Seeing Lee Ranaldo Band (of Sonic Youth) and Wilco play at Wolf Trap last night was like watching an anthropological documentary on ‘how bands deal with growing old.’ I don’t mean to imply the show wasn’t enjoyable– but I absolutely DO mean to imply these men are getting on in their years and that they have all employed a wide variety of tactics to deal with the inevitable phenomenon of aging.
Let’s begin with the venue as the first strategic component in a band’s attempt to deal with age gracefully. This was my first time at Wolf Trap, which is an outdoor arena that seats 7,000 in the Virginia suburbs of DC. The ambience is bucolic and mellow; concert-goers are encouraged to bring their own picnic and alcohol; the lawn is well-groomed and pristine. In other words, even if you don’t love the band or can’t see the stage that well – you’re going to have a good time eating and drinking with your friends. This takes considerable pressure off the actual performers.
Even given the lax and lazy atmosphere at the show, Lee Ranaldo Band (of Sonic Youth) was not only punctual but a little early to take the stage. Second ‘aging gracefully’ tactic: cater to your equally aging audience. No one wants to be out past midnight. There are babysitters to pay and early morning meetings to attend. There was nary a college kid in the mix at this event as far as I could tell. And the third tactic: leverage your past. At first, I found it a bit sad Lee Ranaldo had to include the (of Sonic Youth) parenthesis after his name, just to be sure people knew who he was. But on second thought, why not take advantage of your past success? The man worked hard to be an 80’s rock star. Why let that slip away?
And to be fair, Lee Ranaldo Band played a great and relevant set. They were only up on stage for thirty minutes – but rocked out (gently) the entire time, even including a song about the Occupy movement and the rise of the new left. I didn’t exactly ‘want more’ when they made their exit, but I thought the half hour performance was quite nice.
Wilco came to the stage right around 9 PM and more than made up for Lee Ranaldo’s short set by playing a full two hours. Given the band’s long history, they had more than enough material to fill the time, including Born Alone and I Might – but honestly I felt that they overstayed their welcome a bit (thus violating strategic tactic 2). However, the band did employ some amazing stage set-up tactics that made the show a bit more interesting. The band had festooned the stage with knotted white ropes that looked a bit like those ghosts kids make at school during Halloween. They had then choreographed a phenomenal light show (including moving bird and animal shadows, spinning rainbows, strobe lights, and glitter effects) that bounced off the hanging white ‘bodies’ to make a truly spectacular kaleidoscope-like backdrop. Also, for the win, they had a man-sized wooden owl sitting on stage that did nothing but blink calmly at the audience the entire time. If I remember nothing about the somewhat underwhelming music at this concert in a few months, that owl will stick with me. So I guess the fourth ‘aging gracefully’ tactic we can learn from this is: hire a great stage manager. It can make all the difference.