This week, a conversation-starting question popped up on my social media feeds, which I’ll paraphrase this way: “What was the last show you went to before the world fell apart?” It seems like a lifetime ago, though it’s only been two months.
In my case, the answer was Americana songwriter Robbie Fulks, accompanied by fiddle player Jenny Scheinman, at the Locks at Sona in Manayunk on Sunday, March 8.
It wrapped up a busy weekend in my former music-going life. On Friday, I’d seen Spider Stacy and Cait O’Riordan and the Lost Bayou Ramblers play a WXPN-FM (88.5) Free at Noon show at the World Cafe Live. On Saturday, in what now seems like a dangerous trip, I’d sat in a crowded New York theater and watched the play Coal Country, with Steve Earle doing eight songs onstage.
And that was it, maybe for the duration of 2020. As the late bluesman Guitar Slim sang on an LP I dug out of my basement the other day: “The things that I used to do ... I don’t do no more.”
Instead, like everybody else, I stay home and try to make my way through an anxious coronavirus present while keeping from panicking about an uncertain future. And the way to do that, pop culturally speaking, is to live in the past.
It’s now a quantifiable trend among pop music consumers. Streams of the top 200 songs on Spotify fell 28% between mid-March and mid-April, according to MRC Data and Nielsen Music. And as pop’s fortunes have suffered, what Spotify defines as “catalog music” — songs more than a year and a half old — now account for 63% of total streams.
Oh sure, there’s still excellent new music being released. Childish Gambino, X, Laura Marling, Lucinda Williams, and Fiona Apple have all put out stellar albums since the world’s been on lockdown. Jason Isbell’s Reunions is coming soon.
And live streams have kept in-the-moment performance alive, from virtual festivals like last weekend’s Love From Philly and the highly anticipated Erykah Badu v. Jill Scott Verzuz battle scheduled for Sunday, to individual artists who stream nearly every night.
Of the latter, my most heroically dependable faves are Questlove’s DJ sets on the Roots’ You Tube channel, and the homey the Tweedy Show with Wilco leader Jeff and sons Spencer and Sammy, on Susie Tweedy’s Stuff At Our House Instagram.
But for the most part, if you’re seeking to escape the terror of the moment and find artistic nourishment, the not-so-long-ago good-old days are a welcoming place for a retreat.
As April drew to a close, I realized it was the first month I hadn’t gone to see any live music at all since I was 16, probably. Nights without concerts have meant time for bingeing, and taste in my house tends towards grisly British crime dramas and 1970s paranoid movie thrillers like The Parallax View. Life seemed bad then, but not as bad as it is now.
The Michael Jordan ESPN hagiography The Last Dance helps fill a sports void, with Jordan’s 1990s greatness on display. But there’s a music angle, too. It boasts an on-point hip-hop soundtrack from a golden era, scored by LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, and Black Sheep.
And there’s more ‘90s hip-hop and dance music nostalgia in the air. Beastie Boys Story, Spike Jonze’s documentary, mines that period with the Three Stooges of rap. And Future Nostalgia, the new album by pop star Dua Lipa, transports the listener back to the era, with joyous disco in debt to Madonna and Chic.
So I am following the impulse to reach back to the tried-and-true. For me, that’s meant playing a game of “Random Vinyl" and pulling out an LP to spin, without looking to see what it is. I’ve hit the jackpot lately with the Pretenders’ Learning To Crawl and Otis Rush’s The Classic Recordings.
Bringing up a selection of records from the basement from the alphabetized M’s yielded a big payoff: the McGarrigle Sisters, the Mekons, Memphis Slim, and Thelonious Monk. Digging through the garage turned up roadtrip mixtapes to convert to Spotify playlists, like one called “Lost Highway” with that title song by both Hank Williams and Jason & the Scorchers. Genius!
Musically, we’re looking back because we have time on our hands and anxiety to ease, and in the digital era, there’s an endless supply of content to reexplore.
Artists like Nick Cave have opened up their archives with 24/7 streams. I have fond memories of seeing the Who’s movie The Kids Are Alright at the Tower Theater in the early 1980s. Having watched it again on Amazon Prime, I’m happy to report that it’s as staggeringly good as I remembered.
And of course, the other reason we’d love to turn back the clock is that this moment is so filled with tragedy and loss and worry. Deaths in the music community have come at an alarming rate in 2020, from COVID-19 and other causes.
If we go back and listen to John Prine or Bootsie Barnes or Bill Withers or Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, we can bring ourselves back to a time when they were still with us.
Now, all of this backsliding is contradictory to the creative credo regularly espoused by artists and critics to always boldly venture into the future. Embrace the new. Experimentation and flouting convention is prized. Repeating yourself and giving in to nostalgia leads to artistic death.
Dont Look Back, Bob Dylan urged — without an apostrophe — in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary. David Bowie and Madonna perfected the act of reinvention, as artists who not only presented new music every time out, but a new self.
There’s a wonderful Bob Marley story that encapsulates the idea of refusing to retreat. After a soundcheck in Miami, a journalist asked, “Are we going back to the hotel now?” “No,” he replied, “We’re going forward to the hotel.” Always forward.