It’s been a little over a year since I chronicled my family’s misadventures taking our 7- and 4-year-old to the Bruno Mars Concert at Motor Oil Arena. It was a $1,000 investment in creating a lasting family memory — even if that meant hearing just one song and ushering two kids out of the building holding their bleeding ears. Yes, we had a great laugh about it later — and it was way cheaper than Disney — but I still would have rather had that thousand dollars in my bank account.
Did we learn our lesson about taking kids to concerts? Sure.
See, I love going to concerts. But big arenas aren’t my thing and most of the acts I see aren’t on Top 40 radio. So getting the kids excited about seeing a band that appeals to a 45-year-old dad is tricky. Yes, we turn off the radio when the advertisement for the Taylor Swift concert comes on.
My wife loves a good concert too — but she has a few requirements. First and foremost, she needs to know the music. She isn’t interested in a band she is only vaguely familiar with. Not that she can’t enjoy these shows, she just isn’t eager to sign up. She also has a rod in her back, so she hates shows where you have to stand the entire time. Yes, she recently ran the New York City Marathon in 4:34, but she hates standing in one place for two hours. This is why many of the shows we go to involve someone in their 70s on a farewell tour.
Because my wife isn’t wild about seeing an obscure band in a club with no seats, I’ve been eager for my kids to get to the age where they’ll join dad.
In the year after the Bruno Mars debacle, I made some adjustments to our family concert-going strategies. Here are 5 things I’ve learned about taking kids to concerts that haven’t cost me $1,000:
1. It’s got to be music they know. There are two ways to accomplish this… go see The Wiggles (been there) or Kids Bop (not for a million dollars) OR you have to do a little brainwashing. I bought four tickets to see Ray Lamontagne and Neko Case at a large outdoor venue in a Mississippi suburb of Memphis (yeah). The concert date coincided with our summer journey across America in a conversion van. It was my intent to use the first 1,000 miles of our trip to periodically slip some Ray and Neko into the van’s kicking sound system. But I didn’t really consider the content. When I put on Neko Case’s “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” and she croons “I f*#@ed every man I wanted to be…” I thought, Oh no. Even her bright music is pretty dark. Ray Lamontagne... well, his most upbeat song is called “Trouble.”
2. Cut your losses. I gave away the Ray Lamontagne tickets. Just like leaving Bruno Mars before causing long lasting trauma, you don’t force a bad situation. If we’d gone to the Ray Lamontagne concert, there’s NO WAY I could have gotten them to go to the Avett Brothers show outside of Portland, Oregon. The Avetts hit the stage with banjos, fiddles, stand-up bass, and infectious harmonies that had the kids dancing to songs they knew. It was a glorious evening that never would have happened if we’d punished them with three hours of sad alt-country music on a hot Northern Mississippi night.
3. Consider the length of the show and the seating situation. When I was a kid, my family found themselves in the possession of tickets to see the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Summertime... and the living wasn't easy. It was pure torture on a beautiful California Sunday afternoon. I was in a daze when the lights came on and we made our way to the exits. Then I learned that we were only at intermission and I burst into tears. I was faced with a difficult decision: Another hour of vibrato, or darting onto the 5 freeway and disappearing into the smoggy distance. (I think this is what that Neco Case song is about.) I always think back to this day when considering what my kids can tolerate.
Although they are small, they require 10 feet diameter clearance for sudden movements and errant projectiles. Lawn seats and open air situations are really the best option. I’m 6’3” and I barely fit in the seats in our charming old theaters that appear to be designed for Depression Era American pygmies. Bringing two kids into this situation is like boarding a four-hour flight where the pilot leaves the “fasten seatbelt” sign on. I’d rather bring a squirrel to a theater with a tight seating situation than manage two kids.
4. Snacks. Yes, a popcorn is going to cost you $9 and they each want one. Buy an extra, because one is getting spilled. My kids could probably sit through a tax seminar if they have enough popcorn. Placing two kids at a concert with no snacks quickly devolves into the child version of Ultimate Fighting Championship.
5. Create a diversion. "Honey, want to drive a couple hundred miles with the kids to see a concert?" Don't answer that. When I found out that two of my favorite artists, The Decemberists and Jason Isbell were on a bill together in St. Augustine, I bought four tickets before even checking the calendar. There’s so much to do our nation’s oldest city, they might not notice I’ve dragged them across the state to see a concert. And my kids LOVE The Decemberists, mostly because of their nine-minute epic Mariner’s Revenge song. What kid wouldn’t love a song that tells the story of the protagonist’s obsession with avenging the death of his mother who died a consumptive prostitute? Always funny to hear your kids sing “whores” but think the word is “horse.”
We loaded up the car and drove to St. Augustine, arriving a few hours early and getting in some body-surfing in the Atlantic Ocean before making our way to the venue. The kids were loving The Decemberists' folklore-laced rock. The only hiccup was when my son asked about a lyric and I informed him that the song “Shankill Butchers” is about bad kids who came and slit the throats of children who wouldn’t go to sleep. “That one scared me,” he confessed.
My wife and daughter left between sets, leaving me and my son to enjoy Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. After about 45 minutes, my son began to flag. But we couldn’t leave until I heard Isbell play “White Man’s World” so I could watch at least one dude in a Yeti hat and Salt Life shirt make a face that says, “Wait, what’d he just say?” It was my fifth time seeing Isbell so we ducked out before the encore. The popcorn was gone.
Before splitting town we hit the beach again and then the historic district of St. Augustine and I’d succeeded in turning a concert into a fun family weekend. And it was still cheaper than 10 minutes at Bruno Mars. Now I need to figure out how to get my wife to want to run the Missoula Marathon so I can hit the Traveler’s Rest Music Festival next summer.
Now that we’ve had a few successful concert excursions, I’m increasingly aware of the monsters I’m creating. The other day my son said he wanted to see Imagine Dragons. I hated Imagine Dragons before it was cool to hate Imagine Dragons. I’m not trying to pile on, but every time I hear this band it reminds me both of a rock band in a children’s television show and Christian rock. It’s little too slick, like they’re trying to sell me something. I’m not better than them… I’ve been to see Coldplay. But if I can pass anything along to my kids, it would be the desire to take their old man to a few concerts when they grow up. Maybe we can give Bruno Mars another chance.
Jonathan Kile lived 42 years in blissful ignorance that he was born with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. His bad genes forced him to give up a life as traveling salesman. His good genes make him a fine and — some would say handsome — writer. He chronicles his family's van trips at dontmakemeturnthisvanaround.com. His first book, The Grandfather Clock is available on Amazon. The sequel, The Napoleon Bloom, will be ready when it's ready, dammit. Until then, don't miss a party, concert or festival — subscribe to Creative Loafing's weekly Do This newsletter!