What Do We Do Without Live Music?

Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

People find their joy in many ways: a nice weekend dinner, family time at the park. The pandemic has brought those lost joys into sharper relief. For Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield writes about the way the pandemic has removed live music from the center of so many listeners’ lives, and how he’s dealing with its absence.

Music is more than sound. We measure our years, even our weeks, by the shows we see. Music is also relational. We experience it with other people, including strangers joined in sweaty community at cramped music venues. This communal experience is part of what Covid-19 has taken away. To compensate for live music’s absence, Sheffield remembers past concerts. He enjoys livestreams and Neil Young’s weekly Fireside Sessions, and he listens to a lot of live albums.

Ministry called one of their live albums In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up — I always love the bitchy tone of that. Showing up is what the live show is all about: We go to be part of that crowd. I started by going to all-ages hardcore matinees on weekend afternoons — that’s where I began learning to handle the chaotic presence of strangers, before I was mature enough to learn any other way. All the people I used to hate at shows, I miss them now. Yes, even you, the douchebag who can’t turn off your goddamn phone because you need to video every moment. Here I am now, scrounging for YouTube scraps and cursing you for not getting better footage. (Seriously, nobody got any video of Stephen Malkmus doing the Cars’ “Good Times Roll” on the 2001 Jicks tour? You people, honestly.)

I keep listening to live albums these days, just because it’s therapeutic to hear a crowd making noise. I’m getting to know the Grateful Dead’s spring ’77 tour all too well. Like the Dead, Taylor Swift had summer stadium shows I was already looking forward to. I revisit shaky fan-cam video of Taylor and relive the night I first saw the Red tour, in 2013. When Taylor busted out the drum solo in “Holy Ground,” the little kid behind me yelled, “She’s rocking out, Mom! She’s rocking ooouuut!” I will think about that moment once a week for the rest of my life.

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