Could you imagine Ryan Adams or Sam Beam — Iron & Wine to us — or any one of the guys from Animal Collective turning somersaults onstage to get a belly laugh out of the audience? If you can't, I'm right there with you. Adams has always seemed a little too unpredictable for an audience to really cozy up to. Beam is intent on quietly conveying the weight of his poetic ruminations. And those in the Collective perform within an artful, self-made cocoon of noise.
So making fools of themselves just for the slapstick entertainment factor wouldn't be their style. They're three among many, many acts who left musical marks on the Aughts and followed in the footsteps of other artist-antagonists, noise-rockers, shoegazers and serious-minded singer-songwriters before them, implicitly establishing their distance from mainstream chart pop by making few concessions to the neatly packaged, universally digestible pop experience.
Inserting Adams, Beam and the Collective into that stage-acrobatics scenario isn't strictly a theoretical exercise. I actually saw an indie performer about a decade their junior — David Mayfield, leader of The David Mayfield Parade — do that very thing last year, to warm crowd response. Mayfield appeared as unselfconscious as could be, deflating the image of "frontman as unattainable sex symbol" with lots of good-natured gags. He's certainly no closer to Britney-style, radio-ruling pop stardom than Adams, Iron & Wine or Animal Collective — further from it, really — but the posture he strikes onstage couldn't be more different from theirs.
"I'm not afraid to be goofy and funny and just really entertain people," says Mayfield. "Because the bottom line is people today go to a concert to be entertained, and I think a lot of times performers forget that, and they want to stand up there and look pissed off and just be too cool for school. There are some bands that I love [that are like] that. I love to go and see the anger or the real depressing stuff. But for what I do, it's just about that entertainment."
That last sentence gets to the heart of how Mayfield understands his role — and he's not the only one among his 20-something and early-30-something peers to take that view. Among younger acts, we're witnessing something of a recalibration of what it means to be an artist. It could be that the ironic distance that characterized so much left-of-center music of the past couple of decades is collapsing in on itself. Or that genre niches have splintered to the point that the newly arrived generation of music-makers is more conscious of making what they do accessible; that accessibility and alternative-ness aren't mutually exclusive now; that the accessibility impulse offers a way for them to set themselves apart from their predecessors.
Take Justin Townes Earle, who never liked the idea of dwelling in the shadow of his formidable, politically charged folksinger father, Steve. Earle's jaunty banter and showmanlike demeanor onstage are, without question, not learned from his dad. In fact, Earle says he picked it up from the Grand Ole Opry and The Porter Waggoner Show.
Then there's Jonny Corndawg, who — stage name aside — avoids the irony-dripping faux-redneck shtick. Instead, he wittily repurposes his favorite bits of '70s-'90s country music culture in a way that's enabled hipster audiences to have a good, weird time at his shows, and has gotten him live appearances on WSM — where, on one occasion, he gave a shout-out to sentimental '80s country singer John Conlee, inviting Conlee to come hear him play.
During that night's show, Corndawg simultaneously set the audience up for a laugh at his own expense and expressed admiration for Conlee by asking if he'd shown up. Says Corndawg, "No! No, he was not there. Of course, he wasn't there." That was all part of the act. Playing it to the hilt, Corndawg went on and covered Conlee's song "Old School" anyhow.
JEFF the Brotherhood, too, will go to great lengths to ensure people get caught up in the anything-can-happen spirit of their garage-pop performances right along with them, which follows from how they view their relationship with the audience. Says Jamin Orrall, the drumming half of the duo, they want the experience of their shows to be "like everybody's hanging out together or something."
When it comes to songwriting, Caitlin Rose deals in some difficult emotions — like broken trust and regret — but in a live setting, she realizes that an entire set's worth of melancholia could be hard to take. So, she says, "Half the show, for me, is being able to make jokes and make people think I'm funny."
"I'm not bringing back vaudeville," Rose adds with a knowing laugh. "But, yeah, I try really hard to make a show different every time. ... People seem to forget that people are coming to see a show and not just coming to watch you express yourself, which there's nothing wrong with that. ... I would never want to slag anybody else off, because a lot of people do take their music very seriously. And I think I do in a way, but I don't think I take it as seriously in the way that other people do. I really enjoy entertaining."
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