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When the world shut down during the early stages of the pandemic in March 2020, Michelle Joy decided to go for a run. She headed down to Venice Beach, near where she lives in California, and observed the people she passed. Venice Beach and its boardwalk are popular tourist attractions and are typically home to boisterous crowds, street performers, and an eclectic mix of visitors. But on this particular day, Joy couldn’t help but notice the solemn look on the faces around her.
“Everyone looked super depressed,” she says. “Just really down and, like, a different energy.”
Joy, the lead vocalist for the alternative/electropop band Cannons, started to write lyrics in her head. Her bandmates, guitarist Ryan Clapham and keyboardist-bassist Paul Davis, had just sent her music they had worked on that would become the first single off their recently released third studio album, Fever Dream. The song would be titled “Bad Dreams.”
“I just felt like writing something that was kind of like, this is how it is, this kind of sucks right now,” Joy explains. “And I feel like a lot of people related to that.”
The chorus goes: “I’ve been living in a bad dream/ I’ve been living in a bad, bad dream/ Sleepwalking through a sad scene/ I’ve been living in a bad, bad dream.”
Wind gusting up to 20 mph howls outside of the band’s tour bus stationed just a block away from Union Stage, where Cannons are set to perform a sold-out show on this late Saturday evening. It’s March 26, the day after the Los Angeles band officially released Fever Dream.
I’m here, sitting next to Davis and across from Joy, Clapham, and drummer Ben Hilzinger, inside their tour bus to get a deeper, more intimate understanding of the collective loss that was experienced when live music shows were getting canceled. Live music is one of my happy places, a fun escape from the stress of daily life. Cannons, perhaps more so than most bands, truly understand what was lost without being able perform at more personal, indoor venues like Union Stage.
One of the band’s songs, “Fire for You,” off their 2019 album, Shadows, was featured in a 2020 episode of the Netflix dramedy Never Have I Ever, which skyrocketed the single to No. 1 in the U.S. alternative charts right at the height of the pandemic. The band had a hit—their first. Their lives and trajectory changed course. But they couldn’t perform it live in front of their rapidly growing fan base.
“It was like a—I don’t want to say bittersweet feeling because we’re so grateful to even have a No. 1, but, like, we did want to be playing it and everything,” Joy says. “But at the same time, we do all have this feeling like everything happens for a reason in the Cannons’ universe. So, we’re out here now.”
Talking to the members of Cannons, it almost feels as if they don’t yet truly believe their own reality. Cannons went from playing in front of perhaps hundreds of people at small clubs in California not too long ago to performing on the main stage at Lollapalooza in Chicago last year in front of thousands of fans.
“I had nightmares that I was like stuck to the stage, and I couldn’t get up and perform because I was nervous,” Joy says. “But once we got on that stage, all of my nerves went away.”
The Fever Dream Tour is the band’s first headline tour. Cannons signed with Columbia Records, wrote and produced Fever Dream, and shot the music video for “Fire for You” all during the pandemic. The band experimented with different ways to connect with fans without live, in-person concerts. They put on Zoom performances and even livestreamed a show on Reddit. “We did not enjoy trying to livestream performances, because there are delays,” Joy says. They started using TikTok and social media more and pushed out content on YouTube. Joy, Clapham, and Davis would write individually from their homes and send material back and forth to each other.
But nothing compares to performing in front of a live audience.
“Music connects people,” Clapham says. “I went to a Tom Petty concert … years back and it was like nothing else mattered but like the concert and everybody was speaking like Tom Petty language, you know what I mean? They were all singing his songs. It’s just a beautiful thing when you experience something with a bunch of people.”
For Joy, seeing fans sing the lyrics back to her makes the experience more real. Fans have come up to the band after shows to express how Cannons’ music has saved their lives. “It is surreal and cool and beautiful,” Joy says.
Davis, sensing an opportunity, chimes in: “It’s a fever dream.”
At 11:32 p.m., Joy walks through the curtains onto the stage, clapping her hands above her head to the beat of the song in front of an adoring crowd at Union Stage. The show is sold out at the 450-capacity venue. Fans nod their heads and sing along to “Shadows,” the title song from the band’s sophomore studio album, which goes: “I’m lost in the dark/ Searching for a spark with you/ Keep holding on/ Let me move through you.”
Joy and Clapham dance around the stage as their sequined outfits sparkle under the red and blue lights. A group of women take selfies while trying to avoid spilling their drinks. At the opposite end of the room, near the exit, Joy’s younger sister, Mariah Lewis, is interacting with fans at the merch table.
The song continues: “Where have you gone? Waited so long/ How can I just carry on?/ Where have you gone? Waited so long/ How can I just carry on?”
Union Stage reopened in mid-June of 2021, but it wasn’t until February of this year that the venue’s organizers returned to a pre-pandemic routine of hosting five to six shows a week while nearly fully staffed. The venue checks for proof of vaccination at the door, but as of late March, no longer requires attendees to wear masks. The D.C. government rolled back its mask mandate on March 1, including for sports and entertainment venues.
As with many things during the pandemic, the return to normalcy may be fleeting. But on this late Saturday evening, the crowd is reminded of the magic of intimate, small-venue concerts. It’s an escape. It’s therapeutic. It’s, like Union Stage director of operations Lana Mahmoud tells me, a “harmony with other people.” Few experiences can replicate that.
By the time I get home, my ears are still ringing from the pulsating speakers. I open my iTunes app. The first verse of “Bad Dreams” starts to play. Joy purposely juxtaposed the melancholy lyrics with a soothing, upbeat melody. In times of sorrow and separation, she wanted to make music that made people feel better and less alone. I put the song on repeat.