Last weekend, I drove five-plus hours from St. Louis, Missouri to Newport, Kentucky to catch Bent Knee and Thank You Scientist in concert. It was worth every minute.
I made the trek for a couple of reasons. First, these are two of my absolute favorite modern-day bands in the world, and seeing them on the same bill was a concert offer I couldn’t refuse. Secondly, this particular show wasn’t coming to my town, which made it necessary for me to go to them. Most importantly, I know I’m running out of chances to watch these bands perform at such an intimate venue.
I caught Bent Knee live for the first time last summer at Fubar, a dank, grungy little club in midtown St. Louis. The place might have held 250 people. I was right up front, and it was paradise. A few months later, they were scheduled to return to St. Louis, this time opening for Haken and Leprous at Delmar Hall. That room probably holds 800 or so. Unfortunately, the band couldn’t make it because of a serious car accident a few days before. It would have been interesting to see how well they handled that room. I’m sure they were ready to take the leap.
The Southgate House in Newport falls in between Fubar and Delmar Hall in size. It seemed like the ideal room for both bands. I saw Thank You Scientist for the first time at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago (which might hold 500) as part of Progtoberfest in 2017. They, too, sound and play like they are ready to take the next step forward.
Neither of these bands is slowing down or getting any less popular. Soon, it will be much more difficult to attain a deep, personal musical connection based on proximity. Larger venues will be necessary. It’s just a matter of time.
I’m glad to catch them at this level. Soon, I may not be able to get any enjoyment out of their performances in person. At some point, I may have to skip the gig altogether.
Part of my concert experience has to be “connecting” with the band on some level. We don’t necessarily have to exchange pleasantries (though that is always nice), but I need to “feel” the music just as much as I need to hear it.
I like to see the looks on the faces of musicians as they bring their sound forth. I like to think I can tell how the gig is going by watching the unspoken interplay between band members at any given time. I have trouble doing that from the back of a large room.
When I saw Snarky Puppy for the first time in 2017, they were at the Ready Room, a garage-like building turned concert venue that holds around 400 people. I thought I was one of a select few who knew about the band. I was wrong. But despite the crowd, I still got close enough to really see the band, which made for a fun gig. When I saw them again a month ago, they played across the street at the Atomic Cowboy, an outdoor venue that could accommodate 1,200. Snarky Puppy didn’t sell every inch of space, but they came close. I found myself standing in a throng of people, cut off from the band and highly uncomfortable. I retreated to the rear of the venue and watched the gig on a video monitor. No connection was made, and I didn’t get nearly as much out of the gig.
I made trips to Chicago to catch Steven Wilson (at the Vic Theater), Grizzly Bear (at the Riviera Theater), and the National (at the Civic Opera House). In each case, I knew I had reached the very outer limit toward possible connection with the musicians. Chances are, each artist’s next performance will call for a larger venue. I got to them just in time.
I lost the joy of going to concerts in a large venue long ago. More casual so-called music fans are flummoxed by my stance. They are happy to shell out hundreds of dollars to watch U2, Metallica, or whomever in a stadium, hockey arena, or amphitheater with the band looking like ants on the stage. Where’s the thrill in that? By that time, the band is all about regurgitating its hits, and has probably lost more than a little of its hunger. And there is absolutely zero chance for a real musical connection. I’ll pass.
Give me a young and hungry band still trying to make a name for itself (or a veteran band playing for the sheer joy of it), making the very most of what that tiny, funky, or grimy room has to offer. Bands in large rooms feel like they’re just playing their songs. Bands in those tiny rooms are making music.
I know my stance makes me sound like a bit of a hipster (a subject I’ll broach soon enough), and I don’t care. I love the idea of being there during the early stages of a band’s development. It feels a lot less like jumping on a commercial radio-driven bandwagon and a lot more like making a personal investment in the music.
I like being able to talk to members of the band at the merchandise table, as opposed to their people, after the show. You can learn a lot about a band by the way they interact with their fans. Few things make me happier than learning that a great musician is also a wonderful person. It gives me hope for the world.
Concerts in large venues have very little to do with the music. They’re social events. What takes place on stage is almost beside the point. The light shows are bigger, the special effects are grander, frequently to distract us from the fact that the musicians may not be as “on top of it” as we might think. Let’s just say it’s very difficult to get away with using backing tracks at Fubar.
A few friends have tried to talk me into coming back to a bigger gig. They tell me to give the room another chance. Things have improved since my last concert there. I’m just gonna have to take their word for it. The very thought of being among 20- or 30,000 people — if not more — for a concert gives me the shakes. And not in a good way.
Up close and personal is the way for me. When my favorite bands outgrow the smaller venues, I’ll be happy for them, even if I can’t share the same space in a larger venue. It will mean they’ve achieved that mythical next level, and they’ll be able to share their music with the widest audience.
I’ll still have the connection, despite my absence. Because I’ll still have the memory of the tiny room.
We’ll always have Fubar.
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