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Reflections on Noah & the Whale by Jacqueline Ristola

Monday, November 14, 2011

Noah & The Whale’s set at Calvin last Wednesday prompts me to ask one thing: what makes a good show? It is something I have been struggling with a bit because that usually is not defined. Was Noah’s show a good show? I have discussed this with a few people, many remarking about their professionalism as artists possibly inhibiting the audience’s ability to connect with the audience.

Now it’s true that aesthetically, Noah & The Whale created a very polished show. They had a distinguished consummate professionalism about them that I personally liked. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. I still enjoyed the music, it was a great, clear mix, and watching the artists perform it was especially gratifying (a big point in seeing artists live.) And after all, there was some informality with lead singer Charlie Fink’s remarks about the set itself, the politeness of the audience, and wishing a lucky Spencer, “Happy Birthday.”

Though it was a very professional performance, were we still able to connect with the artist? Is that even important? The Covenant Fine Arts Center is a smaller and more intimate space, so it definitely allows for that kind of relationship. (Not to say there isn’t intimacy with artists in arenas, just look at U2.) Personally, I definitely connected with them, particularly because their music was so relatable. They were singing about life and transformation. Their music is the essence of intimacy.

Take “Life is Life” for instance. The song’s tones are smooth and inviting. The song holds a kind of delight in the simple joy of making music. Meanwhile, the story of someone changing his ways and starting again is something we can all resonate with. Seemingly simple subject matter, but when added to music, any message becomes emotionally amplified and imbued with more meaning. For Noah & The Whale, nothing ever feels forced or disingenuous when Fink sings of the positive good in life.

Noah & The Whale’s performance of songs like these revealed something else to me, that listening to music within a live context is completely different in another way: it leads to new interpretations of the song. How the performers treat the song and how they act on stage adds meaning and emotional resonance to the songs. They become more powerful.  This leads to new and greater understanding of the music.

I realized this when they played “Old Joy.” Fink sang “Don’t dream of yesterday” – and I suddenly got the importance of what he was saying. The music and lyrics coalesced, and I really felt something profound, something never felt just listening to an mp3. 

This experience is totally unique to me; I can’t say if anyone else ever felt like that during the show. But perhaps that’s another reason to see live shows: moments of inspiration and profundity like that are spontaneous and ephemeral. You need great chemistry with the performers, with the audience,  and great art to tie them together.