YOU ENTER the stream of bodies pouring through the portholes of Madison Square Garden. You get caught up in the tide. Into the awesome space – the impersonality of the place is scary.
Why am I here? Their blockbuster records each contain a few songs I admire for the ingenuity of their construction, but most of them just go in one ear and out the other. Yet Fleetwood Mac are a phenomenon as much as they are a group; perhaps more an economic phenomenon than a musical one though.
So I wanted to know: how do these hit-makers face up to the crucial point when performer meets audience? Not that there is likely to be much of a confrontation here. When a group reach Mac’s status, their audience isn’t sifting out there waiting to judge. They come to adore, to receive the blessings of a magic presence.
The physical scale of the event reinforces the impression of a ritual removed from the constraints of communication. That stage is so big, so distant, the human figures are so small they could be toys, puppets on strings. But the space gives them certain grandeur as well, since they command it with amplification and volume.
We can hardly see them, but we know they are there. They must be Gods.
To their credit, Fleetwood Mac don’t play up to this arena-deification syndrome. There is a minimum of pretension in their stagecraft: no light shows or flashy sets, and they don’t come on haughty or imperious. At times, there is genuine warmth and grace in their show (particularly when Christine McVie is singing); and at other times there’s a real urgency and power straining to come through.
But they are trapped up there as surely as we in our seats are trapped down here. That’s a pity.
They look like woody, seedy California communards, except for Lindsey Buckingham who seems like a rich hippie whose parents had just made him get a haircut. But they sound good, confident players kicking into their material with conviction. Often, they sounded like a rock and roll band (surprise) as opposed to a pop machine, the harder edges driven in by Buckingham’s rhythm-guitar and Mick Fleetwood’s powerful, propulsive drumming.
The mixture of styles they present smacks heavily of an attempt to provide something for everyone. But this is probably the natural result of the three different personalities alternating as band leaders, and, much more so than on record, Fleetwood Mac in concert seem like three different bands.
Behind Stevie Nicks, they are mellow, temperate, cruising on automatic, unprodded and unchallenged. Nicks is supposed, I know, to be an enigmatic, mystical child, and all that baloney, but this translates into a haughty reserve that makes her seem either stiff or scared.
There is little natural ease in her manner. She projects no warmth, only an artless self that seems to leave her unaware of the vast audience watching her pout into her private mirror.
Rumours that Nicks is losing her voice seem partly true. In comparison to her earlier recordings she has lost some of her high range. That little girl sweetness isn’t there. This is most obvious on “Landslide,” a sensitive poetic number she sings with Buckingham accompanying on acoustic guitar.
I also expected more kinetic energy from Nicks. She should fly, or at least move a bit when singing lines from “Rhiannon” about being “taken by the sky.” But everything about her delivery is strictly pedestrian.
Christine McVie’s voice is delicious. Live, it sounds better than on record, richer, charged with commitment and more soul.
As a performer, she is sedate, hiding behind her keyboards as if playing a supporting role, even when singing lead. But she has an air of sincerity about her that makes her odes to love won and lost at least seem hearfelt and genuine. Her “Say You Love Me” is a perfect opener for the concert, breezy, rocking, a good opportunity for the band to display a full, confident sound.
As a songwriter, though, McVie doesn’t always hit that high mark. Many of her numbers allow the Fleetwood rhythm section to coast along and the band to present a sound that is just a finely tuned version of West Coast mellow rock.
It was down to Lindsey Buckingham to move the band into anything approaching strenuous action.
His first song of the set is “Not That Funny” which seems off-hand and lightweight on Tusk but here is a brash and forceful romp. On “What Makes You Think You’re The One” Buckingham really comes out. He emphasises the quirky, stop-start rhythms of the song, and moves like a cross between Elvis Costello and David Byrne; not a trace of El Lay laid-backness in sight.
With his well-tanned and innocent face, Buckingham looks odd carrying on like a wired-up new waver, but never mind. He’s funny, a treat to watch, and he makes the band earn its supper keeping up with him.
“Go Your Own Way” is a heady mix of perfect harmonies and if Fleetwood Mac were always this good, I’d listen to them all night. But the best moment was “Tusk.”
Tapes simulated the special effects of the record, while Mick Fleetwood churns out a powerhouse beat, rock and roll jungle drums. The song is an off-beat setting within which Buckingham can go nuts, spewing chord clusters and random vocal shrieks like freak time at the zoo.
I’d never thought Buckingham would be a guitarist to watch, but he is. He’s accomplished but not too flash, and knows how to cut loose. Only on “I’m So Afraid” does he fall into a plodding, heavy metal-type mush.
There are other lapses: “World Turning” seems to sit still; other songs (as on their albums) just pass by, proficiently executed but undistinguished.
What purpose is served depends on what purpose brings you here. If you are a fan, you’ll probably be pleased. Recreations of the songs you know and love are delivered with skill and fidelity, with an occasional extra push of energy derived from the live setting. The show’s not a cheat.
But there is little intimacy or contact, and aside from Buckingham’s surprising commitment to rocking out, there are cracks in the established images these people have painted in the media mind, no new insights into who they are or why they do what they do.
If you are looking for something challenging, like to see a band thinking on its feet, or are seeking great moments in the creation of pop/rock music, spend your money elsewhere.
© Richard Grabel / NME / December 1, 1979 (Accessed via Rock’s Backpages)