You had to be there – Part 1

by Steve Brock on December 26, 2011

As my seventeen-year-old son Sumner and I exit the theatre, neither of us speaks. We prefer to hold private our own assessments of the concert we have just seen, afraid to leak our confidences to the passing crowds or to risk the possibility of misunderstanding each other’s true sentiments. A few blocks later, however, we ensconce ourselves within the Cone of Silence (otherwise known as our car).

Sumner is the first to venture forth and he does so boldly: “That was the best concert I’ve ever been to,” he announces, all cards on the table.

I hesitate a moment, then reply much like the young teen who has just been informed by the object of his intense crush that she likes him. “Really?” I probe, not sure if Sumner is genuine or practicing some new style of sarcasm picked up at school or, alas, learned from me and genetically modified.

“Oh my gosh, yes! They were amazing!” he says. While my youngest son Connor, who is 14, still employs the word AWESOME for all utterances of excitement or joy, Sumner has matured in his own vocabulary.

Unfortunately, at this moment, he has hit the point where no words suffice to adequately convey the height of his feelings. So tonight, “amazing” will do just fine.

Now, having vulnerably declared his position, he retreats. “What did you think?” he inquires, a hint of hesitation lining his question. I remain stone-faced as long as I can until tenderness for my son’s brave pronouncement and my own enthusiasm break me and I blurt out, “They were AWESOME!” This gives you a sense of the level at which my own emotive vocabulary is stuck.

We now make up for the silence of our walk to the car by talking over one another in our enthusiastic attempt to convince each other of what we clearly already agree on. We dissect, scrutinize and mutually praise each detail of the performance. Then, about ten minutes into our fevered admiration fest we hit a potential snag: we realize there is no way we can possibly explain how excellent our evening was to any other human being.

 And therein lies the age-old problem particularly common in travel: we come home and find we are unable to do much more than reduce an extraordinary experience down to five simple words: “You had to be there.”


“You had to be there” is our fallback position when our experiences exceed our ability to describe them or when the joke we just told goes over about as well as a hamburger stand in Delhi. But these words are more than a trite line thrown to those on the outside of a joke or travel experience. They highlight a concept rich with extended meaning, a phrase that operates on more levels than a Bernie Madoff investment scheme.

Over the next several entries here at The Meaningful Traveler, we’ll explore some of those multiple ways of appreciating the phrase, “You had to be there.” But for now, let me explain this particular incident.

Sumner and I had just witnessed a performance in Seattle by The Civil Wars, a duo who play a mixture of music loosely categorized as Americana. Don’t let the cleavage, melodramatic filming or Johnny Depp-look-a-likeness in the following video distract you from two very talented performers.


This video of their biggest hit, Poison and Wine, is by its nature, a music video. But the live performance – two singers and a single guitar for all but two songs – was something incredible. From their timing and banter with the audience and each other to their haunting harmonies and musicianship, Joy Williams and John Paul White are something to behold. Even superstar Adele (for whom The Civil Wars opened earlier this year) has stated that, “The Civil Wars are the best live band I have ever seen.”

Sumner and I would agree. But to tell you all this or even for you to check out their videos won’t quite cut it. That’s the problem with such experiences. Words, photographs or even videos only go so far. When we fully engage in an experience all attempts to convey it will come up short.

I can tell you the concert was great. But really all I can say that will do it justice is this:

You had to be there.

To be continued…

Or read the rest of the series: Part 2, Part 2 1/2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5


Still here? Then check out this other, simpler video by The Civil Wars:


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