I ordered tickets in advance.
That was the first mistake of my first rock show, which, for the purposes of this piece, will be defined as a concert by a small-time band in a small venue. I’ve been to plenty of big and medium-sized musical performances and some relatively large local gatherings, but never anything like this – a three-band show in a downtown bar that is shaped like a piece of pie and holds 50-100 people. I chose the event almost at random. Saw mention of it on Twitter, checked out one of the bands online and decided to go. Just for the experience. (And, yes, this probably means I live to blog. Sigh.)
Turns out the $6 tickets weren’t even tickets. They were green wristbands, like the kind you need to buy beer at a baseball game. They turned out to be plenty necessary as folks filtered in and out of the venue – Latitude 44, situated rather nicely between music meccas Manhattan and Seattle not to mention on the backside of my favorite bakery – throughout the three-hour event. They went outside to smoke or eat – a food truck set up shop there for the night, slinging some insanely sweet and spicy cheeseburger sliders – or to bask in an idyllic evening. Never know how many of those you’ll get in the Dakotas.
The bands, regional outfits, understood that and made the out of doors as their guerilla green room. Eventually, headliner Universe Contest would use the space to apply heavy face paint that made them look like Chris Doleman … if the former Minnesota Vikings great were white, skinny and in his early 20s.
“Lot of whites in here,” the long-haired lead singer proclaimed at one point. He didn’t say it with pride; it was more of an honest observation. Honesty and humor, it seems, are important to Universe Contest. Included in the free CDs it gave away after the show was a note. It quoted a publication that proclaimed the band the third-best new group in Nebraska in 2011.
That’s not to say the room lacked for stylistic diversity. There were braids and derby hats and beards – the kind that would make James Harden jealous – and tattoos. Lots of tattoos, at least half of them on women. And then there was ink-free me, wearing sneakers, jeans and a supposedly old t-shirt, tucked away on a leather chair in the back of the room. Just taking it in, nursing a couple $3 craft beers. (Shout out to small-city prices.)
The first act – from Brookings, a nearby college town – was fronted by a tall, thick Native American dude in a long-sleeved grey shirt. His guitar-carrying wingmen wore oxford shirts and very well might have been accounting majors. Don’t ask me to classify their music. Frankly, what stood out most was the frontman’s patter: dry, awkward and undeniably likeable. Remember when I wrote about trying to emcee a cupcake show to the moving masses in a mall? This moment was that for this guy. We became kinsmen. I appreciated him for that.
Act 2 was … heavy, man. Think Black Sabbath or Anthrax – right down to the jaw-swallowing beards – with no lyrics. You don’t go that route unless you’re really feeling it. The floor lighting on stage added to the semi-sinister slant.
One of the older ladies in the crowd, probably in her 50s, bobbed her head throughout. Later, she incriminated herself as the mom of a member, Exhibit No. 8,375,941 as to why moms have their own day.
During this time, the guys from Universe Contest were roaming around, mixing in with the crowd to the point that they were impossible to identify. Turned out they’re fairly new to the road. They slept in a van the night before in Omaha, according to their new bass player, and were prepared to do so again before heading back to Lincoln, Neb. … for a college graduation ceremony. (What? Did you know what you wanted to do at age 22?) That’s a lot of trouble for a maybe 25-minute show. Yes, about 25 minutes. The CDs they handed out afterward were roughly twice as long.
You won’t find that at a stadium show (unless Axl Rose is involved), and the brevity caught me off guard. But it didn’t diminish the performance. Not for me, and not for the greying, 40-something in the slim cardigan, who hopped about by himself throughout the set, carving a crooked path between the stage area and the bar. The plugs in his ears did nothing to deter the enjoyment.
Universe Contest is good, simple as that, with more potential to be enjoyed by wider audiences than their counterparts. Some critics have compared them to Modest Mouse, whatever that means. I’d put it this way: Their upbeat stuff was reminiscent of The Darkness (you remember, “I believe in a thing called love,” right?) and their slower pieces would fit in as background music during a scenic shot on Grey’s Anatomy. Even the very minimal exposure I had to them beforehand paid off in that their songs were familiar, welcoming. And they were stuck in my head the next day.
Is Universe Contest going to “make it”? I have no idea; I’m not even sure how to define that. For now, it’s simpler than that, just five guys touring the region, hanging out, drinking beers, creating and playing music, entertaining friends and strangers and curious bloggers who ordered non-existent tickets in advance.