As the kind of unknown ukulele/mandolin/fiddle hipster nonsense I enjoy tends not to venture to China, a large part of my trip home was to include music. I feverishly scoured concert listings and venue websites looking for shows, gleefully snapping up tickets and planning my attack. If I am going to bother attending a concert, I generally want to attend it as hard as I can. I show up early, I grab whatever beers I need, and then I plant myself in the front row. My feet root to the spot, I set up a tent and a beach chair, and I settle in for joy directly in front of my eyeballs.
Here are a few amalgamated thoughts from the last week, in which I spent 4 of seven nights pressed sweatily against a speaker in a rock club.
– I am technically in the splash zone. The singer of this alt-bluegrass outfit sweats more than any human being I have ever seen. It has gone from endearingly human to actually disconcerting, and I wonder if I should get him a glass of water. He maybe has a condition. Should we be calling somebody? Getting him on an IV? On another night, Cary Ann Hearst also notes that she and her husband are getting pretty gross and that the front row can probably feel it. “But y’all look like the kinky types so I bet you don’t mind.”
– A drunk woman waddles to the front and blearily tells me and another long-rooted front stander that she is bringing up her friend on crutches, and could Crutchy just enjoy a song or two up front? I think but do not say, “She can enjoy it beside me, but not in front of me.” My face has probably never looked so sour. I shuffle to the side. Crutchy and her drunk friend stay the entire rest of the show. As I knew they goddamn would.
– A bearded man hurls a cardboard sign on stage, which the singer picks up and reads. “I Hiked 1900 Miles to Be Here Tonight!” The man gets a cheer, and the guitarist leans down and asks if he wants a song. I think actually he wants a toothbrush. I can smell every single mile on this bastard.
– The best part about the front row is that not a single tall guy can stand in front of me.
– No, actually, the best part about the front row is that no one is holding up an iPhone or an iPad in front of my eyeballs, occluding the show for a grainy, low-quality YouTube video of the song they forgot to enjoy.
– Infinitesimal interactions with the band send frissons down my spine. I holler when I recognize the opening strains of a song, and the lady from Lucius grins at me. Cary Ann (just Cary Ann now, that’s how close we are) tells us we’re going into a slow song, and asks none of us to get pregnant. “Too late!” I tell Donny, and the band laughs. I hug the front of the stage and thank it for its bounty this day.
– People will generally let you sluice through the crowd if you are a tiny woman, because you are unlikely to take up space or impede the view of anyone else. The following things will get you stonewalled: size, height, a penis, an iPad, and more than 2 drinks.
– Holding down a front spot requires some serious urine-planning. I go to pee during the middle of a song in each of the opening acts, when the crowd is sparse enough to pass through once more on the return trip. But ¾ of the way through the second band and I will not move a muscle. Any vacancy is ceded territory this close to the headliner.
– A young man with his Hermione Granger-esque girlfriend hover behind us, and casually ask if the next band will be any good. “Yes,” I intone with a gravity for which he is seriously unprepared. “They will be very good.”
– People idly attempt to squish beside or in front of me, despite me placing most of my torso against the actual stage. I begin stomping and flexing my legs. I remember being a teenager at my first show and a friend teaching me how to jam my elbows right into a front-row-pusher’s ribs. You want front of stage? Show up earlier. Or break your leg, I guess.
– My friends laugh at my tension and over-preparedness, but I demand we stand up front for each opening act, lest we leave valuable crowdfront real estate unclaimed. A concert crowd is a wild animal, unkempt and unpredictable. It is never clear when the Headliner Surge will occur—when the crowd suddenly thickens and becomes immovable, when everyone realizes their favourite band is nigh. I also just feel a certain duty to stand up for opening acts. Nothing is sadder than a band playing to an empty dance floor.
– Camaraderie emerges with those who share my die-hardedness. A lady with a half-shaved head grooves as hard as I to Lucius, and at some points we seem to be competing over who recalls the most lyrics and can dance the hardest. We eventually make peace, extend a high five, and grin like stupid monkeys. (Bre, my concert companion, identifies her as the singer from The Fox and the Moon.)
– I have no good understanding of the assembled crowds for these bands. The bluegrass act attracts mostly 19-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and their very first legally purchased Smirnoff Ice, and one grizzly fellow who appears to have arrived fresh from under a bridge. The band members know Brad, who I think of as Rough Tracks Santa, and when the lead singer extends a palm for a high-five, Brad takes fully 38 seconds to realize what is happening before responding. Bluegrass!
– The drunk woman beside Donny appears to be in actual distress. Why did her friend bring her so many Coors Light? Coors Light is not a dignified way to die.
– When the show finishes, mine is the slowest waddle to the door. I am at the back of the plane and will be the last to leave, but mine is also the broadest smile, the stankest of sweat, the happiest happy. I have been in the front row. I have seen forehead crinkles. I have had my whole body shake from bass noises. If I was okay with jailtime, I could have reached out and grabbed the band. The front row is the only place to be.