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Good music performances have little to do with music

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Music

The Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd and Radiohead consist of amazing musicians and are known for having some of the most stellar live shows in history. But there is more to a mind-blowing concert experience than just good music.

Bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Nirvana relied on their excellent musicianship to draw crowds but are not known for having particularly intense visual effects. Bands like Muse, The Flaming Lips and OK Go, on the other hand, take full advantage of technology and crowd involvement, allowing the show to evolve beyond the music.

OK Go played in Columbus recently, and it inspired me to ponder this question: What makes one concert more memorable and impressive than others? What I came up with has little to do with the music, surprisingly.

“Supersonic” effects draw in the audience, transfixing them even if the song is unrecognized — and if it’s the song you went to hear, the EMT’s should be on hand.

The Flaming Lips enter the stage through a psychedelic-colored vagina on a massive screen, and lead singer Wayne Coyne rolls around on the crowd in a human-sized hamster ball.

OK Go’s singer Damian Kulash plays a “campfire song” with his guitar and mic stand in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by his fans. When the band members return for their encore, with their backs to the audience, their jackets light up with LEDs, like a slot machine flipping through O’s, K’s and G’s, and perform with fuzzy neon glowing guitars.

Muse’s show is just surreal. The band members stand on platforms that rise and fall, and there are so many lasers, colorful lights and screens. You might think you’re in a James Cameron film.

Lasers are important.

Before some concerts, The Flaming Lips hand out laser pointers to the crowd, and at the climax of an intense breakdown, Coyne will ask everyone to point the lasers at him. He glows like an extraterrestrial fluorescent robot. He then breaks out gigantic plastic hands with lasers shooting out of the palms, which he aims at massive disco balls.

Confetti is a must. Strobe lights are recommended. And fog is a basic necessity. But a 3-D video? That’s overachieving.

OK Go handed out free 3-D glasses to the crowd to watch the band’s viral music video for “White Knuckles” in a new dimension. The crowd went nuts. But the video had an error about 30 seconds in, which leads to the next element: improvisation. Bands should learn from Ozzy Osbourne’s bat-munching incident and just do what feels natural.

In the instance of technical difficulties, it is necessary to keep the crowd’s energy levels high. OK Go’s solution was to act out a scene from “Les Miserables.” Humor is a bonus.

Adaptation to the environment is important too. When The Flaming Lips performed in Pittsburgh in 2010, the band rigged microphones to the nearby train tracks. Coyne flipped out when a train came by. The crowd was excited by his excitement, and forgave him for stopping a song to listen to a train.

Did I mention confetti?

Confetti storms are like fireworks, only they won’t set the crowd ablaze. So it kills a few hundred trees — destroying an entire rainforest for a finale is totally worth it and adds an interesting pulpy flavor to the crowd’s beer.

Getting the audience to participate is important for maximum goosebumps. Making the audience feel close with the band is important. Whether it’s letting them sing a line in a chorus, chant back and forth on cue or come up on stage, it can make a memorable moment.

If a band can play music well, good for it. But putting on a truly amazing show takes an extra level of talent and creativity, adding a whole other dimension to a band’s songs.

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