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Monday, January 30, 2023
Dominique Thompson

Dominique Thompson helped the Badger front line out-block the best blockers in the Big Ten.

Finding the balance between nature and concerts

Welcome back, everyone, to my little music column: my way of ranting about whatever vaguely music related topic that comes to mind. It also serves as a way of getting to see my picture in the paper every Tuesday, so that’s always good too.

In mid-August, on a 75-degree day, I made the trek down the Jersey Shore to the birthplace of Bruce Springsteen, The Stone Pony, to see one of my favorite bands, Umphrey’s McGee. With nary a cloud in sight and a breeze off the Atlantic Ocean onto the Asbury Park boardwalk, I couldn’t possibly think of a better place to see a concert.

For the first 45 or so minutes of the show, as the sun was gradually setting, the famed light show the band is known for hardly got a chance to shine—but this fact was disregarded by those in attendance due to the picturesque sunset that unfurled behind the stage as the first set reached its midpoint.

As the sun dipped, the lights became more and more a part of the show until nightfall draped its arms around the stage, allowing the band to decide when it wanted to be bathed in red, orange and yellow as opposed to the sky dictating this.

With little wind to speak of and an absence of rain, the sound was crystalline, coming from the two large stacks of speakers hung precariously over the sides of the stage straight to the crowd of about 2,000 people.

Now, you may wonder why I am describing in painstaking detail all of these environmental factors to a concert that few if any of you were in attendance for. The reason: When everything is perfect, outdoor concerts are better than anything you can get inside.

Even at my favorite theater, club or other indoor performance space, nothing can capture the pure magic of being outside with your friends and seeing one of your favorite bands in perfect weather.

The problem is that almost never happens. For every perfect outdoor concert experience I’ve had, there have been plenty where being outside was just about the last place I wanted to be.

A few years ago, I saw Wilco in Central Park on a freezing, rainy night with a crowd that thinned out after every song. While I managed to brave the weather to hear Wilco play a fantastic set of music, there was no doubt that the spirits of the crowd on hand were as dampened as their clothing was as lightning crept closer and closer.

Two summers ago, a torrent of water rushed down upon Randall’s Island for the first day of Gov Ball, an annual three-day music festival in New York City. The rain was so unrelenting, and the mud accumulated so quickly, that the headliners had to be canceled for that evening.

Not only did I lose my shoes to a vat of mud that day—they remained on my feet throughout the day, though they were never to be worn again—but I also lost my seemingly unwavering love for seeing outdoor music.

Now, when presented with an option of seeing a band outdoors, I approach each show held without the confines of a roof over my head with a blend of cautious optimism typically reserved for getting a test or paper back.

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While the next two days of music at Gov Ball went on as planned, they were done so with hiking boots on, I left that weekend with stronger leg muscles thanks to wading through shin-deep mud for a chance to see Guns ‘n Roses, or at least whatever is left of the band at this point.

Beyond the weather, which, try as we might, is totally out of our control (though more contingencies can be put in place than say what was done at this year’s inaugural Hudson Project, held at the famed/cursed sight of Woodstock) sound can be a huge problem at outdoor shows.

For every outdoor show that has good or great sound, there are many more that have inaudible, crackled sound emanating from the P.A.

While this isn’t a problem exclusive to outdoor venues—this summer when I caught Arcade Fire at Earls Court, I experienced quite possibly the worst sound system ever put in place—dialing in outdoor sound is extraordinarily difficult due to the aforementioned weather situation.

With a muggy day, a windy day, a rainy day, a (insert really any weather related term) day, the sound will be impacted. Humidity is almost always a one-way ticket to bad sound and it’s entirely out of the band and venue’s control.

So the next time you snag that ticket to an outdoor show, walk in with cautious optimism, hoping Mother Nature decides to cooperate. You may have one of the best and most memorable concert experiences of your life. But if she doesn’t cooperate, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Do you relish outdoor concerts, rain or shine? Or are you completely incredulous at the notion of outdoor music? Send your opinion to Brian at weidy@wisc.edu.

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