Sunday, November 04, 2012

Add Minus the Bear to your list of live bands (or: How to find a paying fan)

Minus the Bear has for years been on my list of band to see live. Their entry onto that list and my introduction to them occurred simultaneously. I have always remembered it as an example of the right way to disseminate and monetize music, proof that even in the era of post-physical music media, there is a way to cheaply find new - and hopefully paying - fans.

It was the summer of 2006 and I was making the drive from Northern California to Vancouver, BC, where I was a grad student. Minus the Bear's eponymous classic Menos El Oso had recently hit stores. I was only vaguely familiar with the band by name only, but somehow managed to get an in-studio performance they did at KEXP in Seattle downloaded onto my iPod. (I think I had subscribed to the radio station's podcast feed and it magically appeared there.) I decided to give the 30-minute podcast a shot and was subsequently blown away by what I heard. The podcast host was very enthusiastic about the band as well, which no doubt colored my impression. But it was undeniably good, unique and interesting music. Before I busted across the border, I decided to rid myself of the remaining American cash I had and headed to a record store somewhere there in the Pacific Northwest. The glitchy delays of "The Game Needed Me" from the in-studio were still echoing in my mind and I happily threw down enough bones to buy the CD (as well as The Avalanche by Sufjan Stephens, which is also solid). It's a purchase I never regretted, and those tunes carried me throughout my final year of J-school.

Fast forward to last Thursday and I found out with only a few hours to spare that Minus the Bear would be playing that night at Warehouse Live in Houston. With nothing better to do, I went and checked them out.

First of all, I had no idea they had such a dedicated following. That's a hard venue to sell out, and I don't think it did, but the place was utterly hopping with gleeful fanatics - people packed in, just giddy with anticipation. It was one of those electric pre-show atmospheres where people are just so excited to see the band that they let out a pre-emptive cheer before anyone is even on the stage. When the band finally did emerge, almost every song turned into some sort of singalong followed by sincere, unadulterated gratitude in the form of ovation. 

And they deserved it. They were tight.  Guitarist Dave Knudson is the real deal, a joy to watch and listen to. The most telling sign of the loyalty of their fan base (or perhaps an indication of the crowd's intoxication level, which was notably high) came when the band seemed to fuck up the end of one song. Not being very familiar with many tracks other than those from Menos el Oso, I didn't notice anything at first. But the song did seem to end rather abruptly, and the band members were looking around a bit sheepishly. It was then that a deafening uproar arose from the crowd, possibly the loudest moment of the night. Slightly baffled at this reaction, lead singer Jake Snider just kind of laughed, amazed. "Most people woulda said, 'I caught you,'" he said, still riding the wave of support the crowd was offering. The band then proceeded into the next song as if nothing had happened, and no one seemed the wiser.

As I said, I recognized a total of maybe four songs, including "My Time", which I had listened to for the first time only moments before I left for the show. While enjoyment of a concert is usually directly proportional to one's familiarity with the music, I still had a blast. I would see them again. The enthusiasm of the crowd definitely helped. There was more crowd surfing than you might expect from a mathy stoner-rock band like this one. There must have been a half dozen bodies hoisted up to ride the sweaty whitecaps, all told. Houston is apparently some sort of bastion of Minus the Bear fandom. The band acknowledged as much at the end of the show.

For me, it was the climax of a simple story set in this unsettled era of popular music - I heard the band in a promotional spot, liked the music, bought the music, enjoyed it, and then went to seem them play it.  If nothing else, it offers hope to young bands out there trying to make it. I guess it helps if you have something original to offer, as Minus the Bear surely does. 

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