published: 16 /
In the latest in his 'Condemned by Rock 'n' Roll' series, Ben Howarth expresses outrage at the price of many of this year's summer stadium gigs, some such as Madonna's 'Confessions' tour for which tickets cost over £100 each
Apparently, the UK market for live music is the healthiest it has been for years, with or without Wembley Stadium. In a habit acquired from American wrestling, the British public seem to have all learned to admire "showmanship", and are flocking to gigs like DVDs were never invented. Yet, the chances of seeing a teenager in an Arena these days is next to zero. Most 14 year olds are far too busy paying off humongous mobile phone debts and fretting about the tax on cigarettes to have a chance of forking out for a gig. As a result all the big shows are played by artists who have probably been around longer than the phrase "booking fee."
A few years ago Radiohead decided they wanted to subvert traditional gig culture by playing gigs in a big top. Now they play V, the most shamelessly corporate of all festivals, tickets for which sold out in 8 minutes. The uber-boy band Take That are making a successful comeback, with everyone who was 14 first time around now 26 and ready to relive their youth, though one imagines there will be rather less screaming as the ‘boys’ home in on middle age. You could even watch mega-gigs by the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi or the Eagles this summer. You might think the Eagles and Radiohead have nothing in common, but you’d be wrong - both bands want your money.
But nobody wants it more than Madonna, who is to play three dates on her 'Confessions' tour in the UK, two at Wembley Arena and one at Cardiff. Tickets for all three will sell out faster than the World Cup Final. The press will write them up with the kind of attention to detail they used to reserve for a “cash for honours” scandal, and fair enough, because the PR operation will be dazzlingly slick. If you live in West London, Madonna is probably a regular in your local pub, but nonetheless when she stops off on her 708 date world tour, it becomes an 'event."
We’re promised elaborate special effects, a parade of costumes and - blast - tunes from her embarrassing recent album. Everyone will conveniently ignore her absurd adoption of an Etonian accent, and there will be no mention of the dodgy mid-90's phase and her Sex Book. And yet, Madonna’s only gift seems to be for hiding the grim truths that she is a very average vocalist who has never made a truly satisfactory album, and that all her best ideas came from someone else. What we are all really admiring is her capacity to take lots of money from the public, and as a reward, we let her do it over and over again, happily paying over £100 to see her prancing about. With a skill like that, who needs talent?
The sad fact about these gigs is that they are essentially nostalgia shows. Even Radiohead - who remain a viable albums act - have been on the treadmill for long enough that any sense of novelty will have disappeared. I have nothing against bands graduating to the arena circuit - often called soulless, I think there is far more soul in the roar of 40,000 people than the cynical applause of 200 scenesters. Bands who reach these stages tend to make sure their guitars are tuned up properly and have enough songs to fill their allotted stage time, which are qualities often neglected on the indie circuit, particularly by local support acts. But there must be big shows around more worthy of our attention.
As luck would have it, there are. Bob Dylan and his band roll back into town this summer for dates in Cardiff and Bournemouth, and (though not without their critics) his performance these days is divorced from his past in a quite fantastic way. Van Morrison never seems to stop being on tour, and though most people who own 'Astral Weeks' seem to have ignored this, with his last two albums ‘Magic Time’ and ‘Pay The Devil’ he is quietly making the most enjoyable music of his career. Another band doing the rounds this summer are the Eels, perhaps the most underrated band on the alternative landscape, offer a long show equally divided between (should-have-been) classics and material from recent career highpoint,' Blinking Lights'. With a string quartet now in tow, E’s band are one of the best live bands on the planet, as ably demonstrated by their recent live album, 'Eels with Strings: Live at Town Hall'. You could do an awful lot worse than to spend some money on tickets for his summer shows - and you won’t have to take out a second mortgage to do it, either.