With the coronavirus rendering many of the old ways of performing obsolete, musicians have found creative new ways to get their work out there. This includes a number of intimate online performances where artists have no choice but to do away with any flash and flourishes to focus directly on the songs themselves.
These six brilliant new songs, timely covers, and a DJ beat battle will help see us through until the world returns somewhere close to normal.
Michael Stipe - "No Time For Love Like Now"
The R.E.M. frontman has been pretty quiet since the band broke up in 2011. But over the past year, Stipe has shared a string of spare, electro-tinged solo songs, including this wistful number, which he recorded with the National's Aaron Dessner for his Big Red Machine project. In front of a solitary camera in a room that matches his green sweater, Stipe is accompanied only by a muted recording of the backing track. Stipe's vocals crack a bit here, and as he delivers the uncertain, anxious lines, "Whatever waiting means in this new place, I am waiting for you," we have our fragile anthem for these solitary times.
Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby - Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
Singer/songwriters Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield (aka Waxahatchee) perform an intimate four-song set from his Kansas City home. Crutchfield shares two tracks from her brilliant new record, Saint Cloud, "Fire" and "Lilacs," while Morby offers up his older song, "Beautiful Strangers," a benefit song for Everytown For Gun Safety that he wrote for the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
The mini-set closes with a transcendent cover of Songs: Ohia's "Farewell Transmission" from both Morby and Crutchfield. "Hearing any song and applying it to your current situation, you know you can bend the meaning of songs,” Morby says. “But there is something about this song that seems appropriate right now." And indeed, their emotional rendition of the track resonates in these dark times.
Phoebe Bridgers - "Kyoto"
Phoebe Bridgers is both endearing and vulnerable as she performs her ace new single, "Kyoto," while dressed in pajamas and sitting in her bathtub. The fact that this ultra-casual but deeply moving performance was broadcast to millions of people watching Jimmy Kimmel Live just reinforces how much the music and entertainment world has changed over the past month.
Normally, a musician would have a team of stylists, designers, and sound techs trying to make them look and sound amazing before a TV performance. Bridgers foregoes all of that, because none of it matters right now. We're all wearing our pajamas most of the day, and many of us sneak into the bathroom if we need some alone time and/or a good cry. Bridgers brings all of those elements together with this unguarded, minimalistic performance.
James Blake - "Say What You Will"
Instagram has been a wonderful way for musicians to connect directly with their fans and share impromptu live performances. English electropop singer/songwriter James Blake finally joined in the Instagram Live fray over the last few weeks, delivering two incredible solo piano sets where he covered Radiohead, Billie Eilish, Frank Ocean, his Beyoncé collaboration, Ray Charles, Joy Division, and Roberta Flack, in addition to his own material. He also debuted a tender-hearted new song, "Say What You Will" (at the 45:27 mark).
Blake actually has to restart the track when his voice breaks a bit, so his girlfriend Jameela Jamil fixes him up a cup of tea as he takes some questions from his social media followers. The song itself, a glorious, revelatory number about being ostracized and lonely, might undergo some transformations before we hear the finished version, but this rendition gave us all an unfiltered glimpse into Blake's current musical direction. "It's about being OK with the place you're at. Maybe not quite being where you intended to be, but ultimately coming to peace with how you are and what you are. And just generally saying fuck 'em all," Blake says after he's finished. Perfect.
Brandi Carlile - "Hello in There"
The night after John Prine died, Stephen Colbert invited Brandi Carlile on his show (remotely) to perform one of the legendary singer/songwriter’s songs. Colbert and Prine had forged a friendship over the years, as had Carlile. She turned in an incredible fireside version of "Hello in There" from her own home, working through her grief in the process.
"For the people who weren't familiar with his music, they are about to get a whole lot of truth dropped on them," Carlile says by way of introduction. "I think that this is a song John would have liked me to sing. Because this song refers to the people we're all staying home to protect. And it reminds us that older people aren't expendable, that they made us who we are and they've given us every single thing that we have." I was already an emotional wreck following Prine's death, and this beautiful cover just ruined me, in a good way.
DJ Premier vs. RZA Verzuz Battle
For the past few weeks, Timbaland and Swizz Beats have organized battles between hip-hop luminaries and legends on Instagram. But the competition was taken to another level when titans DJ Premier and RZA took each other on in front of over 180,000 social media followers. And the two musical innovators certainly rose to the occasion.
They began by shouting out all the other hip-hop heavyweights who were tuning into their feeds, as well as dropping some knowledge about rap’s legacy and its importance in New York, a city that clearly needed this welcome musical distraction. Most fans agree that Premier technically won the night. But with the two trading off classic tracks that they produced or took part in for 20 rounds, the results were like a blazing hip-hop history lesson that nobody walked away from a loser.