The Dandy Warhols (American alternative rock band), Düsseldorf, April 2012
Attended with group (12 people). Pre-drinks at local bar, and beers on the tram to venue. Standing room only. 300 in attendance (estimate).
There are a lot of white people wearing t-shirts of bands I’ve never heard of. They seem relaxed, not drunk, as everyone holds a plastic cup of beer. We are in the bar room attached to Zakk concert hall. Many wear new jeans that cover the tops of unscuffed boots. The only signs of diversity seem to be in our group. Fernando and Alfonso and the four girls they brought with them are all from Spain. Collectively, we are the loudest people here. We receive the occasional stare from members of the music crowd, but so what?
We are standing dead center of the room when The Dandy Warhols take the stage. Seth, the Australian, keeps making “whooping” noises about the band. The Spanish girls flare out their hair for maximum volume, and our entire area smells of exotic shampoo. They are the only ones I see dancing. The flashing of the stage lights makes the band look like ghosts. Fernando and Alfonso slip on matching road cone-orange sunglasses.
German music fans seem unconcerned, but they’re not uninterested. They like to stand still, watching the band with unflinching focus, many with arms crossed. From the stage this must be extremely intimidating. I can’t imagine the anxiety it must produce for the touring musician playing Germany for the first time. On average, the music fan is 6 feet or taller. A few nod, and fewer still — those rebels — bop their head to the beat. But mostly they just stand and let the music build up inside them until the song is over. Only then do they applaud. I should mention that the Germans generate a heck of a lot of sound when they clap. I don’t know if it has anything to do with hand size or technique or what, but it is loud.
Near the end of the show, a strobe light flashes and Fernando drops his beer on my boot. Some time passes, and when I look back, Fernando is sitting on Alfonso’s shoulders. They strut around as if looking for challengers to chicken fight. They are still wearing their ridiculous shades. The smell of beer and shampoo is heavy. Fernando raises his arms and emits one long scream. There is, I notice, a 360-degree crop circle-like absence of people in our vicinity. The music fans want nothing to do with us. They only want to stand, like trees beneath colored lights, and enjoy the rock show.
There were nonverbal rules that our group was not privy to. Public inebriation was a factor, and your average music fan appeared dead sober. What stood out most to me was how well behaved the music fans were. It was almost as if they thought it might disturb or somehow disrespect the band if they whooped it up during a song. I grew up with the idea that rock bands ‘feed off the energy’ of the crowd. Not moving or verbally expressing your approval was a sign of disinterest or not ‘feeling it’ — the concertgoer equivalent of a dead fish.
In their defense, I honestly don’t believe the music fans were not feeling it or disinterested. The intensity of their applause between songs was earnest. Nevertheless, had I been on my own, and not part of a group, I think I would have felt isolated on a Twilight Zone-type of level.
Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, Cologne, May 2012
Attended with wife. Sat in Block W18 (upper deck) 2nd Row. Drank one beer before show. Clear skies, 70º F / 21º C. Attendance: 50K (estimate)
18ooh: Germans are not familiar with the rule about not wearing the t-shirt of the band you’re going to see. There are no social gatherings or pre-drinking parties in the field outside the stadium, which surprises me. There is, however, one gigantic acid-nightmare line stretching the entire length of the stadium, which shouldn’t have surprised me, because Germans love waiting in lines.
1830h: There is a refreshing lack of security at ticket check — no pat-downs or unnecessary fondling. I smuggle in a bottle of water, but am disappointed in myself for not sneaking in Jägermeister. There are young men selling baguettes from a holster. No meat, no cheese — just an entire loaf of bread. Other young men are wearing a Beck’s beer backpack (complete with cup dispenser), which has this 20 foot antenna sticking up that makes the wearer seem vaguely robotic.
1850h: Block W18. The wave is going around…sort of. It’s having trouble making it past our section.
1900h: Folks applaud when Bruce and the gang walk onstage. Nobody in our block stands. The gentleman to my right is wearing brown leather sandals with black socks and khaki pants. His buddy wears khakis too, and a polo shirt emblazoned with some company logo, perhaps the one they work for. These men mostly sit and stare straight ahead during the performance. The stage, by the way, is to our right.
1930h: Bruce is playing numbers from the new album, Wrecking Ball. It’s somber, a lot of it (“Death to my hometown”) and there’s a lot of puzzled looks exchanged between loved ones.
1956h: My khaki-clad neighbor is still staring straight ahead. This seemed sad at first, but now I wonder if he won his ticket in a company raffle. Thousands of fans on ground level are packed in and have somehow come together and agreed to make similar hand gestures. One moment they’ll make jazz fingers, and the next they go straight into fist pump with split-second synchronicity. It’s really quite impressive, and the effect is probably as close as I’ll ever come to those N. Korean mass image spectaculars.
2030h: “Honky Tonk Woman” strikes a cord with the woman in front of me. She wiggle-dances in her seat, but it’s not quite enough to rouse her to her feet.
2045h: The Germanwings blimp floats over. Khaki neighbor nudges his buddy and points toward the sky. There are a few people texting or taking pictures or looking through little opera binoculars. Everyone else watches The Boss on the jumbo screen. There is tension building. When will he break out the classics? I’m starting to get antsy.
2100h: The music is becoming more up-tempo. I have to stand up soon. My ass is asleep, and quite frankly I’m ready to ‘groove out’. The upbeat “Radio Nowhere” begins. Is there anybody alive out there? I scream to the crowd telepathically. Of course nobody in our section stands up.
2130h: Finally, at nightfall, and with much effort, Bruce ‘cracks’ the crowd. Block W18 is finally on their feet. He’s bringing out the classics, most notably among the Germans, “Born in the USA.”
2200h: Bruce belts out like seven more classics, one after the other. It is far and away the sweatiest, most visually exhausting performance I’ve seen a musician give since Meatloaf kicked the shit out of Ed Norton in Fight Club.
I should have drunk more. The unspoken rules, at least in our block, seemed to be as follows: You do not shout, whistle, stomp, or bang during the performance. At the end of a song it is permitted to clap and utter “whoo hoo” or “Bruce” (which collectively sounded like “Boo”). The crowd here was slightly older than the Dandy Warhols’ crowd, and more prone to doling out disapproving stares. Part of the problem was that nobody seemed to know the new songs. The other part was that everyone in our section was sober.
As someone who doesn’t just like but prefers to stand on his feet for hours, the No Standing rule made me feel not just restless but self-conscious. I think it was getting to Bruce too, because halfway into the show he shouted “Stand up! I want everyone on their feet!” Many in the lower blocks obliged, albeit slowly, but the people in good old Block W18 remained serious-looking and seated until the start of the encore.
“I want to stand up,” said my wife at one point. I did too, but looking around the stands at all the seated people, I was overcome by a scrotum-tightening sense of alienation. It was an ambivalent feeling — the physical anxiety of having to resist ‘rockin out to The Boss’ — but, at the same time, I was rooting for the German crowd, hoping they’d ‘wake up’ or ‘snap out of’ whatever spell they were under. The spell was broken by the steamroller of an encore.
Aberrations, Essen, June 2012
Attended with group (12-ish). Supporting our friend, Chris, guitarist of indy rock band Aberrations. Beers on the 45-minute train from Düsseldorf to Essen.
We are drinking in the tiny rock bar, Südrock, waiting for the show to begin. There’s a copper kettle lamp hanging from the ceiling over our table, and a poster of Kurt Cobain on the wall. Our friend Chris pops into the room and yells “Aberrations are playing live!” This is our cue to grab another drink before heading down a narrow red hallway.
There’s a distinctive basement party vibe in this backroom. It’s dark, and the room is packed from wall to wood-paneled wall, around 25 people in all. I’m pretty sure I could reach up and touch the ceiling. I spent a lot of time in basements my senior year of high school, and I’m experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu. There is no stage. The audience is packed in almost toe-to-toe with the band.
A single orange light shines onto a chest-high table. The people before us left behind two empty bottles of Vitamalz. Tas asks me what this is. “It’s non-alcoholic,” I yell into his ear. “It’s what virgins drink when they go out.” The waiter, who has a shaved head and looks like an retired punk (Oi!), is carrying a metal tray with just fingertips, like a butler.
There are 5 German kids to my left. The one closest to me is wearing a black and white trucker hat emblazoned with a palm tree. It looks like part of a car wash uniform, this hat. I should know, I once dated a girl who worked at a car wash. The band is rocking the ass off this basement party, and of course the German kids are standing statue-still but engaged.
Those in our group dance before the band or bop beside the table where our beers are. There are no Spaniards here tonight, but the mood is just as rambunctious. Someone yells “fondle” to the band between songs, as if making a request. A chant of “take it off” breaks out.
The band goes into their next number, and the waiter returns with a tray full of beers. He’s still carrying it on his fingertips. It might look elegant if not for the cigarette wedged between his calloused fingers. He shimmies through the crowd, tapping shoulders and sidestepping to deliver drinks to those dancing in the front row. Someone bumps into him, and he pitches forward. It looks like he’s going to lose it, but he spins and does this like sideways tornado maneuver, inverting his body and thrusting the tray up toward the ceiling with his fingers. It’s kind of surreal. A stiffer person might have dropped it, but this guy’s really got the moves.
I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.