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Observing and Analyzing a Live Performance

"[I]s it the artist(s) that encourage community or is the community that encourages the artist? I’ve observed the relationship between audience and musicians time and time again although it was not until I accepted this assignment that I put in every painstaking detail into connecting the two. What could be better than to start this analysis with a band that I have admired since the beginning of my identity in the metal/hardcore scene? A band I’ve seen numerous times since the first time I laid eyes and ears on their live performance on July 5, 2005, Wisconsin’s very own Misery Signals."

Having gone to what feels like hundreds of shows, I’ve had my fair share of experiencing the social life of the local Minneapolis scene of metal and hardcore music. Since I was about 13 years old I’ve found myself being pushed and shoved by moshers in the pit, although it was not until I was about 15 did I being to participate in what some call “fight dancing” or “hardcore dancing” and it was then that I became a part of the actual community of this scene. This dancing doesn’t happen because it is “the thing to do at shows” but because the music has so much energy and/or my favorite band is town and the energy of the people around me encourages it. This is how a sense of community grows. But is it the artist(s) that encourage community or is the community that encourages the artist? I’ve observed the relationship between audience and musicians time and time again although it was not until I accepted this assignment that I put in every painstaking detail into connecting the two. What could be better than to start this analysis with a band that I have admired since the beginning of my identity in the metal/hardcore scene? A band I’ve seen numerous times since the first time I laid eyes and ears on their live performance on July 5, 2005, Wisconsin’s very own Misery Signals.
Misery Signals is known for their distinctive style of heavy distorted breakdowns mixed with beautiful, intricate, melodious and creative instrumentation, rapid drumming that rarely settles in any aspect, and deep, heavy, guttural vocals. The combination of all of their elements is what draws attention to this band. Loud and soft, fast and slow, no two songs ever sound the same, thus is why they have an ever growing fan base, because their sound appeals not just to metal heads and not just the hardcore kids but both of the sub-cultures and everything in between.
Having just finished the Thrash and Burn tour, in Seattle Washington on September 3rd (Thrash and Burn), Misery Signals was one show away from home, probably just stopping by to make enough money for gas to get them back to Milwaukee/Racine, Wisconsin. Saturday September 6th, twelve dollars down and one hand stamp later, I found myself inside St. Paul’s narrow but spacious standing-room-only metal venue Station 4, amongst about 50 other people, as the show begins with four local opening acts.
Starting off the show was local hardcore band High Hopes, their positive community values and fast paced, fun, and energetic music was a great way to begin the night, as singer Nick Weller has been a very positive and prominent member of the local music scene for years. I didn’t pay so much attention to the next two bands because 1) I was getting food during the second band, and 2) the third band, A Blessed Tragedy, is really not my thing with their cliché and predictable generic-core music accompanied by a talentless almost painful-to-listen to singer with his groggy attempt at screaming and his ever so awkward stage presence, like hanging awkwardly onto the pillar located on the front of the stage. It was so terrible that anyone would notice the emptying of the room as the band's set lagged on longer. Last up of the opening acts was one of the rising local bands, Your Memorial, displaying their colorful guitar work with strategic solos, thick screaming vocals, and catchy rhythmic drumming. By the end of Your Memorial, the crowd had slowly filtered in raising the attendance to about 250, though still not much for a band of Misery Signal’s magnitude and a venue with a 400-500 capacity, this intimate show lacked no energy.
Waiting for the band to appear on stage the anticipation in audience grows as all of the lights are turned off except for the amber glow from the adjacent room seeping through the open door and window from the 21+ drinking area. If it wasn’t apparent before, there is no escaping the fact now that this room has very poor ventilation. With only two large fans both at the back end of the long room, I’m sweating bullets as I’m sure is the same with everyone else, it’s humid but not unbearable. The music begins before the stage lights turn on although it’s not the music everyone was expecting. What we hear in the darkness is the familiar instrumental sound of the top-40 hip-hop song “Soulja boy”. A little baffled about the unexpected music, but none the less entertained as chuckles and giggles echo the venue, the anticipation grows even stronger, made obvious by the pacing of a few of the audience members in the space where the pit usually forms, while others stare intently at the stage.
Misery Signals makes their presence known by cutting through the hip hop song with loud crashes of the drum cymbals, and rapid rolls of double bass pedals on the kick drum, and the drone of the buzzing guitars, while simultaneously the stage lights flash on, making it known that is it; this is what we’ve all been waiting for. Standing on top of a four-foot stage, with the drummer set up on another one foot platform, the aura and energy of this band finds its way into the rapid beating hearts of their fans, as signature stage lights from behind the band illuminate the musicians. The singer, Karl, announces them along the lines of, “What’s up Minnesota! We are Misery Signals! Let’s have some fun!”(Intro) and then immediately follow the short introduction into a song.

[Misery Signal's "Soulja Boy" intro. Bakersfield, CA, Thrash and Burn Tour 2008]

As Karl jumps and paces on stage, and the guitarists bang their head to the music, the crowd needs no time to warm up to this band. Movement within the audience begins right away as a circle is formed in the middle of the audience to embrace and encourage hardcore dancing. In this pit fans swing their arms about diagonally from side to side, or front to back with hands made into fists. They move their feet in sync with their arms or kick it as high into the air as they can while spinning their body around, often called a “spin kick”. It may sound like chaotic movement but there is a sort of structure and general idea of how to do each act. Even if every move is common among the dancers, every person has their own flare and style to the dancing they perform. Though body parts are flying everywhere, from fists, to feet, to entire bodies, there are unwritten rules of maintaining space. If everyone who wanted to dance all danced at the same time, there simply would not be enough room to accommodate for comfortable and harmless fun.

[Dead to Fall- Bastard Set of Dreams. Depiction of what hardcore dancing looks like (also see AFI's video for Leaving song part 2 for more footage on hardcore dancing)]

The band encourages movement (but not violence) among the audience, because it is a sign that the crowd likes what they’re hearing, and it feeds energy back to the band. So the flow of energy between band and audience goes both ways, one without the other would result with a really boring show where either the band or the audience might feel unappreciated. This audience definitely appreciated Misery Signals and vice-versa. The band’s movement on stage made it clear that they enjoyed what they were doing, and between songs Karl continuously thanked the audience for their presence. As for the part of the audience, not only were there a handful of the people dancing, but even if they weren’t dancing, they were tapping their toes, bobbing their heads, and even jumping up onto the stage to share the microphone with Karl. The greatest sense of connection and community between artist and audience is when they share the microphone because there is a sense of equality.

[Karl of Misery Signals sharing the mic with Australian audience during "The Failsafe" off of Mirrors (2006)]

Time to time someone may jump towards the stage during their favorite part or a catchy line, and other times Karl will stick the microphone in someone’s face he sees singing along to their songs. The empowerment here is that the fans are dedicated enough to know every lyric to all of their songs, and for the audience, to gain the microphone is almost a trophy for there are others reaching toward it as well. And this happens for almost every song throughout their entire set. Unless there is a break between songs, the movement ceases to end while Misery Signals is on stage.
The band finishes their set, thanks the audience, and departs from the stage. Although that is not enough for the fans and the crowd unanimously chants “one more song!” It takes a minute of chanting but the band reappears and agrees to give the fans one more taste. This time the crowd is almost twice as rowdy because this last song is what is commonly known as the “last chance”. The last song, the last breakdown, is the “last chance” of the night for the audience to be as wild as they can, to let loose and step out of their bodies to release their energy onto the dance floor, and it is always the “last chance” that evokes the biggest response, because it’s now or never to express oneself.
Bury Your Dead

[Bury Your Dead playing "Magnolia". Notice: Last chance at time 2:23, pile ons at the end of the video, and mic sharing throughout the performance]

Once the encore is over, many people head to the merchandise table to pick up the last pieces of merch the band has left from their large tour, while others filter outside to embrace fresh air.
As a part of the audience, we are all here together for the same reason, to listen and experience the live energy of Misery Signals, the sense of community rises in knowing our commonality. Though everyone at this show, and shows like this one, come from different backgrounds, knowing the sense of community i.e. sharing the pit, helping up a fallen person, breaking up fights, etc. is what builds a bond between complete strangers. When someone else has a different sense of community values it is then that people collide. Musicians are not the gods of the community, they are simply just the glue that bring people together and pack them into a room. Musicians themselves are as much a part of the community as their fans and without the intercommunity values between fans and musicians there would be no sense of identity for anyone. Music identifies us, and together our scene identifies the musicians. Misery Signals embodies the sense of community by interacting with their audience, encouraging people to dance, and being energetic in their performance. The fans in return do not let their efforts go unrewarded because they were applauded, praised for an encore, and sold out of most of their merchandise by the end of the night. Money-wise, it didn’t matter how many people showed up to this show, because Misery Signals requires having a guarantee when being booked, but spirit-wise, the response from the crowd as a whole could be just as rewarding has having enough money to make it home; it’s the community that makes being in a traveling band worth it, and is also what makes a band worth seeing.

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