Finding Connection And Comfort In Livestream Concerts During Quarantine

Jun 1, 2020
Originally published on June 2, 2020 6:30 am

Even in the best of times, many look to live music as a crucial resource — a place to turn for comfort, community and relief from anxiety — and can scarcely imagine their lives without it. For the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down venues around the country, and it's hard to picture when gathering in nightclubs or amphitheaters will be deemed safe again. No live performances also means that during the nationwide protests in response to a series of high-profile police killings of black Americans, the healing potential that concerts provide is largely unavailable to those who might need it.

But throughout the coronavirus shutdown, artists have begun livestreaming concerts on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, creating a new kind of virtual musical community. Ari Shapiro spoke with NPR Music's Ann Powers and Sidney Madden about some of the best concert streams and how they are creating an art form all its own while keeping people connected. Listen to their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more of their livestream recommendations.


Interview Highlights

On Nashville's Grand Ole Opry

Ann Powers: The Grand Ole Opry is such an important institution for country music, and they have been dedicated to "keeping the circle unbroken," which means keeping the weekly shows that have been going on for decades — almost 5,000 shows — uninterrupted. Huge stars like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have taken that stage in the empty Opryland theater with only host Bobby Bones visible in the audience. It's led to some beautiful moments: Watching Garth and Trisha duet together, cover people like Emmylou Harris and sing their own hits was so moving.

And special things happen at these shows, too. One night Lauren Alaina, Terri Clark and Ashley McBryde — three generations of country women — took the stage, and there was a hilarious and poignant moment when Terri Clark started singing her song "Girls Don't Lie" and Lauren Alaina was like "That's my karaoke song!" Suddenly, joy filled this theater that was so somber other than that.

On H.E.R.'s joyful "Girls with Guitars" series

Sidney Madden: They are collaborations that could only happen during a time of quarantine. For people who don't know, H.E.R. is a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and she's actually graced the Tiny Desk two times. But when COVID hit and everyone was forced to stay at home, she wanted to get creative with her collaborations, so she started this weekly series called "Girls with Guitars." It's on Instagram Live every week around 8 p.m. [Eastern], and what she does is invite some of her contemporaries, some people you might not expect her to collaborate with, to sing covers, talk about how they're dealing with the pandemic and really just have a decompress. Some of the people she's had on so far have included Tori Kelly, Lianne La Havas, the duo Chloe x Halle. But one of my favorite duets and collaborations I've seen out of this miniseries is H.E.R. and Sheryl Crow. I love that "mama pride" moment. It's not only an emphasis on raw talent, but it's collaboration free from ego. Usually, if you needed to get H.E.R. and Sheryl Crow in a studio session together, it would probably need a lot of phone calls, a lot of favors. But now they just turn on their phones and they jam together.

On the high-energy livestreams of Low Cut Connie frontman Adam Weiner

Powers: Philadelphia's Low Cut Connie has been one of my favorite live bands for years, and Adam Weiner is an incredibly dynamic performer. If you've ever gotten to see him at a club, it's just a sweaty crazy scene, where he's stripping his clothes off and jumping on the piano and singing in his wonderful voice. It's something you'd think could only happen in a club. But Adam started doing these broadcasts from his apartment, he named them "Tough Cookies," after his fans who he considers tough cookies. They happen every Thursday and Saturday at 6 p.m. Eastern. He's hitting new levels of superstardom with these shows. He talks at length about his passions. For example, after Little Richard passed away, Adam — who's really modeled a lot of his performance style on Little Richard — paid tribute in this incredible way, where he read from Little Richard's biography, and he read from an essay he'd written about Little Richard and he performed many Little Richard songs while stripping down, basically, to his underwear. It's wild to watch these shows from Adam's apartment, which he creates with just one bandmate and his wife — that's his little live music pod — because he makes it feel like you're at Madison Square Garden, all the way up to having audience participation, getting people to sing along.

On the magic of the "Verzuz" Instagram Live battles

Madden: Verzuz is another IG Live series. It was put together by two hip-hop legends, Swizz Beats and Timbaland. And it's really based on the art form of battling in a park: beat battling, going bar for bar, which we know is in the blueprint of hip-hop's DNA. So for these battles, Timbaland and Swizz, they kind of match up contemporary legends in the game, in order to go round for round on what their best songs are. It started off pretty humbly, [but] social media took it and ran with it. And what's beautiful about it is, the benefits here are really threefold. It's a place for the hip-hop culture to convene, especially at times when we feel so disconnected and disparate. It gives the legends their flowers while they can still smell them, which is something that is always necessary and always feels serendipitous in the culture. And it's kind of like digital liner notes for some of the songs that you may have grown up with or maybe know all the words to but don't know exactly how the collaborations came together. I'm talking about producers, songwriters, engineers, video treatments. They go into storytime and talk about it all.

For me, the pinnacle of these Verzuz battles so far has been Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Two titans of R&B, really the architects of what we think of as modern R&B right now. And they were going head to head, but it really wasn't so much of a battle. It was more like a mutual love sesh and reunion. The ladies went all around their discography, playing deep side cuts and some of their earliest songs. For example, Erykah Badu went into this great story about how she wrote "On and On" and how she created the video treatment for it, and her engineer sessions during the time. It's a nice new peek into songs that are already cemented in our memory.

On livestreams as a new art form

Powers: It's almost a new art form and certainly a new medium. People were using virtual concerts and livestreams before the pandemic, but now, with everyone turning their attention to the possibilities of everything from 24-hour concerts to massive extravaganzas where performers can be all around the world or all around a continent, we have an opportunity to experience performance totally differently than we had before. The connection between artists and fans is becoming at once more intimate and more mediated. And as Sidney said, the stuff that happens between the music is really important, too — the conversations, the history that's being shared. It's hard to feel optimistic these days, and of course I miss being with other bodies in a room, listening to music. But I'm excited by what's happening online.

Madden: We're kind of having to rewrite the rules of what connectivity feels like right now, and in a time when we should be grateful for even the smallest things, just seeing the artists interact with one another, interact with fans and do so in such an imperfect way, it really feels like there's a new flowering to the beauty of the art form.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's hard to picture the next time we'll be able to go to a concert in person again, when we'll be allowed back into cramped nightclubs or amphitheaters. But it's not hard to see live music right now. In fact, there's been an enormous surge in livestreaming performances online. Musicians whose tours have been cancelled are playing on YouTube and Instagram. The Indigo Girls performed every week for thousands of fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INDIGO GIRLS: (Singing) I've been banking on a broken machine.

SHAPIRO: Less well-known groups, like the Cincinnati rock band Wussy, have found their audiences on Facebook Live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WUSSY: (Singing) Thinks it's pretty odd, she says.

SHAPIRO: And piano players from around the world gathered for a 24-hour marathon webcast where they played the works of French composer Erik Satie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Our friends at NPR Music have spent a lot of time watching livestream concerts recently, and they are here to recommend some of the standouts. Ann Powers and Sidney Madden both join us.

Good to have you here.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Ann, let's start with you. You are in Nashville. And I understand the Grand Ole Opry is still going live every week. Is that right?

POWERS: Yes. This has been such a moving thing for all of us here in Nashville and I think country fans around the world. The Grand Ole Opry is the core of country music tradition. And the show has been broadcasting thousands of nights in a row - almost 5,000 nights. And so when COVID-19 hit, the Opry folks decided to keep it going. And they have been broadcasting these livestreams from an empty Opryland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As you can see, we're coming to you again from the empty Opry house.

POWERS: It's the performers and host Bobby Bones in this, you know, huge theater. And it's been so moving because the dedication to the forum, to country music, to the tradition - it's just - I've cried almost every time I watched it, to be honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRI CLARK, LAUREN ALAINA AND ASHLEY MCBRYDE: (Singing) We don't care how much money you make, what you drive or what you weigh.

SHAPIRO: Sidney, let's turn to you. You've brought us a series of videos from the breakout star H.E.R. And these are not just performances. Tell us about them.

MADDEN: Absolutely not. They are collaborations that could only happen during a time of quarantine. So for people who don't know, H.E.R. is a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist. When COVID hit and everyone was forced to stay at home, she wanted to get creative with her collaborations. So she started this weekly series called "Girls With Guitars."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERYL CROW: (Singing) The first cut is the deepest.

MADDEN: One of my favorite duets and collaborations I've seen out of this miniseries is H.E.R. and Sheryl Crow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CROW: I'm just going to tell you that as somebody you've never met before in your life, I feel a weird sense of mama pride about you.

HER: What?

CROW: I do. I am so happy you're out there and that you're...

MADDEN: And see; I love that mama pride moment 'cause it's not only an emphasis on raw talent, but it's collaboration free from ego. Usually, if you needed to get H.E.R. and Sheryl Crow in a studio session together, it would probably need a lot of phone calls, a lot of favors. But now they just turn on their phones, and they jam together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HER: (Singing) The first cut is the deepest.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about somebody who has just kind of broken out during this era of livestream concerts. Ann, the band Low Cut Connie's frontman has really kind of, like, found a niche for himself.

POWERS: Absolutely. Philadelphia's Low Cut Connie has been one of my favorite live bands for years. And Adam Weiner is an incredibly dynamic performer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM WEINER: If you're with me, say yes.

POWERS: And it's wild to watch these shows from Adam's apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEINER: Say yeah.

POWERS: After Little Richard passed away, Adam, who's really modeled a lot of his performance style on Little Richard, paid tribute in this incredible way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEINER: All Richard, all the time. Woo (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWERS: He read from Little Richard's biography and performed many Little Richard songs while stripping down basically to his underwear (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEINER: (Singing) Oh, baby. Yeah, baby.

SHAPIRO: Something else that's really taken off during this lockdown is something called Verzuz battles. Sidney, it seems like every time one of these goes up, social media just kind of catches fire. Tell us about what these are.

MADDEN: Yeah, it goes crazy. Verzuz is another IG Live series, and it's really based on the art form of beat-battling, going bar for bar, which we know is in the blueprint of hip-hop's DNA. So for me, the pinnacle of these Verzuz battles so far has been Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERYKAH BADU: What up, Jilly from Philly?

JILL SCOTT: Hi, baby.

MADDEN: Two titans of R&B - and when they went head-to-head, it wasn't so much as a battle but like a mutual love fest reunion. They were - there was so much admiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BADU: Heard your voice and I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What I'mma (ph) do?

MADDEN: And in that example right there, they were actually talking about the Roots song "You Got Me," which they both put fingerprints on back in the day. So it was funny to hear their own interpretation of hearing each other for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GOT ME")

BADU: (Singing) If you were worried about where...

SHAPIRO: Ann Powers and Sidney Madden of NPR Music, where you can find an ongoing list of live concert streams.

Thank you both.

POWERS: Thank you, Ari.

MADDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.