On November 13, at about 10 p.m., the Lone Bellow sang a Paul Simon song and wept.
The song — “Slip Slidin’ Away” — wasn’t some impromptu addition to the setlist, no cover turned off the cuff. The folks-rockers have departed their Brooklyn homestead time and again this year to tour in support of Then Came the Morning, which among other things has afforded them the chance to perfect their take on the tune, one show at a time, with Kanene Pipkin, Brian Elmquist, and Zach Williams reshaping Simon’s buoyant melody into a desperate, devastated ballad.
To perform the number, the trio convene at the microphone at center stage. Their elbows or shoulders occasionally bump. When they hit the hard parts, the force of their voices ripples the eyelashes and folds of one another’s faces. With Pipkin in the middle and the men on either side, the members of the Lone Bellow navigate what’s become both lullaby and solemn farewell as one — the vocal swells, the emotional fry, the lyrics’ poignant nostalgia: the things that might have been.
It’s a popular sing-along moment in the show, the chorus typically sung back to the band upon each repetition, as if in a round. But on November 13, when the final chorus came to an end and the sold-out crowd at Webster Hall, having done its part, erupted in a hooting, hollering cacophony, the three players didn’t return to their respective microphones, as they usually do. Instead of reaching for their mandolins and guitars for the next song, the three friends reached for each other, embracing before breaking apart, facing the back of the auditorium and taking a moment as, rather than ready for the next chord, they wiped away tears. The lyric the information’s unavailable to the mortal man had hit a little too close to home on this night. So had everything else surrounding the simple act of standing in that room with open, eager ears.
The capacity of the grand ballroom at Webster Hall is 1,500. That is also the capacity of Le Bataclan, the theater in Paris that had begun the evening of November 13 as a rock venue and ended it having been forcibly, involuntarily transformed into something else. On November 13, the Eagles of Death Metal — an American rock act that boasts a revered, rotating cast of veterans from the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, A Perfect Circle, and the Whigs — were performing at the theater when gunshots rang out. Clubgoers were then taken hostage; members of the audience were executed; the band escaped through a stage door and made their way to safety. In the hours that followed, the attackers murdered scores of patrons at the music hall as, elsewhere across the city, suicide bombers and shooters targeted soccer games and pedestrians and, in general, those out to enjoy their Friday night. Some of those were people who had bought tickets to go see a rock show — to raise their hands, to sing along, to accidentally brush elbows and shoulders in the closeness of a crowd. Many of them wouldn’t walk out of Le Bataclan alive.
A chorus is a universal rallying cry, a familiar refrain, a step everyone can get. At any given performance, a look around a crowd — like the one on the dance floor and balconies of Webster Hall or Le Bataclan — will naturally come to rest on several concentrated, stage-facing visages, the eyes focused intently, the lips moving. “Slip Slidin’ Away” was no different, and it provided the comfort of routine, a line that soothed just in the simple act of singing it. When news broke of the bombings, the shootings, and the hostage situation at Le Bataclan — and that an American band was onstage when the bullets began to fly — Twitter was a flurry of concerned messages and frantic retweets as eyes locked on the steady stream of haphazardly posted information. Musicians and friends of the band checked in with those traveling or scheduled to hit the stage in Paris; Eagles of Death Metal were still trying to do the same with members of their crew in the bedlam that continued following their departure from the venue. The hostages were finally released from Le Bataclan hours after Eagles of Death Metal had taken the stage — but not before the attackers had opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd with their backs turned. To stand in Webster Hall last night facing the Lone Bellow and realize that the French version of you, in that moment and meridians away, could be lying on the venue floor in a pool of blood — solely on account of having wanted to hear some live music, to shout along as part of a communal chorus — was enough to freeze you in that downbeat.
The NYPD’s stepped-up security was appreciated — officers were spotted coming out of Webster Hall shortly before the Lone Bellow’s set began — even as it only drove the point home: that what happened in Paris could’ve happened here. People go to concerts for the same reasons in New York, in Paris, in Chicago, in Cape Town, in Los Angeles. They show up for the opener in Sydney and stay until the lights come up in Reykjavík — just as they file past the merch table and accidentally spill beer on the guy next to them in Austin, Berlin, Beijing, and São Paulo. The relationship between an artist and their audience is one that fosters intimacy and connection in spite of language, distance, history. The murderers who took over Le Bataclan last night also opened fire on that sacred relationship, and they wounded it deeply.
France closed its borders last night, Paris woke up this morning, and things continue to change. U2’s upcoming Paris performances, scheduled for November 14–15 (the first was slated for broadcast on HBO), were postponed; the Foo Fighters canceled the rest of their tour. There will undoubtedly be more announcements of this nature as bands adjust their plans and the concert halls and rock clubs of Paris remain quiet for a little longer. The show must go on — and it did, elsewhere, and certainly at Webster Hall — but Le Bataclan felt closer than a few time zones away because it wasn’t just a few time zones away. It felt familiar, possible, and present, and it felt like a senseless attack on passion, on beauty and the pursuit of the art it inspires. Because that is what it was.
The line tattooed on the face of Pete Seeger’s banjo — which brought forth the protest songs that inspired, angered, and comforted at a time when, likewise, people were trying to negotiate a world apparently gone crazy — resonates this morning: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger doesn’t have anything to do with Eagles of Death Metal, the Lone Bellow, or last night’s sad spiritual connection between New York and Paris. Or maybe he has everything to do with it, as Seeger was, simply, a musician, one who showed up in a particular place and at a particular time to sing along with the crowd before him. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man, but we know this much is true.