It’s August 1st, 2006. I’m 15 years old. I’m on vacation with my family at a secluded, off-the-beaten path vacation spot on the shores of Lake Michigan. My brother, his best friend Frank and I have tickets to see Butch Walker play this evening. We’ve got a three-hour drive across the state ahead of us before we can walk through the doors of a sweaty, rundown club in the heart of Downtown Detroit for the show. Oh, and it’s the hottest damn day of the year.
Such is the setup for my first-ever concert experience.
Let’s pause for a moment so I can explain the amount of anticipation building throughout my entire body as our moment of departure draws nearer. At this point in time, Butch Walker is my favorite artist on the planet. He’s had a lengthy, all-over-the-place career, from his early days playing guitar in ‘80s hair metal bands to a stint as the frontman for a ‘90s one-hit-wonder called Marvelous 3, all the way to penning hit songs for Avril Lavigne. (He co-wrote “My Happy Ending,” which I know you all remember).
However, I’d only discovered him a year and a half earlier from his sophomore solo LP Letters. That record blew the doors off my newly-teenaged mind. Butch sang with open earnestness and a complete lack of pretense. He was clever and sarcastic, but he was just as frequently heart-on-the-sleeve emotional. He didn’t care about being cool, but he had so much charisma you could feel it radiating out of the speakers—even my shitty computer speakers, playing shitty-quality versions of his songs that I’d downloaded off LimeWire. And the songs themselves, which paired innately hooky power-pop melodies with lyrical confessions poignant enough to crack your heart in two, hit all my musical pressure points.
So yeah, I’m psyched.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, we pile into Frank’s car and head out. My mom cautions us to be careful and all the other standard things you tell your kids when they’re driving across the state to see a rock show in the middle of a somewhat sketchy city. Her worries are probably justified. My brother Andrew is a newly minted legal drinker, having finally turned 21 the month before. I’m a pre-pubescent cross-country kid who probably weighs 100 pounds soaking wet. And to top it all off, it’s a balmy 97 degrees Fahrenheit outside, probably not the safest concert-going climate. Thank god Frank’s car has working air conditioning.
For the most part, the “road trip” segment of the adventure goes off without a hitch. We spin recent records by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Angels & Airwaves, Dashboard Confessional and Butch himself in the CD player and chat about the evening to come. We’re all big fans of Butch and this is the first time seeing him for all of us. It’s going to be something special.
The fun gets momentarily derailed once we actually get to Detroit and realize we have no goddamn idea where we are going. Keep in mind this is 2006, the pre-iPhone and pre-smartphone-with-GPS era, so we’re using a mix of MapQuest printouts and natural sense of direction (spoiler alert: I don’t have any) to find the venue.
“Turn here,” Andrew says.
“OK,” Frank responds, without questioning the guidance of his navigator.
Suddenly, there are no other cars around us and we’re in some back alley right on the banks of the Detroit River. It looks suspiciously like the setting of one of those mob movies where they take some sorry fellow down to the docks and put his feet in cement before tossing him into the water to “swim with the fishes.” I am 95 percent sure we are going to die.
Expletives issue from the front seat.
“You might want to duck down, Craig,” Frank says, matter-of-factly. “Maybe you’ll live a few seconds longer.”
The next five minutes crawl by, my heart pounding way harder than is necessary. I see a guy walk out of a building not so far away and he is definitely carrying a gun. Check that: it’s a dude in a shirt and tie who is carrying a briefcase. I’m weirdly calmed by the fact there’s someone dressed in business-casual garb wandering around this particular back alley. If people walk here after work, it can’t be that bad. Right?
By some stroke of luck, we get out of the sketchy dock area and find our way back to one of Detroit’s main roads. A few minutes later, we’ve parked the car and are approaching a brick building with an impressive-looking stoop and a line wrapped around back. Despite the rapid spike of adrenaline, we made it.
It’s hot as balls out here, I think to myself, as we attach ourselves to the end of the line. I can’t wait until we get inside where it’s air-conditioned.
Luckily, the wait to get in doesn’t feel long. At one point, a charismatic homeless man comes up and starts asking for money. He informs us his name is Papa Smurf and talks for five minutes about I-don’t-remember-what before Frank gives him a couple bucks. The guy in front of us seems less inclined to pony up cash until Papa Smurf starts chatting up his girlfriend. The guy quickly pays Papa Smurf to go away. Well-played, Papa Smurf.
We’d later learn that Papa Smurf is a Detroit legend and has been hanging around this particular concert venue, Saint Andrew’s Hall, for years. He has a Facebook fan page with almost 550 likes, got interviewed by Sport’s Illustrated, and has been praised by everyone from Haley Williams of Paramore to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers. Apparently, he helps bands keep an eye on their vans and gear when they’re setting up or tearing down for shows. Not all heroes wear capes, in other words.
Eventually someone comes around and draws Xs on my hands, because I look so far from 21 it’s not even worth asking if I’ll be drinking tonight. Shortly after, the line starts to move and we’re walking into Saint Andrew’s Hall. It’s here where we learn an important piece of information that would have probably been valuable to know earlier: Saint Andrew’s Hall, circa August 2006, does not have air conditioning. Oh shit.
The temperature outside has maybe dropped a few degrees at this point (from the balmy 97 mentioned earlier), but it’s still firmly in the 90s. The heat, combined with the number of bodies packing into Saint Andrew’s, quickly turns the place into a sauna. By the end of the show, the temperature will climb to at least 110 degrees inside, maybe even hotter, depending on how many people made the good life choice to light up cigarettes during the set. (Sidenote: the best thing the Michigan legislature ever did was ban smoking in restaurants, bars and other similar establishments. Unfortunately, that ban won’t go into effect until May 2010.)
Andrew, Frank and I quickly formulate a plan. We’ll buy one water bottle at the bar and repeatedly refill it in the bathroom downstairs throughout the night. Other recommended strategies for staying cool include dousing your head and face in cold water on every bathroom trip and taking your shirt off to soak it in cold water before returning to the volcano upstairs. Beyond these inventive tactics, though, there’s not much we can do but hope that people won’t smoke. (Spoiler alert: they do.)
Even though it’s hot as hell and I’m already nearing the “dangerously dehydrated” stage from sweating so heavily, I more or less forget my condition when the first band, an outfit called As Fast As, takes the stage. They’re an alternative rock band from Maine that plays extremely catchy power-pop with more than a little southern rock grit thrown in for good measure. I don’t know whether it’s because As Fast As are extremely loud, or because my virgin ears have never been exposed to the volume of a rock show before, but the band’s opening song “Blame it on the Drugs” basically rips out my eardrums and tosses them on the floor to be trampled by the rowdy crowd. Once my ears are sufficiently blown, I enjoy As Fast As thoroughly, particularly their ukulele cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.”
Andrew, Frank and I are more skeptical about the second act, a group of four guys all wearing girl’s jeans and eyeliner. Their songs are also very catchy, however, leading off with a sugar-rush pop-punk anthem called “The Great Escape.” By the time they reach the final song of their set, which contains the instantly memorable chorus hook of “Your voice was the soundtrack of my summer,” I’m sold. That band was Boys Like Girls, who would go on to sell over half a million copies of their then-unreleased debut album, score a Top 20 Billboard Hot 100 hit with a Taylor Swift duet, and launch the semi-successful career of frontman Martin Johnson as a pop songwriter for hire. Go figure.
At this point in his career, Butch Walker is touring in support of The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites, his third solo LP and then-brand-new record. When he and his band take the stage, they torch their way through the album’s proper opener, a glammy, Bowie-indebted rave-up called “Hot Girls in Good Moods.” That title takes on a new meaning in the scorching heat of Saint Andrew’s Hall, because despite the oppressive temperatures, everyone in attendance is clearly ready to rock from the moment Butch arrives.
I’ve been to a lot of concerts since, but I’ve never seen a fan base quite as dedicated to the artist up onstage as at Butch Walker shows, with the possible exception of Springsteen. Butch may not have the biggest following in the world, but he tends to be the favorite artist for probably 95 percent of those who attend his concerts. I once read something like “Butch Walker is not a casual interest,” and that’s true. You’ll rarely see anyone who doesn’t know the word to every song and who isn’t proud to sing along loudly, no matter how off key they sound. That’s impressive any night, considering the (surprising) number of people who go to other artists’ concerts just to hear “the hits.” But it was particularly remarkable that night in August 2006 when we all could probably have been hauled out for heat exhaustion at any given moment.
11 years have passed since that experience, but I still remember it vividly. Butch’s backup singers spraying the crowd with hoses mid-set, in an attempt to fight the heat. Mr. Walker skipping his customary “sip red wine from the bottle” tradition during the song “The Taste of Red,” because it was absolutely too hot for red wine. Seeing songs like “Mixtape” and “Best Thing You Never Had” for the first time, songs that had shaped the soundtrack for the previous two years of my life, and forging even deeper emotional connections to them than before. The riotous encore cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”—at the time enjoying its “song of the summer” status, even though it now feels a hundred years old.
My favorite part, though, came at the end of the main set. Butch used to have this tradition of kicking his band offstage at a certain point, sitting down at a piano, and playing two or three songs completely solo. The songs he played for “piano time” were thematically heavy, to say the least. The first, “Joan,” is about a woman who kills herself to escape an abusive relationship. The second, “Dominoes,” follows a man with Alzheimer’s who sits at the same table every day, playing dominoes with himself because it’s the only way he can remember his late wife. And the third, “Cigarette Lighter Love Song,” was the last song Butch wrote with his former band before going their separate ways to get away from an unsupportive record label.
This is not the kind of material you imagine resonating in a hot, sweaty club full of people hyped up from 60 straight minutes of loud, raucous rock ‘n’ roll. Yet Butch achieved pin-drop ambiance during “Joan,” his voice carrying the emotional story and cutting through the heat like the will of God. It might have been an ungodly 110 degrees, but I still got chills watching him play “Joan” that first time. It remains, to this day, an all-time favorite memory.
A good concert gives you a chance to spend a memorable night with friends, reconvene with songs you love, and cut loose amidst noise blasting out of speakers and hundreds of voices all taking up the same melody. It lasts for a night and then it’s gone, something that can never quite be recaptured or re-experienced, no matter how many photos took or videos recorded on a phone. The best concerts, though, are the ones that stay in your blood and in your bones for months, years or even decades after the house lights come back up. I’m lucky my first concert was one of those.
By the time we got out the door of Saint Andrew’s Hall and back to Frank’s car, I was drenched head to foot and smelling worse than I’d ever smelled in my life. We had a three-hour drive home waiting, it was still hot out, and I was hungry, thirsty, wired and exhausted, all at the same time. Nevertheless, I knew I’d gotten something from that show I would never lose. I washed away the remaining remnants of the concert when we got back to our vacation cottage at three in the morning—the Xs on my hands, the sweat on my skin, the sickly smell of cigarette smoke in my hair. But I never washed away the love for live music I found in that hot-as-Hades club in the middle of Detroit in August 2006. It’s still there, writing these words.