A Tale of Two Shows
If you follow me on Twitter at all, you might have noticed I went on a bit of a rampage regarding my experience at the Mumford & Sons show a couple weeks ago. I’d meant to write it up for the blog but every time I thought about it, I added more seconds to the “time I’ll never get back” counter. Instead I let bygones be bygones. The wounds have closed up but scars remain.
Here’s the rundown.
On a normal day, it would take me 45 minutes to get to the First Niagara Pavilion for a show. The day my wife and I went to see Mumford & Sons, it took us more than 2 hours due to concert traffic. After finally arriving, the teenage flag wavers ushered us to a parking lot in West Virginia. This made me miss the Vaccines entirely, a band that, quite honestly, I was looking forward to seeing more than Mumford. Their first album was a bit of a revelation. We arrived just in time to visit the restrooms and locate our seats before Mumford came on stage right at 9:30.
Mumford played a by-the-numbers set, which just means they ran through most of their songs with little deviation from the recorded versions. The played with energy and with the most impressive lightshow for a folky act I’ve ever seen. It was like… well, it was like Mumford & Sons fancied themselves… rock stars. I might have enjoyed the performance more had we not been surrounded by your typical outdoor-pavilion hooligans. I know you know the kind I’m talking about. The kind that maybe go to one or two shows a year, both at the outdoor pavilions. They drink too much terrible $10 beer and turn every song into an occasion for groping. I don’t know about you, but from my set I found at least four couples that probably used Mumford & Sons as their sexy-time music. One particular couple thought they’d take their Antique Grope Show into the aisle directly in front of me. The people behind me kept dropping their shit through the back of my seat and bumping me every time they picked it up. Once I’ll forgive. Two or three times will warrant a dirty look. When I lose count, what. the. fuck. are. you. doing? You’d think that because I had the front row of a section I’d have more room. But you’d be mistaken. Anyway, the last song of the set began, and the wife and I made the easy executive decision to make a break for the car. We arrived at our car when we heard the band come back on the for the encore. The thought of open highways and speeds exceeding 20mph caused my pulse to race. I frantically put the car in drive pulled out of the spot… and stopped… and still sat without moving… for two and a half hours. This would have been bearable in the backyard-camping-situation kind of way had we been able to access the Internet on our phones. Because of the mass of humanity crammed into backwoods Pennsylvania the network had long ago become overloaded. I don’t mean to be the unironic #FirstWorldProblem guy but THIS is the reason that streaming video on cell phones can be awesome. It makes people who are forced to wait in parking lots tolerable humans. There were many intolerable humans yelling at people to move their cars. I assume because they also could not stream Parks and Recreation while they waited. I could also not tweet my rage for therapy. Twitter wouldn’t work either.
Despite my assertions that we “would never f’ing leave this pit,” we eventually arrived home at 2am.
$160 worth of tickets. 6+ hours in the car. 50 minutes of music. Priceless.
Last night was my first show since “the Mumford Debacle.” Savages at Mr. Smalls. Now in my mind Savages are a big deal. They’re THE rock band of 2013. So when I walked in at the tail end of the opening act and saw a half-full Mr. Smalls my jaw dropped. Mr. Smalls clearly had not expected much of a crowd; they didn’t even tap the kegs. Bottled beer only. (edit: It seems that Smalls has dispatched with the taps entirely as they were again without taps at the Gaslight Anthem show.) I was dismayed. And then I remembered the Mumford debacle and how, no matter what, this was not going to be like that.
I drank my Great Lakes Eliot Ness and then headed straight to the stage. I stood four people back, front and center. And nobody even bumped into me. This is a testament to the space available rather than the cordiality of my fellow attendees – though, I’d take this crowd of lazy post-punk headnodders over the folk-rock freakers any day.
But to further explain my dismay… Watching Savages on stage I experienced a sense of timelessness. Every so often I will attend a show that inspires awe – the kind of awe that makes me feel like I’m a part of something historic. Like the guys that still talk about how they saw the Stones on their 1965 tour. Whether or not the Savages or any other band goes on to become the Rolling Stones is irrelevant. All that matters is that feeling. In that moment. Savages owned that stage last night and what did they see when they looked out at us? A half-empty floor with a bunch of people chattering at the back by the bar. I wanted to force everyone to the front. I wanted to say “We’re experiencing a moment here and you’re missing it!” But then they’d cease to be the crazy ones for just being casually interested in the band on stage, replaced by me, the madman raving about “moments” and “history.”
Frontwoman Jehnny Beth prowled the stage like the love child of Siouxsie Sioux and Gozer the Gozerian (pre-Stay Puft).
She’s slight, dressed in all black with gold stilettos. T-shirt. Pleated pants. Short-cropped black hair and drastic mascara, Corvette red lipstick. Her singing style could best be described tribal, intense. At times I swore she took turns catching each of our eyes, staring us down, daring us to look away. She pounded her fists with the beat and frenetic bass rhythm. She never spoke a word to the crowd (perhaps a couple of asides), but on two occasions stood on top of the stage barrier, teetering on those massive heels. Twice she used heads in the front row for balance to keep her upright. She, like those devoted fans in the front, she remained immersed in the moment, reveling in the beats and reverb. Nobody cared that she didn’t establish a report with the crowd or break contact with the wall of noise and guitar and drums… my god the drums…
Drummer Fay Milton beat those poor bastards like they had one day left to live. Watching her raise the sticks above her head as she pounded and thrashed proved to be a spectacle in and of itself. When I was able to tear my eyes away from Jehnny Beth, it was the sight of her flailing ponytail that drew my attention. Milton, Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson and bassist Ayse Hassan were all business. This music, it meant something to them. It meant something to us. Savages have consumed the post-punk genre, they’ve made it their own and the result is a live show that transcends the act of playing music itself. A good live show merely entertains. A transcendent live show makes you believe that the moment is bigger than you. That music means more than just a few chords and a beat.
When the Savages finished their set, they didn’t come back.
There was no need for an encore. And quite frankly, I didn’t want them to come back out. There was nothing left to say. Their last song, one of the few not from Silence Yourself, repeated the refrain “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.” And as I stood there, in awe, basking in the noise and flurry of F-bombs, cherishing the moment, I still couldn’t help but think of that Mumford show. And how cold the whole experience left me about attending live music. Don’t let the fuckers get you down. And then there was this show, one of those rare shows that keeps us coming back for the live experience, enough to redeem 10 trips to First Niagara.
I’m good now. Those wounds have healed. My faith in live music has been restored. Back at Mr. Smalls tonight for The Gaslight Anthem.
I’m still never going back to the First Niagara Pavilion.
Here’s a tame KEXP-studio sample of the Savages live show. But it definitely conveys the intensity.