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Nicole's Story: Seeing AWOLNATION as an up-and-coming band

You know that band where that one song defines your summer? And you know every word to this one song because it is THE BEST? But then you see the band live and realize you didn’t even know they had other songs? But then it becomes one of the best shows of your life? Yeah, Nicole knows what that’s like too.

I was the first in line to see AWOLNATION in Reno. This was the peak of the summer in 2011. I was 18 years old and the tickets were only $5.

I like to think that growing up in Reno gave me an appetite for a wide range of music. It’s home to the University of Nevada and a small, but reinvigorated, urban scene. So, up-and-coming artists test the waters there before moving on to bigger stages and bigger cities. Modest Mouse and Kanye West both filmed music videos there in the mid-2000s, back when they were both cementing their identities as successful mainstream artists. Bud Gaugh of Sublime was said to have spent part of his childhood in Reno, but that’s just a rumor. My high school boyfriend used to insist that Reno is the screamo capital of the world, which may also just be a rumor.

Anyway, it was August, and I was about to move to Oregon for college. My friend heard on the alternative radio station that AWOL would be giving a $5 show at the (now defunct) Knitting Factory, and so we decided to go as a last hurrah before summer ended.

Over the years, my friends and I had consecrated our own concert ritual that we adhered to for every show. Because the Knitting Factory in Reno shared an alleyway with the Nugget Casino,  we would stop by the ticket window to pay and collect our wristbands, cut back through the casino for a burger (a wonderful monstrosity called an Awful Awful, served over a pound of french fries), then come back just in time to see the opener.

At that point, AWOL was known for the song Sail, whose grinding refrain we had taken to screaming at each other for most of that summer.

 It didn’t occur to us until we arrived that we didn’t know any of AWOL’s other songs. Not one.

When we elbowed our way up to the stage that night, we realized that everyone else in the crowd had also come to hear AWOL sing one song, and only one song. I remember being in the second row and hearing someone say, “I don’t know what any of their music sounds like…” to which his friend replied, “It doesn’t matter! We know Sail!”

It was a standing-room only. The opener was Wallpaper. -stylized with a period after the r- a hip hop project that hails from Oakland. Ricky Reed, and his background singer Novena Carmel, were dancing around the tiny stage, really putting themselves completely into the set. They caught every cue and nuance from the crowd. People threw glow sticks and beach balls. A few high school students were crowd surfing. I don’t think I would have ever become a fan if I had encountered them casually, but I still remember them as one of my favorite opening acts. I still put their music on when I’m getting ready to go out.

The wait for AWOL seemed particularly long. There might have been a mishap with the pyrotechnics, or the lighting, or the sound. Something like that. The older members of the crowd petered off to the bar. And then, all at once, AWOL ran out on stage and my friends and I were about fifteen feet away from Aaron Bruno, who flicked his long blond hair and assured us that Baby, when he’s looking at us, it’s not our fault, it’s not our fault. The response at first was lukewarm. No one there was familiar with their album Back from Earth, but then they slowly started to win us over, one synth-powered song after the next. When they came to Burn it Down, toward the end of the set, the crowd broke down into a giant, sweating mosh pit.

I come from a family of music lovers. My grandparents met in a jazz class in 1945. My parents belonged to a community of folk and bluegrass musicians. I spent most of my life around music and musicians.

But the AWOL show was the first where I saw musicians who were really experimenting with popular music.

In the years that followed, I went to several college music festivals and house shows, getting a taste for the delightfully weird parts of the Pacific Northwest music scene. I wouldn’t have learned to appreciate live shows with musicians who are still just starting out if I hadn’t been there that night.

Sail was the last song in the set. The fizzling, space-like introduction started, and Aaron Bruno held his microphone out toward the audience. We screamed, in unison: “SAIL!”


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