Back in February, when I decided it was time to leave the News & Observer, this wasn’t the first thought I had but it was close: “Damn — I’m going to miss Paul McCartney.” Beatle Paul was coming to play Raleigh’s PNC Arena, and I’d had it on my calendar to attend as the N&O’s reviewer. Without the benefit of reviewer tickets, however, there was pretty much no chance I’d get to go.
Fortunately, thanks to a freelance assignment to review the show for WRAL.com, I did get to go after all. The show was this past Monday and it was great. So were the 10th-row-center seats on the floor — except, however, for the person next to me. Bless her heart, she was so excited that she seemed to be having trouble maintaining control (or at least respecting boundaries). And that got me to thinking about Problematic Audience Behaviors I have witnessed and experienced over nearly four decades of reviewing concerts.
I’ve always said, never underestimate the power of a notebook or clipboard when you want to give the appearance of having the authority to be somewhere; more than once, carrying a notebook and moving confidently forward has been enough to get me someplace I was not necessarily supposed to be. At a concert, however, a notebook often seems like an open invitation for people to open up an inquisition.
It’s also no protection from the major categories of concert irritants, of which there are nine:
The Space Invader (formerly The Dancer) — This is who I was next to at Sir Paul’s show, a very very very enthusiastic super-fan. She was jumping up and down with her hands in the air the whole time, which wouldn’t have been a problem except she could not seem to keep them out of my field of vision. I was leaning to my left pretty much the whole time in an attempt to maintain personal space. And the last time I saw Randy Newman, in 2017 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, I was right next to a rather inebriated fellow who thought it was a good idea to hold his cup of beer overhead and wave it around during pretty much every song. Somehow, I didn’t get a beer bath that night.
The Jukebox Operator — The person who goes to a show wanting to hear That One Song, and they are not gonna shut up about it until they do. Mostly this takes the form of screaming the name of That One Song over and over and over again, and it’s often something so obvious they don’t even need to yell for it. At the Carolina Theatre some years back, Steve Earle mocked somebody hollering for “Copperhead Road” five minutes into the show by asking, “Did you really think I wouldn’t play that one?”
The 2-Year-Old — The person who has a desperate and almost toddler-like need for attention from whoever is onstage and will go to any lengths to get it, screaming seemingly random things. Many years ago, I was reviewing Billy Joel at UNC’s Smith Center in Chapel Hill and seated next to three guys who repeatedly screamed, “Long Island, Billy! Long Island!” all night long — except, with their New York accents, it came out sounding more like, “Lon Guyland!” — apparently because they had that in common with Joel. Understand, we were nowhere near the stage and there’s no way Joel could have heard them in a noisy arena, which I would have pointed out if the three guys had ever paused. But everyone in their immediate vicinity got to hear it over and over: “LON GUUUUUYLAND!”
The Heckler — Next level up from the 2-year-old is someone who doesn’t just want attention from the person onstage, but confrontational dialogue. You really don’t want to be anywhere near The Heckler in a crowd, for fear of being mistaken for him (and it’s just about always a him, not her), especially at a comedy show, where hecklers are likely to become part of the act. But it’s instructive to see how performers react to hecklers. I remember Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur, a world-class heckler himself, scoffing at someone from the stage of Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle: “C’mon, it has to be a lot meaner than that to be a truly effective heckle.”
The Super-Fan — The person who is determined to prove they’re the most avid, knowledgeable fan in the place. They’ll start clapping and/or screaming at the first note of every song, to communicate that (a) they recognize it and (b) are therefore cooler than you. Being around The Super-Fan can be pretty miserable, but on occasion it’s amusing. Some years back, I was reviewing Merle Haggard at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre and the old-timer next to me greeted the start of each song by declaring in a down-home drawl, “Thas a GOOD one!” He was right, too.
The Lover — The person who yells “I love you” at whoever is onstage. Whether or not this crosses the line usually comes down to frequency. If someone yells that repeatedly over the course of a show, yeah, it starts to seem a little creepy. But if it’s yelled just once and the person onstage hears it at the right moment, the results can be comedy gold. Years ago at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, Lyle Lovett responded to a stray “I love you” with a droll, “Thank you. That’s a very nice thing to say to, well, almost anybody.” And Ryan Adams, a man not exactly known for grace under fire onstage, had the perfect comeback when an early-show “I love you” rang out at Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall in 2005: “Then I apologize in advance.” Funny thing, he hasn’t been back here since.
The Singer — The person who is gonna sing, by God, no matter what, which may or may not be problematic. Proper behavior on this involves simply reading the room. If it’s a big sing-along of some beloved song where everybody in the crowd is doing it at the performer’s encouragement (which was the case for much of McCartney’s show), then by all means join right in. But if you’re the only person in your vicinity singing, and doing so loudly enough to be heard at the expense of what’s coming from the stage, that’s an invitation for death-stares. Nobody bought a ticket to hear you. Save it for your shower at home.
The Conversationalist — The person who is there to talk, not listen, and will not be dissuaded. A few years back, I was at the Carolina Theatre trying to listen to singer/guitarist Jonathan Tyler play a solo acoustic cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” — one of the greatest and most poignant songs of all time, at least in my book. Unfortunately, a couple of bearded hipster douchebros nearby were having a conversation about work and took serious umbrage when I asked if they could quiet down or take it to the lobby. “No,” one of them hissed between gulps of beer, “this is a concert not a library.” Then, to underscore the point, he and his buddy started talking even louder. Nice. We had really good seats for that show but moved to the back to get away from those guys.
The Inquisitor — Related to The Conversationalist, and specific to reviewers, this species is even worse: The person who insists on talking to you after spotting your notebook, either to interrogate or lecture or give an unasked-for hot take. It’s even more fun when they just want to be antagonistic. At Walnut Creek on a rainy 2017 night during Chris Stapleton, a guy approached me to ridicule me for my choice of attire, a raincoat. Then there was the time a decade-plus ago when I was reviewing the Black Eyed Peas at Booth Amphitheatre, and this button-down-fraternity type and his date insisted on standing on their chairs directly in front of me. “We’re not moving,” he taunted. Then he noticed my notebook and added, “You should get a better job.” Since they weren’t gonna move, I did, right after thanking him for the career advice.