Seán Barna’s Electrifying Performance at The Hotel Café: A Liberating Journey of Authenticity and Queer Artistry

Seán Barna, the renowned singer-songwriter, took the stage at The Hotel Café in Hollywood last night, delivering an electrifying performance that transcended the limitations of the venue and left the audience awestruck with his raw talent, unapologetic queerness, and powerful message.

Hollywood, by Ryan Cassata — Seán Barna graced The Hotel Café in Hollywood last night to promote his latest Pitchfork-praised LP, An Evening At Marci Park, out via Kill Rock Stars.

The Hotel Café is arguably one of the most challenging venues to perform at in Los Angeles. It’s hard to get on a show there, and it’s hard to perform on either of their (two) stages. They have one of the best sound systems in the city and the best live sound engineers, but the lighting is hard for the performers. The very intimate venue holds a barely lit audience with stage lights that blind the performers, creating an illusion that makes the artist feel like they are playing to a dark, empty room. For artists who thrive off seeing their audience, this creates a significant disconnect between the artist and the crowd and could negatively impact an artist’s charisma and show.

The first and only time that I had seen Seán Barna perform was at an official SXSW showcase earlier this March. His stage presence and overall show completely blew me out of the water. It electrified me and it also made me anxious, because I wanted to do that too. I am an artist as well and found myself a bit nervous to take the stage after him and match the level of showmanship that he offered Austin. Seán Barna noticed I was a bit nervous before my set, offered me some words of encouragement, and I took the stage with confidence.

Fast-forward to The Hotel Café, Friday night, July 7th, 2023. I sat in the dimly lit corner at one of the tiny black tables iconic to The Hotel Café, waiting for Seán to take the stage. He first appeared with Craig Kierce, a class-act singer-songwriter with incredible guitar talents and a deep, unique voice that reminded me of a cross between Elvis Costello meets Randy Newman. Craig Kierce played his guitar effortlessly, barely moving his hands or arms as he erupted intricate guitar solos, singing into the mic on center stage. Seán was not center stage. He was in the far corner, behind the drum set, beating up the drums in the most-punk rock fashion, never missing a beat, even as cymbal stands collapsed, and drums scooted forward by force. The destruction and movement of the drum set added to the show, making it more captivating for the audience. The audience loves when artists give it their all. I was not there to see Craig Kierce, but I left following his Spotify page, sure to listen to his enchanting tracks again.

Seán Barna was the next act. He came to the stage with just an acoustic guitar and stood before the microphone. The audience was loud. I expected Seán’s all-star band to join him and drown out their LA chatter. His band never joined; this was a solo show. I was nervous for him. Having played The Hotel Café several times before, knowing the struggle of the lights and the space, knowing that the absence of drums would lead to a quietness that the audience would yap over. A Field Medic song popped into my head, “I need a cigarette. Those fuckers talked over my whole set.” Every acoustic artist knows the pain of this. Seán untangled his guitar cable, stepped up to the mic, but not too close, and started singing an A cappella version of “(Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me A) Mercedes-Benz.” He hoped for crowd participation on the song’s iconic lines, but the audience in the back continued to rudely talk over him. He sang louder. He got off the stage, jumped into the audience, stomped his feet to the beat, got the crowd to clap, and thus, won the show.

The show carried on in this fashion, feeling much like an intimate house show, a glimpse into the mind of a great artist, all his fears, thoughts, and differences openly displayed before us, without any shame. In between songs, he denounced homophobia, bullying, and the Supreme Court’s recent homophobic ruling. He showcased queer rage, a normal response to the anti-LGBTQ mindset currently sweeping the nation. Seán is not a blend-in-the-background type of queer, so any homophobe in the crowd would be offended by this type of conversation and performance. Perhaps thier discomfort would cause them to leave. But hopefully they would stay, listen to his songs and words, and begin to adapt to the times and into acceptance.

Seán sang his original songs, some from his jaw-dropping record, fully mesmerizing the audience, letting them into his world, and showcasing his character, charisma, and cleverness. He also made hilariously witty jokes that made audience members laugh out loud. He took more trips into the crowd, creating an immersive experience unlike anything I had ever seen at The Hotel Café. He also sang brilliant opera riffs in between his singer-songwriter folk-style crooning, adding dynamics and surprises throughout the set. Seán Barna didn’t even need a band, and he sure as hell didn’t need backing tracks or backing dancers. He was a one-man, Broadway-worthy show that would surely impress the beatniks, the poets, the hippies, the outcasts, the songwriters, and any true punk-spirited person. Seán Barna is the definition of a true artist. Seán Barna’s show is a must-see. It will change you for the better.

As a queer person, seeing the way he could take the stage completely authentically, without any shame, just with power and pride, liberated me. I thought, “Okay, I can be this queer and this weird, and people will still go crazy over it. People will still like me. I could be me.”

Seán Barna is a reminder to the queer community that it is more important now than ever to be outspoken, to take up space, to reclaim space inside and outside of music venues, to express ourselves authentically and entirely, to never blend in, to stand up instead of sitting down, to be loud, to not tone down our queerness for the oppressor’s comfort, and to demand that the oppressor shuts up and listens. Seán Barna’s performance last night was a reminder to be true.

Written by Ryan Cassata (IG @RyanCassata)

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