Indie-rock. Disco DJs. Raves. Traditional religious worship services. In the same venue and for a common purpose?
“They are, in fact, descriptions of experiences which took place at popular music events under the powerful influence of highly amplified rhythmic music in combination with repetitive movement, unusual lighting and other consciences-altering factors…” This is an excerpt from the introduction of Robin Sylvan’s 2002 book Traces of the Spirit that begins with fans and music writers describing some of their most transcendent religious experiences which Sylan’s later reveals as experiences that took place at live performances of their favorite band.
I credit Sylvan’s book, among others, for giving me the much needed sociological and creative fodder for Live Exhaust. This is the first and certainly not the last time I’ll mention his name or his book which examines how fans via the Grateful Dead, hip hop, metal and rave sub-cultures, have not necessarily abandoned traditional religious experience but are finding those experiences by seeking them out in similar religious experiences in popular live music culture communities.
I’ve been going to church since I was a child and have had several worship and/or musical experiences in a church setting—usually induced by a live band—and have heard several sermons on the actual meaning of the word “church—which is usually misunderstood as a four-walled structure and not taken in the intended and broader sense as a group of people, regardless of place, who have gathered and come together because of a common belief or purpose. And in a live rock music context the intended idea of “church” can take on different meanings depending on who’s playing but always describes a gathering that’s as Sylvan describes is unify by the common desire to enjoy the same type of music or experience because of what the music of choice does to you psychologically, socially and physiologically. And in some cases, even though the purpose and objects of worship might be completely different, the live rock music scene or venue can in most cases more accurately describe the broader meaning of “church,” more so than an actual church.
In a current popular music context, as Sylvan discusses, a characteristic of the gathering of people who are seeking a common religious experience showed up in the early touring choices of Toronto indie-rock band Arcade Fire who for the first several shows of the 2007 Neon Bible tour played only churches (the four walled kind) and cathedrals. So by their specific location choices and having been deemed one of the most popular live shows currently touring, the Arcade Fire and their fans(a community that grows larger every show) are coming together at sold out shows to experience a deeply emotional and transcendent experience. Does this mean anything significant that we should pay attention to? On some level yes, it does. It shows that religion—what ever that may mean to you—is still important to us as music fans. Whatever your object of worship, rock and roll, Jesus Christ or another religion or where you spend time and money to enjoy live music says a lot about us as live music fans and where we’re going to seek out religious experiences, if you’re not going to a traditional church per se. Many musicians have sung about how rock n roll saving their soul and I know they weren’t saying that lightly. It was truer than we probably realize. And since rock n roll has its roots in spiritual music it doesn’t surprise me that many live music fans encounter their spiritual side or have a transcendent moment at a live show. I know I’ve done so numerous times, maybe even more than I’ve had inside an actual church, but when the Arcade Fire decided to play their highly rapturous rhythms in a traditional church setting it made me think more about what goes on inside my heart and brain when I’m in a traditional church or rock n roll’s church, a concert venue.
Putting together this post has forced me to think deeper about whether I’ve had more intense or revelatory experiences at a rock concert or a traditional church setting. And I will probably have to dig deeper and come back with an answer later, but I know I have wished numerous times that the emotions or celebratory freedom I experience at live rock show would somehow translate to the church setting or vice versa. In his book, Sylvan notes several times that fans reached their spiritual peek without the use of hallucinogenic drugs and rely solely on the power of the music to reach their spiritual peek so if you wondering if this discussion about having religious experiences at a live show involves the use of drugs, for this post, it does not, but I know many fans do use drugs to enhance their experience and I plan to get into that discussion on a later post.
So tell me, what have been some of your most transcendent or religious moments at a live rock show? Do you see a blending of church and rock n roll, as well?