By now, I hope that you’ve all recovered from any New Year’s Eve festivities that you enjoyed/regretted. I know, personally, it feels good to have my filtration organs back up to snuff. Yesterday, my body bore an uncanny resemblance to Milwaukee’s Deep Tunnel Project and due to overwhelming volume, major dumping was necessary.
But this New Year’s Eve was certainly special. This year, my wife and I, along with a woman she works with and her friend, were front row center at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater for the Cake concert. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Cake is an alternative/indie rock band out of Sacramento, California. Some of their hits include “Never There,” “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” and “The Distance” to name but three.
But regardless of who was on stage, it quickly occurred to me that the front row of any concert is an awesome responsibility. (In this case, “Awesome” denotes both “Woo-hoo!” and “Holy Crap!”) You see, I’ve never been front row for anything except an IMAX film which was just nauseating and disturbing.
The first thing that happens when the band leans into their opening chords is the entire audience rises to their feet. I’ve done this many times, but it was usually in the relative anonymity of row JJ. In the first row, I was amazed by the proximity. It was almost too intimate. In row JJ, you say things like: “Did he just look at us? Dude, I think he just looked and pointed right at us!” In the first row, you say things like: “Hello.”
Having seen a large crowd from the stage, I can say that a crowd is an entity in and of itself. Once you get above a certain number of people, they cease to become people, much like Voltron ceased to be the sum of the lions that were its parts but was simply a big, ass-kicking robot. Likewise, a large crowd is just that, and the individuals tend to disappear into the writhing, screaming mass. It moves with one purpose and speaks with one voice. But the first few rows consist of living, breathing, oddly well-lit people that are a fifty or so-person litmus test for how well or poorly the concert is going. Until New Year’s Eve ’08-’09, I had never been a portion of that sample.
It’s up to the first few rows to provide instant feedback for the band, which is no less important than the monitors through which they listen to themselves. Now being a fan of Cake but certainly not a fanatic and being familiar with Cake but certainly not an expert, for me this included a lot of eyes-closed-head-shaking, stationary dancing and lip-sync mumbling. Secretly, I hoped that this was sufficient to let them know that they were indeed reaching and delighting me.
The front row is also very often the target of the band’s conversation breaks; the several moments during the show where they stop playing and briefly speak to the audience in order to call attention to an issue or just get something off their chest. I was not prepared for this. During one such conversation break, Cake front man John McCrea was attempting to convey to his audience how important it is to acknowledge the sacrifice of others. The mass was reluctant, so he deferred to the front row. He looked down and said: “You, sir, in the tie, do you know anyone who has been injured?” Since I was probably the only member of their demographic that knew what a tie was and chose to wear one without irony, I could only assume he was speaking to me. The hand gesture and direct eye contact was also a bit of a clue.
Now, I assumed that he was making reference to veterans and their sacrifice to our safety, security and country, but, for a moment, I wasn’t sure. It was, after all, a question that had been asked by lawyers in their television commercials many, many times. “Have you or someone you know been injured due to the negligence of others?” Surely he wasn’t referring to television commercials…was he? But because I knew both someone injured by war and the negligence of others, I felt confident in responding…but how? It’s customary to cheer at concerts, but it certainly wasn’t appropriate to cheer because I knew someone who had been injured. I’m also fairly certain that John McCrea wasn’t interested in a lengthy, detailed discussion, so I decided on a thin smile, a contemplative blink and a nod of my head, heavy with gravitas. It seemed to be the reaction that he was looking for.
New Year’s Eve ’08-’09 was one of complete and utter Cake immersion, and completely and utterly unforgettable. To John McCrea and his Cake mates: I promise that I’ll be better prepared the next time. And, as a side note, I now realize that “Satan is My Motor” is not a tacit endorsement of the Lord of Lies, but rather a commentary on how conflict within our corporeal selves is the very human fuel that propels us in our search for transendence. Right?