Sometimes things just line up and point in the right direction.
Back in February, at the end of our last live concert in Unity Hall, most everyone there – volunteers, patrons, musicians – were making their way towards the door, obviously concerned about what was going to happen next. We had a concert scheduled for the next month. But I’d say most people there knew this kind of gathering wasn’t going to happen again for a while. It was especially difficult because most folks in this crowd aren’t the type to go a whole week without live music, let alone an indefinite number of months. The audience “knew”, but all tried to express their frustration in polite question form: “Is this really likely to be the last time we’ll get to see our favorite performers pick up their instruments (apologies to the piano players) and perform their voodoo live in front of us?” They also knew they could depend on Pandora, Spotify, Sirius, and their vinyl collection to carry them along if the shut down turned out to be long term. Sure, you could always count on Paul Desmond’s sax on Take Five, Robert Plant’s screaming vocals on Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and Etta James’ soul stirring voice on I’d Rather Go Blind to hit those important buttons and recharge your battery. But even the most iconic recordings can’t come close to delivering the experience of an in-person performance. It’s a living thing. The musicians wind up. Someone sets the rhythm. And a once-in-a-lifetime event occurs. The tune, the feel, the licks, your response will never be the same a second time around. It’s not just a great tune; it’s a scrapbook event.
Well, the answer to our February’s audience question turned out to be “yes”. Live music in Unity Hall and in just about every other venue worldwide got put into an induced coma to keep things safe. The people whose job it is to present performances went through most of the stages of grief before considering whether there might be any reasonable and creative compromises that could be put together.
Presenters everywhere have been rising to meet the challenge. Some are offering shows in a drive-in theater format. Some internet promoters are charging admission to performances by national favorites who live stream all over the world. Members of large ensembles phone in their parts in Zoom concerts.
Unity Hall’s idea was more homespun. We used our 2020 CNY Arts performance grant (that would have otherwise just sat there) to pay some amazing Upstate musicians to each record a limited-time-only set of music. Then we put 10 weekly concerts on our website, promoted the hell out of them online, and waited to see who would watch. You were there for some of them, right? Otherwise, who were those 10,000 viewers we counted over ten weeks? Still not the same as live shows, but each sure looked and felt like one. Some were staged in a living room. Some in an office. Monk was in the basement. I was surprised no one recorded themselves in their bathroom – the acoustics are usually so good in there.
Thanks to your generous online tips, the musicians were well-rewarded -- Ryan, Nick, Joe, Burns and Kristy, Ernie, Monk, John and Cathy Cadley, Rick, Mason, Ann Carey and I all thank you. In gratitude, we each agreed to donate one additional new tune which Unity Hall stitched together into a virtual musical quilt concert titled “Pay It Forward”. The concert premiered on August 8, but can still be watched at your convenience at unityhall.com until the start of September.
The intention of the “Pay It Forward” concert was to raise funds via Unity Hall’s online tip jar for future virtual events. Now, with tips earned from that event, we have the necessary funding to pay some extraordinary musicians to play for the next round of virtual shows. The first performance in the next series is scheduled to premiere on Saturday, September 12th at 8 p.m., with a new show every other week until just before Christmas. The schedule of performers will be announced soon. Our intentions are the same as they were back at the start of Covid – to help musicians earn some income during these strange times and to stir things up with some exciting performances.
The only thing missing is a hairy coconut.