According to Setlist.fm, the last indoor, “regular” show was Nathan Gray playing at O’Brien’s on March 13th. The last one I personally saw was the Weedeater/Worshipper show just a few days before at Sonia.
Back then, COVID-19 was a slightly alarming but far away theoretical threat. Just a week or so later it would have a crushing impact on the bands, venues, staff and fans of live music all over the globe. (Obviously I am not trying to downplay the tragic human cost of the pandemic, and condolences to all who were personally affected).
Canceled shows were rescheduled, optimistically, until the Fall or later only to be canceled or postponed again as the third wave was worse than anything that had come before. Live streams, limited outdoor shows with drastically reduced capacity, and royalty-free Bandcamp first of the month Fridays helped keep some bands afloat with half a nostril above water, while the area saw permanent closures of vital clubs like Great Scott and ONCE. Thirteen months later, the roll-out of vaccines and the dipping infection and hospitalization rates bring some optimism that we’re finally coming out of this blanket closure, but the reality is that no one really knows when ‘normal’ will occur, or what ‘normal’ looks like.
To find out how local musicians and promoters coped throughout this unprecedented period and what lies ahead, I asked them a few questions. (All photos by Tim Bugbee except where noted)
1: What did you accomplish during the Year Of No Live Music? Did you put your time and effort into a specific project, or did you just try to keep your head above water and cope from day to day?
2 (musicians only): Did you go back to older/forgotten work and look at it from a fresh perspective, or concentrate on creating new material? How did you manage to keep in touch with your creative partners?
2 (promoters only) What are your thoughts on live/pre-recorded streams, did they fill a void or generally were not worthwhile?
3: With the vaccinations rolling out at a good clip, what’s your view on when you’d be comfortable performing/booking again? Just how different do you think the post-COVID landscape of music in Boston will be?
Chris Brokaw (solo performer, also member of Martha’s Vineyard Ferries, Charnel Ground, and ’90s local heroes Come)
1) I did several things: I’d been teaching guitar a bit online, and I just totally switched to teaching guitar, drums and eventually bass online, five days a week. For me this means between 11-14 lessons a week. Mostly adults, maybe one third kids. I felt after a while that I was switching from creating music to studying it and teaching it. I taught/teach Sunday through Thursday, with a pretty steady schedule. I think this helped normalize ‘the new life’ in ways that were helpful to me.
I worked on getting a lot of new releases together, essentially work that was finished prior to the pandemic. New works like my new solo album “Puritan” and the new Martha’s Vineyard Ferries album “Suns Out Guns Out”, both of which came out in 2021. Also things like The End of The Night Band “Live at the Lost Church”, which I released digitally on Bandcamp. On the subject of Bandcamp, it totally caught fire during the pandemic, so I worked to stock mine with digi versions of old cassette recordings like “The Coyote Of Deadhorse Canyon” and “Tundra” plus older lps and new t-shirt designs. More stuff coming in 2021 includes a new tape by Sunset To The Sea (my duo with Jeff Barsky), plus a Come 7″, a Come Peel Sessions LP, and a 2 LP reissue of Come’s “Dont Ask Dont Tell”. Fire Records is reissuing the Come catalog over the next couple of years, so there’s been a lot of work involved with that.
I recorded and released a couple of new things, on Bandcamp: a mini album called “Fecund In The Flood”, and a 31 minute cover of “Heaven” by the Rolling Stones. I did one remote collaboration with Mark Morgan. I got asked to do several more and mostly flaked out on them. I played a lot of live shows on Facebook. They were fun and I think these kept me sane and aware of what I do. People were really supportive of these. I played a few outdoor shows last summer, including playing every Sunday night for a while in Wheeler Park in Cambridge.
I read a lot. Bought a lot of records and books.
3) I have a few outdoor shows booked for this summer with my band. And a couple of indoor shows booked for us in August and October. That all seems a little unrealistic right now, but perhaps it won’t four months from now. Just have to see. I basically go with what Fauci says is ok.
The Ballroom Thieves (2020 Album of the Year BMA winner)
1) We spent the first few months of quarantine in a news-induced depressive hypnosis, but eventually we still managed to get a few things done. We fostered dogs from the local shelter, adopted a beagle named Bagel, built him a fence, insulated our roof, wrote a holiday song, and watched every TV show ever made. More recently we’ve been writing our next record and patching escape routes in Bagel’s fence.
2) We spent some time re-examining old songs, mostly to laugh wistfully in the face of the wide-eyed youth we once possessed. Since Callie and I live together we didn’t really have a problem keeping in touch, and because we were forced to stop moving for the very first time in ten years, we got the opportunity to examine the past and set deliberate intentions for the future. I’m talking, of course, about our stage outfits. Hope everyone’s into spandex!
3) It’s looking like there’ll be some (socially distanced) outdoor shows this summer, which we’re excessively excited about. We’re just hoping that people continue to get vaccinated so we can get back to touring the country. Partly because we can’t wait to see our friends, family, and fans at real venues in the real, physical world, but mostly because I’m so, so sick of doing the goddamn dishes every single night. All jokes aside, if I know Boston, the post-COVID music scene, though sadly missing some key players (RIP Great Scott), will be a blooming revival of mutual joy and debaucherous belligerence, just the way it should be.
Chris Johnson (bass player/singer of Summoner, bass player of Deafheaven, live and recorded sound for the Paradise and various bands)
1) Honestly, I spent essentially one entire year dividing my time into keeping my head above water – existentially speaking – and putting my energy into specific projects or skills. I came out of the gate pretty strong by writing my first ever batch of solo songs just before and into the first couple months of the pandemic, after being in bands for almost twenty years. I spent basically the entire summer working on a record with my band in California, and when I got home I was pretty burnt out on writing and just focused on getting better at singing and spent a lot of time with my acoustic guitar.
2) After getting over the initial feelings the pandemic brought on, call it an existential awakening, I really lost interest in crafting music in a band setting. Without the ability to perform live, I lost the drive to create music with my loud rock band and focused much more on getting better at singing and playing other instruments that I hadn’t spent much time with in the last several years; my drum kit and my piano, as well as chipping away at more solo material. With the band in California, we work on music when we’re all together, with my local bands, we haven’t really felt comfortable all being in the same room together since the early days of the pandemic.
3) I don’t think I will feel comfortable playing in an indoor setting at full capacity again until everyone in the room has been vaccinated, certainly at least the staff, band members and vast majority (at least 90%) of the audience. As it stands, one of my bands is slated to play shows in October, which I think is a reasonable point in the timeline to play indoor shows again, if we can do so safely. I would feel comfortable playing outdoors this summer if the opportunity presented itself though. As for what the post-pandemic Boston music landscape will look like… I just don’t know. I think the biggest difference will show itself when we see who is left wanting to play in bands at that point, or who has started new ones. The older folks who’ve been doing it forever might have forgotten why they were even doing it after so many years, or they will fervently throw themselves back into the music scene at the drop of a hat when they are able to. The younger folks, well, do kids even want to start bands any more? If so, I think we will see a revival in local DIY shows, especially with so many small venues having been forced to close. Actually, think about that… what is the landscape even going to look like without Great Scott, ONCE, Cantab, Johnny D’s, Church, TT’s… I just don’t know.
Cliff Notez (2020 Song of the Year BMA winner)
1) I’ve put a lot of time and effort into hipstory. We’re getting ready to open up our second studio and we’re working on the second season of hipstory house party digital. We were lucky enough to shift so that when the pandemic ends and with live streaming being mostly digital it worked out really well for us being an digital media production company.
2) I think that’s the value of our mission statement at hipstory . Our tagline for a long time is “redefining the future history of digital medial” so with that we’re almost always thinking of our production content on a non-linear timeline. The stuff we did five years ago is just as valuable as what we’re doing now. Everything is always connected in someway. Kinda meta. Lol. I think with the pandemic it’s allowed us more time to refine our approach to how we bring people into that world.
3) I’m hoping that things continue have positive impact on the world as a whole I’m def excited to perform again but I’m in no rush until everyone’s safe again. In the meantime I think there’s always gonna be a space for digital streaming from now on.
Susanna Bolle (head of non-event, a non-profit experimental music series)
1) This past year was actually a really busy one for us. We quickly decided to switch our programming online and kept up a really intense schedule of two programs a week throughout the year. We also made a conscious decision to focus on supporting artists from New England, rather than booking artists from around the world. We didn’t try to replicate the experience of a live show. Instead, we left things open to the musicians in terms of format (live stream, pre-recorded a/v piece, Bandcamp release, etc). We also paid everybody, which we felt was extremely important to do. In addition, we began organizing monthly online fundraisers for local social justice organizations, which is something we’ll continue to do for the foreseeable future.
2) Live/pre-recorded streams have definitely been worthwhile for us. Personally, I’ve found out about so many new artists around New England and I feel that we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg; it’s been eye-opening and really inspiring. That said, streaming programming certainly didn’t come close to filling the void. The social aspect is very different. Chatting with folks in the comments section is not the same thing as hanging out at a show and all too often feels like yammering during someone’s set. More importantly, online live collaborative projects are really tough. We organized a couple of live online improvised collaborations that were a lot of fun and interesting on a conceptual level, but they involved a lot of planning and allowed for less spontaneity.
3) Tough question. We have the benefit of working in unconventional spaces, so we’re very flexible. We just organized our first indoor Non-Event last weekend. It was a sound installation, so no live performers. It was lovely, though, to experience the piece in the Goethe-Institut (one of our favorite haunts) and to hang out for a bit with a few friends in the garden outside.
Doug Sherman (guitar player for Gozu)
1) This year sucked ass. I didn’t start a new career, take up knitting or learn to make sushi. I lost a family member, watched friends either commit suicide or lose their family members to COVID, watched friends jump down the Q hole, lose their shit and never to be seen again, the bar I work at couldn’t open inside so we created a restaurant setting in the parking lot to keep going. Watched clubs close across the globe. My world, like everyone else’s, was turned inside out. Not sure I felt any accomplishment at all, but I worked on my playing, specifically my picking technique and wrote a shit ton of stuff for Gozu. I also started a new project with Jim Healey (Set Fire), JR (Sam Black Church) and Bob Maloney (Worshipper). Most likely we’re going into the studio in August or Sept. It’s cool stuff…like Heaven And Hell Sabbath meets Crowbar.
Just treading water at this moment.
2) With this new project we just share tracks weekly on Dropbox, then we can add vocals, guitar or ideas so we meet up we just plug in and play. The Gozu stuff we will write when we rehearse.
3) I’d be comfortable playing asap as long as there are regulations in place. Masks, social distancing, contact tracing, so on and so forth. I’m seeing lots of tours being booked as we speak and I’m seeing them being canceled as soon as they are being announced lol. Bottom line….See you in 22/23!!
Aaron Gray (head honcho for Grayskull Booking, guitarist for Hepatagua)
1) I became a professional show and tour canceller, haha. I had just landed a job as a talent buyer for the Middle East in Cambridge two months before this happened. Although live events stopped entirely, my work never really stopped. It certainly was a welcome break in a way, but it was forced on me and for a horrific reason. Booking did slow down and eventually come to a dead stop over the summer until two months ago, but I also co-own a booking agency, Heavy Talent, so I have been re-scheduling and moving things over and over again behind the scenes…it got…tedious, haha. So in a sense, I never really stopped completely, but it definitely did change and slow down dramatically.
While this was happening, I started a new band…which broke up…and then another new band (with some of the same members) that is now building and writing at the moment. It’s exciting on that front and I’m working with a couple people I have always wanted to play with – it’s like 9 years in the making, so I’m happy it’s finally happening. Sarah and I also welcomed our son, Maddox Michael, into the world in Feb so THAT’S been a trip…funny how that all went down…people probably assume he is a quarantine surprise but in reality, we had been planning for years. It just happened when it happened, haha.
So, this past year has been a year of new things, which at 42, is always welcome. 🙂 Plenty to do and plenty to keep me busy and out of the rut of depression…not that it always did but I almost…ALMOST…kept myself too busy to get really bummed out. That didn’t happen until the Nov election when nearly half the country lost its collective mind to conspiracies, lol.
2) There have been some I really enjoyed. However, if I am being entirely honest, it mostly just made me really miss being at shows so I couldn’t fully get into them. Not to say some weren’t amazing and creative…a few come to mind: Vile Creature’s take on it was really awesome, as was Full of Hell/Nothing, and Friendship Commanders at Exit/In. I generally prefer the “pre-recorded done in a venue” vibe, which felt more real to me and generally sounded better. There was also one I did with Once that is fond to my heart, I love those guys and all those bands and it was awesome to actually see some friends in the middle of all of this and drink beers in the parking lot, if only for a little while. It was also one of the last times I was in that room, so I will never forget it. ¡Viva La Once!
3) Well, I am putting stuff on the Middle East calendar and some other spots around town for fall, but whether they happen is still up in the air. There is talk of vaccination requirements, which I sort of go back and forth on. On one hand, I am for it as everyone can be safer and feel better about it. On the other, there are people who legit can’t take vaccines or may be religiously opposed to, etc, etc. I do sort of understand the personal choice of it, even though I am definitely on the side that everyone should just choose to take it, if that makes sense. I am a pragmatic person to the bone and I try to take the emotion out of things when faced with a difficult decision. I feel like I will make a clearer choice that way. Doesn’t mean it’s right, but it’s what I do, and it helps me stay sane.
I think this year may be a little weird, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s to not jump to conclusions. I just got my 2nd dose this past Saturday and I plan on returning to somewhat normal life…as that makes sense to me, given what we have learned about living with this virus. Will I be walking into public places maskless? No, not right now. But, eventually, I will let my guard fully down because I understand that Covid is not going away and everyone will get it eventually. The point of the vaccine, as I understand it, is to help stop the spread by killing transmission points AND lessening the effect it has on you should you catch it. With this in mind, I feel okay about re-entry when it is appropriate. At one point we had no options like a vaccine, so to be socially distanced, masked up, and all the other precautions made sense. But we’re not supposed to live like that forever, that’s not the point in my opinion. I wasn’t some psycho screaming for things to open and still am not now, but I know at some point, numbers and all that willing…I will be fine with walking into a place filled with people maskless. But that’s just me. I hadn’t even gotten a flu shot in years before this past year and it was NICE not getting really sick over the winter so I will be doing that again. If I do get sick, I will most likely take more precautions to prevent spreading that…maybe wearing a mask in public when I have a cold, stuff like that. We’ll see.
Sorry this is so long, I just have a lot to say on this, haha.
As far as the landscape…it’s going to be different. For the kind of shows I put on, I know of only 4 spots that will be open by the end of the year…as of writing this anyway…these include : The Middle East, O’Brien’s, Charlie’s (Monday only), and Hong Kong (if that’s still going to happen now that Daniel has taken over booking at O’Briens). So really, all of the shows I do will be at these venues. At this point, we can either let the corporate landscape wash over us or we can band together and move forward to keep independent venues alive. That’s not to say that there aren’t great people at corporate spots, or that how they each run their business is wrong. I don’t agree with some of the practices, but I get it. I have a lot of great friends that work at these places but the importance of independent venues cannot be overstated.
We are going to take more chances and help build more bands from a lower level, generally speaking. No one starts in Brighton Music Hall, or The Sinclair, or Paradise Rock Club. Bands are built in places like O’Brien’s, Great Scott, Middle East Upstairs, and Sonia. We need these places for the whole landscape to work. If any of them disappear for good, you’ll see the impact within a few years. I’ve watched it happen around the country as a booking agent. Some cities are tough as hell to get a small band booked and we don’t want that problem in Boston, trust me on that.
A look at the Boston venue landscape from May 2020 (click on the photo for the gallery):