The unique joy of seeing an artist grow over time
This week, I was lucky enough receive a last minute invitation to watch Florence +The Machine play The 02. It was the third or fourth time I’ve seen Welch, who started her career not far from the Greenwich arena, spending her formative years knocking about the ramshackle pubs of South London.
There are many joys that come with being someone who is asked to write about music for a living (and sometimes paid for it). One that’s often less remarked upon is the specific pleasure that emerges from seeing an artist perform multiple times across the arc of their career. This is not to say that anyone can’t buy tickets to see Welch whenever she’s in town, or follow her around Europe, Grateful Dead-style. But regular gig-going is an expensive business, particularly when the band you love is selling out two nights at a venue that also has its own cinema and shopping mall.
This sort of aerial view, then, is a great privilege; something I have always known but only recently fully appreciated. It allows writers to witness the growth of an artist, as they mature into an otherworldly shaman that can speak to and induce mild hysteria among tens of thousands of people. One could argue that this insight is available simply by listening to the records — four for Florence, five for Foals, six for Arctic Monkeys and so on — or watching the accompanying video clips, examining subtle changes in sound and aesthetic. But this still only provides half of the story.
The stage is where the disparate elements of what makes a true artist crystallise. It’s the culmination of all the extraneous bits you see, hear and scroll by on Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and Snapchat. Welch, bohemian darling that she has been since day dot, has also written books and starred in multiple fashion campaigns. These still do not tell us as much about her as the way she glides across a stage of her own making, with a live band she has chosen, playing songs she has written for an audience that have given of their time and money to focus solely on the aforementioned experience.
It’s often said that you can’t really know or love an artist until you see them live. I happen to believe this is true. It’s not the only thing that’s important, but it’s the one part you cannot make do without. You can write the best tweets and create the coolest videos with the most in-demand directors, but if you can’t back it up on a stage, you’re dead in the water. The rest is just noise. There is a reason multiple VR companies are trying to break into the live performance space. Nothing else comes close.
Music is one of the toughest businesses out there. To survive its myriad obstacles and become a star, let alone one that is still popular ten years into ones’ career, remains astoundingly impressive. The live show, particularly in the context of prior performances, allows us a rare insight into how artists do it. We can see what they have built, examine what has changed, remind ourselves of what works. An arena or stadium show is filtered through the prism of a large hall, an outdoor festival, a support slot, a tiny, sweaty club. We are all attached to the bands we love. For critics, subsumed by music 24 hours a day, this is somewhat amplified. We inadvertently adopt those voices we champion like wayward children.
2018 has proved particularly illuminating in this respect. It’s about ten years since I began writing about music in earnest, discounting an early crash landing into street press. Many of the artists that were the subject of my earliest profile pieces or reviews have now reached headline status, some despite significant odds. Arctic Monkeys, during their turbulent Humbug period, were by no means guaranteed to become a gargantuan cross-Atlantic success. Florence and I once spent an entire interview discussing her favourite Spice Girl because she thought talking about her debut album might jinx it. In 2009, I had to fight tooth and nail to get Flume featured in Rolling Stone.
The Internet has allowed us to intimately connect with artists on a granular level, but it has also shattered the need for context or history. We live in the era of attention deficit; you’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done — or your most recent headline. In a live show, especially one of their own, an artists’ discography and history breathes. Arrangements are reconfigured. Rarities are exhumed. They are a browser with 75 tabs open, a phone with multiple apps firing at once. The present, the future and most importantly, the past coalesce in every note.
The last two films I’ve seen have been about the tumultuous and tremendous lives of musicians, some real (Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody) others imagined (Lady Gaga’s Ally in A Star Is Born). Increasingly popular, this format works so well because it fills in our gaps of understanding, allowing us to witness an artist’s trajectory from the very beginning. For the price of a movie ticket, we can achieve a fleeting sense of connection with Queen, Ray Charles or Elton John, that would otherwise require a far more serious, ongoing commitment. This commitment, however, is worth it.
With Florence, it’s easy. The through-line is her voice, something that has managed to retain its gravitas despite a solid stint of hard-drinking, debauchery and relentless touring. It can knock you senseless at the 02 the same way it did at a pub, or that year at Splendour in The Grass when she spent most her her spare time giddily twirling backstage to The Strokes. In 40 years, Steve McQueen’s kid will probably make a great film about her. We’ll probably all cry at the end of it.
How incredibly blessed we are to be living that story right now.