Live Music Hello!

Jason Isbell at the Ryman.
Photo courtesy of my lovely wife

A couple weeks ago, my middle son Walker and I engaged in that age-old battle between father and son– the soundtrack for our car ride. Walker is 14 and I am 47, so he’s obviously not as cool and hip as I am. Perhaps it’s the other way around, but you get the point. After a couple minutes of arguing back and forth about the virtues of Jason Isbell, I asked him to tell me about his music. Walker listed a wide range of music – some rap, some rock, some country- and I’m quite sure I had a critical review of each selection. Back and forth we “debated” the topic in the way only fathers and sons who are too much alike can.

At the height of his exasperation, Walker finally asked.

“Why do you always listen to the live versions?”

By his tone, you would have thought I was making him listen to the Japanese version of “La Bamba.” 

I had never really given any thought to that question before. But Walker is right. My playlists contain almost exclusively the live versions of my favorites. On some subconscious level, I guess listening to those versions transports me in my mind’s eye to the actual live show. I love the sound of the crowd in the background and the song doesn’t sound exactly like the studio version. I love hearing the band change the song sometimes or the singer say something supposedly witty to the crowd. It occurred to me that Walker, like many kids his age, has never really experienced the thrill that is live music. Between skyrocketing ticket prices, helicopter parenting, smart phones and Covid, we are now raising the studio generation. Kids download songs from I-Tunes, and it’s almost always the crisply produced version. The closest some of them get to live music is their YouTube app on their phone, or even worse, Tik Tok. (As an aside, you know you’re officially old when you start thinking the young folks “don’t know what they’re missing about ________.”) With these thoughts in mind, I packed up the family (minus 2 year old Quinn) a week or so ago and headed to Nashville to the Ryman Theatre for the last night of Jason Isbell’s recent run. 

I have always been in awe of musicians and loved the rush of the crowd. I have such fun memories of going to concerts at Delta State with my older brother, and how he would always assure the person collecting tickets that “Wayne Blansett [the university administrator in charge] told us we could just go inside.” I’m not sure Dr. Blansett was aware he told us we could go inside but thankfully, our bluff was never called. We saw Survivor, Night Ranger, .38 Special, and the Bangles, to name a few. In hindsight, those shows might not sound like much, but my 12 year old self treated these shows like I was going to Woodstock. I won’t tell a lie— 47 year old John was like a kid on Christmas morning last weekend when he hit the pews of the Ryman. The auditorium was warm from the heat of stage lights, and everything was a little closer than they appear in the rearview mirror of my mind. For two hours, Isbell and his band did their damnedest to blow the roof off that old building. The hair on my arm stood to attention when the crowd roared its familiar approval to Isbell singing how “he swore off that stuff, forever this time.” That night, The Mother Church played host to a straight up rock and roll revival led by one of music’s best traveling preachers, and I hope my family enjoyed the experience as much as I did. After this darkness we called a pandemic, I was ready for some light. And what a bright light it was. 

Go to any music show, and the strangers are bound together by one love and one vision. Life is put on pause in favor of the experience. In the mix might be a Southern Baptist conservative Republican sitting beside a liberal gay rights activist. Those two people might not agree on a single thing outside in their real world. However, for a couple hours at least, a single body forms for a united purpose–a shared love of the music. (My personal taste? I’ve ridden that Southern man’s familiar musical cycle of the Allman Brothers to Widespread Panic to the Avett Brothers to Isbell. But I love all music.) A great live music show personifies unity and singularity of purpose. Good God, do we need that shit more than every now. Social media has formed the world’s biggest sandbox with everyone fighting for the one plastic shovel. You can’t watch the news without seeing the conflict and now so-called reasonable people even disagree on which news you should be watching. The political discourse is anything but a discourse, and candidates are almost guaranteed more political success emulating Vince McMahon (or even Jim McMahon) than James Madison or Thomas Jefferson. To be fair, a reading of our history shows we have always had our share of high-pitched squabbles in our country (Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a fucking duel, for God’s sake. And oh yeah, we did have that petty little tiff called the Civil War.). But gosh damn, life has become divisive right now. We need the feeling that comes from a crowd more than ever. 

I’m linking a video of Pearl Jam in Madison Square Garden — watch Eddie Vedder’s face while the Garden sings “Better Man” back to him. The words he wrote come back loud and clear, and his face is pure joy. At this single moment, the crowd is not clouded by differences; nope, it’s only about the music, and it’s about sharing something beautiful with someone else. Even a stranger. 

I can’t think of anything our country needs more right now.

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