I went to my first concert when I was 15, as a sophomore in high school. The band was Thirty Seconds to Mars, and I loved them. My best friend and I had seen, quite literally, every single live performance of the band there was to see on YouTube (a more manageable feat in 2010 than it is now). The venue was the gorgeously intimate House of Blues in San Diego, and the two of us wore homemade ribbon-and-key necklaces based on the band’s “Hurricane” video.
That night I found, in the roiling, screaming mass of people packed inside the venue, the magic of rock concerts. Even as someone who hates crowds, feeling the energy of hundreds of people directed toward the same goal, the same idea, and allowing myself to let go and jump and mosh and scream my heart out to the lyrics was a cathartic experience I’ve been chasing ever since.
Nothing can quite beat being on the barrier — in the pit— of a band you love. I’ve probably been to a hundred concerts since that first show, and each has been unique: I’ve known the band more, or less; I’ve been closer or farther; it’s been a tiny indoor venue or a massive festival lawn. I’ve seen Malian desert punk bands, emo pop rock bands, jazz bands, classical musicians and Icelandic classic rock bands. I’ve gotten the chance to see some of my idols, from Green Day to Muse. Every show had a different energy and vibe, and I’ve of course had ones I’ve enjoyed more and less. The venue of said shows has naturally been a part of that math.
But never had I hated a concert solely because of the venue, until I saw Muse at Shoreline Amphitheatre.
Let’s put aside for a moment the weird corporate vibe the place gives off, with its location on Google’s campus and its festival-like promenade of alcohol purveyors and trinket sellers that takes up as much, if not more space than the actual amphitheater on the other side (discounting the lawn). The abject failure of the venue to do right by the concert experience comes back to what makes a rock, or punk, or any other high-energy show so special.
First, amphitheaters place you above the musicians you are watching. Ultimately, in the real world, Matt Bellamy is just another person, but on stage he is a rock god, and nothing dashes the image of a rock god into the rocks like looking down on them.
Amphitheaters also have seats, which, in every possible way, is entirely antithetical to the ethos of rock. That’s not to say venues shouldn’t have seats, or that people who need to sit for any reason shouldn’t be able to enjoy a concert. But for all the ways that standing in a pit for hours leaves you with aching legs, it also forces a full-body engagement with the show, an all encompassing experience. What you won’t see in a pit during the middle of a song is someone browsing Facebook on their phone, as I saw at Shoreline.
Further, the existence of the seats means that your tickets are location-dependent, which generally means having your wallet gouged for a decent view, in complete opposition to general admission floor tickets for which queueing early (or some determination) can get you close to your favorite artists.
Even once you’re at your seat, and even if it’s a seat in a great location, the trouble has only begun. For a rock show, everyone stands. Everyone. Not only because sitting at rock show would be useless, but because if the first row stands, the second can’t see unless they stand, and when they stand, the third can’t see unless they stand … and so forth. So now you have a crowd of people perfectly content with standing for the duration of the show, except rather than being next to each other, there are cavernous spaces between every fan and their neighbor.
Nothing precludes the inclination to jump, or dance, or pump your fists, like being isolated and surrounding by space. All three are objectively dumb things to be doing with your body, and yet all three become inexplicably awesome when a thousand people are shoulder-to-shoulder moving at once. In a pit, you don’t even have a choice in the matter. The band’s energy, once deposited into a crowd, becomes your energy. If your neighbors are jumping, your feet will be leaving the ground whether you want them to or not. But you do want them to, because a little bit of help can go a long way in ignoring your inhibitions and truly feeling it.
At Shoreline, you don’t know if your neighbor is singing along, because they’re too far away. Gone is the epic wall of sound — the chorus of chanting fans you can scream your heart out into and feel it get wrapped up in the mix.
At Muse, I couldn’t even hear people singing along to what is one of the band’s most popular songs, “Starlight.” So I started looking around, and saw the stillness on people’s lips. I got a text from my friend up in the lawn, and the guys next to her were napping in the grass. It seemed like half the crowd weren’t even there for Muse. Is it self-selection? Do hardcore Muse fans know to avoid Shoreline like the plague, leaving causal passersby to fill the amphitheater?
It certainly seemed like the band was catering to a more casual audience. Unlike at any other Muse show I’ve seen, there was an overwhelming predominance of more popular, well-known songs — a rarity for a band know for changing up its setlists night to night and constantly pulling deeper catalog cuts into its live shows.
I’m not saying there’s not a place for amphitheaters in today’s concert world. I recently saw Train there, and it was perfectly enjoyable. For pop bands, for country singers, for your favorite ‘60s band on its reunion tour, Shoreline is perfect. You get the comfort of a seat and a cup holder for your $13 dollar beer. But some bands, some genres, require mind, heart and soul engagement to be truly worthwhile. And for them, Shoreline is nothing but an ax-murderer.