They began lining up for the concert at 9 a.m., although the doors didn't open until eight hours later. By the time my friend Cathy and I arrived around 4:30, the line was long and boisterous. That mood continued during the concert, with catcalls and whistling aimed at the headliner as uber-fans in the front row cracked inside jokes with the singer. While most of Washington DC hunkered down for yet another face-off between Obama and Romney, several hundred people - mostly well-heeled women of a certain age - chose instead to attend a concert by British tenor Alfie Boe.
If you are wondering who Alfie is, it may be that you're not a PBS devotee. Unlike most singing sensations whose popularity gathers steam over time, most of those in attendance Tuesday night had "met" him through a concert version of Les Miserables filmed in London and shown on PBS stations around the country a mere 18 months ago. . You can read his bio to see how he went from working in a car factory to appearing on Broadway in La Bohème. But the point is that his fans are like no other.
Within the first 10 minutes of arriving at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, I met a flight attendant for a major airline who had attended all of Alfie's concerts on his current US tour. All of them. She was also able to recite from memory the names of all his band mates and their credentials. She has formed a tight bond with a group of his fans and has provided money for one, helped another one move and given emotional support to many more. She was hardly an anomaly. Another woman had taken two weeks' leave from her job to follow Alfie on tour, by bus, train and rental car. She explained that her husband had died unexpectedly a year ago and that Alfie's voice "was healing. God sent him to me when I needed him."
It didn't take long to figure out that these fans don't consider Alfie to be just a gifted singer; they worship in the Church of Alfology. They pepper their speech with British words: "'umble and cheeky." I hope I'm not leaving the impression that it was creepy. In fact, it was very sweet. None of these fans attend a concert alone, even when she has a single ticket. They sit together, sometimes travel together and even share hotel rooms. When I asked one fan what they had in common besides adoration of Alfie Boe, she said, "Isn't that enough?" It just seems so...unWashington-like. I've attended Springsteen concerts, and there is certainly a convivial air and a lot of beer-sharing. But at the end of the night, no one offers to walk my dog.
Perhaps the secret lies in Boe's musical choices? He is famous for saying repeatedly that good music has no borders - opera, rock, country and show tunes are intermingled if he likes singing them. So his selections Tuesday night ran the gamut: Willie Nelson to the Rolling Stones to Harry Nilsson to Roberta Flack to opera to the Allman Brothers to, of course, "Bring Him Home" from Les Miz. But this version was accompanied only by a haunting guitar - quite different from the stage version he is known for. His audience, with an average age of mid-fifties, didn't seem to care what he sang. His musical journey became theirs. They were cheering, pumping fists, rising to their feet. He is Justin Bieber for the AARP set.
"I know he was singing directly to me," announced one of his devoted fans with absolute sincerity. And it's easy to see how she could think that: He is masterful at working a room. He points at people, his eyes scan the room and alight on audience members each in her turn. At various points, he dashes through the audience and then invites the few young women in attendance onstage to dance. He is funny, even when it's clear a joke is rehearsed. After bending down to retrieve something, he puts his hands on his hips and asks, "Where you looking at my butt when I bent down?" One woman yells, "Maybe. Bend down again!" As he finishes a ballad, a woman shouts, "Beautiful! And the song wasn't bad either." He feigns embarrassment. What must it be like for a man in his thirties to have such a devoted fan base of women old enough to be his mother? During the second half of the show, an elderly woman hisses loudly to a contemporary - loud enough for many of us to hear - "How do I record on this thing?" The two women stare perplexed at an iPhone.
The show is fun and lively, particularly when Boe is doing his Elvis impression or playing drums. He has surrounded himself with some truly accomplished musicians. But the surprise of the evening is the fans. They have found in Alfie Boe a singer who is powerful and "gorgeous" as several describe him, but also a man who inspires them to be kind and loving to one another. It's a club of some sort, whose only requirement is that they memorize the Book of Boe. "His goodness makes us all want to be good to each other," says one of his fans. Sisterhood has been built on far less.
In Washington on one chilly October night, legions of residents were glued to a debate between two men who want to be President of the United States. I'm sure there was name-calling, interrupting and jockeying for zingers. But inside a theater just outside the Nation's Capital, a bearded man with a powerful voice was mesmerizing women who once pinned up posters of Davy Jones and Shaun Cassidy. His goal may have been to entertain but, for his fans, he was helping to unite.
Photo by Super Fan Victoria Wank