Seeing your musical heroes perform live is always an iffy proposition. Expectations are so high that they are bound to disappoint. If the artist sounds exactly like the album, you feel underwhelmed. If they sound totally different than the album, you feel cheated.
There are singers and groups that really know how to use a live show to expand on their recordings and make it a treat for the eyes and ears (Sigur Ros, for example). But in my admittedly limited concert-going experience, those are the exceptions rather than the rule. I am, however, aware that my fear of disappointment and horreur of crowds is probably keeping me from many opportunities to enjoy current and past musical favorites.
Recently Pierre and I went to hear not a hero of mine, but of his: jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Pierre has been a fan of Mehldau and his trio since the beginning of his career. Now I know very little about jazz, but a certain amount gets through by osmosis and even I can recognize Mehldau's genius-level skills.
More than 10 years ago, we saw him live for the first time at the jazz festival in Vienne, which is held in a 13,000 seat Roman amphitheater. The evening was a special trio night and featured two other groups in addition to Mehldau's: the Tord Gustavsen Trio from Norway (which has since become a quartet, I believe) and e.s.t. from Sweden.
I will say right now that both those other groups kicked Brad Mehldau's ass. The Gustavsen Trio were quite new at the time, but their skill, charm and energy quickly won the crowd over. e.s.t, led by pianist Esbjorn Svensson (who has sadly died since) was a real surprise, mixing elements of jazz, rock and techno for an electric performance. They would've been a hard act to follow for anyone, but Mehldau really did himself no favors by making the crowd wait for almost an hour to appear, playing tightly but rather emotionlessly for an hour, then disappearing without a word.
I know nothing about Mehldau personally, so I don't know if he was having a bad night or if he has some kind of social anxiety issues, but even Pierre agreed the performance was a let-down. However, whereas I would've probably stopped buying his albums after that, Pierre remained loyal and continued to buy and appreciate his music. So he jumped at the chance to see Mehldau at our much smaller neighborhood theater last week.
I realized I may have built this story quite a bit, so don't expect any radical transformations. Mehldau was not suddenly a charismatic, chatty performer. But in a much smaller venue, I was able to appreciate the virtuosic skill of Mehldau on piano, Jeff Ballad on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass much more than 10 years ago. The three have a comfortable rapport with each other on stage and Mehldau even picked up the microphone a few times to introduce them and thank the crowd.
Again, I don't really know enough about music to appreciate all the improvisation they do -- I tended to like the numbers where I could recognize the melody (including a beautiful version of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years") -- but Pierre was in heaven. So I guess that's a good lesson not to give up on your musical idols even if they have an off night. Another year, a different venue and you may fall in love (or like) all over again.