I have a theory about concerts: The smaller, the better. The best concert I ever went to was Ice Cube in a club in Aspen, Colorado. Other great ones: George Clinton in my college gym, Beastie Boys at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion and the Flaming Lips at the Orpheum, where I danced onstage while dressed as a bunny and waving spotlights. As shows get bigger, the experience is not only less intimate, but everything takes longer and is more of a hassle. Keep it to 5,000 people or fewer and you’ll probably have a great time.
The Coastal Credit Union Music Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, is bigger than that. Four times bigger. When my wife, Heather, bought tickets to Imagine Dragons, I had no idea of either the venue’s capacity or the popularity of Imagine Dragons. But both are drawn into sharp focus the moment we see the line to get in. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s probably a mile long. We saunter up to the middle of this conga of human disappointment and from there it takes us 10 minutes just to walk back to the end of it. I try to stay optimistic as the line grows behind us. “Hey Heather,” I ask, “You know why they’re called Imagine Dragons? Because you stand in line all night and imagine you saw the concert!” This verbal dadness causes the woman in front of me to laugh and repeat the line to her boyfriend. Thanks, folks. I’ll be here all week. Really, I probably will, because this line is very long.
Fast forward one hour, and we’re near the gates, where I see firsthand why this is taking so long. Ambitious concertgoers are attempting to bring in all sorts of items that require group discussions among the security staff. In New England, none of that would happen. You’d try to bring in a huge, stupid umbrella and an impassive townie security guy would tell you to throw it in the trash or go home, or maybe both because he doesn’t like your face. Not so in polite North Carolina. The dudes immediately in front of me, who I mentally nickname They Might Be Giants because they look like they should live on top of magic beanstalks, are attempting to import a folding chair and umbrella proportional to their cloud-scraping heights. I mean, the last time I saw a chair this big was at the Lincoln Memorial. And yet the security people contemplate whether they can bring it in. Of course not! It’s too big! They’re too big! This line is too big! Next! I hear “Radioactive” wafting over the wall, because of course the concert has started and they’re playing their biggest hit while thousands of people are still outside. I realize I don’t care. I’ll probably get in before they play that other song, or maybe that other one. You know, the one that’s like Mumford-meets-’NSync? Oh wait, that’s all of them.
Somehow I was unaware that Imagine Dragons is a highly processed product—Backstreet with instruments. But that reality manifests once I see the stage, where the lead singer is crooning away shirtless. And he’s ripped. Not the desiccated, scary, cocaine-and-whiskey rock-star kind of ripped, but the waxed Abercrombie variety that says, “I do kettlebells with my trainer because my contract stipulates that I’m fired if my body fat goes above 6 percent.” One of his favorite moves is to hold his hands above his head in a vaguely messianic way that makes me think of Creed, which is not ever what I want to think about. Meanwhile, we’re standing behind a low fence in front of a concession stand because every square millimeter of lawn is occupied by fans, many of whom seem only vaguely aware that there’s a concert. A few feet away, a teen girl sits on the ground, staring down at her phone and playing a driving video game. I’m kind of jealous because it looks like a cool game.
Having missed “Radioactive” while waiting to get in and “Whatever It Takes” while waiting for a $16 beer, I don’t know any of the other songs for the next hour. At one point, Abercrombie McGee does a canned speech about how it’s important to be an individual and not be put in the box that society expects. “Are you gonna be put in a box?” he calls, and everyone yells in “No!” to confirm that they won’t do what’s expected of them, other than yelling in unison that they won’t do what’s expected of them.
Having violated my guidelines on concert size, I decide it’s time to honor another one: Don’t be afraid to leave early. So we miss “Thunder,” but also the crush of 20,000 people trying to escape. That’s a fair trade, and I’ve had good luck with this strategy. A few years ago we went to a music festival that included the Roots, and we left right after they were done, long before the headliner. Then we went to a bar where, shortly thereafter, we ended up hanging out with the Roots. They’d left early too. ◆
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