The sense of imminent doom began around 7:15 p.m. The doors of Little Havana's Manuel Artime Performing Arts Center were supposed to open at 7:30 p.m. for an 8:00 show, but they were wide open fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. The signs were ominous. No line snaked out the door, much less down the street. Instead a few people milled around the lobby of the former church, some of them taking tickets or selling beverages.
Singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel, former frontman for indie icon American Music Club and now a well-regarded solo artist, was making his concert debut in Miami. News of his appearance spurred great expectations. The much-publicized gig, arranged at the behest of ardent fan-turned-temporary-promoter J.C. Moya, was considered an experiment of sorts. If successful it would be the beginning of something big, an opportunity for other acts that shun driving halfway down the state from Orlando, to come to Miami and jump-start the ailing live-music scene. By the looks of the still-sparse crowd at 7:45, hope faded quickly.
A little after 8:00, opening act For Stars, a pop band from San Francisco, took the stage. Alternating cuts from its last two albums between swigs of beer, the group offered interesting melodies and solid playing but brief songs that left much to be desired lyric-wise. Lead singer Carlos Forster's overly emotive vocals sometimes sounded like Michael Stipe on Xanax, especially during an ill-advised cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying." Contrary to the mopey music, an amazed and amiable Forster often commented about how happy he and his cohorts were to be in Miami and on the barely responsive audience's calm demeanor. The scant crowd seemed to fill only a quarter of the 800-plus-seat theater, not unusual during an opening act, which many see as an occasion to avoid instead of a chance to discover something new. Maybe the sober (literally) audience was shocked into silence because they were at a high-caliber, reasonably priced indie-rock show at a lovely and immaculate venue for a change.
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By the time Eitzel and his three musicians hit the stage around 9:45, a few more people had straggled through the door, but the slight increase in numbers didn't make for a more energetic response. Dressed in a blue work shirt with his sleeves rolled above his elbows, dark slacks, and combat boots, Eitzel looked more the longshoreman than the fabulously handsome and charismatic rock star he joked about being. In fact throughout the night, in a relaxed and spirited mood, he flung several self-deprecating barbs, identifying one song as "an angry little diatribe that I wrote just for you."
Backed by electronic loops and samples that acted as percussion, a bassist-guitarist who also played pedal-steel guitar, and a bassist who doubled on synthesizer, Eitzel was in top form, tirelessly singing and strumming songs, many from his latest album, The Invisible Man. Unfortunately his poignant powerful voice often was lost in the din of the electronic gizmos, tasteful as they were. "Proclaim Your Joy," a wry twist on the Joseph Campbell-like exaltation to "find your bliss," was unusually upbeat. "To the Sea," dedicated to deceased musician Jeff Buckley, was muddled by guitar fuzz. More compelling were the moments Eitzel stood alone with his guitar, its shiny pickups creating their own light show on the walls, his vocals clear, piercing, and plaintive. "Steve I Always Knew," a ditty he claims was inspired by a guy who told him he was the worst poet he ever met, was particularly memorable. A two-month-old song he wrote about an encounter with a superficial soap star was pure Eitzel, beginning with the striking "What do you say to those who seem to live without a demon?" After a few solos he promised "this caterwauling will soon be over."
It didn't seem soon enough for most of the crowd, who, following the final song of the 75-minute set, clapped lethargically and then in a sudden burst of vitality bolted from their seats and headed toward the exits. The lackluster applause of the remaining listeners brought good sport Eitzel out for an encore. Two songs into the intimate microphoneless reprise, an amplifier cord popped out of his electric guitar, yet Eitzel continued to sing and play anyway, jesting that now he didn't have to hit the correct notes. During the third tune, distracted by the sounds of people either speaking or skittering out the door, Eitzel abruptly halted and said goodnight, shaking his head in seeming disgust as he walked into the wings. Puzzled, the audience squirmed in its seats as hopes and dreams of similar bands coming to town swirled down the drain.
Over and over again Miami is cited as a city with a pathetic live-music scene. Opportunities arise every so often to alter that state, and who makes the most of them? A precious few. The others prefer instead to whine about what doesn't exist and do nothing to maintain the little that does or to cultivate something new. Eitzel himself described the dismal turnout best when midshow the lights came up briefly, and he got a glimpse of who came to hear him. "Oooh, I can see you," he marveled for a moment. Then he blurted out indecorously: "There's a lot of empty seats!" Eitzel is a writer with a reputation for penning confessional tunes. Let's just hope he doesn't get a song out of this dispiriting experience.