Last summer, I had the opportunity to go see a Dead & Company concert in Boulder, Colorado, with my brother and one of my good friends. For those who don’t know, Dead & Company is the latest reincarnation of the Grateful Dead. So, while obviously, we go to the shows to dance and be with people who share the same love of the music, sometimes you just want to listen. And sometimes, when you just want to listen, other people just want to talk. And that’s okay. But during one song at the Boulder show, two people behind us just would not shut up.
After debating what to do for a minute, my brother and I got up and went walking around looking for another place to sit and listen from. We’re walking through the aisle peering down rows looking for open seats when a lady approaches us. She’s older, in a flowing tie-dye dress with curly blonde hair. Just looking at her you could tell she’d been to a few shows in her time, and what she said next confirmed that. Without spending more than two seconds looking at us, she said, “You boys looking for some quieter seats? Yeah, I’ve seen that look a hundred times. Good luck.” My brother and I, after calmly confirming her suspicions, turned to each other and both said something along the lines of “What the heck?” She’s since become known to my brother and me as the Dead & Co fairy, and we await the day when our paths may cross again.
I had forgotten about this incident until my brother brought it up the other day. It got me thinking about why people love live music so much, and my own personal relationship with music.
If you’ve ever been to the concert of a band you love, then you know that ecstatic feeling you get when you hear those first few notes of your favorite song. Whatever worries you might have in that moment vanish into thin air, and it’s just you and the music.
But then maybe the people around you start singing along, and then it’s you and these other random humans, all singing the same song. It’s this feeling of connection we get that keeps us going back to see live music. Somehow, you and thousands of other people are united in feeling and expressing one singular emotion, all existing on the same wavelength and moving to the same groove. I don’t think I’ve ever left a concert without that glowing feeling inside. I also don’t think I’ve ever left a concert not wanting to drink a gallon of water and collapse into my bed, but that’s another story.
It’s a feeling that we don’t get to experience too often, and one we could all use more of. First and foremost, live music today exists as a celebration of music, talent, and storytelling. Yet, it also exists as a remedy to so many of the larger problems we’re all facing today. For the billions of people, including myself, who deal with stress and anxiety, there is no better place than a concert to forget about all your worries and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist for a few hours. And sometimes, the band will play that one song that you were hoping for and, despite the fact that you may be surrounded by thousands of people, you just know that they’re singing that song for you and you alone.
What is it, then, that makes some songs so relevant and important for us? For one, it has something to do with familiarity. Some songs we’ve just heard so many times that we know exactly what the next lyric or next note is going to be, and it feels good to sing or follow along. Other songs we’ve associated with certain places or events, and listening to them is just as good as hopping into a time machine and going right back to that place. Last year, I lived with a friend in Berkeley for two weeks while I had an internship.
We spent our nights driving around the hills of Berkeley listening to music and stopping at overlooks to admire San Francisco. I literally cannot hear “Winter” by Khalid and not go right back there—we must have listened to it every night. And so, this song has a new meaning for me, one that has nothing to do with the actual message of the song. Despite that, every time I hear those first two notes, I’m back in the car with him, arm out the window, with that cool, just-barely-salty Berkeley air whistling over the top of my hand.
At the same time, though, the opposite is true. At times, it is the unfamiliarity of new or live music that excites us. The best example of this for most of us is, I think, hearing the drop in an EDM song for the first time. The excitement leading up to it is punctuated by the jump our ears and our minds are about to take into the unknown. For me, though, I get this excitement most listening to live music. There’s something about the way musicians have these instrumental conversations with each other on stage that can just be so mesmerizing. It’s like if you could hear the thought process in an author’s head as they try and write a beautiful sentence or create a metaphor. Live music, especially with improvisation, can essentially be real-time expression and portrayal of thought and emotion, where the musicians are taking the audience on some type of journey, where we are constantly being surprised by where the notes go next. And yet, the question must be asked— what’s better: Hearing something for the first time, when you have no idea what’s coming, or for the second time, when you know just how good the next part of the song is about to be?
Finally, we connect with songs lyrically. Some songs we just feel. We have songs we play for all of our moods, whether we realize it or not. I don’t think this is something I need to describe too much. I think probably everyone reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about and probably has a couple songs in their mind right now. There are some songs where, when they come on, we have no choice but to just stop and listen to the words because, for whatever reason, they just connect with us on a level that is entirely separate from anything else. Perhaps the song describes something you’ve been feeling or thinking in ways you haven’t been able to put into words of your own. Perhaps it describes a situation in your life, something that you’re dealing with, in a way that is just so similar to what’s going on it makes you feel like you’re not in this alone.
Seeing artists performed live, whether it be the improvisation, sonic surprises, crowd energy, or lyrics, is an experience unlike any other. You and the music are connected in such a way that it lets you escape from the real world and just vibe out.