Friday, my metal band Outnumber the Living played a show at Trick Shot Billiards in Clifton Park, New York. The show went well. Everyone had a good time, and the response was above average. The band had been looking forward to the show for a few months, and carefully prepared the set of five songs we’d perform, roughly half an hour of music, going over them as a group in our rehearsal space until we not only performed the songs well individually but also achieved that sought-after character of polished musical ensembles: tightness.
The turnout at this show was good. The promoter managed to cover the headliner’s guarantee, all his own costs, and give the bands a small amount as well. The gathering area at Trick Shot feels open, and the comfortable places to drink and talk are tucked away from the stage. Patrons that show up tend to hang back where the sitting tables, bar, and pool tables are. Even those watching the performers tend not to crowd the stage unless the place is full. But even with a respectable number of customers, Trick Shot feels sparse.
As a performer, this is less fun. Folks who don’t perform don’t realize the way that the stage and its lighting obscures the audience from you and makes them feel far away. Typical stage lighting doesn’t just illuminate the performer so you can better observe them as they show you what they’ve worked on, it also separates them from you in a meaningful way, much as the stage does. There is an artificial barrier between the audience and the stage, that both sides willingly observe.
But this is not a bad thing. The barrier is created and observed by bands and listeners alike willingly, because there is a reward in this behavior: breaches of the barrier bring enjoyment. The performers bring the audience something meant to evoke, and the audience gives back in the form of visible and audible enjoyment of that effect. This bridging over the artificial gap in the room is the act of deriving a connection to each other.
Applause is the most common form of this, but at small, standing-room shows like those that a band like mine would play, more is appropriate: the audience is given an inferred and at times verbal invitation to approach the stage. Pressing that boundary between the display and the onlooker creates excitement. Closing the gap between the messenger and the receiver. Exhibiting, face to face, the effect that the message has had. There is a deeply gratifying emotional communion possible in the performance of music and the audience is responsible for creating it, not the performer. The act will proceed as rehearsed, and the actors will display what they mean to, for you. But it is up to you to give it back. To embrace the feeling and to show the performer that they are being heard, in the most profound way.
The boundary between these two parts of a show is drawn by the stage, which is often short, and sometimes even physically indistinguishable from the rest of the room. And it is also drawn by the lights. The way they paint colors and thereby provoke feelings about the performer’s presence and the material being displayed. The importance of a light show is often underestimated; it makes up a good deal of what you take from a show. It, and the lack of lights in the listening area, set a mood and delineate the zones where the emotional roles of the messenger and receiver are apt to form.
Perhaps unfortunately, being on stage and having those lights aimed at you makes you less able to see the audience. In some cases it is entirely blinding. The performer can feel alone up there. And a lukewarm response can feel more chilly than it is.
There was a show I played years ago with a couple of the same fellows that are in Outnumber the Living now, in a small town in upstate New York called Rome. In Rome there used to be a dive bar run by a man named Bob. Bob was a nice fellow, and he ran sound for the bands he invited to perform in his tiny bar. We played there twice as Son of Mourning before the bar was shut down by health and safety officials.
When we first arrived, we were surprised at how small the stage was. It and the standing room where the show would be watched was around the size of a living room in an average home. The floor was a uniform checkered tile, and there was no separation between the performance area and the rest of the room. We were told to set up on the far end. “Over there,” Bob said.
We played later in the night, and the only people in the bar were Bob and members and friends of another band. In the performance room there were half a dozen, or maybe ten people aside from myself and my band’s membership. The lights went out and we played, like we always did, but there was no boundary between the stage and the audience. We stood looking each other in the face, in the same darkness, at the same height. Nothing, not even monitor speakers, created a gap.
And it was one of the best shows I’ve ever played.
The audience and the band mixed. They stood among us. Between us. Our vocalist leaped into their midst, even rode their shoulders. I stomped the ground with particularly important downbeats, and the old wood floor thrummed under everyone in the room. They screamed back, both the lyrics they picked up from the songs and also just screams, the guttural feelings made vocal. They stomped back. In the dark and tumult, the expressions on our faces were hard to make out, and there were none that would not be forgiven. The messenger and receiver blended so thoroughly, that the message and the response obliterated the space between.
That is the aim of a performer. To foster an emotional communion. To say, “See this thing and feel it,” with the express aim of being told, “I see it and feel it.” This goal can be detracted from by a prideful, posturing performer or a reluctant audience. But it remains the hope, the dream resting in the heart of anyone ascending the steps and assuming the mantle of the attention of a room full of expectant faces. And for those of us who have received this message before, it is the hope we carry with us as audience members as well.
Have you deeply enjoyed a concert before? What made it so important to you?