Friday, September 23, 2011

Videos Worth Watching. . . And My Beef With the Masquerade

A day later, I'm not any more pleased with the Masquerade's offering last night, but I'm in much less of a mood to complain about the evening.  Maybe some George Gershwin can cheer me up.  I do know, though,  that as soon as I start, I probably won't be able to shut the floodgate of complaints.  

The issue last evening comes down to this: the Masquerade has two levels,  an upstairs stage called "Heaven" and a downstairs called "Hell," and they typically book bands in both venues on the same evenings.  The problem is that the sound from one level totally interferes with the sound from the other, to the detriment of both the performer and the audience.  But the club doesn't seem to care and makes no effort to mitigate the effects - my impression is they're more than glad to book as many bands as possible and collect as much as they can at the box office, and let the fans sort it out for themselves.

Case in point last night:  Canadian electro-funk duo Chromeo played upstairs, with Sammy Bananas and Meyer Hawthorne opening, while downstairs, the experimental pop band Yellow Ostrich opened for moody indie rockers The Antlers.  After making everyone stand in line outside in the rain for a half hour before finally opening the doors at 8:00, and then making everyone in the lower venue stand around for an hour while the muffled thump of the bass drum from Sammy Bananas pounded down through the floor from above, it finally seemed like show time at around 9:00 when the upstairs act mercifully ended and the thumping stopped.  But no, the Masquerade still waited another half hour until Meyer Hawthorne took the stage upstairs and the thumping resumed before they put Yellow Ostrich on the stage downstairs.

Yellow Ostrich is the solo project of Wisconsin's Alex Schaaf.  He's touring with a drummer and bassist-slash-brass player.  Their music involves intricate and complex over-layering of live samples of their performance, such that Mr. Schaaf can create an entire choir out of his own voice, and his bassist can create a full horn section by layering short samples of his trumpet, flugelhorn, and baritone sax.

It's interesting and involving music, but the band was visibly distracted by all of the sound coming from upstairs, at times looking up and smiling apologetically to the audience (as if it were somehow the band's fault and not the club's).  Fortunately, Mr. Hawthorne finished while Yellow Ostrich still had a few minutes left to their set, including their standout songs Whale and Mary.

There was no band on either stage upstairs or down between Yellow Ostrich's and The Antler's sets, but by the time The Antlers took the stage, Chromeo has started playing upstairs, and playing loud.  I have no beef with Chromeo or their audience, and I'm sure that if you were up there in Heaven with Chromeo, their fast, bass-heavy dance music must have sounded great, but downstairs it was a loud, thumping mess.  Worse, The Antlers' music is very dynamic volume-wise, and not in the formulaic style of Explosions In The Sky's quiet-quiet-quiet-loud-loud-loud approach.  That is, while The Antlers play a lot of loud electric guitar and keyboard passages, these are almost cathartic bursts between tender, emotional, and even poignant quieter passages, most of which revolve around singer Peter Silberman's anguished falsetto.  But their songs don't work when those quiet passages are lost to the dull roar and bass drum of the band upstairs.  "We'd like to thank Chromeo for their guest appearance on that last song," joked keyboardist Darby Cicci after one song, before remarking "God, it's like their bass is right in my head."

Ours too.  While I've been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see The Antlers three times now on their current tour (an early-morning KEXP set at Portland's Doug Fir Lounge, and an outdoor set at Pioneer Courthouse Square), I would have been very disappointed had I shelled out the money for the show ($17) and then stood around for two hours through all the noise from upstairs, if that were my one-and-only chance to hear them.  And as if that weren't enough, during The Antlers set, the club never bothered to turn on the stage lights that they had used for Yellow Ostrich.  The Antlers were performing on stage, but for all that half of the audience could see and hear, it might have been their high-school gym teacher on stage singing Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out.  It also made it hard to take good pictures, but that's just me.

To make matters even worse, the Masquerade also runs a dance club, Purgatory, in the same old former excelsior mill building across the hallway from the Hell stage.  The doors between the stage on which The Antlers were playing and the Purgatory dance floor were both wide open, so not only did we now have to contend with the funky bass from Chromeo upstairs, but also the disco beat and general noise coming from Purgatory.  The band was visibly annoyed.

During one of Mr. Silberman's more emotive vocal passages, now almost totally obscured by all of the noise from above and beyond, as his hands dramatically rose slowly above his head, he suddenly thrust out his middle finger at the direction of the door and all of its intrusive noise. Loud cheers from his audience.  "You know," he said, "Right now, I'm so glad that I'm down here with you rather than with those assholes upstairs.  I don't even know them, they might be great people for all I know, but you've chosen to be patient and try your best to listen to us as we attempt to play, and we appreciate that so much."  The band then went through the rest of their set list as best as they could, emphasizing the louder passages of their songs that could compete with all of the noise and minimizing or even entirely passing over some of the quieter passages.  It worked, but it wasn't The Antlers, it wasn't how they wanted to perform, and it wasn't what he had come to hear.

But here's the good news: Everything's impermanent and nothing lasts forever, even a set by Chromeo.  The band eventually finished, and things were finally quiet enough for The Antlers to close their set with one of the best versions of their heartbreaking song Putting the Dog to Sleep I've heard them perform yet.

And it gets even better:  The audience, so appreciative of both the relative quiet from upstairs as well as awed by the intense performance of the last song, hung in there and coaxed the band back for an encore, even though they had been on stage for almost a full hour.  Upon returning, Mr. Silberman announced that he'd make a deal with us:  they could still play a few more songs if someone would be kind enough to get them two beers from the bar.  Someone quickly obliged ("You've got free Antlers tickets for life," Mr. Cicci told him), and The Antlers played an absolutely lovely and devastating set of extended versions of about three or four more songs, some of the best playing I've heard from them.  They seemed to sincerely want to reward the audience, which had dwindled down to less than 100 persons, for hanging in there through it all with them.  Rather than storming out like divas or prima donnas over the atrocious conditions, rather than inciting anger and rage at the club or the audience from upstairs, who were now filing out past the open doors as The Antlers were played their extended encore, they took the extra time to make sure that we all got at least a sample of the artistry for which we had come. And for that, they've got my highest respect.

John Lennon once said something to the effect that an artist can take anything and make something beautiful out of it.  The Antlers took a rough and unprofessional venue, indifferent club management, and atrocious sound conditions, and created a beautiful act of redemption at the end, worth every dime of the ticket price and the time spent in the aptly named "Hell."

So how does the Masquerade even stay open?  It's been in business since 1989, but has traditionally catered to high schoolers and metalheads who simply don't know better.  There are far better and pleasanter and more professionally managed places to hear music in Atlanta, including Center Stage, Variety Playhouse, and the redoubtable Earl, yet the club lives on.  Atlanta's Creative Loafing newspaper even went so far as to give the Masquerade one of it's "Best of Atlanta" awards this week as "Best Local Music Institution To Reinvent Itself." According to the Loaf, "Good things have been afoot at the Masquerade since the club opened its doors. . . But as East Atlanta Village flourished in recent years, the apex of the live music scene shifted with it. But over the last few years, the classic venue has become a place true music enthusiasts can't afford to sleep on. By booking the upper echelon of national and international acts on the upswing . . . the Masquerade has reemerged as a vital Atlanta musical institution."

And if you can believe that, I have a couple of bridges over the Chattahoochee River I'd like to sell you.

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