Tribal beats of ancient druid drums thumped and reverberated in my chest, and the ringing in my ears seemed to be in perfect pitch with the wailing music. Flashes of colored light hauntingly illuminated the gathering of devotees who swayed and swarmed in feverish rapture. I had never been to such a gathering, and my eyes dared not blink, lest I miss any instant of this spectacle. This was so foreign to me. I felt like such a gawky tourist…but I wasn’t in a distant land. I was in a ballroom in Chicago, and this was my virgin experience at a Celtic Punk concert.
Rick and I were in town for a travel convention and to celebrate his daughter Jackie’s birthday. On a whim, we all decided to snare tickets to see Flogging Molly–an L.A.-based Irish Rock band who hit the music scene in the mid-90s . Entering the Aragon Ballroom, the visual disconnect between the opulently adorned, Technicolor, art deco interior and the attendees clad in Doc Martins, ripped jeans, t-shirts, and lip rings was strikingly apparent. This wasn’t my culture, and I was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know the rules…and it didn’t seem wise to ask what they were.
The punk-lovers filled nearly every inch of space on the ballroom floor, save the three-foot-wide aisle that cut through the middle of the floor. Metal railings meant to maintain the division of the masses seemed more like cages to me, but the barricaded beasts looked willing and eager to be a captive audience. With Rick’s smooth skills, we sweet-talked our way into the side balcony that was reserved for “friends of the band”. As we settled into our perch, the lights went dark and a roar thundered from the mob below. This was going to be wild, and I was suddenly grateful that we decided against hanging out with the “General Admission” crowd.
The band commanded attention with their charisma, their volume, and their sheer musical talent. Their songs ranged from anthems of solidarity to acoustic poems of introspection, and from bellicose rages to foot-stomping celebrations of life. The devout audience–like Irish Catholics at Sunday mass–knew all of the lyrics, and I found myself wishing I had a Flogging Molly hymnal so I could sing along. I had known only two of FM’s songs prior to this concert, but I could see myself becoming an earnest convert.
Yet even more intriguing than the band was the horde of worshippers paying homage to their almighty Irish rock gods. On either side of the ballroom’s aisle, mosh pits swirled tightly, and the instigators drew in peripheral bystanders like debris in twin cyclones. The frenetic whirling and shoving seemed reckless…brazen…dangerous. Everyone stripped down to their most animal instincts, and even dainty girls who seemed to have no business being in a mosh pit could push and give back as hard as their male counterparts.
As I stared at the primal chaos, my fingernails dug into the wooden rail of the balcony, leaving miniature half moons as evidence of my anxiety. I kept thinking to myself, “This is so crazy! How is getting jostled like a pinball by drunk strangers any fun?” It made no sense, but I was mesmerized. Like the proverbial train wreck, I simply could not take my eyes off of it.
When I witnessed a boyish-faced mosher lose his balance and crumble to the parquet floor, I let out a helpless yelp and dug my nails deeper into the wooden rail. In an instant, my heart doubled its pace. My mind envisioned this young, innocent teen: face down in a puddle of overpriced beer and being trampled by careless and unapologetic steel-toed boots. But in that same instant, the boy was swooped up from the ground by three fellow moshers. They all patted each other on the back to make sure everything was OK and then resumed the love-to-shove-fest.
The crowd surfing was a whole other beast. Every few minutes, a person was hoisted above an almost unanimously white sea of Chicagoans (I counted just two African-Americans and one Asian girl–besides me), and a dozen arms formed pillars of support for the horizontal surfer. You could never anticipate the route, but the person always ended up reaching the shore, into the awaiting arms of a burly (yet gentle) bouncer just in front of the stage. As the elated surfista scurried into the wings of the ballroom, I couldn’t tell if he (or she) was running off to buy a beer, take a pee, or head back into the crowd to catch another wave.
The more I watched the concert-goers, I realized that there was an etiquette to their mob-like rituals:
- Never use your fists.
- Shoving is expected, but stay below the neck and above the groin.
- Always help your fallen neighbor.
- Don’t grope the ladies.
- When someone wants to crowd surf, you must help them.
- Don’t take anything personal.
Etiquette is more than rules or even safety. It’s about respect. Everyone was there for a good and rowdy time. They love the music and the chance to work out their teen/twenty-something/thirty-something and even middle-age angst. And because they’re all there to celebrate the music of their favorite Celtic Punk band, their common bond begets common courtesy. When you’re of the same clan, the same sect, and the same cloth, you take care of your own.
As a witness to this polite mayhem, I was in awe of the curious ways of this concert culture. Just like with any culture we visit as travelers, it’s important to take it on its own terms and not try to make it conform to our own expectations and perspectives. And while I’m certain that I’ll never find myself exploring a mosh pit firsthand, I can surely appreciate and respect those who do.