By Huntress Thompson
(Note: I’m talking only about stadium concerts here, not gigs in small venues.)
Last Friday, Vodacom Unlimited presented In the City, an initiative that brought 2 international acts (Bloc Party and DJ Yoda) and 3 South African ones (Shadowclub, Tumi feat. Yesterday’s Pupil and Die Antwoord) to Mary Fitzgerald Square in the middle of Newtown, Johannesburg.
It was a world class thing to do, in a country where these things are not pedestrian. In my experience, it was a slick, tightly run and cleverly organised operation, and from what I’ve read, several people who also write things were of this same feeling. I think we felt this way because we had reasonable expectations of the night, and I know that hasn’t always been the case (with me, anyway).
Over the last while, I’ve heard a lot of people squealing about the fact that their favourite band is coming to SA. If the only problem was that I thought the bands were actually mediocre, this wouldn’t be enough for a full rant. But it’s not the only problem. The main issue is that I know, I truly know for a fact, that the day after the concert these people will be ranting and squawking like banshees down a mine because the concert was shit after all. Because that is going to happen. Here’s why.
I know exactly how thrilling it is when a band you love is going to play live in your city. It doesn’t matter who the band is, or how big they are, or whether they’re actually any good, even – you think they are, and that love for your favourite band transcends just about everything. It’s pure and it’s decent even if you, yourself, aren’t. it’s the kind of love that’ll sustain you for months, even years, as you survive only on scraps – crackly, shaky live YouTube videos, shitty recordings of interviews and fuzzy Instagram shots of that band on their tour bus until finally, they come for you.
You count down the days. You plan what you’ll to wear. You save up your cash in case you’re so excited on the big day that you’re compelled to buy something ridiculous at the merchandise stand. You get your mates organised, even if they’re the kind who are completely unmanageable. You go back and listen to all the B-sides and rarities you can find, to make sure that you get the most out of every second your favourite band is on stage in front of you. You hunt down their recent setlists to try and predict what to expect. You scan their Twitter feeds like a morse code interpreter for any signs or secrets revealed.
But when the novelty and the glamour and the blinding excitement wears off, it’s really, really important to be realistic about what a concert actually is. Get real, son. Check yourself before you very much wreck yourself. There are some things that a concert will give you, and there are some things that are unrealistic to expect, because there is no atomic way you’ll achieve that experience in a concert setting.
Here are a couple of inalienable truths about concerts that should be acknowledged before you go to your next one. Apparently local music promoters have taken the annual Coke fests we used to have, ground them up and sprinkled them over SA fans in lots of little concert pieces all year long, so the sooner we come to accept these facts about concerts, the happier we South African concert goers will be over the coming months. Because if you don’t know them going in, your big fan heart will break just a little bit each time you go to a show asking a band for something they can’t give you.
(Not all these rules apply to fancy VIP people who are allowed to watch the show while straddling an amp at the foot of the stage, or in an air-conditioned lounge. That’s obviously different from the average person’s concert experience.)
- You won’t ever be able to see everything that’s happening on stage. You are too small and too far away, and there are thousands of fuckers who are super tall, and carrying banners/other people on their shoulders, and they WILL prevent you from seeing everything you want to. Particularly not when you want to. This will mean that you’ll spend a lot of the time watching things on those big screens, with some girl’s hair in your mouth, and you’ll feel resentful that you could have just watched a live DVD at home, where your shoes wouldn’t be sticky and covered in other people’s beer.
- The band will never go on at exactly the time that is advertised beforehand. That never happens. There are too many factors being juggled in the co-ordination of an event that size, and when you add them up, concert maths will not allow it. But so the fuck what? What were you planning afterwards? If you’re going to a concert, that’s all you’re doing that night – it’ll take as long as it takes, and that’s fine because on that night, you have the time. Have another questionable drink, talk some shit with your mates and sooner or later, the band will make it worth your while. (If they don’t, you need better taste in bands).
- You will never be able to hear a whole song in its entirety. The idiots will be screaming, or your friend will want to tell you something (or vice versa), or people near you will get disruptive, or the band will have a sound issue that keeps them from playing bits of it, and you will be annoyed that a song you love so personally is being withheld from you in this public arena. That has to happen, though, and it will happen at least once at every concert you go to.
- You will be in physical pain afterwards. If you really are maniacally rabid about this band, you’ll have a standing ticket, and that means your feet will not be speaking to you for a long while after the concert. Your ears will be ringing, your oesophagus will be ravaged and you’ll have UBIs from leaning against gates/being moshed into. You won’t like any of this, but you ought to wear the battle scars with pride, because you can at last point to something and say “That’s how hard I love this band.”
- The songs you love will never have ALL the bits you love in them. It’s impossible to reproduce all of them live, and you will feel a little bit cheated afterwards. If you know that going in, you’ll appreciate that what’s lacked in perfect replication is made up for by all the hundreds of exciting things that only live performances can give you. But more on that in a minute.
- You will have to queue for everything. This is the payoff, you see. That solidarity that courses through a thousands-strong crowd with all that love for those chords in that order – it’s not there in that scope in a small club, and it’s not there at all when you’re listening to those records by yourself. Thousands of people screaming about the same thing you love? That’s something. But at some point, those thousands of people will have to pee, and they’ll need a drink, and you’ll need to line up behind them while they do. In the grand scheme, that has to be worth it. If it isn’t, you don’t really love that band.
None of this means you’ve been to a shit concert. Because in the end, these stadium gauntlets give you something precise that makes the frightful South African event prices, and all the angst and agony I’ve just listed worthwhile. Concerts bring you those people from far away who made that song that made you feel something big. It’s not the band that’s world-class – it’s the feeling they gave you, that was grander than your shitty life around it. And you get to look at people who you know have made something beautiful, right there in front of you.
Stop fucking whining and wade around in it while you can. If you’re really a music fan, and you truly love “your favourite band”, that’ll be more than enough for you. This isn’t your comfort zone. This is love. You should have to work for it.
In the vacuum between dark and light, Siouxsie Sioux and Emmylou Harris, Amelie and Travis Bickle, Huntress Thompson is an idiot lost, and reporting from the field. If you’re after irrational rants about cupcakes and Johnny Cash (and you probably aren’t), she’s grumpy, but she’s your girl.