It's the perfect time for revelations. There's a curtain, already pulled back, bringing your eyes dead center through the framing. Lights bounce from all angles: above, directly down and from all sorts of degrees; from the sides lifted high above the audience from dead center, perched on the bar above the balcony that always ruined your view of the stage from the lighting table (which sort of defeats the purpose when you're sitting at the lighting board waiting for cues). All of them blaring white hot enough to sweat pounds off into costumes rented from don't-even-tell-me-where. Plus the two unwieldy light cannons haphazardly armed by high school kids who are using all their weight and pressure to keep it tilted upright, let alone in focus on this upcoming reveal on this most wonderful of revealing props: a cage.
It's not like theatre to be subtle.
That is especially the case with this show, the musical "Bat Boy," modeled after the famous character on the Weekly World News that was the only fun part of going grocery shopping with mom. The musical tells the tale of this boy, found in a cage, who traipses through some of the plot of Oedipal Rex, singing some pretty fantastic songs along the way to the betterment for all involved.
But that doesn't really matter. Not as the cage is opened, not as my eyes scan the stage. I'm far too busy gushing, completely impartial in the way that is not normal for the film critic inside of me. I am used to this feeling, but only on the receiving end of it, when my mom would watch me on stage and tell me afterwards about the most miraculous and flawless of performances that occurred up there, no matter the result. It's the happy alternative to ignoring your child's mounting prescription pill addiction. When Steven came out of the cage -- shaved head, giant ears and all -- I couldn't get over the fact that he looked like such a person, decidedly unlike the young freshman I taught some years ago. Or a Bat Boy, I guess.
The rest of the show soon devolved into a similar kind of game, making me far more interested in the chess pieces than the game being played in front of me. Look at how that boy's capitalizing on that yelling thing he did when in that play, or how he figured himself out enough to be confident in dancing his ass off inside what is essentially a giant furrie costume, or how she learned how to have fun on stage.
And the rabbit hole tailed off from there. Not only was it illuminating to see how far these kids have gone, it had the reflective effect of making me wonder just how long I've known them. Each performance gave way to glimpses of being a camp counselor in my early teens, when that faux tough guy rock star was just one of my rising fourth grade campers, placed under my tutelage and care to make sure they didn't fall off the monkey bars and bleed everywhere. Now he's a senior. That girl, I met her when she was a rising second grader. She used to call the teenage version of me "Grandpa" as a goof. It seems that she can not only dance, but time travel as well, giving me the perfect title to feel as I sat in this faraway seat in the theatre I once acted in, once directed in, now a card-carrying adult marveling at the guile, will, and talent of these suddenly realized young adults.
This collection of twenty-some kids are either at the end of their theatrical journeys or at the very start of it. But at the end of the show, as they're surrounded by loved ones and classmates and very kind people who want to support their effort, it's all worth it. Sometimes it's hard to see the excitement through the sheer physical exhaustion that makes their faces hang like a cartoon dog, but it's there, and usually matched by those who come to greet them. It's as much a celebration of a collaborative effort as a testament to will, dedication, and talent for all involved.
It's also a musical, I guess.
I should be waiting like any normal person does nowadays, my face edged down towards my smartphone, staving off any possible connections with boredom or the outside world dependent solely on when the battery will die. But this time, as I wait for a friend to arrive, I can't help but stare, gobsmacked, at the multitudes around me. Droves and droves of people excitedly chugging up the long, slender steps just off Seventh Avenue and toward the entrance of Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena (earned by reputation or copyright), all sent quickly towards the same destination like they were propelled from a nearby battleship.
There are the misfit girls in short skirts with jungle cat tattoos dominating their shoulders, their little spaghetti strap acting like some sort of awkward belt, trying to talk older men into giving up their tickets and willing to resort to bending...down...in order to pick them up, if need be. The kids walking slightly ahead of their parent, totally embarrassed, totally unaware of just how cool that parent really is, the dudes in flannel walking arm-in-arm with the girls in brown boots that die off at the knee, the women in their mid-30s who are busily chewing gum in the event that they get in the front row, and then the back room. The usual group you see when the big rock show rolls into town. And they are certainly here for that, but...
That band is The Black Keys.
Bands like The Black Keys don't get to become The Black Keys. A relic of a maybe-never-actually-true time -- the indie-blues-rock version of the "Leave It To Beaver"-ization of the 1950s into a conservative ideal that frankly never existed -- this is a band that made themselves into rock stars, with nary a hand of help from the record industry proper. For all the homogenization, micro managing, and brand creating that goes on at major labels in order to make starts out of nothing (or, at worst, force an artist to go against their image to be "popular"), The Black Keys escaped it all, getting by on silly things like merit, hard work, loyalty, and great records.
I first heard of them in 2005. They were playing a show directly in front of my dorm, the influential small Boston rock club The Paradise, known most famously for fittingly hosting U2's first American gig, infamously known among my friends as an easy free ticket (buy one ticket, send'em inside, see what color they mark the "x" on your hand with, and the rest of your party gets to go enjoy Broken Social Scene for nothing). Attending the concert was an idea shared by only two people on our fifty-person form hall: one, the cool, art school, sophomore girl who effortlessly filled out our quota for one (1) "sexy, older, art school chick" to meet freshman year, and the other being Zack Poitras, fresh off working at a Portland, OR independent record store. I listened to Limp Bizkit throughout middle school. You can see where my tastes were at.
It wasn't until Attack & Release -- the Dangermouse produced, mega-hyped, Pitchfork-loved album -- came out that I started to "get it." This powerhouse sound came not from a fully-formed rock quartet, but just two guys, named Dan and Patrick, who hail from the blues rock god factory of...Akron, Ohio.
They were the purest form of blues rock; a distillation down to its necessities of brash guitar, simple, driving drums, and wailing. All sorts of wailing. Their sound expanded a bit on A&R, adding complimentary elements like an organ or a flute on some tracks. But it was always led by Dan and Patrick, the two guys in the lunch room who eat while sitting on the table, their backs to you, bopping their heads to a beat you can't quite make out, who would also hold open the door for you while turning their faces the other way, as if their long, unruly bangs didn't stifle eye contact enough.
And these kids grew up to form a sweet fucking band.
I'd seen the band twice previously, both as parts of a larger festival bill. Those environments are not always the best place to get introduced to a band, but it's the best venue to do so. It's like hanging out with mutual friends at a bar. Sure, you get to know them a bit, but they're in public, surrounded by other strangers, being polite and sticking to that pre-determined way-too-short set time to appease everyone around them so as not to cause a stir. It's much different when they invite you over to their house for dinner and drinks.
As they stood on those giant, empty festival stages, flanked only by spartan amounts of gear, their own enthusiasm, and a series of hard-driving songs, they earnestly gave their all to win the crowd over. They always succeeded, earning sincere applauds that were one part appreciation for the music, another part for the sheer enthusiasm involved. Then they would bow out just in time so Coldplay could set up their smoke and mirrors show that tries their damnedest to prove to people it's ok to like them, please, please like them.
But that's what it usually takes when you're a big act: spectacle, lights, fireworks, etc. The onus shifts from trying to get the audience to like you and focus more on trying to satisfy a crowd that pays an obscenely amount of money for the privilege of seeing you play these songs live(-ish). A musical performance-cum-spectacular stage show.
In some ways, this was evidenced on the stage that night. The duo was surrounded by amps large enough to fill the king-making arena, propped front and center as large screens played "midwestern David LaChappelle" videos (-Brielle Murray) that had only the most tangential connections to songs off the band's latest massive album, El Camino. Not to mention a mirror ball that looked like it was recently dropped in nearby Times Square a few short months prior.
About halfway through the set, which featured a nice mix of new stuff and classics, they unapologetically kick the two unnamed (and never named) musicians off the stage, saying, "we're just going to play for a bit if that's alright," as if playing as themselves has to come as some sort of favor granted from the audience. The lights go straight white -- a bit too hot, really -- no longer adding anything to the proceedings than simple illumination as the two ripped through songs written in garages and tiny bars, now echoing in the same arena air occupied by rock gods. And I'll be damned if their unaccompanied renditions of classics like "I'll Be Your Man" and "Your Touch" didn't fill that void just as well as something like this:
They continued to play that eclectic mixture of songs throughout their career (the dark and moody "Ten Cent Pistol," effervescent clap-a-long "Gold On The Ceiling," and the unfortunate prisoner of the Twilight soundtrack, "Chop & Change") that served to appease the hardcores and give a tempting finger to the newbies who only came for "Lonely Boy," which didn't get the cop-out Final Song distinction that so many bands give into.
The end of the encore found the two of them playing, "I Got Mine," on a barren stage. The dirty, driving Attack & Release cut that is meant to be heard reverberating around the inside of a car as the summer air rips in and out of all the open windows. From above, a simple board of lights descended, cut out into "THE BLACK KEYS" as the bulbs danced in coordinated groups of three, bouncing on and off with the final beats of the song. The crowd, who stood nearly the entire show, went absolutely bullshit, showing our approval for these new kings of popular rock just as the next two sold-out crowds will surely do. The Black Keys didn't arrive; we all finally arrived at them.
It's one thing to like a song, or a group, a novelist or an actor, director or podcaster. There is a very nice relationship set up: they give you work and you appreciate it. Everyone wins. But every once and a while you get lucky and see something great just as they realize it as well. Then, with each mounting, deserved success, you get to mix appreciation with something even better: pride. Sometimes, the good guys win. And thank god for that.