Live Music in a Pandemic

My wife and I got the calendar out and we tried to figure out when we last heard live music. Keep in mind that our summers generally include as many as six Americana/folk festivals, including Green River, Green Mountain, Rhythm and Roots, Old Tone, Brooklyn Folk Festival, Clearwater, and others. But we went all the way back to January and came up dry.

But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been to two outdoor events, with mostly good results. Since it hasn’t gotten (really) cold yet, this is a good time to sample some (relatively) safe entertainment.

Liz McNicholl performing on a golden afternoon in Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On an absolutely golden day a couple of weeks ago, I went up the Merritt Parkway to the home of my good friend Liz McNicholl, the Ireland-born Americana artist. I’ve known and loved Liz’ music for more than 20 years, and have seen her fine band many times at places like the Gaelic American Club and hosted her often on WPKN.

Liz has been hosting weekend shows poolside at her Connecticut home, and this was to be the last one for a while. Even though on the COVID paranoia scale I’m probably an 8 out of 10, I couldn’t not go. I didn’t want to not go.

Peter Blossom, Liz McNicholl, John Hurley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The band (John Hurley and Pete Blossom were on guitars) played covers like Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (Liz) and “Simple Twist of Fate” (John). I love their version of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written by–of all people–Paul Anka. Here they are with Pat Alger’s “Once in a Blue Moon,” made famous by Nancy Griffith:

I arrived as the band was starting, and obliviously chose what turned out to be a less-than-ideal viewing spot between some large group “pods.” I should have gotten there earlier, because Liz had an ideal safe location for me all picked out–but what could she do with the band already on “stage”?

Liz is really careful about this stuff. She limits attendance, and works out what amounts to a seating chart–like preparing for a wedding, she says. You can’t put Cousin Bob next to Uncle John.

I made it through the first set with a big smile on my face, but not wanting to mingle on the patio at intermission, I retreated for a walk around the block. The sun was moving, and when I came back the folks in front of me had moved their chairs closer to get some shade. Can’t blame ’em, but uh-oh. Why am I such a worry wart?

Really, it was just fine. A beautiful afternoon out, and Liz and her husband Aaron couldn’t have done more to make the people there comfortable. She couldn’t have taken any more precautions–the music was magical, the show was outside, the people were distanced. But there’s just no way to wind everything back to carefree pre-COVID times.

My friend Valerie Denn, who books Americana shows, just posted to Facebook about the huge losses we’ve suffered in live music. And someone commented, “Just through a show with no masks. It is your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The government has taken all three from us by making everyone wear masks and not gather in larger groups. Liberty means to live your life free of restrictions and regulation set upon your life.”

I think that’s nuts. Do we want to say goodbye to live music forever? And how could you think it’s your right to infect other people?

The Better Half at Applausi. From left, Mugrage, Packham, Seem. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The second show featured my friend guitarist Greg Packham–playing drums. Or in this case, drum. We were at Applausi, an Italian restaurant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The food was delicious, and it was nippy but not yet cold.

The band, called The Better Half, featured a former member of Orleans, Michael Mugrage, on guitar and vocals and Jenny Seem, who took most of the leads on a string of pop hits (including “Dance With Me” by Orleans). It was fun to see confirmed progressive jazz guitarist Packham not only banging the skins, but doing so on a Carpenters hit. Seem is a fine singer, especially on a record they gave me called Pie in the Sky.

Mugrage is a gifted songwriter, as the demonstrated by the few originals the group performed. He has quite a resume, producing music for Monday Night Football, writing a theme song for Good Morning America, and acting as Ronnie Spector’s music director. He wrote songs for Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, The Average White Band, Tommie Roe and Richie Havens. He seemed to be having a good time, and praised the Applausi chefs.

Again, it was quite nice to be hearing music again. The evening was properly distanced. I’d go again, and next time I hope they turn on all the patio heaters.

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