This spring break, I headed to Holland, Mich., home to Hope College and cute storefronts with signs that beckon customers with greetings of “WELKOM!” I was there for a concert: Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Foxygen and Wampire. I don’t know how Holland snatched those bands before another, more populated Michigan city, but there I was, driving to Hope College three hours away while UMO tweeted an ominous message that this would be their first non-sold-out concert in 10 shows.
The opening band, Wampire, was a bunch of scruffy-lookin’ dudes that were well into their set by the time I entered. I can’t remember much about their music, but isn’t that how it always goes with an unknown opening band? I was shocked by how quiet the crowd was during their set — song, polite clapping, eerie, unbreakable silence, repeat.
The audience remained thin throughout the night. At one point, the stringy-haired Wampire member asked the crowd, “So how do you guys like Holland,” which was answered with a few laughs and a collective noise that can best be described as “ehh.” Later, that same guy thanked us for coming so early to see them play. I think it was around this point when I actually began to sweat with anxiety. You’re doing great, opening band! Keep it up! I thought. I could feel the awkward tension, and when stringy-haired guy asked one more question — “Are you guys excited for Foxygen?” — I heard my heart shatter above the crowd as it cheered the loudest it had all set. I was committing a concertgoer’s cardinal sin: sympathizing with the opening band.
Then Foxygen came on, and the group was absolutely nothing like what I had expected. OK, a little bit like what I expected, except with a HUGER sound and a much more outspoken Sam France who was nothing like the twee, bell bottom-donned figure who sang about tea and love in the band’s music video for “San Francisco.” France practically towered over the audience, raging across the stage in a faux-fur ensemble. He’d shift from maniacally cheerful to boisterous and goofy to intentionally robotic to blatantly pissed off — at one point spitting out, “I’m sick of this shit!” But no matter what persona France seemed to put on at any given moment, I couldn’t help but focus more on him than the music at times, wondering, who the fuck are you really?
On the other hand, Jonathan Rado, the other main man of Foxygen, seemed to serve as a bashful foil, practically hiding under what appeared to be the same wide-brimmed hat used in the “San Francisco” video. I caught him scampering by after the set and couldn’t help myself from blurting out, “Good job!” He looked at me quickly, as if taken aback, nodded and continued on his way. While I wish I could’ve said more, I began to realize that he probably didn’t want me to say more. Because, now that his band has been caught in a buzz-driven tour with UMO, he’s probably showered with praise all the time. That, or he’s just shy.
Either way, I came to the sad conclusion that bands are becoming more human to me. They’re not just superstars who wear leather and dye their hair and make good sounds with fancy instruments. They also probably have significant others, and cats, and dogs, and moms and dads who they visit sometimes when they’re not signing “records” or playing at “shows.”
The thing is, I tend to get these ideal images of artists, using what I gather from publicity photos, and interviews, and Facebook pages and maybe even their actual music, but really none of that scrapes the surface of understanding who an artist really is. Like, who he or she really, really is. Like, I probably don’t even know my best friends as well as I think I do, so why should I have these definitive expectations of what I can expect from an artist?
Well anyway, UMO came on and confused the hell out of me. I saw them in Detroit last summer, but they were still an opening band then. Now, as headliners, it seemed as if the New Zealanders had finally accepted the role of “Rock Stars.” I watched them traipse to the stage in black leather getups, and their show was loud and prominent — certainly not “unknown.”
The night after my Holland excursion, I saw Australian psychedelic band Tame Impala perform at St. Andrew’s in Detroit. Seeing them onstage — Kevin Parker, charismatic and barefoot; Nick Allbrook, wiry-haired and weird; and all the other dudes — they really didn’t seem too different from any picture or interview I’ve ever seen them in. No, they looked like they stepped right out of a music video and into Detroit to play a show.
The show, and the band, was exactly how I expected them to be (which reminds me — they didn’t play their song “Expectation!”). The show was almost flawless — maybe a little shorter than I would’ve liked, but aren’t they always? And, standing outside, among smokers with edgy haircuts and high schoolers waiting for their rides, I realized I had a decision to make: Do I wait and meet the band, or do I go home with dignity and respect for this band that just put on a fucking fantastic show.
While I was standing out there, someone pointed out that in the second floor window of St. Andrew’s, a figure that appeared to be Kevin Parker looked down upon the dwindling crowd outside the venue. Wait — he was literally looking down upon us. He probably didn’t really feel like dealing with a bunch of fans who felt like they had the right to take a picture with him and upload it onto Facebook and tell them how “good” their music is. I mean, what is he even supposed to say to the thousandth fan that tells him that Tame Impala is a good band? “Yeah, I know?”
So, I went home without meeting them. Musicians are people too, and I’m getting too old to be a fan-girl. Concerts are still fun, though. The end.