Live after COVID
By Francis Bryan
The COVID epidemic has presented us with many bizarre scenes, and one of the most poignant is the sight of performers – whether they be rock stars, opera singers or football teams – performing in front of a non-existent audience.
Of course there is always the barrier between the artist and the audience, and the bigger the artist, the bigger the barrier, and that probably makes this sort of thing easier. But in the case of a metal band, particularly a promising but less well-known local metal band, it must be creepy as hell to stand up on stage in front of exactly no one and carry on as if it were the greatest gig ever.
For example, Hellfest took place this June in Clisson, France, just the same as it has every June since 2006: the oldest and biggest live metal festival in France. I was there in person in 2010 and went back virtually in 2021, and the contrast was … not ear-shattering. In fact, the contrast was to be read in silences.
The environment was obviously different. In 2010 I danced myself to near oblivion and met interesting strangers from all over the world until I could stand no longer, and then blundered away, half deaf, to a tent in a cold muddy field full of happy metalheads speaking a whole kaleidoscope of languages. In 2021 I sat on a warm cosy couch with two of my best friends, watching the bands play on TV while we ate chips and chatted. From my perspective, those were two completely different experiences, like the difference between watching a football game and watching it from your favourite local pub. Imagine how different it must have been for the bands!
There are certain things that are still the same. Then as now, the bands were delighted to be playing for a crowd (as opposed to not playing at all, which is what COVID has brought to many), and the audience was still excited about seeing the show. In fact, it was still a good way for new bands to get exposure. Despite the empty stadium, the audience was still there. We were merely removed by an extra degree – very much present, and an even bigger crowd than ever, because we didn't all have to travel to Clisson.
And that is how Hellfest presented itself this year – trying to juggle the dissonance between the old normal and the "new normal". The pyrotechnics were still laid on just as lavishly, to the point of setting up giant fire-belching machines that no one got to see up-close except the crew and the guys on stage. The sound engineering was excellent, since they didn't have to worry about playing across a field of people, and they could concentrate on the mix that went to the feed. The camerawork was excellent, making creative use of drones to give us shots from angles that we'd never have been able to see ourselves.
The bands proclaimed themselves in full make-up and melodrama, acting for the cameras which zoomed in close to the band and then went swooping across the panorama of the massive concert stage and the non-existent concert audience.
We were there. We were really "there". We saw them, but they didn't see us. We didn't even see the rest of the audience, outside the lounge in Cape Town. We knew they were there, like a vast crowd of ghosts, but there was no one looking back at us, and no one looking back at the band.
Despite the make-up and explosives, the effect was nothing like a live performance. We were safe, we were in control of our experience. We could pass comments, munch popcorn, go to the toilet, or even turn the music down as if we were listening to an album. That is not live music. It destroys the impact and concentration, the excitement and the adventure.
"Virtual" can never be a visceral or immersive experience. Live audiences have to suffer for the art, and they mix with a crowd of like-minded strangers. Relationships are born. The unexpected happens. Trying to feel that in a live broadcast is like being on stage at Hellfest and trying to hear the crowd cheering.
As the Ensiferum vocalist, Petri Lindroos, said on the night: "Next time hopefully we'll have all you guys over here, because this is just all too weird."