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Inner Space

Justin Cober-Lake

When should you feel more cheated at a rock show -- when the venue seems like a museum, an ersatz bazaar, or a toilet? A look at how space affects performance.

PopMatters Music Special Sections Editor

History starts to fade into the background. I'm familiar enough with Washington, D.C., not to pay too much attention to the sites anymore -- overlooking the sunken Vietnam Memorial or forgetting Lincoln's stern face above me -- but not so familiar that I take it all for granted. We got in early enough to walk around a bit, through the kickball tournament on the Mall up to the Washington Monument, then alongside the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Here was U.S. History; the seat of the most powerful government in the world just down the street. But that was just a sidelight. While we stepped out of the way of the camera-snappers and skyward-gazers, we talked more about guitarists than presidents, more about reverb than revolution. I bought a hot dog off a street vendor, and we made our way back to our true destination.

We had made the drive up to D.C. to see Sonic Youth and Wilco. I'm merely a casual fan of the former, owning only the essential albums -- Daydream Nation and Dirty -- but never really knowing the names of the non-Kim, non-Thurston members or having the whole discography straight. I was too young and too square, or maybe they were too weird at the time when I'd have developed full-fledged fandom. The kids who listened to Sonic Youth when I started high school and started realizing my tastes (both consciously and unknowingly) were the ones who helped me stave off conformity, but we lost touch when they started playing too much Fugazi and doing too many drugs. So even though Sonic Youth was actually touring in support of a strong new album, Murray Street, it felt like a chance to revisit a missed experience. This time around I could trade in my polo shirts for flannel.

Wilco, on the other hand, was my new favorite. My girlfriend and I had immediately bonded over the recent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Previously, I had listened to the band only sporadically and even withstood Uncle Tupelo if necessary. Mostly I found it too country, and I didn't have patience enough for my friends to get me as far as Summerteeth. When Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came, though, I took it as the emblem of everything I wanted out of music -- moving, experimental without even a trace of obscurantism, and admitting fun into a swirl of deeper issues. Wilco was the new Art for me.

The concert took place at Constitution Hall, which carries some substantial weight. It's a large, stately building just off the National Mall, next to the Corcoran Art Gallery, only blocks from the White House. Construction started in 1928 when First Lady Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge broke ground with the same trowel George Washington had used on the Capitol in the 18th Century. Since its inception as a Daughters of the American Revolution convention hall, the building has hosted orchestras, award shows and corporate events, and every president since Coolidge has attended events there. Not that old a building by D.C. standards, but a National Historic Landmark with some cultural gravitas.

With its sheen and taste, Constitution Hall was not the sort of venue I was accustomed to. This hit me when I went to the bathroom. In the places I normally saw shows, piss would be covering a dirty toilet or overflowing a clogged sink, and that's if there was a bathroom at all and I wasn't out taking a piss in a field. The bathrooms I was used to at shows were rank, infested by bacteria, insects, and, sometimes, opening acts. I don't expect bathrooms to have gilded trim. But the bathrooms at Constitution Hall -- with their dry floors and polished hardware -- made me feel as if I were the dirty element present. I washed my hands and dried them on my pants.

So here we were, in the center of one of America's most historic cities (named for the president who once slept in my hometown) in a famous old pristine building. We filed in past the well-groomed ushers and gold-plated bathrooms and over the luxurious lounge to watch noise-rockers from our past. And in this expensive, historic concert hall, Sonic Youth became a museum piece. Though the band's performance rocked -- it brought plenty of energy, lots of feedback and one very cool freakout, and new addition Jim O'Rourke helped them push their limits -- I couldn't help feeling that I was looking at an exhibit. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our Sonic Youth installation. In the latter part of the last century, this band, and others like it, inspired kids who felt outside of their mainstream. If you look closely....

No big deal, I thought, since I was there to see Wilco, but the building had a strange effect on how I received Tweedy and company as well. If Wilco was the new Art, then its performance was an installation, too. Surrounded by museum mystique, the group put on a show appropriate for cocktail-sipping, gallery-going dilettantes out to critique an opening, perhaps for a journeyman who's presumed to make culture. With precise work and integral video material, Wilco's show became an exhibit too. The group used background images to especial effect on "Ashes of American Flags" and "Poor Places"; the grainy video expanded the emotional pull of the songs, but the tight relationship between band and film made what was happening onstage more like performance art than rock 'n' roll.

Frontman Jeff Tweedy did try to break the glass. An audience member repeatedly walked to the front of the stage to pose in front of the stage for someone else to take a picture of him as Tweedy played a solo number in the background. Finally Tweedy pretended to kick him in the head, saying, "I'm trying to play a song ... I'm not a monkey at the zoo." But even still, Tweedy's response, while ostensibly breaking down the barrier between artist and audience, also demonstrated that he wanted to perform to or at us, while preserving the certain type of distance that would never be permitted in a grimy club you had paid $6 to get into.

About six months later, I found out that Castanets were playing a show in my current home, Charlottesville, Virginia. The group was scheduled to play at a venue known as the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. In the past couple years I had been there to see local bands or political films or to simply have an Indian-style lunch with red tea. I had never paid much attention to the design of the interior space, mainly because it's so incoherent: The guiding theme of the decorating seems to have been a joy of generic Oriental. It's possible to connect the fish tank to Japanese decorating, while some of the tea sets on display appear to be Chinese in origin. The overarching design feels reminiscent of an Indian restaurant in the Village. In some senses, the decor is a bit tasteless -- anything remotely Eastern or exotic has been grabbed and flung onto walls and stands. There's a Hindu god above the sofa, but I thought there was a Buddhist thing going on. Indian and Chinese become interchangeable.

Before the concert, I chatted with Ray Raposa, main force and only true member of Castanets. His friend and current band mate commented on what an odd place we were in. I was curious what Raposa would make of it; his music has an intense spirituality that pays more respect to its source than the decorators of the Tea Bazaar. As a Christian, I hear his lyrics with that principle in mind, but I don't know specifically where he comes from, only that he comes with a consistent ethos, one which withholds judgment and offers grace. I wonder how he would feel performing and how I would feel listening to the music in such a strange place.

From my vantage, it seemed as though Raposa pulled everything in to him, playing quietly but forcefully. I couldn't help wondering every now and then what was up with the Vishnu statue behind me, but mostly Raposa's performance cut that away. Still, I never quite settled in to his music the way I typically do with the Castanets' album, Cathedral.

I got back in touch with Raposa a few months later, and he told me that he had been thinking about that venue quite a bit. "The Tea Bazaar was one of the better times had on that trip. Largely due to the venue and the staff," he said. "After Baltimore -- concrete, empty -- and D.C., which was pleasant enough, but certainly the most sterile vibe on the tour, the Twisted Branch was revelatory. In regard to the cultural mash-ups and co-opts for the sake of world-feel or visual spirituality -- yes, it's a shame. Owners'll do what owners'll do."

Raposa's mindset about performance limits the effect that a space can have on him. He explains, "The space within, from where a performance should stem, I think, does not respond to or even acknowledge these circumstances."

To Raposa, if you perform working from the inside out, your surroundings shouldn't influence your art. There's a hint of the Romantic in this idea, an essential center bursting forth with ideas and passion. Raposa's certainly reflective enough to realize that he's not purely isolated when he's on stage: "An audience probably often feels its surroundings far more immediately than the performer (awful term, bear with me) in the spectating, receiving and processing. An environment at odds with the tenor and spirit of a performance could very well then affect the way that the songs are received, thereby affecting the performers and the mindset of. Not firsthand though."

We've all had enough nights where our reception of a show was ruined by a rude crowd (or improved by a stimulated one), and we all know different places sound better than others. But what is it about design that can influence experience? Raposa likes the randomness of venue design: "Much of the fullness and fun of the exchange comes from the fact that something will always be off. Something will be not right. Something should always be there to remind one that they are not singing to themselves in a bedroom or listening to MP3s on their iPod. It's great! Hell with preserving the sanctity of song or sentiment. Living sound morphing and mutating! Stage and floor as one and damn the walls!"

I agree with him in some ways. There's something great about the slip-ups, the oddities, and the one-offs; but there's also something intriguing about the static and bizarre (whether in hall or cafe). Understanding our relationship as spectators to a venue's space can only deepen our experience of a given event. Our awareness can help us pick out (accepting or possibly rejecting) elements of a show that our related to our own response.

When a place is too pristine, it drains the audience of the grit that centers rock, embedding it as art to be observed but not to be lived. An extensive construct of place -- one that cries out, "Look where you are!" -- leads to a distance and a chill, which in turn reinforces the barriers between, ahem, artist and spectator. A smaller but specific construct can affect the elements that you bring to a show, whether it be religion, politics or something else (imagine the import of seeing, say, Steve Earle playing on the White House lawn).

It's not necessarily intuitive to explore these issues, but the self-consciousness involved in the process can lead to new joys in concert going. Rather than heightening the abstraction of an experience, an acknowledgement of such conditions allows them to be processed, and at least partially absorbed or re-calibrated. It's hard to know what to do with rock in sterility or faith within chaos (and perhaps these binaries need their ties). In any case, keep the Golden Monkey tea flowing.

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