I don’t know when or how it happened, but the live music experience has changed. The warmth that used to fill venues, a tangible energy that bubbled and blossomed in the bonds made between strangers, has been replaced by a prickly and sticky heat that exerts itself in the form of cranky elbows to the ribs and an unspoken agreement not to interact with those around you (unless they have a doobie you’re trying to sneak a puff of). Maybe it’s just that we are the first generation that values the video—the tangible evidence of attendance—more than the experience itself, and this means audiences are never fully present, their experience mediated and dampened by the screen held in front of their first. I fear that this loss of this vitality is symptomatic of a larger (and unnerving) societal trend of people growing apart from one another, too invested in hollow interactions mediated by a vacuous internet to interact and engage with other humans in the real world. It is depressing to think that the venues where I grew up (in both literal and figurative senses) and which hold my fondest memories might one day be obsolete, replaced by videos and virtual reality, but I would prefer that than to see the state of live music continue its current trajectory and end up void of all meaning.
Or so I thought.
Being wrong can be one of the most wonderful feelings in the world; it reminds you that the thoughts that swirl nebulously in your head all day are just those—thoughts— and they aren’t necessarily grounded in the real world. It reminds you that for all of the ego-stroking and self-centeredness that all of us engages in every day (whether we admit it or not), we do not and cannot know everything. We probably don’t know anything, at all, about anything. Admitting and accepting that is a pure act of liberation.
Walking to The Sidewinder this past Wednesday evening, I was somewhere between hopeless and hopeful. A string of fun-but-underwhelming recent concerts left me prematurely mourning the death of live music and questioning whether, somehow, it was me that killed it. Maybe I had gotten older and become less spontaneous, less free-spirited, less willing (maybe even less able) to simply exist and feel the music. As I approached the venue and the door swung open in wide welcome, however, all those resentful ruminations fled my mind in a moment, chased away by the sweet sounds of my childhood.
Due to my unfamiliarity with Austin and a series of increasingly-bewildering failed attempts at finding parking, I missed the night’s first opening act, Lions and Tigers, and arrived just in time to hear the last song from Gold Steps. Thankfully, both of these are local groups in their toddler stages and there will be ample opportunity to venture to another one of their shows. The glimpse I got at Gold Steps was more than enough to ensure that I’ll be there head-banging my heart out next time around.
Though they were ostensibly the headlining act of the night’s lineup (at least according to the metric of social media popularity), Sundressed graciously took a supporting role this evening and handed the keys to their friends (and hometown heroes) in Nominee. I don’t want to spend a lot of breath on Sundressed’s performance, in part because I used their set to grow into the environment and community at the venue and in part because so much of what I have to say about Nominee applies to them as well. But I do want to highlight one thing in their performance that I particularly appreciated: the connection between them and the crowd was tangible. They came out almost nervously, as if they didn’t know entirely what to make of the scattered and inconsistent audience standing shyly in front of them. As soon as their first song (“Of Course”) bloomed into full force, however, any traces of this reticence disappeared, lost in the blast of emotion and action. Following the charismatic lead of Sundressed’s drummer, who was actively and enthusiastically working to rouse the crowd, the band, the audience and the music became intertwined, rising and falling in unison. You could see the confidence growing on-stage: band members stood a little taller; they made a little more eye contact with the crowd; they invested themselves in every note a little more fully. The crowd responded in kind, drawing ever closer to the stage like it was a campfire providing the only source of heat, the only chance of survival, on a dark, cold night. Maybe it was.
In the short intermission between acts, I took the chance to explore the rest of the Sidewinder (spoiler alert: there’s not a whole lot of “rest”), do a light spot of people-watching (shouts out to the guy who spent the night very obviously trying to muster up the courage to go talk to a girl approximately 8 feet away), and to tell Sundressed’s drummer how much I admired the energy his presence brought to their performance. He looked a little shocked that I approached him, as if he didn’t expect to be recognized even after spending the last 30 minutes onstage, but seemed genuinely pleased and maybe even humbled that I took 10 seconds to shut off my phone screen and praise him. I hope he knows I meant it. Our conversation was cut short by a few lilting strums of the guitar, punctuated by a booming declaration of “FART!” This was repeated several times as I gleefully planted myself in the crowd, carefully positioning myself in a cluster of ardent fans with the telltale glint of adoration in their eyes.
A Moment of transcendence
I shouldn’t have worried about who I was around. Unlike the beginning of Sundressed’s set, there was no refractory period of uncertainty; Nominee instantaneously ignited the room with a flurry of high-octane head-banging. I looked around, a little bewildered at the transformation in my surroundings not because of where I was but because I’d been there before. Not for years and years, but I knew that I had been there. It was an almost transcendental moment of deja vu. I remained acutely aware of the music and energy around me, but not in any kind of specific sense; I simply felt it, and that feeling attached to something deep within me. Although I didn’t realize it in the heat of the musical moment, the brief respite between the Say Anything-esque anthem “Prints” and “White Water” allowed me a moment to catch my breath and collect my thoughts, absorbing the atmosphere. My mind scavenged my memories, looking for when I had ever felt so…. so what? So good? So energized? So enthusiastic?
Finally it came to me: I realized where I had encountered this feeling — it was the exact feeling I had been chasing for so long, and lamenting the loss of. It was the sensation that shaped me as a child, simmering softly from the moment my mom dropped me off downtown until it bubbled and boiled in the beating pulse of the concert. It was the source of my addiction to and constant pursuit of live music: a deep, content connectedness. I had no worry, nor even conception, of self-awareness, or even of a self at all. Without digressing into some sort of new-agey “vibe” mumbo-jumbo, the love that so obviously and openly flowed from band to audience to music and back again united us in the intimate sensation of being there.
This realization was a difficult one to balance against my intention to record and analyze, in some capacity, the concert. My mind wanted to think, to devise phrases and take notes, but my body just wanted the experience. So, I split the difference. I allowed myself to take notes, at times literally forcing myself to remove myself from the intimacy of the moment, but the only things I wrote were about the experience. Not about what I saw, or what I heard, but what I felt.
This is, after all, what music is all about. Though I have fallen victim to the over-intellectualization of music, looking to prove myself some sort of “expert” as if that exists, I have always knows (or felt) that the power of music is in its transcendent potential, its ability to make us feel in complex and profound ways. Though I had started to doubt this, fearing that either I or music had changed, Nominee resoundingly demonstrated that I had simply been looking in the wrong places. The power of their pop-punk revival filled the room and took tangible form: it poured out of strained screams relinquishing their frustration with the world during “White Water”; it erupted out of the loving embrace between lead singer Chris McLelland and an adoring fan during “Retrospect”; it supported those brave audience members willing to stage dive into a slightly threadbare crowd during a vigorous rendition of “Stay” (which was the indisputable highlight of the night).
More than anything, the power of Nominee’s music was apparent in the eyes of every crowd member, their awe-full gazes declaring an admiration and love more powerful than anything I can express with words. Nominee absorbed this loving energy and infused it into their performance; it elevated the moments of success in their music and redeemed those moments of frustration, pain and existential confusion.
As I loitered aimlessly after the show, looking for any reason to stay in this beautiful little ecosystem of love and support, I was touched by the sincere community in the room. Family members and fawning fans waited for the opportunity to talk to the night’s heroes; band members from the night’s opening bands unabashedly cooed their praises for Nominee’s performance. And the energy didn’t die; it lived on in the smiles plastered over everyones’ faces, in the hugs being traded like Halloween candy. As attendees slowly trickled out the door, I like to think that it seeped into the outside world, finding its home where that love was needed most.
I should have known better than to fear that live music could no longer offer what it once so generously gave to me. I left that concert reassured and rejuvenated (and more than a little breathless) that here, and undoubtedly elsewhere, these microcosms of love and unwavering support still exist.
Photo Credit: Richie Schalin