Bon Iver took the stage, Justin Vernon picked the icy, escalating riff that drives “Perth” and Berkeley’s Greek Theatre turned into a sea of cell phones.
There were dozens of illuminated screens punctuating the standing-room-only crowd, each trying to retain the experience in some way.
It continued throughout last week’s show and no one questioned it, batted an eye or, as far as I saw, asked anyone to stop. Less than two days later, every song from the show was available via YouTube.
That’s what concert-going has become as the 21st century creeps toward its teenage years. Everyone is tweeting, texting, taking pictures and trying to preserve a piece of the show to post on YouTube or parade on Facebook, provided you found the Rosetta Stone to understand how the news feed works now.
So if everyone’s fidgeting with their 21st century technology, who is actually watching the show?
I’ll give you an extreme example. I was at a concert on the night of May 1 when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. Papercuts, the opening act, was about five minutes into its gig when the news broke.
I’ve seen opening acts feel ignored before, but when confronted by an audience collectively talking to each other, looking at its phones and completely disregarding the performance, one could read the confusion on Jason Robert Quever’s face. He knew something out of the ordinary was going on.
That shows how powerful a weapon the cell phone has become in the concertgoer’s arsenal. Short of having a ticket to get in the door, it’s the most important thing a person can bring.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a statement about the evolution of the cell phone, actually.
Ten years back, people were bringing phones to concerts, too. The difference is they were calling a friend who was sitting at home to rub it in instead of snapping pictures to post later on Flickr.
I’m as guilty of anyone else. I take pictures and use my phone to keep track of the setlist. I’m not trying to take some high road and act like I don’t do all of this, too.
But when my eyes aren’t on the stage and instead pushing through the menus on my phone, I’m trying to hit the brakes on a train that has already left the station.
It feeds a culture of “hey, look what I did.”
Plus, if the recording effort goes awry, then the person figuratively missed the show twice. The show-goer threw away the opportunity to watch the artist perform in person and won’t get to check it out later, unless of course some other person was recording it, which isn’t out of the question.
People do it not simply to brag to their friends on Facebook, but because concerts are, by nature, elusive. No matter how many live albums, photos and YouTube clips amass, nothing is quite as magical as “you had to be here.”
Capture is the key word here. People will never recreate the experience, but they are trying to preserve a piece of it.
I read an interview with Robert Randolph, a blues guitarist from New Jersey, that captured this notion perfectly.
“Carlos Santana said to me if you ask 50 people which they remember most, a show or a record, 48 of them will say a great record,” Randolph said. “Because you live with a record, you can pick it up 50 years later and still listen to those songs.”
It’s still true. Even when tapers bring microphone stands and record the gig and turn out a high-quality recording, the tendency to drift back toward the studio recordings is ever-present.
It’s not behavior that is going to change. That Silly String is out of the can — no one firing off pictures and taking video is going to just give it up for the sake of going back to simpler times.
And why should they? You better believe that if there were smart phones and YouTube in The Beatles’ day, we would have a plethora of shaky, handheld iPhone videos of the Fab Four playing the Ed Sullivan show that you can’t really hear over all of the girls’ screaming.