The Loneliness of Indie Concert Goers
Updated: Aug 28
Tucked away in the borderlands of Fort Green and Bushwick exists a street, or rather exists a few streets that concentrate the best venue for seeing independent bands take the stage at a price that wont put you out: the Sultan Room (and its Rooftop), Elsewhere (and its rooftop), Brooklyn Steel (if you are in the mood for a bit of a crowd), Public Records, the Brooklyn Mirage (for a Vegas style night, and only if it isnt raining), Alphaville (for a so so experience), and then within a mile in any direction: the Broadway, Babys Alright (a little too close to capacity), TV Eye, Purgatory, Union Pool (though it can be avoided), the Knitting Factory, and St Vitus Bar. Some would even mention the Music Hall of Williamsburg (I would not), and the truly misplaced go to the House of Yes.
Lost, but not forgotten: the experiment that was Wonders of Nature.
I would be remiss to leave out the rest of Brooklyn: the Southern part boasts the Bell House, Lucky Saloon (for headbangers, not hipsters), and the Jalopy Theater (if you dont mind drinking on school grounds). I was fortunate enough to see the last live performance at Hank's Bar before they too became lost to Brooklyn's great progress.
That is not to say Manhattan cannot hold its own, it has the Mercury Lounge, Rockwood music hall, the Market Hotel (though I have not been there), East Berlin (I enjoyed a final show there right before the global event shut the world of music down; it was called something else), Arlene's Grocer, the lost, but not forgotten Julez Bistro (more for Jazz and good for bite of French-mex) and the fortunately still standing Anyway Cafe (if World Music was a place). The pretension of the City Winery is forgivable for its intimacy. I have also been to a show or two at Bowery Electric, but I am in no hurry to return.
Regardless of if you go to a show at Elsewhere or Public Records, in Brooklyn or Manhattan, NYC or Stockholm, a concert of rap or experimental noise, you will see each show populated by the same kinds. As much as you wish to be trailblazing individual seeking true uncommon experience in a city built on a premise of uncommon experience, you cannot escape your fellow concert-going pioneers. They wear red and blue shoes, with the socks to match, their shirts with their avant-garde patterns, conscious graphics, and perfect style only bested by the person to their left. Sometimes they come with companions (of any gender), third wheel, or roll deep but anywhere from 1/4 - 1/3 of the crowd is without a companion.
You see, the loneliness of the indie concert goer is not evident immediately from a shallow glance. The cans of Narragansett, loud chatter, and conversation-prohibiting background music hide the signs of unsociability. But all it takes is a second glance to appear, staring you right in the face: the awkward looks around the room when one tires of flipping through endless images on their cell phones. The solo girls trying to avoid being singled out. The two men in red shoes standing together, both trying to be the first. Not to say even those who come with someone are in good company, and let's just leave it at that.
When the band starts playing, everyone takes their position. Whether that is as the central fan who places themself right in the musicians fan, the second tier fans that take up the 2nd - 3rd rows (where I often find myself), then the general crowd of couples and friends who can claim they are here for each other as much for the band.
Now this is where things get really interesting. The band, which appears to be nothing but combination of a guitarist, a singer/guitarist/keyboardist, a bass player, a rented drummer, and perhaps some kind of brass, can come together and create what can only be called 'a time'. 'A time', you understand, is something that can be had anywhere at any moment, yet it seldom is. In most situations where one tries to deliberately have 'a time', they fail to at the most basic principle: something worth it. 'A time', especially in the music world, cannot be found by simply throwing a dart at a random venue and rushing to whatever show is playing that night.
No, 'a time' requires hours of deliberation (or it does at first), of thought, of envisioning every detail from the moment of your arrival, the substance you will take and when, to the size of the crowd to which beer you will drink and when. Failure to plan accordingly for even one aspect, and it makes having 'a time' almost impossible. Which is what makes the loneliness of indie concert goers all the more frustrating.
With the experience of years of navigating the seas of indie venues, we gain the appropriate foresight to make each concert 'a time'. We ensure that the band is competent, that the venue is of the right size, and that any companions are attuned to the music being played. We know exactly what to dose, what time to dose, and when to re-up. Alcohol is a relatively simple manner to keep your nerves checked, but it comes with a price tag. We know how to combine all these things into 'a time'.
Despite our almost primal knowledge, often we find ourselves unable to communicate to those who we want to draw in. Even our present companions being guided by a deft hand, cannot control those around us to equally be a part of 'the time' being had. They can fall to their anxiety, see your invitation as insinuation, and find themselves hopelessly lost in a clump of sweat, fashion, refracted light, and distorted noise. The singers face can bear down like a syllogism, wondering why they ever came to such a place, and put themselves under such substance; charging for the outside world with its corner delis, noisy streets, and stony edifices. The same comfort that the indie goer yearns for inside their neon-glow venues, makes others shift equally away (for every reaction an equal and opposite one).
As I prepare my bike, substenance (including medication that gives me a youthful feel), and wild outfit to leave for another concert with no partner (I could have had a companion, but not every willing companion is a desired one), the evening again promises to be a reclusive event. Perhaps even more so than normal as this is supposed to be a festival affair with early arrival demanded for cheaper tickets. I know between, and perhaps even during, performances I will be filled with the doldrums and a constant undercurrent of rejection. Perhaps though I will spot someone there, with the same level of loneliness of me. But that is only half the reason I go.
The bike ride will be a long and dangerous one. Nearly half-an-hour and a route down a dirty noise street with no safe lane, but many corner delis, and somehow I will arrive in Queens.
Fortuitously I am there for the second-billed star, so the night will at least not be too late, but it still feels like disappointment is almost guaranteed. I am sure by the time Ms. Richards (or perhaps Mrs) comes to the stage the crowd will be filled of mostly casual fans, and many with only a scant idea of her capabilities. To be within even shouting distance of Ms. Richards might require a physicality and perseverance I dont feel like expending. And even once gaining position, it would still require considerable energy to maintain distance lest you get pushed back by the rowdy-crowd that begins to question whether this is the real main act, and headliner merrily a closer. Since a global event had caused Ms Richards to be unable to play at a more suitable venue the year prior, this was my one chance to see her, and I intended to take it.
My pessimism ended up being unfounded. The crowd was pleasantly calm, and all it took was 20 minutes of rushing to the stage to be in the fourth row. I had tried reaching for human connection, but quickly put an end to that fantasy and instead focused on taking in the show. And what a show it was, replete with full Beyonce-style choreography and backup dancers, you cant imagine how anyone would pay less than $100 to see this. Even after taking my leave from the front of the audience (there is a difference between appreciation and infatuation), I still stick around in the wings to watch the rest the performance play out. You know in your heart of hearts the artist with top billing will be an afterthought to the evening, and you dont intend do stick around and find out. This was "a time".
As if your loneliness has not been affirmed enough you still have another concert left to attend to. And this time you will bring a friend who can handle their alcohol and associated items. If perhaps again proving that the simple act of standing next to someone separates you from the rest of the crowd; that your superiority in simply having companionship. Even when you stand alone it is understood to be a temporary condition. We follow the same routine: first few songs by the opener, leave for a smoke, return when the crowd disperses in the intermezzo, defend your position (despite the aggression of the crowd), and wait for your time to begin.