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Concerts as Catharsis

(All pictures used are taken by me, poorly. If you’re interested in a companion playlist, follow this little link here.)

We’re still living in weird times. I think we always were, or at least always feel like we are, but this moment post-lockdown still feels precarious. As such, I find it hard to label this period as “post-COVID”, but it is absolutely a new moment. For me, as for so many others, that is signalled by the full fledged return of concerts. There is something so completely special about the shared experience of watching the creator of songs you adore sing the songs to you and a room full of other absolutely ecstatic fans. And obviously, we couldn’t do that during lockdown. It was one of the signifiers that normality would be back, when sweat and close spaces could be shared by us all once again. So, in a rare piece on music, I wanted to talk about what the last year and change has meant for me musically.

I have been incredibly lucky that since last September I’ve been able to tick off almost all my bucket list artists. Some of them were ones I discovered during lockdown, others have been a part of my life for years, but the past year has been a series of very special gigs where I got to celebrate them. I think there is something to be said for this year as an attempt at seeking catharsis for the time we have all had stolen from us. Not to be the cliché I can often be, but I certainly did plenty of that, including a trip back to Florida to try and seek closure on the year abroad that got cut short by the pandemic. With all this said, let’s start our mini odyssey through a year in music that ran the gauntlet from quiet sobs in the dark to primal screams at the world.

We begin the journey with the weirdest stop of the whole tour: Kero Kero Bonito. If you want to know who the hell this band is, start here. “Flamingo” is a weird song, so deep in bubble-gum pop that it is too sickly sweet for many, but it gives you a solid little insight into the thesis of this band. They fit in the genre of “hyperpop”, bouncing up and down to the sound of gleeful nonsense. Honestly, I know a lot of people who really struggle to take it seriously. One of those people is Andy, one of my best friends. We have a shared obsession with KKB, particularly the album Bonito Generation. He thinks it’s very silly, I have a weird adoration for it in the way that I cherish the weirdoes on the fringes of pop culture. Naturally, that meant we should go see them live. In Heaven, of all places, the gay club in London which even ol’ Hetero Henry really enjoys.

To be honest, being my first gig back, I would have loved the KKB gig even if it was terrible. As far as Andy is concerned, it was terrible. But I adored it. The band jumped between songs from their new, vaguely politically charged album Civilisation and then into their bubble-gum back catalogue, with remarkable ease considering the difference in tones. Both sides of their catalogue though define the thing that I wanted fully from this gig; fun. Never before have I been to a gig where I spent so much of it grinning ear to ear, whether from the on stage antics, the electric buzz of the crowd, or the confused look on Andy’s face. It was more than fun though, it was a gig that started to tie together themes in my life (if we dare treat my life like the third rate novel I continue to try and cast myself in.)

I have never really listened to the artist SOPHIE, but I know enough people that do that when they died suddenly at the start of last year, it was something that caught my attention. Here was this pioneering trans figure in music, who without me knowing anything about them, had paved the way for artists I do know and love. Their loss was sudden and is still felt, which was what made the KKB tribute so profound. The band ended a song with a picture of Sophie’s face on screen and everyone raised a fist in solidarity. Again, for poor Andy, I think this was a moment of confusion, but I knew enough about the web I was walking into to feel incredibly moved. These weirdo fringe genres in music are where people like SOPHIE, artists who proudly identify as every shade of LGBTQ+, are allowed to flourish. That’s why it was so important for KKB to have their gig at Heaven, this is music for people who aren’t in the mainstream. I don’t really fit that definition, but it doesn’t mean the effect was lost on me. And you know, then they played the theme from Bugsnax. It was that kind of gig. Stirring tribute to a pioneering trans legend, followed by a spectacular shitpost. It’s the kind of output and tonal balance that I perpetually aspire to. To top it off as the lights came up, I spotted Barnaby and Holly, two friends of mine from Uni. It was this moment that suggested the world opening up again, as seeing friends would once again be a possibility. That was a special cherry on a silly and delicious cake.

We leave a bit of time between this gig and the next, but that time is important. Because the next artist is Mitski. If you’ve talked to me in the past two years, you’ll know that Mitski became pretty much the most important artist of the pandemic to me. While on my silly little depression walks, I would obsessively listen to Be The Cowboy, an infuriatingly brilliant album. It contained all the emotional peaks I needed while in lockdown. There’s this pulsating anger on “Geyser”, a self-deprecating laughter on “Lonesome Love” and the freely flowing desire of “Pink in the Night”. Like I say, I was obsessed with this album. Borderline consumed by it. I couldn’t even listen to Mitski’s earlier albums for a while, because I was terrified they could never live up to Cowboy. When I eventually got around to them, I was obviously delighted, because they were also full of lyrically rich verses and pulsating, awesome rock noise. If I wanted to thrash, Mitski was there. If I wanted to cry, Mitski was there. During the later lockdowns, those were pretty much the only things I wanted and I could always turn to Mitski.

As a fan born out of lockdown then, my first chance to see Mitski would be touring her new album, which would turn out to be Laurel Hell, an album still strong as one of my favourites of the year. However, I wasn’t the only new convert from lockdown. Tiktok had done a lot of work spreading the good word (indeed, it was where I found Mitski), so tickets were a hot commodity. A commodity I found myself in ownership of. I was worried at first, because these songs are very personal to me, very intense to a degree where I didn’t know if I wanted to share them with other people. But I was proven wrong, of course. Mitski is a performer whose wavelength I am on, belting out the lyrics when she needs to and filling the instrumental gaps with what can best be described as an odd hybrid of performance art and dance. Her strange movements kept an ethereal level to her songs, meaning that even though we were now in the presence of the woman responsible for writing and performing these songs, there was this powerful distance still in place. And there was this door on stage. Mitski never approached the door, never opened the door, certainly never walked through it. It was just there. A metaphor for something. If you stopped feeling like your heart was being ripped out, you would be able to have a clear answer. I never got close.

It was at this concert though that I first noticed a worrying trend appear. I had seen similar videos of things like this on Tiktok or on Twitter, but it happened at my concert too. During the final song, an attendee in the front row passed out. I don’t know any of the details surrounding this, other than that the music was paused, first aid attendants were called and we were all left in this strange, spell-breaking lull. I have two theories about why people were passing out at concerts all this year. The first is very logical, in that people are willing to dehydrate and starve themselves for hours in order to maintain a place in the queue and therefore make it to the front of the stage for the performance, as a chance to see your idol at only an arms length. That drains the body and not everyone looks after themselves well enough to stay on their feet. The second theory is that fans can tie artists to seriously deep places in their own being, and so the emotional experience can just be overwhelming. I felt that. I kept myself well hydrated and well fed all day, and still felt myself shaken by songs because I had tied them to who I am. This year, concerts were a catharsis, a place for all those pent-up emotions from lockdown to be finally released. The problem is, two years of emotions don’t escape easily and even if you don’t pass out, you’ll get caught up. I saw Mitski with my friend Maddie and I was so caught up in the inside of my head that I didn’t realise the moment Maddie was having. Catharsis doesn’t always allow you to escape your own head and to Maddie, I’m sorry I didn’t better understand what you were going through that day.

There’s another break now, as we jump from April to June and to Lorde, the queen of my heart. I got into Lorde around the time of her second album Melodrama, but not quite in time enough to see her on tour. That meant I could only dream of the day of her third album arriving and signalling a new tour, as I once again screamed at the top of my lungs to “Green Light” and “Perfect Places”. My love for Lorde endured. It got to the point where I went from being nineteen and singing “I’m nineteen and I’m on fire”, to eventually getting older (I hear this happens to most people) and needing the voice of my generation to return. We had to wait through a lockdown and what felt like an eternal winter before suddenly, Solar Power arrived to warm us. You may remember, I quite enjoyed it. It connects Lorde to these different parts of my life, as it was released while I was working at a pub, an era I jokingly refer to as the dark days. Through this album, I found light, just as Melodrama offered comfort to teenage me. Suddenly, I get hit with lines like “I thought I was a genius, but now I’m 22” and my world swings into focus a bit. In that job, my brain had been completely off, and suddenly it rebooted. Lorde is an artist who connects me to that period before lockdown, but she also got me back into gear once the world started to open up again.

These factors all meant that it was imperative I get tickets to see Lorde on tour. I almost didn’t. Her first batch of tickets sold out before I could touch them and knowing that she was only playing “smaller venues” (read: not arenas), I didn’t think I stood much of a chance at a second round. But I did! I got tickets to the Alexandra Palace show and after doing some tricky co-ordination to ensure I could attend both this gig and my long delayed graduation, I was there. Lorde was finally in front of me. And she was glorious. She may only have three albums, but they’re three albums I completely adore and every song she pulled onto the setlist was a knockout. This particular day was during one of those crazily hot days during the Summer, where we could barely breathe inside, but the mood would have felt feverish anyway. Lorde is the kind of performer I adore. She will nail an emotional ballad and then settle down for some quick chatter with the crowd. Sometimes, the two co-exist. She gave a very impassioned speech about the recent overturning of Roe v Wade, during which she had to take a break because she was crying too hard to talk, but in which she otherwise remained startlingly level headed. And again, I can’t overstate how much she nailed all of her songs. I’m not ashamed to say that when the first beats of “Perfect Places” began, I let out a schoolgirl scream. Songs like this are what people like me are built on.

People like me also struggled in this concert. Remember earlier when I was talking about how it was a ridiculously hot day on this concert? That didn’t help with all the factors from the Mitski concert, with this concert also having to be stopped part way through because someone passed out. And I get it. Lorde is an artist very closely tied to who I am, being in the same room as her sort of changed my life. Your knees might not cope well with that. Plus, this was a gig where even Lorde let herself get overwhelmed at points. It’s not just fans who are attending concerts as bubbling balls of potential catharsis, the artists have build up too. Two years of being unable to tour, unable to get that instant feedback that singing offers. Especially for Mitski and Lorde, two social media shy artists, you don’t know how people respond until they’re in the same room. For everyone, a lot is riding on this. It was for me. The next day, I attended my graduation on about five hours of sleep and successfully managed not to fall over or embarrass myself. In the course of 24 hours, I had suddenly entered a new era of my life. One where I had graduated from university and where I had seen Lorde live. Some closure was achieved, dare I say.

Lighter fare now! Do you remember Carly Rae Jepsen? If you’ve talked to me in the last five years, you will, because I don’t shut up about her. And if you haven’t heard me monologue, then you’re probably just thinking “oh, the “Call Me Maybe” singer?” To that, I say NO! NO! SHE IS SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT!! Step away from this article and listen to Emotion or Dedicated or The Loneliest Time or even any of the B Side albums that contain songs that weren’t good enough to make the final cut but are still better than 90% of the other pop songs out there. I’m serious. Do it. Because while I think that time has been surprisingly kind to “Call Me Maybe”, time has been even kinder to each of her albums since. She is as close to pop perfection as I dare comprehend. Any closer and my eyes would melt. She is also someone who I’ve fallen more in love with since starting my current job, where the blasting saxophone of “Run Away With Me” would signal the time to start closing the bar. While an angsty teenage Henry connected with Carly back in sixth form through her sadder tunes, modern day Henry loves the buoyancy.

All of this is to say that in the summer, I went to Somerset House to see her live. This was in the middle of that other incredibly hot period of the summer, but in a move clearly decided by some higher power, the gig was outside. No abnormal sweating from hidden places tonight, just vibes. And that was exactly what Carly delivered. She sprinkled in bits of banter in-between songs but otherwise adopted a “shut up and play the hits” mentality. Play the hits she did. I fell more in love with “Want You in My Room”, discovered the new direction that “Western Wind” was guiding us towards later in the year and joined every single person in the crowd blasting out “Call Me Maybe” at the top of our lungs. That moment though, when the aforementioned “Run Away With Me” started? Transcendent. I promise you it isn’t hyperbole when I say that the most comparable moment I’ve had to it was hearing “God Only Knows” performed live. My soul left my body and I felt blissfully emancipated from corporeality for just a moment. That’s all there is to say about Carly really. She promises escape, and she knows exactly how to deliver. Any chance I get, I will run away with her all over again.

Which leads us back to the heavy section of my music taste, with Phoebe Bridgers. I discovered her music just before the first COVID lockdown while I was still in Florida. My middle-class is going to show here, but I was listening to Chris Riddell’s Desert Island Discs when I first heard her music. A pandemic, swift return home and complete 180 of all I knew later, I was ready for the release of Phoebe’s second album Punisher. For the first few months of lockdown, I turned to the breezy pop of artists like Dua Lipa to escape but by June, I didn’t need escape, I needed a release. Punisher gave that to me. On these long lockdown walks that I would take during the summer of 2020, catching the sunset as I emerged from yet another overgrown footpath, that album was the comfort I wanted. That comfort took the form of Phoebe saying, actually, everything is very shit right now. Her struggles were not the same as mine (my Dad remembers my birthday, I don’t hate your mum and at that point no one had ever held me like water in their hands), but it just helped to hear someone else struggling. Back then I called it my album of the year and even if other albums from that year have since grown on me more, it was the album and artist that epitomised my year.

Following this is a struggle that will be familiar to many, in the panic to get tickets. Initially, there were three nights in London to get tickets for. I managed to get absolutely none. Fortunately for me though, a fourth night got added and I snuck my way into that with my greasy ticket-grabbing rat hands. From an artist like Phoebe, the gig was all I could have wanted. She played the sad songs with the weight they deserved, could leap across the stage with the very best of them and was an incredibly compelling presence between songs. Full credit to the crowd for fully going with all of these tonal changes too. The quietness of a song like “Saviour Complex” gets respected in the same degree that the loudness of a song like “Kyoto” gets respected. And speaking of respect, at this gig Phoebe played part of an unreleased song, which everyone avoided filming or recording. I’m sure one or two copies made it around somewhere, but for once, the phones went away. That’s how compelling Phoebe is. Most important of all though, she concluded the gig with “I Know The End”. For those out of the loop, the song climaxes on an extended and agonising scream that is where all the catharsis of the album escapes to. Played live, that experience is unparalleled. To be in a room and encouraged to scream as loud and as long as you physically can is what concerts are all about. This is a place to escape and from the sound of the room, you know that escape is exactly what everyone did. From the bottom of my shaky legs and all the way up to my damaged vocal chords, I can confirm I did the same.

With all this release though came more incidents of people passing out. At this concert I think I counted four. Full credit to the staff, they knew exactly how to handle these incidents and it didn’t interrupt the concert, save for an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Staff members were also equipped with water sprayers to keep audience members hydrated, on yet another “packed concert on one of the hottest days of the year” for me. Phoebe is one of those artists who myself and many others discovered during a time that has universally been classified as “bad”. I’m not surprised that it was another location for fan frenzy to take over and overwhelm so many, because this is a safe space to let emotions run. Unfortunately, those emotions aren’t themselves always safe. As a positive note to this story though, something amazing was happening in the background of this concert. I had just started talking to a girl on Hinge. Her name is Annie. We hit it off like I’ve never known before and I was almost annoyed that the concert would be a break from me chatting to her. It was here that she suggested I come back to hers after the concert. I didn’t, because I had work the next day and am a notorious square, but two days later I did visit her. It makes me elated to say that Annie and I are still together and are exceptionally happy. The start of this wonderful period in my life is forever tied to this gig, which makes a wonderful night that much more special.

I have often been described by friends as someone who looks like they’d be a fan of Arcade Fire. For a while that wasn’t true, but in 2019 that changed and I did indeed become a fan of Arcade Fire. I loved the openness of their songs, this almost cringe-inducing sincerity that makes even the clunkiest lines feel alive and essential. It is big stadium indie rock that dreams big and, at least in my mind, achieves big. All six of their albums are ones I can go back to with love, so they were my last bucket list artists to see. When the opportunity arose though, I hesitated. They were playing the O2 arena. All the other bands I’ve talked about played small to midsize venues. I’ve only seen one other band in a venue this size and since then, I’ve always gravitated to these smaller spaces. But, for a band that plays big, you know they need to go big. I sucked up my pride (and the dramatically higher ticket price) and bought tickets. My final bucket list band of the moment, ticked off.

Except, as you might have guessed from the lack of picture, I didn’t go. There is one big reason for that: the sexual misconduct allegations against frontman Win Butler. For a few days I was on the fence. This is a huge band made up of many people, I didn’t want to punish them for one person’s actions. But my feelings shifted. I couldn’t get into their songs in the same way anymore and while it’s easy to rationalise art as being this collaborative medium, the fact remained that it was the frontman of the band with these accusations. To look up to the stage and celebrate someone like that didn’t sit right with me. Even now, writing this months later, my heart is heavy at the decision. This would have been a cathartic concert. Arcade Fire’s songs are a pretty core part of who I am. Catharsis, however, isn’t as clear cut as we believe. It’s a myth. Sometimes it’s there and it helps, sometimes it isn’t and doesn’t. I denied myself the myth. Instead, I took the day off that this would have been and spent it with Annie. Life is too short to spend with shitty people like Win Butler. Spend it with those you love instead.

Speaking of people I love, I can trace my introduction to Japanese Breakfast directly to one man and one man alone, that being my friend George from uni. We bonded while editing the university newspaper together virtually, he watched me spill a can of Guinness down myself during one of those awkward Zoom call social events we used to have to do and he was one of the few people outside my house who I socialised with that year. He was a lifeline and with that lifeline came Japanese Breakfast. When Jubilee came out, it was all he would play, all he would talk about, all he could think about. I knew his taste was good (in all but friends, obviously), so I checked it out. And then checked it out again. And again. I couldn’t stop listening. Over the space of a year, it became a comfort album, as well as a marker of my taste in music continuing to grow. So with all that considered, a trip to a JBrekkie gig was a no brainer.

This particular gig was in a church. A literal church. Why, I do not know, but it made the event feel special. Gigs are already a somewhat spiritual experience, why not make it more literal? I was there with George and our friend Harry (also a survivor of our uni), as well as in the vicinity of three work colleagues and the very university lecturer whose awkward Zoom call social event I had spilled that can of Guinness down myself during. These are friends I’ve made and people I’ve met as a grown up. That made this a grown up gig for me. That was a cool feeling. Feelings of newfound maturity aside, JBrekkie did not disappoint. She sounds just as heavenly onstage as she does on her songs and brought new life to them all. After the gig, I found myself unable to stop listening to “Everybody Wants to Love You” and second to “I Know the End”, “Posing for Cars” is one of the strongest closes to a gig that I’ve ever heard. Also, Michelle Zauner (the real name of Japanese Breakfast) had a gong on stage, which she would often head towards and give a whack. That’s some stagecraft that I, as a clown, can get behind. Most of all though, this felt like the first gig where everything was back to normal. No one passed out, no one was weird, everyone was just there to have a good time while a musician they loved played songs they loved. It is a simple pleasure, but those are not simple to come by.

Finally, we are at the end. My last gig of the year are also the first band I ever saw live and the artist that I’ve seen the most in my life. They are Scouting for Girls. I can hear some of you cringing a little bit already. Yes, the ones who did “She’s So Lovely”. When I saw them at age 12, I thought they were the coolest thing in the world. To be honest, 11 years later, that opinion hasn’t swayed much. They’re showmen, pure and simple. The songs are the songs, but they know how to perform them to an audience who are stoked to hear them. They embody that classic thing with bands, where they’ll play one or two songs of their newer stuff, then just get straight back to playing the songs everyone came here to hear them play. They are the reason I love live concerts.

This particular gig was with Ben, one of my other best mates. We had seen Scouting for Girls before, so why not see them again as a great excuse to hang out together? Us two, his girlfriend and his housemate all went along to UEA, where I suddenly felt very old. Uni is somewhere I feel like I’ve grown out of, but I needn’t have worried. Once we entered the venue, we found hordes of older men and women there, which made me feel much less gross. The whole event was in fact very dad-core. Multiple men in front of us were in football shirts, watching a live feed of England in the world cup (in that game we lost, don’t worry about it). It lent a lack of pretention to the event. This wasn’t big or serious, it’s four guys on stage, hanging out with a bunch more people down in the audience. Play whatever hit you want and we will holler. “Elvis Ain’t Dead?” We’re stomping. “Heartbeat?” We’re jumping. “She’s So Lovely?” Don’t even get me started, people were launching off the walls. It was, in two words, immense fun. So many of my gigs this year have had weight. They’ve been artists I’ve never seen before, venues I’ve never been to before, songs that I needed to hear done right for my fragile little self-worth. What I needed was a gig to relax into. Scouting for Girls were that need, totally fulfilled.

I don’t know where live music takes me next. Like I said throughout, many of these artists were bucket list ticks for me, plus they were touring on huge albums that will presumably have quite a gap before the follow-up is finished. I only have one gig lined up currently for next year and that’s Sam Fender in Newcastle. It promises to be, if I do say so, off its tits. Otherwise, I’m going with the flow. Maybe old favourites will return. Maybe the stagnant pool of water that is my music taste will get some freshness. Or maybe I’ll just stay in and finally watch one of those films I’ve been meaning to get to. Whichever option I choose, I’m glad for this last year of gigging. It is something that has finally helped me get back on my feet in our post-lockdown world. If I can once again attend a gig and everything is normal in there, then maybe everything outside is normal too. It of course isn’t, but what a privilege to hold that illusion for a few hours. A shared delusion of exceptional quality.

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