In this guest post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on connections and communities fostered by live music, and the ways such experiences may impact us individually and bind us to others in predictable and unexpected ways.
Recently I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on music, community, and the many connections between the two. Since my teenage years I’ve loved seeing and participating in live music. These days I regularly attend concerts by artists in a variety of genres, though I continue to have a particular affinity for heavy metal and closely related styles. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that although people may do a lot of boundary work about which bands fall into which sub-genres, many of those divisions seem to melt away when you get a bunch of excited fans shoulder to shoulder on a club floor. It’s as if the definition of the situation shifts to focus on the experience that everyone is about to share. And the sense of community that emerges can be truly extraordinary.
Often it’s the conversations that happen in between sets that seem to knit together the fabric of these found communities, just as much as the process of moving and shouting along to the music. Every shared affinity for a particular artist becomes a bit of social closure, binding you together. Sometimes you find common ground with music you play as well as music you hear, whip out your phones and start comparing photos of your guitars or drum kits. The sign equipment of your musicianship becomes a means of connecting with others rather than setting yourself apart from them by showing elevated status. This sharing unlocks a kind of giddy excitement that vibrates in the room, makes you feel like you’re among friends.
The dynamics of shared experience and practice as conduits of social closure aren’t unique to metal at all. I’ve seen them in action at every type of show I’ve attended, minus one terrible concert a couple of years ago that my partner and I left because the headlining act started engaging in hate speech. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiastic gushing about the music in the amphitheater that night because the acoustics were so terrible we could barely hear the performers, and when the headliners took the stage, what we could hear wasn’t good at all. But even in those moments, there was tremendous community: concertgoers leaving the venue in droves, shaking their heads in disgust and sending empathetic smiles back and forth to one another as we moved towards the parking areas.
What has led me to reflect so much on the development of found community through live music lately represents a whole other level of dealing with adversity—one that has led me to realize that the community that seems to sprout from the floor at a concert venue grows roots much deeper than I’d previously thought. These roots not only reach deep into the ground, but also spread expansively, reaching us in our home communities long after we’ve cheered for the last encore of the night. A recent concert and the events that followed over the next few days showed me just how deep community found through live music can go, the strength of the closure that people feel as a result, and the impact it can make in times of crisis.
Earlier this month, SSSI Music blog editor Dr. J Sumerau and I had just returned from a quick work trip to Miami and decided to unwind with one of our favorite Saturday night activities: live heavy metal at the Orpheum in Ybor City. I was especially excited because I’d wanted to see the headlining band, Canadian metal veterans Voivod, perform live since I was a teenager. As usual, we showed up to support the local bands and tour partners opening for the main act, and to spend time by the merchandise tables to meet some of the musicians and their road crew. The crowd was energetic and talkative as local group Generichrist finished up their set and turned the stage over to the next band, tour partner Eight Bells. We were familiar with Generichrist already as a Tampa local act, and I’d heard a few tracks from Voivod’s other tour partners, Philadelphia-based Vektor. But Eight Bells were totally new to us, an all-female group out of Portland promising complex doom sounds.
We got pretty excited to see a purely female band getting exposure on a national metal tour. Although women in metal are much more visible and appreciated these days than when I was first getting into the genre at age 10, female artists are still underrepresented and often treated as a novelty. I had some discussion about this back at the merch table with one of Vektor’s team, who I found out later was the lead singer’s spouse because he voiced his appreciation for her support on the tour midway through the set. The crowd cheered loudly and people flocked to the merchandise area, and there were definitely more than a few whispers in the room about how awesome it was to see female artists and tour management professionals getting enthusiastic support on a national tour with metal mainstays like Voivod. As a female both listening to and playing metal myself these days, I hope this is a sign of wonderful things to come.
Eight Bells wowed the crowd with their set, a twisting odyssey of cerebral songs that seemed to integrate an impossible array of musical influences to craft a truly singular doom sound. I heard everything from gothic rock to jam band to thrash metal to Delta blues stylings in their repertoire, and threw the horns excitedly. As usual at metal shows—as well as in other genres, such as country and rock—fans use the horns as a means of showing appreciation and support for performers and also communicating with one another. The Orpheum security staff regularly stop to dance with fans and share a “horns up” moment as they keep an eye out for safety issues. And every once in a while, when we’re lucky, the performers catch our eyes, nod sagely, and throw the horns right back as we cheer excitedly. The feeling of being in exactly the right place, and of being totally welcome as a member of the community there, when those moments happen is indescribable.
Eight Bells finished their set with a flourish and started striking their gear, with help from a few of the Vektor members who would take the stage next. Hanging out by the side stage area as I tend to do at shows—it’s quieter and I can dance and windmill freely without worrying about crossing into anyone else’s personal space or knocking over their drink—I had a great opportunity to let them know how much J and I had loved their set once they were done clearing their equipment. In another beautiful example of how music gives us friends everywhere we go, bassist and singer Haley grabbed her drink and came over to hang out with us for the duration of the break between sets.
It’s always amazing to me how quickly the definition of the situation can shift at a concert. One minute musicians are stunning you on stage and the next they’re right there next to you, sharing stories and laughs. We compared instruments, and talked about our passion for interdisciplinary health sciences—hers psychology to J’s social psychology and my medical sociology. We talked about all the different music we grew up listening to, and how those diverse influences played out in our own creative process as musicians. Guitarist Melynda joined us midway through the conversation, and we talked a little about the Orpheum and how the crowd there always seems to be especially supportive and welcoming—a consequence perhaps of how much the venue and its management stress creating true community for metal artists and fans in the Tampa Bay area. After cutting my teeth in the iconic metal clubs of New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, I always feel like I’m coming home when I walk through the doors at the Orpheum. I thought about this as Vektor took the stage and we were all off dancing again, after many hugs and a couple of quick pictures.
Our wonderful experiences at the Orpheum that Saturday swirled in my mind a couple of days later when, after driving back to Tallahassee with the Eight Bells and Vektor CDs I picked up at the merch table spinning the whole way, I checked my Facebook feed to find a new post on the Eight Bells band page with the terrible news that Melynda had been badly injured at their concert in Atlanta the previous evening. The shock of seeing Melynda with her guitar swapped for a leg immobilizer reverberated in my mind. The cognitive dissonance was extreme—to see someone whom I’d quickly regarded as a conqueror and a force of nature onstage and off harmed. Even the nature of Melynda’s injury and the events that led to it spoke to the tremendous bonds that form between metal fans, and the lengths they will go to in protection of an artist if something goes wrong at a show. But the shock of thinking that Eight Bells might be out of commission, unable to share their art with other communities and continue their journey toward becoming a household name in metal, was overwhelming.
What didn’t surprise me at all was seeing how emphatically not alone I was in my horror at what had happened, or in my desire to help the band continue touring if at all possible. That photo was barely up for 60 seconds before fans started blowing up the thread with offers of money, medical equipment, places to stay, and other instrumental resources to get Eight Bells back on their feet and back on stage with as little lost income as possible. Many of us had just met Melynda, Haley, and drummer Rae a couple of nights before, but it was clear in that moment that we all felt connected by what we had shared that night—by the music happening on stage, and by the community that grew around it.
Fans wasted no time in organizing to blast out social media posts promoting the band’s GoFundMe page. The fundraising site and fans’ pleas for help spread through Facebook and Twitter like wildfire, new donations showing up faster than sweep-picked arpeggios in a power solo. The goal Melynda’s bandmates set for the fundraiser seemed lofty at first: cover the medical bills, and recoup a bit of income lost from the two concerts they were unable to play if at all possible. But if I’ve learned one lesson from the past week, it’s never to underestimate what a bunch of outraged music fans can do when we put our minds to it. By week’s end, Eight Bells announced with gentle good humor that they were going to have to close the fundraising page because fans were still sending donations despite the goal being long since exceeded. The band’s management also sent personal notes to each and every donor, thanking us for our support of Melynda and the band. And the next day, Eight Bells reunited with their tour partners in Chicago to begin playing the rest of their scheduled shows, Melynda looking as powerful and virtuosic as ever with guitar back in hand.
Something special happens when we share music together, soundwaves reverberating far beyond the walls of a concert venue, and long after the last piece of equipment has been struck. So often in listening alone we find ourselves—in lyrics that resonate with us, in instrumentals that move us, in how music opens up opportunities for us to process our experiences and emotions in ways that we otherwise could not. But in listening together we find each other, often in ways that continue to grow throughout and beyond the span of a band’s career. It is not lost on me that one of my most important and enduring social relationships started with a shared love of metal and countless other diverse genres, or that these days music constitutes a big part of the fabric of my relationship with my life partner. It is also not lost on me that I fondly remember the faces and voices and stories of so many others I have attended shows with, shared a fist bump or thrown the horns with, many years after those nights’ last notes have faded away. To listen together, to participate actively in these moments of art coming alive, is to create community with incredible power and reach.