Published Dec 18, 2020There's no replacing the energy and excitement of a live show, but, with touring off the table in 2020, many artists made the best of a bad situation and took their performances online. Livestreams were abundant this year, and, in many cases, they were essential viewing. Some artists have even speculated that this may transform the live music industry forever, and online streams may remain popular once the pandemic is over.
In listing our favourite livestreams of the year, we made some ground rules: performances needed to remain online after they happened (because what's the point in listing them if you can't watch them now), had to be socially distanced (so SNL doesn't count), and had to be recorded during the pandemic (so none of Radiohead's archival releases). Even though 2020 was a bust for live music, these were the glimmers that kept us from losing hope.
Arcade Fire in New Orleans
While Arcade Fire spent the year dropping hints about plans for about a gazillion new albums, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne tided fans over with a spattering of quarantine performances from New Orleans over the summer. Complete with freaky mirror effects, rainbow filters and enthused dancing, the pair offered a rare, stripped-down closeup up of the band's classic material, from "The Suburbs" to "Haiti" and "Sprawl II."
Phoebe Bridgers' Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
The 2020 American election was a non-stop horror show that, as of this writing, seems to be finally over. There was a certain dark humour, then, to Phoebe Bridgers bringing her beautiful, intensely personal ballads to a Tiny Desk (Home) Concert that was green-screened to look like the Oval Office. With a power suit (those shoulder pads!) and the most famous tiny desk in America, Bridgers turned her single "Kyoto" into a touching acoustic ballad and broke the fourth wall for the screaming crescendo of "I Know the End." For further viewing, check out her bathtub performance on Kimmel and bedtime rendition on Corden.
The Dirty Nil at the Phoenix Concert Hall
Teaming up with frequent music video collaborators Mitch Barnes and Victor Malang, Hamilton's hometown heroes the Dirty Nil brought their rippin' new Fuck Art material to Toronto's Phoenix Concert Hall, delivering close to the same energy levels you'd expect from the real thing. In lieu of actually performing in front of a live crowd amid COVID restrictions, these local "shows" were about as close as you could get to a real city venue experience this year, sans sticky floors and mucky bathrooms, of course.
deadmau5 (as TESTPILOT) live at home
A 2020 treat for the most devout deadmau5 fans has been the myriad streaming engagements under techno alias TESTPILOT, including this monstrous three and a half-hour mix from inside his cavernous Canadian home studio. For Ontarians of a certain age, it will sound like you've been packed into Guvernment all over again, though the artist surely appreciates dropping tracks from the comfort of home; a furry friend drops in for scratches at the 54-minute mark, making this a game of cat and mau5.
DOMi & JD Beck at Roots Picnic 2020
Keyboardist DOMi and drummer JD Beck continued to dazzle thousands of Instagram viewers with their respective instrumental skills this year, and any chance to see the pair play at length is a gift. This six-minute shred for the Roots Picnic finds the two applying tight groove and colourful chords to cover fans Flying Lotus and Knxwledge, charting the link between Daft Punk and J Dilla, and giving viewers a potential peek at a long-awaited debut album with original "Baby Groot."
Ben Gibbard's "Live from Home"
Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard first launched his "Live from Home" performance series with no real plan in mind. What began as a casual nightly event turned into weeks-long virtual programming that lasted for 20 performances and even birthed some new solo material. Filled to the brim with DCFC and Postal Service fan favourites and requests — including acoustic versions of "Styrofoam Plates," "Photobooth," "A Lack of Color," "Transatlanticism," and an oddly poignant, apocalyptic rendition of "We Will Become Silhouettes" — the series doubled as a charity event for various COVID relief funds. See the archive of performances here.
Nicolas Jaar's Twitch Stream
Fresh off the release of Cenizas, Nicolas Jaar took to Twitch in April to perform a serene, sprawling two-hour livestream of album-inspiring mixes (including a mid-stream intermission of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's "The Dead Flag Blues") and a hefty dose of original material. Drawing largely from Sirens and Pomegranates in the latter half of the stream, the producer offered a virtual outlet for unity and club ethos to his devoted fans who, stuffed with multiple albums of new content this year, somehow remained thirsty for more.
Oh Sees' album rehearsal
Six months before Oh Sees released their album Protean Threat (under the name Osees), they premiered the material via a rehearsal video. The hour-long concert, recorded at the empty Zebulon venue in Los Angeles, is an hour of raw-throated shouts, squalling fuzz riffs and frenzied dual drumming. Released on March 21 in the early phase of lockdown, we still haven't gotten any closer than this to the feeling of a raucous garage rock club show.
PUP's "This Stream Sucks Ass: The PUPtheBand Livestream Experience"
Even with the lack of touring, 2020 proved to be a year of "live" firsts for PUP, who released a limited live album ahead of hitting the stage at an empty Sneaky Dee's behind EP This Place Sucks Ass in October. That evening, reaction to the band's "livestream experience" dominated social media timelines as if it were a must-see TV episode. Though we're without the full set from the evening, shots of the masked-up musicians and frontman Stefan Babcock broadcast live from the basement bathroom remain.
Colin Stetson at Adult Swim Festival 2020
An adaptation of Junji Ito's Uzumaki scored by Colin Stetson is due to arrive through Adult Swim next year, and his performance for the channel's music festival features two new pieces that could be included. From the flighty repetition of "The love it took to leave you," to the emotive drone of "Strike your forge and grin," Stetson's set is a clinic in the technical and tonal possibilities of keys, vocal cords and contact mics.
Ty Dolla $ign's Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
Ty Dolla $ign's musical ambition has led him to pay $60,000 out of pocket for orchestration on 2015's Free TC, name a studio album Featuring Ty Dolla $ign, and piece together a six-piece band for one of the more memorable NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts this year. Here, the California polymath shines as a collaborator and curator, strumming six strings and punching MPC pads in giving his songs a new feel alongside Skrillex, Ant Clemons and more.
Neil Young's "Fireside Sessions"
Among 2020's pioneering pandemic streamers were Neil Young and his camera operator/wife Daryl Hannah, who set out to film a new self-isolation series back in early March to encourage fans to stay home and stop the spread. The charming, rarity-packed "Fireside Sessions" (shot at the couple's Colorado home) became a vessel for Young's anti-Trump campaigning, a showcase for the couple's adorable barn animals, and solo acoustic performances of "On the Beach," "Homefires," "Words," "Helpless," "After the Gold Rush" and dozens more. All six half-hour episodes are still available to stream at the NYA website, which will be free to non-subscribers for the rest of the year as an early Christmas present to fans.