The people who stare at bands
This is a tale of two gigs which took place last night. One I went to and one I didn’t.
The gig I didn’t go to was Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine at the Brixton Academy last night. I’ve seen Carter half-a-dozen times now, and have even met Jim Bob himself (who turns out to be as nice a person as you’d expect from his lyrics and his tweets and now his very funny novels). Carter gigs involve a lot of jumping up and down and shouting and singing and generally throwing beer around. They are, needless to say, enormous fun, as this fan will attest:
— Hugo Rifkind (@hugorifkind) November 11, 2012
The reason I didn’t go this time was because the opportunity came up to see someone I’d never seen play live, who’s rarely on these shores and whose concerts are famed for their intensity: Lucinda Williams.
That’s right: Lucinda Bloody Williams. The High Priest of Heartbreak herself. She played the first of two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, and she was everything I’d been led to believe. Her voice was as clear as glass and as knowing as a New Orleans madam. Her band was tighter than Ginger Baker’s drum skins. And her audience….
We sat there in our serried ranks, not making a squeak during the songs. As she moved the set on – from low-pitched, sad ballads to the enormous boogying footstompers of the encore – we sat. We clapped between songs. We were glared at if we whooped. We stroked our chins and hugged our wives and generally behaved as if we were watching Kramer vs. Kramer and not one of the most potent live acts in the world.
And heaven forbid if any one of us should get up and dance.
At the end, a few of us braver souls stood and applauded and even whooped a little. I looked behind me when I stood, and there was a row of people: quiet, still, not even clapping. Just watching.
I suppose some of this is inevitable. People get older, and now more than ever those people want to watch the same music they enjoyed in their 20s. Big acts like Lucinda Williams aren’t going to tour England’s smaller venues, where it’s still possible to have a whisky and a bit of a boogie.
But I think there’s something else going on here. During the gig, Lucinda spoke about how wonderful the sound was in the Festival Hall. And it was, because the Hall’s built for symphonic music; when you shove the harsher and simpler acoustics of a rock band in there, they’re bound to sound amazing.
But the downside is that audiences then sit and watch music that was meant to be stood up and danced to. And they do it with this ponderous attentiveness which has as much in common with a traditional rock gig as ELO’s Rockaria has with Monteverdi.
So please, Lucinda. Next time you come to England, pick a big hall with a bar at the back and a sticky floor. Make it smelly and draughty, with toilets your mother would weep at. Pile up big cabinets on either side of the stage to make up for the awful echoing sound. And then play. And watch us dance.
That way, I won’t go home with one thought in my head: Should have gone to Carter.