Last night, Jason Ricci, one of the most inspiring harmonica players I know, came to town and I had the chance to check him out live. It was everything I hoped for and much more. As usual – and this is one of the unbending truths of live performance – you cannot capture it on tape. You have to be there. Go out. Be present. Put your body on the line.

We live in a voyeuristic culture in which most of our art is consumed pre-recorded. Movies, TV, radio, internet, podcasts – everything is recorded, committed to tape or to disk or compressed for transmission before it reaches us. No matter how faithful the copy – and digital recording can be excruciatingly faithful to the original – there is always something left behind that does not make it onto whatever medium we are recording to. For those of us craving the juice, that intangible thing that doesn’t reach us is the difference between life and death.

Last night was a perfect example. What had sounded good to me on CD and YouTube expanded to another dimension seated in the basement club with the amps blasting and Jason sweating as if he were being barbecued under the stage lights hanging just five feet in front of him. He called for more air conditioning but no air conditioning would save him under those conditions – never mind that he seems to inhabit his own personal inferno.

Later, out in front of the club, smoking a cigarette, slouched on the sidewalk selling CDs between sets and looking broken, you could have easily mistaken him for another of the panhandlers on that same block. The difference was that a small crowd of people hovered around him, while people went out of their way to avoid the beggars. Still, the parallel was unnerving.

I suspect that Jason goes way down, further down than anyone in his right mind would want to go, to get his music and bring it back. Others before him have made pacts with the devil in exchange for knowledge, eternal life or musical virtuosity. Seeing him crumpled on the sidewalk, I knew that whatever pact he has made to play like he does was taking its toll.

In his song, “Broken Toy,” he sings “I’m an outsider / I’m a misfit / not a girl nor a boy / well I feel like a broken toy.”

On stage, the music he makes rattles the gates of Heaven, but on the street outside the weight of his burden seemed way too much for those slender shoulders to bear.