Mere days after we returned from the heartland, the professor and I had a date to see Brandi Carlile in concert. He’d bought the tickets on my birthday, after I’d suggested we try to catch her show in Grand Rapids during our week in Michigan.
I scrambled to feed the boys dinner and raced to pick up the babysitter and upon relinquishing the barest of instructions and our cell phone numbers, we raced to the venue where the concert was due to start at 7pm.
We speed-walked through the University campus towards the concert hall, in an effort to make it to the show on time. As we got closer to the venue, we spied two hulking tour buses parked in the loading dock and a few couples walking hand-in-hand towards what I assumed was the entrance. Though the professor insisted we use a different door.
The building was eerily quiet, other than a line of about 10 people waiting patiently in what could pass for a foyer, I suppose. This struck me as unsettling – it was 6:52, the concert was due to start in eight minutes and a dozen people had shown up.
We asked the same questions they’d been asking one another, ‘it is tonight, isn’t it? 7pm? Yes, that’s what it says on my ticket. And we’re sure it’s here?’
We stood and wondered and checked our phones until, finally, a man with short hair carrying a cash box appeared on the scene. ‘Oh, are you here for the concert?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ we all clamored in unison. ‘It’s been moved upstairs.’ As if we should have deduced as much from the lack of signs and posted information.
We raced upstairs, for fear we’d miss the music, only to find a slightly longer but not exactly significant line-up of people.There was only one plausible conclusion: the 7pm printed on our tickets referred to the time the doors would be opening. And the concert wouldn’t start until 8.
Which was precisely the situation we’d intended to avoid, having concluded earlier in the summer at another concert that we were far too old for smaller venue, standing-the-whole-time-because-there-aren’t-any-seats concerts. And as such, we’d take a last-minute, standing in the way, way back spot rather than spend three hours standing for the sake of something more proximate to the stage.
Operation ‘save our backs’: foiled.
We waited semi-patiently for the line to snake into the venue when the professor noticed a friend up ahead in the line. She came over to say hello, mentioning something about how she’d had plans for the evening but then tickets for the concert were being sold on Groupon and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
It was all starting to make sense. The line-up of 10 people downstairs. The concert being moved upstairs. The not-particularly-long line of people waiting upstairs. Tickets being sold on Groupon.
Either Calgary didn’t have any Brandi Carlile fans. Or they’d all decamped to Edmonton for Folk Fest. Or nobody knew about the concert.
We passed through the ticket check, where we held up the line because the scanner couldn’t read the bar code on the professor’s phone. ‘It’s too dark,’ the guy with the scanner complained. And I couldn’t help but think it surely didn’t matter, while the professor muttered something about paying full price for these unscannable tickets.
Finally the guy gave up and waved us on. We walked into the very empty, dark, chairless room, feeling like we were about to attend the world’s worst high school reunion. There was a stage with instruments and a screen draped in black cloth. And an empty wooden floor. And a guy selling drinks in the corner. But instead of making awkward small talk with people we hadn’t seen in twenty years, we had to stand and wait for an unidentified opening act starting at an unidentified time.
In order to help pass the time, the professor purchased a bottle of water from the guy in the corner. We traded sips – sparingly – to avoid a mid-concert bathroom break. After one of the longer hours of my life, the opening act apeared on stage. One man. And his guitar. Wearing plaid newsboy pants, an army jacket and possibly a cap.
He sang a song and despite its strange nature, there was no denying he had a good voice. Vaguely reminiscent of Glen Phillips who, wikipedia tells me, was the lead singer of that 90s band Toad the Wet Sprocket. I did not know this piece of information in the 90s when I was actually listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket. Which, let’s be honest, is a very strange name for a band. Perhaps when I’m done here, I will ask Google about its origin.
The opening act sang another song and tried to engage the audience with some very awkward banter that made it clear he’d only recently learned he would be opening for the show, and that this group of less than 200 people was the biggest crowd he’d ever played for. He sang a couple more songs. More awkward banter ensued about how he kisses his dog more than his wife. And also, if memory serves, that his sartorial choices made him look like a Japanese dad.
Then, more songs. ‘This evening is not what I expected,’ the professor grumbled. Indeed, it felt like a scene from a movie where two people go to hear their little brother ‘play a show’ and find the room mostly empty and the brother making cringe-worthy small talk to detract from the fact that no one showed up. Also, instead of getting off the stage at the earliest opportunity, the little brother just.keeps.singing.
At some point a text appeared on my phone:
‘Um, so how ’bout this dog loving, Japanese pant-wearing opening act…..’
Apparently our groupon-savvy, concert-going friend was having a similar experience.
‘Dead man at the wheel!’ she texted, referring to one of the songs he’d just played, ‘how about dead woman at the concert?!’
Finally, the little brother got off the stage, at which point I’d been standing for two hours, having listened to six or eight very strange songs; paying a babysitter for every loving minute of it. A thought crossed my mind as I stood staring at the stage crew fiddling with the (approximately) 143 guitars on the stage: we could just leave and try to forget the night ever happened. It wasn’t as if attending a Brandi Carlile concert was on my (nonexistent) bucket list.
More fiddling and tuning. I’d told the babysitter we’d be home at 10:30 – based on the purported 7pm start – and every minute the tall, grey-haired man in black stood on the stage picking up instruments….was another minute we were going to be late.
At last the crew disappeared and one lone cello-playing man appeared on stage and sat down. The tacky black cloth covering the screen fell away, to my astonishment, and revealed a tableau of pinks and reds and shadows. And that’s when another thought occurred to me: maybe this concert was going to be….good?
The cello man started playing ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ which had several audience members, including the professor, flummoxed. ‘Why is he playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic?’ Brandi Carlile and the twins, along with the drummer, walked on stage and began singing Firewatcher’s Daughter, the song I probably like the least on her new album. As in, every time it pops up on the playlist, I immediately skip it.
And yet…the harmony, the energy and the 143 guitars…..it was simply spectacular, watching people who obviously loved what they were doing and were good at it. It turned out to be the best concert I’d ever seen.
And that’s high praise from someone lucky enough to see Bon Jovi’s New Jersey Tour in 1990.
I’ll be there for you.