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A concert-goer on the return of live music

The live experience is now punctuated by small, significant changes. But it doesn't take long to settle into the warm embrace of old rituals

Encore ABJ of Seedhe Maut performing live. Photo by Samarth Shirke
Encore ABJ of Seedhe Maut performing live. Photo by Samarth Shirke

There is a particular euphoria that comes with live music. You could be in a dingy bar with 20 people, listening to a pub band, or watching U2 perform to legions of devoted fans in a cricket stadium. It doesn’t even really matter if you like the music being performed (though it helps). At some point, you feel a sudden jolt of electricity. Your smile widens, your body relaxes, your head starts nodding in time with the rhythm. 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 tantalising tastes of this euphoric current. On good nights, though, it grabs you and doesn’t let go, a whirlwind of sound and movement and emotion that sucks you in and then unceremoniously drops you off in the venue parking lot, drained and fuzzy-headed. On the best nights—like the time I caught the Melvins turn a Cardiff club into a mini-warzone— it can feel like a mass psychedelic adventure, as if an entire room full of people suddenly had their hippocampi switch to serotonin overload. It’s an addiction, complete with withdrawal symptoms (my touring musician friends call it post-gig depression).

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Luckily, we live in vibrant cities where live music is plentiful and accessible. Or it was until April 2020, when we all found ourselves forced into involuntary detox. For musicians, the sudden disappearance of live music—a major source of livelihood—was 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 find myself wondering what we lost when all live music suddenly disappeared. Was it just the longing of an addict—a craving that couldn’t be fulfilled by the methadone drip of music live-streams, or did we temporarily lose something of deeper social, even spiritual value?

I lean towards the latter explanation. Perhaps it’s because I have spent most of my adult life hanging in or around music venues. I have become so used to sharing rooms with strangers listening to other strangers perform that it has become a comforting ritual. Its absence felt like an itch I just couldn’t scratch.

My theory is that the ache I—along with so many others—was feeling had more to do with our sudden exile from a space of intense emotional and social connections. A good gig is much like a mystical experience. It’s no coincidence that music’s connection with the sacred was strongest when music was, by default, a communal activity. The same processes of industrialisation and modernity that led to the dominance of secular pop music (recording technology, a strong consumer class) also pushed us towards reconfiguring music as an individual activity.

But live music retains its links to music as communal experience rather than commodity. And the live concert is the music community’s church, 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 appears gruesome till you are initiated into the egalitarianism of the pit.

You can see it in the inhibition-lowering effect of being in a room full of people united by a common purpose, encouraging us to let everything out, to exorcise our demons to the rhythm of the beat. This is also why concerts are often safe spaces—albeit imperfect, deeply flawed ones—for both performer and audience to perform identities and behaviour that diverge wildly from the mainstream. But more than anything, it’s in the warmth and connection that comes with being a crowd moving as one, a vision of a radically different way of relating to each other.

Last weekend, I went to my first gig since the devastating second wave of covid-19. Before entering the venue, I spent a couple of minutes in the parking lot, a usual pre-gig ritual. There was excited chatter from the small huddles of youngsters in hoodies and tracksuits, surreptitiously sneaking in sips from their party packs. There was the familiar tingle of anticipation, this time tinged with trepidation. My mind anxiously ran through the checklist that the pandemic has taught all of us to internalise and consult—masks, crowd density, ventilation. But there was also a deeper fear: How much have live gigs—my safe space—changed?

They haven’t come through unscathed. The entire experience is now punctuated by small but significant changes—the vaccine certificate checks at the door, the idea of a sold-out gig that affords each attendee metres of personal space, even the sombre acquiescence with which the crowd greeted the police streaming into the venue to ensure everything shuts by 10pm.

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But it took less than five minutes of watching Tienas prowl the stage with his FTS bandmates, a hip hop puppet master pulling effortlessly at the crowd’s strings, for all the concern and wariness to melt away. I quickly settled into the warm embrace of old rituals—a quick peek into the smoking room to look for friends you only ever meet at gigs, that first sip of beer standing at the bar, the soothing white noise roar of a crowd competing with a club PA stretched to its limits. By the time Seedhe Maut came on, welcomed by a floor-shaking roar and hundreds of hands grasping at the sky, I felt it again. That little jolt of invisible current.

I think Seedhe Maut felt it too. Maybe that’s why, halfway through their set, the DJ let the music fade out as the duo led the crowd in an extended singalong. For almost five minutes, they willed the crowd to sing in full-throated unison, revelling in the peculiar emotional symbiosis between performer and audience. The crowd, of course, was only too happy to oblige.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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