Nick Lowe has just finished 90 minutes of solo music at the Birchmere, a set that included all of his best-known songs -- except one. The silver-haired daddy of British pop hasn't played "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding," a track that he wrote and that helped make Elvis Costello famous in the 1970s. So everybody knows what's coming when Lowe returns to the stage for an encore. He strums the opening chords and a ripple of delight rolls through the room.
Then stops. A man in a striped shirt has wobbled up to the stage, a hand-drawn sign in one hand, a drink in the other. He edges so close to the spotlight that Lowe has no choice but to ask what he wants.
"Zmmuphhmen," comes the reply. Or something like that. Lowe looks baffled.
"What?" he asks, politely.
"Zmmuphhmen!" There's a Web address on the sign, and Lowe gamely tries to read it out loud. By now, whatever spell had mesmerized this room is gone, replaced by confusion, which is soon replaced by rage. All at once, fans realize what has happened. Their joy has been killed -- at least for the moment -- by a Concert Fool.
There is no escaping the Concert Fool. He (and every once in a while, she) is the chronic carbuncle on the butt of rock, an inflammation that makes it hard to really get comfortable. The Concert Fool is either unglued by music, or drunk, or unaware of the invisible line that separates civilization from anarchy. Or aware of the line but past caring about it. Mostly, the Concert Fool is having a great time because these guys rawwwwk and because it's a concert and up top, dude. Rock and roll!
Ultimately, the Concert Fool is confused. He believes that the rules of courtesy have been suspended during showtime, which isn't exactly true. Though it's not entirely false, either. At a typical rock concert, you get far more leash than you do at, say, the theater or the symphony. The Concert Fool, however, misconstrues limited license for an excuse to vomit on your girlfriend's pants.
Decorum at a rock concert is actually venue-dependent; what will fly at the 9:30 club, where bands skew loud and young, will get you tossed from the Birchmere, where the acts are generally quieter and pitched to adults. You need to sit down and zip it at the Birchmere and halls like it, which seems proper for a singer like Nick Lowe, whose distorted-amp days are well behind him. But even at 9:30 -- as well as the Black Cat, MCI Center, Merriweather Post and other venues -- you need a set of manners, even if those manners fall somewhere between the standards of decency for a baseball game and the standards of decency for a kegger. Most fans settle comfortably within that fairly broad range, finding a way to exult in the show without thrashing the collective buzz.
The Concert Fool, on the other hand, finds inventive ways to annoy. A wide variety stalk the nation's pop venues, and during my years as a pop-music critic, I've seen them all. So here's a field guide to what's out there -- a taxonomy, if you will, of show-going morons. Avoid them if you can.
The Singer wants to the world to know he's got a great voice. So he sings. Really, really loud, during the lulls, during the shrieks. All the time. Fans of James Mercer met a prime example of this genus of Concert Fool last year at Iota, when Mercer, the lead singer of the Shins, closed a showcase for the Seattle label Sub Pop. Toward the end of his set, Mercer played "New Slang," his most popular tune, but suddenly you could barely hear the guy. A Singer had chimed in -- eyes closed, shot glass hoisted -- at a volume loud enough to drown out the man everyone had paid to hear.
The Reckless Smoker -- A cigarette is a dangerous weapon around people packed together tight. At a Guided by Voices show in New York -- before that glorious smoking ban went into effect -- fans were so jammed one night at a club called Tramps that you had to applaud with your hands above your head. This didn't stop a guy behind me from lighting up -- and then singeing some unlucky fan standing in front of him. "Sorry, man," the Smoker said. No doubt this made the burn victim feel a whole lot better.
The Angler -- They arrived late, and they don't want to stand in the back. So the Anglers connive to get close to the stage, which is tricky -- and rude -- at a show that's sold out. The most inventive Angler I've seen waited till right before the first song and pretended to be on the verge of vomiting as he waded toward the lip of the stage. People leapt out of his way. When he got to the front, he just smiled.
More recently, at a Bob Dylan show, a woman murmured "That's my husband" as she nudged her way to a place at a forward section on the floor of the 9:30 club. She slipped an arm around a tall man and smiled as if greeting her mate. Which he wasn't. The man gave her a confounded look and a polite brushoff. Why she thought this would work is a mystery, but I had the sense it wasn't the first time she'd tried the gambit. In this instance she retreated, muttering: "What a jerk."
The Requestaholic -- They came for one song, and they're going to hear that song if it kills them. Which it nearly did at a couple of Bruce Springsteen's solo shows during his "Ghost of Tom Joad" tour in 1996. The Boss asked fans at the outset not to shout for tunes, and in those cities where the Requestaholics wouldn't stop, Springsteen threatened to ask fans nearby to take matters into their own hands.
For performers, you can imagine the frustration, especially at a show for an album like "Joad," which was somber and low-key. Anyway, most set lists are cooked up well before a tour hits the road, so shouting is nearly always pointless. It's just annoying. One of the few things I remember about the Steve Earle show at the 9:30 two years ago is a twit who screamed "Jackalope Eye!" at least 25 times over the course of the show. Earle tried to shut him up by doing a belittling impersonation of him. But the true Requestaholic won't let a little humiliation get in the way.
"Jackalope Eye!" he screamed during the very next break.
The Talker -- The bane of nearly every show. A shocking number of ticket buyers regard rock concerts as ideal moments to catch up with friends. I can remember a pair of women nattering through a My Morning Jacket concert, a guy flirting shamelessly with a mini-shirted damsel at a Peaches show, a half-dozen drinkers at Iota who didn't seem to realize a band was in the room. The most stupefying Talker I've seen was at a Melissa Etheridge show at the Warner Theatre, a woman who called a friend on her cell phone just as Etheridge hit the stage.
"I'm at the show! Yeah, Melissa just came on! Yeah! Can you hear me? What? Can you hear her? What?" There were murderous stares from everyone in her vicinity -- and then verbal threats -- but it didn't matter. The dedicated Talker doesn't care.
The Stander -- Ordinarily, this is not a big deal. But if everyone else is sitting, it can lead to violence. At a Peter Gabriel show at MCI Center, one Stander, a thirtyish woman in jeans, had the misfortune of blocking the view of a true Concert Fool (see Grabber, below) who slapped her rear end when she refused to have a seat. She ran for the cops, and he hustled out of that section of the arena, presumably to watch the show from another seat.
The Grabber -- One who grabs. See above.
That's the list. If you recognize yourself in any of these categories, let me ask a favor on behalf of everyone else who loves live music: Stay home and wait for the DVD.
Even if there won't be a DVD.