Live performers acting out
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Have you ever been to a concert, stand-up show, or other live performance where someone onstage stopped the show to harangue, argue with, or otherwise engage with the audience? What are your most memorable experiences with live performers breaking stride to acknowledge their viewers?
I’ve seen They Might Be Giants live in concert half a dozen times at this point, but the show that most sticks with me was my first, back in college. My social group was addicted to Flood and the self-titled album, which had become bouncy sing-along standards for when we were driving around late at night, and I was accustomed to thinking of TMBG as happy party-music types. Then they played at my college and completely changed my mind. We were warned before the concert that they didn’t tolerate moshing or other aggressive dancing (seriously, who moshes to TMBG?) but I assume someone broke those rules, because John Flansburgh eventually stopped in the middle of a song to yell at people at the front of the room. His shouty, stern lecture broke down to “You’re being dicks, and we don’t have to put up with it. This performance is about us, not you, and if you don’t behave yourselves and we aren’t enjoying ourselves, we can just pack up and leave the stage at any time.” It put a chill over the rest of the show—it was college, and none of us were that far off from listening to parents say “If you don’t quiet down, I’ll turn this car around and go home,” which is what the interaction felt like—and it turned me off of them for years. Eventually, I got over it and started seeing them live again, and I’ve never again witnessed them having a problem with the audience. I still wonder what the college kids were doing that got Flansburgh so upset.
Oh man, finally a chance to tell one of my favorite stories ever, which I’ve bored friends and acquaintances with for years. I’ve seen Iron Maiden live something like five times. Frontman Bruce Dickinson is pretty reliable when it comes to parlaying with the audience (especially the times I’ve seen the band in Quebec, where Dickinson takes every opportunity to flex his Français). But like anything, I guess, the first cut is the deepest: My first time seeing Iron Maiden was the best. In large part, it had to do with two bits of stage banter. During one song, somebody tossed one of those fake silicone breast forms on stage, and it sort of slid across the stage of Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre and hit Dickinson on the foot. He stopped playing to call attention to it, claiming, “This is the first fucking time in the history of Iron fucking Maiden that anyone has ever tossed a fake tit onstage!” His onstage patter only got better later, when he unself-consciously introduced a song saying, “This song has no words and therefore it needs no introduction! It’s called ‘Transylvania’!”
While I’ve been privy to several excellent shows by Ryan Adams, including an epic 2001 show in Atlanta with the Pinkhearts that drew close to two-and-a-half hours, I also got a chance to see him deliver an epic meltdown, though it wasn’t all his fault. During a show on his tour with The Cardinals to promote the release of his slew of albums released in the mid-’00s (Cold Roses, 29, Jacksonville City Nights), Adams and crew played the New Orleans House of Blues, a venue that can be epic or awful depending on the crowd. This night, it was awful. A loud, chatty crowd drowned out Adams altogether on the quieter efforts. It clearly frustrated him, but he powered through. During a set of solo performances, the crowd managed to quiet down a bit, but eventually it grew loud again and Ryan ranted against the venue, House Of Blues at large, and the chatty crowd that was ruining the show for a dense pack of die-hards down front. With that, he stormed offstage, only to return and play an elongated version of Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat” as a giant “fuck you” to the uninterested crowd.
I was totally into Radiohead’s The Bends as a young person, so when I found out Thom Yorke and his merry band of mirth-makers would be opening for another of my favorite bands of the era, R.E.M on its Monster tour, I was as excited about the openers as I was the main attraction. I was very much in the minority at the time, however, as the crowd noise was deafening during Radiohead’s set. Radiohead wasn’t Radiohead yet, so it was treated the way opening acts often are: as an annoyance to be endured until the real band came on. This attitude displeased Yorke greatly, so just before he ended what felt like an abbreviated set with a blistering version of “The Bends,” he said something to the effect of “Here’s the last fucking song you’ll be too goddamned busy talking during to actually fucking listen to, and then we’re gone.” If I remember correctly, some assholes actually started applauding at the idea that Radiohead would soon be offstage. Ah, but Radiohead had its revenge when it became a venue-rocking monster.
I’ll grab Fugazi before somebody else does, since it’s such a slam-dunk answer. At pretty much every Fugazi show (at least for the band’s first few years of existence), you could expect a lot of people moshing and/or beating the crap out of each other up front. And when things got out of hand, you could always count on Ian MacKaye and/or Guy Picciotto to call out the bad guys. There’s a downloadable MP3 of just Fugazi stage banter out there on the Internets that’s kind of a joy to hear. I remember my very first Fugazi show, as a dumb 15-year-old who was actually a little surprised to hear this loud, sometimes violent-sounding band take a minute between songs to tell a circle pit full of hardcore meatheads to hug each other.
For better or worse, an incident took place toward the end of my very first R.E.M. concert, at William & Mary Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia, that made it into the band’s first Rolling Stone cover story. I guess this only qualifies on a technicality, given that Peter Buck’s “acknowledgment” of the audience was to throw down his guitar and storm off the stage after being pelted in the head with a couple of wet sweat socks, but it was damned sure memorable, not to mention a hell of a way to forever remember “The One I Love,” which abruptly became the last song of the show. I couldn’t blame the guy for reacting that way, since I’m sure the sensation was equal parts unexpected, disconcerting, damp, and stinky, but I still remember one of the friends I went with describing Buck as a pussy for not just sucking it up and finishing the show. At the least, he probably should’ve waited until he’d calmed down a bit before sitting down for the band’s interview with Steve Pond, since he ended up making a promise he soon broke and a prophecy he eventually fulfilled: “I will never, ever, ever, ever play another general-admission show, ever. Ever. And I will never, ever, ever play a place that’s bigger than the place we played tonight, ever. If we ever did a stadium tour, I would imagine it would be about the last thing we’d ever do together.”
I had the unholy, head-splitting pleasure of seeing Laughing Hyenas in 1991, not long after the group’s masterpiece, Life Of Crime, was released. The band was incredible. Feral, visceral, primeval: The four of them oozed a bluesy, bleary noise that churned my brain into custard. That is, when they were actually playing. Frontman John Brannon—living up to his infamous reputation as the frontman of the seminal hardcore outfit Negative Approach—felt the need to stop in the middle of every other song to lay into the sound guy. Brannon’s gripes were entirely unfounded; the band sounded fucking phenomenal, and anyway, it’s hard for a sound guy to do anything appreciable with that much volume in such a small space. That didn’t stop Brannon, who at one point in the show threatened to come down off the stage, part the crowd, and kick some knob-twiddling ass if the sound didn’t improve. Normally that kind of behavior reeks of prima donna-ism, but that’s the last thing I’d want to call Brannon; every ounce of bile he spat at the poor schlep behind the soundboard was replenished tenfold out of his nearby bottle of bourbon. It didn’t make for a smooth set of music. Then again, Laughing Hyenas were anything but.
I wrote about this briefly in My Favorite Music Year, but my love affair with Smashing Pumpkins ended at a cheeseball rock club in Houston in November 1993. I’d seen them a couple years prior (as the middle act on a bill with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), right around the time the video for “Siva” was in heavy rotation on 120 Minutes. When Siamese Dream came out, I basically listened to it nonstop for months. Before “Today” broke the album through and fulfilled Billy Corgan’s megalomaniacal rock-star fantasies, the band did a club tour. I was counting down the days until the Houston stop, but the show only lasted about 20 minutes. Chris Gray of the Houston Press recounted the story in a column a few years ago, but the short version is, someone threw a shoe onstage. This displeased Corgan, who announced if it happened again, the Pumpkins were done. You don’t say that to an audience—especially one full of unruly Texans—because another one followed, naturally, and hit him in the head. The band milled around on stage for a couple minutes before Corgan walked off, vowing never to play Houston again. I hung around the venue’s back door for a bit after, and James Iha came out to apologize to those of us waiting there—I’m sure it wasn’t the first or last time he apologized for Corgan. I ended up seeing the Pumpkins once more the following spring, this time in Austin, and the shoes also made the trek from Houston. Corgan admonished the crowd again—”We’re from Illinois, and where we’re from, we don’t throw shoes onstage like motherfuckers”—but didn’t storm off this time. By that point, I didn’t care enough to be happy about it.
It’s so hard to choose just one: Kanye West freaking out at Lollapalooza because the guy working the sound (or was it the lights?) didn’t live up to his expectations? (Still a great show.) Morrissey just generally being Morrissey? It almost doesn’t count, but one of my favorite semi-hostile interactions with a crowd involved Sleater-Kinney politely asking everyone not to smoke before the group started playing. (Most listened. Some didn’t.) But I think my favorite freak-out ever—though it was a dry, controlled freak-out—belongs to Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family. Playing a show on UW-Madison’s terrace, she tore into a concertgoer who called out for “Freebird” by, and I’m paraphrasing, saying, “You should call your parents and tell them that whatever they’re paying for you to go to college is a waste, because you’re still fucking ignorant.” If it was meant as a joke, nobody laughed. As far as I know, she said that at every concert to everyone who inevitably thought it was funny to call out for “Freebird,” but it still seemed to come from the heart. Incidentally, there is a Handsome Family track called “Freebird,” on a live album. But it isn’t exactly the Lynyrd Skynyrd song.
I’ve written about seeing a fight break out onstage during a show by the Fall, so let me go back to an earlier show by one of my favorite bands in the whole wide word: Pere Ubu. The show was at a long-gone Philadelphia venue called Upstairs At Nick’s, home to many of my most potent concert-going memories, and this was one of them, albeit not a pleasant one. David Thomas, the band’s singer, figurehead and only constant member, was in a bad mood from the time he took the stage, chiding the audience for failing to applaud as they made through the crowd from the dressing rooms in the back. And it got worse when, maybe two songs into the set, he abruptly stopped the band and demanded that the red pinpoint lights strung around the performance area be turned off. “This is Pere Ubu,” Thomas boomed, “not a circus act.” I spent the rest of the show in a fog, shocked that an artist I practically worshipped could be, well, such a dick. But it was an important lesson for me in terms of learning that great artists aren’t always great, or even especially nice, people, and that it’s possible to venerate their work without idolizing them personally. As an older man, and one who’s since seen many great Ubu shows, I now realized that Thomas is a bit of a crank, and that he’s been known to drink too much before getting onstage, both of which go a long way toward retrospectively explaining his outburst.
I attend a lot of live theater, and though actors breaking or forgetting lines are portrayed fairly frequently in fictional depictions of the stage, I’ve only seen it happen one time in all of the productions I’ve gone to, amateur and professional. Perhaps surprisingly, the performer I saw break was Patti LuPone, during an afternoon matinee of a Broadway revival of Noises Off. The play isn’t my favorite, but it’s a lively farce, and when well-directed and acted, it attains an astonishing momentum. But it’s also easy for such a thing to get going so quickly that all involved get too caught up in the moment, the wave breaks, and the performers are left gasping for breath. That’s what happened to LuPone in a two-person scene where she and a male actor (whose name I can’t recall) batted dialogue back and forth at a rapid pace. I don’t know what happened. Maybe she forgot a line, or maybe his facial expression was funny, or maybe she just realized how goofy the whole situation was. But she started to laugh, and she laughed for a good 10 seconds, obviously an actress, not her character. When she finally recovered, she spit out the rest of the scene, obviously disgusted with herself. She exited and received a long ovation from the audience, but when I later read about the incident in The New York Times, it was portrayed as the height of unprofessionalism. Which, to be sure, it was. But somehow, in the moment, it made her seem more human, and it’s that connection we fed off of in applauding her.
Six or seven years ago I went to a New Jersey comedy club to see a show headlined by Rich Vos. Vos is one of those comedians who’s been in the game forever, and has had moderate success, but unless you’re an Opie & Anthony listener, a fan of the old Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, or a huge comedy nerd, you’ve probably never heard of him. The night I saw him, Vos had a good 45 minutes of solid material I had never heard before. There was only one problem: His headlining slot was an hour and a half. So with a lot of time to fill, Vos decided to turn his attention to some poor schlub in the audience and just riff on whatever he happened to dig up in conversation. The night I was there, that poor schlub happened to be me. It’s one of the reasons why I prefer to sit far from the stage in a comedy club; I’d rather enjoy the show than be a part of it. So Vos asks me questions about my job (I was transitioning into becoming a full-time writer at the time) and my social life (I was very single at the time, and trying to get in good with the friend my buddy Roger brought along). All the while, I tried to do my best to just answer Vos’ questions, not try to be funny myself, and be a good sport. I don’t really remember much of what he said to me, but it must have been pretty outlandish, because after the show, I reached out my hand and said to Vos, “You know, you’re an asshole… but a pretty funny asshole,” which prompted the four of us to hang out and joke around for about an hour after the show was over.
I mostly go to punk-rock shows, so I’ve been treated to many Ian MacKaye impersonations. But the best stage speech I’ve ever received was from The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, the gentlest fellow to ever spend time in Propagandhi. He’s not exactly known for his stage rhetoric, but this was November 3, 2004, the day George W. Bush was elected to a second term. If you’ve never been to an indie-rock show in one of Chicago’s most liberal neighborhoods on the day of a Republican win, I would not recommend it. I don’t think anyone in the room raised their eyes from the floor until John K. Samson took the stage. And he was not much peppier. He greeted the crowd with “Today is a terrible day to be a human being,” and he leaned heavily on the microphone stand all night. He refused every request for fast songs, claiming that we all needed “lullabies.” The show took a tour through the band’s grimmest songs, stopping only to give speeches about taking us all to Canada to just grind the depression in. But somehow it worked. A night of wallowing in shared shitty news turned into pure catharsis. Toward the end of the show Sampson looked around at us and said “I’m feeling better already.” He still refused requests for “Wellington’s Wednesdays,” but he played a few of their peppier lullabies so at least the crowd could move around. I don’t know if we all just needed to know that our disappointment was shared, or if we wanted Canadians to tell us we were still good people. I do know that it’s still one of my favorite shows, and it’s just about the only time I haven’t responded to stage lectures with an eye-roll.