Mass etiquette 

Calling out jackassery at Missoula’s finer cultural events

Granted, the Palace Lounge seems a strange venue for stand-up comedy. It’s like your college basement apartment, full of couches and video games, and it’s perfectly suited for the metal and punk DJ nights or loud live rock shows it usually hosts. But an evening of sitting patiently, listening to a monologue? Well, that seems like a case of just asking for trouble.

Still, we’re a culture of TV junkies, used to “Comedy Central” and late night shows where audiences wait patiently for the punch line. Even in Missoula we understand that when a person is on stage—unless they’re the local bar fly—it’s proper etiquette to listen. So, when a few weeks ago comedians Chris Fairbanks and Todd Barry took the stage at the Palace, it seemed likely that people would know how to act.

As it turned out, most did. More than half the audience sat and laughed and clapped. But a group of hammered girls started loudly giggling and chit chatting during Barry’s routine, as if, suddenly, they were inside any everyday bar with a jukebox background. The girls had no sense or care of the rest of the audience, all of whom had paid a $10 cover, or of Barry, who was delivering golden lines, one after the other, a mere 20 feet away from their yammering. The girls had no sense to leave when people yelled a very candid “Shut up” and then later an even more candid “Shut the fuck up.” Instead, they would pause momentarily to give their confronters a doe-eyed, blank expression that seemed to say, “Who me? But I’m too cute to have to follow the rules.” Or too dumb; it was unclear which.

The thing is, we’ve all failed proper crowd etiquette in one way or the other. We’ve all pushed past people to get to the front of the stage. We’ve all talked a little too loudly during a speech or a movie or an intimate acoustic set. We’ve yelled stupid crap at a live band. I once invaded the space of Faster Pussycat’s guitarist Brent Muscat by petting his silver spandexed leg as he played on stage before he gave me the stink eye. We’re all guilty at some point.

But here’s what the stand-up incident underlined: A few bad apples can ruin a Missoula show. I’m not talking about malicious behavior; if you don’t know that throwing a bottle at a band constitutes bad manners, you’re a lost cause. I’m talking about little acts of idiocy. In a small city like ours, where first impressions can decide out-of-towners’ future tour circuits, even mere jackassery has its impact. Local acts, too, see from night to night the same old, clichéd etiquette breaking.

Local alt-country frontman Bob Wire gets especially irritated with audience members who call out the Lynyrd Skynyrd request, “Freebird!” He sums up the phenomenon by saying, “You might as well be yelling, ‘I’m a moron.’” It seems harmless, but really, when you’re calling out “Freebird” or pleading, “Play something we can dance to” to a rockabilly band, you’re just being a jerk.

There are other concert faux pas. Colin Hickey, former frontman for local dirty rockers The International Playboys, says that people constantly requested dedications to their loved ones as if the Playboys were a top-10 radio station.

“They’d say, ‘Can you dedicate a song to my girlfriend?’” he says. “I hate that shit because you never know the person. And it’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, I’m going to dedicate this next song called ‘Cobra Blood Hangover’ to your girlfriend.’” Wire recalls the time he ended up dedicating “She Took A Lot of Pills And Died” to the bride at a wedding reception. In other words, know thy band.

Bands often experience people trying to talk with them while they’re playing a set. Wire has had people tug at his leg in the middle of a guitar solo to request a song or to ask where the bathroom is. “It’s fun up there but, man, it takes a lot of concentration to keep this bus on the road,” he says. “If I’m doing all the singing and I have to remember all the lyrics and lead the band, I can’t be Joe Social Guy up there, too.”

Also, asking the band if you can sit in with them usually elicits big-time eye rolling. Wire says a man once asked to play harmonica with his band, and when they declined his offer he sat at the bar in the Union Club and played along with them anyway—loud enough for rude distraction.

Aaron Bolton and Chris Henry, part owners of the Badlander and Palace, say they see plenty of drunken etiquette breaking. When the metal band The Sword recently played the Badlander, the crowd became a shoving match in which people got hurled into beer-soaked equipment. Moshing’s fine if that’s your thing, but it has its own rules of etiquette. Being careless with other people’s band equipment or carelessly shoving non-participants crosses the line.

These things happen. I doubt that poor audience-ship will ever end, as long as people are people and as long as people drink enough whiskey and beer and fruity cocktails to lose every possible sense of awareness and filter.

On the flip side, I saw the Bridger Creek Boys, a Bozeman bluegrass band, playing to an empty dance floor at the Badlander last week. They started their set as people chatted at the bar and in the periphery. Finally, after several songs and with a sense of duty, patrons moved to the dance floor. When the band finished a song, everyone would cheer wildly to mask the empty room. Someone even bought the band beers. It was fun music, sure, but you could tell the crowd wanted the band to feel welcome. And I think they did. By the night’s end people were dancing ecstatically, crying “woo hoo” and singing along. The band made it a good night. The crowd made it spectacular.
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