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We are all guilty of it. How we long for the days where you can dash to stage front, squashed shoulder to shoulder, bob head, grab your neighbour and spit out the lyrics—all part of the adrenaline-pumpin’ ritual of live gigs.
Of course, the scenario is an epidemiologist’s nightmare—the prospect of an invisible nimbus of viral load is enough to frighten many back into their bomb shelters. It’s anybody’s guess when we are able to congregate for the transformative magic of a live gig.
Thank goodness for #quarantinecontent, with an avalanche of virtual performances fed directly from musicians’ abodes into yours. Choices aplenty, ranging from Radiohead’s weekly series of archival shows, to Billboard’s weekly roster of Live At-Home series.
Sure, purists can extol the sanctity of on-site, or so-called “real,” performance. No less a personage than Dave Grohl who moaned in an op-ed about how today’s live music has been reduced “to unflattering little windows that look like doorbell security footage and sound like Neil Armstrong’s distorted transmissions from the moon, so stuttered and compressed.”
Or one can be open-minded about this unprecedented flow of live streams and their munificent gifts.
To argue they are no substitute for in-person gigs is missing the point—live streams are part of the ongoing democratisation of digital creation and distribution, as touched upon in a 2019 wrap-up last year. The pandemic has merely expedited the digital revolution and necessitated online connection when physical engagement is impossible.
Forward-thinking non-profit organisations have harnessed digital tools in the spirit of charity. How else can one explain the five-million-and-counting viewers who tuned in to the 30-minute “mini-gig” streamed on Instagram in March by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, as part of Global Gitizen’s #togetherathome initiative?
Global Citizen’s own eight-hour benefit marathon, One World: Together At Home, co-organised with the World Health Organisation and Lady Gaga, was live-streamed on YouTube for six hours prior to a two-hour TV global broadcast in April. Featuring a worldly sweep of artists in literally down-home circumstances, including the Rolling Stones, The Killers, Rufus Wainwright, Annie Lennox, Lang Lang and Eason Chan, it raised US$127.9 million.
Gripped in the “cold-turkey deprivation of many kinds” (as described by Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks), we begin to appreciate this musical reprieve from tedium, and discover a new ascetic truth:
Musicians are not otherworldly creatures, but are, surprise, humans. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, working adults (hence the digital “tip-jars”), who are shanghaied by the virus into self-exile. They dress down at home, not glammed up 24-7. For every digital whiz, many more are befuddled by tech thingamajigs, such as the Indigo Girls figuring out the donate button for their Facebook concerts held to raise funds for food security in America; or Jonatha Brooke who yelped, “I’m becoming a techie!”.
In lieu of crystal-clear sound, you get covers and B-sides dusted off for fresh interpretations limned with backstories. How do we judge this live take to be inferior to the studio cut? Sound fidelity? Vocal quality? All these are important but also not.
Yes, there’s nothing quite like the energy of a live audience, but there’s also nothing like reading the real-time scroll of comments from all over the world. Sure, for design snoops, there’s the ogling of kitchen units and shelves lined with tchotchkes and literary tomes, but all this is secondary to the communion—that we are together apart, united in song.
We sieve through some live-streamed gigs, uncover a variety of formats, and, hey, learn a new thing or two about the musicians we think we know so well.
What’s this: Rickie Lee Jones giving us privileged access to her beautifully furnished living room in New Orleans. An incandescent glow suffused the intimate atmosphere, as she regaled us with gems such as Young Blood and Running From Mercy.
What you learned: Jones, who last performed at Esplanade in 2007, still has it, that spectral, girlish voice and a bluesy, meandering phrasing. She shared anecdotes from her storied life—running away from home, one summer in 1969 or 1970, ending up at the El Dorado bar and at The Burrito King in Los Angeles, which had “the most delicious thing I ate.” And did you know that Chuck E’s in Love was originally written for Bette Midler?
Takeaway: “All performances are fantastic but the idea of performing instantly to people around the world is so thrilling… and oddly calming,” she said.
What’s this: Sing! China alumnus Joanna Dong gabs, acknowledges folk who log on, and delivers a crystalline set of Mandarin and English songs—give or take a couple of Hokkien and Bahasa ditties—on her Facebook and Instagram pages.
What you learned: She’s a funny girl. She quipped: “This is no better way to make you feel our love than to chio gua (Hokkien for 'sing songs’).” And then she went on to sing Bob Dylan’s To Make You Feel My Love, but for the younger folk, the “Adele version.”
Takeaway: Be real. At one point, she spoke about the foreign workers’ situation. “Doesn’t matter about the colour of the skin, let’s take care of each other,” she said.
Also check out: Jonatha Brooke’s Kitchen Covid series; R&B singer H.E.R.’s Girls With Guitars with guests such as Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow; Lizzo playing the flute and offering meditation classes.
What’s this: Now that its National Public Radio office in Washington, D.C. is off-limits, the beloved Tiny Desk series has moved to… the artists’ homes. In this episode, Lianne La Havas sang her heart out in her London roost.
What you learned: Less is more. She performed three tracks, including Paper Thin and Bittersweet, two singles from her forthcoming self-titled album, with mellifluous emotion.
Takeaway: “Her vocal runs through the air like a tiny trail of smoke from a candle… so beautiful!” commented one Kathryn Smith.
What’s this: London-based Boiler Room embarks on a series called Streaming From Isolation with electronic artists such as Disclosure, Peggy Gou and Four Tet. In this episode, Damon Albarn performed in his home studio, The Barn, music from his latest project The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, inspired by the landscapes of Iceland.
What you learned: Art plus graphics work wonders. Albarn was joined virtually by 13 other musicians on string, percussion and horns, as arresting images of Iceland wove in and out.
Takeaway: “It finally happened, Albarn in a barn!” quipped one Ben Potter.
Also check out: La Blogotheque: Stay Away Shows, touting the likes of Local Natives, Laura Marling, Dan Deacon, M. Ward, Natalie Prass, Whitney, and Hamilton Leithauser.
What’s this: Those who caught Death Cab for Cutie at their Esplanade gig last year know the frontman to be the paragon of generosity. And so it is: Ben Gibbard has been streaming daily concerts before switching to weekly transmissions. He has delivered Beatles and Nirvana covers, as well as offered tribute to the late Adam Schlesinger by performing Fountains of Wayne’s Barbara H.
What you learned: Gibbard’s avuncular manner is the key to his appeal, as he answers fans’ questions.
Takeaway: “I’m just happy any of the songs I had written or had a part in writing had been able to connect to anyone,” he replied, to a query whether he got sick of singing any song.
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Thankyou SO much for all of your cover requests. I was spoilt for choice tbh, but when I saw this one I remembered how much I love Stevie Wonder, and how I’ve never covered him properly. I guess who wants to shoot and miss at the 🐐. Stevie if you ever hear this, you’re in everything I make. Thankyou to Raphie Rafe for requesting this. Love you all x
What’s this: What do you get when you have James Blake and a piano? Manna from heaven, that is. He has interspersed originals with covers of songs by Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Frank Ocean, Joy Division, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead and Billie Eilish.
What you learned: How much of a cheerleader his girlfriend, actress Jameela Jamil, is—she’d cheer after he finished a song.
Takeaway: He was fearful about singing initially. He said: “It took me a number of years before I felt that personally I was there. I was extremely scared of judgement. There was a lot of toxic masculinity…It was a vulnerable, emotional thing to do.”
Also check out: Ben Folds: Saturday Apartment Requests: David Wilcox: Live on Facebook; Josh Ritter: The Silo Sessions; Kelvin Tan: Live on Facebook.
What’s this: A two hour-and-22 minute extravaganza with Broadway glitterati performing Sondheim evergreens. The one that has captured the quarantine mood is the boozing, bathrobe-clad trio of Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald belting, Zoom-style, The Ladies Who Lunch from the musical Company.
What you learned: What four quadrants can achieve, as Ann Harada, Thom Sesma, Kelvin Moon Loh and Austin Ku sang Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures. They peered at each other up, down and across, trying to locate one another.
Takeaway: “If your prevailing mood watching the Sondheim concert is sourness about tech issues, you don’t love theatre. Sometimes it’s about perfection that you talk about forever. And sometimes it’s about Getting. The F***. Through. Love it either way,” wrote Vanity Fair contributor Mark Harris.
What’s this: Soft rock icon Robbie Dupree reprised his 1980 Billboard hit Hot Rod Hearts from Atlantic, Georgia, for All Together Now LA, an online telethon held to raised funds for the City of Los Angeles Coronavirus Relief Fund.
What you learned: The multi-view mosaic was put to great use as you witness him, his band and backing vocalists separately bringing to life this doozie.
Takeaway: “This is great, one of my faves from 1980! Thanks to Robbie and everyone for this. Mr. Dupree u still sounding great!” said one Paul Mac.
Also check out: Metallica’s update of their song Blackened; The Singapore Virtual Choir Project singing Dick Lee’s Home; and music theatre veterans from South-east Asia belting Seasons of Love from Rent.
Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, editor and arts curator. He has been working in the media industry for more than two decades, including as entertainment editor and music reviewer, in various newspapers such as Life, The Straits Times, 8 Days and My Paper. An editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, he served as Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018, and helped launch the nationwide music platform, Hear65, when he was working at the National Arts Council.