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Thursday
Oct042012

Flash, Brass & Amos

Despite the fact that the length of time I've lived in London can now be measured in decades, last night was the first time I've been to the Royal Albert Hall. The bands I tend to see play venues closer in size and quality to Whelans Pub in Dublin or, if I'm lucky, the Empire in Shepard's Bush. I tend to associate venues with a particular type of artist so it seemed rather fitting that my first trip to the Royal Albert Hall was to see Tori Amos joined by the Metropole Orchestra.

Tori Amos & The Metropole Orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall

So first the bad news. I never realised or appreciated that when I've attended classical or orchestral performances in the past, they've been in smaller venues that didn't require thousands of kilowatts of amplification to ensure the entire audience could hear. I shouldn't have been surprised that the 'band' needed a big setup to ensure the 5,000+ people in the audience could hear in a venue as capacious as the Royal Albert Hall.

And here's a totally non-shocking revelation. My sound system at home, designed to produce the best results for just one person, is better than the sound system used in the Royal Albert Hall last night. Rock lacks the subtly that can expose the limitations of sounds systems designed to fill big venues, but as soon as you have string and brass instruments the limitations of those stadium filling systems become apparent. Those Amos songs that make full use of the big wall of sound that an orchestra can produce fared better, while the more nuanced songs sounded clipped and brassy. Which seems ironic as the brass section, French Horns in particular, sounded rather good. And that forte of big sound systems, bass you can feel in your torso, wasn't there. From a pure musical fidelity perspective listening at home was more rewarding.

But there is something about a live performance that the best equipment at home can never reproduce, and when those crowd pleasing tracks burst from the stage all thoughts of music fidelity dissolve when faced with the sound of cheers from the audience. No one was there last night to critique the amplifiers or speakers, we were there with 5,000 other fans to enjoy 50 musicians at the top of their game.

This was not music produced and processed over weeks, this was live, one take, winner takes all music. There were the odd mistakes, swearing and even a do-over on the first song, but this was an experience that no CD can compete with. This was the Tori Amos who proved on her last album what that full classical sound can bring to her music and is now applying that sound to some of the best of her back catalogue. This was fusion music, new skills applied to old favourites. This was Deutsche Grammophon, the teenage years.

My other recollection from last night was camera related. It seemed almost everyone last night had a camera. Not just smartphones, there were a few big Digital SLR cameras to be seen dotted amongst the audience. This touches on one of my pet hates, people using camera flash in stadiums. There were several photo journalists present for the first song, and anyone who took a moment to watch them should have noticed that despite the darkness in the hall none of them were using flash or focus assist lights. You could hear camera shutters fire every now and again but there was not a bright flashing light to be seen.

While the pros weren't using flash most of the people using camera phones were. I won't take the time to explain the physics but when you're sat 50 metres from the stage the little LED camera flash powered by the 5 volt battery in your phone can't compete with, or add to, the 100,000 watts of state of the art stage lighting. All you do is run your battery flat and light the back of the head of the person in front of you, and last night I caught glimpses of the backs of lots of heads. I don't have a problem with people using cameras in venues like this (some of the photos I took last night are in this post) but it would be nice if they understood that flash doesn't work in these types of situations and stopped illuminating people's bald spots.

But despite small minded complaints about cameras and performance of the sound system, my first trip to the Royal Albert Hall, and my first time seeing Tori Amos live resulted in a night to remember, for all the right reasons.

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