At 8pm on a Saturday in June, I sat patiently waiting for the writers of 2018’s best album, ‘Double Negative‘, by none other than Low, to play the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury Festival. I had my usual pre-gig anticipation of hoping that they would play certain songs, what the backdrop would be in relation to the earlier tour shows and what sort of crowd would be there considering the aformentioned set time of 8pm on a Saturday, up against a surprise Foals set, a massive crowd gathered for the Lizzo set, Johnny Marr and Janet Jackson (although arguably, there is no competition there). There is one significantly key difference in my watching of Low on this set: I was sat at home watching BBC iPlayer and ultimately ended up watching all of the sets mentioned above (for what its worth Janet Jackson was a waste of the two minutes that I watched and Lizzo may not be my usual cup of tea, but holy cow she was fabulous).
For the sake of this being a ‘review’, Low were there usual stunning selves and there is a significant confidence in the current tour. Last year’s ‘Double Negative’ challenges sound expectations and it’s almost like the challenge of recreating those live has pushed and motivated the band further to be even better live. Vocally Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker both sound stunning (opening track ‘Always Up‘ is instant goosebumps when the harmonies hit) and Steve Garrington’s sound is justifiably more to the forefront on this tour and just helps showcase what an incredible a Bass player he is. They were undoubtedly my favourite performance out of everything I watched. However, they were closely followed by Sharon Van Etten and Mavis Staples. Sharon Van Etten is equally challenging herself and her audiences with this years new release where she is taking a far greater influence in electronica. She commanded her stage when she played and the new songs sat really well with the older ones and Mavis Staples… Well, how the hell do you justify what Mavis does? At nearly eighty years of age her voice sounds more powerful than it has in years and her songs are as poignant today as the songs she sang with her family during the civil rights movement.
Over the course of the weekend, and actually since, I watched loads of the festival. Some of it was fabulous and some of it was instantly forgettable. However by sitting at home with my NME provided running order it made me think long and hard about live music and the way that it is consumed in 2019 and how fundamentally different it has become over the course of recent years. At one point on Sunday night I sat on my sofa, watching The Cure on my I-Pad with earphones in and got so excited about the first two songs in their set being taken from ‘Disintegration‘ that I then sent a tweet about it out into the world! At that point I figured I had finally started watching gigs like lots of people seem to in 2019 – half paying attention (I cant help it, my wife was watching Killing Eve), sending tweets about what I was saying and randomly chatting about things as they happened.
It’s been a long time since I had the pleasure of the endurance challenge that is Glastonbury (ten years in fact) but as a fairly avid gig goer there has been a massive change to attending gigs over this time. Social media has done some wonderful things in terms of allowing us mere mortals to actually engage with people that make tremendous music. However the existence of social media and the way that music is consumed in 2019 seems to have trickled into the way that people attend gigs. I am the dinosaur that was sat in my chair five mins early on that Saturday evening waiting for the Low gig (despite my eldest walking through the lounge chuckling at me and saying he is going to watch it on iPlayer later).
Increasingly there seems to be growing trends at concerts and the main one seems to be talking. I have no idea whatsoever why it is that people persist on talking at gigs but it seems to be happening more and more. There is no sense from people that if a band are playing at full volume in front of you that you are then having to shout to be heard by everyone around you, then perhaps not everyone wants to hear about the train journey here or what you’ve had for dinner.
Alongside this, there is also the fact that people are trying to record every song on a phone. Now I am all for the occasional quick picture on a phone and I am well guilty of this, but there is so often a sense of people trying to record what feels like the whole thing. A wise man pointed out to me this week (Well, I say a wise man, in reality he’s the owner of my local record shop) that you could sit and watch Glastonbury and there were literally thousands of people recording things on phones. It’s all on iPlayer for a month and then loads of it will inevitably end up on YouTube. As my fellow contributors will often highlight, I am the oldest writer of this fine online mag (I’m not saying Mark is old, but he didn’t take History classes at school. It was then named ‘Current Affairs’ – Much Younger Editor). However I have vivid memories of that Radiohead gig at Glastonbury in 1997 and none of that comes from a badly shot video on a a phone that I am unlikely to watch again. Whatever music you enjoy there is quite likely to be literally hundreds of well shot vids on YouTube. Pitchfork, KEXP and NPR are just some examples of sites that always have great bands and these are just my standard go to places. I appreciate the raising of phones will never go away, but does not mean I need to like it!
There is a lot of positives about the way that the BBC presented Glastonbury this year. It was incredible that you could literally be watching any of the artists on any of the five main stages both as they happened and then on catch up. The exposure that this will give newer bands that perhaps would not normally get this level of exposure is superb. The production both in terms of visuals and, perhaps most importantly sound, were also great so if you have a good setup at home or a good pair of headphones then you can get some serious enjoyment from this experience (and lets be fair its far easier to pause a show and make a cuppa than it is to actually have to find your way to a vendor to buy one).
However, despite my moaning of the perennial talkers and snappers at gigs, I would rather have been there. If you find the right place in the arena, venue, field, church, then there is truly nothing better than a band at there peak playing what they do and sharing that moment with friends and strangers alike. If you speak to any artist who doesn’t have the Spotify revenue of an Adele, Beatles, Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran (also, a side note to the Editor – this reviewer has an overwhelming HATRED of Ed and will actively refuse to ever review any of his work, ok!) then all the money that artists make is from performing live these days. A lot of bands are on a fairly constant twelve month touring schedule and where as twenty years ago this would have been as a result of increasing exposure and passion, there is no doubt now that it is an absolute necessity. Given the changes in how music is made and how it’s released, performing live is the one thing that artists now truly rely in order to sustain enough of a living to carry on making the music that we all love.
So, if you want to carry on enjoying whatever is your chosen band or artists music make sure and go and watch them play and get yourself something from the merch table. However when you do go don’t talk all the way through it and treat your memory to the moment and watch with your eyes and not through a screen!