A Love Letter to Music Venues

"If listening to music is a religious experience, the venue stands as the church, the artist is the preacher, and the strangers form a congregation."
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In Atlanta, Georgia, on the corner of North Avenue in Old Fourth Ward, there is a massive, soft-spoken building. She doesn’t scream for the gaze of those passing by, but eyes are attracted. How could they not notice, if only briefly, a monument older than every structure in the neighboring area? Anatomically, she wears her age like wrinkles on the elderly. In an eloquent font unfitting of the dark black paint, her sign reads, “the MASQUERADE.

Before being purchased by SWH Residential Partners in 2016, The Masquerade was more than a victim of a transforming city. The Masquerade was Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. At least, that’s what the venue called its three stages. Dating back to 1989, when the former Excelsior Mill-turned-restaurant pivoted towards musical entertainment, bands of all creeds and rappers of all colors—any and everyone who entered the city of Atlanta to perform music—had to kiss her ring. The Masquerade, an establishment that’s been standing on North Avenue as early as 1890, was a rite of passage for artists and fans alike.

In a Reddit thread created to commemorate the former staple in Atlanta’s music community and to discuss its new location, more than 252 comments are reminiscing on the good and bad of The Masquerade. “I MISS THE BOUNCY FLOORBOARDS IN HEAVEN,” wrote OpticGandee, a sentiment that many others shared.

On the flip side, just as many concertgoers found those floorboards to be hazardous and unbecoming. The Masquerade didn’t always feel safe—and the acoustics weren't great—but no other music venue made you feel as if you took a step back in time without leaving the present. Attending concerts at The Masquerade was a visceral experience. Imagine rambunctious mosh pits in a historical museum.  

A music venue is a playground for adults and adolescents. It’s a place where the living can make memories to the music that may have changed their lives. Every day someone walks into a building to feel the vibrations from their favorite songs with strangers who could never know how much the music means to them. If listening to music is a religious experience, the venue stands as the church, the artist is the preacher, and the strangers form a congregation. 

No two venues are identical. From the bar prices to the sound system, each locale is a wonderland of unique peculiarities. Each space has unique characteristics, not unlike the artists who enter their doors. Only after attending various concerts at the same venue do you learn of the squeaking floorboards, the bathrooms powdered with cocaine, and which rooms allow for the best viewing of the stage. 

When an artist or band announces their tour schedule, they’re unveiling dates, but also, they’re sharing the names of the churches where their congregations will gather. Anyone who regularly attends shows will tell you where the performance takes place is just as important as who’s performing. 

Although bigger rooms are often the goal of touring acts, there’s nothing quite like an intimate rap show. Just look at this footage of Kendrick Lamar performing the ground-trembling “M.A.A.D. City” at The Illmore—a famed after-party that was formally an annual staple in Austin, Texas during the SXSW music festival—in 2013. 

The number of people in the room is likely a fire hazard. There are bodies on top bodies with no breathing room. With no personal space to speak of, the fans’ energy creates a vacuum. That energy implodes when the first drum kicks. Shirts twirl overhead and bodies collide with chaotic bounce. Absolute pandemonium. Lamar is barely visible throughout the one minute clip, but he’s not what’s important—it’s the reaction. That burst of life is the result of his presence. Kendrick will never be able to recreate that moment.

The grand finale of JID’s Catch Me If You Can Tour drew a similar reaction from his hometown crowd. The show took place at Center Stage Theater, another prominent venue in Atlanta music history. The 1,050 capacity room is larger than The Illmore. Almost every song the East Atlanta-born rapper performed caused a passionate reaction from the hundreds of kids who moshed on the ground floor. We must note JID’s breathless endurance. The way he delivers every tongue-twisting bar with inexhaustible fervor and world-conquering enthusiasm keeps his audience entranced. 

Musically, DiCaprio 2, the sophomore mixtape that JID performed throughout the Catch Me If You Can Tour, was made with music festivals in mind. Its explosive bangers have the high-powered sensibility of songs meant for the fields and crowds of festival settings. With that said, after seeing the Dreamville top prospect in both festival and concert settings, the songs hit different when the energy is airtight. When records like “151 Rum,” “Slick Talk,” Off Da Zoinkys,” the A$AP Ferg-featured “Westbrook” and the J. Cole-assisted “Off Deez” are confined, they detonate like cherry bombs

Understandably, not every concert is meant to be a riot. The beauty in JAY-Z playing in amphitheaters and stadiums is the grace of his performance. By rapping with suave debonair, instead of being an encouraging nudge toward chaos, Hov makes thousands of people feel as if they’re holding a personal conversation with him. He’s not performing these songs for everyone; he’s performing for you. Knowing how to make what is large feel intimate is a strength of a seasoned showman. 

Still, there’s something about seeing JAY-Z in clubs smaller than football fields that’s special. It’s the chance to be so close to the speakers that his lyrics crawl underneath your skin. In the smaller venues, your ears ring different the next morning; they ring as a reminder. When they stop ringing, the feeling is still there, buried deep in your bones. It’s a physical memory. 

Music venues play a significant yet underrated role in how fans feel about the music. Without them, hip-hop would still be at the park, performed in the dark. That isn’t a knock on how things used to be, but the park didn’t have an open bar. So, cheers to the venues: may they survive the exotic cappuccinos and luxury lofts, the systemic racism and irrational fears, the cancer of time and the end of the world. 

Let the church say, Amen. 

By Yoh aka Masquerade Yoh aka Yoh31

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