For as long as I can remember, I've been reading music reviews in Memphis' various newspapers. Perhaps it's time for someone to review the audience. I've picked my concerts carefully, ever since I realized that people don't know how to act in public anymore. In Tunica, a Santana concert turned into a drunken frat party and some button-downed buzz-cut sloshed a beer down my back. I passed up tickets for Steely Dan because the show was on Mud Island. Afterwards, a friend told me tales of shouting drunks screaming their conversations over the band's music and wanting to fight when asked to keep it down. Where we once went to concerts to get high and listen to the music, now it's to get drunk and party. For me to attend a show these days, the artist has to be unique, and I need a reserved seat and an unobstructed view of the stage.
When I bought tickets to see Nancy Wilson with Arturo Sandoval at the Cannon Center, I expected an older, more sophisticated crowd. I imagined that the rarely seen Ms. Wilson would surely draw a more musically knowledgeable audience, one that would appreciate the two jazz legends. Not a chance. The event quickly descended into another Memphis embarrassment, complete with heckling, crowd misconduct, and admonishments from the promoter.
The performance drew only a half-filled house, yet still people came late. Thirty and 40 minutes into the concert, ushers with flashlights were still making rows of people stand to accommodate the tardy arrivals, who seemed oblivious to the distraction they were causing. Maybe some of the attendees thought they were going to see one of those guitar-playing Wilson sisters in the band Heart. At some point, "fashionably late" becomes unreasonably rude. After all, this was Nancy Wilson at the Cannon Center, not Meat Loaf at the Coliseum.
The opening act was world-class Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. The Grammy-winning artist and his quartet had played four polished jazz instrumentals when some boorish lout yelled, "We want Nancy." Sandoval replied, "I want her too, and she'll be here soon." But after the next song, the shouts rang out again. The now aggravated Sandoval said, "We're contracted to play here for a certain period of time," before his words were drowned out by applause from the supportive crowd. An uneasiness fell over the room as the flustered musician continued, "I've never had anybody shout out at me like this before. I hope this won't be our special memory of Memphis." Voices of protest and encouragement and a smattering of applause erupted in the darkness. The Latin jazz virtuoso added, "In 50 years, no one has ever shouted at me like this." I wanted to sink down in my seat and cover my head while the insulted Sandoval played a blistering trumpet solo, seemingly to spite his detractors, and then stalked off stage, pausing only momentarily to acknowledge the standing crowd.
After intermission, the concert promoter and head of Cultural Arts For Everyone (CAFE), Rebecca Edwards, interrupted her welcoming remarks and the announcement of the nonprofit organization's 10th anniversary to assist some patrons in locating their seats. Edwards scolded the crowd that Sandoval would return to the stage later and was deserving of a standing ovation.
When the house lights dimmed and Nancy Wilson appeared in a stunning red dress and a boot on her broken ankle, little white rectangles began to light up all over the hall. It's not sufficient to merely attend and enjoy a concert anymore. Now, everyone has to record it on their cell phone and maybe get some hits on YouTube later. Ms. Wilson responded positively to the obligatory audience shouts of "We love you," until one woman began a personal dialogue with the artist about how much the songs meant to her and her husband. During a dramatic pause at the end of the showcase song "Guess Who I Saw Today," a man yelled something unintelligible. Before the return of Sandoval and the unspontaneous love-fest that was to come, my wife and I left the building, wondering exactly when decorum died.
I've seen recent concerts in Nashville — including Van Morrison at the Ryman Auditorium and Steely Dan at Starwood Amphitheatre — that were memorable. Maybe because Nashville has so many residents who are musicians or friends of musicians, they show a little more reverence for the music. But obnoxious audiences spring up in every part of Memphis, in all types of venues. This is why I haven't performed in a club in five years. I finally grew weary of being background noise for diners and drunks, and I thought there must be something else I can do. That's why you're reading me instead of hearing me. We don't need to personally interact, and I can read your comments at my leisure.
I admire the persistence of Rebecca Edwards in her continuing quest to bring cultural experiences to Memphis. I would have thrown up my hands long ago, since I subscribe to the adage "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." After an endless caravan of yesterday's country stars and geriatric rock bands, perhaps jaded Memphis audiences take live music too much for granted. I believe, however, that an artist with the stature of Nancy Wilson deserves better. And at these ticket prices, so do I.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.