After nearly two years of no live music, I went to a show. Not only did I go to a show; I went to The Garden. I am not a fan of arena shows. I have seen a few that were worth the crowds, prices, and the frustratingly blurry state of the hero performing (because they don’t call ‘em nosebleeds for nothing), but it takes the powers of someone like Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Kiss, or Iron Maiden.
This past Friday night, an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic got a pair of good tickets through an industry connection to see Marcus King and Chris Stapleton. Although I like both of these country singers well enough, I would have never bought these tickets of my own accord. The situation being what it was, I decided to go see my first show in almost two years.
Being a musician myself, I can struggle with seeing live music sometimes. I love seeing live music; I love it. It is inspiring, transcendent, exhilarating, and sometimes, emotional. “Fun” is something I rarely get out of a show.
The dichotomy of live music for a musician
See, I think the same thing that makes music so important and perfect to me, is probably the same thing that makes me easily intimidated by making the stuff. In the past, seeing a great show would often leave me feeling sad and defeated. Alongside the chest-rattling bass and drums of a live performance and the beautiful phenomenon of hundreds or even thousands of out-of-pitch singers being loud and numerous enough to make one on pitch voice, I also feel intense sadness, even anger.
I can’t stop myself from comparing my lack of commercial success to these performers. Hell, even at tiny 30-person shows, I can’t help but feel jealousy towards a singer who appears confident on stage or one who seems to like their own songs. The more I like the material and artist, the worse it gets.
Years of lugging my gear around NYC, playing poorly in front of nine people, making up for my lack of talent with antics like a dressed-up southern accent, trying to play louder, singing turning into shouting, breaking strings, building callouses of hardened blisters, and always making sure I had drunk enough to make the fear and doubt morph into something squishy and easier to handle — after all that, plus my favorite bands making me angry and jealous, I quit.
Only quiters quit
It wasn’t something I even decided to do. It was more like going to the same coffee shop every day and the guy or gal asks, “the usual” but it’s not really a question, and you agree without even thinking. You just slide into the warm and cozy hole of repetition. This place is comfortable; It is easy. It takes nothing from you other than potential. Potential for greatness. Potential for excitement. Potential for joy.
So, I stopped playing live music. I didn’t have the heart for it anymore. I chose “the usual” — the warm, comfortable, zero risk, zero pain, zero joy — usual.
But this show was different. For one, it was two bands I have never particularly liked. Not for any real reason other than I just am not that into the music. The quality was there in spades. Both acts are performers of serious talent and drive.
Chris Stapleton and Marcus King killed
Marcus King was a man on fire. Every second, every note, every move flowed. Nothing felt decided, nothing felt on display. I listened and watched. I followed all of it. I never felt myself loving the tunes necessarily, but I liked it – like, a lot.
When Chris Stapleton took over, the mood shifted. It morphed from a raucous and drunken South Carolina bonfire in the woods into something else. No matter how good an opener is, people paid to see the headliner. Chris Stapleton took every single one of us by heart and cheesed us out on country cliches, whining pedal steel guitar, and one hell of a voice. I won’t call the songwriting excellent or even really that good, but at the end of it, I got it. I got why they were all there.
For maybe the first time ever, I was simply having fun at a show. I wasn’t thinking about myself. I wasn’t comparing my ability to theirs. I wasn’t jealous of their talent and adoring fanbase. I was just having fun.
It’s hard to say if it was because I’m not playing live music anymore. I’m not sure if it was the fact that we have spent so much time in isolation and limited social settings that screaming cheesy country lyrics and chugging Bud Light took on new meaning. I don’t know if it was that I simply hadn’t seen much joy over the past couple of years of pandemic life.
Live music will always matter
I’m still not sure what made this show so different. All I know is, although going to an arena show, even vaccinated, was probably dumb, and maybe I’ll regret it, but for a few hours, none of the pandemic shit mattered. None of the politics and impending doom we seem to face daily mattered. All that mattered was a few thousand drunk people all singing every word of a song they all loved.
I know it’s cheesy, but who gives a shit? Art is cheesy. Enjoying art is super cheesy. I am cheesy. But watching that show was real. Hearing all those joyful voices sing the same song together was real. Especially, considering a country show in NYC with thousands of people, in this modern-day, there is no chance you could find any single issue that more than half of the people there could agree on except, “you’re as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey and you’re as sweet as strawberry wine.”