Technological innovations over the past 10 years have changed the entire concert experience. There was a time where filming or tape recording a concert were frowned upon. In fact, there was an entire episode of What’s Happening? in the mid-70s that focused on the perils of bootlegging concerts (featuring The Doobie Brothers!). But in today’s concert setting, people pull out their phones to live tweet, take pictures, and film with nary a glance from security or venue staff. I myself get annoyed by the iPhone Army present at most shows, many patrons spending more time checking their Facebook status update about seeing the band than actually watching them. I don’t mind patrons taking a moment to snap a picture, but when it turns into a photo shoot, I have a problem.
Several years ago I saw Broken Social Scene at SXSW and before even playing a song, front man Kevin Drew gave a speech along the lines of “Instead of trying to capture this concert through videos and photos, let’s just enjoy the moment and let our memories encapsulate it.” This was a big moment for me since I’d spent the past year filming a lot of shows for this blog (one look at my YouTube page and you’ll see there’s been a major falloff in video posts since that show). Up-and-coming British post-punk band Savages have taken it a step further, requiring all patrons to turn off their phones or the band won’t play.
I’m on the fence with the entire question of whether to film or not to film at concerts. I agree with Kevin Drew’s sentiment that we should enjoy the moment rather than try and capture it, but then again, I’ve found myself on a bored night pulling up old shows and instantly being brought back to that concert. It’s not so much trying to bottle up a memory as it is taking away a morsel to be enjoyed for years to come. I think the problem arises when the videos/photos become a bigger focus than the music.
So imagine my confusion last Monday night in Iowa City as I watched one of my all-time favorite bands, Swans. Last year I named their epic album The Seer as the Best Album of 2012, a controversial choice that I knew may alienate some readers. Yes, Swans are obtrusive and loud and confusing, but all those elements are what make their music so pioneering and profound. Two years ago I saw them play in Austin, Texas at The Mohawk and that show remains one of the best I’ve ever encountered. During their set I took a video of one of their songs, and as mentioned prior, I re-watch that video when needing a reminder how overpowering they can be live.
As I stood stage side last week, midway through their set, I had the urge to pullout my phone and film at least a portion of their performance. Being so close to the band made me hesitant to make the move; my past experience viewing the band proved how intense front man Michael Gira could be. On that warm spring night in Austin I witness Gira berating his drummer throughout several songs making vicious arm motions and spitting on a few occasions. I knew that by pulling out my phone I may be facing the wrath of Mr. Gira, but I guess my liquid courage got the better of me. I kept the phone close to my chest and began attempting to videotape incognito. It all went well for the first few minutes with lap steel guitar player Christopher Hahn unfazed by the paparazzi standing to his right (side note: watching Hahn up close illuminated how vital his finger picking madness is to the overall Swan’s sound).
With my videographer confidence sky-high, I decided it was time to turn my camera in bedlamite Gira’s direction. The first 30-seconds I went unnoticed, Gira wailing away on his guitar and howling unintelligible sounds into the microphone.
Then he noticed…
Take note of the look on his face when he first see my camera (I put the moment in slow-motion). The second he made eye contact with my phone, I cringed. I was officially the douche filming the concert rather than enjoying it. In the moments between him looking away and than back at me, I tried to kid myself that he didn’t see me, that it was just my imagination.
Then, of course, he looked again, his eyes searing with venom. In that moment I panicked, imagining Gira’s arm flinging out toward me, knocking my phone to oblivion. His eyes remained locked on me as he shook is head in disapproval. That head shake hit me like a knife in the heart. It was the same head wag my football coach would make when I came off the field after missing a tackle. It was the same head wag that my mom made when I’d stroll in after my curfew. Oh…that horrible, horrible head wag. Like an evil wizard, his glare caused me to instantly push stop and quickly shove the phone away in my pocket.
The remainder of the song I stood guilt stricken and feeling a bit foolish. Michael Gira, the man I’d worshipped for years, had just looked upon me with disdain. I would eventually move on. It’s hard to dwell on something with so much noise coming at you in waves, but I did vow to never film another concert again. It took me a week to even view the video to verify that Gira did indeed shoot fire at me with his eyes. Video evidence would prove what I’d thought had happen was indeed true.
But something weird happened while viewing the clip. Instead of feeling stupid, I began to laugh. What a moment! For the past few years I’d told my friend and fellow Swans fan Paul about how intense Gira was on stage, and now I had proof! I also had another great story to add to our collection of “Times we pissed off our heroes” (if you think my Gira story is embarrassing, wait until I gather the courage to share the time I looked like a groveling fool in front of Ian Mackaye…YES, IAN MACKAYE!). I decided that, yes, filming concerts can be a distraction and take away from the experience. Than again, how many other Swans fans have video of Michael Gira giving them the death stare?