We are all returning from the restrictions of the pandemic at different speeds. To seeing friends, to seeing art, to the office, to obligations. We may put those priorities in different orders, but it is a constant weighing: is this venture into crowds worth the risk? Is this? In my life, live music looms large. Now it is worth it again.
On a recent Monday evening, a mere 557 days since I had last been to a concert, I returned to gigs. Finally I was back where I am most content: in this case, London’s Union Chapel, waiting for the voice of Canadian singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright to shatter the tedium of a Covid-era evening.
This Islington venue is a jewel: architecturally, artistically. Photos from gigs here exhibit a blissful continuity, each visiting cultural titan dwarfed by that gargantuan stained-glass window. As the Royal Albert Hall’s senior press manager, I would be trashing my career if I called this my favourite venue, but let’s just say that it’s my favourite venue I’m not contractually obliged to promote.
It certainly offers a singular gig-going experience. Pay your extra £25 a year to be a member, and advance entry means you can nab a cushion, buy a hot chocolate from the kiosk and go and sit on the front row of the wooden pews.
When I arrive with a friend, we find that this wholesome ritual has, of course, been exploded by Covid. Entry is grimly rigorous, the kiosk is closed, and only an idiot would think you could still borrow a communal cushion during a pandemic. Anyway, they asked me to put it back, and I apologised.
Since the bar upstairs was shut, we simply sat in place, talking through masks, until the support act came on. They were called Bernice and seemed to be interested in all the genres at once: to the uninitiated, it sounded like each band member was playing a different song. But halfway through the set – on a new track, Are You Breathing? – everything came together, and by the time they closed we had been won over completely.
Having waited 18 months to experience live music again, it seemed fitting that fate and Martha Wainwright should dictate that the ones breaking the silence be a Canadian indie-jazz-R&B-pop band we’d never heard of before. That’s one erratic virtue of the gig experience: the roulette of the supporting act.
There was a moment in the lull between sets when an audience member exploded into coughs, and the little voice in my head muttered: “Oh shit.” But next my ear was caught by the techs tuning a double-bass over the sound of piped-in funk. And I just felt privileged to be there. That feeling endured. The background music stopped. The lights dimmed. The hubbub cut suddenly to silence. And there was that single, shared moment of realisation, before the tumult commenced. As Wainwright strode to centre stage, the wave reached its crest. “You’re gonna make me cry, and we haven’t even started,” she said.
Wainwright exemplifies live music’s central appeal: its narcotic escapism and capacity for emotional release. The scion of two legendary folk families, renowned for her starkly confessional songs, she truly comes alive on stage, her vocal gymnastics and tortured physicality a frequent vehicle for fury and pain. But while she will spin Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel # 2 into a work of violent retribution, the main order of the night is simple. It is joy. Though the new album she is touring, Love Will Be Reborn, is about her divorce, we are all so happy – Martha included.
In an interview the next day, I ask her about the atmosphere. “You could feel how much people were yearning,” she says. “What I’ve missed most is the emotional arc of a show. I was nervous, and rushed the first couple of songs, but after a few I started feeling at ease – and then the happiness kicked in. It was an unusually joyous night. This city’s been through a lot, and there was this celebratory feeling – that we are not out of the woods yet, but a better time is starting.”
For me, it is mostly about the music – but not entirely. There is something unexpectedly affecting here, too: the artificiality of the stage smoke; that white light and haze. We have lived too much in the real world of late, or perhaps not in it at all. And, while I have always gone to gigs for the connection to the artist, now the crowd matters so much. When Wainwright sings Falaise de Malaise at the piano, in French, and the final notes disappear, someone off to our right coos: “That’s beautiful.”
Many of us will have had confused feelings about returning to things that were, 18 or so months ago, unquestioned parts of life. My first gig back was not the same as before. Not quite. We sat there, out of practice in a crowd, exhausted from pandemic life, our cheers slightly muffled by masks. But then the sound, the stagecraft, this artist’s articulation of our half-realised thoughts returned to sweep us up again. We were lost in the music, and we could forget everything else.