“If you’re gonna talk during the songs instead of enjoying yourself, go outside.”
How To Dress Well’s performance at Eclectic on Saturday was not the best concert I’ve been to at Wesleyan, but it was one of the most memorable—and one of the most uncomfortable. It was one of the few times I’ve been embarrassed by an audience of Wesleyan students. It was also the first time I’ve seen a performer politely ask more than half of his audience to leave. Tom Krell’s request was ignored, and his performance was consequently hampered by loud, drunken chatter amongst much of his audience.
Let’s back up. The indie R&B maestro had three openers, and they ranged from a remix artist to a synthpop heartthrob to brooding, gorgeous post-rock. This was a packed bill. First up was pop-songs-on-Valium DJ Slolivia (Olivia Hauser ’14), whose aesthetic is pretty well captured by this YouTube clip of “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Imagine the same treatment for “Call Me Maybe,” “Larger Than Life,” and a slew of other smash hits. You get the idea.
Eclectic’s ballroom was empty when Slolivia got started. By the time she exited, a moderate crowd had gathered for Bamenda, the ’80s-obsessed synthpop project of Lioness/Treasure Island hero Dema Paxton Fofang ’13, who made his live solo debut at the Prince Rama show last month. Bamenda’s music sounds frankly isolated and insular on record, all Casio bleeps, wispy synth pads, and lonely double-tracked backing vocal. Live, it’s a far more inviting experience: Dema was bouncing around the stage under psychedelic lighting, sporting a classy “DE753MA” license plate and generally teasing his screaming fans, who pretty much know all the words to “Secrets” and “Medicine.”
Then Port St. Willow took the stage and launched into a set of what can best be described as textured, breathtaking post-rock, marked by rich falsetto vocals, majestic organ, and thick, spacious slabs of guitar. Primarily the project of vocalist Nick Principe, the Portland/Brooklyn-based band now performs as a trio, which includes a keyboardist and a powerful drummer who happens to be Jake Nussbaum ’10 of Duchampion fame. On Saturday, they were phenomenal, floating Principe’s silky vocals onto compositions that called to mind Talk Talk and Mogwai and dreampop and Krautrock—noisy and ambient and haunting all at once. When Ben Seretan ’10 (who helped make this booking happen) told me the band sounds like “Talk Talk mixed with Jeff Buckley,” I thought he was messing with me. He wasn’t. This was one of the best sets I’ve seen at Wes all semester. Here’s a video of Port St. Willow performing “North,” plus two standout tracks from the band’s debut LP, Holiday:
If you watch the YouTube clip of “North,” you’ll notice an alarming amount of audience chatter cutting into the open spaces of the band’s set. By the time Port St. Willow was finishing up, the ballroom had filled to capacity; for every student trying to listen to the band perform, there were at least two obnoxiously talking over the music. When lo-fi R&B tinkerer How To Dress Well (main man Tom Krell, plus two touring musicians) took the stage, the situation had become unbearable: Krell’s music is simply too sparse, too fragile, to work in a noisy environment. Plus, Krell couldn’t hear himself sing.
So Krell performed a few highlights from last month’s Total Loss, struggling to hear his bandmate’s fuzzy synth tones and drum tracks over the hum, then glared at the crowd. “Let’s get a collective ‘Shut the fuck up’ going,” he requested. Then: “If I’d known it was going to be this loud, I’d have taken different drugs.”
From my vantage point, this was the rudest Wesleyan crowd I’ve seen since Xiu Xiu came in 2010. Throughout the set, Krell became increasingly irate. There seemed to be two groups in the audience: those of us clustered in the front who had come to hear him perform, and the bafflingly large number of drunk bystanders who ignored his requests and continued talking over the performance. At one point, Krell asked anyone who was talking to “go outside”:
He was essentially rebuffed. Later in the show, he addressed the audience members who had come to see him perform: “I wish I could bring you guys somewhere… where we could do this.” When Nick Joseph ’13 shouted a request for “Decisions,” he replied: “I do that song a Capella at every show; it’s not gonna be possible here”:
Some students outright apologized to Krell, embarrassed by how the audience acted:
@howtodresswell it meant so much to have you at Wesleyan tonight. Sucks it turned out the way it did.
— Stefan (@sskrips) October 7, 2012
Over Facebook chat, Trill “Big Willie” Feinstein ’13 argued that timing was to blame: “it was at the wrong time too. Saturday night at midnight for a quiet, pretty act? not gonna work.” Plus, the frats are banned from hosting parties. Where else are people supposed to party and be loud, amiright?
I’m not so content with that. Thursday nights cannot be the only nights available to book “quiet, pretty acts”—it’s difficult enough for booking agents that four nights of the week are essentially void for college shows, and touring schedules often provide little room for flexibility. Warm Ghost was on a Saturday. So was Beach House. So was Wye Oak. Why was this audience different?
Another solution is to make more shows (like this one) ticketed. That would probably restrict attendance to people genuinely interested in the music, and as an added plus, it would net more revenue to Concert Committee, which would go to fund more shows. Perfect, right? But I don’t think that’s the right call either. For as long as I’ve been here, Wesleyan’s music scene has taken pride in the fact that there are so many free shows, open to all students every single weekend. You don’t need to front $10 to attend. There’s enough of that in the real world. You certainly don’t need to front a $20 to witness a monstrosity like this.
I’ve witnessed obnoxious and even belligerent crowds at Wesleyan shows before. That’s nothing new. But I’ve never seen a crowd so inconsiderate and loud that the headlining performance was effectively crippled. This was new, and disheartening, and ultimately embarrassing for any Wesleyan at the show. What’s the solution?
More video clips from HTDW below. Photos are by me, Rachel Pincus ’13, and Eric Lopez ’15.