It’s no great discovery that the difference between mainstream music and everything else is simply the size of the audience. Mainstream, everybody’s heard of you. Hundreds of thousands of people have memorized your lyrics. Your audience is so big you become a reference point for cultural jokes. Millions of people view your image or hear your music, daily.
Green Day played a show at Rebo’s in Dayton Ohio in 1992 where they carted in all their own gear from the van and played to an audience of 40 teenagers who had nothing better to do on a Saturday night, then loaded everything back into their van and spent the night on the couch of one gracious “fan” from that night’s show. The venue was devoid of goods or service- just an empty warehouse with electricity and an eight-inch-tall wooden stage in one corner. Only punk kids had heard of them and they could barely afford a hotel room on that tour, but they had two studio albums out on a label called Lookout Records.
GoodnightGoodnight, Lucious Fox, and The Dysfunctional Citizens played The Lamplighter in Kalamazoo, Michigan last weekend.
Goodnightgoodnight kicked off the evening, slowly. They came on without giving notice. But then people began to take notice.
Their music was captivating. Trance-inducing, one bartender was heard to say. He was listening and listening and four songs into their set he realized, “Holy shit. I’m supposed to be working here.” It’s complex. Arrangements like Radiohead, ambience like an up-tempo Pink Floyd on an album produced by Phil Spector. To fully appreciate the work they’ve put into their music you must pay attention, but it’s ok if you don’t feel like paying attention. They will draw your mind slowly away from wherever it wandered off to and then keep it there, fixed on them, unwavering, until they release you with the cue to applaud.
They don’t do this with antics. There’s no Iggy Pop here, no flashy showmanship. The guitar player goofs around a little but mainly he’s working his right arm feverishly, strumming one chord 16 times in three seconds, from the shoulder. The keyboard player, who doubles as the drummer, produces the sound of three people. The bassist is a master of technique and of subtlety. Like all great bassists, you feel his playing in your chest rather than perceiving it through your ears. Amanda Thornton, the lead vocalist, managed quite a trick: ethereal and disconsolate throughout the songs, breezy and engaging in between. The juxtaposition of heaviness and light in the same person was riveting.
Goodnightgoodnight’s music requires the audience’s full attention and, happily, we had no choice but to give it, for which we were richly rewarded.
Lucious Fox (pronounced loosh-iss) played second, just a drummer and a guitarist probably not out of their teens yet. The drummer hit the cymbals harder than anyone I’ve ever heard and the guitarist’s fingers were in constant motion, but the two suffered from a poor mix so it was difficult to tell what they were up to, other than rocking out. Which they did with fervor.
The Dysfunctional Citizens, the headlining act, are all the best parts of Rancid, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Blink 182 packed into a trio of suits and ties loosened from the rigors of their day jobs by a couple of drinks and no alarm clock in the morning. In 39 minutes they bounced through 19 songs, killing it, sweating and smiling the whole time.
In terms of genre it was a mashup, but the audience loved it all and the bands got along famously in the parking lot where the pre-show fidgeting and smoking take place. They talked about their kids, their musical influences, their tattoos, the crazy venue.
The venue, The Lamplighter near Kalamazoo may have been the star of the show. I say near Kalamazoo because to get there you must drive a fair distance away from the lights and strip malls and general population of the ‘Zoo proper. It’s not a college bar and it’s not a nightclub. It’s not the kind of place you stroll by and hear music emanating and say “Honey, let’s check this place out!” Pulling into the parking lot was actually frightening. There were no signs, no lights, the building looked like it was boarded up, scant few cars in the dark lot. You would not have thought the place was open to the public. You might have thought you were being led to some white-power rally or a secret script consultation for Sons of Anarchy. You just knew as your car creeped onto the gravel that somebody had been stabbed here at some point.
Once inside though, it was astonishing. Pristine red velvet and gold wallpaper circa 1928 covered the cavernous performance space, said to be larger than any in southern Michigan except the football stadiums.
It had been a grand hotel and ballroom at one time, the place to see and be seen. Al Capone kept a mistress in residence. Remnants of opulence were evident in intricate chandeliers now hanging listlessly, in the portico, now unused. It looked like a rebuilding had commenced sometime in the early ‘90s but the owners ran out of money. The employees gave the impression of squatters with a dream and some spare elbow grease. A small hot-food menu was on offer from the kitchen and the bar was perfectly well-stocked.
Random derelicts wandered out of the pool hall to see who was making all the noise. A profoundly drunk, undernourished old man slept in a chair on the empty patio, resting on his forearms with his head hanging like he was on the toilet. Nobody had seen how he got there and nobody could imagine where (or how) he’d go at closing time.
The venue was scary and weird and the service was modest, for sure. The audience would have all fit on a city bus. This is the sort of thing you just can’t get at a Muse concert.
There’s mainstream, there’s substream, and then there’s way underground, and The Lamplighter is down there. But they had cold beer, flush toilets, and a sound guy for the bands, who played like it was the biggest gig of their lives.
On the bathroom stall someone had scribbled “this place blows”. Under which I scribbled “go back to the suburbs then”.
I’ll see you at the next show!