My favorite thing about concerts in small venues (and simultaneously my least favorite thing) is that awkward semi-circle of vacant space that sometimes materializes in front of the stage. It’s like a bubble of audience hesitation, a buffer that persists until the opening band is finished wooing—although sometimes it isn’t until the next band comes on that people have started to get over themselves.
It’s up to the band—the dominant actor in this particular culturally-structured relationship—to make the audience at ease, smile, demonstrate an interest in how the audience is feeling, and maybe pick up the bill for dinner. An effective band can quickly build that sort of intimacy, drawing the audience closer in spite of themselves, provoking them into holding up their end of the social bargain—by which I mean cheering, for Christ’s sake.
Then that uncomfortable void of fans and participation, left open as if everyone in the bar is waiting for the “real” fans to get there, finally fills in, thus creating space for something one might call “enthusiasm” to begin to take shape.
It’s even worse when the “real fans” really are few, and the fans serving as crude substitutes all happen to be students here for a graded assignment. But I guess that’s the college town curse?
It’s Sunday, Oct. 20th, and Local 506 is swarming with students coyly tapping their feet. The bartender eyes my ID warily, graciously nodding and letting her guard down once she decides it’s trustworthy, mentally sorting me into the “in crowd,” as opposed to the underage liabilities most of the bar is crowded with. The overpriced PBR tallboy isn’t worth it, but it feels good to be trusted.
The lead singer of the Mercators, the first band of the night, is understandably bitter about the crowd. “I’m looking forward to the next two bands, as I’m sure you are,” he says in a desperate attempt to fill silence between songs, which comes off as a sad attempt at angry irony. He glances quickly out into the crowd, searching for a hint of participatory feeling to grasp onto—several students look down as if to avoid his glare, dutifully scribbling observations onto notepads.
The Mercators are a straightforward, no-frills rock band from Durham, and they manage to put on a fine show. Perhaps they could’ve coaxed a slightly less studious audience out of its collective shell? Who knows? But it’s Seattle-based psych rock band Rose Windows that really gets the crowd rolling—the 30 minute sound check somehow works to get everyone amped up and expectant, but on its face it still seems like a risky venture.
With all of eight band members on stage, however, I suppose a 30-minute sound check might be worth it. Rose Windows, once they finally get going, really get going. With their eerily layered harmonies, spastic instrumentation and creepy lyrics and attitude, their music takes you in like a ‘60s acid trip laced with hard rock rhythms and distorted bass guitar.
And after nearly an hour of coasting on Rose Windows’ edgy melodies like a hippie trapped in a groovy industrial age, the final band takes the stage. The Moondoggies are another Seattle band, but stylistically they come from a far different place than Rose Windows. A colder one. Probably with mountains, too.
If Rose Windows are behind closed doors, sampling mind-altering substances and penning high-minded, introspective lyrics, the Moondoggies are piling in a van and coming down from snow-capped mountains, writing words on the run and building a sound out of what they found in the trunk—namely, fire tinder and two-by-fours of modern folk and electric blues.
But the weirdest part is that the Moondoggies and Rose Windows, despite the different paths taken, somehow get to the same place. It’s clear from their sounds and attitudes that they come out of the same scene, which just gives the listeners some interesting extra context to consider as they’re enjoying the distinct flavors.