Counting Crows + Plato
Way back in the late nineties, I was a Counting Crows fan. They had produced two great studio albums and 1998 saw the release of Across a Wire, a two-disc live album. To me, this album was a revelation. My favourite thing about going to a concert (and, by extension, hearing a live album) was when the songs sounded different from the original album version and this record had that in spades. The band played with almost every aspect of their songs: tempos shifted, arrangements differed, and even lyrics changed. I thought it was a impressive display of musical prowess. Then the lead singer, Adam Duritz, says this in the middle of the acoustic set:
"We're playing some of these electric songs because they've changed so much and because I think we really know how to play them now."
That stopped me. The songs had changed? They know how to play them now? It sounded like the songs somehow existed outside of the band and they were simply trying to capture them as opposed to them being the band's creations that they had dominion over. I'd never thought of music like that before.
I was recently reminded of Plato's Theory of Forms while reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (the book isn't really relevant to this discussion but I thought I'd mention it because it's a very entertaining read). In brief, the Theory of Forms is that there exist perfect Forms of all things in a realm that we cannot experience. This realm has archetypes of a perfect tree, a perfect circle, the perfect colour blue and so on. All the things that we experience are our best approximations and interpretations of these Forms. The chair that you are sitting in is an attempt to mimic the perfect chair-iness of the chair Form.
I've come to think of great music and great musicians in similar terms to the Theory of Forms. I'm always the most fascinated when it seems like the music has an existence of its own. I'm always the most impressed when musicians have the skill to give music that bigger context by revealing versions that all manage to capture the recognizable Form of a song and yet are completely distinct. I think of the best live shows as capturing this kind of struggle of great musicians trying to harness and express great music that is bigger than them.
One of the best places I know to experience bands channeling the Forms of their music is La Blogotheque's Take-Away Shows. It's a series of performances where bands play in unusual locations and circumstances. They may not have their usual equipment or set-up but you can always recognize the expression of their music. Where else can you see Mumford and Sons translate their song into French and serenade a Parisian woman? What does Arcade fire sound like in an elevator? Search through the full list to find a band that you know and hear a form that their music can take.