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Why I Love... Playing Live

Dave Stewart By Dave Stewart
Published June 2022

Playing LivePhoto: Harumi Maezawa

When I started my musical career in 1968, playing live was all there was. My first band Uriel lived for the moment when we could perform in front of an audience — we cherished dreams of making it big and playing at Shea Stadium, but were equally happy at the prospect of a gig at a school dance. I was so excited to be in the group that I lugged my Vox Continental organ and combo amp on public transport to our debut youth club performance — as a result my arms are now so extended I can pick up litter without bending down, but the thrill of playing ‘Hey Joe’ at excessive volume to a bunch of impressed (if somewhat deafened) 14‑year‑olds was worth the agony.

As Uriel got more club and college bookings, our collective and individual skills improved. We were learning to play together in public, surely more fun than practising on your own in front of a YouTube tutorial. There were scary moments (being menaced by skinheads mid‑performance), knockbacks (record company rejections, apathetic listeners) and hardship (no money, 300‑mile drives, sleeping in the van), but then you’d get an enthusiastic audience who loved the music, and all was right with the world again.

After 12 years playing in bands I changed direction and in 1981 began a partnership with singer Barbara Gaskin which persists to this day. Since our tracks feature a lot of overdubs, playing live is less simple than it used to be, but thanks to advances in technology we’ve been able to perform in the USA, Japan and UK, aided by a guitarist and occasional guest appearances from brilliant drummer Gavin Harrison. We’ve come a long way since ‘Hey Joe’, but for me, the vibe and excitement of playing live remain the same.

The magic of a live gig lies in its dramatic unpredictability.

The magic of a live gig lies in its dramatic unpredictability. Unlike a recording session, there’s no chance of rectifying a mistake, but the upside is you can take risks and play spontaneously without getting self‑critical, an ideal situation for an improvising musician like me. Set against this exhilarating freedom is the queasy thought that a piece of equipment might break down (my biggest phobia), but when the show goes well it’s a buzz like no other. The presence of an audience increases the drama and spurs you on: at the Stewart/Gaskin band’s last UK gig in 2018, a gathering of people from 17 different countries cheered us to the rafters and created a wonderful atmosphere. They even laughed at my jokes...

The show must go on. After an enforced two‑year recess, Barbara, myself and guitarist Beren Matthews are returning to the stage this summer to play our twice‑postponed 40‑year anniversary concert in a very nice London venue. It’ll be great to emerge into sunshine and rock out again, and this time I won’t have to carry my keyboards on the bus!