I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my time: John Mayer, Rihanna, Ingrid Michaelson, Owl City, Mat Kearney (my favorite), Colbie Caillat, Sara Bareilles. (I saw Taking Back Sunday and Jimmy Eat World years ago, but I must have been standing super far from any moshing.) All in all, it’s been pretty mellow stuff compared to the concert on Sunday night.
When Tom and I arrived at Best Buy Theater in midtown Manhattan, the opening band, Emarosa, had played and gone; the next band, Memphis May Fire, was on stage. (We were there to see the main act, Yellowcard.) On the floor it was standing room only (of course) and we picked a spot on the outskirts of the crowd. About 10 feet to our left, I saw several guys flinging their bodies into all kinds of frenetic contortions, spinning, doing flips and knocking into each other with surprising speed and power. (There were a few brave girls too, with neon pink and red hair. The pink-haired girl was a tiny thing, dressed in black skinny jeans and a black fitted tee, exposing an inch or two of porcelain skin.)
It was my first time seeing a mosh pit in action and I was completely captivated. One guy was shirtless, short and muscular; his face would constrict in dark concentration as he swung his arms out behind him and aimed powerful jabs towards the ground during the most loud and aggressive parts of Memphis May Fire’s songs. I watched their wild energy with my mouth agape, unable to look away. I’m not much for metal music (the screaming and roaring makes me think of strained and sore vocal cords), plus the hard-to-decipher words sound too angry for me to awkward-Taylor-Swift dance to (can you imagine?!). But there was something that really intrigued me about the scene and the people. That is, until we were in the middle of it.
When the stage went dark, I grabbed hold of Tom and snaked my way through the stream of Memphis May Fire fans leaving the floor. We ended up about 10 feet from the stage. When Yellowcard came on (note: the crowd bumped up about five years or so in age at this point), they first played a few songs from their new album Lift a Sail. It wasn’t until they played “Only One,” (I always thought of it as such a romantic song!) that the mood in the audience abruptly changed. Suddenly the crowd surged around me, rearing back and picking up speed like an immense wave preparing to crash onto the shore. I could hardly keep my balance. Tom grabbed hold of me and helped to keep me standing. A mosh pit started to form diagonally behind us, like leaves swirling, gaining momentum in a wind storm. Then came the crowd surfers. For once in my life, I was grateful to not be very tall. White, thick-soled high-top sneakers, arms and legs were suddenly flailing above my head or crashing to the ground nearby when the crowd couldn’t quite keep them moving.
My first reaction to all of this, as I was standing there, trying to focus on lead singer Ryan Key’s face (he’s pictured above and below), was a mild anxiety attack. I had just come back to the city from a weekend away, so I had a bag, my coat, and a sweater that I was holding onto - for dear life. Putting them on the floor didn’t work because I was constantly being jostled around and I was afraid I would lose my bag or trip over it. Having one free hand to fend off the bodies heading my way overhead was not such a cool feeling. Thankfully, Tom was like a jumping bean, pushing away crowd surfers before they got close to me.
A barrage of fears flooded into my mind:
What if I got hit in the head, knocked out, trampled on… what if I fell down, unable to get back up?
We could have moved to the side, but I insisted we stay and ride it out. It took me a little while to regulate my breathing and calm myself down. But when a song picked up momentum and got to the chorus, I would brace my head, looking nervously behind me to try and avert any crowd surfers heading my way. I was eventually able to relax a bit and get into the songs.
Ryan Key shared some personal stuff with the audience. His wife, Russian snowboarder Alyona Alekhina, had an accident last year that resulted in a spinal cord injury. He said that she’s fighting her way out of a wheelchair. Yellowcard’s new single, “One Bedroom,” reportedly refers to the time they spent together in a makeshift apartment in Denver while she was undergoing rehabilitation. (Read a recent interview with him here.) Another band member, violinist and vocalist Sean Mackin, has thyroid cancer. Ryan said he was sharing these stories with the crowd not because their problems are any worse than ours, but to show that everyone is battling horrible things… and that we’re not alone in fighting the circumstances of life.
It’s those kind of moments that make concerts a rush for me (no crowd-surfing necessary): feeling connected to an artist on stage as they share good, bad, funny, and terrible experiences that seem similar to my own. Or when the audience learns firsthand who or what inspired a song; where the singer was when the lyrics or melody came to them. It’s inspiring and gives deeper meaning to songs I’ve listened to a million times.
Even though I wasn’t actually moshing, the whole experience made me realize there are some things I’m never going to be totally comfortable with - and that’s ok. I believe strongly in challenging myself, in pushing through my fears. Yet fear is also a tool. It keeps us from walking down a dark alleyway or heading home with a questionable stranger. It’s that fight or flight response: In this circumstance, I chose to stand my ground. Does that mean I’ll start attending metalcore shows on the regular? No. But I also understand that crowd surfing and moshing are part of the energy of these concerts. It’s a place to let go of the aggression and frustration that most of us have pent up inside. I would certainly see Yellowcard again; they were great live. The nostalgia that hit me when the band played “Ocean Avenue” was more powerful than any crowd surge. (I remember it was one of the last songs played at my senior prom. Most of my class had left by that point, but as soon as I heard the opening chords, I pulled my friends onto the floor to dance like crazy.)
The next time I’m heading for a mosh pit kind of concert, though, I’ll be mentally prepared. And I might just rock a helmet.
Photographs by Tom Schelling.