We Got the Beat
In praise of small concerts
It was at Numbers back in 2001 when I first saw Norah Jones. I can't say I remember much of the performance, sadly. It was a Friday, and the crowd was keyed-up and impatient for the headliner, who was gaining traction in the college music circuit—some guitar-playing crooner named John Mayer. Suffice to say Jones was so unknown that after the show, my then-roommate, also beautiful with olive skin and long dark tresses, was asked to pose for photos by some slightly clueless bystanders who took her to be the opening act.
Months later when Norah Jones exploded into the popular consciousness, winning armloads of Grammys and selling out much larger concert venues, I learned to pay attention to even the acts I didn't come to see. And it cemented my impression that the smallish club venues are the best places to see a musical performance, not only because of the closeness between audience and performer, but also because it's the unknown factor that makes a live show special—the possibility to see something that completely blows past your expectations or introduces you to something new.
Now, ok, I'm not talking about local bands playing at coffeehouses and hawking EPs in front of disinterested patrons. While there are some great local bands, and I tip my hat to the true local music buffs who support and love them, I finished my stint as the lonely, loyal fan when I broke up with my high school guitarist/lead singer boyfriend.
I'm talking about bands playing the Meridian, Warehouse Live, The Continental Club, maybe even Notsuoh, where there's either a ticket involved or a cover, to cut down on the bored, texting a-holes that inevitably appear.
Don't get me wrong—I love a good arena show. There's an entirely different brand of theatricality and showmanship that goes into entertaining 70,000 screaming fans. Lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, aerial acrobatics, choreographed dancers: all good things. But there's nothing like the spontaneity and unexpected pleasures of a small concert.
The best recent example is the Swell Season at Warehouse Live concert in November. The band (better known to some as the stars of the Oscar-winning film Once) told the audience they'd be playing a new song and taught the audience a few bars to sing along in the chorus. As the crowd murmured back, vaguely in key, one voice rang out above the others, a rich, strong one like the kind honed in a church choir. "Someone out there can fucking sing," said lead singer Glen Hansard, and after a repeat performance, the owner of The Voice, an African American woman named Moji sporting decent afro, was invited to join the band onstage.
The collaboration was utterly amazing. In a song she had never heard before, Moji interweaved the choral notes and beautifully framed Hansard's lyrics. The performance became not about the song but the interplay between two seeming equals in talent, one a music star and one plucked from obscurity in the audience. Moji sang with confidence and poise as if she belonged on stage, until the song began to wind down and the reality of what she had just done seemed to hit her. Putting her hand over her face in disbelief, she mouthed "I love these guys!"
It was a once-in-a-lifetime performance that will never be replicated either in the studio or on stage. In a world of autotune, lip-synching pop tarts and cookie-cutter concerts recreated identically down to the audience banter, this was a moment of musical truth and magic. In a night full of beautiful renditions of familiar songs, it was the stand-out. This is why I go to concerts, and I will never, ever forget it.