For my sins — and mostly my pleasure — I have been to more concerts, shows and gigs than I can recall. Literally.
I forgot until recently that I had seen English folkie Vin Garbutt play the auditorium in the Art Gallery, and mad Black Grape in New York.
I’d have to go through yellowed newsprint to remind myself of who I have seen but left little or no impression. Sort of “I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know”.
When I was reviewing regularly at the Herald from the late 80s and well into the late 90s I would sometimes see two or three gigs a week, from sitar players to skinhead bands like The Plague. (Not to be confused with The Plague which featured Richard Von Sturmer, Andrew Snoid and Don McGlashan if I recall, one night at the Maidment, must have been the late 70s because they played Nambassa.)
As with any restaurant critic, book or film reviewer, I used to go out in the expectation and hope of having a good time. Sometimes I didn’t want to go but duty called, or I was curious enough to make the effort to get past weariness and enjoying a night in. It was hard work, especially when you had a day job too.
Back then reviewers would go to a show and then straight into the office afterwards where you’d write against the clock (and the sub who wanted to go home) and by 12.30 am you would be putting down a final fullstop. The review would appear in the paper the next morning.
Anyone who thinks that is easy should try it -- and try getting all those jumbled thoughts into a coherent and passably intelligent 350 words while the clock ticks and someone is saying, “just about finished?” And you might have had more than a few drinks.
One night I remember going in and the news editor saying, “So what was the audience like, Graham?” and I stared at him quizzically. He pointed out that in the previous two reviews I had mentioned the audience quite a bit.
Fair call, and I tried to stop. But sometimes the audience is pretty darn interesting. More than the show.
I thought about this after seeing Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder the other night (who were terrific incidentally, but we could have done with another hour).
But when the opening act Juliette Commagere and her band played some people started to shout that it was too loud.
She jokingly observed, “We’re not in Japan now” (where audiences are notoriously polite and silent) and then said, “C’mon folks, it’s rock’n’roll”.
And it was -- but perhaps that wasn’t what some in that older demographic audience wanted to hear. Or be told.
Let me recall some local audiences.
I remember the great folksinger Odetta played the Auckland Town Hall and the few who were there (no more than 50 at a guess, but the usherette wouldn‘t let me move from the mezzanine to the ground floor!) howled down the opening act Marg Layton, a blues singer from Wellington. These folkies had come to see Odetta. And only Odetta.
Country music audiences can be like that too: they want the star to come on at 8 pm (if that’s what it says on the ticket) and they want to be home by 10. No mucking about. They can get nasty, and will shout out things.
People do that, don’t they? Witless things usually.
At Tom Waits in the Auckland Town Hall at the dawn of time someone yelled out drunkenly, “Tooooooom” and he, stopping in his tracks and fiddling in a pocket, said, “Hold on, lemme get a pencil and write that down.”
“We love you” seems to be a common enough thing to yell.
And yelling out for your favourite song? Was it Ryan Adams who said “Well, we actually have a set list worked out so . . .”
And they do, even those who say they don’t. I interviewed the great Irish singer-songwriter Christy Moore in Wellington many years ago and he told me he changed the set list every night to stop himself becoming a machine and going crazy. He was in his hotel room working on that night’s list as we spoke.
I saw him a few night later in Auckland.
Yep, same set list, same jokes, same pauses for effect . . .
The other night at Cooder‘n‘Lowe a guy near me yelled out “Little Village” (Umm, that was a band that Cooder‘n‘Lowe were in, not a song. So he wanted their whole album sung?)
I once wrote a review which asked, “When did we become American?” There was a period when muttheads would do the whole “hoo-hoo-hoo” dog chant for no particular reason. Or when someone on stage said they came from Weehawken, New Jersey there were bound to be a few dozen who would howl at the moon. Who knew there were so many people from Weehawken in Auckland?
We went through a phase here where people wanted to get on stage with the star. I remember a very old John Lee Hooker, deep into some blues song, opening his eyes and seeing a young guy sitting in the chair beside him. The Hook looked terrified.
But for a period people would just get up and amble on stages, smile at the crowd like “Hi Mum, look at me” then wander off. It happened for years. Then seemed to stop.
Fights? I’ve seen a few, but then again, too few to mention . . .
Other amusements? The Cure walking out to applause at Mainstreet (I think, about 1980?) and when Robert Smith got the mike he sniffed derisively and barked, “We haven’t done anything yet.” That shut the punks and new Goths up.
Jeff Tweedy at the Big Day Out neatly making fun of that whole “You guys have got a beautiful country” (Cue applause). In a slow and stoned drawl he said, “We went to . . . Rangitoto today. [Long pause] That’s our anecdote.”
And that person who yelled out at Buddy Guy, “play the blues”? Buddy’s reply with a frown: “I thought that’s what I was doing.”
The woman who shouted incoherently through Linton Kwesi Johnson (she did the same in Wellington too apparently); the person who yelled happy birthday repeatedly at some act (might have also been Guy) when it wasn’t his birthday . . .
But back to Ry and Nick Lowe: when people started to yell that it was too loud (I didn’t think it was, but then again I have seen The Plague, both of them) I realised that maybe a lot of these people hadn’t been to a concert in a wee while.
I used to meet any number of people (at dinner or in the lobby) who would say “We haven’t been to a concert for years, not since . . .” and at that point they’d invariably mention Norah Jones.
My experience is that middle-aged people (my peers!) can be the rudest of audiences: they don’t go to too many shows so when they do they get liquored up and loud, and only want the hits. They want what they want.
I had an e-mail a few years back from a guy who seemed to be bristling with rage that Bob Dylan was scheduled for the Vector Arena. He told me would never go there because he’d heard the sound was bad (huh?) and that he had been a Dylan fan all his life but wouldn’t go and see him "unless he was playing an acoustic set in small club".
I sent an e-mail back stating the obvious: you are one lifelong Dylan fan who will never see him.
When I saw Dylan at the Civic on his last tour the couple next to me were surprised to see the stage set up: they expected just one man and a microphone. I said he played with a rock band and the woman said they hadn’t heard his most recent records but “we do like his folk albums”. They left after three songs.
I’m always surprised by people (in my demographic mostly) who don’t understand that a concert isn’t like the CD at home which you turn down to talk over, and the sound is never going to be as pristine as that shiny disc. (Although I was told frequently the Eagles were “exactly like the record” which might put them in Britneyworld, huh?).
Like it or not, at a concert you are going to be there with other human animals, some of whom — as I have just outlined —will say and do dumb and annoying things. Some will be drunk and obnoxious, some will sit with folded arms.
I’ve long ago given up expecting anyone to be quiet even if it just one person and a guitar trying to command attention in bar. (Like when Robert Fisher of Willard Grant Conspiracy played a solo show and two women, at the K Rd bar and enormously drunk, were braying and crying about their boyfriends at full volume).
These days I expect someone to yell out “we love you” or the name of their favourite song (invariably obscure so it was never going to played, or “the hit” so it was always going to be played), for people to talk and shout through every song but clap after each, and for someone to tell me afterwards “they were better the last time”.
Part of the contract of gig-going I think. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Care to share?
New Music at Elsewhere: Lots of new and reissue music again as always, including reviews of the new Norah Jones (in depth) and Topp Twins albums (the latter really good), plus Tom Russell, the Pines, old Leonard Cohen, new White Denim, that excellent Chris Knox tribute album Stroke, a woeful Michael Jackson cash-in remix album and much more. It is all here. Enjoy or endure.
Lots of other things at Elsewhere (cowboy movies! Monty Python!! Gwen Stefani!!!?) and a new Essential Elsewhere album if you are up for a challenge -- and didn‘t think Juliette Commagere was too loud!