Sometime in my junior year of college, either Harvard Business School or Harvard Law School — I forget which one and am too lazy to Google — threw a conference on digital rights management and music with sponsorship from such amazingly long-lived and influential companies as Riffage.com and EMusic.com. They invited musicians Chuck D and They Might Be Giants to be special panelists, and a few of the artists in attendance gave a special concert at the Cambridge House of Blues with entrance limited to conference registrants.
My suitemate Phil somehow scored tickets to this special show and graciously invited me to come along. I had spent years 15 to 17 trading bootleg TMBG Dial-a-Song tapes across the early Internet and yet had never managed to see them perform live. Even though I was far from the throes of TMBG fandom at age 21, I was hardly going to say no.
So Phil and I walked over to the House of Blues and are greeted with an empty room filled with around 150 law dorks. With plans for a late-night show in Brooklyn the very same night, TMBG go on first — at like 6:30 pm — an hour before anyone really thinks about enjoying music. Oddly, only about 40 of these law dorks are the kind of dorks who like They Might Be Giants. I am conflicted about the atmosphere: on one hand I love that I am watching They Might Be Giants play the kind of tiny venue usually rented for funky wedding parties or drunken alumni blasts where ex-young men from semi-secret societies get up on stage and jam, but I also feel bad for They Might Be Giants since this must be the smallest and least gratifying gig they have played since the mid-’80s. John F barks at the soundman the entire time about his monitors, because seriously, what are we all doing here?
After 45 minutes of going through the motions, TMBG file off stage, and the conference folks all head back to the bar to get MC hammered. The next band are some white Southern guys I have never heard of — Spoon. Who’s Spoon, right? I am not sure why they were at this conference in the first place, or in Cambridge, or asked to play with TMBG, but soon they are on stage and start playing away like this is SXSW and we care. Even with the dimmed lights and the bass waves vibrating the air, the entire audience remains at the back of the room near the alcohol. Not a single person returns to the stage nor even bothers to turn around and dignify the band by facing forward. The guys are playing song after song, and literally, not a single person comes within a 2 meter area of the stage. (Hey, I don’t know who these dudes are either.) Britt Daniel starts to get visibly irate and offers an honest plea to the crowd in the way back: Hey, you guys should listen. We are a really good band. No one heeds his orders, and they eventually finish their set. I spent the entire time trying to figure out how they were going to use a phrase sampler sitting on top of an organ, which ended up being used solely on one song and inaudibly at that.
Spoon departs as quietly as they came in, and the crew sets up two turntables: DJ Spooky is in the house. That Subliminal Kid — a man who is aptly and un-ironically labeled “the world’s most pretentious man” by Momus — had been around campus a year before when he gave a “lecture” at the Carpenter Center for our most elite semi-hipsters in the VES department that literally proceeded like: “Using your hands as an instrument… Manipulating the media… Tactile… like… Valentine de Saint-Point… Futurist Manifesto… Here let me show you (Five minutes of scratching) This record is really rare. I am going to pass it around.” I think he was nervous and could not find the mental strength to create any sort of arguments out of his silver-tipped bullet points, but the whole thing involved more pointless name dropping and lightweight obliqueness than a Bible thrown off a cliff.
So Paul Miller comes on, and the law school guys are pumped. They have spent the last two hours ignoring Spoon and getting their drunk on and they are ready to party. Everyone collects around the stage, and within minutes, Paul Miller drops on “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S to huge applause and high anticipation. But in signature DJ Spooky style, he decides to do all sorts of illbient dubby echo shit to the track, making it totally and completely undanceable. The conference attendees, however, are either complete Philistines who don’t understand why this is like Valentine de Saint-Point or just too ethanol’d out to care, and they just start getting DOWN to Pump Up the Volume..ume..ume..ume..ume..ume…….emu… emu… EMU.. ume… wicca-wicca. Like drink in one hand, bad white guy frat party, knees-forward, butt-out jammy dance to ridiculously over-theoretical music noise.
After about 10 minutes of this, I had to go home.