Live Music Exchange Blog

Journal of a Plague Week – Simon Frith


Our latest post is by Professor Simon Frith OBE, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, former Chair of the Mercury Prize, music critic, and co-founder of Live Music Exchange. Here, he reflects on past gigs and the curtailment of live music activity as a result of Covid-19, from a personal and sociological perspective.

Sunday 15 March 2020

We go to see Jon Boden at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham. Pretty good crowd; venue maybe three-quarters full. See a couple of good friends but otherwise don’t recognise anyone. Not the usual folk audience: a wider age range, people in groups. I very much liked Boden’s work with John Spiers, on Lisa Carthy’s Angelica and in Bellowhead but I’ve never seen him live before. This evening he’s by himself with a voice mic, three guitars, a violin, concertina and electronic shruti box. I’m reminded of going to see singer/songwriters in late 60s/early 70s folk clubs: modest virtuosity. Boden performs a mix of traditional tunes and his own songs, taken from his ‘post-oil world’ concept albums. In between songs he tunes his instruments compulsively while talking to us, which I initially find irritating but grow to appreciate. It’s as if he’s easing himself–and us– into the different sonic character of each tune. When he mentions at the end of the show that this is his last one for a while I assume that he is at the end of his UK tour. [In fact, there was one date still to go.]

Monday March 16

Back to the Queen’s Hall for a Hexham Music Society concert featuring the Sacconi Quartet. Smaller crowd; older, couples, lots of people I know. The Music Soc chair introduces the concert with the announcement that the rest of the season is cancelled. He adds that this will probably be the last concert of any sort in Hexham for some time to come. A programme of Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. After the Haydn, Ben Hancox, the first violinist, remarks that this will certainly be the Quartet’s last performance for the foreseeable future. The Hexham gig comes in the middle of a busy schedule: five nights at the British Embassy in Moscow, a concert in the Lebanon, an extensive UK tour leading up to the festival season, including the group’s own chamber music event in May in Folkestone. A couple of weeks earlier, by coincidence, the Sacconi Quartet had been on stage with Jon Boden, performing The Juliet Letters at Bury St. Edmunds. A full diary behind them; an empty diary ahead. They play Beethoven’s Serioso quartet with a gripping collective intensity, stripping away every extraneous association from the inexorable flow of sound. No one coughs. I think this is a concert being staged on the day war is declared but then remember that in a war gigs go on. The encore is a tune from the Danish String Quartet’s folk album, Wood Works. The critic in me wonders how many other people in the audience know this record and then I realise this might be the last live music I ever hear. Its jaunty timelessness seems appropriate somehow.

Tuesday March 17

The cancellations start to appear in the inbox.   Cassie Kinoshi’s Seed Ensemble at the Gateshead Jazz festival on March 20; the silent film classic Phantom of the Opera with live organ accompaniment at Hexham Abbey on March 21; Richard Dawson at Sage 2 on March 25; Christina Pluhar’s L’Arpeggiata at Wigmore Hall on March 27; The Bishop’s Consort performance of St John’s Passion in Corbridge parish church on March 29. Spend the day trying to work out how to get the ticket money back.

Wednesday March 18

Feel twitchy that there are no tickets left in our up-coming concerts bag and work out that for the last fifty years I have averaged 2-3 gigs a week, with brief breaks only during the summer holidays or when the children were small. What will I miss? The surprises.

People I never expected to see

George Jones. I’d gone to a Tammy Wynette show at the Coventry Apollo. The MC announced that she had lost her voice but that her (by then very ex-) husband had agreed to stand in. Dusty Springfield. I’d gone to an Anne Murray show at the Royal Albert Hall. It turned out she was recording it for one of her TV specials. Dusty was the surprise guest.

Went for one reason stayed for another

I’d gone to see Lou Reed at the Birmingham Odeon, but couldn’t take my eyes off Robert Quine, the most precisely ferocious electric guitar player I’d ever seen. An instant idol. By contrast, more recently, we went to see the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Sage in a performance of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, staged by Peter Sellars. I like my early music performed as ‘authentically’ as possible and this turned out not to be authentic at all. New Age-y Greek robes; lightly choreographed held poses and movements as the choir sang. Utterly naff; utterly brilliant. 

Had an epiphany

On March 8th we’d gone to see Martin Hayes, the famous Irish fiddler play Sage’s small hall. We’d seen him many times before, in a variety of groups but never without the guitarist Dennis Cahill. Tonight Hayes is playing alone, offering an evening of Irish fiddle tunes learned from his father, another famous Irish fiddler, P. J. Hayes, from County Clare. We were sitting close to the front and this was the most focused experience of watching music being made I’ve ever had. Musicians often say that they don’t make music from the inside but, rather, find the music that is already out there. Now I see what this means. A tune might exist already but it has to be unearthed, teased out, nurtured and allowed to grow. This is not easy, however often one’s done it before. Hayes’s concentration, his care and his own delight with the results were remarkable.

Thursday March 19

I go back to work on the final edit of Volume 3 of The History of Live Music in Britain. Decide to go straight to chapter 10, on listeners and listening, and then skip to chapter 12, on the value of live music. In 2018, I read, the Live Music Census found that live music enhances social bonding, is mood-enhancing, provides health and well-being benefits, is inspiring, and forms part of people’s identity. In the book we also document the ethnographic evidence that the pleasure of live music is primarily a social pleasure, involves a gathering of ‘like-minded’ people interacting and identifying with the performers. The concert experience begins well before the arrival of the musicians on stage; it includes collective anticipation and collective reminiscence. As a sociologist I’m sure this is all true. But it doesn’t describe my pleasure in live music at all.

Friday March 20

As it’s pointless now to anticipate future gigs I reconsider past ones. I’ve always liked to going to gigs by myself and if, these days, I usually go with someone else this is not because she is my wife; rather, she is my wife because she is the only person I like going to gigs with. Otherwise I don’t want to have to worry whether other people are enjoying the event and I mostly find audiences necessary but rather annoying. Not like-minded, anyway. And I’ve never identified myself with a performer or their music. I go to gigs for quite other reasons. I’m addicted to the business of live music, to the collaborative work that goes into a performance. I enjoy concerts as craft shows, not art events; I value their materiality not their transcendence. I like the moments when the technicians are on stage checking the equipment and orchestra managers are making final adjustments to the chairs; I watch the backing rather than the lead singers and how instrumentalists prepare themselves for their next entry. When I was reviewing a lot of rock and soul shows what I most enjoyed was seeing how bands made their entries and exits. What addicted me to live music was the intricacy of its collaborative construction.

Saturday March 21

I get the first trickle of what will become a flood of emails announcing online performances. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is offering free access to its archive of concert screenings; musicians have begun streaming songs from their living-room studios. As the reality of a world without live music begins to take shape my concern, though, is for all the workers on whom live performances depend: the musicians-for-hire; the promoters and venue managers; the security teams and the bar staff; the roadies and the lighting crews; the caterers and the cleaners. I hope we’ve done justice to all these people in our live-music history; I hope that by Christmas they will all be at work again. Already, after just a few days, I miss them.


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