Commentary

Charisma energizes a musician's stature

Updated: November 17, 2009, 2:43 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

After 40 minutes of Leonard Cohen's show in Kansas City's gorgeous Midland Theater, I looked to my left at the retirees in my row. That their presence a few hundred feet from Cohen had contorted their faces into expressions of rapture confused me, because I was as bored as I've been since a University of Kansas vespers night when I was 10.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Cohen
Tomas Hudcovic/isifa/Getty ImagesLeonard Cohen's stage presence, story-telling and soothing voice entertain members of the audience who aren't even enjoying his music.

This is not going to be a discussion of Leonard Cohen's relative musical worth. A part of me would like to write Mr. Cohen to ask for my $50 back. (Another part of me would like him to stop singing "Hallelujah," which is, of course, his own song, but which, when sung by Jeff Buckley, is one of the best 10 songs I've ever heard. As opposed to when Cohen sings it and it becomes only one of the best 6,000 songs I've ever heard.) I know I'll gain very little traction with my analysis of Cohen, and I recognize that seeing him perform at 75 is something like interpolating from my 88-year-old grandmother's hug what her sex life was like at 26. That is to say, (1) unfair and (2) gross.

Instead, I'm going to put a positive spin on Cohen's performance. Because while I didn't necessarily enjoy my three hours at the Midland, I didn't leave early. I stuck around because, like three other musical acts I've seen recently, Leonard Cohen was saved by charisma.

In Cohen's case, charisma was self-deprecating humor and a storytelling ability that would have moistened the underwear of the women next to me, if that were not a physical impossibility at their ages.

When I watched Gogol Bordello for the second time this year, at a small theater in Lawrence, charisma meant that I didn't care that I understood approximately 2 percent of what lead singer Eugene Hutz said or sang during a typically riotous evening with his band of gypsy-punk rockers.

For Valient Thorr, an ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek rock/metal band that claims to be from Venus, charisma meant funny and charming in a strange, long-haired, grimy sort of way.

And as I watched Art Brut, charisma was that I was able to look past lead singer Eddie Argos' complete inability to, well, sing, captivated as I was by his general humility and magnetic personality.

It didn't hurt that, in all four cases, the musicians backing their respective singers had musical talent to spare. But, while technical ability made each show palatable, the ingredient that amplified the experience was the ability of each singer to project his personality to the crowd.

Like the elusive concept that is chemistry on a sports team, charisma is impossible to measure. But also like team chemistry, charisma is the trait that takes a good act to great, a mediocre act to acceptable, or, in the case of Cohen, an act I might have abandoned at intermission to an act for which I grudgingly stayed through two encores.

Of course, charisma can mean many things. I don't want to spend the month defining concepts (for the uninitiated, I spent last week's column trying to define post-rock), but because I've come this far, I suppose I have to. When it comes to live music, charisma isn't defined by interaction with a crowd. Often, it simply means that we in the audience are made to feel that we'd like to get to know the person onstage.

At Lollapalooza this summer, singer Alice Glass of Crystal Castles wasn't worried about connecting with her audience. But as she staggered around the stage with a bottle of vodka in her left hand, I had the overwhelming urge to get to know her. And not necessarily like that, perv-o.

If Argos had tried the same thing, it wouldn't have worked. Because that's not Argos' personality.

I've had teachers and coaches say that their primary piece of advice to an apprentice would be for that person to teach or coach within his personality. If a teacher is a laid-back soul who is able to take in stride multiple comings and goings within a classroom, he should have a more liberal approach to bathroom passes. If a coach is a neurotic micro-manager who needs to know every daily move of his players, he should have those players implanted with microchips and tracked on his phone.

The same is true in music. Live music, that is. Because charisma doesn't necessarily translate to bits of data or grooves in wax. We can be fooled into thinking it does: After listening to the Arctic Monkeys for years, I would have thought their live show would be a bonanza of audience/lead singer rapport. It wasn't, in part because said singer's brogue is so thick that it sounded like he was speaking Klingon, but also because it's possible he simply doesn't do rapport all that well.

As it becomes more and more difficult to profit from record sales, the mysterious and enigmatic concept that is charisma becomes more important to musicians. On the current musical playing field, acts are struggling to even survive, let alone make money. The only way to do so is to tour relentlessly

This might not be a bad thing. As I've mentioned time and time again, so much so that I probably need to be muzzled on the subject of live music (or at least given a two-week timeout during which I can only discuss albums), I think music is supposed to be consumed in live form. That my belief is shared by around 14 percent of the population is hammered into my brain anytime I ask people to accompany me to a show.

"But, Paul, have I ever heard anything by these guys?" The answer to that question doesn't matter. I hadn't heard a thing by Gogol Bordello (except during my first encounter with them, this summer) before going to see them. Gogol Bordello is unapologetically a live band. Recordings of their work don't do them justice.

The same was true for Valient Thorr. Before going to watch that band, I recalled, vaguely, that they had contributed a song to Guitar Hero, but I couldn't even remember whether I had liked it. (A debate I settled immediately prior to the show. I played "Fall of Pangea" on Hero and recalled that, no, I didn't really like it.) That I hadn't heard anything by Valient Thorr before the show wasn't important. Once ensconced in front of the stage, I was drawn in by the fun the band was having onstage. The music mattered, of course, but the energy that music carried with it was what the audience paid for.

And, of course, it was no different for Art Brut. Because who among us has heard an Art Brut song on the radio?

My attendance at all three shows was stimulated by the recommendations of others. These recommenders had been impacted by the show enough that they told me I would be a fool to miss. Thankfully, for the sake of any future suggestions she might make, the Leonard Cohen recommender was also responsible for Art Brut.

Which brings us back to Mr. Cohen. After multiple discussions on the subject of Cohen's impact on popular music, I've been convinced not to eviscerate the show I saw. Those on the other side of the argument would say that the concert I watched was more a celebration of his lengthy career than it was a performance, per se. I maintain that, if I walk into a concert hall off the street and pay for a ticket, I should be able to expect to be entertained, on some level. It is my belief that art -- no matter how challenging or unpleasant to view/hear/absorb -- should be engaging.

Which is why I have to concede the Cohen-lovers' point, to some degree. Because even while I allow that I didn't enjoy his music, I would be remiss if I didn't admit that Cohen was engaging. But mostly when he wasn't singing. When he spoke to the audience, when he introduced his band, and, above all, when he recited spoken-word poetry in that comforting voice of his, even I was transfixed.

Like the front men of Gogol Bordello, Valient Thorr and Art Brut, Cohen was at his best without an instrument in his hand, which reminds me that the rock band I'll never have should employ both a lead singer and a lead guitarist. We'll leave the multitasking to J. Mascis.

The absence of an instrument is an important consideration in our survey of rock star charisma. It seems to me that bands are faced with an important decision: singing and playing or singing and creating a vibe with the audience. All the more impressive, then, when all three are accomplished. Here's looking at you, Kelly Jones of Stereophonics.

But the Kelly Joneses are few and far between. Much of the time, musicians are forced to choose. This consumer's advice: The instrument should be the first thing to go. After watching four very different kinds of musical acts, it's obvious to me that, if an entertaining live experience is the goal, bands should forget about having their lead singers play an instrument. Let them concentrate on building up a relationship with the audience. The result will be a positive one, whether it's because the audience feels like it wants to start a riot after the show or because I didn't leave at intermission.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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