I’m lined up outside the 9:30 Club on a Thursday night, waiting to see the Walkmen, the newly hipster-accredited indie band made up of St. Albans alumni. The line consists of little knots of people—some clumps of high-school kids, some older scenesters.
I reach the window and get out my wallet. The woman looks at me and pauses. I brace myself and ask for a ticket. “Just one?” she asks.
Yes, just one. Yes, I am alone. Believe it or not, I prefer it that way.
Allow me to introduce myself. I represent a quiet minority among concertgoers. We believe the power of solitude outweighs the comfort of collective. We place the value of a transcendent aural experience above deference to social norms. Most nights, you can see us scattered among the crowds at the Black Cat, the 9:30 Club, and other live-music venues. To spot us, look for the people at the back or the sides of the room with their eyes fixed on the stage, enjoying themselves.
This is not normal behavior, I know. For a long time, I used to consider concerts strictly social outings. I’d round up friends and we’d pack ourselves into the car, headed for the club—which is, after all, the word for a place where people get together.
Many of us arrived at this solo culture out of necessity. Maybe there was an occasion when we couldn’t persuade any friends to check out this glitch-pop trio from Iceland or that noise-rock outfit from Texas. Maybe our taste in music was so hopelessly cool that we couldn’t always find willing accompaniment to shows. But however we started, we discovered we liked it.
“I don’t like people to talk my fucking ear off,” says District resident Steve Rothgeb, another solitary attendee at the Walkmen show.
My own epiphany occurred last October, when I went to see Grandaddy and Super Furry Animals at the 9:30 Club. I had been attending live shows alone since I moved to the area in 2001—not knowing many local indie-rock appreciators—but I was on the lookout for a concert companion. That particular night, I had arranged to meet a new friend, Scott, who was coming to the show with friends of his own.
As Super Furry Animals began their set, I hadn’t yet seen Scott. I was alone, surrounded by groups of people who seemed to become increasingly irritating as the music started. A man in a faded gray sweat shirt loudly—and wrongly—informed his friend that the Welsh quintet’s latest recording was its “first album in English.” I turned my head toward the door in search of Scott. A woman in a tube top bumped into me, leading her apologetic boyfriend closer to the stage. These people aren’t even looking at the band, I thought, as I again turned to look at the door. And then I realized that I did not particularly care if I found Scott.
This recognition was no slight to my friend. It was an acknowledgement of a conclusion I had unconsciously reached long before, but had been afraid to admit: Bringing others along makes it more difficult to enjoy live music.
Simply put, seriously watching a show means not paying attention to the people you’re with. This is why most concerts don’t work as social events. And people who don’t understand it are goddamned annoying to the rest of us.
From the dirty-white-hat boys passing out drinks and high-fives to the scenesters constantly proving their indie-ness by reciting factoids from the All Music Guide, people in groups make a point of doing anything but relishing the performance they paid money to see. I know. I’ve done it myself. “You see, the band was so distraught after the overwhelming praise and media exposure of OK Computer that they just had to make music in a different way,” I once said at a Radiohead concert, trying to entertain a friend who for some reason still speaks to me.
Solo concertgoing solves those problems. I can watch shows without feeling a constant need to impress friends. I can stay as late as I want—which is especially important for experimental or unknown artists, who tend to make others look at their watches. And I can take in the performance absent the pressure to form an instant opinion. It seems more intimate, almost like listening to the recording on headphones.
There are some disadvantages to solo ventures. Without someone else to talk to, the set changes tend to drag like time in a hospital waiting room. And sometimes you witness a spectacle so fantastic—Beulah coaxing a group of shy audience members onstage to play percussion at the Black Cat this past October, for example—that you wish you could share the moment with friends.
Still, most nights a concertgoer is better off leaving friends behind. At the Walkmen show, the vocals are inaudible for the first two songs of the set, and yet hardly anyone on the filled main floor seems to notice. Some are trying to negotiate through the crowd; others are talking to each other. One confused curly-haired man follows his date into the hallway, only to find that he was not supposed to. “I’m going to the bathroom,” she tells her supplicant.
Near the back of the room, a woman in a corduroy jacket and blue jeans, carrying a fur handbag, stands at the bar. Leaning on the countertop and smoking a cigarette, she is transfixed and clearly enjoying the performance more than others in the room.
A tall young man in a letterman’s jacket sees her and makes his approach.
“Are you alone?” he asks.
Her head nods. It’s hard to tell if she’s answering in the affirmative or just moving to the music. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Tom Deja.