one of the things that you notice about most people who are really dedicated music fans is that most of them either start out as or eventually become musicians. i know lots of people who are into music and almost all of them are involved somehow in making music (and that's an incredibly incomplete selection).
although i won't claim that i've never dabbled my toe in the music-making waters, with the exception of a couple of noise-based experiments and a touch of insanity during my techno-dj years, i've steered clear of actually attempting any proper musicianship myself.
that means that, as energetic and passionate as i feel about music, my role tends to be one of passive receiver rather than creator. that's an odd position to be in with something you really love. i'm constantly evaluating the skills and performances of people whose talents i admire, knowing that, as "informed" as i like to think my opinion is, i could never put my money where my proverbial mouth is.
in recent months, i seem to have gone to a lot of shows, either of my own volition, or because i knew people who were going and felt like being social. i even helped organise one in toronto before decamping for montreal. these shows have ranged from straight-ahead indie rock to some pretty harsh noise/ power electronics. the venues have ranged in size from tiny boites barely able t accommodate a couple of dozen to places capable of holding an audience of a couple of thousand. (for various reasons, you're unlikely to ever see me in anything larger than that.)
determining what makes a good show is tricky. great sound helps (my bloody valentine in toronto on my birthday was one of the best shows i've ever seen and the experience was undoubtedly enhanced by the power of the sound.), but it isn't always necessary. some artists can overcome substandard sound with energy. (noise artists, almost invariably relegated to playing shows through sound systems less powerful than my home stereo, can pull this off.) human-scale interaction (i.e., not just shouting randomly into the crowd, but actually trying to connect with them) can add to the feeling of being somewhere special (wire, who played here in october, were charming on this level, despite seeming a little off their game technically). however, there are some shows (taint comes to mind) where the lack of interaction helps build the overall atmosphere of a performance. so it's largely dependent on context.
since there is undoubtedly a visual element to a live show, putting some effort into making some type of visual statement (particularly for artists where there is little action on stage) can help build a unique live "experience" (my bloody valentine, pram, nebris and visions all did this). the need for exuberance on stage is completely determined by the type of music being played. going to see the bug in july, it was necessary (and they delivered). at the visions/ nebris/ sighup/ ourobouros show a few weeks earlier, it would have been inappropriate.
but ultimately, what defines a great live show experience is a sort of energy, something i'll describe as a symbiosis between artist and audience. if you don't believe me, think back to shows where the audience has been uninspired by what they saw (not antagonised, but simply left cold). i guarantee that it was a bad show for all involved. without actually giving them creative control over the sounds, a great live show bridges the gap between artist and audience, making the audience more than just passive listeners and transforming their role into a key part of what happens on stage.
i may never be a musician (really, i'd rather stick to writing anyway), but the best experiences i have at live shows still make me feel like a participant-observer, rather than simply a receiver. and the possibility of that happening is why i'm keen to continue as an audience member, until i'm too deaf to know what's going on.