45 Minutes From Stardom: What It's Like Performing at Madison Square Garden as the Opener

 Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
Pale Waves performs live on stage at Madison Square Garden on June 1, 2017 in New York City. 

“I’ll be here. I will headline.’ Remember [I said in] this interview that I will.”

Lindsey Jordan, lead singer and mastermind of Maryland-based rising indie rock act Snail Mail, played the biggest venue of her young career to date this February. It’s just that the building was around 10 percent full when she hit the stage.

Before the finale of her four-song set, Jordan bid farewell to the then-swelling crowd, mostly there to catch the evening’s headliners, Meet Me in the Bathroom-era New York legends Interpol: “See you next time. Probably not here, maybe somewhere else.”

Her set was followed up by Car Seat Headrest, a slightly more established indie-rock force that’s been on the national live circuit for the better part of the last half decade, who opened with a still-unreleased song called “Can’t Cool Me Down,” which features the refrain, “Hey, we’re not supposed to be here.” Purposefully on the nose, Car Seat Headrest lead singer Will Toledo was probably right – even being two of the most critically acclaimed and successful acts in indie rock at the moment, it feels a bit peculiar seeing these niche young artists at Madison Square Garden, one of the most historic landmarks in the Big Apple.

The self-proclaimed World’s Most famous Arena, also the home of the Knicks and Rangers, MSG routinely plays host to the biggest names in music -- from legacy acts like Elton John and Billy Joel to a newer breed of pop stars like Drake and Ariana Grande. Often times, these major acts are paired up with some of the fastest rising stars of the moment -- Post Malone opened for Justin Bieber in 2016, while Future accompanied Drake a few weeks later -- but every so often, the artists themselves decide to include their favorite acts on the bill alongside them, gifting one of the most important stages in the country for a half hour or so.

For all of its iconic moments, shows, and sports moments over the past 51 years, The Garden is still the ultimate bucket-list music venue, the arena that musicians fantasize about playing from the time they first pick up an instrument. So what’s it like to perform there when you’re the opener, fulfilling your childhood dreams to a crowd that not only isn’t yours, but is still filing into their seats, likely talking over your set?

“When you’re an opener, it’s not about you,” explains roots-rock artist Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, who goes by the moniker Fantastic Negrito and in 2016 supported Temple of the Dog, a grunge supergroup made up of members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. “When you understand that, you have a great time touring. I’m here to get people to sit down, get them in their seats, and hopefully they’re going to see that I’m a badass motherfucker too.”

Fantastic Negrito, the recent winner of the Grammy for best contemporary blues album, was well aware of The Garden’s history, noting that he felt something different from the minute he walked in for soundcheck.

“When you’re standing out there, you can feel it,” he says. “You can just feel the vibrations in the [legendary MSG performances of] Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Rakim, The Fugees. You can taste it; there’s something about it. When you walk into the back room, the security and all of these people are looking at you in a way they don’t do at other venues. They’re looking at you like, ‘Man, you must be somebody.’”

But with the cultural significance behind the arena comes a lot of added pressure. For Pale Waves, a buzzy synth pop band from Manchester who opened for labelmates The 1975 in June 2017 with only one released song, they felt a different kind of stage fright before beginning their set, playing their first ever New York show on its biggest stage.

“I remember being sidestage about to walk on -- the lights went down and I felt extra nervous for that show, just because our family came as well,” Pale Waves' Heather Baron-Gracie remembers, noting that they were “babies” at this point. “As soon as we stepped on stage, I think we were all just sort of [feeling], ‘Let’s give each other all we’ve got, this is incredible, we can do this, come on! Put everything we’ve got into this one song!’”

Had there been extra anxiety prior to Snail Mail’s opening set, Jordan didn’t show it. When playing live, she typically inserts in-ear monitors with sound cancelling headphones, and refuses to wear contacts or glasses onstage despite having bad eyesight -- doing so in order to keep her sets consistent without letting the crowd affect how she plays. But while it was tempting for her to do something different for the MSG occasion, she notes that her band decided against it, instead opting for a different way to combat their nerves.

“I don’t think anybody really looked up [the entire time],” the singer-songwriter explains. “We were all looking at our feet, so no one was nervous or messing up or anything. We were kind of spitballing the idea of saying something statement-y because it was in front of so many people. But we were like, ‘That’s not really our place as a one of three.’”

Of all the artists Billboard spoke to for this piece, one thing was for certain – no one truly expected to be playing Madison Square Garden at this point in their respective careers. Dawn of Midi, an acoustic ensemble specializing in minimalist experimental instrumental music, say they had actually joked about opening for Radiohead at MSG throughout the recording of their 2013 record Dysnomia… until it actually happened in July 2016.

“We were a free improvising band and we were making really, really obscure music that was kind of popular in its own extremely niche way -- like, free jazz blogs were into it,” bassist Aakaash Israni remembers. “We decided to write something that was composed, and our drummer -- who at the time was was only interested in improvising -- really didn’t want to do this. We would joke with him: ‘When we’re opening at the Garden for Radiohead, you’ll have to say sorry!’

While it’s a distinct honor to -- as Dphrepaulezz says -- join the “very small fraternity of people that can say, ‘I played Madison Square Garden,’” artists also run the risk of facing indifference or negative reactions from crowds that almost definitely didn’t pay to see them perform, and may not even know who they even are. While Pale Waves are sonically similar to The 1975, they were virtual unknowns at the time; Fantastic Negrito and Dawn of Midi are fairly far afield sonically from the major acts they supported.

“I think the people who might have been receptive to what we were doing, they really dug it, and the people who were going to hate it anyway, hated it,” Irsani explains. “I remember seeing a lot of stuff online after about Radiohead’s opener, and there was a battle between the people who hated it and the people who liked it. We were probably exposed to more people that night than we’d ever been before.”

Irsani’s bandmate, drummer Qasim Naqvi, added that they took the online backlash in stride: “On the second night we were sitting in the greenroom and were laughing about a Reddit stream that was making the rounds of people who were having a particularly negative reaction to our music at MSG. It was a really funny situation and it gave me even more enthusiasm before hitting the stage.”

But for others, particularly for acts like The 1975 who haven’t typically played arenas in the United States, Madison Square Garden shows attract superfans who make a point to attend that show over others -- oftentimes traveling from far outside of New York’s five boroughs and the tri-state area because of the particular concert’s supposed air of importance. This can mean a better (and more supportive) crowd in general at times, even for the openers.

“It was actually a really great crowd, the best on that whole tour for us,” Baron-Gracie recalls of Pale Waves' Garden set.  “Because it was such an iconic show, all of the 1975 hardcore fans all came to that one; they all wanted to be at that one. Before we came onstage, they were all chanting ‘Paaaaale Waves!’ which was really, really sweet and very encouraging. The crowd definitely changed at MSG – it was more enthusiastic.”

Regardless of how many people were in their seats at the time each act walked onstage and what the crowd’s overall reaction was, each of these musicians had their chance to play The Garden, living out the dreams of so many musicians around the world. But it isn’t for everyone; for artists like Snail Mail who likely didn’t launch their careers with any ambitions for stadium touring, playing MSG can end up becoming a surreal, even awkward, sort of moment.

“It’s never been on my horizon – it was a surprising thing that we even played,” Jordan admits. “I feel thankful for the experience, but that’s all I feel like I can express about it. It was good, and it was fun, but I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like something I’d chase after.” Jordan says her most memorable moment didn’t even come from anything that happened on the hallowed stage, but rather backstage: “I’d say our highlight of the night was in catering, there was this really incredible lemon cake. That was something that’d be cool to work up to, having catering with good dessert or something.”

For others, however, the opposite rings true – the feeling of performing where Ali beat Frazier in the Fight of the Century, as Dphrepaulezz notes, was intoxicating, a night that will be treasured forever.

“You definitely say to yourself, ‘I’ll be here one day,’” Dphrepaulezz recalls saying to himself that night. “‘I’ll be here. I will headline.’ Remember [I said in] this interview that I will.”

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