'Magic happens, often': Christine and the Queens, Haim, Nile Rodgers and more on the joy of live music

Musicians recall the thrill of playing live – and what we can expect when gigs return

Chris, Christine and the Queens

The stage is an outlet for me, emotionally, physically – it’s a catharsis I need. I picture the live performance right away: it’s in the writing of the record itself. Before I was a musician I wanted to be a stage director, and the main thing in theatre is sharing a present moment with people gathered in a room. The audience is the last writer of the show – they finish it with their imagination.

I like the animalistic side of touring: it’s about being a nice beast on stage, you have to sniff things and feel things and adapt. I like the accidents, the awkwardness of it. It can be really humbling because you think you know your show, and then you learn it again because the audience reacts differently. I like the challenge – to prove myself on stage, to try to win people over. It’s almost like a Don Juan thing, every time you have to make love, and you have to find a different way.

On stage, there is the possibility of magic – it happens, often. It depends a lot on the people receiving it. The weird gigs are when nothing happens, and it’s like a date where you don’t know if you’re liked or not. A crowd has a mood sometimes: there is group psychology that takes place, and this is quite impressive to witness. I remember doing a gig at Latitude in 2016, and people gave me so much love right away. I had to learn how to do a gig like that, being immediately embraced. People surprise you.

This is a great luxury of our job. I think when you’re an actor and making movies, it’s wonderful, but you don’t have the same immediate feedback. But the ritual of it is really cool: you go someplace, you meet your friends. The idea of gathering somewhere has been going on since ancient Greeks meeting to discuss the city. It would be a shame if that were to disappear.

Before I go on stage, the anticipation is both painful and fantastic. Putting on the outfit is always very important – you’re putting on your shape for the next two hours. It’s like a superhero ritual. I usually tour with dancers, so we warm up together. Then when I’m on stage, I often don’t remember it – I think I go into a trance, I really dissolve in listening. Afterwards I always feel a bit sad: it’s the down of finishing. Because on stage I feel awesome – not that I am awesome, but it makes me feel that way. After that I lack intensity in my life, so I’m searching to emulate it: I fall in love, I try to have “experiences”.

Different performers create different atmospheres. You can have lots of nuances: when I saw Anohni live it was like going to church, and she was a great priestess. You go and see Elton John and he’s like that super-talented, awesome friend who writes fantastic songs. Then you go to a Rihanna show and it’s a different experience. I think live shows help keep a love story with a musician going.

I released an EP [La Vita Nuova] just before lockdown, so I did a series of small showcases, but if I had known they would be my last for a while I would have been like, “Wait. I need to find elephants and lots of glitter.” After that, I did [some live streams], but to be honest I remember suffering, being quite frustrated and crying sometimes after an Instagram Live. I felt like an addict trying to cope.

Through a screen it feels a bit more narcissistic and solipsistic, everything is colder. The lens is brutal. You feel more like you’re being offered and looked at, and I think actually it’s quite painful to be looked at as a performer. Even in big venues I can grasp a few faces, which is important. Through a screen you have little hearts flipping, but the energy is lost.

I hope people miss live music as much as performers do. I would feel quite emotional stepping back on a stage, because it’s even more precious now that we lost it. Forgive me in advance if I snap and do stupid things, which might happen. When gigs start again, there are two options. Either people are discouraged by real life, or it’s a total burst of hedonism, and live shows will be happening in insane conditions of people wanting to touch and be touched. I’m not saying it would be orgiastic, but it could be at least a bit insane, in a good way. Writing the record I’m writing, I’m counting on that. Kathryn Bromwich

* * *

Nile Rodgers, Chic

Nile Rodgers at Glastonbury festival
Nile Rodgers at Glastonbury festival, 2017. Photograph: REUTERS/Alamy

What I miss about live music most, honestly, is seeing people. It’s been a tough year for me. My mother died two days after Christmas, and I’ve experienced nothing so numbing before or since. I also live in a country [the US] that is full of division. Music is about people coming together from all situations, positions and philosophies, creating this powerful, unified force. We need that now more than ever. I tell you, seeing people from the stage enjoying themselves reassures me that life is good and that people are good. It’s amazing to experience how much love people can have in one place. Forgive me, I’m an old hippy.

All gigs are special, but a few stick in my mind, like Glastonbury in 2017, following Barry Gibb, when everyone was on fire, and Glastonbury in 2013, the year Get Lucky came out [which Rodgers co-wrote with Daft Punk]. It wasn’t on our setlist as we wanted to do the respectful thing and let Daft Punk perform it before us, but people were singing it at us at the end of our set, and wouldn’t let us go. We’re old school, no dancers, no backing tapes, just a band with some amps ready to go, so we just went for it. The audience bum-rushed the stage – it had to be closed in the end because the people wouldn’t go. Michael Eavis said they’d only done that once before! We’re not a huge band, so we don’t expect that kind of adulation – we play, make people happy, we go home. But man, they were happy that night. So were we.

Small gigs can be beautiful, too, though. We played a tennis stadium in Rome a few years ago, and the gig was poorly promoted, with only about 100 people there, but it was sacred. They were all up the front, and we played stuff we don’t normally play, and they were in it! There’s almost a freedom with smaller crowds – if you have a mass of humanity in front of you, you have to play the biggest songs. You can’t chance an instrumental from your first album!

I actually love it live when things go wrong. We played London’s Hyde Park a few years ago supporting Kylie, and we were killing it – we were totally on the groove on the monitors – but soon I realised that people were booing. My first thought was, “Man, Kylie’s show must be amazing!”. It turned out people couldn’t hear us, so I laid my mic across the front of my amp and started playing songs as things were getting fixed. It went off! I love how those situations mean you have to engage with people and entertain them on a very personal level.

I love the travelling aspect of touring, although I’m older now, and in my room more than I used to be. I’ve probably played in almost every country in the world, including before and after revolutions, seeing things change. The world and its people are so beautiful to me, but also so diabolical. We have to counteract the horror in the world by finding beauty, by meeting people, going to their local restaurants after gigs, finding out about their lives.

Live music is also about the power of experience. We live in a world where digital has given us access to anything that’s been recorded and produced, but that experience of music shouldn’t be normalised: we need something completely different, that’s absolutely in the present. That’s why live streams don’t knock me out. Every gig is uniquely its own thing. They’re also about being in the middle of a crowd, about interacting with people who are different to you on a political level. We can’t wave a magic wand and get it all back to normal straight away, but we have to hold on for a future where we’re all breathing next to one another, and rubbing up against one another, feeling that joy. It’s a future I want to belong to. Jude Rogers

* * *

Tim Burgess, the Charlatans

Tim Burgess and the Charlatans playing Glastonbury 2019
Tim Burgess and the Charlatans playing Glastonbury 2019. Photograph: BBC

When I think of what live gigs can do for bands, I think first of our early days in Crewe, Manchester, Dudley – playing these backrooms and pubs, hoping our friends would turn up. Then I think of the night we played the Buzz Club in Aldershot in January 1990, this 200-capacity place near an army base, thinking there’d only be a handful of soldiers. It was rammed. The idea that people who didn’t know you had read about you and wanted to see you live – it was such an amazing feeling. They were wearing Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets T-shirts rather than uniforms, of course!

The past year has been so hard for bands, especially bands at that level [just starting out]. People forget it was tough for them before Covid, and it has been for years, given the changes in the way people consume music, and how musicians get paid – and that’s before Brexit. But live music is important because it’s where bands develop, where they get reactions to their songs and realise how they work, try things out, get better.

A connection is very important for musicians, and I know it’s been the big buzzword this past year, but it’s also what music-lovers are missing. Doing my Twitter listening parties, I’ve seen how desperate people are to connect through moments of music together, and how they want to open up about what they love.

In a room with other people, you’re feeling that connection instead. Hearing people call your name or shout your songs from the crowd still doesn’t feel real to me, but it’s the best feeling ever. You hear this weird, huge swirling sound, feel this eruption of noise, and it’s addictive. You have to work for it though, build up to it.

A flyer for the Charlatans’ 1990 show at the Aldershot Buzz Club.
A flyer for the Charlatans’ 1990 show at the Aldershot Buzz Club. Photograph: The Buzz Club, Aldershot

Live, things are more amped up – in all ways – and intense. It’s easier to get immersed, too, in moments where you don’t remember anything, or you’re only aware of a sole performer. I think of brilliant gigs I’ve been to and I think of watching the Pogues at Brixton Academy on St Patrick’s Day in 1987, when they all came on stage in NYPD outfits. I can still feel the excitement of experiencing that. Or watching Neil Young singing Old Man – Old Man! – at Primavera, or seeing New Order, who I’ve seen a lot, and never knowing what’s going to happen, even though it’s a band of the same people. I love that element of live music, that amazing, fuzzy feeling.

Last month, live music felt miles away. Now, with Reading and Leeds being announced, it feels much closer. I was about to put out my new album, I Love the New Sky, last year, and tour it – we only did a few New York gigs just before SXSW was cancelled. I miss the momentum that touring and performing gives you as a person. I miss getting to the last song and reflecting on everything that’s happened that night. I’ll never grumble about sound checks again.

When I think of our best gigs, I think of London’s Town and Country Club – it’s the Forum now – in 1990, on a Sunday. We’d just found The Only One I Know had got into the top 10 – we’d listened to the charts just before, and we couldn’t believe it. Everyone was up for it; it was such a celebration. I also think of Glastonbury in 2019, when we were asked to fill in for Snow Patrol, who’d cancelled only three days before the festival. We were like the A-Team being parachuted in last-minute, but that momentum made it even more exciting. On the day, it was crazy – David Beckham was watching us from the side of the stage – and the gig was up on the BBC for a year. There was this will for it to be great, too, which was brilliant – you felt that through the crowd. They’re what it’s all about. I can’t wait to get back to them. JR

* * *


Haim playing at the Olympia theatre, Dublin, 2018
Haim playing at the Olympia theatre, Dublin, 2018. Photograph: Kathrin Baumbach/www.kathrinbaumbach.com

We’re really rooted as a live band, it’s a huge part of our music. That’s how we started out: for years, we would be hustling in LA every weekend, playing wherever we could.

There’s nothing that brings us collectively more joy than stepping on to a stage in a city you’ve never been to before, and trying to win over the crowd. We all have really fond memories of going to Japan for the first time, to Australia, to the UK – we got to go to places we had only seen in history books. We make it a point to really try to explore every city we go to.

We’ll never forget the time we played Barrowlands in Glasgow [in 2014], a legendary venue with springs in the floorboards. People were bouncing off the walls, screaming the lyrics – even thinking about it makes the little hairs on my arm stand up. Another huge thing for us was selling out two nights at Ally Pally [in 2018]: the UK is where we started, so it was like a homecoming. We had sound check and were like, “Did we fucking sell this out? Is someone lying to us? It’s fucking big.” And then we were on stage with 10,000 people looking at us, and you could tell that there was so much love in the room. Those were two of the craziest nights of our lives.

We like to be as close as possible to the audience when we’re performing – we hate it when we get to a venue and there’s a barricade. At every show one of us ends up crowd-surfing or getting into the crowd, because we’re just so pumped. Este had to stop doing that after someone took her insulin pump – the person gave it back and was very apologetic. I think they thought it was her mic pack and they wanted to keep it as a souvenir – but she needs that to survive.

Before shows we have a secret chant that we do – we make up a new one for every tour. After the show we’re so sweaty that we have to shower, because we rage so hard on stage. Then we’ll have after-show pizza, or after-show Nando’s when we’re in the UK – those french fries, man. That Peri-Peri sauce!

Not being able to tour our last album [Women in Music Pt III] was heartbreaking for us. We had a whole tour booked, we were gonna headline Latitude. We can’t wait to get out there and bring it to life. The second the powers that be tell us that we can tour – we’re on the road. We’re ready. It’s that light at the end of the tunnel: it’s tiny right now, but it’s getting bigger. KB

* * *

Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip

Alexis Taylor playing with Hot Chip at the Open Source Festival, Düsseldorf, Germany, 2016.
Alexis Taylor playing with Hot Chip at the Open Source festival, Düsseldorf, Germany, 2016. Photograph: Hell Gate Media/Shutterstock

Live music for me is about seeing the crowd’s reaction to your songs. I’m always excited going on stage, always looking out to different faces, seeing if people are singing along, how they’re dancing with their friends, if they’re moved. I love having that feedback on a huge scale, and how every night it can change.

My favourite live moment of all time was on the second night of a tour in Brazil in 2007. We were playing Shake a Fist, and the power went completely for about 10 minutes, but the crowd kept dancing, doing these spontaneous synchronised moves. We then played congas to encourage them, and Owen [Clarke, Hot Chip keyboardist and guitarist] was dancing at the front with our rider, offering round [food and drinks]. What was special was that the crowd took charge. I’ll never forget it.

We finished an Australian tour on 7 March last year, and the summer was meant to be the start of another wave of touring our last album, A Bath Full of Ecstasy. In the end we played one gig, at Dreamland in Margate, for a live stream in early September. We had a socially distanced, masked audience 30ft away from us. It was very enjoyable but also so moving to do something on that scale because you could see how much the audience had missed it. We had missed it too.

I miss the camaraderie with my bandmates before gigs. The DJ sets we play in the dressing room to get us psyched up. I miss Joe [Goddard] saying, “I’ve got a good reason to believe the show tonight will be the best one ever” every night, especially when he doesn’t mean it. I miss the four-hour journeys with Leo [Taylor, drummer] in his old Saab packed with drums on the roof rack when we’re touring my solo stuff, the chatting nonsense and the music we play, even the loading in of gear. It’s all about anticipation of feeling something, of connecting with people through music, and the friendship that goes through it all. JR

* * *

Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi at the Roundhouse in London, 2019.
Anna Calvi at the Roundhouse in London, 2019. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

On stage you’re completely in the moment. Nothing else exists. I find real freedom there to express myself in the raw, and that freedom comes because the audience wants me to communicate with them in that way. It feels like we’re both taking a risk. I also love that when you have a moment with an audience, it will never happen again in the same way. I think of headlining the Roundhouse [in February 2019] after I released [third album] Hunter, hearing the roar of the crowd, and it really was like a roar, this thrilling communal sound. I felt so proud in that moment.

The best gig I saw was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at All Points East in 2018. To see this person singing these vulnerable piano ballads, with thousands of people enchanted by him, then the next moment he became this wild, dangerous man – it was so impressive. I love that beauty and danger you can get at a great gig, how people performing for you can become superhuman.

I’m such a different person on and off stage. On stage, I’m much more confident and fearless. Off it, I’m quiet, soft-spoken. It’s been strange only being one half of myself for the past year. I’ve also found lockdown such an uncreative time – to have room to create, I need some emotional mental stability. Saying it’s easy to create in lockdown is bullshit. It’s hard when the world’s up in flames.

What I miss most is the naivety we used to have, to live our lives without thinking about how simple things – shaking hands, hugging people – could have such crushing consequences. But now the opportunities for playing live look to be opening up, and I’m hopeful for outdoor gigs. Reading and Leeds being announced is great for the industry. Bands need festivals to make money, to survive. It feels like we’ve all been in a darkened room and a small door has opened, and we’re looking out nervously going, “Can I… can I come in?” I’m hopeful about going through it. JR

* * *

Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai

Stuart Braithwaite (right) and Dominic Aitchison of Mogwai at the Daydream festival in Pasadena, California, 2019.
Stuart Braithwaite (right) and Dominic Aitchison of Mogwai at the Daydream festival in Pasadena, California, 2019. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

With everywhere closed, you realise that live music is one of the most important things in life, and not just for musicians: it’s what people’s social lives are based around, how you remember occasions and years.

We played our new record [As the Love Continues] for a live stream from Glasgow’s Tramway recently: people seemed to like it, and it was an interesting process. We’d played the Tramway before, so the weirdest thing was the backstage area not being full of friends and beers. Gigs have this sense of excitement around them, and that was definitely missing.

A ticket for Mogwai’s January 1997 NME Brat awards show supporting Pavement at the London Astoria.
A ticket for Mogwai’s January 1997 NME Brat awards show supporting Pavement at the London Astoria. Photograph: Twitter

Being on stage is a magical feeling when it goes well: you’re in a heightened state of awareness, but also totally wrapped up in the music. When we played the Astoria in London in 1997, it was the first time we’d played in a place that held more than 100 people or so, and I remember our music just seeming to fill the room. We were insanely nervous: we’d watched this video of Radiohead playing the venue and it looked like Wembley Stadium to us. I have very fond memories of that.

I’m lucky enough to have seen some amazing performers live. I saw Nirvana when I was a teenager. Kurt looked like he was 10ft tall or something: just this really energetic, huge presence. I’ve seen PJ Harvey play some unbelievable shows, and Iggy Pop has played the best gig I have ever seen. I saw David Bowie’s last gig: it was great, but I had no idea at the time it would be so historic.

I do think that with the vaccinations, we should be on the other side of it at some point. Brexit’s a bigger worry, because they’ve just put up massive roadblocks for the entire industry. But when things open up again, I’m looking forward to watching some really noisy band melt my face. It’s been too long. KB

* * *

Nitin Sawhney

Nitin Sawhney performing his album Beyond Skin at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2019.
Nitin Sawhney performing his album Beyond Skin at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2019. Photograph: Andy Paradise

It’s been strange writing an album during this time, when there is so much loss of life. Normally my albums are very cathartic: music comes from feelings, and this was probably the most emotionally evocative time I’ve ever known. I’ve been working on film scores, I’ve been finishing my album [Immigrants], which is coming out this month. But at the same time, it feels overwhelming. I’ve known people who have passed away, and I had Covid myself in October. We’re isolated in so many ways: there’s been Brexit, now there’s the isolation at home in lockdown. These are strange times.

It’s been difficult not touring because I love travelling. We go to some beautiful places: I remember playing in an amphitheatre on Mount Etna in Sicily, with the backdrop of the mountains and the sea. It’s a real privilege to get up in front of an audience and express yourself through music, seeing people respond to something that started off as a very personal feeling. I like looking out at the audience and seeing the wide range of people who are there, and the pleasure they’re taking in the music we’re making. After a gig I like to head off somewhere quiet with friends, to stay with the energy of the show – it’s such a beautiful, Zen kind of energy.

The last big gig we played was at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019. We had a choir and string players, and the band was playing beautifully. It was the first time I’d ever performed the whole of Beyond Skin live: it came out in 1999 and addressed issues of identity, race, nationality, religion and so on. The biggest thing for me was that one of the tracks starts off with a recording of my dad speaking. My dad passed away in 2013, and my mum was in the audience in one of the boxes, and that was the first time she’d heard his voice, really, since he passed away. So that was a very emotional thing, to know she was up there. KB

* * *

Samuel T Herring, Future Islands

Future Islands at Roskilde festival in Denmark, 2014
Future Islands at Roskilde festival in Denmark, 2014. Photograph: Gonzales Photo/Alamy

People don’t realise how important an audience is to a musician in allowing us to feel free. Creating music is a form of dealing with emotion, and that final act of playing in front of people makes us feel more connected to the world.

It’s always a surprise when you go to a new place and there are people who know your music. When we played Roskilde, the big Danish festival, it was the first time we ever heard our name chanted by thousands of people. It was one of those shows where it’s like you’re transcending something: you’re carried out of the body and you fly and float, and it’s kind of perfect.

Often in movies, when it’s wartime or people are going through heavy civil struggles, music is the thing that brings people together: everything is crumbling but people come to dance, and then they have this release. That’s been heavy in this pandemic: the thing we’re not afforded is one another. The biggest thing that’s being taken away is that human interaction, celebrating the joys of life.

Putting out the record [As Long As You Are] last year was important for us, but we don’t feel our albums are a final release – the release is sharing it with people in a live setting. It’s been hard not to have that. We all just really want to get back on the road and start sharing this music again. I would play to 10 people in a laundromat right now. I will play your basement, I will play your coffee shop. We didn’t know this would be taken away – now I couldn’t take it for granted. KB

* * *

Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainright at the Hastings International Piano Festival
Rufus Wainright at the Hastings international piano festival, March 2020. Photograph: Peter Mould / Hastings International Piano Festival

Right as the pandemic was taking hold I did a show in Hastings, and I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow with an orchestra. There was a sense that we were at the end of an era: at the end, everybody had to rush home and revolutionise their existence. It was almost like being on the Titanic.

The thing I miss most is the haunted nature of live performance. Oftentimes, whenever I would play an interesting venue, I would run into ghosts in the hallway, something left behind from the generations of artists who’ve worked there in the past. I also miss the resuscitative quality of live performance: I can tell endless stories of me being completely wrecked and exhausted, and then suddenly you walk out on stage and are imbued with this life force that is truly supernatural. After a good show I’ve often said to myself that I really, unabashedly, have the best job in the world.

My sisters Martha and Lucy and I grew up with our parents being musicians, and when I look at my mother and father I see four people: who they were at home, and who they were on stage. There’s a duality that occurs for a person when they go up and perform – I think they really become themselves in a lot of ways, when they’re true to their art. It’s a special X-ray vision into who people really are.

I’m really looking forward to communicating once again with strangers in a very instant way, through music. There’s a give-and-take that occurs that’s really better than everything. Better than sex, better than eating, better than driving in a fast car. There’s a seductive nature that singing songs for people brings to both parties without, you know, having to really do it. I can’t wait to get back to it. KB

* * *

Mike Hadreas, AKA Perfume Genius

Perfume Genius at Brooklyn Steel, New York City, 2017
Perfume Genius at Brooklyn Steel, New York City, 2017. Photograph: Amanda Hatfield / Brooklyn Vegan

Performing in front of a big crowd is very surreal, but I’m hyper-present at the same time. It feels like time slows down, or it’s cut in half or it’s sped up. There’s a supernatural element. All the hair on my head stands up. Last September, we did a live stream to an empty venue, which was a very different feeling, but still, closer to a gig than not. I picked a venue [the Palace theatre in Los Angeles] that had character and energy, even though no one would be there – I wanted it to feel a bit haunted. It was half-effective, but I was missing that circle of people in front of me.

I’ve been in a routine for a long time now, where you release a record, then tour it for a year and a half. It was my way of being social, because between tours I was really holed up and nesting, and then on tour I was interacting with people and being very outward-facing. Now I’ve been fully in the internal zone without that counterbalance.

One gig that stands out was when we played at Brooklyn Steel in New York [in 2017]. Everybody who worked there was really warm and nice, and when I got on stage I felt like I could feel that electricity circle. Some of that is just me, some of that is supernatural. It’s this weird combination of so many little elements, and the people working at the venue being so kind and helpful can help create that electricity.

Playing live is how I feel like I’m in the world. I miss feeling like a real person and not just a quilt of ideas. And I miss being annoyed about things that are inconsequential and specific. On tour, I would get upset because the drive is too long, for example, instead of just being upset in general. It’s somewhere to focus my anxieties. Killian Fox

* * *

Julia Holter

Julia Holter playing with Africa Express in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016.
Julia Holter playing with Africa Express in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2016. Photograph: Selin Alemdar/Getty Images

I played my first live stream concert a few days ago at the Lodge Room in Los Angeles – a year and a day since I played my last proper show at the exact same venue. To be honest, I was kind of dreading it. I felt a responsibility to the audience, because it’s such a bad time right now and I didn’t want to do a bad job. It was so bizarre playing a song and there being silence after it. But I felt the energy of people through the internet. And it gave me hope that there will be new ways for musicians to continue doing their thing.

All these magical things happen in my mind when I’m performing. I’m having a lot of inner dialogue and noticing strange details. It could be the moon falling on the viola player during an outdoor show, and the light on her viola reflecting on to the wall. It sounds weird talking about it, but in the moment I’m thinking, Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening.

In 2016, Africa Express were touring with a Syrian orchestra. I joined them for a couple of shows, including one at a jazz festival in Istanbul, and it was really powerful to have a celebration of Arabic music in a place where there was tension about Syrian refugees. The show was really beautiful and the audience was so ecstatic. The experience made me realise how much we take live music for granted. KF

Missing gigs? Leave your memories of your favourite live music experiences in the comments below.


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