Lockdown launches live concert stream
Somewhere in the character of the scene’s most blessed star is a cast that observes showbiz’s iron law of resilience: the show must go on. Life now could be Los Angeles mansions and private jets. But there remains the artist’s innate response to the metaphorical sound of the iceberg against the steel bow – no panic, no rushing for the nearest VIP lifeboat, but playing like the legendary house band from the Titanic. .
This is what has happened in the current era of cataclysm. The pop music world reacted to theatrical closures and tour cancellations secularly, putting on the damn show anyway. Concerts and online performances proliferate, streamed from immaculate lounges, manicured gardens and basement recording studios to the world beyond.
The emergence of a cottage industry for home concerts presents certain challenges. The first is the lack of a stage team to make sure everything is working. These days, stars have to put together their own kit.
“Hello, my name is Chris, is it on?” Coldplay’s Chris Martin said, looking at the device that actually recorded it. His informal solo set, playing fragments of Coldplay songs on piano and guitar, was filmed on what appears to be a smartphone. Aired last month, it kicked off a live concert series called Together at Home, sponsored by the World Health Organization and anti-poverty group Global Citizen. Next in the series was John Legend, whose 40-minute set ends with a similar moment of technical uncertainty. “How to save it? Said the soul singer. The hand that a moment before had been playing the piano so skillfully wobbles nervously in front of the screen, the finger searching for the right button to press.
Technical issues are commonplace in the new era of virtual concerts. A live performance by Russian activists Pussy Riot reveals a musical transformation from ramshackle punk rock to industrial noise and techno. Its gappy sound quality is both irritating and atmospheric, like a samizdat recording being transmitted to underground resistance cells via a faulty dial-up internet connection. Meanwhile, a heavyweight clash between two 1990s rap greats, DJ Premier of Gang Starr and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, staged on screens shared in each other’s homes, is wrecked by snafus à la Zoom. “Can you hear me?” asks RZA about the muffled tinkling of boom-bap beats. “How do I know if he asks me?” Said a bewildered Prime Minister.
A first excursion into post-virus concerts came in mid-March from the British group Yungblud. A full-blown figure who looks like a junior version of The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, he broadcast an hour-long show from a warehouse in Los Angeles with a film crew and two members of his group. The songs are pop-punk jumps aimed at captive teenagers. “These people are so old,” he bellowed in “Parents,” with little regard for social distancing measures or the trillions of potential coronavirus particles he was spraying through his plosive vocal style. Just looking at him made this parent want to wear a mask.
Now, a month later, the stars are out in full force. Next weekend, Lady Gaga will lead a top cast (Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder) for a special version of Together at Home concerts. She also appeared in Elton John’s charitable extravagance, The iHeart Living Room Concert for America, which aired in the United States last month on television and radio. This features higher production values than a shaking smartphone and metallic sound. Billie Eilish performs “Bad Guy” on a sofa alongside her producer brother Finneas O’Connell on acoustic guitar, with family photos on a table behind them. It’s an informal setting and a nicely stripped down musical arrangement. But Eilish’s whispered singing style sounds like it’s been professionally processed and mixed.
Like John Lennon in his ill-begotten promotional film for “Imagine,” fantasizing about a world without possessions in a white grand piano in his Surrey palace, celebrity attempts at unity can backfire. Alicia Keys suffers from a touch of Lennon-itis at Elton John’s charity concert, singing her homeless anthem, “Underdog”, on a purple piano in a perfect living room with what looks like a magnificent Californian view outside.
Low production values give a stronger sense of authenticity. Héloïse Letissier from Christine and the Queens does without the modern singer’s microphone stand in a mini-set recorded in a Parisian studio: her stage presence is intact. Meanwhile, sequestered in his Colorado home in the Rocky Mountains, Neil Young directed home concert films under the name Fireside Sessions. Filmed in grainy truth on a digital camera, they show him playing indoors on an upright piano or outdoors with a guitar near a campfire. Songs like “I Am a Child” by Buffalo Springfield and On the beach‘S “See the Sky About to Rain” delves deep into her vast discography, sung without amplification in her distinctly pink chirp.
Young’s cameraman is his wife, actor Daryl Hannah. She is invisible; but other celebrity spouses play a bigger role in the gigs of their other halves. Nicole Kidman hosts her husband Keith Urban’s professional country-rock as a backing dancer. John Legend’s wife, model Chrissy Teigen is the co-star of his concert Together at Home, perched on her piano in a towel with a glass of rosé offering witty, unattended commentary on the music and their family life. (The caption hurriedly concludes after her remark: “I told you I wanted a third baby, you said no.”)
Most of these online concerts are full of musical clichés about music as a healing force. My favorite performance carries a more subtle message of optimism. This is Devendra Banhart’s cover of “Sports Men”, a song by pioneer Japanese singer-songwriter Haruomi Hosono, performed as part of a benefit show for musicians affected by Covid-19 organized by the American label Light in the Attic. Banhart performs in a book-lined room of his California home on electric guitar, humming the lyrics in a soft, idiosyncratic phrasing, like so late at night. Hope is implied rather than openly expressed: Hosono, the song’s creator, is the grandson of the only Japanese survivor of the Titanic.