-By William Mullally-
“We’re called Incubus and we love you.” That was the extent of the stage banter on this night in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island Arena. I’m sorry Brandon, but love is in the tone of the word, not the word itself, and you just didn’t say it like you meant it.
Not that there was much to love about this crowd. It was the second night of the Formula 1 Grand Prix, the annual event coupled with after-race concerts, always headlined by attention-grabbing bands. The promoters make it clear: this is not the place for up-and-comers, this is the place for those currently on top, or those who have been resting up there for some time.
So, if I am to make sweeping generalizations about people whom I don’t know: this was a crowd of those who had the kind of money to throw at a day at the races and a band that sings a few songs they remember from the radio.
I started the concert, just as I often do, at the front of the crowd taking pictures for the allotted three songs (this time it was songs 4-6) before being ushered away by giant security guards and very polite PR workers. There, I did see true fans, fans that had paid the “fanpit” surplus and pushed to the front to get a peek at the band they came to see—trying to really feel something.
But, by the time I had finished photographing, exited through the back and reentered through the front, I saw droves of tired-looking people walking out. When I entered the fan-pit myself, I saw that, much different than other concerts I had been to at the same venue, I was very free to wander around. There was plenty of space, and I could maneuver past the hundreds of blonde heads with ease. Some were headbanging, one or two were singing along, but many seemed more interested in their Blackberries than what was on the stage in front of them. And it’s hard to blame them. The band looked bored. Brandon was emotive, but he didn’t seem to have the true passion he once had. And the biggest cheer came when he took his shirt off.
There’s a simple question I ask myself before I think about attending any concert: “Well, what have you done for me lately?” We can all understand this pretty easily, especially if we’ve gone to a childhood favorite band’s gig, waited for them to play that one song we love off their debut album, only to sit through the a-melodic dronings of a group of musicians who have totally lost their edge. This can often happen in arenas that are less about going to see a band you enjoy than seeing video of that band on the HD Megatron. Of course, this is all you can get at that point in a band’s career.
Rarely are bands compelling for an extended run. Individual musicians can be, as we fall for their character just as much as their music, but if you’ve ever been warned against seeing Bob Dylan in his current state, you know that only goes so far. The best time to see a band is usually before you have even heard of them. If you’re lucky, it will happen by accident.
Let’s jump back to 1969: We’re in Philadelphia and Santana is opening for Canned Heat. Santana, a few months removed from their big break at Woodstock and their debut album finding its way on the charts, can’t enter a building without having the walls crumble around them. On this night in October, that’s precisely what happens. Carlos and his band shake the floor so hard magma boils up from below. The crowd has, in unison, collapsed in ecstasy on the floor. And when Canned Heat sheepishly shuffle onto the stage, the band this audience paid to see, it’s they who get ignored. Guys in the upper decks start throwing toilet paper rolls at them just hoping they’ll stop ruining the moment. That’s what live music can do.
Ok, so let’s jump ahead 30 years, we’re in my living room and my father is telling me this story. He’s still bursting with enthusiasm for how great this band was. All I can say in reply is, “Yeah, Santana, you mean that guy who plays guitar with Matchbox 20?” But we know now what I didn’t know then: This “Smooth” criminal was hardly the same guy. This is what happens when you wait too long to see a band live.
This is a big incentive for shutting up and actually listening to opening bands. You never know when you are going to find a diamond that is still polishing off its rough. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sat through some terrible hacks, but every once in a while you’ll see a band like Grizzly Bear open for a band half as good and you’ll elbow your friend Harris next to you and say damn man these guys have got something. A year later they’ll release an album you can’t get enough of, and that moment will always be something you reminisce about.
A band might find its golden age, and if they are lucky, keep it going for a few albums. But for many musicians, that magic will end here: leading up to that first big album, and then a victory lap for a year following its release.
Let’s say they have better luck than that—let’s say that they do actually manage to engineer an extended run and years of critical and fan darling-hood. There will still come a time when they’ll release something that fans will convince themselves they love, but deep down know just isn’t as good. When they scroll past it on their iPod or see it on their CD shelf, they’ll say, “nah, I’ll listen to it another time.” And there it will sit.
Remember the best line in Cocktail: “Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn’t end.” A relationship with a band normally will end not with a bang, but a sad whimper. Slowly you’ll just find other things to listen to. You’ll grow into different people. You might rediscover that first album of theirs you bought and remember how much you really cared for them, but they won’t be a band in your current heart, they’ll be a band in your memory.
One day you might pick up a newspaper or run into a friend and they’ll tell you: blah-blah-blah is coming! And you’ll swear to each other you are getting front row tickets. And you’ll find their t-shirt in the back of your closet and you’ll remember who you were back then. You’ll promise yourself a good time. But when you do this, you don’t do it to hear the new album, you do it to hear the band you once loved.
Bands know this. Rarely do you see a group that has the audacity to make an audience sit through only their latest work. There’s an unspoken contractual right with live acts: Yeah, okay, we’ll play the fan favorite hits. We’ll get there. But we’re gonna play a bunch of stuff we made with Timbaland last spring first. Clap, pretend to enjoy it, and maybe we’ll play the song you keep screaming out.
If you read our last issue, you know that time has come for Incubus, as well. This might be a group of musicians we still wholly respect, but it’s hard to say that the same love is there as it was when Morning View came out.
Still, the concert did have its moments. When they finally got around to playing some of the songs the audience recognized, such as “Drive” and “Wish You Were Here,” a drunken moshpit broke out, which did prove to be quite entertaining, if only for the push-up contest and the woman who wandered into the pit, having no idea where she was, and thoroughly enjoying wherever that happened to be. She got knocked around, and fell over at least four times, but, just as with any person soaked in vodka, she didn’t seem to feel any of it.
I laughed, took pictures, and it was then that I noticed the one guy who really seemed engaged. A single jump-suited maintenance man, bag of trash in hand, trash surrounding his feet, was paused in the middle of the crowd. He looked on intently at the band playing. He held up his mobile for someone on the other end to hear. He smiled. I guess that’s one motivation to keep on playing music: You never know whom you’re going to inspire.