5:53 PM EDT, August 18, 2013
I heard rock 'n' roll's future, and its name is Headphones & Snowcones.
Let me explain. Saturday night, at the open-air venue at Northerly Island on Chicago's lakefront, the Chicago-based "jam band" Umphrey's McGee played one of its usual raucous shows before a near-capacity crowd that swayed and bobbed and danced along.
Twenty people in that crowd, me included, experienced the concert with the addition of a pair of high-quality headphones you can rent from the band, filling your head with a perfect audio mix fed directly from the soundboard. The rental program is named Headphones & Snowcones, after an early UM song.
While other musical performers surely won't keep the name Umphrey's has chosen for the concept, it is hard for me to imagine, after having seen hundreds of concerts the old-fashioned way, that other bands will not turn this into a bandwagon. The idea is too good, the experience too vital and the technology too available to not have it spread.
The last time something this innovative made such instant sense to me, musically, was two decades ago when I saw Alejandro Escovedo (touring after his solo debut "Gravity" record) on the tiny stage at FitzGerald's blending punk, classical and country like some mad, dapper musical alchemist. I imagine Jon Landau had a version of that feeling after the critic went to see a New Jersey rocker in 1974 and wrote, famously, "I saw rock and roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
A UM-style headphone option won't be for every band at every venue on every night. But forward-thinking musicians — or concert venues — need to make it part of the standard show repertoire, a welcome addition to the $30 t-shirts, mandatory encores, bloated summer festivals and obligatory playing of a blues song in Chicago (because, touring bands seem to assume, we don't hear enough blues here on other days). So much about concertgoing has become rote. Headphones — offering hi-fi sound at the listener's control — kick the experience in the backside.
What you hear with those headphones on is, simply, everything. All the little nuances of the rhythm guitar. All the harmonies of the backing vocalists. And the full, properly balanced sound the band is making.
Even when the live mix is very good, as it was for Umphrey's at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion Saturday, you put the headphones on and hear an extra something. It was especially helpful for the vocals, which went from being the slightest bit lost in the open-air mix to clearly defined — another instrument in the sound, but distinct within it, like they would be on a well-made studio record.
More than that, the 'phones eliminate most of the things at concerts that drive me nuts, taking my attention away from where it ought to be.
The dude next to you who insists on recapping the previous night's hockey game with his bros and then yelling for "Free Bird" during the slow ballad you can't believe the band is actually playing live for the first time in a decade? Silenced. The dude on the other side of you who sings every lyric with more volume and passion than talent, especially during the same ballad? Suddenly, he's doing pantomime.
The kind of muddy, occasionally echoing house sound, like I heard at Symphony Hall recently for a Richard Thompson, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris show? Or the vocals that are being overwhelmed by the guitar, at least from your vantage point in the Vic or the Aragon? Both fixed.
And also cured is any complaints you may have about volume level, whether too loud or not loud enough. Simply turn the knob on the radio receiver in your pocket that the headphones plug into, and the amount of noise being made becomes just right.
The headphones can't fix bad beer choices: At Northerly, it was easier to find a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita — I am not making that product name up — than a decent craft beer. They won't remedy a band that's just going through the motions, or fans who spend most of the show shooting never-to-be-watched (and unlistenable, anyway) cellphone videos. They won't stop the Ticketmaster-Live Nation-"service fee" cartel.
But while the headphones can't fix long bathroom lines, they can let you keep hearing the show while you are waiting. Saturday, I lost sound temporarily only while inside the mobile trailers housing the toilets and while behind the big stadium seating arrangement at the back of the venue. There were also occasional brief hiccups — not full interruptions, just very slight breaks in the flow — from more central vantage points, too.
But even through that the sound stayed perfectly in sync, singers' moving lips matching the sounds being made, as it would have to be for the band to be using the same technology.
Umphrey's, which has prided itself on innovation and fan-friendliness since forming at Notre Dame in the late 1990s, has wanted to offer the headphone option for about a decade, the band's director of development (and former sound engineer) Kevin Browning told me last week. When he took the front-office job and stopped touring full time, he was able to work out the logistics, even as the technology had been getting better and cheaper.
Beginning with a show in March, UM hands out the same, $500 Sennheiser RF receiver that the band members use for their on-stage earphone mixes, and $150 Audio-Technica ATHM50 headphones.
So you reserve the 'phones by e-mail in advance: $40, plus a $500 credit-card hold against the safe return of the equipment. (At those rates, assuming reasonable equipment longevity, the program could also be a new revenue source for a band or venue.) Umphrey's crew hand them out from a table right in front of the soundboard. A quick lesson in how it works — plug the phones in, click the volume knob on the BlackBerry-size receiver — and you are free to roam, a mobile audiophile.
One guy who saw me with them first assumed they were for hearing protection, which I like to think didn't have anything to do with me being more than twice as old as most of the people there. Then he tried them on. Several others asked for a sample, as well, and I saw their faces light up. Rather than setting me apart from the crowd, they made me more a part of it.
That's how Brent Leopold decided to rent a pair for the Chicago show. "A buddy of mine did 'em one time back at Summer Camp," said the 29-year-old Moline resident, referring not to a YMCA getaway but to the annual downstate music festival where Umphrey's is a fixture.
Leopold, who has seen UM "about 55 times, and that's not a lot compared …," wanted to share the experience with girlfriend Jandi Ludin, so he sprung for the $40, and they watched the show from a center-back position, trading off turns with the 'phones during the tune "Plunger."
"It's like listening to a CD with your earphones in at the show," he said.
Yes, sort of. But you still have the communal experience. You still see the plastic flamingo being held aloft up front. And you still feel the jolt and energy of the bass. Those sound waves keep coming even as your ears are hearing something more refined.
And while you may be a curiosity with those big cans on your head at a show in the summer of 2013, here's hoping that, someday soon, what'll be unusual is when concertgoers don't have that choice.
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