Elements of Show

18 January Dale Watson; Hoyle Brothers

19 January Rhythm Rockets
20 January Western Elstons

Dale Watson blew into town Monday on a breeze that must have got lost leaving Austin, but since the weather was not actively trying to kill me—despite what the Texans had to say about it—I trundled up to Martyrs’ on the Damen bus to see him. The Damen bus has been described to me as one of the more entertaining routes in the city, though I think this is only true if you are from out of town, extraordinarily cute and intelligent and naive all at once, and not very tall. If you are those things, then I can see the point: the Damen bus travels through some interesting neighborhoods, for white people anyway. It also travels a very long stretch of the city, from deep on the South Side to Andersonville. I tend to think the Western Avenue bus is far more interesting, since virtually anything can happen on it, but short cute white girls tend to get plenty of adrenaline in their life already without actively courting it. There was no excitement of any kind on the Damen bus this evening, however, and I arrived at Martyrs’ unscathed and refreshingly early; opening act the Hoyle Brothers hadn’t even started yet. I anticipated a great show: I saw Dale in the spring last year at the same venue and it was, really, one of the better nights I’ve ever spent.

Now, I’ve had it in my mind to try to organize these short blog essays around some sort of theme rather than allowing them to be just recitations of dates and band names—ideally you’ve noticed. In an earlier entry I examined the notion of continuity, places and bands that are consistently good, over and over. These three shows this week, however, are wild examples of discontinuity: each show was different from the others. Their differences though illustrate the three elements that construct a good show, the interplay between performer, venue, and the oft-overlooked third element, the audience.

Dale Watson is already a kind of living legend, the “Lone Star Troubadour” as he’s billed since Ernest Tubb was the Texas Troubadour, and his band is no-less outstanding. They play honky-tonk music, exactly the sort (well, better than most) that you might hear in a Texas roadhouse, and can hear at the internationally-famous Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin where Dale holds down the Sunday afternoon spot. There’s little to say about the music, which is wonderfully danceable. The crowd, however, differed substantially from those I saw Dale’s show with in the spring of ’09.

That crowd had been larger than the crowd at Martyrs’, but while large crowds usually spell the end of dancing, in that case part of it was made up of people from Austin, who quickly and mysteriously made room for a dancefloor in the midst of it. (I’d still like to know how they did it—if anyone knows, please write.) No such luck on this night, though. During the Hoyle Brothers set, which was great and excellent prep for their scheduled tour to Austin, there was plenty of room on Martyrs’ floor, but during the break the floor gradually filled. A friend did ask Dale to mention something about making space for dancing, which Dale was gracious enough to do when he started his set, but it had almost no effect, particularly on the large couple that had settled in front and center and who collectively weighed enough to feed most of Port-au-Prince for the rest of the year, if not the decade. They were of course surly (as who wouldn’t be if if your life was a constant series of children frightened that you’d ate the sun), singlehandedly sending dancers to search for unused floor space elsewhere—floor space that was of course concrete instead of the nice wooden floor Martyrs has in front of the stage. But the music was so ridiculously fine that this had little effect on the evening’s fun.

Still, there is one caveat: whereas at the spring show Dale had played at least 3 and possibly 4 encores after playing for 3 hours straight (no set breaks), this time he only came back for the first encore after the bass player literally told the crowd they’d have to do better if they wanted an encore. Enthusiasm did pick up, and Dale did play another encore afterwards, but then the show was done, and the crowd did not seem disappointed. Perhaps it was because the work-week started the next day—Monday being MLK Day—but the spring’s show was also during the week, so it’s hard to see how that mattered. No, I think that there was some difference between the two crowds; perhaps it was the presence of the Austinites the first time around. In any case, the night demonstrated the effect a crowd can have on a show quite effectively, if also depressingly.

The next night though effectively demonstrated the positive effect a crowd can have, even when a band might not be at its best. The Rhythm Rockets performed at Martini Park, a good venue marred by sometimes odd managerial decisions. I don’t want to dwell on the show, since it was marked by an at-times uneven vocal performance—the rest of the band was excellent—but the crowd, though not as large as it’s sometimes been at Martini Park, pulled the band through. Whereas at Dale’s show a great band and a terrific venue was marred by an unenthusiastic crowd, this show was enlivened by support from the crowd, which cheered even the often-inane patter of the band leader, Dave Downer.

Crowd support is not much of an issue for the Western Elstons, an incredible supergroup of Chicago musicians. Jimmy Sutton, Joel Paterson, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall are each in several other groups, but together they make up what might be the best dance band in Chicago, if not the Midwest generally. The crowd at Simon’s is aware of that; sometimes during slow songs the entire bar will be eerily silent while conversely, at the end of songs, the whole place will erupt into deafening cheers. Simon’s is a fun venue—during good weather Scott the bar-owner will cook free hot dogs outside on the grill—though it has almost no space for dance. The venue is the weakest part of the show; Simon’s almost makes up for it with cheap drinks, friendly staff, and the aforementioned hot dogs. But it does make you wish the Elstons would play, at least once in a while, somewhere else with a proper dance floor.

Each of these shows then illustrated a different facet of what makes a great show: band, venue, and audience. Dale’s show at Martyrs’ demonstrated how a difficult crowd can detract from a great band in a great venue; the Rhythm Rockets’ show at Martini Park displayed how a good crowd can help a band; and the Western Elstons’ show at Simon’s revealed how a great band together with a good crowd can overcome a limited venue. Searching for a good show comes down to finding the best combination of these three facets. Finding that combination is like a smooth ride on the Western Avenue bus: unexpectedness enhances the pleasure.

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