How Andrew McMahon (Virtually) Saved 2020

Last week in a meeting, a coworker asked me what I was doing with my time now that going to concerts is no longer an option. I mention this so that when I say I miss live music, you understand just how much I mean it. Pre-pandemic, I would sometimes attend several shows a week. It’s one of the things I miss most about my former life – and one of the things I cannot wait to get back into once it’s safe.

In mid-November, one of my favorite artists did a livestream concert and, for the first time since everything changed in March, I bought a ticket to a virtual concert. Andrew McMahon brought his annual Dear Jack benefit show to the internet. I’ve always wanted to attend the event, but finance or distance has always been a hinderance, so I was excited to be able to watch this year. I wondered what it would be like to sit on my couch for the show – would it be cozy and intimate? Would I miss singing along with hundreds of other fans? Does dancing alone in my living room make it more special?

Just as we were all starting to go a little crazy in our homes and realizing we would not be on pause for a few weeks but more likely for a few months, Andrew McMahon started doing Instagram Live concerts – almost weekly – from his home, just him and a piano. Sometimes he would let fans dictate the playlist, other times there was a theme, and occasionally his daughter
would show up. It was laid back and felt more like an informal jam party than anything too structured. My friends and I would watch every time. It brought us comfort in an uncertain time to hear a familiar voice singing familiar songs – some we hadn’t heard live in years. It was also cool to experience it with friends who, because of distance, I’d never been to a concert with in person before. It was a shared global experience, bringing us all together for a moment in the chaos to say “Man, I hope he plays Konstantine this time.”

This summer, to mark the fifteenth anniversary of Everything in Transit, McMahon did a handful of drive-in concerts around the country. Starved for live music and excited to see one of my favorites, I bought a ticket the moment presale opened. I was excited to see how a drive-in concert could work though a little nervous it would be missing the key elements of what I love about live shows. I figured if anyone could make a distanced drive in show work, it would be Andrew McMahon.

The day of the show, I talked my friend into arriving at the venue an hour before doors opened to make sure we got a good parking spot (we did) and, with enough snacks and water to go camping for a weekend, we sat and waited. The show was like a breath of fresh air. Everyone had to stay in – or on – their car. You could watch on the screens placed around the parking lot and listen in on your radio if your view or sound was less than ideal.

Photo by: sarah ann

People honked instead of clapping or cheering. Though, they did that too. My friend and I were close enough that we didn’t need to augment our experience with the screens or the radio, we simply rolled down the windows and sang along as he played the album from top to bottom before playing a second half that was all the other hits we’d hoped to hear.

It rained a little, but no one cared. The atmosphere was surreal. Even though we were all distanced, after months of us all stuck in our homes, the shared emotional release of being together – even if not really together – felt something like camaraderie even if just for a few hours. You knew – even as the show was happening – you were part of a special moment; the kind of thing that might not ever happen again. A crazy workaround to be able to do something we loved within the confines of a crazy year. We drove home that night with sore voices and the biggest smiles. I know we weren’t the only ones.

On the night of the Dear Jack show, I sat on my couch in my sweatpants, troubleshooting a technical issue almost right up until the show started. Keenly aware of the ticking clock, I suddenly was missing shows of the past where, if there was a technical issue before a set, someone else fixed it and I never had to worry if the show would go on without me. I am no Luddite, but it took a half hour of troubleshooting and a last minute trick to stream on my TV. Wrestling tech problems was a hurdle I had not anticipated when I bought my ticket.

The show contained many short sets from Andrew McMahon and his musician friends woven between stories of how the Dear Jack Foundation has helped those with cancer and pleas for donations to the cause. The setlist was great and after much online coercion over the past few months, we all got to watch as Andrew McMahon finally played Konstantine to close out the show. The special guests were awesome – there were familiar faces in former Andrew McMahon supporting acts and I added some new songs to my Spotify playlist from artists I hadn’t heard previously.

The thing that surprised me the most was, to the fault of no one other than circumstance itself, that the electricity of a live show – that heart racing pure shot of adrenaline and joy – was lacking from my solitary spot on my couch. The whole experience was lonely, a total pivot from the joy and the community I felt at the drive-in show this summer. While I knew other people were also watching safe in their homes, there was, for me, a heavy feeling of isolation. In a year marked by heavy isolation, I suppose it was fitting. I appreciate the experience – I am glad I got to see the show and that my money went to a great cause – but its undeniable that the experience reminded me of everything I’ve been missing for the larger part
of the year.

Andrew McMahon’s music has been a constant throughout my life. The first time I saw him live, I was in high school and I have seen him countless times since. Truly, I cannot remember the last time a year went by where I didn’t attend at least one concert where he was playing a set. I cannot overstate how much it has meant to me that in this year of inconsistencies and
strangeness, his live performances – whether they were a quick moment on social media or a special night in my car or a solo evening on my couch – remained a consistent reminder of real life, a comfortable sonic blanket that I could wrap myself in and remind myself that while it feels bleak now, you gotta swim.

I can’t wait to all dance together again in person, hopefully in 2021. I’ll be the girl in the front, singing the loudest.

The Dear Jack Foundation helps young people dealing with cancer through thoughtful programs and can be found online at https://www.dearjackfoundation.org/

Sarah Conrad

Sarah is an east coast based media professional. In the before times, she could usually be found at a concert (or convention) or with her nose in a book as she traveled someplace new for an adventure. These days, she can usually be found on her couch playing video games or online shopping. 

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