I’m a little angry.

I’ve never wanted to take a firehose to an audience before, but if I could’ve, I would’ve, a couple nights ago at the Vic Chesnutt/Jonathan Richman show in Parkdale. I’ve been embarrassed to be a Torontonian at shows before – when we’ve withheld enthusiasm, or when Customs has made the band angry that afternoon by making them ditch their merch at the border – but I’ve never seen a crowd as determinedly rude as the crowd at the Great Hall last Thursday night, a full half of whom talked, loudly, through the whole Chesnutt set. I imagine they saw him as just another opening act and didn’t give a shit – rude enough on its own – but fuck the whole bunch for ruining a rare opportunity to see a genius at play.

We’ve seen a few Chesnutt shows – some great, some alright – but even when he was just an opening act (at a Wilco show back around Summerteeth), the crowd knew enough to talk quietly during his set if they weren’t interested. At the Phoenix show with Kristin Hersh around 2000, the audience was absolutely, pin-drop silent, and the experience was transformative. It was like church should be.

At the Great Hall, people were honestly yelling their inane conversations: hey! what’s up! And the listening portion of the crowd were, for a time, politely whispering shush; eventually it turned into calls of  “Go outside if you want to talk!” and “Shut the fuck up!”, but this only pushed the chatters to talk louder.

At one point I turned to someone behind me who was shouting their greetings and said “You could be quiet you know – there’s someone doing a show!” The dude raised his hands in apology; the woman with him tugged on my sleeve and said “You know, there are more polite ways for you to say that.” I replied that I didn’t care, asked her if a half-crowd pleading for quiet hadn’t been enough of a hint, to which she replied, “Well then why should we be respectful of you?”

Of course, it isn’t about being respectful of me. It’s about being respectful of a dude who’s performing his own songs, alone in a spotlight. And its about the surrender of the self to a collective experience, at the cost of not being the fascinating centre of attention for an hour or two. And there is an expectation that the audience are quiet at quiet shows. Your neighbours and the artist aren’t required to earn your respect.

I don’t get it, really: has it ever been thus? Or are we getting ruder and more self-centred as a culture? Has home-entertainment and the pause button undermined the experience of a live performance? Or was I just hot and in an irritable mood? Am I just getting old? Does a Jonathan Richman/Vic Chesnutt bill even make sense? (They are pretty much opposites – one a pirate mouthed paraplegic Hamlet with a sack full of skulls to serenade, the other a willful dancing monkey pushing positivity.) Or do I just hate crowds in general, and hate this one particularly?

In the end, Chesnutt, clearly irritated, cut his set short and said goodnight, and it broke my heart a little bit. I could have punched somebody. And worst of all, the people who’d ruined it didn’t know they’d ruined it. I’ve seen artists shush crowds, and I was really wishing he’d done it, or told them all to get fucked, or something. Jonathan Richman took a perverse and funny opportunity to turn the tables when he played his first couple of songs un-mic’ed and unamplified, but I wanted a scolding. I saw Vic Chesnutt on the sidewalk outside, and I thanked him for coming and apologized for the crowd, and he said it was alright, but it wasn’t.


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