Finding Connection And Comfort In Livestream Concerts During Quarantine
BY ARI SHAPIRO, ANN POWERS & SIDNEY MADDEN
Even in the best of times, many look to live music as a crucial resource — a place to turn for comfort, community and relief from anxiety — and can scarcely imagine their lives without it. For the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down venues around the country, and it’s hard to picture when gathering in nightclubs or amphitheaters will be deemed safe again. No live performances also means that during the nationwide protests in response to a series of high-profile police killings of black Americans, the healing potential that concerts provide is largely unavailable to those who might need it.
But throughout the coronavirus shutdown, artists have begun livestreaming concerts on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, creating a new kind of virtual musical community. Ari Shapiro spoke with NPR Music’s Ann Powers and Sidney Madden about some of the best concert streams and how they are creating an art form all its own while keeping people connected. Listen to their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more of their livestream recommendations.
On Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry
Ann Powers: The Grand Ole Opry is such an important institution for country music, and they have been dedicated to “keeping the circle unbroken,” which means keeping the weekly shows that have been going on for decades — almost 5,000 shows — uninterrupted. Huge stars like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have taken that stage in the empty Opryland theater with only host Bobby Bones visible in the audience. It’s led to some beautiful moments: Watching Garth and Trisha duet together, cover people like Emmylou Harris and sing their own hits was so moving.
And special things happen at these shows, too. One night Lauren Alaina, Terri Clark and Ashley McBryde — three generations of country women — took the stage, and there was a hilarious and poignant moment when Terri Clark started singing her song “Girls Don’t Lie” and Lauren Alaina was like “That’s my karaoke song!” Suddenly, joy filled this theater that was so somber other than that.
On H.E.R.’s joyful “Girls with Guitars” series
Sidney Madden: They are collaborations that could only happen during a time of quarantine. For people who don’t know, H.E.R. is a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and she’s actually graced the Tiny Desk two times. But when COVID hit and everyone was forced to stay at home, she wanted to get creative with her collaborations, so she started this weekly series called “Girls with Guitars.” It’s on Instagram Live every week around 8 p.m. [Eastern], and what she does is invite some of her contemporaries, some people you might not expect her to collaborate with, to sing covers, talk about how they’re dealing with the pandemic and really just have a decompress. Some of the people she’s had on so far have included Tori Kelly, Lianne La Havas, the duo Chloe x Halle. But one of my favorite duets and collaborations I’ve seen out of this miniseries is H.E.R. and Sheryl Crow. I love that “mama pride” moment. It’s not only an emphasis on raw talent, but it’s collaboration free from ego. Usually, if you needed to get H.E.R. and Sheryl Crow in a studio session together, it would probably need a lot of phone calls, a lot of favors. But now they just turn on their phones and they jam together.
On the high-energy livestreams of Low Cut Connie frontman Adam Weiner
Powers: Philadelphia’s Low Cut Connie has been one of my favorite live bands for years, and Adam Weiner is an incredibly dynamic performer. If you’ve ever gotten to see him at a club, it’s just a sweaty crazy scene, where he’s stripping his clothes off and jumping on the piano and singing in his wonderful voice. It’s something you’d think could only happen in a club. But Adam started doing these broadcasts from his apartment, he named them “Tough Cookies,” after his fans who he considers tough cookies. They happen every Thursday and Saturday at 6 p.m. Eastern. He’s hitting new levels of superstardom with these shows. He talks at length about his passions. For example, after Little Richard passed away, Adam — who’s really modeled a lot of his performance style on Little Richard — paid tribute in this incredible way, where he read from Little Richard’s biography, and he read from an essay he’d written about Little Richard and he performed many Little Richard songs while stripping down, basically, to his underwear. It’s wild to watch these shows from Adam’s apartment, which he creates with just one bandmate and his wife — that’s his little live music pod — because he makes it feel like you’re at Madison Square Garden, all the way up to having audience participation, getting people to sing along.
On the magic of the “Verzuz” Instagram Live battles
Madden: Verzuz is another IG Live series. It was put together by two hip-hop legends, Swizz Beats and Timbaland. And it’s really based on the art form of battling in a park: beat battling, going bar for bar, which we know is in the blueprint of hip-hop’s DNA. So for these battles, Timbaland and Swizz, they kind of match up contemporary legends in the game, in order to go round for round on what their best songs are. It started off pretty humbly, [but] social media took it and ran with it. And what’s beautiful about it is, the benefits here are really threefold. It’s a place for the hip-hop culture to convene, especially at times when we feel so disconnected and disparate. It gives the legends their flowers while they can still smell them, which is something that is always necessary and always feels serendipitous in the culture. And it’s kind of like digital liner notes for some of the songs that you may have grown up with or maybe know all the words to but don’t know exactly how the collaborations came together. I’m talking about producers, songwriters, engineers, video treatments. They go into storytime and talk about it all.
For me, the pinnacle of these Verzuz battles so far has been Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Two titans of R&B, really the architects of what we think of as modern R&B right now. And they were going head to head, but it really wasn’t so much of a battle. It was more like a mutual love sesh and reunion. The ladies went all around their discography, playing deep side cuts and some of their earliest songs. For example, Erykah Badu went into this great story about how she wrote “On and On” and how she created the video treatment for it, and her engineer sessions during the time. It’s a nice new peek into songs that are already cemented in our memory.
On livestreams as a new art form
Powers: It’s almost a new art form and certainly a new medium. People were using virtual concerts and livestreams before the pandemic, but now, with everyone turning their attention to the possibilities of everything from 24-hour concerts to massive extravaganzas where performers can be all around the world or all around a continent, we have an opportunity to experience performance totally differently than we had before. The connection between artists and fans is becoming at once more intimate and more mediated. And as Sidney said, the stuff that happens between the music is really important, too — the conversations, the history that’s being shared. It’s hard to feel optimistic these days, and of course I miss being with other bodies in a room, listening to music. But I’m excited by what’s happening online.
Madden: We’re kind of having to rewrite the rules of what connectivity feels like right now, and in a time when we should be grateful for even the smallest things, just seeing the artists interact with one another, interact with fans and do so in such an imperfect way, it really feels like there’s a new flowering to the beauty of the art form.