The last show Bartees Strange played was a bad idea. “I called the venue earlier in the day because I was staying in Crown Heights,” he says, “and I saw there was a line wrapped around the block at Key Foods. I was like, ‘Fuck, dude, it’s rare that people are clamoring to go to the Key Foods.’” On the phone, the people at Brooklyn’s Sultan Room told him it was still on. He prepared to play alongside Fusilier Blake and WSABI Fox, reluctantly moving forward with the plan to bring beach balls to kick off the stage. “I remember singing and I was just thinking like, ‘Damn, was that a bad call to bring the beach balls? Is everyone gonna get sick?’ Sure enough, the next day New York closed, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we had no business playing that show. That was a risky one.’”
It could’ve been worse; the room was only half-filled, and plenty of artists, due to COVID, ended up stuck in other countries on tour having no choice but to play for days upon days. Still, this memory sticks out in Strange’s mind, especially as touring returns. Last month, he tweeted: “The last show I played had 80 people at it. The next show I’m playing is a sold-out amphitheater in STL with Phoebe Bridgers. It’ll be fine. But what the fuck!”
Strange has had, well, a strange experience as one of those artists who gained traction during the pandemic. He got features in Rolling Stone, Billboard, MTV News, A.V. Club, and, of course, Uproxx — practically every music publication possible — all while not having the ability to perform any real-life shows. Now, he has more on his plate than ever: a tour with Courtney Barnett, a tour with Lucy Dacus, a few dates with Phoebe Bridgers, headlining shows in the UK and Europe, and several festival slots, including Pitchfork Paris, Pitchfork Chicago, Shaky Knees, Governors Ball, Outside Land, and Iceland Airwaves.
Before the pandemic, Strange played DIY festivals, like unofficial SXSW shows in houses or smaller stages at fests like Pouzza in Montreal or Mile of Music in Wisconsin. With the latter, he discusses his favorite memory of performing at a festival: “I don’t think they really knew where to put us. The general vibe of the festival was more Americana- and traditional rock-leaning. I opened a set with like ‘Mossblerd’ and it was like 2pm — Mimosa time at the bar — and we were playing it and it was wild. Everyone left. I was like, ‘Damn, all right, song two, let’s do it.’ It was a problem. It’s kind of the festival nightmare — to pull up to a crowded room and empty it.”
It was humbling, and also kind of weirdly inspiring to experience the worst possible consequence. “I’ve lived through it,” he says, and he harbors really no nervousness for playing festivals in the future. He’s quite the opposite. “I don’t want to say it’s every musician’s dream,” he says, “but I remember being a kid and watching YouTube videos of big festivals and wishing I could be on stage. I remember going to festivals and getting jealous and being like, ‘Jesus, like, how do you like get up there? How do you become one of these people?’ I’ve never known what it feels like to be on stage in front of more than 150 to 200 people. I’m excited to see how I’m gonna feel. I’m excited to see how I’ll react to seeing 3,000, 10,000, 20,000 people in a space.”
He owes a lot to his booking agent Tom Windish, who he describes as “a legend.” He’s at the prestigious Wasserman Music agency, and reached out to Strange after the release of Live Forever’s single “Boomer.” As live music slowly started coming back, he was able to get Strange on a multitude of lineups.
The other upside to festivals that was lost during the pandemic is Strange’s ability to connect with other artists, especially artists bigger than himself. “Yves Tumor is playing Pitchfork. I have to have to meet them. Like I have to,” he says. “I’m already scheming. I’m like, ‘How do I graciously meet these people that I’ve wanted to be around for years?’ That’ll be funny. I’m sure I’ll fuck that all the way up.”
He feels similarly about his tour with Courtney Barnett, which is special to him because his debut EP Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy was partially inspired by the night he saw The National, and Barnett had been the opening act. “I remember being in the crowd being like, ‘Damn, there’s no Black people here, I need to write something. I want to write something about that,’ he remembers. “And now a year and a half later, we’re going on tour together.”
The best part about his opening slots on tours and his place on festival lineups, though, is the way his performing will allow more people to hear his songs. It’s not an algorithm showing a music lover his material; it’s not everyone retweeting his many interviews online. It’s a tangible introduction, and Strange thinks that that is the proper way to get into his stuff. “I love the record, but I think that we’re just heavier in person,” he says. “I like to play with the arrangements and make things special. So whenever we play live, the set becomes more expansive than I can do on an album.”
The live show is the perfect entrance for any listener to get into an artist’s music. For Strange and any indie-rock act at or around his level, festivals are where people outside of their particular music scene can find out about them. It’s especially beneficial for all of the music lovers who are not engulfed in the Twitter world and not staying up-to-date with publications online. “It’ll be an experience, for sure,” says Strange about performing at some of his biggest festivals yet, “one that I probably will never forget.”