If you choose to go to a pub, which is more likely than not to be showing some desperately important sporting event and could theoretically be showing more than one match, you know that the combined volume of the clientele competing with televised commentary is going to make casual conversation with your mates somewhat difficult; this is to be expected. Similarly, you don’t go to a football match for serenity or a quiet chat. My team, Crystal Palace are well known for their vociferous supporters and the atmosphere at Selhurst Park is acknowledged as being one of the best in the Premier League; even Palace’s away support is regarded as acting as a twelfth man. Having realistically secured continued top-flight status with a couple of games to spare before the end of the season, our final match of 2017-18 on 13th May against an already relegated West Bromwich Albion was free of nerves for both the fans and the players, so the crowd behaviour was loud and uninhibited. On this occasion too, the Baggies fans were splendid, corrupting a well-known chant and singing ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Shrewsbury...’
I had always thought that you go to a gig for the music but it’s becoming increasingly evident that not everyone thinks that way. A comment in the Paper Late column in Prog magazine (Prog 87) nicely illustrated that the matter is getting seriously out-of-hand and as far as I can make out the prestige of the venue is irrelevant, whether it’s the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall or the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
A plea for quiet in Prog 87
My first exposure to the irritating mid-gig conversation experience, where I genuinely couldn’t concentrate on the music wasn’t long after I’d started to find sufficiently interesting live prog to watch. I’d gone to see a double bill of Caravan and Curved Air in October 2011 at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire where part of the problem was that I was in the unreserved seating on the third level, an area where the proprietors had deemed it sensible to install a bar. This meant that there was a steady stream of punters going up to buy drinks joining those who had taken up positions from which to survey the proceedings while enjoying their beers, and to talk loudly. Noise from the bar at the Troxy (Steven Wilson, March 2015) also dented my enthusiasm, making me wish that all venues would restrict sales of drinks to an area outside the auditorium. Even this contingency is not enough to eliminate idle chat; alcohol sales are restricted to areas outside the concert space at the Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall but drinks are allowed to be brought inside the auditorium. Even when alcohol wasn’t involved I found myself sitting next to a couple of Zappa experts at the Dweezil Zappa Royal Festival Hall performance in October 2017, who weren’t able to let the music speak for itself but provided a running commentary and critique throughout the show, dulling my enjoyment.
Level 3 unreserved seating and standing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire
The gig fatigue I experienced at the end of March 2018, following a weekend in Genoa when I didn’t get back to my hotel after the show until after 2am, a midweek performance by Gryphon at a small village in Surrey a few days later, another trip to Italy the following week where the gig in Milan on the Friday was another late-running affair and a dash back to London for Yes on the Sunday, culminated in a disappointing performance from Steven Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall on the Tuesday. Taking that earlier Troxy gig into account, I’m wondering if Wilson attracts loudmouths to his shows, willing to pay a not insubstantial sum for their seats but who don’t seem to be very bothered with the music, the spectacle, or those around them who do want to watch and listen. My companion at the Steven Wilson Royal Albert Hall gig, someone I wouldn’t describe as harbouring violent thoughts, did confess that he wanted to punch the guilty pair seated behind us but rationality prevailed and after a word to one of them during the interval, the second set was largely comment-free. On the other hand, having any number of bars outside the hall does not prohibit concert-goers from becoming inebriated either before or during the performance, irritatingly demonstrated by a couple immediately in front of me at the same Steven Wilson show. It wasn’t just the inhibition-loosening effects of alcohol with its concomitant abandonment of volume control but the constant to-ing and fro-ing to the bar and presumably, the toilets. Tired or not, I think I’d have probably liked the show more without the constant distractions (see https://www.progblog.co.uk/gig-reviews/steven-wilson---royal-albert-hall for the gig review).
Large venues make money from ticket pricing and inflated food and drink charges; small venues like The Half Moon, Putney tend to have moderate pricing for tickets where ESP 2.0 in April 2018 cost a very reasonable £10 in advance (£12 on the door) and the beer prices were normal for London; a couple of the clubs I’ve attended in Italy seem to mark-up the cost of a drink so that you’re paying a little more than you would in a local bar without music, though the admission charge for two, three or even four bands is exceptionally good, ranging from €10 - €15.
Z Fest 2017 - three world-class bands for €7
Most of the more intimate gigs I attend, both at home and in Italy are in pubs or clubs where there is no physical barrier between the bar and the stage and with only the rare exception the audience is content to listen. After the Palace match it was straight up to the Fiddler’s Elbow, my first visit to the Grade II listed venue (the building dates back to 1856) even though it has been putting on gigs since the 1970s, for a Prog Night organised by Malcolm Galloway of Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate and the London Prog Gigs group. The three bands on the bill were Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, Servants of Science and The Tirith; fortunately the crowd was only there for the music because the stage area and the bar were only a few metres apart, and there were no distracting spectator conversations.
In my experience, audience-generated noise is not a problem in smaller venues because the fans who turn up to watch are there to listen to the band play, restricting their interaction with friends to between-song moments where they may express admiration or disappointment, or before or after the show when there’s more time to discuss the finer points of the performance. I’ve not been aware of long, irritating conversations between members of the crowd at the few large outdoor concerts I’ve been to either, despite the probability that not all of those present have turned up just for the music, but this may be because I’ve been close to the stage where the music has been loud or I’ve been some distance from the stage and able to take up an uncrowded vantage point.
Having read Dr Paul Goodge’s PhD thesis ‘An Acquired Taste: The Enduring Legacy of Progressive Rock’, I think it’s safe to say that the behaviour of the vast majority of prog fans conforms to the aphorism “the music’s all that matters”, although individuals attempting to tap their feet to odd time signatures can be equally as annoying as talking during a gig!
The bulk of this article was originally posted as ‘Shhh, peaceful’ on 19th May 2018 where along with the commentary on audience noise at gigs, it contained a full review of the Prog Night. This re-posting updates and expands upon some of the points made in the original blog while the Prog Night gig review will appear in the appropriate dedicated section of the website