The Tipping Point

This is going to be a long trip, I have stuff to say so… buckle your seat belt.

A well meaning employee of the Concord Pavilion told me, “You can’t dance here.” Those who know me, know them’s fighting words. Basically, that is my version of, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” But I decided it best just to mosey to another spot to dance. But that incident was one in a series of moments at the Tears For Fears and Garbage show that made me a little down about the state of the concert experience. I can’t dance where there is clearly space to dance simply because somebody decided to pull a “Footloose” for “safety” reasons on a section of a concert venue that my uncle had a hand in building and managed for over 30 years?

Another moment that hit me badly was the last song of the night, “Shout”. The song ends and not seconds after the final note (even before the band can thank the audience), the obnoxious stadium lights come on and people start flocking towards the exit. Nobody paused to let the night’s experience wash over them and the venue certainly didn’t encourage any lingering. And that mixed with other bits and pieces made the Tears for Fears and Garbage live show feel frankly not as fun as it should have. It also felt so predictable, like everyone was on autopilot despite both bands doing great work that night.

Over the last ten or so years I’ve noticed less and less spontaneity at live shows, predominately by acts of western origin. I’ve noticed, as with movie theaters, that concert venues/promoters are shooting themselves in the face and killing their industry and what should be a thriving staple of US culture accessible to all classes of people. But with ticket prices and fees pricing fans out (to say nothing of Ticketmaster scalping its own product) you are getting less fans and more people with money to toss away at shows (this was GLARINGLY apparent and sad at the Bjork show). And if you don’t have the fans at the show and just have money present, there is no energy in the audience. I remember when lawn seats were filled with people drunk on Michelob Ultra and screeching out every damn lyric to every Foreigner song. You could bring in your cooler filled with whatever you wanted and your chairs and blankets. Now they have law chairs you can rent and VIP lawn chairs you can pay extra for. And all of the VIP chairs just sat empty the whole show.

Everything about this stadium show felt like some kind of cash grab from corporate logos plastered on every inch of free space, to overpriced everything, to how you could only buy merch (and tickets) with a card!!!??? Sucks for anyone who doesn’t have a card. I know people who used to go to concerts every week in the 80s and 90s. And now they say they can barely afford one show a month. I used to see movies almost every week and now if I can even find a theater it is a huge chunk of change. We lost another local movie house last week so that is two movie theaters sitting unused and empty not less than a mile from my apartment.

We on Main Street are being priced out of our own culture and history, from arena shows, to theater, to art galleries, and even science halls like Monterey Bay Aquarium which is now $99 for a day pass for one person!!!! Just for comparison, all galleries and most museums in England are free. They are not trying to keep people from their own history. Speaking of history, let us press pause on the Tears For Fears Show from last Wednesday, and move forward to my Friday spent at the SF Jazz Gala honoring Wynton Marsalis and his contributions to jazz. 1st, this was clearly a fundraiser for the Jazz Center itself… you could see and smell the money (you could also taste the money with the free nibbles and boozes all night). The only reason I was able to attend was because a friend of a friend knew somebody. I like jazz, I like Wynton but the show… was just OK. Too many long winded speeches about Wynton and not enough dancing to jazz.

In fact misinformed speaker told the audience that jazz is intellectual/mind first and everything else second. Nope. Nopety nope! Jazz was first a foremost a spiritual expression of emotions and a dance music performed and invented largely by uneducated people improvising as they went along. It was only later that jazz went to Julliard and classical music got too heady for its own good.

It is said that jazz is America’s classical music. And well- yeah maybe… but nah- Classical music is America’s classical music! Amy Beach, Aaron Copeland, Florence Price, Charles Ives, & Ellington and George Gershwin (who mixed the two)… Much like European classical music, American classical music is the arena of the educated and moneyed class. Jazz, originally, if I may truth bomb, was music of the people for the people by the people that was often labeled, “Jungle Music”. So to say it started out as this intellectual high art is, well, wrong! Sorry for the tangent but I had to say it.

The main point here though is that jazz is now out pricing the very kinds of people who invented it. It’s gone from the jazz club to Lincoln Center! Yeah it can do both but uh… outside of New Orleans I don’t think jazz is pulling much bread on Main Street these days. Not only is jazz pricing people out at shows but also not everyone can go to Julliard or a private well funded high school to study the stuff. To say nothing of affording lessons or actual instruments anymore. Jazz has gone the way of classical music and I suppose in that regard it is America’s classical music kept afloat by the kinds of people with enough money to have a hall named after them.

Outside of the four teenagers Wednesday (and some of the performers) I was possibly the youngest person there. This is a problem. A BIG problem. SF Jazz holds classes and does outreach to schools that is part of what these fundraisers pay for but honestly we shouldn’t need community outreach because music; jazz, country, salsa, or otherwise should be available to all to learn and participate in not matter one’s economic status. It shouldn’t take some endowments from people who want their name on a wall to keep it alive. It should be a community priority to keep these arts alive. Otherwise it will die a slow death attended only by a certain audience and frankly the audience Friday stunk! The band played New Orleans second lines and people didn’t dance the second line like they were supposed to. They sat being respectful, which ironically is not at all respectful to the second line and its history. This is the direction we want jazz to go? Stuck in a hall where people are seated being “respectful”?!

Look, it’s not just jazz and classical, rock music is also headed that way and may be there already. When parents can’t afford to take their children to see the legends like Billy Joel, or McCartney, or even Bjork because it’s a $500 night out (without a souvenir), something is wrong. And we as a society are worse for it. It is precisely these young people that need to see this stuff to know what came before so they can learn and build on it and evolve it ways that are not some half-assed rodeo show like mainstream country music has been doing the last ten years. I was lucky enough to see Ray Charles, I saw Gloria Estefan, and Ring Starr with his all star band… I saw The Police, B.B. King, and Daniela Mercury… I would not be able to afford to see any of them today without saving for two or three months.

The other incident I had with the gala, though well-meaning, was when the mayor of San Francisco gave a speech that indicated she knew nothing about jazz while declaring Friday June 2nd Wynton Marsalis day. Look, I like the guy fine. He can play and compose but in NO WAY is Wynton tied to the Bay Area, let alone the Bay Area jazz scene. It just doesn’t make sense to honor him like he’s a hometown hero. SF Jazz is quite loose with the term jazz in terms of programming so SURELY they could’ve found a better local honoree to present with a day and to celebrate and to use as a fundraiser.

Wynton gave a nice speech about the importance of jazz and about music education in general and he was very gracious but his speech was totally out of touch with the realities of where music is at for people who can’t afford to go to a Gala, especially in the case of jazz. He also understandably had nothing to say about the Bay Area itself and it’s rich history of west coast jazz. This is not meant as an attack, I’m just saying he’s not from here. He is part of the larger music community but is not steeped in the legacy of the local community like he is with New Orleans or New York City. I don’t know why it rubbed me the wrong way but it did. On the way I got peeved seeing ads for the state of Illinois and how it is a great place to live and move to in the BART station… No! No! No! Illinois is a fine place I’m sure, but we need to advertise our local product DAMN IT!

(Sigh) This being out of touch with Main Street isn’t new. In 1992 the historic music venue and dance club the I-Beam closed its doors. And in this case it was not because people didn’t support it. The I-Beam had fans going back ten years. I know MANY folks who saw many acts there and danced until 4 AM there. So it was supported by the people but in the end money talked. An old woman with wealth moved upstairs knowing it was a music venue and used her money to complain and get it shut down. And the day after the deal was done and the door closed she died. The day after. SURELY somebody could have done something. Somebody could’ve pressed pause on the tear down to ask the community what it wanted… But our leaders failed the community. More recently The Stud closed and got painted gray only to sit there empty. A historic queer space that saw all kinds of people come through there (Bjork even DJed there once). Seriously, what the fuck are we doing to our culture and it’s spaces? Why are we allowing those at the top to control and dictate what goes into and comes out of our local communities?

The Concord Pavilion was built by my Uncle and Frank Ghery as a local community venue with the intention of giving a space in the Bay Area for- wait for it… Jazz! That was the original intent. Because in the 70s jazz was not as cool and all the old jazz giants had no big spaces for them to play. So they built the outdoor amphitheater that as far as I can remember prided itself on being affordable for families. Of course it evolved to include all kinds of genres and acts, especially those acts that were seen as passe. But it was for as long as I lived out there as a community venue. It didn’t have logos plastered everywhere and my Uncle would NEVER have allowed somebody to tack on the name Sleep Train to the venue. Really?! Sleep Train?! That is not a name that inspires one to rock out or get down. Also there were no metal detectors. Even at the end of my Uncle’s reign. But people say the world has changed and it’s more dangerous and so all the stuff that makes concerts less fun and “safer” is necessary. Bullshit.

That horrible slog of bag checks and metal detectors is only on the surface about safety. In my opinion these safety measures were not put in place for our well-being, they were put in place, so the corporate leaders and the government wouldn’t have to do anything to change the systemic issues that need addressing. Basically they tossed all the onus on Main Street. And TBF, we just rolled over and accepted it. And maybe most people don’t register its effect but I definitely register that shows are a lot less fun these days because of all this fear we’ve sold. All that hassle kills the excitement for a show, especially when there is not enough staff to make the lines move quicker so you miss half of the opening act’s set and the present staff can’t handle anything off script like my needing a physical ticket because my phone died so there would be no way for me to get the ticket, let alone scan it. Then you have the audience standing their filming or worse one guy in front of me was Shazaming every song instead of being present for the moment.

OK. I know, I know… Old man yells at cloud. Well I’m not old but I am pissed. Most live music has felt more corporate, lazy, and phoned in than ever.

As another example, the predictable (and laughable) encore. The band leaves the stage and the audience starts playing a game of, “What hit haven’t they played yet?” I will give Tear For Fears credit for playing “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” three songs in. Just get it out of the way and the casual fans can either stew about or leave. That was one of the few surprises in terms of the set list. The other being that Tears For Fears played most of their new album, The Tipping Point and it sounded stadium ready and fantastic. And all the classics from Head over Heels to Pale Shelter and Break It Down sounded as good as they do on record.

Still, I couldn’t shake the somber energy floating around. I know current events have people down and Covid has not helped live music but even before Covid when I saw The Cure at Shoreline I felt a similar energy. For example at that show people were literally SLEEPING on the lawn through the entire show! I’ve heard from several people recently tied to the live music sphere that concerts (especially at stadiums) have become a FOMO event and people go so they can post on social media later. They are not going for you know, the band and the music. And also as I experienced at Bjork people with money go just to show off that they can afford the front row.

Reckoning how the concert experience has changed has been interesting for me because I keep going despite often being let down overall. And isn’t it said doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is the definition of crazy?

If I had to pick my #1 problem with live shows lately I would say is the lack of spontaneity from both bands and audiences being on auto-pilot. The past few shows I’ve seen have all been rather predictable even if the bands (like OMD and Blondie) killed it. You sort of know the beats coming. And as a superfan of music I kind of wish these acts would go for deep cuts once in a while. And also where to extend the guitar or saxophone solo. I liked that Garbage during their final song made it a medley with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” It took me a moment but that was something unexpected, though the audience didn’t seem to notice or if they did, they didn’t bother to sing-along like I was. And then there was Blondie, who I saw weeks before, break into “I Feel Love” smack dab in the middle of “Call Me.”

But those were just two small snippets and they can’t fill those empty seats people were priced out of, or scalped out of. Now before I get any comments about my ranting while offering no ideas or solutions. Let me just say if you give me my honest opinion on how we can change this, well, it will take full scale revolution where we tear down the structures of power and start over because those at the top have proven, to me at least, they don’t care and won’t change. That’s my “fed up with everything” answer.

If you want an answer with more hope to it, here you go: Support local. Don’t buy tickets from Ticketmaster (use the box office). And avoid venues blazed with corporate names and logos. Jazz may have gone to Julliard; you can still find it on the street; you just have to dive into a local bar. For over ten years I’ve been part of The Word Party collective combining poetry and jazz. We’ve weathered three different venues so far. But also the band leader is a friend of mine with his own jazz band, Nova Jazz. They play jazz in local San Francisco bars and I dance and it is as it once was, at least for me. Maybe jazz won’t be on the main stage like it once was but it won’t be on any stage if we don’t support the people playing it on the street level.

And you know what Blondie was once underground as was Tears For Fears and Garbage. At one point all those acts were upstarts shaking the establishment at dive venues like CBGBs, The Whiskey A-Go-Go, and others. And all of those are established acts and so maybe instead of expecting something mind-blowing from a show at the Masonic I should opt for the local punk band band at The Bottom Of The Hill or some local indie-rock group at Cafe Du Nord. After all, for all my hollering about how Wynton is not Bay Area, neither is Tears For Fears or Blondie.

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