At this point in quarantine, we all have seen enough Zoom-style choir edits and musicians struggling with Instagram Live to last a lifetime. Watching musicians try to replicate normal live music mostly serves to remind us of what we’re missing during the pandemic. But like our favorite concerts, the best livestreams are the ones where something beyond the ordinary happens.
Below are five livestreams/concert film releases from quarantine that are actually worth watching, a stream that’s happening at one of our favorite Chicago venues this week, plus ways to support musicians and venues while we wait for music to return to our eardrums instead of our earbuds.
Amanda Shires – I So Lounging
A Rolling Stone article articulates what many felt while watching Amanda Shires’ daily I So Lounging streams from her barn for the first month of quarantine: that Shires’ show, unlike many other livestreamed sets, has an effortless “casual fireside-chat intimacy.” Between songs, Shires chats about her paintings, her mom’s cocktail recipes, and quarantine life with her usual guests, including her husband and fellow musician Jason Isbell.
When their 30th consecutive show starts, the merry band is already in the middle of a hilarious improvised song about Amanda’s various injuries and how quarantine is going. They break into Shires’ song “Break Out the Champagne” to celebrate various birthdays and anniversaries before chatting some more, playing Isbell’s (arguably) most beloved song, “Cover Me Up,” and then improvising their way out to a well-deserved I So Lounging hiatus.
H.E.R. – Roots Picnic 2020 Virtual Experience
The musicianship that 23-year-old Gabriella Wilson (AKA H.E.R.) emulates can translate effortlessly in any sort of setting, which is evident in the recent livestream she performed for the Roots Picnic festival, which went virtual this year for obvious reasons. The event was hosted by Michelle Obama and featured artists like SZA, Lil Baby, Janelle Monáe, and more.
H.E.R. opened her short set with her newest single, “I Can’t Breathe,” which was released on Juneteenth. In a performance slot just shy of 12 minutes, H.E.R. made it evident that her talent continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Thanks to the festival’s partnership with “When We All Vote,” 500,000 new voters were reached during the livestream.
Phoebe Bridgers – The Late Late Show With James Corden
The one thing that quarantine livestreams can’t replicate is the adrenaline rush of live performances. That is, until Phoebe Bridgers appeared on James Corden’s show to perform her song “I See You” and promote her new album Punisher.
Phoebe has uncovered increasingly creative ways to “tour” in the age of the pandemic—including appearing “Live from the Lavatory” on Jimmy Kimmel, where she played a Q-Chord and sang into a toy microphone in her bathtub, and a world tour including stops at “Kitchen,” “Bath” and “Bed” (with a second performance at “Bed” by overwhelming demand). For this performance on James Corden’s show, Bridgers brings back the heart-stopping thrill of live music by singing in her car while spinning donuts in an empty parking lot, making car-singing metal again.
Sylvan Esso – WITH
Sylvan Esso is normally Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath’s two-person electronic pop operation. However, in 2019, they toured with friends in the band they named WITH, which reimagines Sylvan Esso’s songs with a ten-person live band. It’s an amazing concept that shows off what Sylvan Esso actually is and what they can be when they’re not just two people.
The WITH film is more than a concert—it’s also a documentary, and the cuts to the rehearsals and community in Nick and Amelia’s house are what really seal the deal on this film. You can see the joy that this project gave them—hosting their friends, eating with them, playing hacky-sack in the woods with them, making music with them. It reminds us of our own relationships with our friends and makes us feel like we are there too, among old friends.
The musicianship showcased in this film is also incredible. Adam Schatz’s woodwinds add so much to Sylvan Esso’s songs. Amelia harmonizing with her Mountain Man bandmates instead of “younger versions of [herself],” as she describes the normal backing recordings, is stunning. Nick shows off his physical music-making skills, happily grooving out on bass and accordion instead of playing his usual laptop and console. Meg Duffy’s virtuosic guitar skills are fully displayed on the surreal jam version of “Rewind” that also appears on the accompanying WITH live album. Even when musicians begin touring again, WITH will remain a treasure to re-watch for years to come.
The Tallest Man On Earth – YouTube Livestreams
Mr. Tallest Man, aka Kristian Matsson, streamed on his YouTube channel weekly for several weeks. His presence is warm, carefree, and reassuring, making the time on the one-and-a-half-to-two-hour livestreams just grow away. In the livestreams, Kristian explains his tunings, tells stories about his guitars, answers questions, pays homage to the originators of all of his cover songs, and advertises the surprise-hit “Fran mugs,” replicas of a mug he frequently drinks from that has his assistant Fran’s teenage school picture on it.
Kristian plays a massive amount of both his own discography (like the tenth-anniversary “The Wild Hunt” in full) as well as very thoughtful covers: like a synth cover of The National’s “Pink Rabbits” or a banjo cover of Adele’s “When We Were Young” that reminds us of all the magic in that song. A standout sampling of his own work is included in this performance of “Wind and Walls” off his 2012 album There’s No Leaving Now.
Audiotree Presents Staged: Ratboys Live from Lincoln Hall
Chicago’s own Ratboys released their third record, Printer’s Devil, just before the pandemic hit, playing a sold-out album release show at Lincoln Hall in February 2020. You can experience some of that live Lincoln Hall magic again on this Thursday, July 9 at 9 pm, when Audiotree presents Ratboys performing Printer’s Devil in full (plus other songs) at Lincoln Hall (and also your living room.) Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 the day of the show, with half of the proceeds going to Brave Space Alliance, a Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ center located on Chicago’s South Side.
How We Can Help
With states reopening across the United States, many of us are going back to work, but artists like Ratboys are struggling amidst canceled tours and delayed album releases. Even though they themselves are out of work, they have continued to entertain us throughout quarantine, oftentimes for free.
Additionally, independent music venues are the “first to close, last to open,” as the National Independent Venue Association says. Besides current restrictions on the size of gatherings, public/group singing may not be possible until we have better mitigation techniques such as a vaccine.
As would-be concertgoers, we are grateful to musicians for donating their talent to us through often-unpaid livestreams and are worried about the crew members and venue staff who rely on touring for their income. If you would like to support those who make live music happen, here are two ways to help during this pandemic:
MusiCares: Donations to MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund will help those in the music community affected by the pandemic.
NIVA’s Save Our Stages: You can use the pre-written letter on NIVA’s site to contact your congressional representatives and ask them to financially support independent music venues in federal stimulus bills. I’ve done it, and it’s super easy. Please take a minute to help support the people who bring us the live music we look forward to seeing once the pandemic is over.