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Sacred sound

staff note

Contrary to popular belief, the ideal place to watch a concert is not center stage, but rather from the left-hand side, stage right, about three feet from the speakers. In this spot, the bass hits the hardest. You can feel every strum of the strings, every blow to the drumhead in your chest, like the music is coming from you and not from the instruments being plucked and struck on stage. I know this from experience, though I can’t tell you how old I was at my first concert, or even who I saw.

I love live shows the way some people love the beach or picnics or afternoon naps. I prepare for live shows the way some people prepare for war or a really intense hiking trip – I’m outside the venue doors at least three hours before they open, home-packed lunch and a minimum of four liters of water on hand. I plan my social life, my flights home, my work shifts around my concert schedule. It's the only portion of my Duke routine that has been set in stone.

I remember being picked up early from school one spring day my junior year of high school. I daydreamed through AP English Literature, knee bouncing anxiously, waiting for the phone call that would release me. My dad and I were driving four and a half hours to see my favorite band La Dispute play in Greenville, NC. It was going to be the first time I’d seen them perform in person (watching shaky, poorly-recorded videos on YouTube doesn’t count). If my dad thought I would forsake my pre-show ritual for a few extra hours with James Joyce, he was wrong. We arrived at the venue three and a half hours early, second in line only to a couple in lawn chairs. We spent the next hours wiping our brows, guzzling our water, and seeking whatever shade we could reach without compromising our spot in line.

It’s a lot — the waiting, the heat, the standing solidly in one place for hours on end. But that spot — three feet from the stage right speakers — is worth it. To feel the riffs that you know by heart reverberate in your chest. To feel simultaneously that you are the only person on the planet and that you are surrounded by people in mutual understanding. 

Now that I live 800 miles away from my dad, I usually go to concerts alone. My friends and I share the smallest sliver of the musical venn diagram, so dragging them to a hardcore show at a dingy dive bar is near impossible. But this year, on my birthday, a friend and I drove an hour down the highway to see my favorite childhood band, Fall Out Boy, play in Greensboro. Although I’d seen them three times before, their performance wasn’t any less moving, nor did it feel any less significant. In fact, it felt like coming home.

I didn’t realize that feeling was showing on my face until my friend said, “Tonight is the closest I think I’ll ever come to seeing you have a religious experience," as we walked to the parking lot. 

Admittedly, she’s right; I’ve never been religious in the traditional sense. Though I was baptized Catholic, I don’t frequent mass, take communion or go to confession. I haven’t set foot in a religious service in years. But I’ve never felt alone, adrift in the cosmos or whatever else you’re supposed to feel if you don’t subscribe to a religious doctrine. I’ve always had music. 

In my 22 years, I’ve spent more time converting YouTube videos to MP3s, watching my favorite musicians give interviews and waiting in line for shows than I’ve spent studying or going to school or hanging out with friends. I collect the tattered posters from concerts I’ve attended and hang them in my room. I design album covers for my favorite bands in my free time, even though they’ll never see them. I have a dedicated concert savings account. I don’t leave home without my headphones. 

As a graduating senior, I’ve been considering what I want my life after Duke to look like. What career would I like to have and where do I see myself five years from now? How am I going to support myself? Where will I live? And of these practical questions are important. But they are important to me largely because of how they might affect my relationship to music. Can I secure a job that pays enough to support my habit? Will this job be in a city with a healthy music scene? How flexible will my evenings be outside Duke’s walls? 

I have to consider these questions because my church is a concert. It’s the knowledge that if the pit gets too rowdy and you’re knocked over, someone will reach down to pick you up. Every person with you in the crowd feels the same energy and the same dedication to the sound that you do. Every time I go to a show, I’m going to mass. Every lunch I eat on the sidewalk outside the venue is my communion. Every bottle of water thrown on the sweating crowd from the stage is holy.

My church is that spot. The one three feet from the speakers, to the left of center stage. To me, that’s the most spiritual place on earth. It’s the place where I feel most connected — to the world and to myself.

Alexandra Bateman is a Trinity senior and Recess design editor. 

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