Sometimes you play the gear. And sometimes the gear plays you.
Live gear setups rule. It’s the first thing I check when I get to a show.
Most times it’s an artist’s best MIDI controller and a laptop. Other times it’s a big beautiful pile of wires and boxes. No matter what it’s exciting to look.
I’m not much of a dancer (someone call the fun police!). To be honest I’d much rather watch how artists wield their gear onstage.
One thing I’ve noticed from my hours of wall-flowering is that gear can steal the show. It overshadows whoever’s playing it. The gear seems like it’s playing the artist.
Don’t get me wrong. It takes talent to do it. But sometimes the gear just shines a bit harder. It’s rare but incredible.
Here’s 10 times gear was way more interesting than the artists playing it.
Radiohead – National Anthem Feat. the Ondes Martenot French Connection
Live performances are always a bit weird on Saturday Night Live. They edit them real fast to be all ‘edgy’ and ‘cool.’
But let’s be honest here, all you wanna see is Jonny Greenwood’s setup right?.
Look at that nylon controller and finger ring on the French Connection. Look at how he’s using that fingerboard. What are all those pedals? Is that a radio he’s messing around with?
Everyone else just seems like a prop. If I could recut this video it would just be a continuous shot of Jonny Greenwood’s gear.
Jonny’s kit definitely steals the show here. Unless you’re a huge fan of Thom Yorke’s stage presence…
Nils Frahm – ‘Says.’ Feat. The Juno 60 and Rhodes Piano
First of all, it barely even seems live. It’s virtually perfect. Second of all, the closeups of the gear are very intimate (no complaints here).
Every time the camera zooms out it’s almost shocking that Nils is even there.
It’s like the ghost of this song is inside every Rhodes and every Juno just waiting to get out—The hidden essence of the machine.
Nils kills this live performance. It’s so good that you almost forget that he’s there. Like the gear is steering the ship and he’s just along for the ride… Bravo.
Jeff Mills & The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra – The Bells Feat. The TR-909
If Beethoven was alive he’d probably have a TR-909 right? We can only hope so.
Thank goodness Jeff ‘The Wizard’ Mills has one. Because we get to watch this clip of him with the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra (over and over and over).
Who would’ve thought that one little 909 could overshadow an entire orchestra? Well it does. The woodwind, the brass, the percussion, everything stays in the shadow of that pumping 4/4 beat.
Mills is only there to set it loose to do its damage. The results are quite beautiful.
But if you’re ever wondering how to outshine an entire orchestra with gear, reach for the 909 without blinking and punch in a thumper.
Steps Ahead – In a Sentimental Mood feat. The EWI
Leave it up to Jazz fusion to bring out some pretty weird gear and it’ll definitely deliver. Michael Brecker’s solo on this interesting sax synthesizer is superb and strange all at the same time.
It’s hard not to wonder what that thing is the whole time. It’s actually an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). It’s a wind controlled synthesizer similar to a tenor sax.
The volume changes depending on how hard you blow into it. And the vibrato changes with teeth pressure.
Brecker’s looks pretty modded (note the red, yellow and green customization on the mouthpiece). This is one case where gear steals the show purely from being so strange.
Kanye West – Runaway Feat. the Akai MPC
Despite Kanye’s public rants and often bizarre public persona, he’s actually a superb musician underneath it all. And probably a gear-head too.
Take this SNL performance for example. He plays his MPC live during the song. And he plays it well at that. It’s even on a little column!
Unfortunately the MPC jamming doesn’t last nearly long enough. But it sticks around just long enough to outshine Pusha T’s verse.
I love ballet. But if I had to pick between ballet and watching Kanye fiddle with an MPC, I’d take the MPC any day. Sorry.
Aphex Twin – Live At Osmoze feat. His bedroom
Taking your live set from the bedroom to the club can be pretty tough. How do you recreate all that late night bedroom magic?
This Aphex Twin live set looks like he never even left his room. They just built a club around him and he didn’t even notice.
You can’t help but wonder “what is all that stuff? Does it all work even? Isn’t his back sore?”
No matter what the answers are this set is a perfect example of gear being the centre of attention. It looks like it’s all gonna swallow him up at any second.
Be careful in there Richard!
Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page Guitar Solo feat. a Bow
This one is a no-brainer. Jimmy Page’s guitar bow solo is possibly the most iconic use of rock gear ever.
In fact, some people may not even know Jimmy Page’s name. But if you ask them about Led Zeppelin they’ll say “oh yeah they play guitars with bows right?”
Pretty legendary. Who knows how he came up with it to begin with. Maybe we shouldn’t ask…
Overall the guitar bow is an example of gear defining the legacy of an entire band. Take a bow Jimmy.
The Maneken – I’m Table Live feat. the Reactable
A great way to divert attention away from yourself during a live performance is to play a giant light table that looks like your 5 year old self’s dream toy.
It’s called a Reactable and it reacts to all those cubes things he’s putting on it. The title is a pretty good description of how the gear is outshining the artist. It’s just called ‘I’m Table.’
Makes sense. When your gear is outshining you just say that you’re the gear. Maybe I’ll call my next track ‘I’m Ableton.’
Peter Frampton – Show Me The Way feat. The Talk Box
It’s getting pretty obvious that gear can steal the show. But when it comes to Peter Frampton It stole his entire career.
Whatever legacy Frampton has, it will always be heard through that signature Talk Box. Frampton definitely belongs in the Talk Box hall of fame. Right along with the next person on this list.
Kudos to Mr. Frampton for pioneering it as an instrument. But you’ve gotta wonder if he ever regrets letting that mouth piece outshine everything he’s ever done.
Zapp and Roger Troutman – So Ruff, So Ruff feat. The Talk Box
Sure, Peter Frampton experimented with the Talk Box. But Roger Troutman BECAME the Talk Box. He went full blown cyborg with it.
It’s almost like he was born with a Talk Box in his mouth. Roger is the Talk Box and the Talk Box is Roger.
Maybe this is the only example of machine and artist becoming one to share that spotlight.
Either way Roger is the Talk Box legend. Frampton may have made it famous, but Roger Troutman made it timeless.
Gear can Outshine Artists. And Maybe that’s a good thing.
If one thing is clear from these performances it’s that you have to be masterful with your tools before they outshine you.
So letting your gear take the spotlight isn’t a bad thing. It’s something to aspire to. Because it means that you’ve perfected your tools.
Better start practicing! So that one day you can let your gear take the lead.