When Concerts Become Live Music

by Alexandra Molotkow


As a kid, all I wanted to do was go to shows. I snuck in the side door, I worked merch for the band, I stood in airless slits between humongous wet strangers and felt grateful to be alive. It was a good run, but there comes a time when concerts become Live Music.

I would love to go down the list of Best Shows I Ever Saw. I won’t, because I’m not going to waste your time enjoying myself, but the impulse speaks to the fact that seeing a show always feels like a minor accomplishment. You have to work for it a little: when you’re young you have to find a way in, or to pay cover; when you’re older, you have to suffer. But concerts also include you in a historical moment. It is something to witness an event that will only happen once, no matter how insignificant, and it’s something to share the experience. At the very least it confirms that you and your fellow audience members are alive at the same time.

Going to concerts is an investment in your own memories. I don’t always want to see Band X, but I want to be able to say that I saw Band X when I’m 60. I remember my Dad telling me about a Jethro Tull concert he saw in a southern Ontario town so small it no longer exists: it began, I think, with a projection of Ian Anderson running through a field, then he ripped through the scrim onto the stage and started hopping around on one foot with his flute. Or whatever. I’m not really into Jethro Tull, to be honest. But they’ve always seemed like a funny artifact of the mid-20th century, so the fact that my Dad saw them live proves my attachment to history, and you don’t often feel attached to history in Canada.

When I first started going to shows, I was probably too self-conscious to enjoy myself, but the thrill of being there made up for the discomfort of actually being there. After that, it was a matter of collecting ticket stubs, satisfying a compulsion. Now I seldom go to shows — it’s a miserable experience on paper — and when I do, I often have to drag myself along.

Once I’m there, though, it’s much easier to lose myself. In an odd way, I’m less interested in the quality of music now than I was back when concerts were concerts. I know the experience well enough to wander off in it, so that even when a performance is less than ideal, I can find something to fascinate on. The Jimmy “Bo” Horne show at Pop Montreal a few years back had the ambiance of a bar mitzvah, and he found a way to ad-lib the word “Canada” into every song (“Sittin’ on the dock of the — CANADA!”). But I love bar mitzvahs, and I’ll remember that one for the rest of my life.

This weekend I went to a house show. I watched a band close up, closer than I’d normally feel comfortable standing, because I don’t like feeling responsible for my facial expressions. I don’t remember the music too well (my bad, not theirs), but the proximity to strangers was exciting, and I loved the way the drummer looked, like all my Dad’s friends in one guy. I wrung out a lot of nostalgia.

I feel similarly about stand-up. The odds of belly laughing are about one in 25, but it’s something to see someone be someone, and to witness an effort.