This weekend, ignoring what’s become a rather brutal lung infection, me and my girlfriend made the almost 200 mile trip downstate to Indianapolis. The trip had been planned ahead months in advance, on a whim, after recanting the magical experiences I had attending two previous Distant Worlds concerts and checking to see if it was still a thing. To those unfamiliar, Dear Friends, Distant Worlds and its currently running sequel Another World are a series of traveling live concert events that recreate the music from the the Final Fantasy game series using actual instruments. While some of the more modern Final Fantasy games (mostly those past IX) already have orchestrated soundtracks (or at least very close), conductor Eric Roth works closely with Square-Enix and the main man Nobuo Uematsu himself in order to realize pieces from as far back as the very beginning, forever changing the way you hear familiar songs that you may have heard a million times before. I thought I knew what to expect walking in, but ended up being quite surprised.
The Athenaeum Theatre was one of about four businesses running out of what appeared to be a mainly YMCA facility. The show was at 7:30, and we arrived a half hour early to find most of the people driving into and out of the parking lot in a futile attempt to find one of what may have been 30 non-YMCA-member-only parking spaces. Luckily for us, the street adjacent to the center was largely empty, with parking meters that supported parking for just long enough for us to enjoy our show. Unluckily for us, at the door Rachell reminded me that the tickets were still in the glove compartment, so I made my way back through the cold November rain, sacrificing extra time (and soakage) to carefully judge the driest path to avoid soaking my dress shoes. The attempt was futile, as upon making it to the street I immediately stepped in a pothole disguised as a shallow puddle, soaking one sock, and, stopping to cuss, was hit by a wave of car splash-back. I had to laugh, and just tried to stay happy that I didn’t have the tickets in-hand yet. I retrieved the tickets and made my way back through the parking lot, making better time by using my already soaked foot to step through small puddles. I approached the door absolutely drenched, with Rachell laughing uneasily at my obviously apparent struggle. She closed her Hogwarts-themed umbrella and we entered.
The first thing I noticed from the start was that this venue was extremely small compared to what I was used to Distant Worlds had taken place in a massive amphitheater both of the times that I went, packed with hundreds of fans, with an atrium filled to the brim with vendors selling all forms of merch from soundtracks to plushies to T-shirts. During these shows, I was always too broke to partake, and this time had saved almost a month’s work earnings to go a little crazy; alas, it just wasn’t meant to be. The atrium was extremely small, and though “fancy” could be used to describe the architecture, the site of chipping paint, varnish, and tearing carpet was present in almost any way I looked. A small, simple, computer-printed sign that said “Another World Final Fantasy - 2nd Floor” in a simple serifed font directed the small crowd of equally drenched attendees up a creaky flight of stairs past a single merch table, holding soundtracks of 3 previous Distant Worlds concerts and this one we were attending, and a single simple screened tote, folded down to the size of a wallet to fit into a small plastic package. I was notably upset here, wanting nothing more than something small, yellow and soft to take home with me (Warrrrrk...), but I was still more than happy to support what was there by picking up the first and most current soundtracks, if only to hear the difference. I also grabbed a tote, and we were on our way into the theater. Outside the massive double doors two attendants were checking tickets, not even to ensure that people had them or scan them (as I saw numerous people walk right by), but to direct people to their seats. The word “Intimate” in the show’s title was resounding in my head more and more with each step. The theatre itself was probably the size of the section I sat in for the previous Distant Worlds concert, with room for probably only slightly more than 100 people to be seated. The chairs were wooden relics of a much earlier time, and our tables were round 4-seaters. I sprang for the most expensive tickets I could get (having missed the meet-and-greets due to my lateness) and our $45-a-piece seats sat us in the front row , off to the right but directly in front of the small ensemble. I will admit at this point feeling some regret. I had built up these events to be so much “more” to Rachell, and everything about this show felt like one-hundredth of what I psyched it up to be. I knew she would enjoy it no matter what, having an innate love of live events, but I was actually beginning to worry that my own level of enjoyment wouldn’t be what I hoping for. I ran to the bar, grabbing a couple of chardonnays (which must be French for gasoline) and a Sprite to try to ride the “classy” feeling. I quickly took my seat again, just as the ensemble began to do their orchestral tuning. The lights dimmed, Mr. Roth stepped out, and I immediately began to feel the difference and the reasoning behind it. Eric’s voice was able to carry to the furthest corners of the room, even in the brief instance that the mic dropped out. The ensemble often looked out and directly into the eyes of the people who they were playing the music for, exchanging smiles and glances, chuckles and stares. The thought that they were using “intimate” to describe this in the way a realtor uses “cozy” to describe a tiny house began to evaporate. This really was intimate, and it was really meant to be. The song selection was quite different, opting to do town, love and final boss themes as opposed to main, character or overworld themes. These weren’t the songs we’ve been celebrating together year after year, game in and game out. These are the songs we heard only when we were alone, gripped deeply in the game’s story or gameplay. The Pianist was charming and charismatic. The guitarist skilled and chill. The flutist adept, even when switching to a pennywhistle to give the inevitable Chocobo Tribute medley an appropriate sense of whimsy. The percussionist, switching constantly between a standard band drum set up and a collection of percussion instruments gave every song a slightly more recognizable depth musically, while the string quartet maintained all the nostalgic music almost note-for-note from the game’s many synth tracks. Each artist and group had an opportunity to shine, giving us a chance to know each of them individually. The entire setup was orchestrated for them to deliver the music to us individually, and the experience couldn’t have been any different from the Symphony Orchestra-produced shows of Distant Worlds but was extremely wonderful in its own way. Almost an hour and a half into it, when Eric announced the show was now coming to its close, you could tell that there was genuinely not a single person in the audience who wanted it to end. They wrapped it up with a double encore, finishing with fan-favorite One-Winged Angel before collecting their things and leaving the stage.
On our way back to my friend Victor’s house, where we were bunking that night before leaving the next day, I explained the differences between the two events and put in the CD I bought from Distant Worlds. She was surprised at the difference, but not really too disappointed. It was an entirely different show with an entirely different feel and message. I wasn’t disappointed either, and happily (eventually; damn cough) drifted off to sleep with the beautiful music I just heard reverberating in my head.