Friday, October 5, 2012

Live music

I used to go to live music shows all the time. It wasn't a regular thing with me: I didn't go just to go out. But whenever an artist I liked, or even one I only sort of liked, or even one about which I was curious, came to town, I'd generally head out to wherever he/she/they were playing — nearly always a small club, and almost never anyplace that held more than a thousand people — and enjoy the night out.

As the years went by and I got busier at work, I went out less, but I never stopped altogether. In the last few years, though, I can count the number of times I've seen live music on one hand.

Every so often I've wondered what changed. Certainly a contributing factor has been age: I'm more easily worn out, I'm more jaded than I was when I was twenty-five or thirty. An unexpected but not unwelcome shift in my interests toward reading has also taken its toll. I'm also a lot less connected to the music scene than I was (though I was never an insider or even an exceptionally well-informed music maven) — again, due to changing circumstances. And frankly, straitened financial circumstances have played an outsized role in my entertainment decisions.

Yet none of these explains my reluctance to attend the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the amazing and free three-day open-air music festival sponsored by an astonishingly generous philanthropist, the late Warren Hellman, that is chock-full of musicians I love. It took my abortive attempt to catch Conor Oberst this afternoon to make me understand the change in my habits.

For me, music is a communion. It's a means of releasing emotional energy that otherwise is inexpressible. The thing is, as I've gotten older, I've gotten more sensitive to the intrusions represented by other people. And those intrusions disrupt the communion.

It's not that people, by and large, are trying to ruin my enjoyment. They can't help that their polite request for me to move aside so they can get through the crowd shatters the delicate sense of contentment the band had managed to induce in me. They don't mean for their (generally insipid) conversations to keep me from losing myself in my favorite song. It's not their fault that I listen harder than they do to music.

The people jamming the Rooster Stage (I think) this afternoon were enjoying Oberst, I don't doubt. It's just that all the things they were doing while they were enjoying his performance were driving me insane. The incessant chatter (can you really be listening to the music while you're jawing away?), the choking cigarette smoke, the jostling — it all made any effort to sink myself into Oberst's music a bad joke. And if I couldn't lose myself in his music, why was I there? I own his albums. I don't need to see him (especially as a tiny dot hundreds of yards away) to enjoy listening to him. My attempt to enjoy his performance amounted to standing on the grass with sore feet and a burgeoning cough from the damned smoking all around me. And the same story holds true, in slightly different form, at an indoor performance at a club.

I'm old enough that I will no longer suffer a mediocre experience at a live show (however stellar the actual performance is) simply to be able to say that I was there. And my definition of a mediocre experience is, the music didn't transport me to a happier, more exhilarating place. That won't happen if other people keep intruding on my attention, making me notice them rather than the performer(s).

At last, I understand why I hardly see live music any more.

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