The Student
Musings from quarantine: the best concerts I’ve ever seen and why live music is so special to me

There are a lot of places I miss going to right now. Clubs, bars, restaurants, cities, friends’ homes, the world outside my room in suburban New Jersey, etc. But while hopefully soon enough many of these things will reopen in some capacity, it may be awhile before I can attend a concert. Concerts have given me some of my favourite memories. While most concerts are at least entertaining, when an artist puts on a show where they’re feeling hot and the crowd is giving them energy, it creates a really special moment where time stands still and art flows from the speakers. I am fortunate enough to have experienced a number of shows that have been truly magical, so let me reminisce from my bedroom on seven of these beautiful evenings.

Parquet Courts @ Webster Hall, NYC (20/05/2016)

This is the first concert I went to without parental supervision of some sort, with my parents giving me tickets to celebrate my 16th birthday. I had been introduced to Parquet Courts when my stepdad did a promotion to go record shopping with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady at the amazing Rough Trade Records in Brooklyn. Craig’s lyrics often mention “the scene” and when meeting with him that winter he picked out Light Up Gold for me, saying if there ever was a band leading a fun rock scene in Brooklyn it was them. I adored that record from that moment and was so lucky to see them on the first show of their tour promoting their 2016 album, Human Performance

Opening with the absolute tune that is ‘Paraphrased’, I immediately learned what a mosh pit was as the raucous Manhattan crowd swallowed me whole and I grinned for their entire set as they played tune after tune. The friend I had gone with had never been to a real concert either and while we were entirely out of our element and fairly terrified, we loved every second. A drunk lady in her late 20s bought us Tom Collins cocktails without us asking for them and it turned out to be drummer Max Savage’s birthday and in some twist of fate, he went on about how he was celebrating with a Tom Collins. I felt like a real person as everyone gave him a cheers and we lifted our identical cocktails, which neither me nor my friend had ever heard of. When they played their classic ‘Master of My Craft/Borrowed Time’ I could feel the crowd pulsate with its opening notes and I got to see joy radiate throughout a crowd as a perfect performance unfolded. I’ve seen them 3 times since (and purchased 3 sick shirts designed by frontman Andrew Savage), but nothing beats the brilliance of that first show. It was the first moment I felt like a young adult who could one day live and participate in an arts scene, like I was watching a real moment play out in front of me. And I knew immediately that was a feeling I wanted to chase.

Jamie xx @ Governor’s Ball Music Festival, NYC (03/06/2016)

My love of concerts quickly transitioned into a love of festivals when two weeks later I embarked with two friends to Randall’s Island Park, a footbridge away from Harlem, for our first 3-day festival. While the Sunday that would’ve featured a headline set from Kanye West was tragically rained out (a common theme for GovBall over the years), the two days I went yielded some awesome sets, with this one being especially notable. The xx feel like something out of a bygone era, and even Jamie’s solo work has been somewhat forgotten with his last record dropping 5 years ago. But relevance aside, Jamie completely owned the crowded Bacardi Tent where he did this set and blew my mind as the first DJ I’d ever seen live, and I still haven’t seen one better. 

I was accompanied with some guy I had met on Reddit where I was active on r/indieheads (idk if you can tell, but I was really popular in high school) while my friends camped out for The Strokes. This man gracefully gave me earplugs as Mr. xx’s bass immediately shattered my virgin ears and he calmed me down a bit as someone right in front of us collapsed on the ground, nearly overdosing before the set even started. The stage was set brilliantly for my first “rave” experience as the sun set over NYC and Jamie mixed and matched records to create a brilliant audio performance that I never comprehended as possible before then. Despite being on zero drugs or alcohol during the set, I knew then that I was going to really love seeing more live electronic music as the crowd danced to bangers like ‘Gosh’ and ‘Girl’. ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’ is a banger now and it was a banger then as everyone rocked and grooved to Jamie’s beats and British dancing, while he blared recordings of arguably Thugger’s most legendary verses. Yet the finest moment of the set is when I eagerly watched him slowly build up sound after sound, with no clue where he was going, before hearing some dutty synths and realising, alongside the enamoured crowd, that he was about to play a mix of ‘Don’t You Want Me.’ Being 16 and dancing in that sweaty tent with people of all ages and of all creeds, most of them probably very fucked up, to that classic song was an exuberant moment of pure ecstasy and fraternity. It also taught me a valuable lesson for when I would eventually take the AUX at parties: if you play throwback bangers, people will vibe.

Frank Ocean @ Panorama Music Festival, NYC (28/07/2017)

Mm mm yes, it is true I did see Frank Ocean live in person. Now I will admit I had consumed an edible that was waaaay too strong for poor 17 year-old Rob beforehand and my friends had to sit me down on the lawn halfway through the set because I thought my body was a singular mass and was convinced I was biting my lip off, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a fantastic time lying there watching him play. He started after a fantastic Solange set which made the expectations for this performance even higher, but after he had bailed on pretty much every other festival he had agreed to that summer, most of us were praying he’d even show up. Thankfully, not only did he show up, he gave the performance that Blonde was meant for, and I don’t think he’s ever done it like that since.

Frank had his own separate stage in the center of the crowd, rather than at the front, which he had built to look like a dorm room. He wore headphones, a t-shirt that read “WHY BE RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC, OR TRANSPHOBIC WHEN YOU COULD JUST BE QUIET, and some off-white Nike Prestos. I don’t think there was a moment that people weren’t singing along and swarming that stage, yet he felt right at home, casually talking with the crowd like he didn’t just drop arguably the most important album of the decade the year prior. He joked casually, asking if anyone had heard Endless to a roar from the crowd to which he smirked saying, “Oh so you all got Apple Music?” When he brought up his band from below, revealing Alex G to be playing guitar or acknowledged that it was Spike Jonze filming the performance for the wider screens to broadcast, it just added to the mysticism that Frank Ocean was both amazingly personal and relatable to anyone, yet commanded the talent of gods. He combined quiet chatter about the year he’s had and his life in general, easing into songs as if he was just spontaneously singing in his room. Standing on the edge of the stage, he casually mused, “poolside convo, about your summer last night” and the hearts of the crowd collectively swelled, knowing what was next. As he gave us ‘Self Control’, it felt natural, like he was singing to us individually, but it had all the passion anyone could have wanted. He ended with “Nikes,” to which my friend who had snuck out from his strict parents to see the show was literally lifted by some stranger through the crowd throughout. As the beat dropped and we knew it was the end of a performance of an album that was personal and beloved, but only because life is so difficult, there was a sense of both beautiful peace and discomfort in the air around us. It was 2017, I was 17 years old. The world was changing and so was I. Frank Ocean sang, “I’m not him, but I’ll mean something too” and every person in the crowd knew his pain.

BROCKHAMPTON @ Irving Plaza, NYC (09/02/2018)

I knew the day SATURATION II came out that I wasn’t going to care about this band in a year’s time. 2017 was a pretty shitty year for me, the year prior had been one where I had come into my own a bit and I felt the next year I’d somewhat stepped backwards. I also thought it was a pretty terrible year for albums, with a few exceptions, maybe the most obvious being the SATURATION trilogy. They came out of nowhere, catapulted into fame by an Anthony Fantano review and all the swagger in the world. By the time their second album came out, they had all the hype a band could ever want, and by their third in December they outsold Eminem on release day. Yet, it was glaringly apparent that they were a band of that specific moment. I paid $110 for this concert on resale, imploring two friends to do the same, because I knew that if there was ever a time to see them live, it’d be then. I’d like to think I was right. 

On a freezing February night stretched around the block, we waited hours, conversing with strangers who heard rumours that Jaden Smith, Halsey, and the Anthony Fantano were in the venue for this. A man strode past wearing a Birthday Boy sash, asked who we were seeing and upon realising he’d never heard of them said, “today’s my 30th birthday and I don’t know the band everyone’s around the corner to see. Shit, I’m old” and promptly left for us to go inside. Soon after, the madness began. When the lights turned off, we all knew ‘BOOGIE’ was coming and somehow the onslaught of the opening still was surprising. I still have a recording of that show beginning, and it’s a true miracle that my phone was not destroyed by the sea of movement. The whole thing was just madness. My friends and I were painted blue, yet by the end my facepaint was entirely washed off by sweat alone. I had a promposal sign I was gonna flex at Merlyn if I got to the front — it was destroyed 1 minute into ‘BOOGIE.’ It was just a concert of dozens of little stories, such as my friend getting to the front row and drunkenly harassing Anthony Fantano about why he doesn’t like The Strokes, my other friend inadvertently smoking PCP that he presumed was weed from a girl who looked like a corpse and then nearly having sex in the crowd. Matt Champion singing his verse hanging off the balcony next to Halsey, the group playing ‘STAR’ 4 times in a row, each time getting rowdier, them cutting the music to ‘BLEACH’, hearing the crowd scream the final lines as Kevin yelled “New York City, you my choir!” It was all fleeting. Even if Ameer hadn’t been revealed to be a predator and was justifiably kicked out, leaving the band without its hardest-rapping member, no one sustains the hype they’d built that quickly. I saw them at a festival a year later and I felt old compared to the 13 year-olds in the crowd and they seemed, in many ways, like a shell of themselves. But that night as they played “HEAT’ for their final song, the crowd unraveled, circles formed of people throwing themselves on the ground and a man gestured towards me and my friend yelling “THROW ME!” Perhaps from the strength of him having being drugged earlier, my friend with his eyes glazed over nodded vigorously and we each grabbed one leg, and as I struggled we pushed up and my friend threw that man into the crowd. How do you ever live up to that?

Car Seat Headrest @ O2 Forum, Kentish Town (08/11/2018)

I am something of a Car Seat Headrest stan, I’ll admit. I first heard of Will Toledo’s project a few months before his debut studio release Teens of Denial dropped when I heard someone do a gushing write-up about the project’s potential from an early stan on r/indieheads. Before the project dropped I was already obsessed, going through Will’s older Bandcamp work and when the album did drop it felt like it was written for me in all of my 16 year-old angsty glory. I saw him on that tour and they were certainly good, but their re-recording of Twin Fantasy in 2018 (an album I already adored in its lo-fi state) brought my obsession to another level and I decided to travel down from Edinburgh to London to see them in the fall of my first year of uni.

If you’ve never been there, Kentish Town’s O2 Forum is absolutely gorgeous. It is everything a mid-size concert hall should be, and I’m sure the band felt it. Their openers, Naked Giants, were chaotic and amazing, getting the crowd energised for the main event. They joined Car Seat to play various instruments to fill out their sound in the show, and it was evident from the start of ‘Cosmic Hero’ that this was not the same band I’d seen a year ago. Will had swagger and confidence, stretching out his arms like Jesus, singing and dancing while the band filled out the music. I’ve seldom seen crowds more joyous and excited than that London show, people moshed and danced like I could never have expected as someone who had really only listened to their music sad in my room. Maybe everyone else had felt the same way, because there was this energy of surprise and joy that we were all finally around other people who resonated with Will’s words and wanted to dance to the lyrics that had helped us survive. Will, who is not generally a particularly excitable guy, had a fat grin on his face as soon as he saw this crowd’s reaction. In the middle of the set he announced this would be the only show where they’d be playing ‘Vincent’, the first Car Seat song I’d ever heard, and they played it brilliantly. They played their standard encore of ‘Beach-life-in-Death’ during the set and did a magnificent encore of ‘Something Soon’ instead. But easily the best moment was hearing what they had done to their breakout hit a few years back: ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.’ A somewhat, shaggy indie rock tune that captured alt rock radios and playlists for its light tone, clever lyrics, and a chorus that made you want to scream along, had become drastically changed throughout that tour. Suddenly there was a beautiful synth intro, confidence and passion from Will, tight instrumentality, and an outro that was poignant and mind-blowing. The crowd certainly felt that way too, launching into an incredible pit of smiles, excitement, and laughter as it climaxed and Will roared that final chorus like I never thought he could. I was validated that the show was indeed special months later when they released a fantastic live album of that tour and included two songs from that London set (one of only seven performances to be included, and one of only two that had two songs featured). One of them, of course, was ‘Drunk Drivers’, and everytime I play it and show it to others, I close my eyes and I’m able to be taken back to an utterly perfect reason for live music to exist. 

Tyler, the Creator @ Governor’s Ball Music Festival, NYC (31/05/2019)

Odd Future and specifically Tyler, the Creator, was my adolescence. When me and my friends were sniveling assholes who wanted to hear angry, disgusting bars about being hormonal and frustrated, Tyler was there. When we started to grow up and our pain turned to melancholy instead of anger and our understanding of others grew, Tyler was there with Flower Boy. And then, when we knew ourselves a bit better and needed a mature, powerful work about love and loss, he dropped IGOR. It was only a year ago, but it feels like such a distinct moment in time. It came out on my birthday and even before then, when it was announced the week prior, something already felt different about this one. There was a sense from how Tyler treated it, with its quick release with little promotion but a paragraph from Tyler on its significance, that this was the one all his work had been building to. And pretty immediately into my first listen I realised it was indeed. Tyler was a star, he no longer needed to credit features on the song titles to get streams. He was the conductor and a talented array of performers were his orchestra, helping him realise his vision, much like Kanye when he dropped Twisted Fantasy or Frank Ocean with Blonde. And I immediately felt validated that I had purchased tickets for the Friday of Governor’s Ball 2019, where Tyler was to play his first-ever headlining set at a festival. 

May 31st was a beautiful summer’s day where we snuck in jugs of alcohol into the familiar hub of Randall’s Island Park using plastic flasks which we kept in our underwear. There were a lot of great sets that day (shoutout to Mitski and apologies to the people who got annoyed when I tried to start a pit to many of her songs), and we had a great time getting drunk on the lawn and meeting up with the various acquaintances who’d made the trip from Jersey for the day, but waiting at the mainstage for Tyler it was clear that this was the main event. He strutted on to ‘IGOR’S THEME’ and he seemed unrecognizable from the immature jackass I had known and adored just 5 years prior. He commanded the stage and everyone in that crowd ate up every movement he made in his blonde wig and suit. This was the first time he would play any of these songs live and when he launched into ‘I THINK’ following his introduction, the crowd immediately started to mosh and scream along to a song that had only dropped a week prior. He blushed afterwards saying, “How y’all already know the words?” After a brief pause, he dropped into ‘NEW MAGIC WAND’ and it was evident that IGOR was not only one of the best albums of the decade, but that this would be one of the best performances. Song after song, Tyler had us hooked, becoming the Michael Jackson-esque star he’d dreamed in his own unique vision, performing costume changes and inciting riots in the crowd from his bombastic movements and bars. I will always be able to say that I heard ‘EARFQUAKE’ played live for the first time and helped a crazy friend of mine lead a pit of what felt like hundreds of people as the chorus dropped (thankfully, someone preserved this on video and I revel in showing it to others). When he played older tunes like ‘Tamale’ I moshed like all hell for my 14 year-old self, with every person in the crowd exuberant at this perfect crossover between nostalgia and the future. He closed with ‘See You Again’ and there was no better way to end that day and that moment than those nostalgic chords and hook that had turned him into someone respected 2 years prior. As the horns faded and announced his exit, Tyler left the stage a different person than when he entered. He was an undeniable star and he had just seen a crowd of people realise that they just witnessed the first performance of a bonafide masterpiece.

black midi @ Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh (17/02/2020)

What’s crazy is that this show was not even 3 months ago, yet it feels like 3 years! Quarantines are awesome. Jokes aside, like most of these artists, black midi is a band that was evidently a game-changer to me. Unlike most of these artists, I was well aware of that walking in and had pretty high expectations that are almost never met by performers. black midi dropped Schlagenheim in June of 2019 and anybody who had any knowledge of the current post-punk scene knew it was gonna be a big deal long before it dropped. Then, lo and behold, it dropped and was a big deal. Yet, even with those expectations I was still blown away and still come back to it frequently to this day. Same goes with their tour. When I saw them, they had done a small Europe tour, a full North American tour, and were in the middle of a second tour through the UK and some of Europe again. Most times when you see that type of show, unless the band is having a hot day, it’s not going to be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. The band has a set, they hit the notes, they perform, then they go to the next city. I don’t know if black midi was even having a hot night when I saw them, what felt more accurate to what I was witnessing was that they were just so talented, so expressive, and such good performers, that a standard mid-tour show in a mid-size city like Edinburgh was enough to be one of the best shows I and many in that crowd had ever seen. 

Me and my pals got there shortly before they went on and the crowd was packed, forcing us to stand in the corner of Liquid Rooms next to drummer Morgan Simpson for the first few songs, surrounded by middle-aged folk who were clearly not going to budge an inch. I was fascinated enough by just watching Simpson perform, hitting intricate rhythm after intricate rhythm, changing time signatures and tempos with such precision that he didn’t bat an eye. After playing new songs, all of which have me ridiculously excited for what they do next, they started on ‘Speedway’, with bassist Cameron Picton, taking the mic for the robotic, creepy vocals, while they taunted the audience with their dark, jazzy rhythms and movements. I decided then that no matter what I was getting into the pit and dragged my flatmates, most of whom have not been in many proper pits into what I knew was going to be utter chaos. Launching into ‘Of Schlagenheim’, I made my move into the crowd, bolting through a small opening as Geordie Greep took back vocals on a gritty song that builds and stops and starts, rising to the point of complete chaos and violent screaming. The crowd ate up every note, thrashing each other so much that the freezing Edinburgh February night became a sauna of sweat and shoving that no one realised would be pretty much outlawed for the foreseeable future. They just kept going and going. 8-minute tracks like ‘Western’ may as well have been 30 seconds they were so engrossing and the energy from them or the crowd never diminished as they went through their album. Greep just kept snarling and bending with his shaved head and tight shirt looking like Renton in Trainspotting, and the whole band playing at such a top level and never pausing for a moment to stop the deep intricacies and mastery of instruments that these songs provided. During ‘Ducter’, I decided to show my flatmates how it was done and began to lead the pit, slamming my hands on the ground, writhing at the edge of the growing pit as the song built before launching into a cavalcade of fists, bodies, and energy. Yet, the night was not over. While, Simpson laid a towel over his head and caught his breath and every member of the band looked human on the verge of collapsing for the first time all evening, Greep began a gorgeous new guitar ballad, singing raw and solo into the mic as the melody grew and veered into a thing of beauty. The sweaty, tired crowd stood in marvel at this quiet, beautiful piece that he quietly sung, balancing his guitar on his leg while sitting on his guitar amp. black midi did not need to meet anyone’s conventions of what they should sound like. They knew they were the most talented motherfuckers out there and if they wanted to end their raucous set on a cautious, quiet guitar ballad in the middle of a year-long tour, they knew they’d have the attention of the crowd until the very last note.

Image (Car Seat Headrest at O2 Forum, Kentish Town): Rob Bazaral