Sunday, January 16, 2011

The vibe of the thing

In the late 90's I went to see Atari Teenage Riot at the Metro in Sydney. If you don't know Atari Teenage Riot, they were a German electronic band that sampled metal and punk and matched it to hardcore beats while yelling anti-capitalist lyrics over the top. Onstage, they screamed and hollered while their light show was four strobe lights that flashed for the entire one and a half hour set (if you weren't epileptic going into the show, you would be by the end). The whole thing was very earnest, very humourless and very German.

Anyhow, the one enduring memory I have of this night (apart from a blinking light for 90 minutes) was the crowd. It was a very small crowd but it was made up of metalheads, indie kids and ravers all having their own cultural response to the music. For example, the guy in the Slayer shirt next to me spent the night throwing devil horns and occasionally affectionately grabbing me in a headlock and singing lyrics into my face (especially during Fuck All! - a good old fashioned pig hating song). The raver girl next to me danced in her spot around her handbag while the indie kids hung back drinking and smoking. To be honest, the music was just abrasive and dull most of the time, but hanging out in an enthusiastic crowd elevated it into a memorable evening.

It's pretty amazing how a crowd can really change your experience of a concert. I'm thinking of this because I saw Built to Spill recently and the crowd was flat. To be fair, the band seemed jetlagged and listless (even though sonically they were amazing) but the crowd was just weird. There wasn't much response or excitement about the gig and I think this energy deflated the band somewhat. At one point, Doug Martsch said "Hey, we've got a bunch of songs on our setlist we're going to play. So if you're bored, we can't really see the exits so feel free to leave." Awkward. The band fired up half way through when they jammed on a really angry song but by then, the evening was set. I had seen Built to Spill previously and they were fantastic so it goes to show what a difference both the band and audience can make.

It wasn't quite as bad as the Dandy Warhols gig I once saw. There used to be a guy who seemed to go to every gig I went to and would heckle the band regardles of how good they were (he heckled PJ Harvey who looked stonily in his direction and said "I really don't understand a single thing you're saying.") and he was in particularly rousing form for the Warhols show. Courtney Taylor said "Hey man, I'm a fucking rock star. I get paid no matter how much you yell." However, the band was clearly rattled and stopped the show to sit in a circle in the middle of the stage and smoke a joint. They eventually returned but the band, whose stage presence is already slightly aloof, seemed distant and distracted for the rest of the show.

That being said, I've been to some gigs where both the band and the crowd have been on fire and fed off each other creating a self sustaining vortex of rock awesomeness. A great gig seems to be combination of multiple elements but a really great crowd can elevate a rock show from great to obscenely amazing (for me, these gigs include PJ Harvey, Queens of the Stone Age, Superchunk, Mogwai amongst them). The only thing I'd recommend to rockers is to at least look lkike they're enjoying it. I saw the Cruel Sea once at the height of their fame and even though the crowd was receptive and rapturous, the bass player spent the entire time either looking at his watch or terribly bored. Way to kill the mood dude.


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