There's truly so much to love about Kent. Friendly people. Charming festivals. A growing downtown. I could go on and on, trust me, but suffice it to say that Kent is a great place to call home. One gem is the Kent Stage, an old-style, non-profit-run downtown theater that has been around since 1927 and operating exclusively as a venue for folk/alt-country music since 2002. The Kent Stage is intimate despite its size and offers truly spectacular sound ...
... if you can stomach one of the more disrespectful audiences you'll ever encounter at a performance. Counting last night's Gillian Welch show, I've been to the Kent Stage at least five times. The other shows, just for context, were Kathleen Edwards, Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Vienna Teng. I'm sure I'm missing a show or two, but just understand that what I'm saying is coming from someone who has been there multiple times and who loves having such a venue so close to home.
So when I say "disrespectful," I'm talking about problems that I've observed consistently across multiple shows. The audiences have been, in a word, insufferable. Talking over songs. Shouting between songs. Not just loud requests - who hasn't heard these before - but mindless banter. Two examples from the Gillian Welch show: After the first song (one of Welch's oldest), someone yelled, "That's the first time I've heard that song, but it made me cry." Okay. Later, when Welch - wearing a summery dress - joked about packing for the tour when it was still warmer out, someone else shouted, "It's been pretty mild here for the last few days." Hmm.
This happened over and over, and has happened at every show I've seen there. Amidst countless shouts of "I love you, Gillian" or "I love you, David [Rawlings, who joined Welch]," there were repeated instances of out-loud commentary. The song requests got so frequent that Welch stopped to relay a story about how she did a requests-only show once and how it "sucked." That kept people quiet for a song or two. I've long grown accustomed to people openly breaking any and all "no flash photography" rules there to not only snap pictures, but also record lengthy videos. I've sat near "the talker" every time out. Or the off-key, lyric-confused singer. Or the cell-phone checker. Or the constant-getter-upper.
Do the last couple of paragraphs make me sound curmudgeonly? Sure they do. But here's the thing: Every one of these persistent issues - every one of them - has been perpetrated by people who "should know better." I'd guess that the average age of a Kent Stage concertgoer is somewhere in the mid-40s. Is that a scientific guess? No. But does at least 75 percent of every crowd when I go look like they're my parents' age (61)? You bet. Kent's a small community, one that has a long history of devotion to folk, alt-country, and related genres of music, so you tend to see the same people at every show. And the same problems.
I would argue that the difference in behavior is generational. Perhaps people my age and younger really didn't come of age in a time where shows were such a participatory thing. But respect is something that's supposed to transcend age. And it's clear that a portion of the Kent Stage's audience is beyond disrespectful in their entitled and boorish behavior. The performers at each of these shows have noticed. Is this the reputation the Kent Stage wants? That of a great place to play if you don't mind sharing the spotlight with an audience thinking they paid $30 for everyone to hear their rudeness? I doubt it, and I'm sure the friendly, devoted Western Reserve Folk Arts Association folks doubt it, too.
Not all hassles are created equal, and I know that none of this amounts to a real problem when placed side-by-side with the problems that so many face around the country and world. But something needs to be said. If only so other people who go to shows at the Kent Stage to hear good music (and just good music) know that they're not alone. The biggest deciding factor for me when it comes to buying tickets there is always the audience. Will I be ready for what I know will happen? Is it worth the price? That's a shame, because the Kent Stage has so much potential. It's only a few minor renovations and more diverse booking away from being a Beachland Ballroom-level venue. Like so much else in Kent, there's a real family feel to the Kent Stage. But it's time a lot of people there start acting like they're in public.