The Magic of Live Music
During peak COVID period, for about a year or two, the pandemic had shut down pretty much everything. We were all forced to adjust our entertainment experiences for the greater good — no live concerts, no live theater shows, and no movies. Those of us who enjoy going to live concerts found ourselves missing something big in our lives. There was a lot of uncertainty and many entertainers were suddenly left without any work. And for many of these entertainers, it meant their livelihood was completely disrupted for the worse.
So, many of these entertainers, especially musicians, relegated to entertaining their fans through Zoom and through other tech means. I never took into experiencing live performances on my computer or phone, so I did not relegate myself into watching my favorite musicians and bands perform live over Zoom or webcasts. I recalibrated my want to go to live concerts and settled for plenty of YouTube videos of past concerts and performances. All in the name of sacrificing for the greater good.
One of the concert tours that I was so looking forward to in 2020 was the All Access AR Rahman tour of North America. Needless to say, I was disappointed when it got indefinitely postponed. And earlier this year, when they announced that the tour would kick-off in the summer of 2022, I decided I would more than make up for my 2020 dissapointment by attending multiple concerts in this tour. I had picked Seattle, Detroit (home venue for me), and Toronto as the three concerts I would attend. Seattle and Toronto — Because they were supposed to be the first and the last concerts of the tour. That was until they added Vancouver ahead of Seattle and announced it just 2 or 3 weeks before the tour kicked off. I couldn’t change my travel plans. So I begrudgingly settled for the second concert of the tour.
Aug 28, 2022 was the last concert of the tour in Toronto and I am writing this a few hours after I got to witness the magic of AR Rahman and his band of performers for one last time in 2022. The band of singers and musicians who traveled with AR Rahman in 2022 was perhaps smaller than what they would have likely planned in a pre-pandemic world. But the technical crew had put together such an amazing mix of sound and light shows in these concerts with immersive projections, that it’s hard not to feel appreciative of the sweat and work that had gone behind this tour.
One of the first questions I am sure I will get asked by anyone who reads this post or by anyone who finds out what I did this summer would be, “Were you craving so much for live concerts to return? What is the appeal? And why 3 concerts in the same tour?”.
I am sure I certainly am not alone when it comes to appreciating the magic of live music concerts.
So what’s the big deal? Why do we/I enjoy live music so much?
The general consensus about music is that it communicates emotions. Right? Music communicates emotions better than words. Words of the songs you listen to convey ideas, knowledge, and sometimes subtle messages. But it’s music that transmits emotions.
Then, why go to a live concert at all, if all music does is to communicate emotions? What’s the difference between listening to your favorite music on a CD/LP player or from the internet in the comforts of your home and listening to the same music, live, played by your favorite musicians on stage?
Well. Turns out music does more than just communicate.
Music helps us create emotional and physical bonds with others. After all, it’s been proven that we need periodic interactions with others for our own mental well-being. And nothing brings us closer to people, that too a group of perfect strangers like a live music event does. The bond you form during a live concert may be temporary but it’s real and one whose foundation is unadulterated happiness.
Firstly, when you to go to a particular venue to watch a concert, the atmosphere of the venue itself is a great positive influencer. Large projection screens, colorful lights, pyrotechnics, crazy props, giant holograms, strobe lights, confetti, etc. — they all are unique to the venue and you’ll never be able to recreate them at home while listening to the same music.
Secondly, the crowd.
The sense of community experienced at a live-music event is so unique. Is there anything more magical than the experience of singing along to your favorite song in unison with hundreds or thousands of other people around you? How can you not get mesmerized by the moment the performer stops singing and lets the audience take over in one of those popular songs? A live music concert is one place where when you look around, you see only people loving the same thing as you do. All you see are smiles, dancing, and happiness. There is something wonderfully powerful about sharing the love for the same thing with a large group of strangers. And there’s something extremely empowering in knowing you are not alone, even if only for a 90-minute set (or a 165-minute set I got to witness in this tour).
At a concert venue, our mutual tuning-in toward one another gives us a great sense of belonging. Even if you are not moving your body, if the person next to you starts gesturing or starts making body movements to the beats and the rhythm of the song being played, you start responding to those rhythms to be in sync. The pleasing effect of syncing with the people around you makes the emotional satisfaction you get from listening to the same music at home on your music system and at a live concert, fundamentally very different. Even when apparent movements are limited, you absolutely feel the presence of others, a mass of bodies that break through your personal bubble in a welcoming manner.
Thirdly, the live performance itself.
When you are listening to a studio version of a song on your CD, the visual you have is all that you can imagine. But when you watch artists perform the same song live on stage, you realize that there is a direct emotional connect you have with the artists. Something impossible to do while you are listening to the same song at home.
Because artists/performers put their hearts and souls into performing these songs live, and you get to see it all in flesh and blood, sometimes, live versions of particular songs can provide an entirely new connotation every time you listen to them after the live concert.
And often, artists are known for trying out different versions of the same song in live concerts — much different from the studio versions. There is a thrill when they do that. The new guitar riffs, the new drum solos where the drummer goes wild for one long minute, the absolute bonkers bass improv, and the singer crooning and jamming with the musicians, etc. etc. — Ah!! Just the intoxicating stimulation you get out of being able to watch these amazing little music surprises live on stage cannot be put into words.
But really, the reason why I traveled out of town to watch two live concerts from the same tour in addition to the hometown concert is that AR Rahman concerts outside India are a thing of beauty. Because he is the first and perhaps the last Indian musician (?!) who has managed to build an aura around himself that could draw audience speaking multiple languages in thousands with equal fervor. So, the more venues I get to experience that beauty and fervor, the more satisfying it is for the fan in me. Pulling off multilingual concerts are both risky and extremely challenging (mainly for the singers). For example, in every concert in this tour, when the band starts playing the iconic prelude to the “Mukkala Muqabla” song, the whole arena vibrates in anticipation. There is an element of surprise that builds up as the crowd waits to see if he is going to sing the Hindi version or the Tamil version. He starts off with the Hindi version and the Hindi speaking section of the audience gets an extra spring on their dancing feet. They sing along, they cheer, and dance. And then, after the first antra/charanam, when he comes back to singing the mukhda/pallavi again, he sings the Tamil version, and you could tell that he knows what is going to happen. He has a smile. And then the whole arena reverberates with the Tamil speaking section breaking into a loud cheer and they start to sing along. This friendly back and forth battle and banter of “Who gets to cheer the loudest?” happens between the different linguistic sections inside the concert arena for multiple songs. This is an experience by itself and is so unique to AR Rahman concerts. I personally get so much joy experiencing this every single time this happens. Unity in Diversity is such a powerful thought India has given to the world, and an AR Rahman concert is the perfect venue to actually witness it.
The production team, BToS productions, known for its state of the art concert productions in the Indian live events scene, has managed to pull off another grand spectacle of sorts. This tour in particular must have been rough for them. 23 concerts in 45 days. With two back-back-back-back sets (Doing concerts in 4 different cities in 4 consecutive nights, twice). The lighting, the projections, the creatives, sound design, and more, made this tour experience more than just a musical concert experience.
With AR Rahman’s repertoire being so vast, it is logistically implausible to do these tours with the original singers of the studio recorded versions of the songs that were part of the setlist. So, they have always had to rely on a smaller group of versatile singers to carry the weight of these concerts. Jonita Gandhi was the absolute singing star of the tour without a doubt. This was Rakshita Suresh’s debut tour with AR Rahmam and she has already shown promises to do what Jonita has been doing in these concerts for the past few years. And there was Haricharan. I have seen his multilingual versatility in the past tours. Although he didn’t have to carry as much weight as Jonita did in this tour, he was pitching in with backing vocals wherever he could besides pulling off the songs in which he was the lead singer with ease. Finally, the man himself. Rahman used to be a very conscious stage singer. Over the years, he has evolved into a much more comfortable one now and he was seen having a ball on stage. No matter the song, when the crowd cheered for him every single time he hit a high note (of which there were many in the setlist), I am sure he experienced a performer’s high.
Out of the rest of the band — Ranjit Barot (drums) and Keba Jeremiah (guitar) have huge fan following of their own and in all the three venues, I witnessed loud cheers for them when they did their solos. Nilanjana (bassist), Nakul Abhyankar (keys/vocals), Hriday (keys/vocals), Ashwin (flautist), Bhavin (vocals), and guest rap appearances by Shuba and ThoughtsForNow at a few venues made up the rest of the onstage crew and they all delivered a wholesome entertainment package to make the tour what it turned out to be.
And finally, one major aspect of listening to live music is the engagement between the artists and the fans. Each one of us could walk away from a live concert with specific personal moments. Making eye contact with one of the artists on stage, or better, with the lead artist, or standing in the first row and touching the artist’s hands when he/she reaches out to the crowd, or when the singer responds to you when you yell something which he/she was able to hear, or just absorbing the incredible energy of the audience when they croon together in unison for the chorus bits of your favorite song — these all are personal moments that you’d never ever get from listening to the same music at home.
From Seattle to Detroit to Toronto, I soaked in many such personal moments like above. For example, in Seattle, someone in the crowd shouted “Thailavaa”, which Rahman seemed to have picked up. He was quick to respond with a smile, and then said “Enna?” (What?). A section of the crowd went wild witnessing that artist to fan exchange. As if on cue, the next song he had on his setlist was “Enna Sona” (from “OK Jaanu”). As someone who digs wordplays, I thoroughly enjoyed that playfulness and his presence of mind.
Likewise, at every venue when he sang the following lines in the song “Mukkala Muqabla”, he tweaked these lines a bit, and replaced Texas with the respective city he was performing in.
Texasil Aadi Varudhu
For example, in Detroit, he sang like this:
Detroit-il Aadi Varudhu
The moment the crowd hears their city name, there is an instant connection with the artist and they go wild. Again, personal moments like these make live concerts euphoric.
In Toronto, given its history of the Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka, he added a new mash-up. There was a bit of “Moopilla Thamizh” mashed up with “Undhan Desathin Kural” (Tamil version of “Yeh Joh Des Hai” from Swades). He kept looping around the line “Sondha veedunnai vaaavendru azhaikkudhada Thamizha” multiple times, as he knew this line kind of tugs the hearts of the diaspora. (I mean this song is such an emotional pincher for many of us who have left India and have settled in other countries). And the mash-up got better when he hooked the word “Thamizha” from this song to “Thamizha Thamizha” from Roja, and went onto sing a few lines of that song. That took me by a pleasant surprise and I relished that. The connection he made with the crowd in Scotiabank Arena during those 3–4 minutes with this mash-up and the personal moments he created for many in the process are inexplicable.
When they performed the song “Azhagiyae” from “Kaatru Veliyidai”, they decided to engage with the crowd by zooming the camera on a few randomly selected female fans in the crowd and by projecting them live on the huge screen on stage. The Kiss Cam version of the All Access AR Rahman tour, if you will. Those who were caught on camera were usually not expecting these few seconds of fame, and their reactions typically ranged from embarrassment to totally owning the moment. Either way, the crowd invariably enjoyed the attention these fans got every single time and they went wild by cheering for them.
These are the experiences of being at a live concert that produce a distinct level of euphoria. The experiences that engage artists with the fans and create personal moments for them are why being in live concerts mean so much to many.
Still don’t quite get why I crave for live concerts?
I give up.
See, live music events are positively correlated with a person’s sense of well-being. According to one study, it doesn’t matter what type of music events — be at local cafes, clubs, bars, concert arenas, or outdoor music festivals, people who attended these community music events reported higher levels of overall life satisfaction.
Live concerts are not about recreating studio versions of the songs you are familiar with and performing them to perfection. Live concerts are about enjoying the spontaneity of the artistic moments of brilliance and flaws. Live concerts are about finding a sense of belonging in a community which shares only happiness and love for 165 minutes.
The magic of live music concerts is real.