If I Could Do It All Again

It’s fitting that Gates was the first band I saw in concert after the pandemic began. I’ve joked that they’re my musical spirit animal and it’s been so long since they passed The Dear Hunter to become the band I’ve seen the most that I can’t recall how long ago that shift happened or how many times I’ve seen New Jersey’s finest post-rock quintet on the stage.

Still, getting to that show took longer than I thought. When I wrote about getting back to concert-going life in June, the Delta variant was just beginning to spread in the U.S. and vaccine resistance hadn’t yet become an iron-clad bastion of indefensible political stupidity. Back then I was buying concert tickets in bulk, desperate to see all the bands that I’d been missing and all the new ones I’d uncovered through the long isolation of quarantine. I vastly miscalculated the situation. Delta was a freight train and a combination of misinformation and deeply-rooted American selfishness has proven to be substantially more powerful than empathy in this profoundly self-centered country. All of which is to say that while I bought a lot of concert tickets, I have not attended a lot of concerts.

But I did go and see Gates when they played the Blind Pig in my alma mater’s hometown of Ann Arbor. Despite those familiar elements, this much was new: The doorman checked my vaccination card before I could enter the building and, once inside, most everyone was wearing a mask unless they were actively working on a drink. Past that it felt … like shows used to feel? It was dark and loud and, scattered through the crowd, there were a handful of people that I’ve known for years. It was wonderful. As was Gates.

The band’s newest EP, Here and Now, is a gift, something I deeply love and had not expected to receive. And because I am, as reader Scott once told me, a privileged insider, I got to hear an unfinished version of Here and Now in the spring. I listened to it on an early April day as I drove down to Detroit, giddy with anticipation. Sandwiched between two instrumental interludes, the anthemic “Where to Begin” explodes in its latter half, a (cracking?) wall of sound supporting a fraught balance of tortured hope; “Pretending” sees the band inject a strain of folksiness into their post-rock DNA to tremendous effect; and the cascading swells of “We Are” are the sound of bottled up emotional turmoil, of regrets that can’t be easily undone, of living beneath the uncomfortable weight of unintended consequences.

This is Gates, of course. Their records have been haunted but tinged with hope since their debut release took its name from vocalist Kevin Dye crying out that “the sun will rise and lead me home / where I’m safe and sound / forever alone.” More than a decade has passed since that release and, honestly, “haunted but tinged with hope” is a more appropriate sound now than ever before.

But about that drive to Detroit. In the early stages of the pandemic, when so much was unknown, Caitlin and I were acutely cautious. When lockdown began, we had a toddler at home and Caitlin was pregnant after a grueling IVF cycle. Data was hard to come by but even as children seemed safe from the worst of Covid’s symptoms, the virus appeared to pose an increased risk of miscarriage. We were careful. We went nowhere and we saw no one. Our daughter was born in October of 2020 and that joy came with its own challenges.

And so I found myself on the way to Detroit, giddy because I was listening to new Gates music, yes, but also because I was on the way to my first round of Covid vaccination. Finally, life was going to return to normal. Finally, Caitlin and I were going to get some help. I couldn’t have scripted it better: Just as the city’s skyline crested over the horizon, “If I Could” burst through its emotional zenith, guitars slicing this way and that as Dye’s impassioned vocals begged the listener to consider the grace present in even the most troubled of journeys.

It was so goddamn cathartic, you guys.

After wiping the tears from my eyes, I made my way into Ford Field and got jabbed. A few weeks later, I did it all again. They were so little, those tiny pinpricks, but they felt big. Of course, little has played out the way I hoped; the pandemic continues, a new variant has reared its head, and it’s unclear if there will ever really be a “post-Covid” timeframe. But none of that diminishes the argument that Gates makes across the perfectly titled Here and Now: We cannot change yesterday, and we are not guaranteed tomorrow. All we have is today, the here and now. So savor it.

This is all so maudlin and yet, so what? I’m endlessly annoyed by the contemporary, intellectualist disdain for earnestness and sentimentality. There is value in being moved, in feeling big feelings. I felt overwhelmed on the way to my vaccination and I felt unbelievably fortunate as I stood once more in a crowd, watching this band that has meant so much to me over the years. I need to interrogate those experiences, to assess what they mean to me and why, because that’s where value comes from, where we find growth.

And there has been growth. I am not who I was before the pandemic began because how could I be? And Gates, whose path has journeyed alongside mine for so long, makes a similar claim with Here and Now, a record that retains the band’s signature sound while expanding it in exciting ways. It’s good to find them here, where none of us meant to go, and where, despite it all, we are grateful to be.

This post originally appeared in the Songs & Stories newsletter. You can be a friend and subscribe here.

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