A Few Thoughts on Concrete Blonde, iPads, and Entertainment vs. Artistry

Earlier tonight, I was up at Warehouse Live, watching and listening to Johnette Napolitano, quasi-iconic singer/guitarist for Concrete Blonde. And yeah, she sounded great. She’s got a voice that’s powerful and massive, as primal and unique as Billie Holiday (her idol, apparently) or Nina Simone, and as a casual Concrete Blonde fan — my wife’s the real fan — I have to say that she played the songs I knew really damn well.

Only three songs in, though, something happened that threw the whole rest of the performance off, for me, and made it hard to actually enjoy the show.

We got to the club early, because my wife was bound and determined to be right at the stage for the show, and that meant that when we rolled in there were only a handful of other people there. One die-hard couple had already staked out their spot at the stage (they didn’t leave the spot the rest of the night), a couple of other lone fans sat by themselves at the back, and we sat down near a mom and her 14-year-old (or so) daughter. We noticed the latter mostly because the kid was the youngest person in the room by a good decade — most of the Napolitano/Concrete Blonde fans tended to be middle-aged, like us.

Opener Dane Sonnier went on to a mostly-empty room, but he soldiered through it admirably, playing and singing some truly excellent songs that I’d really like to hear again. His voice walked the line between John Popper (Blues Traveler) and Blind Faith-era Steve Winwood, and he peppered the set with warm-hearted stories about his kids, who he assured us were both badasses (his words, not mine). He was good enough that I really wish more people had been there to see it, but it was pretty clear who the slowly-building crowd was there to see.

Naturally, as soon as Ms. Napolitano walked out on the stage, people pulled out their cellphones and cameras, taking pictures and filming like everybody and their brother does these days. I didn’t really think much of it, until Napolitano started stopping songs to point at people in the crowd and grumble angrily, “First strike. Three strikes, and you’re gone.”

At first, I didn’t even know what she was talking about; she was only about half-intelligible even from where I was standing, right at the stage, and all I saw were people standing there with their phones in their hands. After she did it a few more times, though, I clued in that it was those phones she was mad about — she was telling people taking pictures and filming that she didn’t like it, and if they didn’t stop, she’d have them kicked out of the venue.

To be fair, when I realized the issue, I shrugged. I’ve been at shows before where the performer flat-out didn’t want pictures taken, and I’ve been the performer up on the stage when somebody blinded me with a flash, so I get it.

At the next song, though, things escalated somewhat. When she caught one of the die-hard couple who’d been at the stage from the start of the night taking pictures, Napolitano called her out, annoyed, and smacked down any attempts the woman made to assuage her. Then she turned and saw the 14-year-old standing right in front of her, holding up her iPad, and lost it completely.

She snarled angrily and brusquely at the kid, telling her to get that fucking thing out of her face and that she was gone; then she asked the venue staff to remove her from the place. Boom, and that was it. The kid’s face fell, crushed by Napolitano’s sudden viciousness, and her panicked mother moved in quickly to hustle her away from the stage before she broke down completely.

My wife and I were stunned, and I think most of the rest of the crowd were, as well. We couldn’t honestly believe what we’d just witnessed. For her part, the singer went on breezily, telling us all that it was disrespectful for people to film artists like that, and then she threw it all onto the audience, telling us that it was disrespectful to us, since we’d paid money to see the show. And then she went on.

I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor kid, and it pretty much poisoned the whole rest of the show for me — and for my longtime-fan wife, as well. Towards the end of the set, I couldn’t take it anymore and quietly fled the stage to go hang out near the bar; I felt ill, frankly. I looked around at the back of the room, trying to see if maybe the kid and her mom had stayed and hid out, but if they did, I couldn’t find them.

Did I take it a little too hard? Sure, maybe, but I kept thinking, “What if that was my daughter who’d just been publicly humiliated and kicked out, and by a musician she (probably) idolized?” She would’ve been destroyed, completely.

A lot of things have been rumbling around in my head these past few hours, so I feel like I need to get them out of my head; here goes:

  • That teenager was way, way out of her comfort zone to begin with, presumably begging her mom (who didn’t look like she wanted to be there at all) to take her to the show, where she would’ve realized she was the only kid in attendance. She got there earlier than 90% of the people in the venue specifically so she could plant herself right smack-dab in front of where Ms. Napolitano was going to be sitting, and she brought out her iPad because, hey, that’s what kids these days do. And for that, she was cruelly, personally kicked out, in front of everyone else in attendance.

  • Like I said above, I get not liking people taking photos and videos of you while you perform. You don’t want that happen? Fine. The problem here is that nobody ever actually said “no photos or videos allowed.” It wasn’t mentioned when I bought the tickets, there were no signs posted, and Napolitano herself didn’t even actually say it — she just started threatening people, seemingly randomly. If you’re going to go so far as to kick people out of a show, well, you need to set the ground rules and make sure everybody understands them.

  • Even if you don’t spell out a policy like the above, there’re good ways and bad ways to handle it. If Napolitano had looked at the kid with the iPad and calmly said, “Could you please put that away? It’s distracting, and I don’t like them at my shows.” I guarantee you that kid would’ve stowed the device, immediately.

  • As a side note to that, despite her rambling about “three strikes,” Napolitano gave the kid exactly one. She warned five or six other people in the crowd; they got multiple chances, and I didn’t see anybody else get escorted out. For the crime of bringing her iPad, however, that one poor youngster got ejected, something that sure as hell isn’t fair, whatever else it may be. If you’re going to have rules like the ones I saw in effect this evening, you’d damn well better apply them equally.

  • I was really put off by the reasoning Napolitano gave for kicking out the kid with the offending iPad. She put it squarely on the rest of us, claiming that it was really for our benefit and not hers. We’d paid our money, after all, right? Well, guess who else paid their money? The tickets to the show weren’t cheap, even by Warehouse Live standards — I’d bet this was a big deal to that kid, to either save her own money or get her parents to buy the tickets for her. Why does my ticket-buying somehow trump hers? She wasn’t hurting me in any way; heck, I didn’t even realize she had the iPad out, and she wasn’t using a flash at all.

  • Why is taking the picture of a performer inherently disrespectful? Again: I get it; I never liked people taking my picture, either. But if you get up on a stage, and people pay to see you, you are an entertainer, first and foremost. You’re an artist as well, certainly, but at the end of the day, you get paid because people are there — if nobody shows up, you don’t get a paycheck. And hey, didn’t we just establish that paying to see a show affords you some expectation of enjoying that show? The stage isn’t church; it’s not some sacred space, no matter how much you’d like it to be. If you don’t like something that’s happening out in the audience, you tell the people doing it to stop, and in most cases, they will.

That’s my take on it, as best as I can express it; feel free to disagree.

At the end of it all, though, I keep coming back to the thought that somewhere out in Houston tonight, there’s a kid who’s been shattered by somebody she idolized, and for nearly no goddamn reason at all. She was excited, and showed up early, and paid her money, and because of the very artist she’d been looking forward to seeing, she’s now experienced what may rank as one of the worst, most humiliating nights of her life.

And to my own shame, nobody, none of the adults in the room — me included — called Napolitano on it when we could have. I really, truly wish I had; maybe that little girl would’ve gotten to see the show after all.

Again, I’ll admit that I may be overreacting. Maybe the kid is fine, and she’s tough, she can shrug it off; if that’s the case, great. At the very least, though, Ms. Napolitano’s lost the respect of three now-former fans — the kid, me, and my wife. And that’s a shame for everybody involved.

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9 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on Concrete Blonde, iPads, and Entertainment vs. Artistry”

  1. Samuel Barker on May 23rd, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Yeah, man…it was a pretty sad night of music for me. I brought my daughter to the show, as well. She got into Concrete Blonde after hearing my album and while walking back to the car, she just said, “That show was sad…” When I inquired what she meant, she just said “It was just sad…I wish I hadn’t come…” I think that about sums it up. I was covering it and just can’t bring myself to even review it because I don’t have much to say about it. Outside of the young girl, it seemed completely disjointed and Napolitano seemed ill-prepared. Plus, $27 a ticket and you only got a half-assed hour of music? Glad you ran this, it summed it all up.

  2. Dean on May 23rd, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Wow. That’s really harsh.

    I can understand the anger and frustration of it on the performer’s part. As someone who doesn’t perform on stage but who does attempt to talk to people face-to-face on a regular basis, nothing more flatly indicates that a person is not experiencing what you’re expressing to them than putting a communications device between you when they don’t have to. It feels different with an actual camera – everyone knows that you’re at least focused on the show, even if you may be lost in getting the right shot at the wrong moment. I can’t imagine how alienating it is to look out at a sea of people who, by their attendance and ticket-buying must care about you and understand you, and see even those people walling themselves off.

    All that being said, WAY out of line. You’re 100% right about the nice way to handle it – that kid would have put the iPad away and maybe never brought it to a show again, because it would have shown her that how she acts is important to the artist. It might have even been affirming in the end. But this? Yeah, that kid is gonna have a hard time going to ANY concert again, if she feels anything like I imagine she does.

    It sucks that no one stood up for her, but on the other hand I’d never blame anyone for not knowing what to do in a situation like that.. It’s hard enough to switch gears from “relaxing and enjoying this concert” to “defending the innocent” on a dime – and when the person you want to defend them from is the person you were there to give yourself to, well. Very few people (if any) would handle that situation the way we all wish we would.

    I hope Ms. Napolitano is able to exorcise her demons more carefully next time, and I hope that the kid has a good support network for dealing with this incident.

  3. Mario on May 23rd, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    what a damn shame. poor kid

  4. Samuel Barker on May 23rd, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    I was a pretty “bang-bang” moment…I wasn’t even sure what happened until it was over. She was berating the lady in front of her and said something like “Well, thanks again for interrupting me…” strummed a few chords and suddenly kicked the young girl out. In the girl’s defense, from the left side of the stage, I wasn’t sure what Napolitano was freaking out about. I thought it was people talking. The girl was in my sightline and I didn’t even notice the screen light up, so I’m not even 100% sure she was using the iPad, she just had it hanging around her neck on something…plus, in the dark, I wasn’t sure how old the girl was, etc. It was just a horrible moment from a horrible show…

  5. Vincent on May 23rd, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    I used to be a Concrete Blonde fan, but that all ended a couple of years ago after I posted what I thought was a great phone video (no flash, filmed from the second level) of their last live performance here. I honestly didn’t know that wasn’t ok, and if she had asked me to remove it, I would have done so right away. Instead, she reported me to YouTube and tried to have my account removed. That left a very bad taste in my mouth. Johnette is quite mean-spirited. Go ahead and be rude; I won’t be your fan, and I certainly won’t spend any more money on shows/ etc. to support your work.
    I’m a musican and performer, and I don’t care if people want to film the performance/take photos without a flash. It’s entertainment; it’s a show. Some performers really need to get over themselves.

  6. Dane Sonnier on May 24th, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Thanks very much for the kind words. I’m glad I got to play that show, even to only a few people. I can say with all certainty that the headliner possessed a hair-trigger temper. She was incredibly gracious to me after i performed, but presented a vibe that she was not one to be challenged. Very sorry that she took out her frustrations on that young lady. One only gets one chance to make a first impression, and being publicly called out by an artist you respect is, I’m sure, mortifying.
    Again, thanks for the kind words.

  7. Jeremy Hart on May 27th, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Thanks, Dane! I’m sorry the crowd was a little sparse at that point in the evening, but you were excellent all the same. We walked away very impressed… :)

  8. Sarah on June 8th, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Damn. I wish we could find that kid. That’s completely unacceptable behavior on Napolitano’s part. I can’t imagine ever treating the people who are there to see you play as if they are the enemy. If you’ve got that attitude, what’s even the point?

  9. Jeremy Hart on June 8th, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    Agreed completely, Sarah; I wish I knew even what her name was. :\

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