On Saturday, April 29th, HBO will air a recording of the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which took place back on April 7th. This has become an annual tradition for the network, though some rock aficionados approach the broadcast skeptically. The Hall of Fame has a reputation as a stodgy institution that values money over artistry, and primarily exists to validate the tastes of graying baby boomers. So why would anyone want to watch two hours of self-congratulation, from musicians who haven’t been a vital part of popular culture in decades?
Here’s why: according to critics who were at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn when the ceremony took place a few weeks ago, inductee Electric Light Orchestra did a stirring run through “Roll Over Beethoven,” in tribute to the late Chuck Berry. Rush’s Geddy Lee sat in on bass during Yes’ performance of “Roundabout.” Pearl Jam reportedly roared through an emotional rendition of its first big hit, “Alive.” These are moments music buffs will want to experience for themselves, even through the filter of a television screen.
Forget about the speeches. Just as the Grammy telecast interrupts its distribution of arbitrary awards to present one-of-a-kind performances (such as this year’s eye-popping Beyoncé number), the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony brings the TV audience a succession of talented entertainers, doing their jobs, reminding everyone why they’re stars.
One often-forgotten truth is that great live music — even when recorded and replayed — makes for great television. The musicians’ interplay, the combination of hard-earned skill and raw physicality in the playing… when it all coalesces, it can be like watching riveting theater or a sporting event going down to the wire. So much of what we see on our screens and hear on our stereos is processed to the point of genial blandness. But someone stepping up to a microphone and singing in front of cameras can still feel urgent and real, no matter how well-rehearsed the show is.
The good news for people who don’t live in big cities — or who are too busy to get out — is that it’s never been easier to watch musical performances from home. Between music-focused cable channels, dedicated apps, streaming video subscription services, and a multitude of websites, there are more concerts available to watch than one person could consume in a lifetime. It’s not all old footage, either. Many acts stream shows as they happen, allowing fans to experience them onstage without ever getting out of their easy chairs.
Just these past few weekends, anyone interested in checking out the scene at Coachella without actually making the pilgrimage to Indio, California, could opt in by clicking on one of the festival’s many official streams. The right hardware — a Roku, an Amazon Fire TV Stick, an Apple TV — could project those webcasts onto TV screens. It wouldn’t have been exactly the same as being at Coachella, with the food, intoxicants, and sweaty camaraderie. But for those more interested in the music than the environment, the views and sounds are much better at home.
That’s crucial, because some acts take on an entirely different dimension when seen in action. Synth-pop revivalists Future Islands have an appealingly slick recorded sound, but the band has become a festival favorite because of the way frontman Samuel Herring bobs, weaves, growls, and pounds his chest in front of an audience. St. Vincent, Against Me!, Tune-Yards, The Avett Brothers, Arcade Fire, Janelle Monáe: their success makes more sense after potential fans watch them work a crowd.
Newer artists aren’t the only ones who benefit from looking as well as listening. Google vintage video of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and appreciate how the lumbering prog-rock trio became a dynamo when playing live, banging on their instruments and aiming to overwhelm their audience with spectacle. Notice how young Bob Dylan looked when he was first singing songs that would become cultural staples. Marvel at the concentrated energy of James Brown’s combo. Enjoy the easy interplay of Joni Mitchell with her fans and band. See what powerhouses the members of XTC were before they decided to stop touring. Surrender to the relentless attack of Public Enemy, both in the group’s early years and in the 2010s. The list goes on.
There are so many options for watching new and old live shows today that even dedicated pop scholars may not know all of what’s available. The list below is in no way comprehensive, but it covers multiple platforms and models, from services nearly anyone can access right now for free to subscription-based apps that are well worth the monthly investment.
Once known as HDNet (from back when HD cable programming was relatively rare), AXS TV airs a variety of programs, including sports, stand-up comedy, and the occasional movie. But since its 2012 rebranding, the channel has focused primarily on music, airing documentaries, interviews with musicians, and shows like Rock Legends that give critics a platform to expound at length on some of the greats. Most importantly, it licenses fairly recent concerts from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Yes, Robert Plant, Stevie Nicks, Counting Crows, and more. AXS TV is widely available on cable and satellite packages, so people who might enjoy seeing those performances should be checking their DVR guides regularly.
Several non-music-specific channels air concerts regularly, including HBO and Showtime, which have been cablecasting live shows since the mid-1970s. PBS has two venerable series, Austin City Limits and Soundstage, which routinely present the most exciting acts of the past and present. Recent ACL sets by Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill, and Rhiannon Giddens have been among the most electrifying live performances in modern TV.
The original MTV long ago stopped having much to do with music, but its sister channels keep the flame burning. MTV Live (formerly known as MHD and Palladia) has been functioning as a sort of clearinghouse for TV’s classic live-music showcases, including Austin City Limits, Soundstage, MTV Unplugged, and VH1 Storytellers. For those who don’t have MTV Live as part of their cable / satellite package, try watching via the website, which is available for free for most people whose subscriptions include MTV.
The legality of concerts on YouTube can be pretty sketchy, especially concerts clearly recorded from the crowd on a cell phone. But the site’s inventory is so huge that even when videos are taken down due to copyright claims, it doesn’t take long for another show by the same artist to pop back up. As a fan resource, YouTube is invaluable. Curious to know what Van Morrison was like with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra in the early 1970s? Just type in “Van Morrison live,” pick your preferred year, and see what comes up. No matter the era, and no matter the band, there’s a good chance there’s a decent-quality set ready to stream. Best place to start? Search for Rockpalast, the long-running German TV series that has aired lengthy performances by some of the biggest names in art-rock.
Wolfgang’s Concert Vault / Qello Concerts
The subscription service Wolfgang’s Vault is the primary place to go for high-quality streaming audio, with multiple concerts by major classic and modern rock acts. But the site (and app) also has a section for videos, with individual songs and full shows taken from TV appearances and the closed-circuit footage from big arena concerts. Qello Concerts has an even more comprehensive archive, collecting hundreds of documentaries and previously commercially available performances spanning decades. It’s a must for pop obsessives.
Red Bull TV
Like Coachella, many of the major music festivals have their own dedicated websites with streaming video pulled from what gets broadcast on the big screens flanking the stages. But a lot of festivals, big and small, partner with Red Bull TV, which is available on the internet and via its app, on multiple devices. The free service, which broadcasts more than musical performances, aims to be a “click and see what’s on” entertainment option for people who are just looking for something to watch. That makes it ideal for discoveries. Hop in, find a streaming concert, see what happens.
Apple Music Festival
Apple has scaled back the event in recent years, but periodically, the company hosts a weeklong or monthlong series of concerts, held in small venues, streamed live, and then archived for Apple Music subscribers. Last year’s featured Elton John, Britney Spears, Chance the Rapper, Michael Bublé, and Alicia Keys, an eclectic mix of acts from different eras and genres.
Netflix / Amazon Prime / Hulu
The three major streaming services have been slow to license concerts, with Amazon Prime and Netflix in particular focusing more on music documentaries. (Amazon, for example, is distributing the excellent Grateful Dead doc Long Strange Trip, which will be available June 2nd.) But Netflix recently backed the late Jonathan Demme’s terrific film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, which may indicate a movement toward expanding into exclusive live performances. Given how well Netflix does with stand-up comedy specials — at least according to the company’s own hidden metrics — it seems like a no-brainer for the company to start building up a catalog of one-of-a-kind musical experiences. The rewatch value for these shows is high. If people listen to the same song over and over, they’ll watch it play onstage, on repeat.