Three Days Of Solitude: Live Streaming Gigs In The Age of Coronavirus

JR Moores spent the weekend watching concerts on his computer at home. What lessons can be learned from life in this strange new world?

Yeah You live

First published in 1953 Lynn Venable’s short story ‘Time Enough At Last’ concerns the plight of a man named Henry Bemis. This spectacles-wearing bank clerk has just one ambition in life, which is to find enough peace and quiet to sit down and read a book from cover to cover. In this aspiration he is constantly thwarted by his wife and his job and keeping the house and the yard in order and watching television and having social commitments like bridge night with the Joneses.

One day at work, Bemis sneaks down to the vault of the bank to surreptitiously flick through a few pages of a magazine when a huge explosion goes off. Bemis emerges from the vault to discover that an H-bomb has devastated the landscape and it looks as though he is the sole survivor. He is shocked… and then delighted. He decides not to rush home to check whether his nagging wife remains alive and heads straight to the public library. There, he is relieved to discover that all the precious books remain intact. Bemis is finally able to read everything and anything he wants to, without any kind of pesky distraction. The story ends when [67-year-old spoiler alert!] Bemis accidentally breaks his only pair of glasses and is unable to see. At this point he breaks down and cries.

The story was later adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Like many instalments in the series, one of the morals of ‘Time Enough At Last’ is to be careful what you wish for. At this moment in time when the world seems to have suddenly turned into a real-life episode of The Twilight Zone, I can’t help but identify with Henry Bemis and have even begun to wonder whether I am to blame for the whole wretched situation we now find ourselves in. For this I can only apologise.

A few years ago, I went to see The Damned. The two middle-aged blokes positioned directly behind us spent about an hour and a half discussing all the previous Damned concerts they’d attended since before I was born, debating which ones had been the best and how each setlist or venue compared WHILE THE DAMNED WERE PLAYING RIGHT THERE AND THEN IN FRONT OF THEIR STUPID INATTENTIVE FACES. Because of this and similar irritations like people fiddling with their smartphones the whole time, rowdy men throwing ale in the air for no reason and people trying to start a moshpit without reading the mood of the room, I have long believed that the perfect gig would be at a small venue with just me in the audience sipping some alcohol and enjoying the music alone. "Hell. It’s other people," wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, "especially when they happen to be greying Damned fans at a Damned gig talking about loads of other gigs by The Damned."

So imagine my euphoria when all music venues were asked to close their doors for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus outbreak. Be careful what you wish for, fellow misanthropes, because it might just happen. As Pulp once sang, "We’d like to go to town but we can’t risk it. Oh!" So what do we do instead? Well, we are now being offered concerts to stream live from the safety of our own homes thanks to a number of enterprising venues and labels, their musician counterparts and also Chris Martin. With little else to do other than fret about hygiene and hospital beds, I nestled down into self-isolation to watch this past weekend’s online concert substitutions because, yes, even gig reviewers now have to work from home.

Oh Sees – Rehearsal For Next Album

Attending virtual concerts from an isolated bunker is not without its own distractions. Settling back to view an Oh Sees’ album rehearsal show filmed at the Zebulon in Los Angeles, I realise the shameful extent to which my computer screen is coated in dust and filth and months-old sneeze remnants. So I spend the first eight minutes of their show furiously wiping away the visible grime with a damp cloth.

The hour-length set doesn’t have the full-pelt energy of the long-running psych band’s usual live shows. There is no audience to engage with or feed from and these are uncertain times, so it’s understandable that there are more furrowed brows than grins on the faces of the musicians. This is a rehearsal for the next record, after all, and the band are still trying on the songs for size and concentrating on getting them right. Still, you can see the sweat pouring from the foreheads of the two drummers and the overall sound is remarkably satisfying. The comfortingly warm bass tones, John Dwyer’s yelped vocals and blasts of spiky, almost wheezing electric guitar, the freaky organ flourishes and incessant rattling of the two drums kits… The audience is advised to "Listen on headphones for best results."

The event feels a little sober. As do I, because it’s first thing in the morning on UK time so I haven’t yet cracked open today’s stockpiled crate of Côtes du Rhône. We may have to eke out supplies during the pandemic so let’s save the first bottle for lunchtime. Despite the undertone of uncertainly, the concert bodes well for the rest of the weekend. "Where is everybody?" jokes Dwyer and makes sure certain bandmates have washed their hands. He also notes that this ghost-town situation isn’t entirely unfamiliar, reminiscing about his band’s first gig in New Orleans when they played to an audience consisting of one very disgruntled bartender. "Thank you, goodnight," waves Dwyer at the end. If one person claps alone in their room and no musician is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Third Man Public Access

Filmed in Nashville and hosted by the likeable Ben Swank, Third Man Records’ new "public access" YouTube broadcasts hope to lift spirits and get music out there to listeners in these tough times. Episode One featured Luke Schneider who plays comforting new-age instrumentals by caressing and looping a wired-up pedal steel guitar so it sounds less like itself and more like a sighing synthesizer. Schneider also accompanied Teddy And The Rough Riders for Episode Two’s set of cowboy-hatted country rock. At the end of each episode there’s an interview segment when Swank asks the featured artists about their music and motivations. It might be a good idea to introduce that element to proper live gigs when we’re finally allowed to crawl back out of our hermit caves. Instead of encores, which have always been as overrated as Tom Hiddleston in a tunic, two stools should be placed onstage and Dave Haslam can quiz a sticky, mostly naked and exhausted-yet-adrenaline-pumped David Yow on why The Jesus Lizard, since reforming, have never played ‘Slave Ship’ live even though it has the most satisfyingly evil-sounding opening riff of all time.

Neil Young – Fireside Sessions

The Fireside Sessions (or its one episode so far) features Neil Seventy-Four-Years-Young dressed in Wellington boots, surrounded by hippie paraphernalia and armed with an acoustic guitar and makeshift harmonica stand. Forget the overpriced cans of Tuborg you’d usually be forced to consume at gigs and get some marshmallows toasting on the hob because this one’s more like going on a camping trip with the effortlessly cool yet still slightly terrifying uncle you never had. Long considered the Godfather of Grump, Young plays quiet and intimate renditions of old favourites alongside rarely performed backcat gems, throwing in some amiable between-song patter as well. This could even be a contender for the most consistently crowd-friendly "gig" the grizzled contrarian has done in years, free as it is of strange new conceptual songs and forty-minute guitar solos. What does it take for Neil Young to please the crowd? You simply have to remove them from sight.

Blanck Mass – Livestream

On Saturday evening at 8pm GMT, Blanck Mass live-streams a one-man, hour-long "live improv techno jam" via Facebook. With the single-shot camera angle gazing down on Benjamin Power and his table of gadgets, it feels less like being in an audience and more like being a lamp. Having said that, it still proves to be a lot of fun thanks to its colourful disco lighting, brightly lit (fuck?) buttons and Power nodding his head and working electro magic with his fingers. Most importantly of all, it sounds amazing with its crackling beats, catchy synth patterns, throbbing loops and the overall musical mood balanced somewhere between joyous and ominous.

There is amusement to be found in the Facebook comments section too, a mostly encouraging place where an international audience confess to dad-dancing in their comfy chairs or beg for the music to be made immediately available to purchase. One person chips in with, "I’m going to the bar. Anyone want anything while I’m there?" and is then inundated with requests for everything from tequila slammers to dry roasted peanuts. It’s going to be an expensive virtual round. Somebody else pipes up by writing, "I never understand why people always insist on talking at gigs. If you want to talk, go outside. I’m trying to enjoy the show and ALL I CAN HEAR IS YOUR CHIT CHAT. FFS."

Power waits until the final fifteen minutes or so before he really takes it up a notch, at which point additional layers of synthy goodness are applied and the serotonin (or perhaps my red wine high) really kicks in. Leaning over his equipment and sipping the occasional whisky, even Power himself can no longer remain seated… and nor can I. Why restrict the dad dancing to the comfy chair? It’s important to still get some exercise. Power concludes the set by breaking into what can almost be described as an abstract deconstruction of the victorious sound of Vangelis’ ‘Chariots Of Fire’ and who can blame him? Power leaves a loop ringing out from the wires like feedback from a guitar amplifier, blows kisses to the camera and then he’s gone. It’s a triumph.

Café OTO Live Stream

The always heroic Café OTO has been streaming its concerts for the benefit of everybody who’s stuck at home and still needs their fix of live improv pleasure. Please throw them some donations to keep this thing going. Friday night was headlined by a trio consisting of composer and sound artist Matt Wright, cellist Hannah Marshall and pianist Alexander Hawkins who filled the empty room with their delightful creaking, tinkling and groaning improvisations. On Saturday drummer Steve Noble and bassist John Edwards each played solo sets before joining forces as a duo. Then on Sunday a slight spanner is thrown in the works when "unforeseen circumstances" mean that the billed concert cannot actually be transmitted live from the venue. Instead, the unusual father-daughter duo Yeah You beam in five videos that they’ve recorded from the side of the motorway. Elvin Brandhi spits righteously about savagery and civilisation while the elder noisenik, Gustav Thomas, contributes incompressible growled gobbledygook and electro-skronk accompaniment, at one point adding an extra percussion part by whacking the railings on a bridge like a schoolboy with a stick. The noise from the passing traffic provides an almost reassuring backing rumble. Passing drivers are no doubt thoroughly confused by Yeah You’s roadside activities.

In-seclusion conclusions

It’s actually pretty good, this live-streaming lark. You don’t have to squeeze through a sea of bloated hoodies to nip to the toilet and back. No one is standing in front of you filming the entire set for their YouTube channel because it basically already is one. The drinks are cheaper. It’s much easier than it would usually be to watch a band while eating a plateful of sloppy lamb ragout off your lap. You know exactly who’s to blame for the garlicky fart smell that’s working its way through the room. Before you attend, you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to wear to the gig anymore. A novelty onesie in the shape of your favourite root vegetable? A tatty pair of Red Dwarf pyjamas? Just your underwear? A T-shirt bearing the name of the band that you are watching at that particular moment? Be as uncool as you like, people, nobody’s judging you anymore.

Admittedly it is going to be difficult to replicate the body-shaking intensity of a Sunn O))) concert, for example, but perhaps you could hook up your laptop to one of those vibrating massage chairs or else sit on top of the washing machine. Chances are, after two days of working from home, you’ll be doing the latter anyway. It’s going to be harder for hecklers to show off, besides the odd bit of trolling in the easily ignorable comments section. The person who once threw a string of sausages at Morrissey is going to have to devise new and novel ways of tormenting everyone’s favourite gouty nationalist. You might have to FedEx a couple of Aldi quarter pounders over to his LA spatula pad. Why not take a dictionary from the Foreign Languages section and throw that into the jiffy bag to really boil his blood?

By Monday morning, after a weekend of watching a number of impressive online performances, I am beginning to feel a little better about things. I put my trainers on, place my headphones back on again and jog down to the high-street to prise the last loaf of bread in the Tesco Express out of a knackered nurse’s hands. As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man that there’s no such thing as society, and he will selfishly hoard enough Batchelors Super Noodles to feed all the chasers from ITV’s The Chase for an entire lifetime."

The sky is blue. The sun has got his hat on. The streets are almost completely deserted, apart from those neighbours with all the Union Jacks in the windows who have invited 20-plus friends to a hastily organised barbecue because there’s a peek of sunshine, they’ve just read Peter Hitchens’ lethally idiotic doubling down on the mistrust of experts and have collectively misunderstood the entire concept of the "Dunkirk spirit". (If hazy memories of GCSE History serve me correctly, the actual event involved a significant amount of retreating and then cowering away until a stronger and far more robust position could be secured.)

As I pick up the pace to sprint past this novelty-aproned orgy of viral infection, my swinging arm catches the wire of my only pair of headphones, ripping it out of the iPod socket with an ugly crackle. When I plug the jack back in, I am greeted with nothing but silence. In my haste to escape, I must have irreparably damaged the internal wires.

And at that point I break down and cry.

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