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Is Old Better than New?

by Nook Schoenfeld • in
  • Editor's Note
  • June 2018
• Created: June 4, 2018

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What’s the most often heard question a production designer is asked when contacted by an artist? “Can we do something new? You know, something that’s never been done before.” And before you answer this, they add, “And, of course, keep it under budget?”

My routine answer is always, “Sure, we can take a stab at that.” But in reality, I’m usually just coming up with something that is a tangent that sprang from somebody else’s old idea. There are amazing designers who can come up with new ideas. Shows like Lady Gaga, Roger Waters, U2 and Maroon 5 spring to mind. Each of those acts did something I had never seen before. But, alas, these acts had productions that cost a bazillion dollars and were so huge they that kept your eyes off of the performers and immersed one in the performance instead.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Nowadays, people aren’t paying to hear the beautiful notes come out of Taylor Swift while she stands center stage. That may have worked for Aretha, but Taylor is in a stadium and simply doesn’t have her vocal chops, so clever songs backed by clever gags is necessary for her fans to enjoy the experience.

I enjoy seeing the amazing sets that Pink, Beyoncé, Katy and the rest have. The productions are so phenomenal. And these women can sing, of course. But none of this can touch Aretha sitting at a piano with a single backlight and a Leko key light for the real magic. Talent trumps theater for this geezer.

When I grew up, you never heard songs that were 40 years old on the radio. Sure, songs were linked to generations. You had the 50’s Bebop, station or one that played the classics from the 40’s only. Nowadays, radio stations play the gamut. I just went from Khalid’s latest single to Janis Joplin’s last one from 1971 on the same station. My nine-year-old knows some of the songs I grew up on, as well as the current top 10.

›› Inspiration is Free

So, back on topic. What can you do that hasn’t been done before in a live concert? Well, I believe it has to start with a concept. And it doesn’t have to cost much at all. You just have to come up with a theme (not an easy thing to do) and run with variations of it. This is something I saw accomplished last week in spectacular fashion. I went to see David Byrne for the first time since I worked with him when he played with the Talking Heads.

Picture a stage that is just an empty black box, devoid of amps and instruments. In this case, it was a box built/surrounded by silver chains. Now, imagine a drum kit. But that kit is actually seven different drummers, each walking around the stage with a different bit of percussion hanging from their torso. Guitars, bass and keys are all carried around the stage by players using in-ear monitors. David Byrne might be in the middle of a well-choreographed song when suddenly an arm slides out through the chains and hands him a guitar. Or a single LED light pops out from the side and is the sole source of illumination. Each song had a different theatrical feel to it. Just like Stop Making Sense is often considered the best live concert experience ever documented, I believe this one is just as well executed. It’s new, fresh, never been done before, and simply a stunning show.

David Byrne has decided it’s okay to throw in some old Talking Heads classics during the performance, something he wasn’t prone to do in the past. Come the third song, his band kicks into “I Zimbra,” a rhythmic classic from 1979. (For a listen, go to plsn.me/I-Zimbra.) The entire theater erupts into dancing madness with whooping and hollering as 50-year-olds relive their youth. Byrne, who is often void of emotion during his performances can’t help but smile. After the show, he simply says, “I don’t get it. This is a 40-year-old song with gibberish lyrics. Why do they get so excited?” Because “It’s the same as it ever was.”

It’s way too simple. He just took an old song, played exactly as written, but presented it (as well as the whole show) in a manner never seen before. Unlike any previous production ever seen in concert.

David Byrne, who is known to design his own productions with a little help from some talented people, invented something totally new, incorporating old stuff. And the whole set and production costs were probably around two thousand bucks.

For Nook’s video introduction of the June 2018 issue of PLSN magazine, click below:

 

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