Why Live Music in Small Places Matters

Music is intimate. Seeing it should be, too.

Photo by author — Better Oblivion Community Center at Crescent Ballroom — April 2019

There’s no huge stage. No major lighting design. The green room is probably weird. There’s most likely a smoke machine and a hand written set list taped to the floor.

You know if they’ll play your favorite song because you can see the set list. They’ll give it to you after the show.

A couple years ago, I remember everyone posting on social media about the U2 show at a huge arena in town. Now, I have nothing against U2 but I have a lot against arena shows. I come away from them cold. There’s no intimacy.

It’s loud and crowded. You can’t see the band, even projected on a big screen. If there is any nuance to the performance, you miss it. I don’t want to miss that. I want the good stuff.

Jason Isbell was playing at a few hundred person place the same night. I know where I would rather be.

There are moments you get to experience at a small concert that you will never get in an arena show. There’s a feeling of being part of something bigger, and much louder, than you. It’s art. It should be seen up close.

The best show I have ever seen was played to a group of 200 people. It was general admission and standing room only.

In a small venue, you can stand three feet from a speaker and come away with your hearing intact and your soul freed.

It was American Aquarium at Rebel Lounge in Phoenix and I had never seen them play before. But, damn. That music.

I will say one thing about BJ Barham, the band’s front man. That man plays music with such god damn joy that I would travel great lengths, anytime, at whatever cost, just to see him do it.

I’m not talking about just having a good time. I’m talking about getting to see him look at the guitar player and smile as if to say, “Yeah, they pay us to do this.”

It was like they were little boys who just got away with stealing a piece of candy and no one was ever going to catch them. Pure joy.

You feel that.

On occasion, you realize you’re part of someone’s greatest moment. That one story someone is going to tell for the rest of their life and you see it unfold.

We have a group of guys in Arizona, The Cole Trains, from a small town in the Eastern part of the state, who have been making good music for a number of years. This last summer they took to Studio 606 (owned by no other than Dave Grohl) to record their first full length album. Cody Canada came out and played on it. So did the guys’ parents. Musical families. What’s better than that?

The Cole Trains photo by Charlie Stout

To put all of this in perspective, one of the band members, TJ Taylor, has little boy he named Cody Grohl Taylor.

The first time they played after cutting this album was in a bar in Scottsdale. They opened for Cody Canada. There was a beautiful moment when TJ had to turn his back to the crowd and take a minute. It was one hell of a moment.

We all just watched, and grinned ear to ear, as he took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his face.

You feel that.

Last week, I watched Conor Oberst and Pheobe Bridgers perform a song called Chesapeake to a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It touched me so deep I cried. And I have no idea why other than it was that beautiful and that perfect.

It was like it happened in my living room. Nothing else seemed to matter in the entire world, and no one else seemed to exist, in that three and a half minutes.

I get to keep that moment forever. It was a gift.

The size of a venue has nothing to do with how big a band is and it sure as hell has nothing to do with how good they are. But, it has everything to do with what you leave with that night.

There have been times I have stood in a crowd of strangers in a small place and been moved by music so real and so raw that it heals you. It seeps into you and becomes part of your make up. I have seen bands play so hardcore that you think the place might burst into flames.

This is what life’s all about, isn’t it? Healing and raising a little hell. I’ll take it any chance I get.