Old men dozing in old-man lawn chairs. A gaggle of teen girls sitting in a circle big enough for duck-duck-goose, all on their phones, all giggling sporadically. Couples canoodling. Grade-schoolers leaping over the blankets of strangers, running because their feet are bare and it’s (almost) summer. Whole families that had curiously glued their phones to their faces.
I was at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo to see The Weepies, an indie-folk-pop-rock duo which happens to be my not-even-close all-time favorite, and these were the people around me. I’d never been to a concert where the venue alone had such an impact, one that surprisingly killed the show for me, and from what I could tell, for The Weepies, too.
Earlier in the day, a friendly local shopkeep remarked how dreamy the zoo was for concerts: a lush green in which to toss a blanket, towering cottonwoods to shade your delectable picnic, exotic animals over yonder and a delightful moat between stage and crowd, which could have given a whole new meaning to the term “stage diving.”
We arrived at the zoo an hour before the show, surprised to find the green full, a crowd I ballparked at a thousand or so, not including waterfowl. I wanted to love the idea of a concert at the zoo.
The first sign of trouble was with the opening act, The Silent War, a female singer-songwriter pair reminiscent of the Indigo Girls. Granted, they were openers, but the crowd’s response to their catchy tunes and charming and funny banter between songs was tepid at best.
I figured most people were too preoccupied with their goat cheese or in herding their children or catching up on their napping. But when The Weepies walked on stage, the crowd wasn’t much better. “C’mon people,” I implored, clapping like a walrus, hooting sporadically and wishing I hadn’t abandoned attempts in elementary school to learn how to whistle with my fingers.
Sitting just about in the center of the crowd, I was transfixed with the music, having been obsessed with The Weepies since discovering them last August (according to my iTunes on my work computer alone, I’ve listened to their song “Antarctica” 117 times). It was their first tour in five years after Deb Talan, the group’s better half, dealt with cancer. Deb, her husband and musical partner Steve Tannen and their music were some of the best friends I’d had in the months preceding the concert. I was the guy at the show who could sing all the words, could recognize the song after the first hint of a chord and knew if the tempo of the song was a smidge faster or slower than on the album. Yeah, that guy.
Yet the commotion around us kept pulling me away. There was the late-20s woman who apparently had come straight from a sexy-baby costume contest who found the dreamboat eyes of her 5-o’clock-shadowed boyfriend to be, by far, the most intriguing thing in the vicinity. Or the couple in camp chairs directly in front of me who made me lean and crane my neck to see the stage every time they felt like sucking the other’s face. Songs would end and the crowd offered only polite applause. At one point, Deb asked us if we were having a good time and I finally heard what it sounds like when a crowd of hundreds collectively shrugs its shoulders.
And then the sidewalk, a massive sidewalk, the zoo’s major throughway lies directly in front of the stage, making for an incessant back-and-forth parade the entire show. With the moat, the sidewalk added even more distance between us and The Weepies, another barrier, another disconnect.
Forty-five minutes into the set, with seemingly so much remaining, a number of people began packing up their chairs, packing up their stupid little wagons on which they’d carted in their summer-concert setup (picnic baskets, cooler, classy folding chairs, etc.), folding their blankets, leaving. It occurred to me: They’d not come for The Weepies. They came to hear music at the zoo. When the music ceased to fulfill their bored whims, they left, many unable to wait for the song they were disrupting to end.
The best part was this: With so many leaving, vast patches of grass opened closer to the stage. We seized. Suddenly, I found myself toeing the edge of the sidewalk, front row, center stage, nothing between me and The Weepies but 12 feet of concrete, some wadeable water and a family of ducks. The first chance I got during the silence between songs, I shouted, “Antarctica!” As if a dam had broken, a small portion of this formerly comatose crowd erupted. A chorus of people began to shout song titles. “Red Red Rose!” “Slow Pony Home!” Surprisingly, at least two other people shouted “Antarctica.”
The Weepies huddled and moments later they were playing my favorite song. I kicked off my flip-flops and danced monkey-like on the empty sidewalk in front of the remaining hundreds. When they finished the song, a silence returned and, spontaneously, I shouted, “Antarctica!” I saw Deb and Steve laugh good, and I beamed.
After about an hour and a half, The Weepies said their goodbyes, much too soon, I thought. A pack of a dozen or two of us diehards clapped and shouted and whistled, trying to squeeze one more song out. Curiously, Deb came back out alone but for the bass player and sang the melancholy “Stars.”
Projecting my disappointment with the venue and the audience, I imagined the band backstage before that, so over this night, done with this lethargic crowd, wondering how to handle the handful of fans wanting more. I imagined Steve Tannen being like, “I’m not going back out there. For them? Hail no,” and Deb saying, “Well, I’m going to do one more. Does anyone want to come out there with me?” and after glancing around at the others, the bass player sighs and shrugs his shoulders and mutters, “I guess.”
In the end, it wasn’t the fault of the crowd. They were merely participating in what the Albuquerque Zoo set out to do with its summer concert series: To give people something to occupy their Friday night, a way to get the kids out of the house, a reason to use the overpriced outdoor chairs bought on impulse, a charming place to take a date, a chance to experience the always-alluring blend of music and the out-of-doors. I get it.
What I wanted was for The Weepies to feel a magnitude of love and goodness from me, from the crowd, to feel the amazing energy that I’ve received from them through their music these past 10 months. But I couldn’t do it alone and the people around me just weren’t helping. In theory, I love the idea of an outdoor concert at the zoo. But not on this night, not with this crowd and not with The Weepies.
David Holub is the Arts & Entertainment editor for The Durango Herald