Last Thursday night at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre saw two amazing artists take the stage: folk-pop chanteuse Jenny Lewis in support of the genre-trekking Ryan Adams. On the bill for Splendour In The Grass, both artists were touring their sideshow together due to their natural affinity and history as collaborators (Adams produced Lewis’ gem of a pop album, The Voyager, released last year). For fans of the two artists, the night promised to be special.

But then a cluster of douchebags had to go and ruin it, for both artist and audience. I’m a regular concert goer in Sydney, seeing forty or so concerts a year, and this featured a crowd so staggeringly tone-deaf that I was still seething over it days later.

First there was the crew who shoved their way down to the front in the middle of Jenny Lewis’ opening act. We’re all used to the sneaky mid-set incursion. However, to top it off, two guys in the crew proceeded to scream a conversation at each other, literally attempting to talk louder than the amplified music. Perhaps they were working the kinks out of a stand-up routine because every second sentence was followed by a hyena bray of laughter that scraped my ear drums like a rusty knife. After ten minutes or so I politely asked the next Louis CK to keep it down, and credit to him, he actually responded and managed to contain himself for the remainder of the set. During the intermission, he tapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry mate, I’m just so excited to see Ryan Adams.”

Therein lays the irony. Because, for a crowd that was so excited to see a beloved artist, a vocal portion of them acted like complete dicks. First off, there was the ubiquitous cameraphone. The minute Ryan Adams took the stage, the leather clad guy beside me raised his camera, hit record, and held his elbow against the side of my head for two entire songs. This is more than a pet peeve for me, it’s endemic of a much larger problem: the inability for people to be present in the moment.

What is it about seeing live music that turns anyone with an Iphone into the next Werner Herzog? The question perplexes me. I can understand the occasional photograph; I’m guilty of that one myself (although most times the image quality is so poor I don’t know why I bothered). But to catalogue the concert with literally hundreds of photos (on a cheap consumer grade camera, like the woman in front of me did) or to incessantly record the set you are experiencing, here, in the now, baffles me. I’m beginning to think its analogous to why a dog pisses on a neighbour’s lawn: just to let everyone else know I was here.

Out of the billions of hours of grainy, shaky, head-obscured videos that have been taken at concerts since camera phones were invented, surely only a maximum of forty five minutes has been rewatched by the auteurs behind them. But even if these videos were rewatched countless times, I am at a loss to understand why the person recording is passing over the experience of actually being there, an experience that in this case they paid almost $100 for, for some horrible quality simulacrum. The so-called super fan, so excited to see Ryan Adams, is in reality only seeing the viewfinder or phone screen for much of the concert. Or, as Jeff Tweedy from Wilco said best: “You’re forfeiting your memories for an imperfect medium that will not replace your real life — or your memories. You’re letting go of something that no one else can have.”

Bands such as Wilco and The Black Crowes have recently taken a stand against camera phones, with pre-show announcements that cameras are not be used, and as a concert-goer, I applaud them. Whilst he has every reason to do so, Ryan Adams doesn’t. He instead relies on the decency of his audience. On this particular night, that courtesy was switched off.

To explain: Adams suffers from Ménière’s Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes spontaneous episodes of vertigo. It can be triggered by camera flashes or particular kinds of lights. Halfway through his Sydney gig, Adams paused, pointed out to the audience, and politely asked a particular woman with a camera to cover up its bright infra-red light, which he described as “like a Sith laser beam” to his brain, bringing on waves of dizziness. He even went so far as to explain why, describing his Ménière’s as a genetic condition that was “my problem, not yours”, but still gently asking for consideration. He added that people were free to take photos as much as they wanted, but if they could please avoid those actions that could trigger his nausea and vertigo.

Of course, the entitled and obnoxious members of the Enmore crowd would do no such thing. Only a few songs later, Adams called out the photographer for continuing to use the camera. “I’m dizzy as fuck. I’ll play two hours, I’ll finish the set, but I can’t believe you would do intentionally do something that makes another person ill.” Like a large portion of the audience, I too was disgusted. This is not the first time Adams has had this experience, and I doubt it will be the last.

For some members of today’s concert-going culture, there is little respect and even less common courtesy. Perhaps this lack of courtesy and the inability to be present are an outcome of the zeitgeist, where the “on-demand” culture cultivates a sense of entitlement that people get whatever they want when they want it, and where social media accentuates our narcissistic tendencies. Either way, there is a nasty streak that is revealed in the way some audience members disrespect the live experience. Artists are occasionally treated like dancing monkeys; case in point, the Enmore crowd’s repeated calls for certain songs to be played, to which Adams, who carefully curates his set lists, responded hilariously each time with the retort “Free will!” To a concert going veteran, the tone was easy to read: Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Those of us that did were rewarded with an incredible experience. Adam’s mercurial, majestic guitar work and muscular vocals were complemented by potent renditions of his older alt-country-influenced work, songs that were tinged with a vulnerability that lived up to the title of his first solo album, Heartbreaker. It’s just a shame certain members of the audience weren’t there to experience the majesty and the heartbreak.

words: Adam Daniel
photo: Wayne Massingham