The happy-sad feeling of watching artists perform from their living rooms

Mikael Wood
Willie Nelson, left, was among the countless artists this week who live-streamed performances in lieu of playing in front of audiences.  (Suzanne Cordeiro /AFP/Getty Images)

Willie Nelson was singing “On the Road Again.”

Again.

Yet in an unusual twist for the country-music legend, who at 86 still tours as enthusiastically as folks a fraction of his age, Nelson wasn’t actually on the road Thursday night as he delivered his signature song about “going places that I’ve never been.” Instead, he was streaming online from his digs outside Austin, Texas, flanked by his two sons in what looked like a very cozy living room.

The low-key performance wrapped up “’Til Further Notice,” a virtual spin on the all-star concert Nelson hosts at his ranch every year during South by Southwest. Like SXSW itself, the show’s 2020 edition was called off thanks to the coronavirus, so organizers invited artists such as Margo Price, Orville Peck and Lucinda Williams to appear — all of them from wherever they were socially distancing themselves — via livestream on Twitch.

Paul Simon, evidently hunkered down in Hawaii, even turned up near the end of the five-hour production to sing the Everly Brothers' “All I Have to Do Is Dream” with his wife, Edie Brickell, and Woody Harrelson.

Hey, it’s not like anybody had anything else going on.

Nelson and his pals were just a few of the countless musicians who’ve taken to social media this week for let’s-call-them-concerts meant to bring fans some entertainment or some reassurance in these strange days of social distancing. John Legend, Keith Urban, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rufus Wainwright, the Indigo Girls, Juanes — each has carefully balanced his or her iPhone against a coffee cup (or some such) to beam a few minutes of music out into an uncertain world.

And now that officials in the showbiz capitals of California and New York have ordered residents to stay home essentially all the time, we’re sure to see many more follow their lead in the weeks — or, God help us, the months — to come.

As well-intentioned as they are, these little digital displays are no replacement for the real-life gigs already beginning to feel like some ancient ritual. Watching appreciative emoji flicker across the bottom of an Instagram feed can’t compare with standing in the middle of a sweaty, ecstatic crowd; nor, of course, can a livestream reproduce the physical thrill of being pummeled by waves of amplified sound.

But as is true of so much on the internet, the performances can be fascinating in their own way, separate from how faithfully they approximate a flesh-and-blood experience.

For starters, you’re unlikely in a concert hall ever to get as close to Wainwright as he allows the camera in what he’s calling his #RobeRecital series, in which he’s offering startlingly intimate renditions of his tunes while seated at a grand piano in his Los Angeles home. The other day, after proudly telling his viewers that he’d had his piano tuned “for this new era,” he sang “The Art Teacher” in such extreme close-up that you could practically count the chest hairs at the open neck of his silken Japanese bathrobe.

Legend also wore a robe — “I do have underwear on,” he made clear — for an Instagram performance that came with another hashtag, #TogetherAtHome, that he duly passed on to Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Both men offered stripped-down solo-piano versions of songs we’re accustomed to hearing in far more polished arrangements; Martin even did a lovely few bars of the old standard “As Time Goes By” to demonstrate what he might sound like if he’d ended up working in a hotel bar.

The off-the-cuff nature of these virtual gigs is a big part of their appeal. Though the platforms being used make it easy to see how many people are watching at any given time — Martin had around 300,000 at one point — the artists often seem genuinely to be winging it, as when Charlie Puth went on a long tangent about the effect LMFAO’s 2011 stadium-rave hit “Party Rock Anthem” had on the way beats work in hip-hop.

“Anyways, I’m rambling on,” Puth said after four or five minutes. Then he headed off in another direction, using the piano at his parents’ house (where he was broadcasting while sheltering in place) to illustrate the “super, super-exciting” return of complicated chords to pop music.

Sometimes the musicians aren’t even playing music: On Instagram, Miley Cyrus is doing a daily talk show called “Bright Minded” in which she’s just chopping it up with other famous people about “how to stay lit in dark times,” as she puts it.

Cyrus’ series, which she shoots in various spots around her house, offers a good example of another rewarding aspect of this emerging format: its use as celebrity shelter porn. Behold Cyrus’ garish wallpaper and Wainwright’s overstuffed bookshelf; witness the dramatic yet tasteful lighting in what I presume to be Simon’s vacation home on Maui.

Sometimes it’s not the lavishness of the space that strikes you but its modesty. Seated next to each other, albeit a bit farther apart than usual, in an ordinary-looking living room, the Indigo Girls strummed away passionately as my eye kept being drawn toward two large water stains on the ceiling.

As they say on Twitter: #relatable.

Indeed, as soothing as the Indigo Girls’ vocal harmonies were, what really comforted in their performance was Amy Ray’s admission that, although home-schooling was going well for the moment, she feared the unexpected enterprise might fall apart next week.

Ditto Kurt Vile’s performance as part of Nelson's festival on “’Til Further Notice,” during which his daughter, dressed in what looked like pajamas, was perched over his shoulder — a visual reminder that when he puts down his guitar, this acclaimed indie rocker is just another dad trying to figure out how to keep his kids amused.

Not every show of solidarity has been so well received. After Gal Gadot posted a video Wednesday showing her and a bunch of Hollywood types singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the “Wonder Woman” star was roasted online by commenters who pointed out how easy it is to envision a world with no possessions when you have so many of them. (More troubling, really, was Gadot’s selection of such a thoroughly played-out do-gooder’s anthem.)

Fortunately, Nelson’s crew had folksier wisdom to dispense. “Remember: Stay 6 feet away or go 6 feet under,” Price’s husband, guitarist Jeremy Ivey, told their audience as they warmed up Thursday's livestream for Nelson.

Bleak banter for a bleak age.