Article & Photos by: Linda Carlson
As a concert photographer, I regularly attend live performances, photographing nearly two hundred bands last year alone. Then all of a sudden… Boom! NO LIVE PERFORMANCES, thanks to the coronavirus. Like most concert-goers, there is a hole in my life, and I am a bit grief-stricken. Since I am not able to attend new shows and take new pictures, I have been revisiting the past through my archive of images and reflecting. Just what is it about the live concert experience that makes it so special, so irreplaceable? Why do we miss it so much?
There’s really nothing quite like a live concert, and by that I mean a live show at a venue bursting with fans and noise and energy. So many elements merge to make a concert come to life as a multi-sensory, and indeed extra-sensory, experience. It’s something that a streaming online service can never duplicate (even if the streaming is live). I decided to reflect on how each of the senses is stimulated by an in-person, in-your-face live show.
This one is obvious, but what makes live music so audibly intoxicating? Although the popularity of performance tracks has made some live music sound closer to the recorded versions fans are familiar with, a live show will always provide a different, fresher, more personal musical experience. Bands don’t stick to the script at a concert – they improvise and respond to the crowd, and add musical texture that you won’t find in a sanitized, perfected recording. A live show, indeed, is blissfully imperfect. You know, like life.
The sound is more “surround sound” than your home stereo or headphones can mimic. At a live event, you are immersed in a crowd of cheering fans with instruments and vocals bombarding you from ALL THOSE SPEAKERS, in a cavernous room, or permeating the air at an outdoor amphitheater or festival stage. You cannot duplicate that sound in a pair of headphones…
A live concert is a feast for the eyes. Set and lighting designers create a visual drama that defines the show. As a fan of rock and heavy metal shows, the lighting moves and changes incessantly, flashes constantly, creating an energy that sets the heart racing. Spotlights, backlights, panning lights, colored lights…they all play a role in the experience. Fog and mist, backdrops, props, platforms, costuming, the microphone (can you say, Korn?)…visual candy, every one.
And let’s face it, you get to SEE your favorite band perform right before your very eyes. Literally, they are right THERE. If you are standing within the first few rows, you can see their sweat, their raw emotions, catch their eye, and damn-near touch them. Some will talk to the audience, share stories and anecdotes about life. They emote, they express, they perform on that night…for you. What they bring on that night is unique, never to be repeated. You see them as real people and you feel like you are part of the show, part of what is happening…part of the “conversation” that happens between a band and their fans at a live performance. The give and take, the exchange. You don’t get that on a screen, even if the on-screen performance is live.
This one can vary a lot depending on the type of concert. If you are in a venue with assigned seats, there is not so much physical touch with your fellow concert-goers. But at general admission concerts, you are shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor. And if you are at a festival, especially a metal and hard rock festival, “touch” is a huge part of the experience. Crowd-surfers overhead, mosh pits, and the crush of the crowd… that is an experience like no other. Of course, unless you jump on-stage (not recommended), you won’t touch your favorite band; although occasionally, one or more of the band members will leave the stage and enter the crowd while performing, which is awesome. And many times, there are meet & greet opportunities where you can shake band members’ hands or take a picture with them.
Taken even further, the sense of “touch” that I miss the most is the acoustic energy of the sound itself. There is nothing like the power of those heavy bass riffs and drums that make your chest vibrate to the beat!
You like beer? Whiskey? A mixed drink, perhaps? A pizza slice? You can get those at a concert. If you’re at a music festival (OMG, I miss them), there is a smorgasbord of food vendors to satisfy any craving. Hankering for a burger? Hoagies? A gourmet grilled cheese (yum)? Got ‘em. A fancy coffee or a frozen drink? Got those, too. Salad? Barbecue? Got ya covered.
Ok, so some of the smells aren’t always the best, but c’mon, it’s all part of the live experience, right? Of course, all that food (see above) can smell pretty good…
The Other Stuff
What about the intangibles? The emotions of anticipation, excitement, elation, and even sadness as the show comes to an end? The camaraderie you establish with the people around you at a show? The craziness! Fans in silly costumes? The crowd-surfing! Experiencing new music through the opening bands? Buying merch to support your band? Tailgating? Driving through the traffic to get there, and to leave (not my favorite part)? The memories you just created with your best friends or significant other? The ticket stub you stuck in your pocket that you find days later that makes you smile?
I miss ALL THOSE THINGS. Yeah, even the smells. And I want them back.
The live music industry has been tragically devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was one of the first activities to be halted, and will be one of the last to reopen. How will it look when it reopens? Will we all be wearing masks? Gloves? How do you socially distance at a standing-room only rock concert? How do you NOT move closer to the stage as the show progresses? What do you do about those crowd-surfers coming your way? You cannot drop them!
As the world works this out, we can listen to our music in our headphones or home stereos, watch the livestream events that our bands are hosting online, relive recorded live concerts, but nothing, and I mean nothing, can replace the in-person live concert experience. Sharing TOGETHER, as friends and strangers united by a common love, that thing we crave…live music.
My hope is that normalcy returns…the old normal. I want this gaping hole in my life to be filled again. Bring it back, please.
Until then, please consider supporting your favorite bands during this difficult time. Many depend on touring for their income and survival. I am sure they would greatly appreciate your support by purchasing merch from their on-line stores, paying for some of their live-stream events, or even donating to their fund-me programs.
We are ALL part of the music industry, really. We need our bands as much as they need us. Let’s do this together.