A hot damp breeze blew across the infield as a bank of dark clouds rolled in. The crowd collectively braced against the first fat drops of rain. On stage, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss moved through a set of songs from their collaborative album, Raising Sand, with Plant’s grizzled tenor the salty counterpoint to Krauss’ angelic soprano. No doubt, this was a good show.
Then the whole damn thing kicked up about a thousand notches as the band played the opening bars to the Zeppelin classic “The Battle of Evermore.” The raucous crowd fell silent. Grown men had tears in their eyes as they recognized a song that had meant so much to them back in the day. The wind whipped through Krauss’ hair, her image huge on the screens that flanked the stage, her voice wrapping around the tune like a cashmere throw as Plant growled in jagged harmony. At that point, the performance entered some other plane entirely, far above the dusty N’Orleans racetrack where we stood, transfixed. In the minutes that followed, the combination of the music, heavy air, warm rain and raw energy of a couple thousand enthusiasts flipped the sensory switch to overdrive. I’m sure the whole crowd felt it happen. And I’ve never forgotten it.
Most of us have had an experience like this at a concert: a moment of rapturous otherness. Sometimes that feeling is triggered by the music itself; other times, it’s about the venue or the people we’re with or the substances of which we’re partaking. Or it might be something totally unexpected: One friend recalls a concert in Ireland where Van Morrison seemed too drunk to stand, let alone sing. It was hardly a stellar performance, yet this was the concert that my friend mentioned when I asked him to tell me about one of his favorite shows. For him, it was as much about the adventure as it was about the music — a client had surprised him with a helicopter ride to the venue. “Landing just outside the amphitheater was so amazing, it made the whole experience intense,” he said.
I call this the secret sauce factor. It varies from show to show and person to person, but when it’s at work, there’s no doubting the heightened state in which we find ourselves. You can’t count on the secret sauce and you won’t ever know when it’s coming but it is the extra element that distinguishes a good show from an extraordinary one. For example, my husband and elder son often catch multiple shows when the Allman Brothers play their annual stand at New York City’s Beacon Theater. They might see a dud on Monday, followed by a decent show on Thursday and a miraculous concert on Friday. Same musicians, similar set lists, similar seats. But suddenly, they report, the riffs sound fresher, the licks sharper, even the audience seems friendlier and better looking. On those nights, Gregg Allman can look positively boyish.
Perhaps some of the secret sauce’s magic is attributable to crowd psychology or, as some shrink types would explain, the effect of the expressive mob on the individual mind. Freud’s theory on crowd behavior rests on the idea that becoming a member of a crowd unlocks the unconscious mind. So at a concert, the shared experience reverts to the least common denominator, leading to primitive levels of emotional expression. Factors such as anonymity, unity and arousal can also weaken our sense of self-control by distancing us from our own identity and reducing our concern about socially acceptable behavior. The result? An amped-up sensitivity to the environment and a decreased concern for what might happen next, which pretty much sums up the perfect state of mind for a rock concert.
Whether or not you subscribe to the “expressive mob” mumbo jumbo, the truth is you can’t bottle the secret sauce. Experiencing its power is like spotting a double rainbow or finding a pearl in your oyster, a rare and spontaneous phenomenon.
Here’s hoping your next concert is saucy as hell.