Warning, at just over 1400 words this might venture into TL;DR territory.
My life is a consistent set of diversions, things to do to take my mind off the futility and mundanity of my existence. Free thought leads to thoughts of inadequacies and dreams now squashed and really it’s far better to just career from distraction to distraction than it is to deal with that existential crisis. In an effort to ensure the entertainment train keeps a-rollin’ and to keep the metaphysical wolves from the esoteric door I go to the cinema a lot and I see a hell of a lot of bands. On average I see maybe three or four bands a month. Over the course of one week I saw four and I learnt two things from this experience.
The first thing is that my gradual march to the grave is really taking it’s toll on my stamina and the day after the final of the four gigs I honestly felt like I’d been set upon my heavy men with large bats (of the baseball rather than bloodsucking kind). At twenty four years of age I don’t think you’re supposed to feel the deathly touch of pure exhaustion so I was naturally perturbed by this turn of events.
The other, and hopefully far more interesting, thing it taught me was that no matter how good a band is they’re usually only as good as their front man (or woman, but for the interests of clarity I’m going to be a chauvinist and use front man). The four bands I saw were Editors, dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip, A Silver Mount Zion and Hidden Cameras. For the benefit of those without an obsessive interest in niche bands I’ll detail them below.
Editors are a UK group and they operate in the same level of cultural awareness as Muse. People know of them, and their music is played fairly often on the radio, but they don’t have the name recognition of groups like U2 or Radiohead or Blur or Oasis. They’re part of the great expanding second tier of new UK music, able to headline festivals like Glastonbury but not real household names. They’re essentially one of the big bands in the UK at the moment and they’re reputed for their precision as musicians. dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip is another UK group with Scroobius Pip’s middle class, eloquent, spoken word performances backed up by electronic accompaniment from Dan le Sac. A Silver Mt. Zion are a post rock group from Montreal, remnants of Godspeed! You Black Emperor who channel the epic soundscapes into something which, in Post Rock terms, is almost cheery. Hidden Cameras meanwhile are a band who make ‘gay church folk music’ which translates into really high energy pop music.
So four bands who are phonically as diverse as possible, so what’s the underlying theme here? Well what these four groups represent are four different types of front men and they’re a good starting point to discuss the importance of a front man within a group. Editors represent a current problem with bands in that their front man, Tom Smith, seems absolutely terrified of the audience. Now with a new band this is perfectly reasonable, however when you’re dealing with a band who have been touring for half a decade, have headlined Glastonbury, and are currently playing in front of three and a half thousand peoplen it becomes a problem. It’s a common issue with new bands, but for a band like Editors where their music is powerful but kind of mechanical it takes something away from the experience.
With Editors they come onto stage and just play fast and intensely. There’s no real audience interaction, Tom spoke to the audience once at the last gig and that was a terse ‘GET THE HELL OUT, THE GIG IS OVER’ and their front man is happy to back away from the spotlight. What the issue here is that there’s no point of focus for the audience and whilst the music is great, it’s more like listening to louder versions of the album than having a unique experience. Muse have a similar issue but their front man is kind of nuts when he’s playing and his enthusiasm and bombasticity negate the fact he’s obviously terrified of the crowd.
dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip have the potential to fall into this trap too. With just the two performers on stage, and one of them nonchalantly hitting a synth, the audience attention is going to be focused solely on the front man, in this case the spoken word performer/poet Scroobius Pip. But given the storytelling nature group the front man becomes a narrator rather than a performer and as such he’s able to keep the audiences attention. With no pyrotechnics and sparse backing music designed to enhance the vocals the audience has nothing to focus on but Pip’s words and he is, thankfully, a master orator. There’s also the fact that Pip changes his lyrics on the fly and actively involves the audience in the performance.
Involving the audience is the one thing that A Silver Mt. Zion does very well, which is surprising given the rather austere nature of their music. Efrim Menuck provides fleeting vocals and electric guitar as part of the band. Flanked by two violinists, a cellist and a drummer he performs as part of a greater whole allowing his other band members the flashier musical moments. Between songs Menuck talks to his audience and actively takes an interest in their reaction. At the gig I was at there would be five to ten minutes between each song where Menuck would just chat with his audience and it counterpointed the frosty precision of the music with a genuine warmth.
The Hidden Cameras, fronted by Joel Gibb, are perhaps the best example of how a front man can enhance an experience. With or without his guitar Gibb is magnetic on stage, dancing around like a demented Dick Van Dyke and corralling a general feel of theatricality from his band mates, and he takes an already great experience to another level. What’s interesting about Gibb is that for half the set he gives up his main instrument and just operates solely as a singer. This of course gives him the opportunity to dance like a lunatic but it also means that can engage the audience and it really helps to make the show feel like a genuine event.
The art of the front man is something that feels like it has been eroded over the past decade and part of this could be due to the fact that having lead singers is out of fashion. Most modern lead singers also double as either lead or rhythm guitarists and it gives a certain level on anonymity to the group. If you look at some of the big bands from the 1970s and 1980s there’s a clear distinction between the band and the front man.
No matter how you feel about their music groups like Bon Jovi, The Sex Pistols, The Stooges, AC/DC, Van Halen and Led Zeppelin defined themselves by the personalities at their centre. Instead of having to multitask between the guitar and the vocals he could focus purely on the vocals and on interacting with the audience. Without an instrument to hide behind these singers had to create massive personas to fill the stage.
It’s not that vocalist/guitarists can’t hold the attention (Bruce Springsteen is an electrifying front man for example) but it feels like the days of singular lead singers has gone now. Of course this isn’t inherently a bad thing and you’ll occasionally have a front man who works in an unexpected way (Win Butler is perhaps the most serene member of the Arcade Fire and he sort of operates as a neutral centre in the storm of activity around him) but it feels like we’re reaching a level of anonymity with rock music which is a real shame. The notion of having larger than life singers is probably aniquated now, but there’s a real thrill and sense of experience you get from going to a show with a front man who knows exactly how to work an audience.