TSO in the Front Row

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Christmas time
And the moment’s just beginning
From last night
When we’d wished upon a star

If our kindness
This day is just pretending
If we pretend long enough
Never giving up
It just might be who we are

  • From “Promises to Keep” by Paul O’Neill & Robert Kinkel

It’s getting late. Or early. Depends on where you are. Music of the Night.

I’m just back from my almost annual two-and-a-half hours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was different this year. For the first time ever my wife and I sat in the front row. I didn’t pay any special price and TSO does not sell VIP packages. We just got lucky ordering the millisecond tickets went on sale to fans. Incredibly lucky. Staggeringly lucky. Not an ordinary occurrence for yours truly.

Last night’s show at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California was as good as any and every show we’ve seen TSO perform since we began following them around the turn of the Millennium. The difference was the intensity of, well, being in the front row. I’ve been going to rock concerts like this for over forty years now, and the few times I’ve found my way to the front row, there is nothing like it. When there is nothing between you and the musicians but a wee bit of inner space, you connect. It’s indescribable. It’s metaphysical. It’s what rock and roll is meant to be, the lines between audience and performers erased. You feel the experience in a different way. There is a pure intensity that sinks through your sensory inputs and temporarily commands possession of your emotional framework. Ideas become visceral. Passion becomes tangible. You wish it could last forever. At least I do.

Then reality returns. It has to return, so you can take the music with you and do something with it. Inspiration is a spark, not an engine. If you find a way for the spark to ignite, you carry the torch with a reason and do something with it. Moments like hanging in the front row keep me young, but my work is still my work. Part of that is sharing this stuff with you, to bring us together in the service of something productive, something that matters.

Seconds before the show began, in the dim light of pre-set, music director Al Pitrelli walked to center stage in the shadows. I was about ten feet from him. Pitrelli is a musician of such amazing talent I am humbled watching his fingers navigate the fret board at speeds I can barely imagine, let alone emulate. I looked at Pitrelli and made eye contact. I gave him the aviator’s thumbs up. He looked back at me and put his hand over his heart, a Roman Centurion salute of sorts, but kinder and more heartfelt as he often does when connecting with someone in the audience. In that moment I felt simultaneously like we had just met in person yet were old friends. I guess both of those readings are true. It is the illusion of knowingness that allows art to work. Ancient philosophers worried about the dangers of such false impressions. Old rock and rollers like me call it keeping the backbeat.

I have never met Al Pitrelli, or TSO founder/impresario Paul O’Neill, or anyone in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, despite the fact that they inspired me to write my second book, Endless Encores. I talk about the band in the book’s Preface, how brave they are to try out new material on every tour to keep moving forward, while still giving their fans the show they expect. They just give us more, music we don’t know is coming, and that lets us grow together rather than lock into a fixed expectation of the ordinary. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet these guys—who knows, what were the chances I’d end up in the front row of their show at retail?

What do I really want to share in this predawn realtime post, something I rarely do but at the moment feel compelled to publish unpolished? Is it to convince you that TSO offers a level of practiced musicianship, vibrant stagecraft, theatrical innovation, and storytelling significance that is much too rare in pop entertainment? Possibly. Is it simply to capture the moment for myself of front row showtime as a slice of life? I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. Yet here’s the real deal: Go back to the top of this post and have another look at the lyrics I excerpted.

There is a through line here. It is the holiday season, a time of pause, a time of reflection. In the ultimate irony, the venue where TSO played last night was not too far from San Bernardino, where violent tragedy again struck our nation only days ago. Families all around us are in pain. What we need to embrace is that every kind act in response to those in need is an act that restores humanity to humanity. Music, stories, and unforgettable performances can be our road back to the goodness that gives our life purpose. When art is a conduit that reminds us to act as we internalize, we are brought together toward a path that anticipates healing. We learn from the evocative, and we advance on the hard work that must be done to make sense of our brief time together.

TSO carries into my heart a sense of hope. It ties the holidays to a call of service, and it ties the years together in a continuum of incomplete measure. Sitting in the front row made it feel more real, more direct, more personal, and oh yes, more intense. We have a tremendous amount of work to do together and not much time to have an impact. Listen to the lyrics, feel the music, embrace the integration. Then do something with it.

Celebrate the holidays by doing something that really matters. And don’t forget to turn up the volume. I’ll see you in the front row, the cheap seats, or anywhere else we can make a real difference. Think hope, then make it happen.
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Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.

Let’s Be Careful Out There

The private reaction I received to last week’s post on career opportunities was quite overwhelming.  I expected to get a few calls asking for similar consultations from people I know trying to decide between this or that gig, and I did, but the breadth of emotion I received in reaction to the first paragraph — the seemingly unmovable 9% national unemployment factor — reinforced for me just how far this epidemic has reached.  A few years ago, I remember hearing about how many of my college classmates could not afford to attend our 25th reunion.  That was eye-opening and unsettling.  This is much worse.

Look around you.  The impact is everywhere.  People need jobs.  People need opportunity.  People need leadership.  People need purpose.  They are wondering if anyone is listening.  I don’t mean running for office, I mean listening.  Caring.  Responding.  It is hard to see much evidence that any response is on par with the outcry.

For the past few years since the recession began, it would seem many people have been suffering if not in silence, then at least maintaining a difficult quiet.  Of late that pain has become manifest in anger.  The anger we are seeing expressed by Occupy Wall Street is one form of reaction, but there are others all around us.  If you are not personally impacted, just listen to the dialogue around you.  Listen, really listen.  You may be surprised at what you hear, and who is saying it.

Compassion is a noble reflection that we celebrate usually in the final few months of each year during the annual holiday season.  Regardless of our various faiths, public messages of Peace on Earth become evident in everything from retail sales displays to city street decorations.  Then shortly after the Rose Bowl, we take down all the signs with all those slogans and catch phrases and get back to normalcy with the new year.  Can we afford to do that this year, with all of the requests for outreach we are hearing from friends and acquaintances?  I wonder if this time maybe it’s different.

Each holiday season I look forward to a touring rock band known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra that puts on a theatrical spectacle with a tremendous amount of meaning captured for me best in the following few lines from a song called Old City Bar:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

I usually post these lyrics around the holidays, but I thought I’d get an early start so the sentiment does not get lost in the year-end noise.  We need compassion now and year round.  Some people are going to ask you for help.  Others are not going to feel as comfortable asking, so maybe you can offer it without the ask.  As I discovered in the response to my post last week, sometimes it’s as easy as being a good listener to someone who has lost hope, having chased down every opportunity they can and not found work.  For others you can make a phone call or two, or help edit their resume, or simply remind them that they are good at what they do and these are extraordinary times.  Just returning a phone call can be a very big deal.  The point is that your compassion will go a long way right now, further and deeper than you can comprehend.  Remember Pay It Forward?  It’s always a good time as Steve Jobs would say to make a brand deposit.  Now is an especially good time, never better.  Someday you too will need a withdrawal.

There’s one more thing on my mind this week besides reminding us all to be compassionate, to help where we can, and to not let the message of the holidays flicker out when the crowds leave the Rose Bowl.  There remains a good deal of misunderstanding on all sides of the equation as to whom we can blame for our problems, the catastrophic impact of hyperbole and invective, how simplistic notions of corrective strategies can be naive, and whether justice is a shared ideal that can be broadly and fairly enacted.  When you combine the complexity of all that anxiety with the pain and anger that seems to be spiraling, you have a very bad brew.  The potential for rotten things to happen — events that cannot be reversed, stalemates that cannot be reconciled, words that cannot be taken back, violence that will be regretted — becomes a turbine gaining momentum, suddenly with its own inertia.

Certainly we all want change for the better, regardless of whether we agree on the definition of better.  What we can agree on is certain definitions of harm — physical harm to individuals, extended harm to the economy, permanent harm to our democracy.  Business enterprise is not all wrong, investment is what drives opportunity; there are no jobs without investment, and there will be no investment without risk and return, that is the backbone of free enterprise and prosperity.  A nonviolent protest against unfairness is not wrong, there is a message in the expression of pain and anger we need to hear; every one of us plays a role in this economy as a consumer, that voice cannot be taken away, and that voice says people want to work.  Real trouble begins when an impasse cannot be bridged because too many people decide that it cannot be bridged.  The path through that impasse is ours to negotiate, one at a time, with each other.  It is the very compassion of one person helping one person that gets the wheels moving again.  We don’t have to wait for a grand proclamation of resolution to express humility.  To not do so is to let a fire burn that we needn’t allow consume all that we have built together.

People always wonder if they can make a difference, if any individual can make a difference.  The answer is yes, one individual can make a difference to another individual, and that can become a movement.  The opposite choice is to allow the stalemate to divide us.  That seems like a dangerous choice.

On the groundbreaking 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, a police drama set in an extremely troubled and decayed metropolis, the avuncular Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played until his own premature passing by Michael Conrad) would conclude roll call each week with the words, “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”  I think for the foreseeable future that is very good advice.