Live Music In the Time of COVID
I'm always hesitant to talk/write about this, because I know objectively that on the list of things we as individuals and we as a society have lost to COVID-19, live music is pretty damn near the bottom in terms of importance, all things considered. On the other hand, music in general and live music in particular have been such fundamental parts of my identity as an adult and are so central to how I understand and process the world around me that having live concerts disappear at the onset of the pandemic, having to reevaluate the rest of my year without my usual schedule of travel for live shows, was one of the hardest things about dealing with COVID-19 throughout March and April.
To wit: the last show I saw before things shut down was on 2/20, for which I drove three hours one-way to see Goose play for fifty minutes as the opener for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, then after those fifty minutes, left the venue before Pigeons took the stage and drove another three hours back home so I could get up for work in the morning...it was a bit goofy, but I was not going to miss my first chance to see Goose play in person, dammit. I had no idea at the time it would be the last time I saw a band play live until *shrugs expansively*. Realizing that, and dealing with it, has been hard.
Again, I realize that to others who haven't been as fortunate as I have been, that might sound ridiculous, and maybe it objectively is...but if others are allowed to brandish guns and knives for being forced to wear a mask before eating at a socially-distanced Applebee's that they absolutely had to go to for some reason because the restaurant's rules so violently impinged upon their inborn freedoms, well, then, I'm not going to feel that bad about complaining about the loss of live music, on my own music blog.
In the beginning, a lot of bands pivoted quickly to cancelling tours to getting creative about how to get new content to their fans. Other bands...didn't move quite so fast. I don't know, but am guessing that the distinction is largely an economic one. Younger, up-and-coming bands like Goose (who I'll talk more about in a minute) and Spafford (who offered one of the first drive-in concerts in the country) likely have thinner margins and can't afford to comfortably ride out a year without touring income, so they needed to find a new way to generate that income. Older, better established bands like Phish have been relatively silent during quarantine (though, to be fair, they did release an unexpected and unexpectedly great new album), presumably because they could probably easily retire on the money they have now.
Regardless of the behind-the-scenes motivations, when Goose announced their first livestreamed "shows" from their bassist's living room under the "Live From Out There" banner in mid-March, it felt like it pulled my little niche corner of live music fandom out of a tailspin of confusion and loss. It was a great set of music, sure, but more than that it seemed to say for the first time since quarantine had started (to me, at least): "There will be more music." Sure, by that time lots of other bands were airing archival streams of old shows (Phish and Joe Russo's Almost Dead among them), but few bands were playing new music at that point.
From there, the Live From Out There platform evolved to offer a number of "virtual festival" weekends, and it began to feel like making the best of a bad situation: fans like me got to see new music from bands we loved often performed in intimate or improvised settings, while the bands got our money, often (presumably) without even having to deal with the kind of overhead a physical, traveling tour would require.
Live From Out There was great, and provided some solace during some really dark times, but hands-down my favorite "live" experience thus far has been Goose's "Bingo Tour." The concept was clever: they would play four full, two-set shows live over two weekends from a mysterious "recreation center" somewhere in the northeast, and each night the setlist would be determined by the drawing of bingo balls during the show. So, not even the band would know which song would start the show until it was drawn, and as they were playing that song, the next song would be drawn, forcing them to adapt on their feet. There would be no repeats over the four nights, and some of the balls contained instructions like "Take a Lap" instead of songs.
There was a very Baker's Dozen feel to the whole thing, but in the best way. I paid for a "ticket" after reading the initial email announcement; it seemed like a no-brainer. I mean, I wasn't not going to be home quarantining for those two weekends, right?
Well, the tour wrapped up at the end of June, and those two weekends were really bright spots in a really dark time. Goose went all-out in setting up the stage and lighting, improving immensely on the setup they had when I saw them just back in February. The video production was extremely well done, and of course the band themselves blew the premise of the shows out of the water musically as they jammed their way through eight sets that repeatedly threw curveballs at them (and the audience) via the bingo balls. I got so into the "tour" that I went old-school, bought a notepad and some pens, and took live setlist notes each night to serve a memento of what was a truly unique live experience. It was fun, it gave me something to look forward to between each show, and was executed so well on such a clever premise that there were times that I forgot that Bingo Tour only existed because Actual Tour had been cancelled by a global pandemic.
This is the only video Goose has posted publicly of the Bingo Tour proceedings as of yet, but it features a great performance of their song "Drive" as well as some bingo shenanigans including but not limited to the aforementioned "Take a Lap" ball:
I suppose this is all to say that though the loss of live music at the onset of the pandemic was hard to bear for a lot of us who are into that sort of thing, now that we're a few months in, lots of bands are becoming increasingly clever about how to get new live content out to fans while getting badly needed (and well-deserved) funds back in return. While none of it is a replacement for that feeling of being packed in shoulder-to-shoulder in some concert hall when the house lights go down and the first note of the opening song hits (or that feeling of being in a crowd of 30,000 at the Gorge when the lights go out and reveal the carpet of stars hanging above in the middle of a "Hood" jam) we will, as the song says, get by. Until the next time it's safe to hit the road.
Personally, I've got a date at the Matthew Knight Arena on 7/13/21. I don't know if it'll happen or not, but if it does, it'll be the first show that Phish plays post-COVID, the first show they will have played in 19 months, and 17 months since that 2/20 Goose show. If it does, I imagine half of us will be hoarse from screaming before the first song even starts. If it does, maybe they'll open with "Fluffhead."