Grinding out some exercise on the exercycle and listening to a playlist on Spotify – a go-to set of live songs I like – got me thinking about live music in general.

Let’s face it – seeing the band you like “live” is the ultimate. They’re there in the flesh and pounding it out (though they may be somewhat far-off, large screens or not).

Can’t beat it? Well, it’s a mixed bag really. But let’s work the scorecards.

Hearing a band (or soloist) play live is potentially like being in their company.  If the lead players – the ones who get most of the spotlight and do the talking – are in a positive space, you get excellence and bonhomie. They chat, crack jokes, interact with the audience (in a positive way) – and might even go past their planned playlist.

If they’re grumpy or lame for whatever reason (long flights, no sleep, technical problems, band disagreements, wrong food or drugs ‘n alcohol) – you might get eyewash. In 1976, Eric Clapton played an Auckland concert in a real grump. His girlfriend (George Harrison’s ex-, from memory) hadn’t been allowed in for drug conviction reasons and he was getting heavily stirred by an idiot or idiots in the front row who were heckling him about his relatively gentle 461 Ocean Boulevard album, which was a bit of an MOR departure from the Cream and blues stuff his fans revered. At one point he introduced his faux-reggae song I shot the sheriff by saying “I’m going to play this and I don’t f**king care what you think.” Ouch.

That’s the essential difference between hearing a live version of an album song you know well. Some bands do them pitch-perfect, utterly true to the album in composition and length. Others tinker with the tunes a little – or a lot (think Dylan) – which can be risky but sometimes rewarding.

It’s fair to say some bands are disappointing live for a range of reasons. The songs they so carefully crafted over many days, weeks, months in the studio, that the engineers might have resurrected and embellished to be tuneful and complete, they then have to perform – and the result can be dire. You detect the melody, and the lyrics are there – but the musicianship may be woeful. Or there are key personnel missing – that distinctive vocalist or drummer – or they’re impaired in some way (name your cause…)  Or maybe they’re just past it.  Ian Anderson, who has kept Jethro Tull alive for 50 plus years now, can’t sing for love nor money – but persists in trying to, which is sad.

The sound may also be less than memorable because of the physical constraints – a poor auditorium, poor equipment, poor sound engineers.  Guitars may fail.

But the best get it right and you experience the magic of great tunes played well, with all the extras.

And the extras are worth waiting for. I love the dynamic you get from a vocal crowd (dickhead hecklers aside). Here’s a case in point. Peter Frampton gained huge notoriety in the late 1970s for a live double album (itself a bold rarity) which drew massive attention, in particular for the show-stopper – an extended version of his hit Do you feel like we do?  Frampton – an excellent guitarist and capable vocalist – was wowing the music world with one of the earliest uses of the vocoder – a device that turns vocals into wah-wah style sounds amplified through the guitar amp (at least that’s how I think it works).

As the song opens, the crowd recognises it and there’s a swell of acclamation, that resurges again and again at points through the song, like the crowd ole-ing a bullfighter. When he moves to utilise the vocoder, knowing it’s coming, they go nuts again. While not ascending into the lyrical heights – it’s a bit of a paen to having fun (and hedonism) – the song is just a musical joy live, and not anything like as captivating and stirring on the original album.

There’s a similar moment in the opening to the John Mayer song Gravity at a live convert that was widely distributed on CD and DVD. Mayer noodles around with a few licks and vocals and the crowd isn’t sure what song it is yet, but the instant he sings the word “gravity”, they go nuts…I love that moment.

Bands must get heartily sick of playing the same much-loved songs interminably, however, and varying them a bit helps keep them keen, but it is risky – the fans sometimes don’t appreciate the change from that killer riff or virtuoso vocalising. It is a delicate trade-off. A classic case in point is live versions of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, where the original guitar soloist and singer on it was Dave Gilmour. Gilmour does his thing in live versions and his solos are among the most popular around; Roger Waters also plays the song in his sets and a different lead guitarist covers Gilmour’s trademark riffs as best they can – they don’t want to copy and it’s hard to better the original but they give it a go.  And Waters does the singing which isn’t quite the same quality as Gilmour’s. Both live versions are still pretty good I have to say.

A live concert by one of your favourite bands can never be perfect, simply because they will invariably not play a song that’s special to you. The Stoic in me says them’s the breaks…go glass half full – the rest of the concert was a blast.  They’ll never satisfy everyone.

There’s also a clear distinction between live concerts by bands whose best was well in the past – who thus play a faithful “greatest hits” set – versus up-and-coming bands who have some hits but are making more, and who treat a gig as a chance to give their fans a real taste of the new numbers. That’s a bit of an artistic trade-off; to play nothing new tells me the band is resigned to no longer being creative, which is a shame.

And while new songs may be a mixed bag – in my experience the energy a good band will bring to performing something new can make up for a possibly less than stellar tune. I’ve been to concerts where I’ve known very little of the band’s music – they were an opener perhaps – and been pleasantly impressed. INXS opening for Cold Chisel in the 1980s at Tauranga was a case in point, and much more recently fellow Aussie band Boy + Bear doing the same for Elbow in Auckland.

The jury is still out on what long-term impact COVID-19 will have on the live music scene internationally but I don’t think concert-going will ever be quite the same.  Social distancing, face-masks and hand-sanitisers will struggle to hold sway when the stadium’s packed, people are juiced and dancing and the band is going off. But I imagine musicians the world over are looking intently on how they can get back to live gigging given its place these days in providing the vast majority of their income.