Music shows bring viewer up close & personal

While pop culture historians may be scratching their heads a hundred years from now over the meaning of the almost inexplicable popularity of such bands as Duran Duran, Culture Club and Huey Lewis and the News in the 1980s, the musical zeitgeist of the 1990s should be much easier to read.

Starting with MTV’s highly successful “live” acoustic music show “Unplugged” in 1991, a lot of music fans made it clear that they now preferred bands and music that could handle the relative insecurity of a stage show sans big sound and flashy effects. They wanted to see and hear their favorite artists up close without the bombast of a stadium event or a music video that was more concept than content.

This year, the form is proving ever-more popular with at least four new live music shows now seen on cable and broadcast television — on A&E starting last year, on MTV and VH-1 earlier this year, and this summer when “Sessions at West 54th,” hosted by Chris Douridas, debuted on 250 public television stations nationwide.

“I think it’s all part of a cycle,” says Douridas. “We had shows like (Don Kirshner’s) “Midnight Special” in the 1970s, but music videos really did away with all that.”

Now the pendulum is swinging back. “Music on television has become so boring and predictable,” says Jeb Brien, “Sessions” executive producer. “I think most people are tired of forms where production seems to have precedence over the music.”

Unlike its more mainstream competitors, “Sessions” is geared for musical acts most fans aren’t likely to see on network television. “It’s more fun to uncover something you didn’t have yesterday,” says Douridas, who also hosts KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” “whether it’s a new look at an old song, a brand new act or a collaboration between artists who haven’t worked together before.” On an upcoming show featuring the Philip Glass Ensemble and the L.A. trio eels[cq], Natalie Merchant sits in for one song with Glass, the melody by Glass and the text (in Latin no less) by Merchant. “We’re not making anybody do their single,” says Douridas. “It’s similar to the mind-set of the radio show. It’s family. It’s loose. We want the musicians to challenge themselves.”

More bangs for the buck

Unlike some of its commercial counterparts, one of which has a reported promotional budget of $30 million, “Sessions” is on a tight budget, just “north of $3 million” for 26 shows, according to Brien. “We’re the Miramax of music shows,” he jokes. “Quality for the price.” That means, by necessity, a leaner operation, a leaner sound and a sparer look. The set is lit cinematically, which means that despite the studio’s five-camera setup, directors often will stay on a single shot for more than a minute. And with a staff of 60, which Brien estimates is 15 shy of a full-budget complement, producers have to hustle each show into a final cut and audio sweetening within four days.

“Sessions” is taped at the state-of-the-art Sony Music Studios in Manhattan (as are the freshman shows “Live By Request” on A&E and VH1’s “Hard Rock Live”), which means that no matter how low-ball the budget, the probability of rich, textured sound ending up on tape is high. “It really comes down to technique,” says Andy Kadison, studio vice president of operations and program development. “We’re set up here so that the producers and engineers can approach any show as if they were making a record.”

Up until four or five years ago, sound designers and engineers were kept out of the loop when it came to music on television. “Audio was way down the list of priorities,” says John Harris, a music mixer who works for Effanel Music, a remote recording company based in Manhattan. “If you heard anything, that was good enough for most producers.” Harris, who mixes “Live By Request” and “Hard Rock Live,” says that has all changed. “You have a generation of listeners who have CD players on their bicycles. Obviously they’re a little more discriminating about what they expect to hear.”

Live and well

That makes for a particular challenge on “Live By Request.” Of all the new music shows, “Live” actually is broadcast live, in real time. So far there have been just three shows, two featuring Tony Bennett in February of 1996 and 1997 and this June’s two-hour James Taylor concert. The show is about as spontaneous as live television gets with, among other things, viewers calling in on an 800 line to talk to Taylor and make their request on the spot. “We do a lot of planning,” says Harris, who spent hours listening to Taylor rehearse, mapping out the arrangements. “We set up as if we were preparing to do the final mix of a studio album.”

Despite the advent of digital tape recorders, digital processors and fiber optic transmission, Harris and other sound engineers say the actual method of recording live music remains largely unchanged from three decades ago. In fact, Harris and Kadison say the microphones they use most often were made 25 years ago and that in certain quarters of the sound world, vacuum tubes are making a comeback. “Some of the old technology has a sound you really can’t surpass,” says Harris.

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