the show, whether by being so rowdy and talkative that the performer turns against them (Corey Smith at the Sinclair, 2013) or by leaving en masse once the big hit is played (OneRepublic at the Paradise, 2008). In fact, let’s acknowledge that audiences are their own category of concert nightmare, from their physical presence (many a short woman has stories of tall men who feel the need to park themselves directly in front of them) to their tendency to hoot and holler their approval in the middle of the very quietest songs to their rare but deeply upsetting ability to throw up on you as the Boss is giving “Badlands” his all.
But the thing about the music industry at any level where you can reasonably apply the term “industry” is that the baseline of most performers is more or less competence. Some are better, some are worse, and there’s a wide swing of the pendulum from one side to the other, but just about everyone does the job. So it’s not just agonizing when things go well and truly south; it’s special.
Sometimes it’s flat-out awe-inspiring. The biggest utter catastrophe I’ve ever experienced in 30-some-odd years of concertgoing was, I’m happy to say, one of our own: Boston popster Bleu, returning home from California to T.T. the Bear’s in the fall of 2010 and instantly falling victim to a series of snowballing disasters. There were ill-considered arrangements, a parade of technical complications both onstage and off, the typically deadly Middle East sound bleed from below, and the visibly frustrated artist’s explicit acknowledgment that here was one of the most calamitous gigs he’d played since turning pro.
But Bleu seemed not just to recognize but actually appreciate that this was a performance he was almost powerless to control. Eventually, he urged us to follow him outside, where he performed “I Won’t Go Hollywood” unamplified in the cold drizzle in a last-ditch effort to end things on his own terms, singing his heart out about sticking true to who he was and remaining humble. It was the perfect capper, both presentationally and thematically, to a maddeningly, hysterically disastrous show. And that’s when the fire truck drove by.
But that was merely catastrophically chaotic. Bleu’s lack of hubris and eventual embrace of the slow-moving car crash made him a tragic, deeply sympathetic figure. For a live performance to qualify as the straight-up worst, you need fumbling and arrogance. You need grasping desperation coupled with a blind refusal to acknowledge the situation on the ground. You need a lack of shame combined with a lack of effort. You need Wang Chung at the Indianapolis War Memorial on July 4, 1997.
Now, I have no beef with Wang Chung. “Dance Hall Days” is a great moody pop song and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” is an efficiently constructed hook machine that I’ve taken some pleasure from over the years. I’ve certainly eagerly seen other acts based on far, far less.
But that day’s free Uncle Sam Jam was cursed before Wang Chung even arrived on stage. The muddy grounds were already bogging down the experience even before a just-married couple still in their wedding finery tromped in and began starting fights with strangers as Cheap Trick (reliably great, per usual) played. Jon Bon Jovi, solo artist, was on hand to play exclusively the songs of Jon Bon Jovi, solo artist.
And then came Wang Chung, singer Jack Hues (bright orange T-shirt and shorts, or maybe vice versa) and guitarist Nick Feldman (thick, curly ponytail and sunglasses) all by their lonesome, chanting “Everybody have fun tonight!” against a jittery loop that had nothing to do with the song in question. In recent years, bands like Sleigh Bells and the Ting Tings have helped to destigmatize prerecorded backing tracks in live performance. But here, at the end of the 20th century, it was cause for instant mockery.
But Hues and Feldman soldiered on, delivering too-chipper renditions of their hits and acting both ultra-casual and overconfident at the same time. And then it happened: Feldman’s guitar strap disengaged, and he spent what seemed like forever frantically reattaching it . . . as the guitar continued to ring through the speakers, unaffected by the fact that nobody was actually playing it. Feldman eventually jumped back into the song and pretended that nothing had happened. And they had the nerve to cap the whole mess off by plugging their club show later that same night. We already just saw you, Wang Chung. And now you want us to pay? For this? Again?
It’s the worst concert I’ve ever seen, and Wang Chung holds a special place in my heart because of it. I desperately long for the return of live music: the sublime, the atrocious, and everything in between. Because at this point in the pandemic, I’d drive a million miles just to Wang Chung tonight.
Tell us about your worst concert experience here.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc