Lockdown Listening

Thu, 10th December 2020

Words: Kieran Sim
Photograph: Chris Murray

Lockdown Listening: A Small Collection of Live Performances


In his second article for Front Left Kieran Sim shares with us four of his favourite YouTube live performances that have kept him sane over lockdown. As he reflects on the ever growing ‘gig-shaped hole’ in his heart we are encouraged to do the same, looking into what music means to us, why it makes us move, laugh and sing.

As 2020 finally comes to an end, it feels as if the world is poised to breathe a collective sigh of relief and take its first tentative steps towards a new year. With cautious optimism finally sprouting up amidst the grim cycle of death tolls and lockdowns, perhaps it’s finally safe to start looking forward, as well as back. With this in mind, I have been pondering the luxuries I miss most, and the lengths I’ve gone to to replace them whilst cooped up in my flat. Of all the entertaining things I overlooked and under appreciated, going to see live music is the one absence that I feel the most keenly. The performances, the people, the pints, even the queues. With a gig-shaped hole in my heart, I have admittedly resorted to desperate measures, but, now that the drunken purchase of a cheap karaoke mic, along with various passive-aggressive texts from my downstairs neighbours, are firmly in the rear view my next - and mercifully far more successful - option was to create a back catalogue of my favourite live music performances available online.

The vast swathes of videos on YouTube are the next best thing to sneaking into the front row for free, and after many hours, I have whittled down dozens of excellent performances to a select handful of originals and covers for your listening pleasure and, undoubtedly, your harsh judgement. Though they can never replace the buzz of experiencing it in the flesh, for now, this is as close as we can get. Some are sad, some are sweet and at least one is ridiculous. At the very least, all are worth a listen.

Aurora – Across the Universe (The Beatles Cover)

As is always the case with music that is widely beloved and rooted in our cultural identity, history is never on the side of the artist attempting to cover it. Decades of retrospect and experience help engrain these songs into the public consciousness and, especially where The Beatles are concerned, the esteem in which they are held makes them near-untouchable. These are the soundtracks to our collective experience; we carry them with us through the major event of our lives;, through love, loss and heartache, we understand each other through our shared experience of them. As if to make the prospect even more difficult, Aurora has selected a track that John Lennon himself was never happy with, and that has already been covered, with mixed reviews, by another musical titan, David Bowie, with Lennon providing backing vocals and guitar. With all this in mind, it takes a special performance for a song of this magnitude to be accepted as anything more than glorified karaoke.

It requires the artist to, at the very least, bring something unique to the table. It needs to sound new, but crucially, it also needs to sound familiar. Uniqueness, thankfully, seems to be engrained in Aurora’s DNA. Dressed somewhere in between ethereal forest sprite and Portuguese man-of-war, it is immediately clear that, for better or worse, her interpretation is going to be unlike any other.

Put out by Triple J on their eclectic ‘Like a Version’ collection, Aurora’s delicate recital builds upon the aspects that work most in the original, untapping a new reserve of tenderness, whilst also adding fresh, exciting tones. This is in no small part due to the seamlessly balanced vocal arrangements; the cosmic scope of the song is quietly pushed further skywards, each note adding layer upon layer of clean, crisp harmonies. The blending of voice, keyboard and guitar roll and weave into one another in long, breathless stretches. The controlled, precise delivery ensures the song never wades into the saccharine waters that excessive vocal harmonies often threaten to drown in.

It is, in a word, beautiful. Expertly performed and perfectly arranged, it is testament to the quality of Aurora’s interpretation that it breathes new life into a song from a band that are already considered immortal. In performing covers, Aurora seems to have found her voice, her interpretation of Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ is equally memorable, and again performing for Triple J, a haunting, accomplished version of Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is well worth seeking out.

AnnenMayKantereit & Parcels – Can’t Get You Out of My Head (Kylie Minogue Cover)

The next selection earns the unique distinction of being by far the most popular performance, at 20m views and counting, whilst also comfortably being the most unexpected. When lined up against an artist as eccentric as Aurora, that’s quite an achievement. Seemingly born from the musical equivalent of a random word generator, the entire spectacle is something to behold.

A so-hipster-it-hurts 8-piece band likely to enrage your dad on sight? Check. A ridiculously talented George Harrison lookalike? Yup. A German YouTube singer who appears to be at least 20% neck veins? Absolutely. A Kylie Minogue pop banger from the early 00’s? Of course. A completely inexplicable botani decal garden venue? Why not.

The list goes on. Though it may, on paper, sound like some kind of soft boi fever dream, against all the odds, Parcels and AnnenMayKantereit’s cover of Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ works.

An irresistible combination of jubilant, singalong fun and precise technical excellence, it’s criminally entertaining and deceptively difficult to pull off. To turn a near-20-year-old hybrid disco-electro-pop song into a functioning, endlessly funky 9-man live performance is no mean feat. However, not content, they decide to throw at least 6 people simultaneously harmonising and 2 lead singers into the chaos. But, as anyone who has seen Parcels on the wildly popular ‘Colours’ YouTube channel can testify, their live performance prowess is second-to-none. This combination with AnnenMayKantereit is a joy to watch and provides some feelgood energy amidst the weightiness that usually accompanies critically acclaimed live performances.

Love it or hate it, it's tailor made to move your feet.

Richard Thompson – 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

Now for a shift in tone. As previously mentioned, gravitas often goes hand in hand with celebrated live shows. Although he cuts a jokey, genial figure whilst bantering with the crowd, Richard Thompson is very much a performer that wears his heart on his sleeve. Active for the best part of six decades, Thompson has carved out a long and storied career as one of Britain’s finest folk artists and songwriters. Though not blessed with a vocal range that would get him very far on The Masked Singer, Thompson’s delivery is raw and authentic; his is the voice of crowded pub fires, miner’s clubs and street corners, an enduring, ever-present troubadour, as essential to the folk music tradition as anyone who has come before him. Despite this, it is his other talents, namely his unrivalled guitar playing and the quality of his song writing, that places him at the very pinnacle of his craft.

Amongst the many songs credited to Thompson, there are a handful that stand out as near perfect. One of them, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lighting’, is performed with Thompson sat onstage alongside contemporaries Suzanne Vega and Loudon Wainwright III on the BBC’s ‘Songwriter Circle’ show. Over the course of an hour, they chat, collaborate and perform some of their most popular works. The entire programme is worth watching, but Thompson’s performance sets a standard that proves impossible to match. As he plays, it’s hard to tell whether Vega and Wainwright, both formidable musicians in their own right, are looking on in envy or admiration, appearing to be as transfixed as the audience. Perhaps, like the rest of us, it’s a little bit of both.

As if his performance alone is not enough to convince us of his skill level, you’ll be hard pressed to find a cover version with less than two musicians dividing the guitar playing between themselves, fully aware that to even perform the song requires a level of ability far beyond most. Not content with merely delivering a feat of incredible musicianship, Thompson’s performance also showcases his absolute mastery of storytelling. He describes the song as ‘a simple boy meets girl story’, which is, in a sense, exactly right. Only it’s far more than that; the marker of a good story is often its ability to convey universal truths as simply as possible. Thompson takes on a classic tale of doomed romance and never wastes a word, delivering it with an emotional resonance bordering on the profound.

A moving, masterful performance of a timeless ballad, this version of Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is essential viewing, and one of the finest examples of acoustic guitar playing you’re likely to see.

Courtney Barnett – Depreston

From the laid-bare to the laid-back, everything Courtney Barnett creates feels effortless. Her writing and her performances are so naturally infused with an easy-going nonchalance that their apparent simplicity often belies their depth. Her performance for La Blogothèque’s excellent ‘A Take-away Show’ series provides a perfect example of Barnett at her emotive, intimate best.

Standing in a quiet Parisian side-street, kitted out with only a guitar and a 2x12 amp clipped to her waist, Barnett uses her signature straightforwardness to devastating effect. ‘Depreston’ contains lyrics that centre around house-hunting, delivered in an Australian drawl that often feels closer to spoken word than to outright singing. Yet, working within these seemingly humble parameters, the effect is spellbinding.

Barnett is known for her sardonic, witty lyrics, but here she steps perfectly into the role of the master storyteller. The honesty of her song writing, and the indifference of her delivery, allows her to scatter heart-wrenching imagery amidst the mundane as naturally as she might read off a shopping list. As she learns that the property is a “deceased estate”, suddenly, a song about the minutiae of house-hunting becomes an elegy for everyday life. Concerns about coffee shops and petty crimes give way to reflections on memory and death, resonating with anyone who has sifted through old photographs in the empty, quiet house of a grandparent that has recently passed. “Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee, tea and flour, and a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam.” The subversive, sudden shift from the inane to the intimate feels like a gut-punch, but just as quickly as it arrives, the thought is dismissed. With a tired, resigned shrug, Barnett abruptly returns to the matter at hand, “and I wonder what she bought it for.” This dismissal might seem blasé, or even cruel, but the lyrics capture something that feels honest and familiar.

As the camera pans away and slowly retreats from the alley, Barnett remains in place, silhouetted against the sunlight. She repeats the song's final lines as people walk by, on their way to cafes and offices and corner shops, “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” They notice the guitar and the camera before quickly filing past, heads down. Just as Barnett shrugs off thoughts of the previous homeowner, these people let their brief moments of acknowledgement fade into indifference. As the video ends, Barnett stands alone and in silence. Her performance and the content of the song work in complete harmony, creating a bitter-sweet lament to lives and moments lived and forgotten, and a powerful, poignant reminder that whether we are ready for it or not, life goes on.

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