A space to call home: The role of intimate venues in performance

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 9:28pm

I think the first concert I ever went to was a Toby Keith concert with my parents when I was about eight years old. I remember being in this huge venue and seeing hundreds of lights, massive speakers and hundreds upon hundreds of cowboy hats. It was a huge production that seemed to emphasize not only the music, but the performance. Now that I’ve gone to a show or two since then, my perception of what a concert actually is has changed a bit.

I’ve seen groups play in front of thousands in football stadiums, and I’ve seen groups play in front of three people in a basement. Being heavily involved in both the music school and DIY scenes in Ann Arbor has taken me to show pretty unbelievable shows at some unforgetable palces. But how can a venue impact our experiences with a performance? What difference does intimacy and size make?

I believe any space can be a venue. Any space can be used to showcase art, and Ann Arbor knows it. Last year, I had the chance to witness an event called Einstein in the House, where a group of SMTD students did a three and a half hour production of Philip Glass’s power-house opera, Einstein on the Beach, in their living room. It was absolutely amazing to see this insanely technical production, usually put on by professional opera companies, performed by a bunch of my peers.

The mentality of artists, especially those that double as students, is that if they can’t find a venue, they’ll make one. If you want a band to play at your house, ask them. If you want to put on a performance in your basement, make a Facebook event and tell your friends. No one needs an appointment at Hill Auditorium to show their friends some projects they’ve  been working on. If an artist  can’t find a venue, they make one.

Sure, there are tons of venues in Ann Arbor itself —from The Blind Pig to Kerrytown Concert House — and while these places have served as the performance space for hundreds, if not thousands, of acts, that doesn't mean that someone  needs an invitation from these spaces in order to perform.

My band, Shmongo, has played some pretty cool events, like Springfest and Concert on the Diag. But when we first started, we weren’t getting asked to play shows left and right. One of our first gigs we completely organized ourselves. We asked a friend if we could borrow their living room for a night, created a Facebook event and got another band to hop on the bill. And just like that, we had ourselves a show.

Not only does this DIY mentality make it more accessible for one to share their music, or provide other artists with a platform to perform and share, but it also provides a drastically more intimate experience for the audience. It’s difficult to describe how cool it is to watch the person that’s been standing next to you for the last two acts go up to the mic and transform into the lead singer for the headlining band.

It’s not only basements that provide this intimate experience, however. Espresso Royale on State Street has a Poetry Slam session every other Sunday right in the middle of the coffee shop. And although this seems almost characteristic of a poetry-related event, this one in particular is really unique because of its format. Many slams will keep performers isolated from the audience, and almost elevate them on a stage, creating this sense of distance from the audience. Because of the Espresso’s smaller space, participants sit in the audience and performers go up to a microphone, immersing them in the audience.

For me, these small shows are really special. Seeing some of my friends share a part of themselves with an audience is something that’s really changed my life. Every time someone I’m close to puts out an album or plays a show, I do as much as I can to support them. Giving these people an opportunity to share themselves and their work is an opportunity like no other, and I truly cannot begin to describe how cool it is to experience something like this.

The amount of performance spaces in Ann Arbor is astounding. It seems like every other week I’m finding out about a new venue, whether it be a basement or a massive-seated mega-complex. Realizing that you don’t need to be invited to play somewhere to put on a show was one of the most interesting revelations I had when I first came to Ann Arbor. Put up some Christmas lights in your basement and get some of your friends to come play some music and you’ve got a show. Contrary to what my eight-year-old self would have thought, a concert isn’t a huge stage with racks of lights and screens. You don’t even need the cowboy hats.