Live music is everywhere you look.
It did not creep back into our lives slowly. For 18 months, the world got a crash course in the limitations of a computer screen. The widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines paved the way for restrictions to be lifted and for music to return in a veritable typhoon of concert announcements, like the cartoonish image of a small man desperately trying to hold a bursting door shut.
From tiny house shows to massive Hersheypark Stadium crowds, concertgoers are nourishing their souls as live music reverberates in their bones again, in a way that computer screens just can’t capture.
Moreso than business meetings and family calls, nothing felt more difficult for me than trying to bridge the digital divide between my love of live music and a lack of quality options to replace it. Just about every musician and venue tried something – bands tried recording full performances to release later, acoustic acts troubleshot the act of keeping a smartphone standing straight up and worse.
During the last year, musicians attempted to “square peg” the “round hole” that is the concert experience, whether it was the Sharks playing a drive-in show where concertgoers had to honk their horns in appreciation or Phantom Power’s temporary move to only outdoor concerts.
After attending just one concert in Lancaster County and beyond – or seven, like I did for this story – it’s easy to see that the distance between trepidation and anticipation has never been greater. If there are folks not ready to experience live music again, they simply were not in attendance (or perhaps they were hiding it very well.)
“It’s been so long since people socially interacted; they clearly need it,” said a man named Jake, who was waiting in line for ice cream at the Long’s Park Amphitheater, motioning to the dozens dancing in the pit to Bakithi Kumalo’s Graceland Experience on Sunday, July 11.
“I have been missing this so much,” said musician and music fan Tuck Ryan, who hosted a show at his house on July 3. “I felt so giddy getting to watch Jake (Sherman) do his thing and be a spectator again. I play a lot of shows, but my passion is seeing other people play.”
Soul nourishing can come in all forms.
I take great joy in being part of that musical conversation where a singer or rapper or band takes the chance to make themselves completely vulnerable, and you decide whether you return that energy right back.
If we expected others to learn some sort of “lesson” from the scourge of COVID-19, whether it’s to practice empathy more often or to try to relate to strangers, well, perhaps there is more learning to be done.
At a rock-and-roll show at Phantom Power on June 19, featuring Jon Smith’s Voyages and Wynton Existing, I watched a woman perform a psychedelic dance through most of the two bands’ sets.
Admittedly, my first thought was what to write about this person, who clearly didn’t have a care in the world about her off-tempo dancing.
“That’s some pre-COVID thinking, Kevin,” I thought to myself. “Who knows what this person went through in the last year? This could be her first concert back, and maybe she’s dancing off months of negative energy in an attempt to find ‘normal’ again?”
Content to let her be, I turned to the opposite ledge, where two younger women were recording the dancing person on their phones, laughing and pointing. You can’t just expect empathy to be an infectious disease, either. Being around large groups of strangers, like-minded or otherwise, is going to take some getting used to.
A communal experience
But in those seven shows, there were far more moments of community.
At the house concert hosted by Ryan on July 3, rain threatened the good time of some 20 attendees, all prepared to feel the groovy vibes of Philly musicians AJAY and Jake Sherman. Ryan and his wife hosted several of these shows pre-COVID, but this would be the first in almost two years and almost became their first concert outside.
Despite trying to run out the clock, the steady drips came anyway, meaning all the instruments had to come inside and be placed in Ryan’s living room. The partygoers jumped into action, moving in drums, amps and microphones in short order.
Barb and Harry, an older couple who are mainstays at the Wooden Table and live near the Ryan abode in Lancaster city, helped direct traffic to make sure the bigger pieces of equipment didn’t knock into the table holding the array of delicious potluck food brought by the attendees.
Ryan, who lived out the unusual trifecta of being a host, attendee and performer at different times of the night, agreed that the aura of a house show simply hits different than any other kind of concert.
“Everyone jumped up and was like, ‘What can I do to make this easier on you guys?’ — and that’s the whole point of these shows,” Ryan explains. “It’s for the spectator to really get to know the artists, and vice versa.”
And we did. The interplay between musicians, usually muddled with so much sound, was a joy to behold and hear.
“I’m sweating, and he’s not even sweating,” marveled one attendee to another as they watched drummer Kyon Williams place one intricate fill after another mere inches from Ryan’s mounted television.
Thirty-one miles down the road, but about as far as you can get from a neo-soul house concert with 20 people, I watched Luke Bryan open Hersheypark Stadium for thousands of modern country fans on July 9.
For over a year, one of central Pennsylvania’s biggest stages was dark, waiting for the seemingly far-off day when that number of people could gather again.
“It’s excitement, for sure,” said a Harrisburg man who identified himself only as Craig, wearing an official Luke Bryan “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” shirt and drinking a $10 black cherry Truly. “Five or six of our crew, who don’t usually come early, are way up front right now.”
While the pandemonium of truly experiencing live music again has been present at every show, the sheer size of the stadium show sealed it for me.
You can’t feel the seismic tremor in your chest from gigantic speakers cabs through a computer screen.
You can’t hear — or feel — the echo of thousands of people all shouting “Yeaaaaah!” through your Bluetooth headphones, either.
It stands to reason that an arena show, even an outdoor stadium, might be the place where people could still be nervous to crowd together. The endless parade of group selfies and folks singing every song with their arms slung around friends and loved ones seemed to negate that hypothesis.
So many seemingly simple details of the concertgoing experience were more or less memory-holed for me, and I didn’t even realize.
‘It all came back in roaring force’
One thing missing in a big way from virtual shows? Drums! Gigantic, glorious drums.
For an instrument that is nigh impossible to perfect digitally, the twin percussionists from Washington, D.C.’s Empresarios blew me away at a free Tellus360 show on July 3.
Though I am not early the Spanish speaker that I wish I was, the transcendent rhythms provided by the self-described “Tropicalients” group needed no Duolingo assistance. And if two drummers weren’t enough, Lancaster steel pan drum whiz Matthew Woodson brought his instrument of choice onto the stage near the bands’ set for an impromptu triple drum showcase.
“All of a sudden (the rest of the band leaves) and it’s like, ‘Drums! Drums! Drums!’ and the conga player said, ‘Go ahead!’” Woodson says. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for. The vibe and the energy, seeing people dancing and having fun, it was perfect.”
Woodson had met the band the day before at a show in Reading with his band, Big Boy Brass. Woodson made loose plans the day before to jam with the band during its set, but few words were exchanged before Woodson approached the stage with his steel pan. Since the steel pan had no mic, Empressarios vocalist Frankie Rosado dutifully held his vocal mic up so Woodson’s solo could shine, to the delight of the patrons. It was a beautiful show of respect that only two musicians can share.
“It all came back in roaring force, which kind of shows how much it was missed, you know?” says Woodson about the return of live music. “If it didn’t come back as fast, then it would seem like nobody really wanted it back.”
Maybe it’s not time to mosh yet
At the Pat Garrett Amphitheater in Berks County on June 6, I watched ‘90s punk favorites Face to Face pummel a gleeful crowd with barre chords and tight bass lines. I was there in the first place to see the translation from a show originally booked at one of Lancaster’s toughest COVID-era losses, the Chameleon Club, now in a bright, sunny field an hour away.
Despite the lack of grime and grit that I’d truly come to appreciate at the Chameleon on Water Street, the Pat Garrett space still creates a sense of fellowship among fans.
I watched a middle-aged man try and fail to get a circle pit going – instead of seeing a sea of angry faces at this guy throwing elbows, most just smirked in his direction and moved a few steps away.
And because it was a wide-open, green space, I also got the somewhat-incongruous sight of many greyed, tattooed punks reclining in their folding chairs basking in the glow of a set of skate punk anthems. Perhaps in the New World, everyone is taking things a little slower, regardless of genre.
Even when a singer from one of the opening bands trotted out the immortal “For this next one, we’re going to slow it down a little bit …” there wasn’t a groan to be heard or an eye seen rolling.
“However you want to do it, man!” shouted one grinning concertgoer from his chair, raising his Sly Fox beer can in approval.
For 18 months, we got small fragments of the things we had previously taken for granted — bits and pieces, where, if you squinted at just the right angle, it almost resembled the concepts and traditions that make a life worth living. It could be derided as hyperbole, but live music provides that feeling for me.
That being said, just because I personally didn’t see trepidation on the part of concertgoers, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Surely there are people reading this that have yet to notch that magical “first concert back,” and there is space for them, as well.
There’s an old saying that says you can never return home again. But there’s nothing that says that you can’t build a new house, or even look at the old house in a new light.
Take it from me – it sounds even better than you remember.