“Some bands think playing in New York is a drag,” Wolf Parade keyboardist Spencer Krug said years ago to a packed Terminal 5, a New York City venue. The crowd booed. He went on to say he was actually having fun. People cheered. The show moved on.
Still, he confirmed what I’d been thinking for some time: The best place to see a band is outside of New York.
But, but, but New York City is the greatest city in the world! It’s the world’s biggest and brightest stage. “If you can make it there…” Yeah, I know.
But if you can see a show in Spokane, Washington. Or Raleigh, or Austin, do it. Anywhere but New York.
New Yorkers are a strange bunch. We are worldly. We try new things. We want to be in the middle of the spectacle, which is precisely why we make terrible concert mates.
New Yorkers have options. Friday nights in New York aren’t like Friday nights in somewhere like Spokane, Washington. Here, there are dozens of events that would make the world shrivel with envy. On rooftops, in basements, on Broadway, or at a beer garden, there is something to do. Spokanians have Chic-Fil-A. A school play, if they’re lucky.
When a big artist comes to town, it’s an event. Spokanians might ask, “Why Spokane? Did the tour bus get lost?” They are beyond appreciative. New Yorkers don’t worry about that. Everyone comes here. They have to. We make or break you.
Spokanians are humbled. New Yorkers are not automatically impressed. Bands are not doing us a favor. They are playing on our stage.
Every summer, New Yorkers are lucky enough to see top acts for free. Thanks to annual programs from Celebrate Brooklyn, SummerStage at Central Park, and others, the options are plentiful. But even I, a native New Yorker and a self-proclaimed concert nerd, am guilty of taking them for granted. The idea of seeing Metric or The xx for free should be a no-brainer for fans of alternative rock. But I almost didn’t go. My logic? They’ll have to come back to New York again.
??Tom Chaplin of Keane once wondered to a crowd at the Williamsburg Waterfront why nearly half the crowd was segregated away from the stage. The venue inexplicably designated a section where people could drink beer. As good as Brooklyn Brewery is, given the price of a 30 dollar ticket and the peerless quality of Chaplin’s vocals, I expected fans to wait until after the show to enjoy a seasonal ale or two. But for some New Yorkers, it wasn’t a concert to throw themselves into. It was simply a casual and clear summer night by the East River, perfect for a beer and a band.
Artists demand engagement from their crowds. The energy required for memorable nights is reciprocal. The commitment of the crowd to the performers is vital to everyone’s experience.
??The difference between seeing a show in New York and elsewhere was never clearer than when I saw the Swell Season. I’d seen them earlier that summer in North Carolina. Led by the dynamic vocals of Glen Hansard and the gentle power of Marketa Irglova, they put on a memorable set I’d never forget. Literally. Someone in the crowd filmed my enthusiastic reaction to the show. I was being crazy, yes, but they’d earned it.
I seized the chance to see them again at Prospect Park for free. As expected, the crowds were hipper. More sophisticated. And more dull. When the music began, I stood up. The groans started immediately. A program was thrown at me. One 20-something woman, demanded I sit. She went so far to push me. “Don’t be ‘that guy,’” she sneered.??
“That guy?” Really? Was I being obnoxious? Maybe. But at a rock-n-roll show by a rock-n-roll band, I wasn’t going too far out on a limb by standing. The place for picnic blankets and a spread from Whole Foods is Central Park. ??Thinking back, there are other times I’ve seen bands both in and out of New York and I’d always pick outside New York. Passion Pit in Philadelphia. Yeasayer at Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina. The Naked and Famous in Virginia.
??Certain bands can break through New York apathy. Performing in front of their home crowd of Brooklyn after their critically acclaimed release Dear Science, TV on the Radio had the crowd locked in. There is potential for great sets there. But they are just too few in my experience.
I love being from this city. New Yorkers are amazing. But the qualities that make them amazing, their attitude and swagger, their insistence on perfection and their savvy, suck the spontaneity from live shows.
Too often, we don’t see live music as an escape or an excuse to let go of the mundane parts of life. We, in New York, see it as an audition or just another stop on a long Saturday night.