Live music is back! (Live music is back?)
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 20, 2024

Live music is back! (Live music is back?)
Fans at Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago, July 30, 2021. As the concert business amped up again, the New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica spent six weeks at shows in honky-tonks, clubs and arenas. Jesse Lirola/The New York Times.

by Jon Caramanica

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- I’ll confess upfront that I walked into the Jacob Collier show at the Blue Note New York with some apprehension.

It was June 21, the night after Foo Fighters rechristened Madison Square Garden with its first concert since March 2020 — the event meant to symbolize the reawakening of New York City’s live-music business. But the Garden is vast, and the West Village jazz club is smaller than a Wendy’s. Being in tight, crowded spaces after 15 months of pandemic distancing was still a new sensation.

There was also the music: Collier, a Grammy favorite, makes music that’s arch, shaggy and extravagantly awkward, as if the most popular performer of 1971 had dropped a rough batch of acid.

But I settled in at a table in the center of the 250-capacity room. There are uncomfortable seats at the Blue Note, but no bad ones — you’re never so far away that you hear the music in any way other than pointillist. As the show got into a groove, I kept noting the way Collier’s piano was in unintentional duet with the tinkle of silverware on plates. The sensation was physical, a face slap on delicate skin, refreshing enough.

Next to me, though, was a fan experiencing the show on a whole other plane of euphoria — hooting loudly at brainy piano filigrees, jumping out of his seat frequently, dapping up the guest musicians who popped on and offstage throughout the set.

His name was Camryn, and he had flown in from California for the show. (It turned out he was a professional football player who had just been drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.) As the night progressed, I found myself watching him watch Collier. Suddenly, musical gestures that seemed cloying to me felt jubilant, or even inspiring.

After a year and a half of imbibing music almost exclusively alone, I had forgotten one of the aspects of communal live performance that had been unreproducible as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched on: how the energy of a room can osmose from person to person. From a distance, concerts are unidirectional, from the stage outward. But in the room, they are complex, dynamic organisms — the observers are performers, too. You come to see what happens onstage, but you’re often just as shaped by what’s happening around you in the crowd.

In the current epidemiological climate, however, that crucial aspect of concertgoing is unduly stressful. And the return to live music over the past couple of months, with every fellow enthusiast a potential viral bomb, has relied upon an ever-shifting set of personal calculations, and a combination of trust and denial. Returning to live performances has been a privilege with a price.

From mid-June to the beginning of this month, I went to six live events — five concerts and a festival. Different sizes, different genres, different cities. Besides Foo Fighters at the Garden and Collier at the Blue Note, I saw the rising country star Gabby Barrett at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth and the trap corrido innovators Fuerza Regida at Eme Antro Bar in Minneapolis. I spent a couple of days at Lollapalooza in Chicago, and caught the live debut (with a ticketed audience) of the Verzuz series — a song-for-song “battle” between two artists that became one of the pandemic’s culture staples and saving graces — as the Lox and Dipset, two quintessential New York hip-hop crews, squared off at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden.

My planning began in late spring — a lifetime ago, COVID-wise — when coronavirus cases in the United States were in steep decline and the growing availability of vaccines gave the concert industry the confidence to begin booking events. It was also before the unannounced guest on every lineup was the delta variant.

The rapidly shifting conditions made the last few weeks a disorienting and sometimes agonizing internal tug of war, even as a fully vaccinated spectator: There were the endorphins of returning to familiar pleasure centers, and the beads of sweat from wondering how seriously my fellow enthusiasts were taking their health, and mine.

On the plus side, it was reassuringly easy to love live music again. In March 2020, as venues around the world went dark with no clear sense of when they might light up again, my New York Times colleague Jon Pareles explained what he already missed. “Concerts have always meant unknown possibilities,” he wrote. “There’s a chance to let an extended, unpredictable arc of sound, light and information envelop me, with no capability to pause or rewind, no temptation to multitask.”

I felt that watching Fuerza Regida, one of the most compelling acts making trap corridos, the modern updating of regional Mexican music that has been experiencing exponential growth the past couple of years. Jesus Ortiz Paz is a dynamic frontman, confident and also a little wry. At this show — which began after midnight in a crowded nightclub, lit moodily — he was loose and charismatic. The guitar work by Khrystian Ramos and Samuel Jaimez (on requinto) was tender but firm, and tuba player Jose Garcia pushed his bandmates relentlessly. The room was damp, in all senses; it would have been claustrophobic were it not so exhilarating.

At the Gabby Barrett show, the sound was a little muffled — a reminder that the acoustics of every venue vary drastically — but the vibe was winningly intimate. The singer and her husband, Cade Foehner (they met as contestants on “American Idol,” and he now plays guitar with her), rolled out their pop-country anthems with a frisky rock edge. And I found myself singing out loud when they covered Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley’s mournful “Whiskey Lullaby.”

Songs mattered at these shows, but performers were also clearly excited to return to shtick. Shows are about displaying musical prowess, but they also demand the connective tissue of banter, pseudo-comedic performances with familiar routines that work night after night because there’s always a new crowd to wow.

Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl clearly saw his role as cheerleader for Live Music [TM]. The band’s messianic, centrist rock was a fitting return to live performance after a time of great instability. There is absolutely no uncertainty in Foo Fighters songs. They are weighty and unimaginative, smooth boulders that simply won’t stop rolling.

But this was also a comedy show, sort of. Grohl and Taylor Hawkins traded places for a few minutes so Grohl could flex on the drum kit. Later, the band was joined onstage by Dave Chappelle, who sang Radiohead’s “Creep,” an epic troll even if it wasn’t intended to be. (Some bits aren’t meant to be repeated.)

At Lollapalooza, Limp Bizkit — yes, Limp Bizkit — attempted to evolve its old shtick (mayhem and putrescence) into new shtick (mild embarrassment about mayhem and putrescence), with some success. For the occasion of reinserting his band into the discourse, Fred Durst dressed like someone wearing a disguise in a French comedy: shaggy hair dyed gray (or perhaps a wig), oversized red-tinted glasses, a long coat and slip-on Vans. During some of the band’s more libidinal hits, mosh pits broke out in the crowd, and Durst regarded them curiously, like a pimple.

At Verzuz, the rappers were performing even when they weren’t performing. Cam’ron began the square-off sitting in a lawn chair onstage, checking his phone; Juelz Santana soon lay down on the floor, feigning sleep while the Lox took the mic. Later, Jim Jones knelt at the side of the stage and had an associate put a heavy diamond-encrusted chain around his neck before breaking into his hit “We Fly High.” The event was two hours of genial antagonism that was, mostly, performative — the two groups announced they’d be touring together starting next month.

The Verzuz battle took place in a boxing ring (that had hosted an actual boxing match earlier in the evening) crowded at all sides with hangers-on, fans and celebrities (including French Montana, Fabolous and Fat Joe, who wore a mask most of the time).

The room was as packed as any nightclub, but it still was breathable compared with the main stages at Lollapalooza, where untold thousands of fans crammed in to see the headliners. At the festival, the throngs rapped along rapturously to Tyler, the Creator, whose stage show was a masterwork of lone-wolf vigor. Fans treated Megan Thee Stallion’s performance like a workout video, gyrating in sweaty unison.

The endings of those sets were just as memorable for something that used to feel exasperating, but rarely unnerving: the sheer crush of people making their way away from the stage. It was, of all the experiences of the past few weeks, the most anxiety-inducing. At shows on this scale, you can’t always control where you are — the crowd has its own logic and rhythm. But after being so far from others for so long, being overcome by thousands of people was far more stressful than encountering the store-brand concert jerk who rudely forces you to contort yourself to make room for him. (That said, plenty of those these past few weeks, too.)

At every show, there were reminders of the microscopic, unavoidable ways we are all in contact with one another — a young fan at Lollapalooza asking me to take a picture of him and his friends using his phone, an older man at Foo Fighters juggling a box of hot dogs and asking for a hand hoisting his four-set of beers.

At Fuerza Regida’s tightly clustered show, those interactions extended to the performers. At one point, a young woman seated on the lip of the stage reached up and grabbed Ramos’ hands and pulled his head down to whisper something in his ear. Oodles of fans passed their phone to Ortiz Paz for him to take pictures, and he spent a lot of time pouring Buchanan’s DeLuxe whisky into the mouths of appreciative attendees.

Collier ended his Blue Note show with an impromptu choral exercise, conducting different sections of the crowd to hum and intone an improvisational tune. You could practically hear the breath escaping from each individual’s mouth, and it was hard not to think of the several stories early in the pandemic about multiple members of the same choirs falling victim to the coronavirus, and to, in turn, agonize about how the air itself could be a threat.

I felt calmer at Billy Bob’s, an amusement-park-size honky-tonk with several different microbiomes. The main viewing space was seated, but a dance floor was located just behind it, and throughout Barrett’s show (and for at least an hour after), it was filled with dancing couples, including some young men who had come over from the junior rodeo that had taken place next door earlier that night, their numbers still attached to their starched shirts. Here, the concert was partially a pretense for a more well-rounded night out — arcade games, BBQ, pool tables, posing for pictures on a bucking-bronco statue.

The same was true at Lollapalooza, which brought approximately 100,000 people each day to downtown Chicago’s Grant Park, overlooking the southern stretch of Lake Michigan. Of those, maybe one-third of them were watching a performance at any given time; the rest were purposefully striding around the park, or eating $14 mac & cheese, or looking at $530 Golf Le Fleur varsity jackets or throwing up in the bushes.

Being outdoors gave me some relief, as did the scale of the park — there were plenty of places to go if you needed to be away from the hordes. But no matter how tightly I affixed my mask, I could always smell the weed. “Windy City, she blowing me kisses,” Giveon sang, and I flinched a little. (My apologies to Rolling Loud. I’d planned to travel to Miami to attend that festival, but was stymied by that bad summer cold.)

By that point in this extended adventure, the task had taken on a macabre air. On my flight to Minneapolis I watched CNN announce that Los Angeles County would be reinstituting an indoor-mask mandate. The day before I left for Chicago, I came across a grim headline online: “Will Lollapalooza Be a Super-Spreader Event? Chicago’s Top Doc Says Cases Likely, But Show Is Safe Anyway.” The Chicago Reader published a piece urging people not to attend. (For what it’s worth, I tested negative for COVID three days after the final show in my run.)

A seemingly endless amount of festivals are scheduled for the next few months, and there is very little consensus about whether they should continue. (They all appear to agree on removing DaBaby from their lineups, though.)

We are in the inherent risk portion of the pandemic, and even though some people wore masks at the shows I attended, they were few and far between. Vaccine and COVID test checks were, at best, negligible, or easily foiled. People streamed into the Foo Fighters show holding phones or cards in the air, speeding by hapless security guards. Not 30 seconds into sitting down at the show, I heard one of the men seated behind me talking about how easy it was to pass off someone else’s vaccination proof as his own. The protesters outside complaining about the show’s vaccine requirement — who were giving off intense crisis actor energy — really had little to worry about. The whole exercise is a public health trust fall.

(Are you ready for the irony? Foo Fighters were scheduled to perform a similar show in Los Angeles the next week, but they had to postpone it — because someone in their team contracted COVID.)

In place of guaranteed health security there is, I suppose, adrenaline. The adrenaline of being in the room as something alchemical happens overrides the potential worry, wisely or not. The adrenaline emphasizes just how unsated we have been these past many months. We make trade-offs every day during this pandemic, take tiny risks in exchange for moments of bliss. The opportunity for adrenaline is simply a new one.

That pulse was tangible the first couple of times I went out — afterward, I was riddled with postgame giddiness, energy that kept me awake past my usual (very late) bedtime. I was up so late after the Fuerza Regida concert that I almost slept through my morning flight home.

Nothing compared to the sheer exuberance of the Lox-Dipset battle. It’s hard to conceive of an event better suited to my personal tastes — it was like homecoming, prom and summer vacation all mixed together. Of all the shows I attended the past two months, it’s the only one I would have gone to purely for pleasure in the current climate.

It was terrific, more than terrific: two of New York’s most historically vital hip-hop crews in a loose joust for primacy. Dipset has always preferred flamboyance, and Cam’ron is perhaps the most peacockish rapper ever to emerge from New York. But while his crew had a couple of peaks, the blue-collar persistence and middle-aged wisdom of the Lox made them the clear victor. This was, in every sense, a rumble. It demanded perspiration.

At that point, conversation about the delta variant was already being amplified with discussion of the delta-plus variant. It was the only show I attended where I wore my mask the entire time. (Of course, the weed smell got through here, too.)

And that’s good, because I was screaming, yelling and rapping along for two hours straight, accessing a level of pure joy I had forgotten existed — not just over the past year, but maybe over the past decade. Was it lightly awkward expressing that thrill behind a veil? A little. But if that was the act of individual responsibility that might result in the possibility for collective ecstasy, it really wasn’t that hard.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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