Thursday, May 21, 2009

A bar is not a concert hall

I may be middle aged, but I am not dead yet.  I still enjoy evenings out, and being a huge fan of music (in its many forms) I love nothing more than to hear/see it performed live.  Here in San Francisco the options are many. Those with discerning tastes can usually find a good bet, and the undiscerning .... well they are after all undiscerning. 

But I must say I am rankled by the norm for many of these musical outings, and while I can fathom how we got here, I fail to see why this status quo remains. 

In western culture we have an essentially dichotomy.  The high culture was supported by the rich (read church until after the reformation),  and pandered to their tastes, with the myth being edification of God or a higher ideal.  Then their was the low culture. That of the people, by the people, and for the people.  This was often not well remunerated, as it was a community undertaking.  With the past several centuries of urbanization we have seen a middle ground emerge, the dance-hall, the vaudevillian stage, the supper club and any number of other entrepreneurial institutions. Now days almost all entertainment hovers somewhere in this middle ground,  the well healed rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi.  Musicals 
like Wicked are a current example of this phenomenon. Who can say (beside us) if it is all and fine that culture races to the middle, but let us look at what has happened to the age old institution of the tavern at the crossroads.  

Taverns, or bars as we now call them, have provided excellent service for millennia as community halls, gathering places for the citizenry, entertainment venues, social club, and refuge from alienation.  Somehow in our modern age of specialization the bar keep has lost sight of this cohesive calling, and decided that this is to tough a nut to crack. The ancient Romans paid no cover charge to hear the Lyre and the Drum, I doubt they had to wait till midnight for their favorite flautist and singing duo.  It's not that their was no scenes or subcultures in these bygone times, just that the division of age had not become such a division of taste.  Taverns were not geared solely towards youthful naredowells, but were places all people went.  When Bill Sikes meets Fagin in that London Tavern, it's not full  of a monochromatic crowd in any regard beyond economic class.  
It's the neighborhood place for social interaction, whether thats to get laid, plan a robbery, or kick your heals up.  So when we look at the modern San Francisco bar in contrast, the canned music, or even musical group is far too loud to plan a drink order much less a heists.  It starts so late, only the most desperate, youthful, or underemployed could possibly stay their long enough to meet someone new. And even if met, could hardly be able to converse over the 110 decibel beat.  So older folks, or those wanting more out of their time stay away in droves.  Thus the proprietor takes the road that is tried and true, a veritable self fulfilling prophecy , and caters to the same small slice of life, the aforementioned, young, desperate, and responsibility-less. 

Whereas the Concert Hall, no longer the church knave, or barons ball room, has attacked the problem from the other end, and come up with the inverse solution.  A bastion of intellect and skill, yet mired in a consevatism, self inforced by the both those who hold the purse, and the protectionist bent of the artists themselves.  This create problems when in a bid to appeare relevant, the programing strays from the  conventional fare to utilize something deemed safe in the popular sphere. 

Case in point.  We went to see the wonderful Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzales play at Davies Symphony Hall.  While the acoustics were great, the audience was stuck in their seats.  Instead of rocking the isle to some of the groovinist dance music ever written, they sat squirming in polite attention.  This must have been a great disappointment to Mr Gonzales.    Meanwhile back in the clubs, art bands with no swaying power, bash their drunken patrons over the head with deafening drones, as the crowd stands arms crossed in mute dullness.

But all is not darkness and gloom.  The community does attempt to get it's needs met, and some gal/guy out to make a buck will always rise to the bait.  In my little city it happens to be happening down at the Cafe.  The most exciting and interesting music in town is taking place at Revolution Cafe, The Cafe International, and a few other low profile, venues.  The shows start at a reasonable time.  With no sound system to speak of, the musicians tend to keep things to a listenable level.  They are not the best places for dancing, but that never stopped dancers when the beat takes, and no usher is rushing you back to your seat.

The drawbacks are obvious.  Without the demon alcohol, less money changes hands up and down the line, so a vibrant professional scene is not going to happen here.  Plus the modern world is full of RULES AND REGULATION, so it's easy to get shut down for lack of this permit, that permit, and the other permit you need to pay and pay and pay for.

So my friends, I see a dilemma. We need venues for culture, but economics rules the world,  and  money mixes with culture just the same as money mixes with politics.  Culture needs to be  kept broad, but how that happens is by "we the people" making good decisions in what we patronize, who we vote for, and how we interact with our existing institution, whether that be a bar, a concert hall, or city hall.


Thats it for now


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