What Constitutes a Killer Show? Six Personal Case Studies

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Rocks Off is going to suck it up and go on the record as saying we had a great time at the Lady Gaga drag karaoke event last Sunday at Guava Lamp. Perhaps it was just the impaired judgment induced by the holiday cheer we'd imbibed at the Christmas party before, but the show was thoroughly enjoyable.

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As such, we became interested in trying to identify what constitutes a "great show" while also respecting the fact that such a definition is wildly subjective. So in an effort to keep the investigation anchored, we decided to look back over some surprisingly good shows and see if we could pull out some commonalities.

Stellar Show No. 1: L7, 9:30 club, Washington, D.C., 1993

Some words which describe this show are hot, sweaty and crowded, which are not usually used to commend an event. But the audience, packed into a tiny venue for such visceral, powerful rock and' roll, was thrilled to be jostled and moshed. If there'd been even a sprinkling of jerks or tweakers in the audience, the vibe could've easily turned angry, but, instead we were perfectly happy to literally get our Cons knocked off during the encore.

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Stellar Show No. 2: Jamiroquai, Black Cat, Washington, D.C., 1995

We're guessing a part of our response to this show was having low expectations, doubting Jamiroquai could reproduce their high production sound live. Sometimes it's great to be wrong. Everyone from the baggy-panted and sneaker-clad to the khakis and baseball cap-wearers literally could not stand still. The relatively small venue was electric, throbbing with the bassist's rhythm and infected by the lead singer's relentless energy and positive message.

Stellar Show No. 3: Tom Petty, Fleet Center, Boston, Mass., 2003

We'd always liked Tom Petty's music, but he seemed so damn mellow, it was hard to imagine him just shredding a show. But shred in fact he did. It was the last night of the Lost Cities Tour and every musician was on fire. The joy and enthusiasm expressed in their playing infused the audience who got to experience the comfort of a well known song catalog informed by a whole new live dimension.

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Stellar Show No. 4: Radiohead, Tweeter Center, Mansfield, Mass., 2003

Our first Radiohead show. We'd been aware of Radiohead for years but had no idea how on earth they were going to translate those atmospheres and layers into a live show. The venue was on the large side, but packed with the warmth of a rapturous crowd. Middle aged fathers and young sons alike singing lyrics together bathed in a light show which verged on the transcendent.

Stellar Show No. 5: LTJ Bukem, M Bar, Houston, 2005

Two hundred people and one of the most important drum and bass producers ever. On a Sunday night no less. A show of the initiated, especially in H-town which has a relatively modest D&B scene, with no accidental visitors and not much production value. No tranced out lights, just a tremendous sound system that brought the music into your chest cavity. Lots and lots of dancing and a strong communal vibe.

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Stellar Show No. 6: George Strait, Reliant Stadium, Houston, 2009

It beats us how a stadium show could've made the cut, but George Strait projected charisma all the way to the 70,000-person venue's rafter seats. There was a palpable respect and affection between the showman and his audience, over which he had total command. With a flip of the wrist he had everyone on their feet, and with a subdued voice, he had some in tears.

When looking over these shows, we're amazed by what didn't make the cut: David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Gabriel, Green Day, The Police, Chick Corea, Jane's Addiction, Elvis Costello. We also find it notable that they span across all sizes of venues, a variable we would've thought more important.

For these shows, at least the most significant commonalities we can deduce are more esoteric than quantifiable. There was an energy in the performances and a trust in the crowds, both with each other and with the artists. There was a setting aside of single, isolating self, resulting in a release of daily stresses and the creation of a shared experience whether that experience was aggressive or sublime or hedonistic.

And so it seems that finding oneself in the midst a great show is not unlike the alchemy of creating gold in which the experience is greater than the sum of its parts.

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