Wednesday 6 December 2023

A (sort of) love letter to live music and community

December - goodness. Many of you will know that I work in a bookstore, and can probably imagine just how busy and stressful that is right now. Carrying stacks of books (and everything else) from section to section, fielding queries, recommending books. It is at once the best and worst time to work in a bookstore. Helping people to choose gifts can be kind of magical, but retail definitely presents you with the worst of people - sadly not even bookshops are immune to that.

As ever, music is a big salvation, and beyond my headphones and the blog inbox, it has been a delight to find time to escape to a bunch of gigs over the past couple of months. A quick scan of my gig list tells me I’ve been to fourteen shows so far this year, in various forms… including an album launch on a nature reserve, in-stores at Rough Trade and Banquet Records, and even a night at the British Library. Varied and always brilliant. For the majority of those I was on the guestlist/given tickets by the artists and their teams. Getting invited along to shows was always one of the best blog perks, and I feel really lucky to still get asked, despite blogging a little less frequently.

Aren’t gigs great?

I’ve been going through some stuff lately… I’ve talked a little about this online, but the long and short is that I’ve come to realise that I might be autistic. I’m in the very early stages of looking into getting an assessment. The more I read about autism, about it in general, about other people’s experiences, the more I feel that I am coming to understand myself better, how my brain works, and how I form (or more accurately, struggle to form) connections with others. I've  come to realise that it probably isn't "normal" that I've always just felt a bit odd, a bit of an outsider, quiet, and that there might be a reason that I sometimes struggle to communicate, to make connections that others seem to do so easily.

Music, though, has always been one of the few ways that I could connect with others. With artists, their teams, with fans who share my love of a particular artist. The blog you’re on now is in a way the centre of a community of sorts that I have formed around myself, rooted in a love of music and of the people making music.

I love live music but gigs aren’t always the easiest experience - they can be loud and overwhelming. I look around at groups of people from my spot in the corner, where I'm probably alone reading a book in between sets. But gigs can be, and often are, pure magic. Transcendent. A couple of shows I’ve been to recently were exactly that - Johnny Flynn and Rob Macfarlane at Rough Trade East and Bear’s Den at Union Chapel.

Johnny and Rob’s show was one of a couple of album launch in-stores for The Moon Also Rises and it was stunning. Far from the scripted, rehearsed and polished world of the Lost In the Cedar Wood show I went to at The Globe last year (and wrote about here) this was endearingly chaotic. A bunch of friends having fun and reliving the experiences of recording the album together through conversation and song. Even for a relatively small and short in-store like this, Johnny roped in three vocalists who sang on the record to perform with him, which was breathtaking.

Rob came on stage to chat with Johnny for a short while about the process of making the record (at Cosmo Sheldrake’s studio, with a bunch of their pals) and he mentioned something which really resonated with me - about Johnny creating community around his music. A record like this and a performance like that doesn’t come around by accident… Johnny has forged a close community of creatives around him over the years, and it comes across so beautifully in the recordings and the performance. In fact, Johnny talked about this being his favourite way to make music on a recent radio interview

I wanted to write about this, and about how great the show and album were, but work (and life) got in the way, and I haven’t found the time.  Then I went to see Bear’s Den at Union Chapel and I felt the exact same sensation that was so tangible while watching Johnny, and I wanted to write about that show - and the two posts have merged themselves, to become this stream of thoughts you're stumbling across now.

The magic of the Den playing four nights in such a special venue is no accident, nor are the gorgeously talented musicians joining them on stage (brass AND strings… aaaaagh.) They’ve helped to create this through Kev's label Communion and through their music, through years of touring, of making connections. They’ve surrounded themselves with so many brilliant artists and to see them seemingly still so humbled to work alongside them all is genuinely beautiful as an audience member.

I'm rambling... but I guess this is all to say that I sometimes struggle to find exactly where I fit in, to find my 'tribe' as it were. I often feel that I’m on the outside looking in, admiring these musical communities and not feeling like I could ever be part of them. Through the blog, and through gigs like these two, I feel like I’m able to dip my toes in, to venture into these communities, even if just for a night, and that is magic enough for me. (Though I would also very much like to be a fly on the wall for a recording session at Cosmo's place...)

Now: onto the next gig!

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