Why Live Music?

Concerts are special. Not being able to experience live music in person was, for me, one of the biggest drawbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that we can gather again, I’m trying to get out more often.

Martyn Joseph, the Welsh sing-songwriter, played in Ottawa Friday night. He ends the Canadian leg of his latest tour this afternoon.

I’ve probably seen Martyn play a dozen times over the past 20 years or so, though this was the first time since 2016. In recent years I’ve been in Egypt or Germany when he was touring Canada, and in Canada when he was touring Germany. Just a scheduling thing, I don’t think he was really trying to avoid me.

Since I last saw him perform, Martyn has released five albums, and the set list Friday night was heavily weighted with new material. For many artists with 40 years as a recording artist that can be problematic – the fans want to hear the older material live. But there just isn’t enough time in a show to play even one song from each of Martyn’s 25 studio albums (not to mention a few EPs, collaborations and live albums). Not if you are going to tell the stories that go with the songs.

And it is the stories that make the live experience special. To hear how a song was inspired by a family car trip to Spain in 1965, by hearing a story about an obscure theologian, or of first-hand observation of oppression and suffering gives a context to the music that is missing from the recorded versions. The songs gain a new life when the commentary is added. but you can only fit so many stories and songs into a 90-minurte set.

The appeal of live music is one of the reasons why Martyn has released a dozen or so live albums – people want a memento of the show they have just seen. (I can understand that – a few years back, Switchfoot were selling CDs of the show they had just seen to people who attended their concerts. There was always a lineup to buy them.)

Over the years I have found that Martyn and I ask many of the same questions – though we don’t always come up with the same answers. His songs help me to think, adding a different perspective to some of the big questions: social justice, aging, parenting and relationships all come immediately to mind. He is honest about his struggles, and as an early song says, he treasures the questions.

I’m showing my age. I think of Martyn Joseph as relatively new to the music scene, someone who came along after I was already working in radio, as opposed to the musicians I grew up listening to. It is hard for me to accept that it has been 40 years since his first record was released. It just doesn’t seem that long.


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