You’ve been to that concert where the star you’ve followed for decades strolls on stage in an old T-shirt and Nikes. He sings a few of the songs you loved as a teenager, then spends the rest of the show introducing the latest album you didn’t come to hear. You walk away feeling as though your youthful memories associated with his music are tainted by the experience. This was definitely not the case with Dwight Yoakam’s recent WYO Theater performance. Yoakam’s passion, enthusiasm and level of commitment in providing the best experience for his audience inspired me to apply those principles to my art.
If you attended the show, you’ll likely agree that while the sound was dreadful -— the fault of his own crew and not WYO Theater staff — Yoakam’s performance was planned, choreographed and practiced to an extent that it actually transcended the poor sound quality.
Yoakam could have relied on his “star power” and relaxed with this performance, as many big stars do. Half expecting a T-shirt and Nikes, I was delighted when he came out wearing his trademark hat, boots and those faded jeans, which — let’s face it — can’t be comfortable. Knowing that how they present their music is a major component of our concert experience, he and his band put effort into their dress and energetic attitudes.
A live performance is like an art show reception in that both physically connect the maker to their work, creating experiences that the buyer of a painting or an album remembers. It’s important that I devote time and my best efforts to presenting my art. Beyond technique and execution, I should consider receptions a chance to be an ambassador of my work, to provide a good experience for viewers by engaging in conversations and gaining helpful insight from feedback. I should take my role as a representative of Sonja Caywood Fine Art seriously and create memorable associations with those who view it.
Yoakam didn’t sit on a stool and churn through a few old songs, glancing at a set list as he chatted in between; one song ended and the next began, without a pause or a sip of water. The band played the entire concert as if it were one long and exciting song. A stagehand provided instrument changes on-the-fly. Their enthusiasm made each old track new and serendipitous.
Seeing them perform added new elements to my memories of his music and took me back in time: I was singing Honky-Tonk Man with my cousins to the radio, on a gravel road to a high school rodeo or a barn dance in South Dakota. I was dancing to a cassette with my baby boy on the hardwood floor of our little house.
As an artist, I shouldn’t get lazy and crank out old hits in hopes of hitting the same notes I used to; I should work to make my art transcend time and take the viewer to another place — a place remembered, or somewhere new. I should keep learning, so that what I produce continues to evolve and reflect my passion for what I paint, how I paint and why I paint. I need to put the time into my process and practice, so my work not only reflects my passion, but provides a genuine experience for viewers. That’s what art really is, after all.
Yoakam had the integrity not to compromise our nostalgic experience by trying to sell us his latest album. Most stars today use the spotlight to advertise something or share their political viewpoints.
Yoakam knew that this Wyoming audience wanted to experience the music we grew up to, and he delivered. An audience in Hollywood might want to hear his latest songs; he knew the difference.
Whether our art is performance, visual, literary or media, artists learn and develop new patterns and techniques as our work evolves. As we grow and express new ideas, we must consider each audience we present our work to. For example, a friend once showed me an early painting by an artist who later developed a more expressive style. My friend had little interest in the artist’s later work, but that painting brought him great joy. The artist would not try to coerce him into buying current work he’s not interested in. Some fans will love and buy anything an artist produces, and some will stay in one genre. The fact that he intuited and provided us the experience of the music we loved without cheapening it with advertising makes Yoakam a consummate artist and performer.
The performance cemented something my husband’s been asking me for years: “Are you trying your hardest?” To me it always meant, “slow down and make it look realistic.” I was afraid that “trying harder” might sacrifice spontaneity or emotion. It took Dwight Yoakam and his band years of practice and hard work to make this show feel extemporaneous. If I am committed to enthusiastically doing my best, it’s possible to make art that is expressive and also introspective.
I learned it’s not either/or; art can be mindful and spontaneous at the same time. I never imagined I’d learn so much from a concert.
Now, if I could just write-off the ticket price as professional development…