“I thought you were going to kick my ass!” was the first thing that Stephen Russ, the drummer for The Fire Tonight, said to me after I introduced myself. Compulsively early, I had been sitting at the bar for over thirty minutes when I overheard the guy standing next to me tell the bartender that he was with the band. I guess that Russ had found my leering at him out of the corner of my eyes creepy, and assumed that the long haired middle-aged man had criminal tendencies. Whether I do or do not have criminal tendencies is irrelevant, but by the night had ended, I wished that I had kicked Stephen Russ’ ass.
Five minutes after our vaguely insulting introduction, I found myself sitting at a table with the band, their significant others, and friends of the band. Several days later, conversations about the awesomeness of The Galaxy Hut’s tater tots, underage sex with Kevin Costner, and the best guitar pedal brands have all been blended together in the pint glass that is my brain; with beer being the base ingredient that integrates the rest into a fuzzy, cohesive, and delicious whole. I will admit that I am having trouble recalling specifics about the conversation I had with The Fire Tonight’s keyboardist Jesse James about how creative tension moves artists forward; I do, however, remember mentally checking out from that conversation long enough to glory in the fact that I was hanging out with a cool indie-rock band in a dive bar in possibly the least dive bar-ish city in the country (Arlington, VA) while double-fisting IPA’s. Those reading who are in their twenties may be puzzled by my glorying in what to them is an every-other-day occurrence, but for an almost forty year old father of two, evenings like this one were assumed to be relegated to semi-cautionary tales to my bored kids about my misspent youth conflated with awkward attempts to prove that dear Pops was once cool.
Upon walking into The Galaxy Hut, my first old-fogey thought was, “This place is way too small a venue for a band like The Fire Tonight. I wish I had brought earplugs.” I had staked out a place in the back corner close enough to the bar so as to not have to work too hard to keep myself stocked with alcohol, but as far from the stage as I could get in the intimate venue. The band and company, however, had staked out a table right beside the stage. And by “right beside,” I mean that if I had so desired, I could’ve reached out and helped play the hi-hat. I passive-aggressively “joked” about being too close to the stage, and several of the others joked along with me. Except they were apparently literally joking, because no one got up and moved to a more auditorily safe distance. They all seemed to like me and I didn’t want that to change, so I stayed.
Years ago, I worked as what I can only describe as a permanent roadie. In other words, I helped with all the shit work (unloading trucks and helping set up the stage), but none of the cool stuff like smoking weed with the band or traveling (I did get the guys from Matchbox 20 to sign my pack of Camel Lights). While sweating, smashing fingers, and getting cussed out by the assistant to the assistant band manager a connection would be made to the stage as we unloaded and set-up. The stage would feel like home. Indie bands have the truly organic pleasure of being rooted in the moment in ways that big bands no longer are. True, it’s a trade-off – swimming pools filled with money vs. unloading and setting up your own equipment and ordering your own drinks, but indie bands, good indie bands, of which The Fire Tonight is one, get the privilege of making music in a holistic and communal way. Loading in connects the band and the venue intimately; the band works with the space not in the space. Being ushered in through a side door into a fully-stocked dressing room resigns the stage and venue as places outside of the performer’s domain – strangers visiting. I watched the members of The Fire Tonight unload in the snow, navigate the small stage, and setup and conduct sound-check while interacting with the audience. By the time their set began, the three members of The Fire Tonight (Collin Derrick – lead vocals and bass guitar, James – keyboard, backing vocals, and Russ – drums, backing vocals) had claimed The Galaxy Hut as their own and had welcomed those of us in the audience as their drunken roommates into their dirty, stale-beer smelling abode.
The Fire Tonight opened their high-energy set with “How Do You Wait?” and I was right, Russ’ drums were loud. I was wrong, thankfully, about my inability to handle rock and roll awesomeness at my advanced age, and decided that more beer was my reward. “How Do You Wait?” is a great vehicle for James to demonstrate his keyboard skills, and his piano playing prowess should not be in question for any of us that were there that night. In fact, James’ playing did something that my Mom and a string of piano teachers growing up were never able to do – make me wish that I knew how to play the piano. Derrick’s energy was infectious, and his connection with the crowd was personal. From the opening song, the bands’ ability as musicians and songwriters was clearly evident, as was their ability as performers who know how to rock. One of the few things that I actually wrote down that evening was during that song – “Radiohead with balls.”
After a couple of songs, I felt guilty that I was doing music-lover things and not music-critic things, so I began to force myself to pay attention in a different way. For one, I began observing the audience – especially the audience that would stop on the street on the other side of the picture window and watch the band playing through the glass. Many of them would stand in the snow, their heads keeping time to the driving beat, and would then notice the door beside them and enter. Those people obviously had somewhere to go, but the music of The Fire Tonight compelled them to alter their plans. A well-dressed man in his thirties entered The Galaxy Hut, and stood with a quizzical yet pleased expression on his face. I asked him why he had come in, and he responded, “I don’t know. The music. It’s interesting.” He told me that this isn’t the kind of music that he likes. He stayed for the rest of the set, though. He left with his shirt still tucked in, which I take to mean that I should’ve bought him beers.
I went into The Fire Tonight’s concert already a fan of their latest album How Could Anyone Do This?! and I was curious how the band’s live performance, with only three members, would compare to an album that includes rapping, a world-class whistler, and a variety of instruments and backing vocalists. While somewhat of a different sound from the album, as to be expected, The Fire Tonight’s ability as musicians combined with their high-energy and professional stage-presence made for a great evening of live music.
After their set was finished, I hung out with the band and fellow patrons of The Galaxy Hut, enjoying beers and talking about the concert. The band was ecstatic about their set (deservedly so), and they were in the mood to talk and laugh. By that point the concert was over, I was way too many beers in, and I had lost my pen anyway and so I punched out on the clock and enjoyed myself along with the rest of the people who were also high off the energetic and musically stimulating concert we had all just participated in. Later, as I walked the mile back to my apartment, or rather ran (I had originally planned to hail a cab, but in the land of perpetual taxis, none were to be found that night), through the falling snow and empty streets, I thought to myself, “I had way more to drink than I had planned.” I also thought about the night in its entirety, including the excellent concert by a great rock band, and, remembering what Russ had first said to me, wished that I had indeed kicked his ass. You see, some nights scream Rock and Roll, and The Fire Tonight’s concert was one of those nights, and one of the few ways that I can think that would have made it better would have been if the band’s drummer and I had gotten into a fight before the show. He would have played the drums grinning through missing teeth, I would have jotted down notes onto my notebook stained with blood from my busted nose, and afterwards the band and I would have shared beers together. If you get the privilege of being in a town that The Fire Tonight is playing, go. Go and see an awesome band play great music, and before the show starts kick Russ’ ass and then buy him a beer.
John Ellis writes really great things here too.
John is a theatre artist and writer based out of Arlington, VA. Nowadays, though, most of his artistic output is spent on keeping his two young children amused, occupied, and off of the top of the bookshelves.