THE INTERNET, MARCH 20 – Midway through her set, British singer-songwriter Jade Bird leans towards the smartphone propped up above her setup. “I just want to say hello to my grandma and my mother who are probably watching this,” she says. “I love you very much, even though I’m quarantined away from you, grandma.” Bird’s voice quavers. “Doing the good thing!”
It’s the second Friday since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a pandemic, and Bird is in her living room, performing for a virtual audience on Instagram. She isn’t supposed to be home. Fans had expected to see her play a rescheduled show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, but the UK has called for the cancellation of all mass gatherings. Bird has invited her fans to this virtual gig instead – she’s hoping to raise spirits. “It’s a little bit nerve-racking,” she admits as the livestream begins. Comments flood the lower half of the screen: a chorus of heart-eyed emojis and preemptive song requests. “Don’t be nervous, we love you!” someone replies.
Bird sits on a piano bench, holding a sheer white guitar. Her long brown hair is loose and disheveled, and she’s wearing jeans and a bright orange sweater instead of her usual “power jumpsuit” performance attire. Her guitarist and partner Luke Prosser sits on the back of a couch to her right, and a bookshelf behind them displays a small record collection. “Ready?” she asks Prosser, and they open the set with Bird’s 2018 breakout hit “Lottery” from her EP Something American.
Bird is a skillful guitarist, and an even better storyteller. She sings about betrayal, conveying a scorned woman’s rage and heartbreak for an invisible audience. Any indication that she is nervous disappears; Bird’s voice is crisp and self-assured. The virtual crowd sings along with her and Prosser by typing lyrics out in capital letters. One fan jokes: “I left Hozier’s livestream to watch yours lol.”
When Bird launches into “I Get No Joy” from her self-titled debut album, she showcases her unique blend of roots rock, country, blues, and pop. Her voice alternates between her composition’s softer, stripped-back verses, and the harder, raspy, punk-ish choruses. Bird’s lyrics are rapid-fire and explosive: “Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic; which box is your thing?” she asks playfully. Then, she yells “What do you need?” into the camera. As a young female artist, Bird is both unapologetically angry and joyful, an extreme combination that resonates with the heightened collective emotions of the pandemic-world. Bird’s virtual crowd thanks her, admitting that they “needed this today!” One fan even reveals that they are “recovering from covid, and your singing is helping lift my spirits.”
Between songs, Bird and Prosser get closer to the phone to engage with the audience. “I hope we’re all feeling okay,” says Bird. Her face fills the entire screen. “I know we’re all feeling a little anxious at the moment.” In a time when people must increasingly use FaceTime to maintain human connection, Bird’s virtual concert feels more like a private video call with a very talented friend. Bird takes song requests from the crowd, and then accidentally drops her phone on the floor. She bursts out laughing. Above all, this new way of sharing “live” music is extremely personal. Virtual concerts bring together hundreds of people in isolation, yet every fan is now in the front row of the show, and every show is in a space that the artist considers home.
Bird and Prosser play a few more upbeat originals from Jade Bird, switching up their instruments with virtuosity. Bird alternates between her piano and her guitar to accompany herself, while Prosser joins her on vocals, guitar, and a bluesy harmonica. They perform an exciting cover of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” and then a stripped-down cover of Radiohead’s “Black Star.” Fans swoon as Bird and Prosser lock eyes to harmonize on the lyric “What are we coming to?” Someone in the audience gushes: “God you two are so adorable.”
The highlight of Bird’s Friday night set comes at the very end. Accompanied by Prosser’s melodious piano chords, Bird performs her ballad “Something American” to finish her 45-minute set. When she belts the lyric “we’re all reaching for something American,” her voice fills with anguish. She stops watching her virtual audience, and for a moment, she is alone in her living room. “I can feel you’re lonely,” she sings in a tender almost-whisper. It’s a moment of respite. The crowd sends Bird a series of multi-coloured heart reactions. They drift upwards on the screen in a steady kaleidoscopic stream.