The concert hall was set up something like a wedding – fifty or sixty small round tables arranged in front of the stage, a bar off to the left, and open “mingling space” at the back of the room behind a short divider wall. It was dark and noisy. A handful of waitresses shuttled from table to table, taking orders for domestic beers and canned-cheese nachos.
My beau and I had come to see The Waterboys, a band that neither of us knew much about. We were there because I’d been at a loss for a Valentine’s Day gift. Waking Ned Devine, one of our all-time favorite movies, features The Waterboy’s song, Fisherman’s Blues, so I bought the tickets. It seemed like a romantic idea at the time.
Before the headliner came on, a pair of New York musicians took the stage: Freddie Stevenson and Teddy Kumpel. They played their opening set with a street musician vibe that invited the audience into their world. Though they were up on the stage, they gave the impression of being in the crowd –of experiencing the evening alongside us. We became collaborators and co-conspirators. We were in on the joke, nodding in agreement with Stevenson’s quirky banter.
Both musicians interacted with those of us sitting at the tables closest to the stage. They acknowledged our presence and participation with nods and eye contact. Their demeanor and presentation created an inclusive space that embraced the entire audience, drawing us in and making us feel welcome and appreciated.
After their set, the two performers signed CDs and posed for fan photos. As we waited for our turn to meet them, my beau and I talked enthusiastically about the musicians’ skills and the wonderful worlds and stories of Stevenson’s songs. When I reached the head of the queue, Stevenson shook my hand warmly and seemed genuinely grateful that I was there and had enjoyed his music.
My beau and I returned to our seats, still talking about the music we’d just heard, and a few minutes later, the headliner took the stage.
The Waterboys launched into their first number without any greeting or introduction. Unlike Stevenson and Kumpel, they assumed you knew who they were and what they were all about. (I did not.) The band members did not make eye contact, except with each other. They often appeared to be sharing a private joke; I had the impression they were rolling their eyes.
The set continued with a series of songs that featured long, indulgent guitar solos and predictable crescendos. The lead singer (who appeared to fancy himself an amalgam of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Jim Morrison) provided intermittent commentary on the origin of and creative process around certain songs.
The entire band seemed turned inward – playing to each other, or to themselves. It was almost as if the audience was an afterthought – I felt like we might as well have been watching them on TV.
Finally, my beau (who had been enduring this ego-show because he didn’t want to hurt my feelings) turned to me and said, “Whenever you’re ready…”
I laughed and said, “Let’s get outta here.” We hadn’t even made it to the first intermission.
As we bolted for the parking lot, we agreed that The Waterboys’ performance could be summed up in one word: pretentious. Instead of making us feel like part of something special, they just made us feel like they were something special and we were lucky to be there to witness their genius.
Stevenson and Kumpel, on the other hand, made us feel like part of an inner circle. We felt like we were having a conversation with these two musicians, like our presence added something to the music. There was an energy between the performers and the audience.
Walking away from that evening, I am now a Freddie Stevenson fan. I am actively seeking ways to support his work. I liked his Facebook page, followed him on Twitter, learned about a great crowd-sourcing project he did (which, sadly, is closed, but which happily clocked in at 194% of his original goal), and I’m going to download more of his music to my iTunes collection.
The Waterboys? Meh.
Exclusive vs. Inclusive – which one is your brand?
PS – Here’s a fun song from Freddie for your listening enjoyment: