I'm continually amazed at the power that live music can have over an audience. Just as fascinating, though, is what happens when that pairing is looked at from the other end—a good crowd can energize a band, while a hostile or indifferent one can kill the performance.
I had the chance to see two great examples of artists that fed positively off of their respective crowds this past week. In comparison, one could easily find a multitude of differences between the two performances, but there was something I noticed during both shows that reminded me just why I continually seek out live music whenever possible.
Last Thursday night, fellow Grit writer Tim Brennan hosted a house concert that featured Cleveland, Ohio, singer-songwriter Charlie Mosbrook. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a house concert, it happens when a music fan uses his or her own home or some similar non-traditional venue to host an artist who might otherwise not get booked in a town. I've seen a few house concerts over the years, and they've always expanded my musical horizons.
Last Thursday's show was staged at this cool little picnic shelter in Brennan's neighborhood in Mt. Pleasant. Local singer-songwriter Becca Bessinger started things off by playing a few songs. standing behind the microphone with just her acoustic guitar, Bessinger performed an all to brief set of songs that showcased her talents as both a performer and a writer.
Particularly good was "Fight Like a Girl," a song about strong woman making things happen that name checked folks like Harriet Tubman and Sally Ride. Bessinger did a good job of setting the mood for the evening as the sun started dipping below the trees. If you haven't had a chance to hear her play around town, do yourself a favor and try to.
By the time Charlie Mosbrook took his seat on a stool behind the microphone, the crowd at the shelter had swelled to about two dozen. That doesn't sound like a lot of people, but for a house concert, that's a pretty good turnout, especially when one considers that it was basically advertised via Facebook and word of mouth. I had never heard of Mosbrook until Brennan turned me on to his recent CD Something To Believe, which beautifully demonstrates Mosbrook's gift for both words and melody.
While he has a sound all his own, were I pressed to compare Mosbrook's sound to someone else's, I suppose I'd go with a little James Taylor mixed with a liberal dose of early Cat Stevens. It's mellow, beautiful, heartfelt stuff, and I'm still listening to the CD months after it was given to me.
Mosbrook's backstory is interesting too. He's a former triathlete who suffered a spinal injury and is an incomplete quadripaligic. Through determination and hard work he can now walk with the aid of a cane and can still play guitar, but for a guy who used to enter Ironman competitions, after the injury Mosbrook had to find something else to throw himself into. Fortunately, he was already an accomplished musician, and the injury only seemed to strengthen his drive to create his art.
At Thursday evening's show, the very soft-spoken musician held those two-dozen men, women, and children entranced as he played song after beautiful song. He did several off of his latest, but he also dug deeper into his catalog. By the time he wrapped things up by 8 p.m., it was evident that there had been a majorly cosmic connection between Mosbrook and us.
I know that may sound corny, but I don't know how better to describe it. I feel like a better person for having heard the guy sing in person, and Mosbrook seemed genuinely touched at the folks that took the time on a weekday evening to come hear him play. It goes back to what I said at the start of this piece, about how an artist can feed off a crowd and vice-versa. All in all it was a very beneficial evening all around.
The next night I got to see pretty much the same thing happen, only on a much larger scale. After a three-year absence from the Lowcountry, the popular Georgia band Widespread Panic made a triumphant return. I'm not the world's biggest jam band fan. I've seen a few Phish shows, and I own a few Grateful Dead albums, although I much prefer Jerry Garcia's bluegrass work to his music with the Dead.
But I really don't even consider Widespread Panic a true jam band. They have a much more blues-oriented sound. Sure, they can stretch a song out past the ten minute mark, but hearing Jimmy Herring play guitar is a religious rock and roll experience for me, just as it was when his predecessor, the late Michael Houser performed.
As I walked into the front gate of the Family Circle Stadium on Daniel Island last Friday night, I was surrounded by thousands of like-minded Panic fans. I've probably seen Panic close to 25 times—easily the most I've ever seen any band, and a big part of what keeps me coming back is the bond that the band establishes with the audience almost from the first note that is played.
Panic never plays the same setlist twice, and at Friday's show, which was the first of a two-night stand at the tennis center, the band surprised me by shying away from favorites like "Airplane" and "Ain't Life Grand." The band, led by the gravel-voice John Bell, opened with "Ribs and Whiskey," and went on to drift from one song to the next, busting out songs such as "Surprise Valley," "Postcard," and "Greta" before taking a break. From where I was seated in the tennis stadium's upper level, I could see the general admission crowd on the main floor writhe and circulate like some single-celled organism.
For me, watching the crowd at a Panic show ranks only slightly below watching the band. It's a strange array of regular Joes and Josephines, hippies (both the real and the trust-fund types), preppy-types there to be seen, and the occasional obvious first timer. While some fans like to stake out a bit of real estate and start noodle dancing once Panic starts gathering a head of steam, I prefer to stand still and watch each band member. I particularly like watching Herring, whose guitar work leaves me slack jawed every time, and bassist Dave Schools, who plays his bass like a lead instrument.
After a short break, the band returned to the stage to play more music, including a great cover of Bill Withers' "Use Me." The crowd definitely got into that one, as well as subsequent performances of songs like "Rebirtha," "Porch Song," and the encore closer "Climb to Safety."
While the crowd size at the Panic show numbered in the thousands, you got a sense of connection similar to the one I felt at the house concert with Charlie Mosbrook. To Panic's credit they went right out the next night and did it again, although I unfortunately had to miss that show, which featured "Pleas" and "Wonderin'" from their album Everyday, as well as a great cover of Neil Young's "Mr. Soul."
Both Charlie Mosbrook and the musicians in Widespread Panic have obviously mastered the fine art of connecting with their respective audiences, and because of that, both acts get much love in return for their efforts. When there is synergy between a performer and their audience, it can be a truly beautiful thing, no matter what the size of that audience happens to be.