Sunday, September 03, 2006

Stupid Things That Make Me Crazy (Vol. 1, No. 1)

Note: This is the first of a number of concert posts I plan to share over the next several months. I’ve been savin’ ‘em up, so some are already pretty old. Nevertheless for one reason or another they’re all pretty memorable for me, as is this one — for all the wrong reasons…

David Gray Concert: Thursday March 2, 2006:
Fair warning — I'm gonna go off on a bit of a rant here. I’m also going to commit what could be considered sacrilege here in Music City. I’m calling out one of the most hallowed places in the history of American Pop Music, The World Famous Ryman Auditorium, as also being one of the most frustrating venues to take in a concert that I know of.

I’ve had experiences there before that weren’t the best, but nothing like my last visit, which may change forever my willingness to brave anything but the most prime of vantage points in the house for events I’d be inclined to attend there in the future.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a special place, and there are hundreds of good seats from which the concert experience is unparalleled. However the conditions that could turn and sour that experience from most any one of those remaining 1,800 seats are so fragile, I just don’t know if I’m willing to take the chance anymore.

Am I getting cranky in my old age? Oh yeah.

Every musician in the world wants to play The Ryman because of the musical significance of this venerable shrine of a concert hall. It’s the birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry, and while that may not mean much to non-Country Music fans, you may be surprised to know how important it is to musicians of all genres. Given the immortal names that have graced The Ryman’s stage in its Opry heyday, it's not a difficult thing to understand. However, despite its appeal as a rite-of-passage for modern artists wishing to mingle with ghosts of Williams, Cash, Adkins, Orbison and other greats who’ve performed on it’s hallowed stage, The Ryman might well lose a bit of its luster as a must-play venue if they ever make it a prerequisite for those wishing to play a concert there to first have to sit in the audience and watch one — stuck behind a pole.

The Ryman — and FYI, that is what the place is called by us locals (simply referring to it as, “Ryman Auditorium,” instantly exposes oneself as a know-nothing-outta-towner/Music City wannabe...just thought you'd like to know) — is renowned for it's exquisite acoustics, and by all means, that reputation is well deserved. But in my humble opinion, there are factors well beyond mere acoustics that make just as much a difference to the level of enjoyment of the concert experience.

Things like sight lines, poles, and other obstructions (such as temporary spotlight fixtures affixed to balcony railings that aren't even being used for the show (more on that later).

Then there are the pews; those wonderful seats that are easily as famous as the building itself but which are also uncomfortable beyond belief. You see, the Ryman was originally a church; hence it’s moniker, The Mother Church of Country Music. A bank of wonderful stained-glass windows line the top of the back wall of the auditorium, bathing the stage in warm colors on summer evenings prior to showtime, before the evening’s bright spotlights are first engaged. Yet as surreal and picturesque as this grand old hall may be, little else can make up for the literal pain-in-the-ass that those pews are sure to deliver — not at first, necessarily — but certainly within an hour or so into the evening.

Another aspect of The Ryman’s pews, aside from their abject dearth of ergonomics, is the dynamic created by such a seating arrangement. The only barrier of separation along these 15-20 foot-long benches is a low-rising arm-like septum, repeated every six designated seat spaces (which are approximately 25" in width) as indicated by the small metal plate with the engraved seat number at the head of each space. There is no accounting for people of the large persuasion whose girth might, oh, exceed twenty-five inches, which can create a very cozy circumstance within any row sporting a bubba quotient above a three or four.

Combine this wonderful reality with the sloping floor that makes it virtually impossible to keep anything you unwittingly set at your feet (like an empty or partially-filled beverage cup) to remain upright, which also means there's a good possibility you might find your shoes suddenly transformed into islands in a stream of alcoholic liquids flowing downhill at any given time.

But that’s not the worst downfall of the pew-seating arrangement — at least not for me. The larger problem for someone of diminished stature like myself is dealing with the greatest of all sight-line obstructions: the tall guy or big-haired gal sitting in the row directly in front of you.

Now granted, the balcony seats are situated at a fairly steep, downhill angle towards the stage, so that the line-of-sight for most everyone is clear. That being said, the fact remains; not everyone is of the same height, width and coiffeur and it doesn’t take much to create a mismatch. This is less of a problem with individual stadium-style seats, as you’ll find in most other concert venues. At least with that type of seat, the occupant stays put and lateral movement is minimized.

But this is no average auditorium, it’s The Ryman; a veritable museum amongst concert venues. The pews are part of its charm and a huge part of its history. There will likely be no “upgrade” to stadium seating anytime soon. The pews are there for the long haul, so you deal. You deal with numb-butt syndrome that is surely coming later, you deal with the sticky floor that may come later, and you pray to God that you won’t have to strain to see around the person sitting in the row front of you.

But on this particular evening I encountered a new wrinkle in the Ryman obstruction dynamic; something I had yet to deal with in all my years of concert experience within this revered house of music; my obstruction decided to become a moving target.

Enter Ursula and Monkey Boy.

Mister Peepers lives.
It was the classic good news/bad news situation. The good news was that I was even able to get tickets; the show sold out in less than 30 minutes and I ordering online via, I had but one shot to get seats that appeared to be pretty decent balcony seats. Main floor was out of the question.

The bad news was that they were on the severe left-hand side; in other words, our sight angle was the closest to being parallel to the front of the stage that it could have been. My seat was on the aisle, so mine was the most severe angle of all.

More good news: our seats were forth row balcony, which meant we wouldn’t have to contend with those dreaded poles that might have come into play had we’d been seated on the main floor.

More bad news: there was a small, unused temporary spotlight fixture attached to the balcony railing almost directly in front of me. It wasn’t tall enough to completely block my line of sight, but was more than enough of a visual nuisance to crank up my distraction level a notch or two. But all in all, I seemed to have a pretty good vantage point to see the show.

And just when I was thinking it was my lucky night after all…

During the two opening acts (one guy whose name I never did catch, followed by a very cool British band called Aqualung), the end seats in two of the three rows in front of us were empty, affording me the opportunity to lean a bit more to the right and see around the spotlight fixture. It was great. I could see clearly ahead of me, and even though I still couldn’t see the entire stage, I would have a clear view of man I’d paid my hard-earned money to see: British Pop Star, David Gray.

But noooo

Halfway through Gray’s opening song, in came the fashionably late Ursula and her boyfriend, heretofore ever to be remembered as Mister Peepers. Seems the couple wasn’t fortunate enough to acquire adjoining seats for the sold-out show, so they had to settle for single seats in different rows — you guessed it — in the two rows directly in front of yours truly.

Of course this wouldn’t have been as much a problem if they’d just stayed put. However the kind gentleman occupying the second seat in the row directly in front of ours quickly offered to trade his seat for the one Mr. Peepers was getting ready to settle into, one spot down from his. The guy would get to be a little closer to the action and Ursula would get to enjoy the concert snuggled up next to her Monkey Boy. It was a win-win situation for them — but certainly not for Michelle and me.

Remember the moving target phenomenon I mentioned earlier? Well there’s more than one reason I dubbed my next-row neighbor, Mr. Peepers.

If you recall the character of the same name made famous by Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kattan then you already understand what I mean when I say, the dude would not sit still. One big difference though — Kattan was acting.

And lest you think I’m being overly harsh, let me ‘splain it to you. It’s not that I begrudge anyone his or her freedom to move around a bit while enjoying a show, but this guy was unbelievable. He was bobbin’ and weavin’ like a prizefighter ducking punches; constantly moving from side to side, leaning over to retrieve a sports-type water bottle, which I’m inclined to believe contained something other than water; craning his body one direction, then the other, peering through the miniature binoculars he wore around his neck to study someone either onstage or in the crowd below; turning to whisper something into Ursula’s ear, then slip in a five-to-ten second tonsil-hockey smooch.

The pointing, the whispering, the laughing, the drinking, the moving back and forth. Oy vey, can somebody get me a freaking Dramamine?

I mean, really, can we have a little common courtesy here? It never ceases to amaze me how people seem to believe that the price of admission includes carte blanche to do and act any way they damn well please in a public auditorium. Am I being too anal here? Maybe I am, but nonetheless, I for one always try to be aware of whether I’m being a distraction to people around me. It’s just common courtesy.

The good news was, Mr. Peepers didn’t completely ruin my evening. The concert was great, and though the distractions I had to deal with were just that, I will always have a positive memory of the showmanship and dynamism that is a live David Gray show. The man just knows how to perform. He did every song in his catalogue that I’ve ever liked. It was fabulous.

I still kick myself to think that I had the opportunity to see Gray perform in an intimate setting at 3rd & Lindsley back in 2000, soon after the release of his landmark White Ladder CD, but before his career really caught fire here in the States. I decided not to go at the last minute for some reason. I figured he’d come back, but what I didn’t figure was that it’d be impossible to get a decent ticket to see him when he did.

But bad seats or not, it was a great show. Michelle still talks about how good a time she had that night, despite all the distractions of the folks in front of us. I guess she’s just not as easily bugged about those things as I am. She actually found Mr. Peepers to be rather amusing.

I guess the moral of the story for me is to learn when it’s time to just bite the bullet. I’ve enjoyed some of my greatest concert experiences ever at The Ryman — but I’ve also endured some of my most disappointing. And the single determining factor in either case has always been seating. I just can’t stand it when I can’t see, so I’ll have to accept the fact that unless I can get really good seats, I just can’t go. That may sound a bit shallow, but it’s an important reality for me. It’ll be a tough policy to stick to, but in the long run at least I know I’ll get the most out of my experience. And I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, the experience is everything.

But again, maybe I am getting cranky…

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