(Just don’t bother worrying about the title if you haven’t come across the (in some circles) notorious deconstructivist essay The Death of the Author, I’m not doing anything clever enough to make it worthwhile)
I’m used to thinking of my two bands as a dichotomy (doubtless oversimplistic, like all dichotomoies). The Filthy Spectacula, however convoluted some of their chord progressions and however many keys and time signatures may be involved in one song, are essentially a loud rock band with no massive pretensions to subtlety or hidden sophistication, built around choppy off-beat guitars, pounding (albeit highly varied and controlled) drums and easy-to-sing-along-with choruses. Even as the newer identity of the String Project emerges from highly intellectual classical-contemporary-crossover territory, the focus is generally the slightly cerebral field of trip-hop and downtempo bass music.
As a result (and also because of established status or otherwise of members, prestige of gigs / venues, preferred stage costumes, etc.), there is a particular kind of sweaty I only associate with Filthy Spectacula gigs – heaving pub rooms with the four of us and the seemingly huge mob of crowd bouncing around like ping-pong balls in the sports room of a cruise liner caught in a tropical storm. My subconscious says String Project gigs involve much less dancing and yelling, little less work on my part to liven up a crowd but producing appreciative applause and nodding along rather than I-look-like-an-idiot-and-I-don’t-care boogieing.
And yet the last few String Project gigs have given this the lie. The most recent one was rammed and featured some highly energetic dancing and the sort of lairily enthusiastic yelling from the crowd I associate with well-liked rock-n-roll. Admittedly, this particular crowd had been at a mini-festival for anything up to 9 hours; it was late on a Saturday night; they were mostly well liquored up; and having had a day of mostly fairly serious indie they were in the mood for some beats they could dance to, and the reggae-funk-trip-hop underpinning of most of our current live set suits that even it’s generally slightly more chilled and grooving than ‘Can you Cossack dance? If you can’t, jump up and down!’ (normal instructions before Filthy set closer). They had also showed similar, though less unbounded, enthusiasm for the previous warm-up set (me and a guitarist doing unpretentious ceilidh tune sets with a couple of trad jazz standards slung in for variety – hardly wall-shaking however briskly played and however much personality I manage to project on the rare occasions I’m left with a frontman slot!) and we had deliberately done a quick changeover. By the end of the double duty for me, I had attained that shirt-soaked-through level of hard work usually only found at Spectacula gigs.
So does the atmosphere make the set? Are there in fact hardly any party bands, just bands that get slots at party gigs? We’ve all seen punk / metal / generally rabble-rousing acts working really hard to the wrong crowd and getting no response – indeed, I’ve done it with the Filthy Spectacula, playing to an audience of sofa-bound hipsters on Brick Lane. But surely it takes some degree of suitability to the crowd to get a gut response, however well prepped they are (and pace the handful of people already trying to get their groove on to our version of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen Sheba before the beatbox kicks in halfway through … )?
As usual, both-and, compromise, life is messy and reality doesn’t come in binary pairs. BUT, it’s an interesting point that anything up to about half of how much a band get the crowd going might be down to who the crowd are and how they’re feeling to start with. If judging your own success, choose your venues, events and support acts carefully …