The older I get, the weirder I find concerts to be. When you think about it, paying $20 or more to stand in a humid, smelly room full of people you’d never hang out with watching two-plus hours of bands you’d never listen to all to see a group of five depressed white guys play songs less good than you can hear them at home for free is kinda strange.
I spent a lot of my life going to shows. Louisville, KY, where I live, has historically had great punk, DIY, hardcore, rap, etc. scenes (Slint, White Reaper, Knocked Loose and plenty of more amazing bands are from here). I played in bands all the way through high school up into my early adult years. I booked shows and even, for a few brief months, ran an underground, illegal music venue called The Ram. What I’m saying is, I’ve seen a lot of shows. Until 2015, when I just stopped. I’d seen enough. Typing it out, I’m not sure what’s more pretentious – regaling people with the coolest shows you’ve ever been to (probably La Dispute and Like Wolves in a guy’s unfinished basement, if you’re wondering) or feeling as though your retirement from seeing live music is somehow some grand statement.
I couldn’t help thinking about this the other day when I drove three hours to Columbus, Ohio to see my first show in four years: a solo performance by singer-songwriter Landon Tewers. There was a bit of nostalgia initially, as I’d traveled to see my last two previous concerts – System of a Down in Detroit and Armor For Sleep in Chicago – but that was quickly replaced by fatigue and annoyance once in the venue. Lest I get mounds of shit for my next sentence, I respect any young opening band or artist that gets on stage before a national act, knowing damn well no one is there to see them play, but playing their hearts out nonetheless. It’s just that most opening acts suck. I know this because I’ve opened for plenty of national acts; I’ve been that sucky opener no one came to see, the kid playing his heart out for a room of people who just want me to get offstage.
It’s weird to spend the majority of your time at a concert standing in a room watching bands you don’t like and definitely don’t want to see. Somehow we’ve all convinced ourselves this is a fine way to spend our time — collectively sitting through three times as much music we hate than we like. I don’t want to know the ratio of opening acts I’ve listened to versus the time I’ve spent watching the one band on a bill I like playing songs I care about. I assume it’s a 90/10 split.
I can hear you now, saying, “You’re wrong, idiot, live music is the ultimate form of expression. A way for the artist and audience to share a space, both physically and mentally, coming together through these songs, and the craft therein, that mean so much to them.” And that’s a sound argument! Seeing a band live is one of the only ways to physically see an artist engage with their craft – outside of sneaking onto a movie set or breaking into a painter’s studio.
But if watching a musician display that craft was really that entertaining or engaging, then why is everyone at a concert fucking drunk? And I mean everyone. If this whole thing was really that enjoyable, why is everyone, including the artists, downing overpriced light beer, numbing themselves to the world around them?
But if watching a musician display that craft was really that entertaining or engaging, then why is everyone at a concert fucking drunk?
This is all what made Tewers’ performance so good – he wasn’t taking this whole thing so seriously. I have no science to back this statement up, but 99-percent of songs are about something stupid like drinking, casual sex or the internal misogyny some guy developed when his high school girlfriend broke up with him 20 years ago. Watching an artist pour their hearts into songs like that, looking as though their having some religious moment on stage, is really weird. For the hour or so Tewers played, he just seemed to have fun. He didn’t make some grand statement about the nature of art when performing his song “She Thinks of Me” – a song that’s chorus features the lyrics “She thinks of me when she’s fucking you” – instead he told a story about how his mom came to see him play a few weeks back, and how, when he played that song, “She wasn’t having it.” Rather than try to convince the room we were in the presence of greatness, that we were truly seeing something special, he goofed off on stage, laughed when he messed up and told stories about his bass player throwing up on him the night before. There was a welcome levity to his performance, a lighthearted sense of fun that, whether intentional or not, seemed to imply “We don’t have to make this whole thing what it isn’t. Let’s have a good time.”
Tewers can get away with this kind of show because he is a powerhouse performer. He sounds just as good, if not better, in person as he does on record. He’s one of the most underrated singers in the game right now (seriously), and hearing his voice in person is striking. He doesn’t have to compensate for not being able to perform what’s on record with dramatics. He just shows up, kills it and everything else comes fun and easy. A lot of Tewers’ songs do mean quite a bit to me – I listened to them a lot during dark periods of my life and while getting sober (see last issue – editor) – but I wasn’t trying to fake my way into feeling some kind of spiritual connection with them just because I was hearing them live in a shitty bar. I was simply enjoying how much Tewers seemed to be enjoying playing these songs we both liked.
I’d love to say seeing Tewers play live changed my mind about seeing concerts, but it didn’t. It only cemented my opinion that concerts mostly suck. Sure, one of the openers was kind of mostly okay (I don’t want to be mean, so I’ll refrain from writing my thoughts on the second), but standing there I wished I would’ve shown up late so I could’ve just seen the headliner. Being sober, standing around a ton of drunk people was absolutely the worst. And someone in the venue inexplicably smelled like cat litter. Tewers not taking his performance so seriously, not pretending this was something it wasn’t, if anything, was a relief from what was around me. It felt like a microcosm of what a concert is supposed to be – a break from our normal crappy life. Only this time life was the concert itself.
Blake Hester is a Kentucky-based writer focusing on the videogame industry. His work has appeared on Polygon, Vice and Rolling Stone. Keep up with him on Twitter @metallicaisrad.