My social media feeds are populated by crazy acrobats. They strap on headcams and start running, jumping, unicycling and somersaulting over rooftops, staircases, cooling towers, flying buttresses – you name it.
Just watching the videos brings me out in a vertigo-induced rash, but it’s striking that these people see the buildings and spaces around them in very different ways from normal folk. If you’ve ever spent time hanging out with rock climbers, you’ll have seen their eyes darting around, habitually looking for something that could be climbed and silently sussing out how they’d go about it.
Depending how you use your body, the space outside it works differently, and if the space is full of people then it’s responding to all of them. A gig venue isn’t just a room. It’s a group of humans arranged in a certain way, shifting around in patterns, paying more or less attention, breathing, commenting, laughing, morphing into a one-night-only organism. The performer who can gauge that creature, work out what makes it tick, how to hold its gaze, is the one who does a memorable gig.
But Curtis Eller doesn’t just gauge the group. He walks onto the stage, alone with his banjo, and starts to stalk disconcertingly back and forth, plucking out a creepy arpeggio. From the first moment, you can see his brain whirring. He’s assessing the shape of the space, working out which walls he could climb, which gantries he could swing from, using the acoustics from his banjo to make sense of the envelope he’s playing in and the relationship he’s going to construct between his songs and the audience.
By the time he brings on the four compadres in his American Circus, Curtis has already mastered the many-headed creature that’s watching and listening. The band transports me into a parallel world of vaudeville time travel. A shell-shocked voyeur, I drift from the blood and gore of a Depression-era meatpacking factory to the desperation of a battlefield hospital to a whimsical deathbed where Busby Berkeley has propped open the door to paradise. In this world, Tom Waits and Robert Johnson played together at CBGB in 1978, while a Buster Keaton movie was projected behind them, and a female double-act of lion tamers danced and sang as they kept the beast in check. It’s not a world I want to be left alone in, but I don’t want to leave it either.
I know that I’ve been tamed too, hypnotised and controlled, when I’m given a choice between Richard Nixon and cocaine, and find myself unable to handle one without the other. And then, almost without warning, I’m participating in the oddest audience sing-along there could possibly be. Collectively, we’re acting out the role of a condemned man, sitting in a gas chamber and seeking redemption from his hero, the boxer Joe Louis. Here we are, about 70 of us, pint glasses in hand, whispering this song as softly as we can. Normality is the other side of the door to the bar, but I’ve never felt further from it.
Afterwards, Curtis and his band mingle and sign merchandise, their mood easy and happy. The organism that witnessed the show has fragmented, and we’re just a bunch of people again. We’ve emerged together, unscathed, from some sort of cathartic séance, and now we can have a laugh about it.
For me, at least, the Backroom at the Greystones will wear the imprint of this evening. I’ll always see the shadow of a skinny banjo player perched on the dado rail, the face of David Lynch gazing unflinchingly at him from the picture frame behind, as he figures out how to get off the wall and back to the stage.