What We’re Watching

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I am learning a truth about being human– being social is an activity. And yet before this pandemic, far too much of my time was spent in ‘passivity’. Watch something, go to the next movie or episode. Even social media use had become passive. Scroll the feed and click a few buttons as you go. I’m experiencing a fundamental shift in my view of the value entertainment holds in my life. I’m viewing it through a social scale and find most of it rates low.

For example, before the need for social distancing, I thought my entertainment was highly social– head downtown, have a rushed conversation over drinks in a crowded brewery, head to a show (music or movie), sit or stand in rows facing in one direction to take in something from a stage or screen. Then head home. I called that a good night, accepting as essential the cold transactional nature of the overall experience. Often, I fooled myself into believing I was truly socializing by creating human connections at each transactional checkpoint– saying hello at the ticket window, making awkward conversation as I got my hand stamped, and of course, the long-standing faux-social tradition of the bartender conversation.

Now that the bars are closed, music venues are shuttered, and the cafes are only serving to-go, I’ve discovered what socializing truly is. It involves an awareness of what you really look like. Without the atmosphere, it involves facing the reality of awkwardness that can no longer be smoothed over by the clinking of glasses and the natural pauses of ordering, receiving, and re-ordering drinks. Without that screen or stage to put my attention on, I have to engage with myself and the people around me. That is being social.

It seems that performers, particularly musicians, are becoming aware of the manufactured nature of the barrier between audience and performer. The at-first tentative livestream concerts from living rooms, bedrooms and offices, have now become a weekly rhythm. I’m discovering artists, some of my favs and some new, deconstructing the performance with its transactional walls and reconstructing it as a truly social experience. Instead of performing as “Artists”, they are coming to us as humans that create. The following are a few highlights from livestreams over the past two weeks.

1. The War and Treaty. This husband and wife duo, Michael and Tanya, took the Americana and folk world by storm last year with the debut full-length album “The Healing Tide”. They blend soul, gospel, and folk into songs that lift, wrap, hug, and heal listeners with love. They are active on Instagram. In preparation for a livestream benefit concert, they started a live video to rehearse and play around with their fans. Without a stage, livestream brings you within inches of the artists. It was a beautiful thing to experience their achingly gorgeous harmonies from their living room, and see their adoring faces turned to each other.

Then terrible news hit the next day. From a video, Tanya informed us all that she tested positive for COVID-19 and as a result, the planned concert was cancelled. This new intimacy between artist and fan means we feel not only the joy and beauty directly, but also the pain and loss. I thought about Tanya all week.

A curious thing happened a few days later. Late on a Saturday night, The War & Treaty started a livestream. Michael was having trouble sleeping so he just wanted to connect with people. As many of you have discovered on Instagram live, you can allow people into the chat. The screen splits and you can talk directly to the streamer while your video feed is beamed to the full live audience.
Michael invited folks to chat with him. I pressed the button and let him know I lived in Denver.

Suddenly, my face and the backdrop of my kitchen were connected to him and seemingly the world. For a few precious minutes, we connected as friends, asking about each other and our families. Tanya was fortunately through the worst of the virus and recovering. We even laughed and shared a Sanford & Son joke.
For the next 20 minutes, he connected with more people, just chatting and sharing stories. I really appreciated his sharing with a fellow veteran.

After the stream, I was full inside, a reminder of how necessary daily connection and fellowship is. In this age of #Netflixandchill and willingly being influenced by people posting quasi-expertise on Youtube, the experience showed how empty the one-way connection of most of our entertainment feels. We binge watch episodes not because of the richness of the content, but rather because our souls crave active connection and this type of on-screen entertainment is the equivalent of diet soda for our souls. As human beings, we need moments of active connection– no scripts, just feelings, words, and faces.

2. Julia of the glitter-punk band The Foxies. While stuck in her house with her family, Julia’s taken to going live on Insta whenever she feels like it. The first time I tuned in, it was mostly a giggle-fest as she tried to figure out things to play. From a performance perspective, it wasn’t productive. The second time wasn’t any better. From a connection perspective, though, it’s fantastic. I giggled with her as she dropped f-bombs and wrestled with chords and guitar tuning. Three weeks in and these sessions were like phone calls, except instead of mindless conversation, she shared songs. I put out a request during one session while I was in the car. She saw it and let fly a beautiful acoustic version of “Dreaming.” For those minutes, she was right there in the passenger seat singing to me.

In her livestreams, she has reminded me where song comes from. In her stops and starts, questions to people on and off-stream (“Could you look up the chords?”), and fits of giggles, I flashed back to the bathtub as a young boy. While our skin pruned in the tub, my brother and I splashed and sang made-up songs about our lives (mostly about toys and cartoons). That’s the root of good song– pure play first, then work. I loved one of Julia’s livestreams last week. She was goofing around with quarantine-themed songs. Then her brother hit a good riff on the guitar that vibrated with the lyric she was singing at that moment. I watched her face light up. “I’ve got to go and voice memo this,” she said, then clicked off to work on her forthcoming quarantine masterpiece.

3. Maggie Rose. The name itself evolves a country song. This Nashville artist is so much more than country though. She could have used her clear tone, amazing range, and virtuosic control to catapult her to Carrie Underwood-style country stardom. But Maggie Rose has followed the music in her soul, and there’s more than straight country inside. Her songs burst with passion, soul, and heart. Ballads like “It’s You” and “Pull You Through”, jams like “Smooth”, and catchy grooves like “Change the Whole Thing” express ALL of Tennessee, both sides of the river, from delta to field.

For the past few weeks, she has been blessing her fans with Friday night virtual concerts. The first was a rocking basement party with her full band. The second was a laid-back, acoustic, socially-distanced set from her backyard. Last Friday was an intimate set with her and a second guitar. She is proving that you can deliver fun and professional entertainment through the internet.

4. Cecile McLorin Salvant. A couple weeks ago, the Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist streamed a concert from her apartment. Her voice is Ella Fitzgerald clear, Sarah Vaughn versatile, and Betty Carter playful. Accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner, she delivered a full 2 hours of evening entertainment. She gave us her signature interpretations of standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” as well as her expressive and witty originals.

She interspersed her songs by answering viewer questions and also opening video chats. In doing so, she transformed the livestream into a variety show reminiscent of “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show”. We were treated to beaming exchanges with artists and fans around the country. And though a technical glitch prevented the iconic Diane Reeves from joining the program, that livestream showed the fun that can happen when you fully dissolve the wall between performer and audience. Let’s hope Ms. Salvant is empowered to do another one or even make it a regular thing.

When the pandemic passes, I will continue the lessons I have learned about human connection. By making entertainment social, I now believe it can protect us from complacency when adversity strikes. Perhaps by appreciating the realness of being live and making authentic human connection, we will be a little proactive and actually prepare ourselves for the uncertainty that is the future.