Right up until the moment the big guy punches me, the show is actually quite enjoyable. It’s my second time in five months seeing M83 at Boston’s House of Blues. On both occasions, synthesizer wunderkind Anthony Gonzlaez and his crew deliver performances that are exhilarating, breathtakingly precise, and bursting with optimism. But this time around, the quartet possesses something more intangible — a certain air of assurance. In between November 2011 and May 2012, M83 played 60 something shows, including a huge gig at Coachella, and established the kind of stage presence that matches the epic sweep of their music. They sound unmistakably seasoned and in complete command.
As a vocalist, Gonzalez has learned to really belt out the choruses to monster anthems like “Intro,” “Reunion” and “Steve McQueen”, although he’d probably rather hide behind his synthesizer deck, which he tellingly faces toward band mate Morgan Kibby as opposed to the audience. With his French good looks and halting English, Gonzalez comes across as a charming, excitable sprite of a man who’s absolutely compelled to put on a good performance. And he does. When an equipment glitch disrupts a transition between songs, technicians swoop in to fix the problem and Gonzalez moves along with a shrug and a friendly apology. The band I saw five months ago might have wilted under similar circumstances, yet this barely seems like a hiccup.
M83 are a joy to see because they’re a band in the sweet spot of their career —- they’re accomplished but still hungry, have an exceptional catalog of songs from which to choose (but not too many, so you rarely get cruft and eclectic b-sides), and play with a stadium-sized intensity to relatively small audiences. It reminds me of Smashing Pumpkins in 1995, Radiohead in 2000, or Modest Mouse in 2004. They pull a few new tricks out of their bag, including a spectacularly rocked-out double-time conclusion to “We Own the Sky” and a Daft Punk cover that’s architected for maximum audience participation. Gonzalez stands on the speakers, soul claps above his head and makes little two-handed heart gestures at the crowd for emphasis. He’s a nice guy.
But there’s something a tad bittersweet about this more grown-up version of M83. I kind of miss the shyer, more reserved Anthony Gonzalez, who last winter seemed so boyishly eager to be on stage and genuinely astonished that so many people showed up to see him perform. His excitement and good will were almost palpable. This time around, he’s still grateful you’re there, but there’s a glossy sheen of professionalism. I guess it comes with the territory. It’s like M83 has finally figured out that the album they’re touring behind, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is pretty awesome, and they aren’t afraid to let you know it.
The audience is different too. The last time, we stood next to a pair of hardcore fans who drove up from NYC and new every lyric to every song; this time the college co-ed in front of me is busy texting to her friends: “i am so rolling right now.” I find myself fascinated by how many people hold up their phones during the show instead of watching the band play, and even more fascinated when I catch myself watching their phones instead of the show. Something about putting things on video makes them more real. It’s hard to tear your eyes away.
“Midnight City,” which before was a burgeoning indie hit, is now the show’s indisputable climax that everyone knows and clamors for. You can easily see why. The song’s sleek, electro-funk pulse and epic saxophone solo (which, inexplicably, was left out in the first Boston show) are utterly magnificent. The solo is the defining moment in a pop song that ten years from now, will be considered one of the decade’s best (sure, it will be overplayed like “Crazy” or “Hey Ya,” but like those tracks, it also will age beautifully.)
By “Midnight City’s” conclusion, I’m all smiles, just delighted to be out on a school night. Although I still go to the occasional show and listen to more music than anyone I know, I’m also 37, with two kids, a receding hairline and a Prius. I’m at the show with Chris, a friend from work who also has two kids and a receding hairline. (He drives a Juke though, which is a plus.) We build software for a living. I don’t want to speak for him, but this is easily the social highlight of my month.
And then I feel this huge weight on my back. Not metaphorically either. There’s literally 220 pounds of person pressing down on me directly from above. My hat flies off and I nearly fall to the ground. At the last moment, I stumble to the side as the 20-something guy who was trying to crowd surf on top of me tumbles hard to the floor. He bounces up, sweaty and grinning, doesn’t apologize to or even acknowledge the three people he’s almost flattened, then lurches back to his spot in the crowd directly behind me. All I see is a striped v-neck, pectorals and dilated pupils. The Surfer’s companion, who will heretofore be referred to as the “Lifter,” hugs and congratulates him profusely. The Lifter is about 6’4” with even larger pectorals, a deeper v-neck, and wider pupils.
There’s a general acknowledgement among everyone in the vicinity that although these guys are assholes, there’s not much anyone can do. They’re far bigger and drunker than anyone else here. I’m kind of shocked that security doesn’t come since a man in the crowd just a couple feet ahead of me is watching the show from his wheelchair — judging by his lack of head mobility, I’m pretty sure he’s quadripalegic. It’s kind of scary to see him so exposed and vulnerable amidst the crowd in front of the stage, but inspiring too. From his vantage point, he can’t even get a glimpse of the band, but damned if he isn’t enjoying the show anyway. I cringe to think what would have happened if the Surfer landed on him.
To be clear, I’m not against crowd-surfing or moshing per se. I saw Metallica and Rage Against the Machine twice in the 90’s and bounced around in some pretty brutal mosh pits, so I know how that goes. But c’mon — we’re at an M83 concert. As imposing as that name might sound to you, its really just a little French guy with a bunch of keyboards, kind of like Human League and Gary Numan crossed with Pink Floyd, or Depeche Mode on lots of Prozac. This is music that is made for happiness and joy, for feeling bigger than yourself. Unfortunately, feeling big for these guys involves Lifter picking up his Surfer bro and literally throwing him on the one person in front of him – which happens to be me. The sparse crowd is filled with skinny hipsters, so the idea of dropping 220 lbs anywhere in this joint is the equivalent of using one of those wet Bounty paper towels to hold up a brick. That shit might work on a TV commercial, but try it at home and you’ll need to get your kitchen tiles fixed.
Things gradually cool down a bit. Behind me, I can hear the bros celebrate. “Don’t worry about anything dude” says Lifter to this buddy. “Just feeeeel this!” I’m not sure if he’s referring to the music or the drugs. I think of something snappy to say like: “The Skrillex/Limp Bizkit twin bill was last week, dickface” but I wisely hold my tongue. Remember… two kids, receding hairline (which is now quite prominent as my favorite Kurtz hat is now gone*), work to go to tomorrow, etc.
(*On a side note, it’s amazing how fast something that you’ve dropped into a concert crowd disappears forever. It’s like losing sunglasses or jewelry in the ocean. It slips off and you’re sure it must be right here below you, but after scanning everything in a five foot vicinity, you realize the ocean has swallowed it. I’m left there like Tom Hanks crying “Wilson!” With bad hat head.)
The music plays on. The set ends without further incident and the encore starts up with a stunning version of “Don’t Save Us From the Flames.” I don’t remember them playing that last show. But to be honest, my mind is kind of elsewhere. Privately, I go through that little inner dialog everyone has after someone does something obnoxious to them and they don’t speak up, that part where I think “I should have said something clever like X or done something more courageous like Y.” But let’s face it, most of us who have a modicum of impulse control don’t say or do those things. In a world filled with more than a few lunatics, staying civil in the face of idiocy usually keeps you out of trouble.
The throbbing bass of the usual show closer “Couleurs” starts up and I’m basically thinking about which route I’m going to take home, when 220 pounds comes crashing down on me again. Bodies go flying everywhere. In a split second, I think: “He’s really doing it again. This really isn’t cool. I’m actually going to say X and do Y.” I sidestep again. Little Surfer bro goes crashing to the ground again, laughing. This time though, I squat down and pin his torso to the concert floor with one knee and a forearm, gritting out: “That’s it. You are out of control. Enough.” I’m surprised how serious I sound.
I may have thrown a couple other words in there but you get the gist. The crowd is collapsing all around us but much to Surfer bro’s surprise, I’m not letting go of him. He hasn’t an ounce of physical leverage and is starting to get a little concerned, or maybe just irritated. I want him to get the point. It is not OK to have no regard for people around you, to put other people in harm’s way, whether they are in a wheelchair or aren’t. It’s not OK to be a dickface and expect people to just let you walk all over them. It’s not OK to ruin everyone else’s M83 concert.
But after a couple seconds, I let him up. It’s probably not the smartest move, but I can explain. Everyone who knows me will tell you I have a temper, which is true. My friend Jamee ran my rap music tastes and emotional profile through a hip-hop name generator app, and it came out with the title “Angry Pacifist.” That’s spot on because I get furious when I am wronged, but I’m scared to death of violence. I don’t really know how to fight, I don’t like getting hurt, and if I ever managed to hurt someone else, I think I’d feel so terrible I couldn’t live with myself.
Surfer bro pops up and immediately chest bumps me with those drenched pectorals saying (ironically) “You wanna go, bro?” I’m not sure I have much of a choice at this point. I know I’m completely outmatched in both size and aggression. I can’t see the Lifter though the melee of bodies, but I know he’s coming for me any moment. If I get hit first by either of them, things are going to go very badly for me. So I do the smart thing. I put Surfer bro in a headlock and horse collar him back to the ground.
The immediate area explodes with excitement. In many ways, it’s kind of like riding a mechanical bull — thrilling but you know your luck’s not going to last. He’s a lot stronger, but I’m highly motivated (I need to be home by midnight otherwise my Prius turns into a pumpkin) and I’ve got a sound strategy. Keep on top of him and stay close to his body so he can’t get a good swing at me, don’t let the Lifter get a clear shot at my face, and wait for the cavalry to arrive. I’m hoping maybe Chris can delay the Lifter a few seconds**, but just then I feel his huge meat hook glance of the back of my skull. Apparently that hasn’t worked out.
(** Interestingly enough, Chris later informed me that he in fact firmly but diplomatically tried the keep the Lifter back. But Chris finally relented after the Lifter ardently promised: “I’m just trying to break them up!” He then leaped past Chris and proceeded to throw the aforementioned roundhouse into my head. Cunning…)
If this all seems like it’s happening in slow motion, its because that’s what it feels like. People are screaming, arms are tugging at us. I steer us clear of the guy in the wheelchair and feel myself swell with virtuous, burning anger. The thought occurs to me that I might actually be doing this so that a guy like him won’t get hurt, and righteousness is a pretty powerful fuel. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have wrestled Surfer bro if the guy in the wheelchair wasn’t there, but I certainly wouldn’t be as tenacious about it.
I think about my kids too, oddly enough. It’s amazing what needing to get home to your 3 year old daughter and 7 week old son does to your adrenaline levels. A younger friend of mine, Andrew, always talks about how the 40+ year old dudes in his adult basketball league are the one you have to watch out for because they have Old Man Strength. These guys look like Danny DeVito, can’t run without hobbling and don’t have a jump shot to speak of, but they’ll rip rebounds right out of your hands. At the M83 concert, I discover I have something similar — Dad Strength. I don’t throw a single punch, but upon reflection later that night, I wager that Surfer bro would agree I soundly got the better of him.
Amazingly enough, concert security arrives and pulls us apart before Surfer bro can get hold of me or Lifter can clobber me into next week. A bouncer drags me away to the edge of the crowd (I’m politely thanking him for rescuing me while he does it), leaves me there and runs back in to deal with the others. I’m honestly shocked they haven’t kicked me out of the club. Either they saw exactly what happened and feel bad for me, or they need to throw some more weight at the bash brothers and will be coming back for me later. Either way, I count my lucky stars, take one last look at Gonzalez delivering his final feel good anthem of the night, then scoot out the exit to the street. The one rule of getting kicked out of a bar for fighting is not to wait around, because the guys who you were fighting with will be joining you shortly. Later on, Chris reminds me that it was kind of a blessing in disguise because I’m able to beat the crowds.
A few minutes and a couple of text messages later, Chris and I are sitting quietly at a small neighborhood bar over the bridge from Fenway Park recounting the night’s events. Besides the goose egg on the back on the head, I’m actually feeling quite pleasant. Chris is completely unscathed. Lifter was more interested in me than him, which is actually fortunate for all parties involved because Chris is just the kind of guy to pull his car keys out and go medieval on your ass. In the end, we share a calm-down drink and go our separate ways. There’s always software to build tomorrow.
In a recent article for Vulture, music critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote that concerts nowadays are less about music than the event itself. Concert-goers are delighted to see the significant investment they’ve spent in liking an artist made real by the sheer size of the physical gathering. It validates their own private experiences. What strikes me, as I’m driving home then, is how completely different those experiences can be for each concert-goer. For me, tonight’s show actually is quite a bit about the music, its cinematic intensity and the way it becomes a personal soundtrack to the movie in my head. It’s also a bit of an escape from the more mundane aspects of life spent raising two kids. For that college girl standing in front of me, it’s about a chemical escape. For the bros, it’s their opportunity to impose their will on others. I keep wondering what it’s about for the guy in the wheelchair, but I can only imagine. Maybe its a chance to free his body from its physical confinement and escape into the airy freedom this music brings. I’m struck by both the burden he carries and his willingness to attend a show in spite of the real risks he faces. In retrospect, my greatest regret in getting thrown out was not being able to find out what the show meant to him.
To be clear, I’m not proud of what I did. I’m not trying to defend my actions. (OK, well, maybe a little bit) But I’m also glad I wasn’t meek. I stood up for what was right, and I can live with that. It’s interesting that the message I had for Surfer bro — “That’s it. You are out of control. Enough.” — is eerily similar to what I say to my daughter when she’s acting out in her worst moments. Sometimes my wife and I even have to restrain her (no headlocks of course).
I think about all of this and more during the 45 minute drive home in the dark, which puts me in our driveway just a hair before the Prius goes into pumpkin mode. Quietly, I enter through the front door, tousle the dog’s hair, and ease into bed next to my wife, extraordinarily grateful for both her presence and that of our two sleeping children just down the hall. It’s a quietly sublime moment, the muted saxophone solo at the end of my own private midnight city, or suburb in any case. It’s hard trying to reconcile being a husband and father with being a guy who likes to go to rock shows (and occasionally getting thrown out, if necessitated). I can only hope there’s room enough for both of us.