Guest writer: Shea McCollough
The first concert that I went to as a college student was one of the best nights of my life. It was the third week of school and I didn’t have a car, but when I saw that Cold War Kids was playing a free show only two hours away from me, I decided that it would be worth finding a ride. This ride came in the form of my Life Group leader, Josh Stephans, who was content to let me tag along anyway, but happily obliged when I offered to buy him food as payment.
We arrived in Nashville, bobbed our heads through the throng of openers that always seem to come along with free shows of this nature, and teemed with anticipation as they began setting the stage for the headlining group.
Then it started.
I had been to concerts before, but nothing quite this big. I was standing in the middle of a park with fifteen thousand other people, singing the lyrics to songs that had awakened an early high school me to the possibility of non-top-40 music. I knew that this music had changed me, and for the first time I could see that it had done the same thing to other people too. I danced and sang and even laughed as the drunk lady behind us kept accidentally burning Josh with the end of her cigarette as she danced. We drove back late talking about the night and the music and the small burn-holes that had now formed in the back of his favorite tank top.
I have been to many concerts since then, some that were far better and cost me far more money, but that night has always stuck with me. There is something incredibly profound about being surrounded by live music like that, whether it be coming from a stage or the fellow patrons who are standing around you and singing along.
These kinds of experiences are transformative in the same way that they are communal. They remind us that we are truly not as individual as we often strive to be, and this is a good thing. They humanize us, taking our focus off the instant gratification of entertainment and reorienting it towards the art that we are taking in; all of its nuances and complexities coming at us not just as individuals, but in the context of community. Taking in art in this way slows us down. It gives us time to reflect on all the possibilities that it presents. It makes us hospitable listeners and viewers who can take in the difficult things that we hear in music and see, rather than becoming defensive or deflecting.
I experienced something like this a few months later in my freshman year when I went to go see Sufjan Stevens play at the Ryman. Earlier in the year, Sufjan had released one of the most raw and vulnerable albums that I had ever heard. In Carrie and Lowell Stevens grappled, in eleven songs, with the scars of his childhood, the beauty of new life, the loss of his mother, the subsequent doubts of his faith, and so much more. And, as I sat in the pews of a one-hundred-and-twenty-five-year old former tabernacle and listened to him hand that over to me and the twenty-five-hundred other folks who were sitting there too, I began to feel the pain of a man I had never met, and empathize with hurt that I had never experienced. The weightiness of that show was too much for me to handle alone, but as I looked around and saw the reactions of all the other people that were taking it in along with me, it became easier.
However, these shared experiences are sometimes not as immense and otherworldly as I am (perhaps) dramatically making them out to be. There is also plenty of merit in the fun and energetic parts of shared experience. Think about it this way: Have you ever been dancing? I discovered my love for it last year. It was only September, but it already felt like the semester had been going on for months, so I decided to throw together a playlist of tunes that always seemed to get my spirits high. I put this playlist on after a show in barefoots, and (as you would suspect) people started dancing to it. Different circles formed and a wide array of movements began to occur. As I stood in a group of about eight friends and flailed my arms and legs to the glossy synth of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Run Away with Me, I began to feel very fluid, as if I had lost the perception of where I ended and my pals began.
There was something strangely effervescent about that moment of dancing. But it was the same sort of energy that I felt this past Friday when a coffee shop full of people sang along with Cereus Bright as he crooned about finding hope in the darkest of places. It was the energy that I felt on that night in Nashville, watching Cold War Kids perform like it was their last time, and forgetting about the ill effects staying up too late when you have to wake up for an 8 a.m. the next morning. Experiencing live music like this, in the midst of other people who are all incredibly different and nonetheless similar to me, has and continues to change me, and I would implore you with all that I have to give it a chance, and watch it change you too.
Photo courtesy of Gretchen Foels