Could the critical rock 'n' roll question at concerts soon shift from "How ya doin' (insert city name here)?" to "Can you hear me now?"
Don't laugh. In the ongoing search for ways to leave rock musicians and concert-going fans with happy memories instead of permanent hearing loss, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last week held an experimental "quiet concert" with, of all acts, the Eagles of Death Metal, the side project of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Both bands play tonight at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood.
Instead of playing at volume levels that make listeners resemble those Maxell magazine ads with the rock aficionado grasping a chair as the speakers in front of him blast his hair straight back, EODM began the performance with no amplification. But it wasn't unplugged either: The band's instruments were plugged directly into a mixing board with signals sent to headphones through which the musicians and audience members listened.
"It was the wildest thing I've ever done in my life," says EODM singer Jesse Hughes. "It was such a bizarre experiment. If you took off your headphones, all you heard was my singing and the clicking of guitar strings."
Following a pair of songs with amps set to 0, the group then cranked it to 11 for three conventionally amplified songs for which everyone doffed the headgear.
The difference was measurable. In fact, the Rockville, Md.-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn. did measure it and clocked the first part of the show at 62 decibels and the second portion at 124 db.
That's not twice as loud. On the logarithmic scale employed in decibel meters, that's 1 million times louder, the difference between the sound of conversational speech and what you'd hear standing 100 yards from a jet engine at full bore.
The lesson for Hughes?
"I don't think the experiment says that we should all be playing without amplifiers, but it did demonstrate that you can protect your hearing," he says. "And it did spark me up to the notion that I've been killing my hearing."
Fleetwood Mac namesake Mick Fleetwood was at the concert, an interested participant who also has damaged his hearing through decades of eardrum-rattling performances.
He doesn't think the idea will necessarily catch on in a big way but hopes it encourages musicians and fans to treat ear plugs like their American Express cards: Don't leave home without them.
"Could you see 18,000 people someday listening to [a big rock concert] on headphones?" he said after the performance. "Maybe, with a weird magic wand. What I'd hope this does is make the point that you can wear ear protection, such as earplugs, at concerts and still enjoy the concert."