I ended up watching — and participating — for almost two hours.
Let me back up and start from the beginning. On Sunday night, with a few hours to kill before Game of Thrones, I was browsing through Twitter and came across the following post from Scott Bradlee:
— Scott Bradlee (@scottbradlee) April 15, 2013
Scott Bradlee is the pianist whose band is behind the recently gone-viral vintage “grandpa style” cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” as well as some of the old-timey renditions of modern songs in the video game Bioshock Infinite. The “Thrift Shop” cover has over 1.5 million hits on YouTube.
I dig Bradlee’s style as a pianist, so naturally after spotting his announcement that he was going to be live streaming some music I tuned into his Ustream to see him in action. I hadn’t heard him play all that much outside of “Thrift Shop” and his Bioshock tunes.
When I flicked on the stream, he and his accompaniment, violinist David Wong and singer Robyn Anderson (who is also in the Thrift Shop video), were midway through a funky ragtime version of Tainted Love. “Alright,” I though. “Off to a good start.” There were about thirty other audience members watching the stream when I joined, a number that stayed constant for most of the set.When Bradlee and co. signed off for the night, I felt like I had been part of a tightly-knit audience who just left a live concert at a club.
The first inkling I had that this was a special kind of performance was when I asked Bradlee to reposition his web cam so I could see his hands. I’m a pianist — I wanted to to watch his technique. Bradlee noticed my request and quickly obliged, tweaking his laptop down a few degrees so I could watch what was going on. He also cut his own face out of the shot, but fixed it with another adjustment when the song was over.
Me and ten or so other audience members were actively suggesting songs for Bradlee and his band to play. The variety of tunes that these guys could play, in virtually any style you could conjure up, was kind of mind-boggling. I’ve met some musicians with crazy mental repertoires for improvising, but Bradlee could easily give them a run for their money.
An audience member would suggests a song, then Bradlee and his cohorts would pick a style to play it in, or another audience member would toss that out, too. Anything goes in terms of tunes. They whipped their way through songs from Madonna to Eiffel 65, to Eminem, to jazz standards, cartoon themes and the Beastie Boys. Sometimes tunes would blend into each other seamlessly, or the band would switch styles on the fly — say, from ragtime to hiphop, or swing to classical.
Bradlee’s bandmates David Wong and Robyn Anderson are both fantastic musicians and remarkable improvisors. Neither missed a beat when Bradlee would spark up a tune on the piano, no matter the style or key. They only had to chat before starting a song a handful of times. Robyn made up a song about tupperware (a weird audience suggestion) out of thin air and it ended up being one of the most energetic songs of the concert.
All this made for a hell of a show. It was crazy that only thirty people were in the audience watching it go down live. I kept asking myself, “where the hell are all of this guy’s fans? Come on!”
The small audience size did work in my favour a few times, when the band played a good number of my own requests, which was exhilarating. I also had a chance to ask Bradlee some piano nerd questions about his keyboard setup, which he was glad to answer. For those interested, he plays a much-coveted (by me) Nord Stage piano, though he would prefer an acoustic piano to play at home.
This was the first live streamed concert where I’ve been in the audience, but Bradlee isn’t the first musician or band to live stream a jam or take requests online.
Internet sensation and improvisational pianist Ben Folds has done similar gigs, including a few wildly popular and memorable sessions on Chatroulette where he alternated between taking requests, making up songs about who he connected with, and dodging people’s dicks. Folds himself was inspired by another YouTube pianist named Merton, who seems to have pioneered the Chatroulette jam.
These performances are similar because they involve audience members and participants through the use of webcams. Bradlee’s set on Sunday night used the same technology, but the format was a bit different.
We audience members were directly involved with the flow of the set. Bradlee and his band not only played our requests, but responded with discussion and laughs to the text conversation that was streaming alongside the webcam feed. Watching Bradlee, Wong and Anderson choose what songs to play and what style to play them in, all while weighing and responding to audience feedback, was rewarding.
This personal interaction between the artist and the audience makes for a surprisingly intimate kind of show.
It might be odd to think that a pixely webcam concert could elicit such a reaction. And yet, when Bradlee and co. signed off for the night, I felt like I had been part of a tightly-knit audience who just left a live concert at a club. I imagine that if there had been more viewers in attendance this feeling of closeness with the performers would be strained, but that’s exactly how concerts work when you see them in person on stage, too.
Take advantage of the opportunity to impact and interact with artists like Bradlee when you can. I hope that his live streamed performances grow in popularity, but while that’s happening it might be cool to tune in and be part of a smaller audience. If you know of any other musicians who live stream this kind of performance, let me know in the comment section below.
You can watch the entirety of Sunday night’s set below.
Update April 16, 2013: Added the full recording of Bradlee’s Sunday night show.