HAIM performing the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham earlier this yearPhoto by John Morris with permission for Varsity

‘There are years that ask questions, and years that answer’, wrote Zora Neale Thurston. How many years of questions go into a record, I wonder? A song is an answer to a question. When artists play shows promoting a new album, we get to witness the most recent chapter of their lives played out before our eyes. We relate to their heartbreaks and woes, yet we see these moments expressed with humour and energy; we leave with a new zest for life, feeling reassured of human resilience and capacity to create in the face of adversity. For me, live music has punctuated the pressure of the Cambridge environment with moments of catharsis this year.

Self Esteem performing in Kentish TownPhoto by Jasmine Hearn with permission for varsity

During Lent Term, I saw Self Esteem play a show in Kentish Town; the pair of tickets were a belated birthday present from a friend. Inside the venue, the words, ‘THERE IS NOTHING THAT TERRIFIES A MAN MORE THAN A WOMAN WHO APPEARS COMPLETELY DERANGED’ were plastered across the stage in Holzer-esque fashion. Unsurprisingly, her performance matched this unapologetically hysterical proclamation. Strutting across the stage, she oozed the empowerment associated with her moniker. Her tracks conveyed grief for intimate relationships turned sour throughout her 20s, and her loss of identity thereafter; yet they always ended, bravely, with how we deserve independent joy and power despite these tribulations. After a term struggling with Cambridge’s demands, I was in dire need of this lesson, and as I walked home from Kentish Town, a rebellious understanding of human strength seemed to fall into place.

Seeing Kae Tempest perform at Cambridge’s own Corn Exchange a month later was a very different experience. Tempest exuded humility yet confidence, maintaining a quiet control of the performance. They respectfully announced that they would play their album through in order, before simply getting on with it, pausing only to smile modestly at the crowd. There was a spiritual quality to the message of Tempest’s new record that night: they explained that it documented a journey of reclaiming the circumstances one finds oneself in. They recited the mantra, ‘Sometimes it passes, sometimes it don’t’ against iridescent cello, imparting a contemplative sort of zen to the awestruck crowd. Tempest’s performance reminded me to hold myself with dignity and peace.

“These artists showed pride in working things through”

This brings me to my most recent gig: HAIM, at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham. It was the hottest day of the year, and I was distinctly unenthused at spending the night in a sweaty arena. Yet as the concert progressed, tension was released. These three cool girls were striding around in huge trousers and bikini tops, laughing through their anguish of the last couple of years. They were modelling their healing playfully and stylishly. ‘I’ve been trying to find my way back for a minute…I’ve been down’, they sang buoyantly, brushing themselves off from what sounded quite an acute bout of low spirits. I even recognised new meaning in tracks I’d previously disregarded, for whatever reason, in the surprisingly cool Nottingham ice hockey arena that sweltering night. One track, 'Los Angeles', describes the sisters’ disillusionment and frustration at a competitive, cut-throat city which keeps bringing them down, where they feel like they ‘can’t win’, but which still feels undoubtedly theirs. Sound familiar?

HAIM performing the Motorpoint Arena in NottinghamPhoto by Jasmine Hearn

The Haim sisters, at 36, 33, and 30, hardly share my stage of life. They resemble cool aunts I’d be too starstruck to talk to at a family barbeque, more than my equally lost 20-something friends (no offence). Tempest is 36, and Rebecca Taylor, the commandeering corset-wearer behind Self Esteem, is 35. These individuals model creativity and express the ebbs and flows of life so shamelessly and candidly. In a place like Cambridge, where speed and success can feel like the most important things, I was reminded how beautiful these artists looked when their array of non-linear progress and youthful failures and tearful memories were exposed to crowds of people who had all experienced the same.


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These three nights differed in tone: Self Esteem was loud and radical, Kae Tempest was humble and lyrical, and HAIM were silly and cool. Yet what they had in common was a celebration of their most recent albums – albums documenting loneliness and discomfort, healing and acceptance. These artists showed pride in working things through. My friend Laura calls me a 'big concert thinker', and it’s no coincidence that everything seems to make more sense on our walks home from concerts together. For me, live music has been an unexpected gift this year: a reminder of my power in an academic environment which isn’t always kind or comfortable. HAIM finished their show repeating the lyrics, ‘Maybe that’s just life sometimes’, and that’s what I’ve been reminded of coming away from gigs this year.