Dead and Dying for Rock and Roll

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This much is true, I think, for live performances in general: you play to the audience you have, not the audience you ought to have or wish you had. Performances, unlike jams or practice sessions, build the experience of those who respond to the music into the experience of making it (after a fashion). The practice of performing (as distinct from other kinds of playing) requires an interactive system in which the music is made as much by those who listen as by those who play. Ideally, the performers should turn in the best performance possible no matter who they face. In actual shows, however, that becomes difficult.

In that system of interaction between audience and players, the size, shape, and intensity of the audience’s response can have a pronounced effect on the music made. The players alter their own play because of it. A small, enthusiastic audience can be personal, energizing, a kind of boost to the players; a large, dull, inattentive audience can turn the performance into a chore for the players, or it can encourage them to focus only on each other and shut the audience out, which can be disastrous. A small, dull audience is the worst sort of disaster — large audiences have more room for a mix of responses, so the performers can concentrate on interacting with the “better” parts of the group and can ignore the dull or hostile parts, but small crowds amplify disengagement, hostility, etc. A large audience with enough enthusiastic people in it can become amazing in spite of itself sometimes, as the enthusiasm of the few infects the otherwise apathetic many. Some players are best experienced with that large crowd, while others are better suited to smaller and more intimate musical conversations.

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All of this is an over-long way, I suppose, of expressing both mild disappointment (in the scene) and considerable admiration (for the players) at last night’s really rocking little show at The Gathering Place. The two bands on the bill — Short Notice opening for Dead Larry — did really marvelous work, and did their level best to engage an audience that was, unfortunately, too small and often too passive to do justice to the hard work the band was doing; both bands are terrific big-crowd rousers, so a small, attentive, but relatively peaceable audience isn’t ideal for them. There were some really amazing moments, as audience and bands met and engaged each other in the music, but I think the musicians put up more effort toward that end than the community that hosted the event. This is not to say that there weren’t some enthusiastic people in that small audience. There certainly were some serious fans there! There just weren’t enough of us dancing (or enough of us, period). I don’t exclude myself here. My usual M.O. (show up, lurk, observe, feel the music on my own and try to capture the scene with my camera) might be appropriate where there’s a larger crowd to work around, but in this context, I was definitely part of the problem; I wasn’t dancing, either. I imagine that the musicians probably found the after-show jam more fulfilling in many ways than the show itself, which is a shame — the bands rocked hard and had fun, the mix was terrific (go, sound guy!), and the atmosphere in the venue was (as always) pretty cool.

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This show was almost a classic example of a dead room (or a room in front of which the performers are “dying”), but the music was brilliant just the same, and the occasional magic that some of the audience brought to it made it worthwhile just the same.


As usual, shots of the whole show are available in my Flickr feed. Enjoy!

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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