The crowd is the show

It may take years to assess the impact of Covid-19 on the live-music environment. Our most established local venues in Woodstock and Marlboro and elsewhere are slouching back to life as we speak. None wants to take unnecessary risks, all want to ensure the safety of their patrons. No one wants to be a pin drop on a cluster map. Protocol will be strict, and we’ll see how it goes.

Frankly, what I worry about more is the future of the kind of venue called listening rooms.

In the language of working musicians and hustling songwriters, “listening room” means something special – something that has little to do with physical venues per se. Certainly the words evoke a woody warmth, vaulted ceilings and the funky, high-character particulars of repurposed performance spaces in churches, shopfronts, galleries, museums, functional halls, old homes and their outbuildings, and living rooms: small, intimate and, we hope, acoustically flattering, the Victorian plumbing and HVAC notwithstanding.


But for players, none of that is what makes “listening room” shows so desirable and often prestigious despite their grassroots, potluck modesty. The words are code, actually. They translate to: an audience, a reliable, proven audience of a known character and composition.

The artists come to see that audience and to marvel. They come to experience a culture of close, ritualized attention to performance. They come to carve their names into a legacy of heightened evenings in cool spaces. Make no mistake: the crowd is the show. It is their relationships, rituals and communal intentions on display. The musicians are the help.

Music isn’t the wallpaper. The wallpaper (curling, yellowed, but William Morris) is the wallpaper. Music is the thing. Money isn’t the thing, but listening-room communities – radical patrons in their own way – dig a little deeper when hats are passed. Thus, the shows often have one final pleasant surprise in store for performers, as if you weren’t already humbled enough by a crowd that ripples with laughter at the passing puns in your lyrics.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that young bands enjoy the enormous advantage of the spontaneous, easily mobilized fan base. In listening-room culture, an older crowd shows the kids the finer points of how this music-sent, music-received thing really works.

I wonder if our confidence in each other is irreparably shaken. I wonder if listening rooms — and the Hudson Valley was rich in them — are coming back.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.