Sunday, June 21, 2020

If a band plays in an empty club...

DOWN AT THE (VIRTUAL) ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Well, at least I didn't have to wait in line for a beer. Otherwise, like many others, I wish I'd been there.

Last night, the original lineup of Reigning Sound played a twenty-three song set at B-Side Memphis; the show was streamed via GonerTV. As when I'd caught them in Chicago three months ago—the last show I attended before the pandemic restrictions—the band was warm and loose and clearly enjoying themselves, and like the bunch of old buds they are they looked back fondly and bemusedly as they revived the very songs that scored their shared past. "Hey Greg," bass player and good-natured nostalgist Jeremy Scott said to band leader Greg Cartwright between numbers, "do you know that in August it will have been twenty years since we recorded our debut album?" Cartwright smiled and muttered something about how some folks have had to suffer him for even longer than that. Good jokes, great songs.

The set was divided among the band's first four albums, with a few covers thrown in, notably the 1960s-era Memphis band Tommy Burk and The Counts' "Change Your Mind," and a wistful version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Memphis In June." Head-down, eyes closed, and committed to his material, Cartwright was all business (when he wasn't tuning up; he'd needed to borrow Goner Records co-owner Zac Ives's guitar, the strings' heavier-weight gauge of which caused him some troubles.) The rest of the band—Scott, drummer Greg Roberson, and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Greene—confidently muscled the songs and/or held them gently aloft, depending on the mood the songs created. By necessity there was very little vibing off of the crowd—because there wasn't one, apart from the venue's staff and maybe a few friends. (One or two "Happy Birthdays" were offered from the stage.) "Wow, a studio audience!" Cartwright crowed at one point, peering between songs into the venue's barely-peopled dark. "I never get to say that. The best kind of audience, too, a captive one." Grins all around.

A couple of months ago, Rob Sheffield wrote a terrific piece for Rolling Stone about his live-show withdrawals in this pandemic era (a suffering that I share with him). Recounting both the joys and the tedium of going to shows, he recognizes that the gulf between the two experiences is what gives shows their dimension, and often their surprises. He writes, "I go through my phone scrounging for karaoke photos I meant to delete, though now I’m glad I didn’t—proof I have friends who don’t run in terror when I’m on my sixth 'Shallow' of the night. Was it just a couple months ago in late February when I got up to karaoke 'People Who Died'? And everyone danced and nobody felt a single pang of fear? Did this all really happen?"
I chew on these memories like a crust of prison bread. They nourish me. They also torment me. I think of all the crappiest bands I’ve seen live, and picture myself crawling through broken glass to hear them tune up. I think of the lamest bands I’ve walked out on, even worse than the ones I hear in my sleep.
He adds, "Even more than the great shows, I find myself missing the mediocre ones. The nights when you drop by on a whim, run into friends, enjoy the music in the most transitory way, then walk home, stop for a slice on the way, maybe forget the band the next day. What a luxury."

Live streams like last night's do no small part in helping soothe things. And I'm thankful for the bands and artists who can manage to put on events like these, singing into empty studios or venues or their own living rooms, eager to help the many listening and watching to sing along, to dance and move again, to elate in favorite songs and onstage fuck-ups and the odd new arrangement of a classic tune. The silence in between songs was odd to listen to—I clapped at home, watching in my music room/office—and I'm sure even more odd for the band. I was grateful for every song. The advantages of watching a streaming show (I'm home already, there's all the beer I want in the fridge a few steps away) are finally outweighed by the losses (the intimacy of a crowd of friends and strangers, the excitement of a dark club, the decibels) but the contest was a friendly one; I enjoyed having a favorite band playing for me in the comfort of my own home, and I really wished I could've been there plugging my ears against the din.

There was no merch table, There were far fewer bodies in the room and hugs and slaps on the back. After the show, as the DJ played Merle Spears's "I Want To Know," the camera lingered on the stage as Greene stood and wrapped a bandana around his face; across the room, Scott opted for a more conventional mask, and the two stepped off of the stage into the dark into the new normal.

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