I Performed a Career-Highlight Show. Then Delta Hit.

A touring musician reflects on the crumbling, momentary resurgence, and near-instantaneous re-crumbling of live music.

Ryan Miller singing on stage.
Justin P. Goodhart

It is the view of a lifetime: a sea of 8,488 expectant faces, their collective gaze converging to a single point, which happens to be exactly where I’m standing. Behind me sit about 60 members of the Colorado Symphony; my bandmates are at my side. Our band, Guster, is headlining Red Rocks, a natural amphitheater carved into the side of a rock formation in Morrison, Colorado, and universally regarded as one of the world’s preeminent live-music venues. As we launch into our first song, “Do You Love Me,” I tamp down the last flares of stage fright, and remind myself to be present and take in the magnitude of this moment. The song ends and I step to the microphone: “Oh my God. For maybe the first time in my life, I’m at a loss for words.” Our fans roar, and the volume is overwhelming. I am nearly brought to tears. It is the unequivocal highlight of my professional career.

Hosting a sold-out show here was something we’d only dreamed of, a defining night after three decades of relentless touring, writing, and recording. In the 16 fallow months leading up to Red Rocks, the coronavirus pandemic had made live performance dangerous. But by late spring of 2021, vaccines were becoming more widely available and the CDC had relaxed its masking guidance for vaccinated Americans. We decided to throw up a beacon for our most passionate fans and curate an event that would announce our return to life on the road. By the time we made it to Colorado in late July, an elusive but genuine hope had emerged: The worst may actually be behind us. Music and our livelihoods were back—and back in a massive way. Science, ingenuity, and the spirit of community had pulled us through. Victory was ours!

If only. The Red Rocks show turned out to be toward the end of what I now refer to as the “Magic Month,” that optimistic valley of infections, before the aggressive nature of the Delta variant was widely known. Earlier that month, despite strong pockets of resistance, the majority of eligible Americans had gotten vaccinated, and domestic fatalities and case counts had been relatively low. Across the country, live celebrations were planned (I’m looking at you, We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert) and my fellow troubadours began to breathe more easily as we looked to fall and beyond. Email chains and Zoom invites piled up as we made arrangements to get back into our tour buses and sprinter vans. But just as quickly, case counts were rising again, as was our collective anxiety about getting back in our bus tubes and doing laps through the heart of the country.

The global pandemic that left few businesses untouched has proved absolutely devastating for live music, an enterprise whose entire model is built on stuffing as many humans as possible into a fixed space. Initial attempts to livestream from bedrooms into bedrooms were temporary distractions and their limitations were immediately clear. Authentic connection is nearly impossible to transmit in ones and zeroes. As it turns out, singing into a webcam doesn’t quite scratch the itch for performers or audiences.

View of the stage with Guster performing.
(Justin P. Goodhart)

That’s because—and I realize I may be going full Burning Man here—concerts are platforms for energy exchange. The crowd for every show arrives holding a potential charge, as does the band. On a special night, with the right storytelling in place, the commingling and amplification of this energy (band to audience, audience back to band, rinse and repeat) can transform a concert into a singular expression of shared humanity. Being in the audience of a live show touches on something almost primal. And for the performer! To hear thousands of voices singing words that I’ve written is, for sure, a top-five-most-life-affirming feeling. On these occasions, certainly the narcissist in me is chuffed, but something more cosmic also occurs that makes the self-congratulation ebb and a sort of ego death begin. I stop asking myself, How cool am I? and start thinking, How cool is THIS!?—a mass of strangers, all tripping along the same spiritual and literal frequencies.

But alas, here we are. Even coming off a surprisingly strong outdoor summer season, the future remains murky. Tours that were planned for the next few months are beginning to disappear from venue calendars or get postponed. Some of this is due to low ticket sales (“baby bands,” on the front end of their careers, have had it particularly hard), some due to bands or those touring with them getting COVID-19 (see: My Morning Jacket, System of a Down, Genesis), and some just because many musicians don’t feel great performing at a time when the simple act of singing for others can be directly responsible for mass viral outbreaks. I mean, who wants to be the band playing on the deck of the Titanic?

This isn’t an abstract conundrum. Our band, too, is struggling with how to move forward into this uneven, emotionally fraught territory. Ask any of the four members of Guster how they feel about “risk exposure” on tour and you’ll get four wildly different answers. Our offstage choices are complicated as well. Due to the continued risks of COVID, many bands and crews currently on tour are essentially confined backstage and limiting outside contact. Keeping our traveling circus moving is challenging under normal circumstances; now I have to wonder where our drummer is at 1 a.m. and if the dude he’s talking to in that bar is vaccinated. A recent social-media post by the band Trampled by Turtles nailed it: “I can’t wait to not give a shit about your personal health care choices once again.” Preach, my friends.

An hour into our set at Red Rocks, a hush descends as we drop into our song “Come Downstairs and Say Hello,” a fan favorite and a high point of almost every show. The song begins with a half-time, methodical build. “Dorothy moves, to click her ruby shoes …” Orchestral layers slowly enter and combine, countermelodies swirl, and, yes, energy is summoned. Five minutes and 20 seconds into the song, an all-hands-on-deck syncopated phrase brings us to a cathartic release. We’ve been reaching for this moment the entire night and maybe even for all of our years together as a band. For a sliver of time, absolutely nothing else seems to matter. It’s pure magic.