Cranky music patrons

My friend from college Jay Czarnecki has written enough pieces for the Star Chamber to be considered a regular contributor. His first contribution goes all the way back to the days of the DC area sniper. Here’s another item in which he describes the magic that holds a musical performance together and the damage that can tear it apart. Follow the link and read on…

Cranky music patrons

by Jay Czarnecki

The lead singer’s mop of long, unruly hair framed a face with strong but worn features. It had the stretched look of long-term vegetarianism or long-time drug use, or both. He talked a lot during the show between the songs: about the music, about the band’s strange instruments, about their perceptions of this country. This was well received, since the art center’s small amphitheater was cozy enough for the singer to take a conversational tone with us. But since we were all sitting in rows of seats facing the stage, a certain formality persisted. So when he warned us, in his lilting accent, “our music is interactive, so we want you people up and dancing before long,” a few of the audience nodded approvingly, but others gripped their armrests a little bit tighter.

I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t painted my house two years ago. I stayed home from work one day to paint the kitchen, listening to public radio all day. The band was interviewed on one of the mid-day shows, and the host was clearly charmed by both the wry Irish humor of the musicians and their beguiling music, a mix of Celtic traditional sounds and exotic percussion. I was too, and I bought a few of their CDs, which I enjoyed thoroughly. The liner notes were littered with references to unknown instruments: bouzouki, bodhran, catarrh. I looked up “catarrh” once in the dictionary and the definition said “chronic inflammation of the nasal passages,” which gave me some inkling as to how its musical counterpart was got its name, but that was not enough to fully satisfy my curiosity. So I bided my time until the band’s next American tour, until finally I was sitting in the small amphitheater where I could scrutinize the instruments and their owners. Overall, it was a great night of music. On the slow tunes, the haunting sounds of whistles and pipes floated over beseeching fiddles; on the up tempo ones, an assortment of drums joined in, create an exhilarating wall of sound. During the instrumental songs, the lead singer banged on a bodhran (I think) with wild abandon; when he sang, it was in Gaelic, which in my uncomprehending ears was just another mysterious, melodious instrument. He made endearing quips about American mores and manners, putting the audience at ease. Some even let go their armrests and clapped to the music. The band was certainly at ease, with the musicians wandering around the stage, even into the wings and out of sight at times. Eventually, I lost track of how many band members there actually were. That’s when the trouble started.

Spurred by the rousing music and the informality on stage, an assortment of audience members took up the lead singer’s challenge by standing up and dancing. The only sizable open area in the amphitheater was immediately in front, between the front row and the stage, so, like water seeking the lowest level, they gradually pooled there. The band seemed pleased at this development, and even though the dancers blocked my view of the instruments a little bit, I didn’t mind so much — part of me wanted to join them. But I began to hear murmurs around me from others that did mind. One man in particular, sitting two seats to my left in the same row, with his wife or date in between us, was most vocal. “C’mon,” he exhaled loudly several times. He couldn’t really be heard above the music though, so he began to gesture, arms outstretched, palms facing upward, in the universal sign for “What the hell?” Well, not all that universal apparently, because he was ignored. Finally, the song ended, the applause rose, subsided, and the lead singer, smiling broadly, began to speak. He stopped short and heads snapped around, as the man to my left addressed the stage, his voice a new, jarring presence. I turned slightly in my seat, where I was uniquely positioned to observe.

“Can we get the people in front to sit down, please?” The “please” at the end didn’t match the demanding tone, and I saw his wife gently place a restraining hand on his knee. He patted her hand twice, an acknowledgement and a dismissal. He was a young, fit man, but bald, and he held his head tilted back so that his chin pointed straight at the singer. The dancers had all turned to look backward, murmuring their disapproval. Their heads swiveled to the front when the singer replied.

“Hey, what’s the problem?” He spoke into the microphone. “Everyone’s just looking to get in the mood here.”

“I can’t see with all of these people blocking the stage.”

From the dancers came the sound of disgusted tongue clicks. One of them offered an impatient response. “Then just move.”

“I paid money for this seat, dammit,” came the sharp, angry reply. I saw the man eyeballing the crowd of dancers, trying to locate the source of this unwanted advice. The tittering audience was now still and hushed, unnerved by this sudden escalation.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s stay cool now,” said the singer and a little more alarm crept into his voice. “We can work this out. We want everybody to enjoy the music.” He leaned on the word “everybody,” but then he hesitated, unsure how this could now be accomplished.

One of the other musicians sidled up to him and spoke into his ear, pointing to the drum set behind them. It was currently unmanned. The singer turned to the microphone again.

“Hey, we don’t need the drum set for a few songs. Come sit up here – you’ll have the best view in the house.” He spoke archly but hopefully.

The disgruntled man’s jaw muscles set, I heard a soft, firm “O-kay,” with a defiant, rising emphasis on the second syllable, and he rose from his aisle-side seat and stood. From my privileged vantage point, I saw his wife’s grasping hand reach out to discretely restrain him, accompanied by a guttural command: “No.” It was the same constricted but insistent sound parents use to shush or reprimand errant children in supermarket checkout lines, in crowded elevators, or at the dinner parties of not-very-close friends, where judging eyes constrain them from giving full voice to their displeasure. Whether or not this tone had worked on this man as a child, it did not work now: his partner’s hand grasped only air as he glided out of reach. Again, “No.” The second “No” was different than the first; this one was more of a plea. This second “No” was really more of a plaintive “No, not again,” as if freighted with a long accumulation of similar embarrassments. As the man took his first resolute step down the aisle, the woman’s outstretched arm recoiled, she folded her hands in her lap, and her chin sank downward. This choreography of discord had lasted just a few seconds. I guessed it was years in the making.

The man and the singer met on stage at the microphone stand, shook hands, clapped each other on the arm in an exaggeration of relieved camaraderie. The man stepped gingerly over wires and instrument stands toward the back of the stage, and then seated himself on the stool behind the drum set. The singer introduced the next song, the band gamely plunged in, and the dancers began gyrating anew with the formerly disgruntled audience member now perched at center stage with a close-up and commanding view of all before him. All was well in our little world again.

Except it wasn’t. His commanding view meant that he commanded our view. Instead of focusing on the lead singer whose voice and movements were seamlessly integrated with the music, everyone’s eyes instead were drawn to the new and passive presence behind the drums. As he became aware that the entire audience was watching him doing nothing, he began to do nothing with more purpose and deliberation: bobbing his head appreciatively to the beat, intently watching one musician, then another, or staring reflectively into space. He was a distracting and incongruous addition that marred the visual cohesiveness of the show, like a movie actor dropping out of character and speaking into the camera. At first, I was annoyed at him. Gradually, though, I could see him start to fatigue, his movements slowing, then stopping. There was a spotlight beaming right down on him, and the top of his head began to shine with sweat. One musician sauntered off-stage, and returned with a cup of water, which was thankfully accepted. The next song was moody and slow, and the dancers dispersed to their seats and joined the audience in watching him watching. A performer is accustomed to having all eyes upon him and channels his audience’s energy into his performance. This man who had become the accidental center of attention had no such training or opportunity, and the strain showed. By the middle of the song, he was inert and glassy-eyed, and my annoyance had given way to pity. When the song was done, he rose of his own accord, shook hands with the singer, and walked back to his seat. His wife, her hands still in her lap and her head still bowed, did not move.

The band soldiered on capably, and when the show was over, we all stood and cheered, recognition they honestly deserved. But to be fully honest, the spell had been broken by the confrontation and its sad denouement. As I drove home, I imagined that tonight’s show would become a long-remembered classic episode in the life of the band, one to be recalled fondly over drinks after a decent, healing interval of time passed. I’ll try to see the band’s show again, the next time they come around to this side of the Atlantic. When I listen to their music at home now, an unwelcome mental image keeps intruding: a once defiant, but now bewildered man sitting at the drums, wilting under the stares of a disapproving crowd. I need to replace that image with one more suitable to the enjoyment of this buoyant music. Besides, I still don’t know what a catarrh is.