Live in New York City and you begin to compile an internal list of why you haven’t left the city just yet. You recite these items — like a poem, prayer, or a to-do list — to justify the high rents and small spaces.
One item on my list: live music. Say what you will about New York, but if you want to see an artist live, chances are that’s within your grasp. Most musicians make a pit stop in the city, which has countless venues of myriad size.
You can probably guess where I’m going with this: COVID rendered that item on my list entirely useless. Shows are no more — at least if you’re being safe — and I miss them as much as anything besides, you know, being able to see and hug my family.
The next concert I have any chance of seeing is a rescheduled Jason Isbell show held at an outdoor venue in June. Even then, I’m not holding my breath.
The loss of shows has been a huge blow. But I’ve found some respite in a somewhat predictable place; I spend a ton of time watching live performances of my favorite artists on YouTube.
When the ol’ serotonin feels a little low, when the brain juices jiggle in place like slime, when I feel the urge to just kind of stare at a wall and notice little imperfections in the paint — it’s then I fire up a YouTube performance. They’re a little pick-me-up.
OK, time to get a little vulnerable. For instance: I watch this recent live performance of Bleachers’ new song “Chinatown” — featuring Bruce Springsteen — like…nearly every day. It’s the version of the song I know best. I can sing along to the slight differences from the studio cut. I know when singer Jack Antonoff is going to don a shit-eating grin as The Boss starts belting his lyrics. It’s a joyful 3 minutes and 49 seconds.
I’m not really a huge Bleachers fan, but I think this performance tops my list of recent rewatches for a few reasons. It’s a relatively new song. It’s got Bruce. And it’s performed during the pandemic. It’s almost envy. Look at these people doing something they love with friends. One can dream.
My other favorite YouTube performances of late are all the bands and artists that would make my loved ones roll their eyes and plead, “Please Tim, listen to something else.” But you know what? These are the people I’d normally shell out any amount of dollars to see live.
There’s this live performance by Craig Finn, the frontman of my favorite band, The Hold Steady, whom I paid to watch live (virtually) during the pandemic.
I have also spent many late nights watching videos of varying quality of my second favorite band, The Weakerthans, and its lead singer John K. Samson. Yes, I have stooped to watch bootleg cellphone videos because the band broke up a long time ago.
There’s this kind of old, kind of janky, but absolutely lovely Pinegrove performance with a guitar and a Casio that’s in the woods for some untold reason.
Perhaps my biggest serotonin secret weapon? This impossibly lovely Maggie Rogers performance I wouldn’t dare to describe because that would spoil how charming it is. (Creating interesting, live music videos is pretty much what La Blogothèque has done for a decade.)
Or there’s the classic Letterman performance from Future Islands, which is so weird it’s hypnotizing and so good you’ll have to rewatch it.
Or even this Phoebe Bridgers show, in its entirety, for which I was actually in attendance. Yes, it’s kind of torture to miss that memory, but it’s also kind of nice. Like flipping through a living yearbook of a night I enjoyed at Brooklyn Steel in November 2018.
Weirdly enough, this is a pretty new habit. Back when the world was normal — or some semblance of normal — I wasn’t much for trawling YouTube performances. I wasn’t against it — I love NPR’s Tiny Desk like everyone else — but I didn’t seek them out daily. It was almost too much work to navigate my browser or phone over to YouTube and sit there and watch. Now, though, I’ve got nothing but time.
I reach to these videos when Spotify, which I run almost continuously during the workday, is no longer doing the trick. I think it’s almost like fooling my brain — here, look, you are watching another person do this thing you love. It’s also a really simple way to mix my day up. Usually I watch YouTube performances of songs I already know. Watching a live version, in part, serves to break out of the normal expectations for the song. It’s ever-so-slightly different. In a wildly mundane pandemic world, I’ll take it. A little trickle of serotonin from that difference will do.
“I miss running out of work, cramming into a subway car, racing to get to the venue on time.”
But I think more than anything else, I’ve been delving into live YouTube performances because they’re a reminder of my life that was. I miss running out of work, cramming into a subway car, racing to get to the venue on time. The waiting in long lines to enter, cramming bodies on bodies, the sticky floors, plastic-cupped beers poured through musty taps. The murmur of the waiting crowd and the inevitable drunk guy who’ll spill on your shoes. Then the buzz of an amp and the first note of the first song, then things get loud. And as people sing along, the weed smoke floats overhead, the cheap-beer buzz hits, there’s nowhere to be and nothing to do beyond being at the show. All you have to do is be present and listen to music you love.
Oftentimes, I’ll watch YouTube performances late at night on a stupidly large TV or through headphones, nearly asleep. If your mind is quiet enough, and the world is quiet enough, you can get lost in the video. It’s kinda-sorta-but-not-really like being at a show. You can feel like you’re present in the moment, nothing to do but watch the video.
The real thing, for me, is unmatched. But in the videos there are moments of joy, some semblance of the spontaneity of a live show — a tiny fraction of the energy that blasts through the speakers, down the floor and in the air, rattling your head, buzzing your feet, and easing the tension in your shoulders.
A YouTube video cannot do what a live show does. But it can remind you that it exists. You can momentarily be convinced the hiatus from your former life is not forever. And you can feel joy, watching someone do something they love — and do it well — while people, happy people, watch it all go down, just offscreen.
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