That is the question. As a frequent concert attendee sometimes that is the only question.
The importance of how and where one situates one’s feet means all the difference in the world and it shapes our experience of the music itself. Will the concert be about shaking one’s booty or will it be about serenely lapping up the sounds of the music performed on stage? Will the concert be about perspiration or contemplation? Feeling or intellect?
As is often the case, concert-goers are limited–greatly to somewhat–by the venue itself. In the Washington D.C. area some locations such as The Birchmere, Jammin’ Java and The Barns at Wolf Trap are mellow and sit-down only, catering to an older audience and if you stand and get jiggy with it in the middle of the show you will face extreme jiggy-shaming at the bare minimum and expulsion from said venue at the extreme end. It’s okay to feel the music, just not with your body.
Much of the sit-down or stand-up issue is subjective, of course.
Other D.C. area venues—the 9:30 Club, Rock and Roll Hotel—are stand-only and, not surprisingly, they cater to a younger, “hipper” crowd. You are often only an arm’s length or three from the musicians and the experience is immediate and propulsive. Needless to say, these are sweaty joints, and one finds oneself often jammed against a stranger’s rump, attempting to perform emergency surreptitious calisthenics lest one tear a calf muscle from the hours of standing. Throbbing knees and sore feet are also a concern. Orthotics (not to mention protective earplugs) are a must for old timers like yours truly. At the 9:30 Club nobody is actually stopping me from sitting down, as long as I can find a spot; I would simply have to sacrifice visibility—if my flat feet bark enough it’s a worthwhile tradeoff and I’ll squat somewhere on the second level. It’s tough keeping up with the kids.
My favorite concert experiences usually occur somewhere in the middle of these two extremes—either as a result of a venue that encourages mixed-use listening or when someone breaks the rules and gets away with it. As an example of the latter, I attended the Gypsy Kings back in early September at Wolf Trap. Sitting inside the pavilion with my mother and her friend, we experienced an unusual eruption of dancing (flamenco and wanna-be flamenco) around us, especially in the wide federally funded aisles. Seriously, who can listen to the Gypsy Kings without shaking a body part or two? This is not sit-down music. The Wolf Trap security seemed to either give up or give in to the impromptu dancing.
Other D.C. area venues such as The State Theatre and the Black Cat are pragmatic—sitting areas in back, standing room up front. Everyone is happy. Listening to the Sharon Van Etten at the Black Cat a couple of years ago my wife and I reclined on the couches in back (Van Etten’s music is absolutely what an ex-girlfriend used to dub “futon music”). Futon music calls for lounging and when the audience stands during the encore you want them to sit back down so you can enjoy the candles-and-fog quality of the music. At the Black Cat more recently, Courtney Barnett rocked out and we were impelled to stand and jostle along with the youngins. Of course at hole-in-the-wall joints this isn’t an option. At Rock and Roll Hotel the best I can hope for is a wall to lean against, with any luck positioned next to the jug of free water provided in the corner of the bar (this is a nice recent accoutrement. Before that you’d have to ask for a cup of hydration or take a slurp from the nasty bathroom sink).
Let’s cut to the chase: the problem is larger than concert etiquette. As you surely know from your concert experiences the venue itself isn’t always appropriate for the music. Stand-up or mostly stand-up joints sometimes host low-tempo acts where, at most, the audience mildly sways along. On the other hand, great sit-down joints like the Birchmere (at which “silence during the performance” signs are posted on every table) sometimes host fairly raucous acts like Los Lobos where any swaying takes place with ass glued to chair. Hipness or perceived lack-of-hipness often prevails over the feet of the audience.
Moreover, stand-up venues often sell out for dance-oriented musical acts; I remember trying to swing dance along to the Squirrel Nut Zippers with my wife many moons ago at the 9:30 Club—it was impossible given the sardine-esque nature of the floor experience. So we acquiesced to the ubiquitous concert sway and bob and left disappointed. On a more recent night the show by Lee Fields at the 9:30 Club was (tragically) virtually empty leaving plenty of room to get down to the funk. But when the floor is empty as a result of poor attendance, the mood tends to be low-energy in spite of the music. More commonly at stand-up venues the dancing is limited to that preposterous drunk guy up front slobbering all over anyone within arm’s reach–you know, the one who likes the band a little too much and knows the lyrics to every song, even the obscure new ones.
In 2009 The Chicago Tribune ran a “stand-off,” where two writers represented each side of the ticket—pro-standing vs. anti-standing. Though it mostly focused on concert faux-pas pertaining to standing or dancing, it was a compelling experiment, demonstrating the fact that there is a wide range of preferences on the issue. I’d be curious to hear what my readers think: do you prefer to stand or sit at a rock concert? That is the issue.
Cover Photo: Rock the Vote 25th anniversary concert at the Black Cat — with 2 Live Crew, Darryl DMC McDaniels (Run-D.M.C.) and Lightshow (photographer John Shore, Oct. 22, 2015)
Other photos: Andrew Bird/Loney, Dear concert at the 9:30 Club by Alyson Hurt, The Lumineers at Jammin Java by Kevin Hill (April 23, 2012), and Bosley at the Black Cat by Heaton Johnson (Sept. 3, 2015)
Gipsy Kings definitely gave a stand-up concert! The diversity of the crowd contrasted wildly with the pumping Latin rhythms. But the folks in front of me, a sitter, stood up for much the concert! A lesson in tolerance for all ages.