In the big room

Reveling in the clichés at a quintessential arena rock show

click to enlarge FOO FOR THOUGHT: Dave Grohl's pleasure at his job was tangible, his effortless aw-shucks charisma inviting. - Carrie Waite
Carrie Waite
FOO FOR THOUGHT: Dave Grohl's pleasure at his job was tangible, his effortless aw-shucks charisma inviting.

I rarely go to large-scale rock concerts these days.

The wonder I felt attending arena shows as a teenager was long ago replaced by a jaded irritation. You gotta park a million miles from the venue, and pay handsomely to do it. You gotta wait an hour in line to get into the venue, then wait an hour in line to get a beer, then wait an hour in line to drain out all of the beer except the part that turns you into an idiot. After the concert, you gotta spend the remainder of your evening in gridlocked traffic, trying to get away from the venue.

You gotta share your favorite band with 10,000 strangers, with most of whom you probably didn't want to know you had something, anything, in common.

Once I began attending smaller club and theater gigs religiously, arena shows seemed ever more impersonal, regimented, pat. Last Friday, when Gainesville punk band Against Me! played Ybor City's Masquerade, the barricade — a literal (and for some, symbolic) divider in place between the front row of the crowd and the stage, ostensibly for the safety of both the patrons and the performers — was removed at the band's request. Fans jumped onstage to sing with their heroes throughout the set, which ended with roughly 50 people up there, cheering and hugging the musicians.

Very few massively popular acts can establish and maintain that sort of intimate connection to a throng bigger than the population of the average small town, from 50 yards away and 12 feet up. It's an extremely difficult thing to do; most performing artists, no matter what their skill as musicians, don't, or can't.

But like so many of the things about our individual pasts, if I go too long without seeing a really big show, I tend to romanticize the experience. The cost, the lines, the smelly guy behind me, the one behind me I can't move away from because of the reserved seating; the one who howls and sloshes warm suds on my shoes — these annoyances tend to fall away, leaving the pretty girls, the cool strangers who crack wise while waiting to use the bathroom, the power of the crowd's roar when the house lights go down.

It had been a while, so I was cautiously optimistic as Sunday, and the Weezer/Foo Fighters concert at St. Pete Times Forum, approached.

I was also thinking a lot about the big-concert experience in general. And I've come to the conclusion that the reason so many people enjoy it, and the reason others are less than completely fulfilled, lies in its regulated thrill. Concerts are controlled chaos; you get your rocks off, and you also get the comfort of the eternally familiar.

You're gonna cut loose a little, but you know exactly what's gonna happen — it's not like you're gonna head down to the Forum on Sunday night for some draft beers and loud guitar music, and wake up Wednesday afternoon in a Mexican jail cell with a knife wound and a roadie named Dogface Dan — because every big show, be it rap, rock or country, is exactly the same.

There's the same radio-station van out front, with the same street team handing out stickers. There's the same middle-aged man with the long hair and the Krokus T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, who looks like he hasn't seen a new band, or a shower, since Grand Funk Railroad played Curtis Hixon Hall in '74. There's the same middle-aged woman with the thigh-high leather boots and leopard-print skirt that might've fit nicely back when Poison didn't need nothin' but a good time, but now inspire smirking stares.

There's the same young, jumpy-screamy girls, who clutch each other and hop up and down and get more apoplectic with each song, until you worry they're going to go to seizure. There's the same couple who miss the entire show because they're putting a show on themselves, all but screwing through the whole thing.

Was last Sunday's concert like that?

Come on — of course it was.

It was arguably the hippest bill yet to play the former Ice Palace, and as a result drew what was probably the youngest, most tattooed and thrift-store-T-shirt-clad crowd. Both of the bands have enjoyed years of mainstream radio airplay, however, so the usual strange and amusing cross-section of humanity was in full effect. Dads and kids. Moms and other moms. Dudes with piercings, dudes with Polo shirts, girls with fake breasts, girls who won't have breasts for another couple of years.

I've seen enduring geek-pop favorite Weezer soar, and I've seen the band crash. I didn't see a whole lot of them this time — I waited a half an hour to use what I guess was the only functioning ATM machine in the venue, behind 50 couples who waited their turn to argue about how much money they should withdraw — but the second half of the group's set was impressive.

As I entered the arena proper, the Krokus T-Shirt Guy ambled past. A woman testing the stress limits of what I can only hope was her daughter's garters-and-micro-skirt getup strutted by. Check and check.

As I took the steps down into the first balcony, I passed a couple in an end-of-the-aisle seat, trying to eat each other's faces. (How they both got into that little stadium chair is utterly beyond me, but it didn't look comfortable.) Check.

My seat was two rows behind the jumpiest and screamiest of the jumpy-screamy girls; they pogo'd in a perpetual hug, looking at each other with ecstatic surprise at the onset of each familiar song, as if they'd come expecting Weezer to lead a self-help seminar rather than play a bunch of songs that everybody knows.

Check.

Thirty or so minutes after Weezer finished its encore, the house lights went down again. It's impossible to describe the sound made by the crowd as one improbably loud guitar began to blare. It's a sound one only hears at large rock concerts and sporting events, a primal release of anticipation. If you haven't heard it in a while, it's exhilarating and a little bit scary; the hair on your arms stands on end.

Foo Fighters may once have been an alternative band — singer Dave Grohl's former membership in Nirvana cemented his credibility as such — but they long ago became the populist American rock outfit of the '00s. The group's hour-and-a-half set featured perhaps two songs that weren't previous or current hit singles; everyone knew every word of everything. Grohl couldn't go two minutes without screaming in enthusiastic unintelligibility, or drawling amiably about beer, whiskey and getting laid, or calling the crowd "crazy fuckers."

It was the quintessential arena rock show.

But it worked. It worked well. And in the case of both bands, I think it worked because they worked, hard, to establish and tend that connection between audience and performer. At my age, hearing an arrogant dinosaur like, say, Whitesnake's David Coverdale pander to the crowd would make me want to hit him; Grohl's pleasure at his job was tangible, his effortless aw-shucks charisma inviting.

I hope that couple quit almost-fucking long enough to notice. If not, they missed a hell of a show.

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