Entering The Middle East venue in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA) is about as good an experience as you can have from going out to intentionally damage your hearing. Like all the best clubs, it’s in a basement, so you can feel just slightly, secretly “in the know” from the first moment. Through the doors at the bottom of the firetrap staircase you arrive in the room at the top of another short flight, so you can see out across the lake of sweaty raised arms, before you wade in and immerse yourself.
I spent so many great nights at The Middle East in the 15 years I lived in America. Nights where the hard concrete and steel-panelled ceiling created reverberations so strong I felt sick to my stomach, and nights where I saw local friends’ bands have their moment on the same stage their heroes could be playing the next weekend.
Of all these sometimes hallowed, sometimes moving gigs, the very best was seeing Art Brut play there on 3rd April 2006.
To be clear, Art Brut are, IMHO, a clever, funny, frenziedly-energetic band I still enjoy listening to a decade after this peak – but they are not my favourite band. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t provide one of the best gig experiences I’ve ever had though.
In a long set of high-energy party songs, singer Eddie Argos [NB: possibly the most hilarious “rock and roll” stage name I’ve ever heard] led his audience around the typically absurd topics in which Art Brut are interested. Things like the purported fears Argos felt for his little brother’s safety, now he had discovered the gateway drug of “the rock and roll b-side” (“stay off the crack!”, we would sing in unison with him). Things like the joyous announcement that he had a new girlfriend whom he had been lucky enough to see naked “twice!” The trivial and downright silly made something we all, smiling, cared about with him.
Best of all though was ‘Modern Art’, a song where he tells us that he completely loses it whenever he is confronted with oil paintings in a gallery. His over-the-top story culminated in him chanting furiously, with us, that “modern art / makes me / want to rock out!”, circling and rising with each repeat. He stepped out, off the stage to join us in the crowd as he sang, still building in intensity. Further and further from the stage, he let his wired mic fall to the ground, his fist banging the air above him, as we all screamed along. Eventually, at the back of the room, he climbed up on the bar and mouthed the words, his voice swallowed by our shouting moment together. A magically intrepid move, and so in control of his audience, but…
Well, he wasn’t in control of venue security, was he?
Eddie was so good at joining up the space between band and crowd, and so good at making us feel like we were all part of the performance, that it didn’t seem to occur to him that it might be the other way around: we weren’t rock stars, like him, he was just some geezer, like us.
And if I had got on the bar and started screaming at the crowd around me (even if what I was screaming was innocently funny), the bouncers would have me lying in a gutter outside about 30 seconds later.
Argos was almost as unlucky. Security grabbed him by the trench coat and yanked him downwards, headed for the door. The crowd around him tried to explain, en masse, but a good bouncer knows best, in the middle of a load of drunken fools.
For a few seconds, things looked bleak, and the band stopped.
But someone, somehow, managed to get the message through to the security guard – that he was our leader – and they released him, still disgruntled.
When Eddie (we were on a first name basis by this point, of course) got back up on stage, there was a moment of unity I’ve never seen replicated in any gig in my many (many) years of going to them: a cheer that made us all feel we had literally made the night possible. He had given us a truly great show, but then we had given him a great rock and roll story, saved the night from going completely off the rails, and stopped Eddie from being torn from the space he was such a master at controlling.
Words by Nick Parker