Bald Men and the American Tradition
Seeing Jeff Tweedy play such a wonderful, cheery show last week reminded me of the darker times when a feature of Wilco’s London concerts was often a verbal tirade from the front man. I know Jeff Tweedy has had his troubles but I always assumed his negative reaction to British audiences was because we didn’t appear to ‘get it’ in the same way as American crowds. Admittedly my countrymen’s reputation as a reserved bunch is well deserved but I think part of the issue is also down to demographics. My experience, having watched similar bands on both sides of the Atlantic, is that a lot of the music I love attracts a younger audience in the US than it does in the UK.
What follows is a post I wrote on my blog Carnival Saloon in 2008. I’d love to hear what you think of my theory, especially if you’ve performed for both American and British audiences or seen your favourite acts home and away.
I saw Tift Merritt play a great solo show last night at the Green Note in Camden. I think it’s the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen her play and she’s often made remarks about how quiet the crowd seem or asking whether they are really ‘getting into it’. I think the reason Tift’s British audience are more subdued than what she’s used to in her native North Carolina is who are at its core. There were about 50 people at the Green Note and I reckon at least a quarter, probably more, were middle-aged bald men. With all due respect, from what I’ve seen, they are not a demographic particularly inclined to rock out.
I’ve pondered the phenomenon of Americana-loving baldies for well over a decade. Jeff Tweedy infamously got so pissed off with the seeming indifference of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire audience in 1997 that reviewers still refer to the incident. I seem to remember it was Jeff’s failure to get the crowd singing along to the chorus of Kingpin that set off his truculent flap. If he’d thought a bit more about who bought tickets to Wilco’s London gigs, the incident may have been avoided.
When my old school pal Dave and I went to Wilco or Jayhawks gigs in the mid-90s we were always the youngest in the crowd and doing our bit to increase the representation of people with a full head of hair. We were surrounded by blokes a lot older than us who wanted to ‘just hear the music’, nurse an overpriced lager and sway a little bit. My theory is that in the States Americana-flavoured acts like Wilco and Tift Merritt are staples of college radio, are covered in the ‘alternative’ press and consequently have an appropriately youthful audience. In the UK, their fans are the people who discovered them in the pages of Uncut and Mojo magazine.
Last month in Nashville I saw the Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle on the same bill playing to a young, mixed-sex, energetic audience. When I saw Earle at the Luminaire in Kilburn in October the exact same baldies I saw last night were in the crowd. I suspect they’ll be out to see the Felice Brothers at the 100 Club later in the month too.
Dave and I have been waiting for the Americana revolution to sweep the nation since we were at school. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that, with a few exceptions, the kids (at least where we live) just aren’t interested in the sound of a steel guitar. And although we’ve still got thick heads of hair, we’re certainly catching up with the baldies age-wise. The bands we go and see just have to get used to polite applause rather than vigorous whooping.
On Friday night I saw a great gig by Sarah Harmer at the Borderline which I imagine has played host to more artists that have featured in No Depression than any other London venue. My wife and I are the only Brits I know who have heard of Sarah Harmer so I expected a small, and probably older crowd. I was pleasantly surprised to find the audience not only youthful but also containing quite a lot of girls. A sea change in British attitudes to Americana? Sadly not. I think we were among only a handful of people there who were not Canadian.
Carnival Saloon – my twangy MP3 blog. Please stop by.