There is a special euphoria that comes with live music. You could be in a seedy bar with 20 people, listening to a pub band, or watching U2 perform in front of legions of dedicated fans at a cricket stadium. It doesn’t even really matter if you like the music being played (although that does help). At some point, you feel a sudden electric shock. Your smile widens, your body relaxes, your head starts to nod to the beat. You can feel the effects of this invisible current as it moves through the crowd, slowly pulling the room full of strangers into synchronicity, transforming them into an interconnected organism in perfect symbiosis with the performer.
On bad nights you only get mouthwatering tastes of this euphoric current. On good nights, however, it grabs you and doesn’t let go, a whirlwind of sounds, movements and emotions that sucks you in and then drops you unceremoniously into the hall’s parking lot, emptied and hazy. On the best nights, like the time I caught the Melvins turning a Cardiff club into a mini war zone, it can feel like a psychedelic mass adventure, like an entire room full of people suddenly changed their seahorse. overloaded with serotonin. It’s addictive, accompanied by withdrawal symptoms (my musician friends on tour call it post-concert depression).
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Fortunately, we live in vibrant cities where live music is abundant and accessible. Or that was until April 2020, when we all found ourselves forced into unintentional detox. For musicians, the sudden disappearance of live music, a major source of livelihood, has been catastrophic. The rest of us probably ranked it pretty low on our list of pandemic disruptions.
But as we try to negotiate a new normal, I wonder what we lost when all of the live music suddenly disappeared. Was it just an addict’s desire – one that couldn’t be met by the methadone drop of live music broadcasts, or have we temporarily lost something of deeper social, even spiritual, value?
I lean for the latter explanation. Maybe that’s because I’ve spent most of my adult life hanging out in or around concert halls. I have become so used to sharing rooms with strangers while listening to other strangers play that it has become a heartwarming ritual. His absence felt like an itch that I just couldn’t scratch.
My theory is that the pain I felt, like so many others, had more to do with our sudden exile from a space of intense emotional and social connections. A good concert is very much like a mystical experience. It is no coincidence that music’s connection to the sacred was strongest when music was, by default, a community activity. The same processes of industrialization and modernity that led to the domination of secular pop music (recording technology, strong consumer class) have also prompted us to reconfigure music as an individual activity.
But live music retains its connection to music as a community experience rather than a commodity. And the live concert is the church of the music community, where we meet and negotiate what it means to be part of a particular musical culture / subculture. You can see it in the violent full-contact sport of moshing, a ritual that seems horrific until you are introduced to pit egalitarianism.
You can see it in the anti-inhibitory effect of being in a room full of people united by a common goal, encouraging us to let it all out, to exorcise our demons to the beat of the beat. This is also why concerts are often safe spaces – albeit imperfect and deeply imperfect – for performer and audience to interpret identities and behaviors that are so far removed from the mainstream. But more than anything, it’s in the warmth and connection that comes with being a crowd moving as one person, a vision of a radically different way of communicating with one another.
Last weekend I went to my first gig since the devastating second wave of covid-19. Before entering the hall, I spent a few minutes in the parking lot, a usual ritual before a concert. There was excited chatter from the small groups of young people in hoodies and tracksuits, sneaking up surreptitiously in sips from their party bags. There was the familiar tingling of anticipation, this time tinged with apprehension. My mind anxiously scanned the checklist that the pandemic has taught us all to internalize and consult – masks, crowd density, ventilation. But there was also a deeper fear: how much has live concerts – my safe space – changed?
They did not come out unscathed. The whole experience is now punctuated by small but important changes – the vaccination certificate at the door, the idea of a sold-out concert that offers each participant meters of personal space, even the grim acquiescence with which the crowd greeted the police flocking to the place to make sure everything closes before 10 p.m.
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But it took less than five minutes to watch Tienas prowl the stage with his fellow bandmates FTS, a hip hop puppet master effortlessly pulling strings from the crowd, for all the worry and mistrust to melt away. I quickly settled into the warm embrace of ancient rituals – a quick glance in the smoking room to look for friends you only meet in concert, that first sip of beer standing at the bar, the soothing roar from a white noise of a crowd competing with a the PA club has reached its limits. The moment Seedhe Maut arrived, greeted by a ground-shaking roar and hundreds of hands clutching the sky, I felt it again. That little jerk of invisible current.
I think Seedhe Maut felt it too. Maybe that’s why, halfway through their set, the DJ let the music fade as the duo led the crowd in a long chant. For nearly five minutes, they asked the crowd to sing in unison with their loud voices, reveling in the special emotional symbiosis between the performer and the audience. The crowd, of course, were only too happy to oblige.
Bhanuj Kappal is a writer based in Mumbai.