Capital Region

The empty marquee: Making music in a new world of virtual performances

Putnam Place in Saratoga Springs is shown in a 2018 file photo. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

Putnam Place in Saratoga Springs is shown in a 2018 file photo. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, Entertainment

Greg Bell of Guthrie/Bell Productions presents shows at Putnam Place in Saratoga Springs and other venues. A 28-year concert business veteran, Bell, whose last show was on March 7, clearly sees the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on his industry, and how those who make music, and who make music possible and available, are coping.

“It seems like everyone in this business has their own way of dealing with this mess that we are in,” said Bell. “Some found side jobs to hold them over, some have worked hard at finding alternate ways of getting live music to the fans, some have given up completely and some are waiting patiently to see what is going to happen.”

Some venues — like restaurants, bars and retailers — are closing, notably Howard Glassman’s Albany rock bar The Low Beat, offering fans its decor items as souvenirs.

“Independent venues, like theaters and concert halls, are the beating heart of New York’s cultural life and a driving force in the Capital Region’s economy,” said Sen. Charles Schumer in a statement announcing support for the Save Our Stages Act. “These local businesses were among the first to shut down at the start of the pandemic, are struggling to stay afloat, and will be among the last to reopen.”

“This entire global pandemic has affected us all in so many ways and to varying degrees,” said Sal Prizio, program manager, talent buyer, event producer at Proctors Collaborative. “Our last show was on March 15,” he said, noting they’ve tried “a drive model over the summer with some success.” He said, “Frankly it was good to see a band perform live again [at Mohawk Harbor]. It made me feel normal for a bit.”

“Every musician I know is experiencing some sort of roller coaster of emotions,” said Schenectady-to-NYC trombonist Alex Slomka. “I’ve been coping with it by reminding myself that music will survive, but honestly the longer the pandemic lasts, the more anxious I become about what music in the new world will look like.”

“I think the level of uncertainty that our industry is facing has placed enormous anxiety on many of us,” said Jon Elbaum, executive director of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. “We all have our own ways of dealing with that. Some good, some …”

SIDE JOBS

Teaching is the side job of many players, but Mark Kleinhaut is a fortunate exception, also an explorer in alternate ways to be heard. “As a performer who always has had steady non-music income, I was free to be a jazz purist and only do non-commercial gigs that I wanted to do and completely on my own terms,” said the Saratoga jazz guitarist and banker. “My outlet has been to play on Facebook and YouTube for a virtual audience from the safety of my living room,” he added. “It’s lonely at times without real audience interactions and playing live with other living human musicians.”


Albany-to-Nashville-to-the-world surf-rock guitarist Eddie Angel (Los Straitjackets) said, “My last gig was February 27 in Auckland, New Zealand, with Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets.” He added, “I’ve been giving online guitar lessons and I did five Facebook live stream shows with my family.”

“In the past six months I’ve had a grand total of two gigs,” said Schenectady jazz saxophonist and teacher Brian Patneaude. In the same span last year, he’d played 45. His last gig before the pandemic shutdown was March 3 with Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble at the Van Dyck. “Needless to say, my income has taken a sizable hit because of the pandemic.”

However, “Luckily I’ve been able to maintain, and grow, my private teaching studio by switching to online lessons,” said Patneaude. “While this has allowed me to stay afloat financially, I miss playing and teaching music in person. When I walked into SUNY Schenectady last week to direct the first rehearsal of the school’s jazz combo, I was amazed at how exciting it was to hear the sound of another saxophone besides my own for the first time in six months.”

Patneaude also plays in pianist Rob Lindquist’s virtual sextet, recording separately in videos for YouTube.

ALTERNATE LIVE MUSIC DELIVERY

The venerable (145 years) but forward-thinking Troy Savings Bank Music Hall has presented outdoor shows in its Summer Square (free) series and in the Jericho Drive-in, a (ticketed) project with WEXT. The Hall also recently launched a streaming series by subscription including shows by Richard Thompson, Suzanne Vega and the High Kings; plus an emailed magazine.

Equally visionary, Saratoga’s Caffe Lena has streamed live shows from its stage with a three-camera set-up since before the pandemic. The coffeehouse recently teamed up with Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the SPAC: At Home Concert Series, including Time for Three this Saturday, and presents its new Music School online.

WAMC’s The Linda has added a new Open for Take-Out Virtual Concert Series (paid events) to its long-standing broadcast audio series of recorded shows.

Local heroes Sean Rowe, Rick Bedrosian, Erin Harkes and Jocelyn and Chris Arndt are among the multitudes regularly streaming live or recorded home-based shows, a proliferation that presents the same multi-show tough choices fans faced when we could actually go out. On Saturday, for example, we must choose between Tom Paxton & the DonJuans (5 p.m., streamed by the Eighth Step) and great jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette’s trio (7 p.m., streamed by shapeshifter). Both are paid events, while tipping is available with most streamed events, a successful model for Caffe Lena and its artists.

Most live music now is unpaid, but artists are happy for the attention and applause,” explained Jon Elbaum of the Hall’s free outdoor shows on Second Street. “I know all of the musicians we have been working with over the summer have been extremely grateful for the opportunity to play, even for very little compensation in front of relatively small audiences.”

Musicians are also making lemonade of the sour lemons of lost gigs and isolation.

For Patneaude, quarantining means a welcome jump in family time. “We’ve gone on more family walks, bike rides and general adventures than we would have, had I been performing regularly,” said the married father of two.

Jazz drummer, pianist and teacher Cliff Brucker has turned his energies inward since his last gig March 11 — “a forced sabbatical,” he said. “I haven’t done much music at all, just fixed up my house all summer.” However, Brucker leads his New Circle trio in the Jazz on Jay (Jay and State streets, Schenectady) Jazz Appreciation Month show on Sept. 24 (see page 10). (Bassist Tarik Shah leads his trio at Jazz on Jay today at noon; free). Brucker said, “I am a little anxious about performing again at such a high level with these incredible players!”

Optimists by nature — If we play, they will come! — musicians and promoters see varying degrees of hope in a calendar full of question marks.

Greg Bell has cancelled or postponed 50 to 60 shows since March, but said, “I continue to hold dates for future shows and am currently adding new dates for possible shows.” However, “I am getting less optimistic that these shows will take place.”

He looks for the green light to present “dinner shows and shows in a cabaret-like setting where a small audience can be socially distant and safe.” He said, “I would also think that theaters will open at some point for limited audiences … settings can be easily controlled and set up to keep people in a certain area away from each other while still providing a somewhat social setting.”

We can only hope this works, though sheer human density arguably adds to the excitement of a show. Two of my best times at shows, ever, were standing on my chair with two strangers in the second row in a Grateful Dead show at Glens Falls Civic Center, and sharing my umbrella with two friends at a rainy Music Haven Maura O’Connell show.

Despite the instinctive optimism of musicians and presenters, dark clouds still dot the horizon.

“Many of the restaurants in NYC will be allowed to open up to 25 percent capacity soon,” said Alex Slomka, and similar audience limitations apply almost everywhere. Noting Gov. Cuomo’s restrictions on the promotion of live music statewide, he also speculated that lower venue revenues will mean lower fees for musicians. “Many musicians have a hard time paying bills, playing $100 gigs; could you image those now becoming $25 gigs?”

WHAT NEXT?

Eddie Angel said, “All our 2020 gigs have been rescheduled for 2021, but I guess that remains to be seen.”

Peter Lesser, executive director at The Egg in Albany, said the venue’s last show was March 13 but “we’re hoping for 2021.”

“We have a large number of shows confirmed for the spring of 2021,” said Jon Elbaum of the Music Hall. “We are hopeful that we will be able to actually present them.” Hall Marketing Manager Karen Good said, “Ultimately, we’ll be OK. The Hall has survived the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and both World Wars. I remind myself of this often.”

Sal Prizio at Proctors said, “Jim Murphy and I are working on the initial stages of having the Eddies music awards for 2020 happen before the end of the year in virtual form.”

Mark Kleinhaut said, “It won’t last forever and anyone pursuing creative arts should understand this has always been a marathon, a lifetime pursuit. So this is but one chapter, albeit a weird and unexpected one. But creating never stops; or at least to me, that’s unimaginable.”

As country singer Wynonna said in a news release announcing a new record, “I’ve learned a lot being at home these last few months. When there’s no touring, no concerts, no band, no lights, no action, all that’s left is you and the song. All that’s left is your gift.”

SOUND ENGINEER BRIAN LANG FONDLY REMEMBERED; CELEBRATION OF HIS LIFE IS SATURDAY

The tragic recent death of respected Putnam Place concert sound engineer Brian Lang shows the special stresses on those who make and present music in this pandemic year.

The Putnam Place family mourned Lang on Facebook in warm, admiring words. “Brian was our lead sound engineer for years and was responsible for making so many of our shows sound as good as they did. Brian was very passionate about mixing shows. It wasn’t just a job to him, it was an art form and anyone who ever spoke with him about it could tell how much he loved it.

“Every show he mixed was a mission to make the band sound as great as possible, and he always did an excellent job; we were lucky to have him. On a personal level, Brian was a great soul. He was selfless and always tried to do what he could for others. He was an integral part of the Putnam Den/Putnam Place family and he will be deeply missed by many. Our hearts go out to his family during this difficult time.”

Greg Bell of Guthrie/Bell Productions also spoke fondly of Lang, a cranky perfectionist like himself. “I was always happy when I knew that he would be doing the sound,” said Bell. “He and I got along well, partially due to the fact that we both liked to bitch about things a lot while getting the job done properly … When it was go time, Brian was the man you wanted on the soundboard.”

Putnam Place (63 Putnam St., Saratoga Springs) hosts a celebration and remembrance of Brian Lang on Saturday, from 2 to 8 p.m. Visit their Facebook page for more.

As Robert Millis announced on nippertown.com, “Then, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., members of local bands Wild Adriatic and Let’s Be Leonard will be playing many of Brian’s favorite tunes out in the patio.”

Lang’s friends and colleagues have organized a GoFundMe page for his family: Go to gofundme.com and enter Brian Lang in the search field.

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