At the OFF! Festival in Katowice, Poland, this summer, I had the pleasure of seeing How to Dress Well perform. How to Dress Well is the stage name for Tom Krell, a young Brooklynite who makes ethereal, vocal- and synthesizer-driven, pop/R & B music. His debut full-length, Love Remains, came out to rave reviews (I quite enjoy it; my one grievance is that many of the tracks are too similar to each other), so I was pumped for the concert.
At OFF!, Tom was remarkably alone, and visibly nervous, but he was excited to be performing in front of his largest audience yet. He put on his music in the background, and spent the whole time (only) singing to us. Some might classify this act as being too karaoke-ish, but, given Krell’s immense vocal talent and the focal nature of his voice on the tracks, I thought it was a good call. He performed very well, and stayed almost entirely within his falsetto range. The attendees were energetic (and probably a little inebriated, on average – after all, it was after midnight), and they cheerily clapped along to the beat of the most well-known tracks, including “Decisions.”
When Tom returned onstage for his encore, he announced that he was going to attempt something brave. He planned to sing brand-new songs a capella. Now, this is risky, but not unheard of. When I saw Fleet Foxes about three years ago at the Somerville Theater in Massachusetts, they had only one album out as well, and they were also nervous, but Robin Pecknold decided to sing two new songs a capella for his encore. He sang beautifully, and we all watched quietly, mystified.
But that was a Monday night…in a small, indoor concert space that doubled as a movie theater. On a Saturday after midnight at a huge alternative rock festival, singing a capella may not be the best idea. Here’s what happened.
About a minute into Krell’s song, everyone started clapping along. This is a natural reaction that is meant to encourage the performer, but clapping to the beat is not as simple as you might think if 1) you don’t hear any drums or backing instrumentals and 2) if the structure of the song is unusual (most rock songs are in the meter of 3/4 or 4/4, but there are some with strange meters that are difficult to clap along to. For example, “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel is in 7/4.). Sure enough, in this context, the clapping was distracting, instead of helpful, so Tom paused his singing, and politely asked the audience to stop. However, despite Tom’s pleas, there were still a few members of the audience who continued to clap – even through the next song!
My cousin Magda (who accompanied me to the festival) thought that Tom’s behavior – pausing his song to ask the audience to stop clapping – was unprofessional. After all, what did he expect to happen? Not only was he on late-night, but some of the audience members might not even have understood English. And any good live performer should be prepared to handle the worst – heckling, let alone clapping. I, on the other hand, felt bad for the guy. Here he was, entertaining us, bravely exposing us to new material, and some people didn’t even have the decency to listen to him when he asked a small favor.
What do you think? Do you think that the performer’s job is to keep going, no matter what stunts the audience pulls? Or do we have some responsibility to the performer? We’re paying him, yes, but what does our fee cover exactly? Obviously, we want more than for him to just show up, and we don’t expect him to sing to us each individually, but where – in between those two extremes – does his obligation fall?
Overall, I enjoyed How to Dress Well’s concert, and I totally recommend seeing Tom sing, if you get the chance.