Spinning the Web: Stay in, rock out!

Web concerts take the hassle out of live music

I may just be getting old. I'm turning 41 this week, and going to concerts gets harder and harder every year. But it's possible that I have this concert business licked. I've been enjoying live music lately without some bozo spilling my beer, without ending up smelling like an ashtray, with nobody screaming "ROCK AND ROLL!" or "YOU GUYS SUCK!" in my ear. There are no long lines at the bathroom, my ears don't ring when it's over and no stage divers kick me in the head.

It gets even better. The shows are free and clothing is optional. They take place, generally speaking, in my bed. Thanks to the five-speaker computer sound system that I plug my cable modem-fed, 15-inch display equipped laptop into, I've been watching live shows from all over the country, prone or cross-legged on my bed.

Because of the programming offered by several different Web sites, I can choose from a variety of live events on most nights, and if I choose to view a selection from one of these site's archives, I get added benefits. The bands start playing when I'm ready to hear them. If I need to get a beer or go make a phone call, they stop playing and wait until I'm ready before they resume. And if I fall asleep, they'll finish playing for me some other time.

Player schemes

These sites are making good use of vastly improved streaming technology, viewing software and the proliferation of high-speed DSL and cable connections to stream live music events to personal computers more effectively than seemed possible just a couple of years ago. These sites typically do offer streams for dial-up surfers, but at a lower quality than they can stream to people with faster connections.

The compression schemes for both Windows Media Player and RealPlayer, the two most popular streaming formats, is such that the quality of the audio still far exceeds that of the video. For the most part, if you blow the video up to fill your entire monitor screen, you get a pretty "low res" result. We're not quite to the point where this technology can stream "Citizen Cane" effectively, on demand, to your PC, but for live music, where visual acuity may be less crucial, we've arrived at a respectable technology. Future increases in bandwidth, processing power and improvements in streaming and playback software will only take us further.

One of the best sources of viewing options is on the Digital Club Network (www.dcn.com). A network based on live streaming, DCN offers extensive archives of shows from some of the best rock clubs in the country, including highly regarded joints like Lupo's in Providence, the 9:30 Club in D.C., McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and, yep, The Bottleneck here in Lawrence.

The DCN site features listings of upcoming shows, lists of the most popular shows in the archive and DCN's own recommendations. You can search their archives by artist or by club, and you can find artists by name or genre, and clubs by name or by state.

A quick search found six shows archived from my current fave Spoon, including its March 10, 2001, appearance at The Bottleneck, and three more solo shows by frontman Britt Daniels. All told, the archive currently contains about 90 shows from The Bottleneck and a few more from The Granada.

Getting a promotion

Another source for live concerts on the Web is the increasingly ubiquitous House of Blues. Having grown from a club to a chain of clubs, then from a chain of clubs into a nationwide concert promoter, HOB is now making its mark on the Web. Their Web site (www.hob.com) features both live events and archived shows (www.hob.com/live/ concerts).

Speaking of nationwide concert promoters, SFX is the 500 pound gorilla of the industry, having grown from the ashes of Bill Graham Presents to take over the operations of such regional promoters as Kansas City's Contemporary Productions, also has begun to delve into streaming live concerts on the Web. While the menu of selections may be thin on their site (promo.sfx.com/webcasts/index.asp), they balance the dearth of choices with some impressive quality.

The archived Web cast of former members of The Grateful Dead calling themselves The Other Ones, live from Mountain View, California's Shoreline Amphitheatre from last August may be the best sound and video I've seen streamed on the Web. Available for viewing in QuickTime, or Windows Media, the complete concert, which is viewed as two separate live sets, represents the current state of the art. The 300k Windows Media stream is stunning both aurally and visually. SFX tends to rely on events of major interest, such as an interview with Pink Floyd and the world premier of the new Black Crowes album this past May 2, performed live in front of a small studio audience.

I won't pretend that I think that "attending" concerts in this manner is a replacement or any real substitute for a live concert, whether it's a major event in a football stadium or gritty little rock show. But it does give me a chance to enjoy performances I'd otherwise have no access to. And I have to tell you, seeing Elliott Smith at the Vic in Chicago while propped up on my pillows on a Sunday morning is cool as hell, though the surround speakers under the bed do scare the crud out of my cat.

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