A concert that stands out from a weekend of music, a first encounter with a hero, and the music that re-wires you, literally

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The Voidz during their hour-long set at Shaky Knees music festival, Atlanta, Ga., on May 6 (My photo)

It’s been said, though by whom I couldn’t tell you, that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, that the weight of experience, always the best instructor, will teach you to adhere to this sentiment.

Disillusionment came for me in the fourth grade, when my dad took me to see a college basketball game at the University of San Francisco. The visiting team that night featured a player who’d served as a counselor at a camp I’d attended the previous summer.

This player had been the camp’s star attraction: he could dunk and score effortlessly, basically ticking all the boxes that make a basketball-loving kid dream. For one cherished week, he’d been my counselor. It’d been my most cherished camp memory, and I felt sure he’d remember me. So after the game I went up to him in the lobby to say, ‘Hi’. I was met with a blank stare; after a few moments of incomprehension, he turned back to the group he’d been chatting with.

I felt something cracking within me, into which poured an incontrovertible truth. The first installation of an invaluable lesson: Your heroes will let you down, if ever you should meet them.

There are exceptions to every rule, but the sentiment has stood the test of time. In some ways it is linked to the AIM principle, which I first began formulating during bouts of daydreaming as a high school senior. Instant messaging was then the primary form of communication outside of school, and I would often spend hours at night pinging messages back and forth with friends and, increasingly, girls I was interested in.

I quickly learned that this kind of interaction was based upon something of a lie, at least where my introverted self was concerned. It’s a feeling that’s long plagued me, somewhat related to the disconnect I first became aware of in my interaction with the counselor. These relationships that develop that fizzle, whether because of my own ineptitude or because of unrealistic expectations. Something important to me might just fall flat when it encounters reality. It’s Oz with the curtain pulled away; you just feel like a fraud.

So, anyway, Andiamo! to the actual point of this article, which began with my booking of passage (isn’t that a wonderful phrase?) in February to a music festival in Atlanta in May. I was getting restless and stir-crazy in my city, and the prospect of getting out and heading somewhere different—in this case, to Atlanta for the first time in 22 years—seemed a perfect kind of tonic to some modern malaise.

I didn’t even notice, when I purchased my general admission pass, that The Voidz were scheduled to play on the festival’s third and final day.

This is where the article circles back to my initial premise: what happens when you find yourself in the presence of someone you elevated into the status of ‘hero’? That ever-present fear of a let-down, the sense that the great projection you’d created in your mind’s eye might crumble in reality’s harsh glare.

So, The Voidz? What the f*** are The Voidz, again? I couldn’t quite remember. No, perhaps that’s not entirely true. I had a vague notion that Julian Casablancas had begun a new musical project as a change of pace from the Strokes, following the release of that group’s last full album in 2013. I must have been aware of the release of The Voidz (well, back then they were known as Julian Casablancas + The Voidz) releasing the album, Tyranny, in the fall of 2014…

Unless, that is...well, put it this way: I have a strong memory, rivaled only perhaps by my ability to suppress certain things by pulling a thick blanket over things I’d prefer to forget. Symptomatic of larger society, I’d think. Why wasn’t I more aware of The Voidz? I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I felt like making up for lost time. First, I re-acclimated myself with the sounds of the Strokes. That nostalgia bone sufficiently tickled, a port created from which I could depart, I was prepared to embark upon something new.

Tyranny, though rough around the edges on the first few listens (like any album worth its salt, I’ve grown to believe), grew into one of my favored albums. Then, the songs Human Sadness and Dare I Care began to sink in, and I realized that this group was making some of the most interesting, and vital, music at the moment. Tyranny catapulted into the pantheon of my all-time favorite records. I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into a live performance.

So I spent most of Sunday at Shaky Knees wandering about in a pleasant daze, mainlining the anticipation of something good wafting about on the horizon. As I took in some of the other performances of the day, I wondered about what constitutes the type of perfect day that gets immortalized in a Lou Reed song?

So much of it seems to come down to your own receptivity of the occasion, going hand in hand with a fundamental aspect of a life lived well: happiness is only real when shared.

So, to share the dream. At Shaky Knees, I enter into the prospect of an experience with the shame (erm, I mean, same) trepidation I always feel at the outset of an embarkation of any group project. I’m nervous, with an existential sense of dread.

But here I find myself in a different context, which seems to trick my normal approach to such occasions. I reach the Ponce de Léon stage about two hours before The Voidz are scheduled to play, and take in what turns out to be a really fun set by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. After their set is finished, I make a beeline to the stage, to wait in eager anticipation for an hour before The Voidz. There’s already a healthy cadre of fans collected, and I find myself about three rows back, dead center. Pretty good.

I notice that there’s a different feel to this setting than most concerts I’ve attended so far this year, and as a young man standing next to me pointed out, everyone in attendance, I mean everyone who clustered in front of the stage exactly an hour before the performance, was here to see The mother-f***ing Voidz. The desire for a special experience creates that aura.

It was one of the most fascinating components of this experience, looking back from the vantage point provided by a month of perspective. The disparate pockets of people who began to bond over a shared interest. It’s what one of my high school coaches said would happen in college: when you get into a dorm, every kid is on the same page, so you band together by necessity. I didn’t like that consignment, so consider this my belated first week of college. :)

There were so many emotions tied into this one, as they have been throughout this insane year I’ve set forth for myself, where just about every dollar I have available gets poured into a concert experience. It’s the first time I’ve committed to an education I believe in. What Win Butler sang about music, as Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs wound down, that it was “the first time it felt like something was mine,” rings true. Is that true of every concert? Of course not. But there have been several during which I’ve touched whatever comes close to being the face of God, and I’m willing to forego perfection in pursuit of that feeling.

At the Ponce de Léon stage at Shaky Knees, it meant my first real-life witnessing of a lead singer who’d been instrumental in my growth. So much of the sound of the Strokes informed my youth. Now, I was able to encounter one of my heroes, from a bit of a remove. And it worked.

It was Casablanacas, staring out at a sea of inflatable bulls***, bouncing around the crowd, and muttering, “F***in’, beach toys…” It was the way the crowd around me transformed into some moving mass during Where No Eagles Fly, moshing in unison. It was catharsis.

It was one of Casablancas’s bandmates, Jake Bercovici, pointing his camera from the side of the stage as Casablancas serenaded the rapturous audience with an encore of “I’ll Try Anything Once”, a stripped-down, lyrically-changed version of the Strokes’ iconic “You Only Live Once”, to an audience mainly comprised of youngsters who didn’t care much that they were missing out on Tenacious D some 200 yards away and were perfectly happy to sing along to every word.

I had no context for this performance. I wanted to keep it in its nebulous, amorphous state without attaching words to it. Then it would be detached from the incubator of my mind, and, though now real, it would have been stripped of something vital.

In a way, it made sense to do it this way. Pick a path, and follow it. Every generation believes it has reached the ultimate in l’embarras du choix, and rightly so. You can only see what’s around you. And it was in choosing one route that I found a multitude opened before me. By focusing the mind, it was allowed to expand, finally.

It hearkens back to what Casablancas represented for me, growing up. It was why the Strokes were so fundamental, why Hard to Explain remains the anthem of my youth. But this has been long in coming. What it is now is a simple fact: I think The Voidz are making some of the most interesting music out there. The melodies are fascinating in their diversity; the political commentary in the lyrics, expanded upon in music videos like Pyramid of Bones, forces me into reflection.

That this band, and that experience, lends itself so seamlessly into Gaspar Noé’s epic meditation upon life, by way of some serious psychadelics, Enter the Void, just tack on a ‘z’ at the end, and you’ve got a hint of what this experience meant to me. It re-wired me, and I can’t fully explain to you why.

In the end, it was a happy compromise; the space between myself and the stage was just right. I realized I didn’t need to know everything about Casablancas; that that’s nowhere near the point of a hero. Rather, they should remind you of something good you once wanted to be. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, this combination is just right.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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