Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Five times awful rock audiences improved live recordings

Few things in life bum me out more than having a show by a band I love ruined by a jerky audience. (Looking at you, dude who loudly sang along with every Bonnie "Prince" Billy song at Logan Square Auditorium. You too, drunk bros who heckled Cloud Cult at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds last summer. And don't get me started on every crowd with whom I've seen Wilco.) I have to admit, though, that sometimes a poorly behaved audience can help to create some memorable music moments. Most of the time that doesn't become evident until after the fact, but when it does it can be something kind of special. Here are a handful of occasions when boorish, clueless or just plain inexplicable crowd conduct yielded historic (or at least momentarily pretty cool) results.

Antagonistic New Yorkers at a Lou Reed show
Take No Prisoners is the rare concert album that puts as much emphasis on the banter as it does the music, and for good reason. This is a perfect pairing of Lou Reed and a hometown New York City crowd circa 1978. Both are cranky, combative and ready to start swinging at a moment’s notice, but only one has quick wits and a microphone. The running narrative of the album reveals that Lou showed up late for the set, giving the crowd plenty of time to get drunk and resentful. New Yorkers, if you aren’t aware, don’t have a reputation for dealing with disappointment quietly.

There are too many incredible interactions for me to enumerate here, but a few highlights include Lou threatening to stop singing until everybody shuts up (the crowd calls his bluff), Lou demonstrating to a heckler how easily he can be drowned out with guitar feedback, and Lou pre-emptively quoting Yeats at the interlopers: “‘The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passion and intensity.’ Now you figure out where I am.”

The best part is that most of this isn’t between-song banter - Lou’s fighting the crowd right smack in the middle of his songs, and neither he nor his band ever misses a beat. Heck, the opening track alone, a splendidly greasy, eight-minute rendition of “Sweet Jane,” yields a tour's worth of memorable quotes:

  • “You ever put a quarter in those machines, man? Y’know, like the bear that plays basketball… I guess they never put a quarter in me, huh?”
  • “Where were you on the list when they called you for Vietnam?”
  • “We’re just here to make out. You bend over, we’ll put the head in. You don’t like it, then we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Fuck Radio Ethiopia, man, I’m Radio Brooklyn. I ain’t no snob, man.”
  • “If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you.”
  • And of course, a vicious “SHUT UP, YOU!” wedged seamlessly into the “Villains always blink their eyes” segment.

Some of the annoyance is doubtless genuine, but at the same time Lou clearly relishes the back-and-forth and the songs crackle with nervous energy. Any which way, it makes for some compelling listening.

Stage-diving Nazi punk at an SNFU show
In 1991 venerable Canadian punks SNFU put out their purported farewell album Last of the Big Time Suspenders, a mix of rarities and live cuts that serves as a solid document of what turned out to be the band’s mid-life rather than its finale. Near the end of their atypically anthemic cover of Eddie Money’s outlaw ballad “Gimme Some Water,” lead singer Ken Chinn stops singing for a beat to point out “That asshole jumping off the stage is wearing a swastika on his t-shirt, obviously too young to understand the serious connotations of such a fuckin’ stupid thing.” There’s a brief pause while the audience begins to buzz, then Chinn launches right back into the chorus. The electricity of the moment is undeniable. You almost feel sorry for the dimwitted Nazi kid getting his ass handed to him so succinctly, but mostly you just want to cheer on Ken Chinn’s righteous indignation.

Unruly Englishmen at the Isle of Wight Festival
The infamous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival has long been a standard-bearer for badly behaved audiences. Reports vary on what exactly caused the crowd's discontent and on exactly how ugly the scene really was, but by most accounts a bunch of angry young Brits made life miserable for everyone assembled for good chunks of the festival. The crowd was especially hard on several acts who had the temerity not to rock. Joni Mitchell famously told the audience they were “acting like tourists” before breaking down in tears and leaving the stage.

Kris Kristofferson took a different tack, responding to the deafening boos with his trademark laconic acidity. Kristofferson sounds both exasperated and amused as he assures the crowd that nothing short of rifle fire will stay his musicians from making their appointed rounds. His band, playing what was only their fourth gig, then ambles into a particularly low-key rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” There aren’t many contexts where Kristofferson’s classic sketch of lost love and misspent youth could be taken as an act of passive-aggressive defiance, but that’s absolutely what it is here. Punctuated by the songwriter’s parting bird-flip to the crowd, it’s a perfect rebuttal to a bunch of ingrates.

Ironic loudmouths at Built to Spill shows
Built to Spill is the kind of band that tends to take a little time between songs, largely because they’re top-flight musicians who care about sounding their best on every number. Unfortunately, plenty of concert goers interpret pauses in the set as an invitation to yell out song requests, and anyone who’s been to a show in the past four decades knows that means someone’s gonna yell out “Freebird.” During their 2001 tour, the band opted to respond to that ubiquitous holler by going ahead and playing “Freebird.” And not just a tease or a sarcastic nod - the whole damn song, note for note. As a guy who unabashedly loves both Built to Spill and “Freebird,” getting to see that live stands as an all-time highlight of my concert-going career.

Devil Girl at a Rolling Stones show
I don’t know how close to the stage the young lady captured on the Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! album could have been standing, but her voice comes through clearly enough that she almost seems to have a mic of her own. And what a voice it is: flat, toneless, devoid of passion yet somehow frighteningly insistent. “Paint it black,” she drones. “‘Paint it black. Paint it black, you devil. Paint it black.” 

Now, you might think she’s just requesting her favorite Rolling Stones song, but there’s a grim imperative in her delivery that convinces me that she’s actually demanding that the devil (which could be any of the Stones, but I presume to be Mick Jagger because c’mon) paint the intangible “it” black. The Stones pay her no mind, although they do break into a spectacularly inspired rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Her spooky doggedness is perfectly in keeping with what was simultaneously one of the band's darkest and brightest periods. (The performances captured on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out took place just weeks before the Stones' fateful Altamont concert.) The woman is never heard from again. I understand some fan journal tracked her down a while back, but I'd rather not learn the details of her real-life existence. As a mystery interloper on a classic performance, she’s one of my favorite people ever.