Last night I went to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert in Seattle. I’ve seen them four times now, each time at a different venue. The last show was at Showbox SoDo, which someone next to me who’d apparently also been at that show described as “a barn.” It definitely wasn’t the most evocative or intimate of spaces.
The Neptune theater in the U District is something else again. It’s smaller, for one thing, and has a mythology of its own: there’s the decor, with stained glass images of Poseidon and Amphitrite, and its salvation in part due to repeated showings of the <em>Rocky Horror Picture Show</em>, a Dionysian adventure if ever there was one. It’s a perfect venue for an ensemble like GY!BE, whose concerts one doesn’t so much listen to as experience. An acquaintance described it as going to church, and it’s a bit like that, or how I imagine it being if one’s church experience involves a sense of entranced transport.
I’d describe such an experience as Dionysian, myself: a full sensory immersion into something all-pervasive. GY!BE’s songs often begin softly, and more than once I got annoyed at people’s continuing conversations around me rather than engaging with the sound. Then the volume would rise, additional sonic layers would blanket the room, and soon it was both too loud and too entrancing for anyone to think of other distractions. It’s one of the few events I’ve been to recently where phones were rarely out except to take pictures. A few times I thought of leaving–it was, after all, a school night–but to do so before the music ended and the lights came up was unthinkable.
GY!BE don’t do things like stage banter or taking bows or even telling you what the names of the songs are. And yet they engage their audience fully. The song order builds a kind of collective tension that is then released at the show’s climax, and you can see how attentive the musicians are to one another and to the sound they’re creating. The film projected onto the screen at the rear of the stage has its own entrancing effect: you become aware that each film is a series of clips repeated over and over, yet it both holds your attention and isn’t so arresting that it distracts you from the music. There’s nothing orgiastic about it, and yet it consumes the senses and thereby entrains the mind. A GY!BE concert is about as Dionysian an experience as I’ve had without entheogens.