(From Denver Westword)
When Gregory Alan Isakov and Nathaniel Rateliff played The Aggie in Ft. Collins earlier this year, the audience was silent. The only time the crowd made a peep during the music was when a diabetic girl fainted in the audience. It was weird. It was beautiful. It may have been related to the venue temporarily losing its liquor license.
But maybe we should spend more time encouraging silence at shows. Audiences at two recent very different Colorado concerts further demonstrated the value of silence.
There were chairs set up at The Gothic Theatre a couple weeks ago night, which is a mood setter if you’ve ever seen one. This would be a sitting down concert – exciting in its own right, but very different from the sweaty, smoke covered crowd mesmerized by, say, Father John Misty’s hips, who took the same stage last summer.
And yet in spite of the seats and the silence, Joe Purdy and Brian Wright were good contenders for most enjoyable concert we’ve seen in recent memory. Also, their inter-song banter is A+.
The next night brought with it a house show — music blogger Heather Browne regularly brings artists to her community clubhouse to perform for an audience of around 50.
A mix of local singing men with beards and guitars (Conor Bourgal of Colorado Springs’ The Changing Colors and Denver’s Josh Dillard) and national ones (Widower, aka Kevin Large) made a remarkable atmosphere out of a generally unremarkable suburban house.
At both of these shows, despite the distinct difference in size and ambience, the audiences were quiet. Aside from at the larger Gothic with the token couple of assholes that are almost unavoidable and a few women shouting lines that they significantly overestimated the hilarity of (“You’re Purdy!” One woman yelled at Joe towards the end of the show – “I told you to wait in the truck,” he responded without missing a note), the crowd was there to really appreciate the music.
The relationship between artist and audience is finicky. It takes time to build and it’s hard to fake with a “HOW ARE YOU DOING TONIGHT, [insert city here]!”
Sometimes the artist really is performing for the audience, trying to win their approval. This happens often with opening acts and at bars that happen to have live music rather than bars you go to for live music.
And sometimes – the best times – it’s a mutual love affair. The artist really wants to impress the fans and the fans really want to shower the artist with love and respect.
When the audience is silent, the musician is put on the spot even more than being on stage alone puts her there, which can be just as scary and embarrassing for the audience as it is for the artist. The first song is like a breath caught in everyone’s throat.
A loaded “phew” came out of Conor Bourgal’s mouth after finishing the first song in his set comprised entirely of Leonard Cohen music, and the whole room exhaled with him. His voice, already so genuine and full of emotion, no longer broke the silence like a crack slowly running through glass but became a bubble of warmth enveloping the room.
The same can be said for Brian Wright the night before, possibly even more so with a voice that easily overpowered the guitar and embodied a storyteller more than a singer.
But once that first hesitant step is taken — when the artist realizes there will be no tomato throwing and the audience realizes they don’t have to cringe through an entire set — both audience and artist embark on a journey.
The show becomes less of a sales ploy and more of a genuine showcase of talent. You laugh together. In those couple of hours you’re all friends. The musicians invite you to come meet them after the show, and they really do mean it. It’s borderline voyeurism — in the most consensual way possible — for those who don’t make music to understand the artistic process.
Of course, silence as a tribute isn’t for every genre. Certain types of music are not necessarily made to sit still and marvel. EDM is meant for moving your body and classic rock is made for air guitar and singing along.
But silence clearly has its place in the ranks of some music. It’s much easier for the words to strike you when there are no obstacles between you and the music. It’s like putting blinders on a horse — you forget your surroundings and drift into chord induced daydreams just as much as the musicians enter into their own personal consciousness to play the songs they’ve written.
“Silent shows” are one of so many great ways to celebrate music. There’s something to be said for silent, private contemplation of lyrics and melodies that isn’t interrupted by raucous applause and wooing.