“I’m always in favour of finding different ways to support musicians, but I feel that the more we do these kinds of events, the more people will realise that they’re a thing in themselves.”
Most livestream concerts have a simple format. A musician sits in a room, which is usually either their studio or basement, picks up a guitar, and starts playing in front of a camera. It’s not complicated, but it definitely leaves room for what an artist can do in this creative format.
On Mother’s Day, there’s an event happening that might provide a glimpse of the potential livestreams can have during the COVID-19 crisis and afterwards. At 5pm on Sunday, British folk icon Billy Bragg will lead a group of musicians who are being collectively referred to as the City Winery All-Stars to benefit the United Nations Foundation Fund which is working on sexual and reproductive health and rights during the pandemic.
The All-Stars consist of an ensemble lineup with Richard Thompson, Joseph Arthur, Rosanne Cash, Stella Donnelly, Steve Earle, Fink, The Indigo Girls, Amy Helm, Jorma Kaukonen, The Mountain Goats, Joan Osborne, Shovels & Rope, Todd Snider, KT Tunstall, and Loudon Wainwright III and his son Rufus. The event will be hosted by Rita Houston from the New York City radio station 90.7 WFUV, and will be presented by the nationwide restaurant and music venue City Winery, which has a location on 80 Beverly Street across from the Haymarket Orange Line stop in Boston. Tickets are $10, and people can stream the concert via City Winery New York’s website.
Bragg and I recently spoke about the upcoming show, how he got involved with it, his thoughts on livestreaming, angry teens letting their voices be heard, and him being the busiest he has been in years.
How did you get involved with this Mother’s Day livestream?
I was talking to the City Winery in New York about possible shows after the lockdown and they mentioned that they were thinking of putting together a Mother’s Day livestream. I wrote a song for Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom, which falls on [March 22], at the start of our lockdown, which addressed the emotional cost of shutting ourselves away. I thought of all the children who, while wanting to see their mothers, were fearful that they might inadvertently infect them with the virus. How do you tell your mum that it’s because you love them that you’re not coming to see them? It’s a tough one. So I wrote a song that sought to articulate that in an empathic way.
What can people visually expect from the concert? Will it be one giant Zoom conference with all the performers playing separate songs?
No, it’s not like a webinar. Each performer will be onstage for the duration of their song. Unfortunately, the technology doesn’t allow us to sing together over the net.
What are your feelings on livestreams? Do you think they can be sustainable for the coming months? Or are we going to have to come up with different ways of entertaining ourselves while supporting musicians?
I’m always in favour of finding different ways to support musicians, but I feel that the more we do these kinds of events, the more people will realise that they’re a thing in themselves. It’s a more intimate experience than a gig in an auditorium. The economics may prove attractive, as your capacity is limitless on the web.
It’s safe to say that the current political landscape is the most divisive it has ever been and usually when you have this kind of friction there are a ton of political songs hitting the mainstream. The past few years haven’t really seen that on a large scale—do you think it’s because of people being desensitized to what’s happening? Or do you think it’s something else?
When I was 19 and angry about the world, the only medium available to me was music. To get my voice heard, I had to learn to play guitar, write songs, and do gigs. Now, any 19-year-old can make a documentary on their phone and the opportunities for sounding off are myriad. So the angry teens are out there, they’re just not writing a ton of political songs. They’re engaging in other ways on their own terms.
After the concert on Sunday, what are some plans that you have for the coming weeks?
I’ve got loads more online events to take part in. To be honest, I’ve been busier in the past six weeks than anytime in the last five years. But that’s a good thing, because it keeps me engaged in the struggle.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.