Last night we went to see Rush playing at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs. This was my first time seeing them in more than twenty years, and I'd decided if there was one band I'd really like to see again, even enough to brave a crowded hall full of raucous fans, it was Rush.
The drive out to Saratoga Springs went all right though we arrived a little later than planned due to a detour, some traffic, and an unplanned stop, but we had plenty of slack in the timeline and assigned seats so nothing bad came of that. I had pulled my right rear calf muscle earlier in the day so the steep climb to the footbridge over the highway from the west parking lot to the path to the arena was a bit of a strain.
The venue itself seemed disorganized and like it was mostly counting on the visitors to already be familiar with how things worked. It's not like I expect a stadium that hosts rock concerts to be a sparkling model of customer service. But they didn't even have signs suggesting where the (far too few) bathrooms were, or how to find the right part of the arena where your seats were, or even where to go next.
A lot of people said that I would love SPAC, and I can see how it might be a good venue for some kind of events, despite having seats so tiny and close together that even Siobhan was crammed in. It was a nice blend of indoor and outdoor, at least. But it turns out it was a terrible, terrible venue for a rock concert, and I will not be returning.
The first problem is that the sound quality was abysmal. I don't expect a live concert to be as crystal-clear as a CD player and headphones, of course. But these speakers were almost nothing but hiss and crackle. You literally couldn't tell in some songs when Neil stopped playing the cymbals or high-hat because every other sound tended to come out as the same kind of hiss. I don't know how much of the blame to place on SPAC; maybe the problem was in the band's equipment or its setup, though I find that far less likely.
The previous times I'd seen Rush were back in Nassau Coliseum, which is much, much bigger than SPAC. Sitting in the back sections up pretty high, I was farther away from the stage then than the entire width or length of SPAC. And yet, I could see the band at Nassau Coliseum far, far better. Again, SPAC can only take part of the blame, because of how the rows were so close together and each row was only a tiny bit higher than the previous one. The biggest problem was the crowd.
Apparently it's now standard for rock concerts to be held in a completely standing position. Everyone gets a chair and promptly ignores it. This is a kind of mass stupidity, in my opinion, because so long as everyone stands, no one actually gets a better view than they would have had if everyone sat. Except maybe a few tall people, and if so, they're explicitly getting it selfishly at the cost of their neighbors. In my teenage years, people didn't do this, at least not at the venues I went to on Long Island (and it's so rare to find a way that my generation wasn't as stupid as later ones, so I should probably revel in it!).
Standing for three hours needlessly would be a discomfort at most (made worse by that strained calf muscle), but something I'd be willing to endure to see Rush. In fact I had it in mind before buying the tickets that that was a possible outcome. (It's one of the reasons I don't go to big concerts of big names these days. You don't get this kind of sheep-like conformity to foolishness at Bobs concerts.) But combined with the fact that the rows were so close together and so lightly sloped, the result was, if anyone in the 30 rows in front of you was taller than you, you probably weren't going to get to see anything. This is the view I had, from eye level, while standing:
This was actually an unusually good moment for a view because a woman three rows ahead of us had her head down at that moment. It's the shortest dark lump in the middle. When her head was up, her ponytail tended to block most of the drum set, which is all you can really see in this picture (it's the blurry shape in the center lit in green lights -- wasn't blurry for me, of course). If I strained onto tiptoes I could see a little bit more, but I couldn't do that for three hours (especially with that pulled muscle), and even if I had, I could barely see anything anyway.
I kept thinking, hey Geddy, just tell everyone to sit down and they will. You're probably the only person who could do it and have it happen, too. Of course he didn't. Though I've heard of other bands doing so. Some bands, and some venues, have made some attempt to reverse the "everyone stands" thing, perhaps because they see how it really benefits no one and hurts the shorter (or older, or disabled) people, or perhaps just because they don't want to lose customers.
But nothing else would have worked. Even if a bunch of people simultaneously sat down, it wouldn't be enough to get everyone else to sit down. Heck, if 95% of us magically chose the same moment to sit, the other 5% would still have no reason to sit. Once some people stand, everyone else has to stand. Makes me wonder why people don't go the next step and stand on top of their chairs (I was tempted at times) -- as long as everyone does it, it'll hurt everyone and benefit no one, but if one person does it, everyone else has to. It's the logical next step in mob stupidity.
On the up side, for a rock concert, there was surprisingly little weed in the air. I only got a few mild breezes of it. I saw one person being kicked out for using it, too. Maybe SPAC takes it more seriously, or maybe times have changed, I don't know.
You've noticed I haven't said much about the show, for the obvious reason that I could barely see or hear it. What I could see struck me as being a good show. The band was in solid form. They weren't deviating hardly at all from the album recordings; even the solos were mostly note-for-note, and there was only a minimum of running around, talking to us, or anything else other than the set list. (Of course, that might have come later.) The pyrotechnics were solid and only rarely distracting. The set dressing was fascinating and made me want to get a better look -- lots of steampunk brass-and-chrome stuff (the drum set was particularly cool in that regard). The video stuff they played on the screen behind the band was sometimes distracting (might have been less so if I could see the band) and if it added much I didn't see how, but maybe it was just not for me. The performances were crisp, polished, energetic, and of course, masterfully skillful.
But since we could neither see nor hear it very well, when the intermission break came, we decided to leave. No sense enduring those discomforts and facing a later drive home (as it is we got home around 1am) just for the chance to choose between watching the back of a teenager's head, or the back of his shirt. It would have been nice to see the solos, but not worth it to stay just to not see them.
SPAC must be a great venue for something, since so many people told me I was going to love it. I'm not sure what kind of things they do there and whether it works well for them. They certainly get a lot of great bands, but even if I felt like the crowd at a Tom Petty/CSN show wouldn't stand all night, I still doubt it'd be worth the high cost, the long drive, and the discomfort, to endure bad sound and a bad view. Add the "everyone stands" factor, and it's definitely not worth it. I won't be coming back to SPAC.