For the first time in 16 months, live music is returning nationwide after the global coronavirus pandemic ravaged the industry. Billboard’s “My First Show Back” is a series dedicated to sharing stories from throughout the touring ecosystem about what’s happening now, what has been forever altered and what will never change.
In this installment, singer-songwriter Kevin Garrett opens up about his two-night, sold-out Sept. 25 and 27 concerts at Los Angeles’ Hotel Cafe. At the show, Garrett performed a mix of originals and covers and felt inspired by the in-person connection with the audience that was deeply missed while in lockdown. (His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
The very last show that I played before the world shut down was at Hotel Cafe. Watching the months pass, and then a whole year pass, and then almost another whole year pass between then and now, when the moment to get more shows on the books actually came to fruition, it was a no-brainer that I got back on the Hotel Cafe stage first.
I’ve always treated live performance as a very thoughtful thing, almost meditative in some ways. Certainly for me, because it allows me to express my work the best way I can and also keeps me on my toes because you never know what kind of moments will happen with a real crowd at a real show. There are certain things about being able to perform live that are hard to articulate, but it’s a tremendous honor for me to get back on stage.
I’m kind of a smaller artist by comparison and have had really amazing turnouts at my live shows. I think that’s where my music translates the best, beyond streaming and the recording side of things. A lot of people like seeing it up close because I can perform songs in different ways, whether it’s just me or with a band or anything. It was nice because I had done a couple shows on livestreams throughout the past year, but nothing in venues with real people since before the lockdown. So, it was nice to walk up to the venue and there were already people standing in line. Waiting in line is something I get excited about. Granted, I’m not the one doing it but it’s fun to consider all that again.
Seeing people’s faces up close and then the silhouettes not so far behind them of the crowds – it wasn’t quite like riding a bike. The act of playing music was like riding a bike, but the nervous energy that comes with playing shows that really shouldn’t ever go away reintroduced itself, and that felt really motivating. I mentioned on stage at the shows what a privilege it is to play for real people in the first place, but after something like the past couple of years, being able to announce something and get back on stage and do it again and have a similar reaction as before is really reassuring for my mental health.
On social media and also when I started streaming on Twitch, covers have always been thrown into my Instagram and livestreams and stuff. There are a few covers over the course of my career so far that have kind of resonated with people. I think in covering a song [at live shows], there’s just as much strategy and science behind it creatively as the performance of the original songs too because there are nice connective moments if you’re precise about the cover selection and stuff. You, one, give kind of an inside look to your audience of your influences and things that inspire you, and two, specific to certain songs, where I might have been headspace-wise or what I was listening to when writing things. I like using the cover songs as a behind-the-scenes or background narration for the original music.
Every time I sound check on the guitar, especially just me on the acoustic, I always start playing “Faith You Might.” That song has been with me since it was part of my old college band’s second album that never came out. I wrote that song when I was 18 or 19. It’s just a nice, simple, finger-style pattern that’s low on the guitar register and is easy to sound check, but it’s also a pretty meaningful song to me regardless of all that. I think because I’m so comfortable with that one, I was excited to play it.
I was also pretty amped to put “Refuse” back in the rotation on keys because it’s always a fun challenge to get the intro right without messing it up. [Laughs] I think as long as I’ve had that song, I’ve never done the intro properly live.
My favorite moment from the two shows at Hotel Cafe was probably, over the course of the evening, hearing people’s reactions to the beginnings of songs. There were a couple of times where I played a few in kind of a medley and I liked listening to the audience come along the ride with me because I was picking the songs out of a hat while we were playing them. There wasn’t really any rhyme or reason to which ones were going to get performed. It’s nice to hear people connect with the songs and, again, after almost two years off the road, knowing that there are still people listening and people who want to come to the shows and know the words to the songs. It’s something that will never get old to me.
As told to Rania Aniftos.