One of the unexpected delights of moving to “the beach” for many people is the discovery of really good live, local music.
All musicians play in public for the “love of it.” For some it’s an occasional fun thing to do but for full-time, self-employed, professional musicians whose livelihoods depend on live gigs, loyal fans and supportive restaurant owners, music is their life, soul and business.
“We came back from our Florida tour at the end of February and by the beginning of March, I had our entire summer booked,” said Jake Banaszak, guitarist with Lower Case Blues, and the one responsible for managing the band’s schedule. “As well as our normal venues at High Stakes, Hammerheads Dockside and The Pond, we’ve been invited to play at some exciting, new blues festivals. I was tying up a few loose ends and stoked for the summer.”
It was on March 6, when the city of Austin (Texas) announced it had cancelled its major music festival, South By Southwest, that news of the coronavirus started to become relevant. And then just before the big St. Patrick’s Day weekend, when Dewey Beach cancelled its planned revelries, the hammer dropped.
“St. Patrick’s weekend is a really big deal for musicians,” said Keri Anthony, a cover singer who plays a lot of 60s and 70s blues-based, folksy tunes and has made her living for the past 11 years at venues from Lewes to Ocean City. “During the winter, I continue to have my regular gigs such as at The Cove and 99 Sea Level, but St. Patrick’s is the unofficial start of the season. It’s the time when the money we stocked away from last summer is growing low and when we can expect a boost to carry us through spring.”
Aaron Howell, a graduate of Indian River High School, has been playing solo, duo and recently with his new band, Low Tide Lovers, for around 15 years. Like Banaszak, Howell also has a fully-booked schedule set for the summer, including at the Bethany Boat House and the Salted Rim. He also hosts Team Trivia every Wednesday at the 45th Street Tap House in Ocean City. He is married to stay-at-home-mom Colleen and they have two children, Isaac and Hannah. Needless to say, a steady income is essential.
“In the beginning, I was like so many other young musicians, basically living from gig to gig, enjoying life and not giving much thought to the future,” said Howell. “Then Colleen came into my world and it became clear that if we were to become a couple, we would need a strict budget, based primarily on summer income, and we would need to stick to it. Thank goodness for Colleen! But the budget didn’t include not working for an indefinite time due to an unknown virus. Fortunately I’ve been able to pick up some extra work doing some landscaping.”
“I’m playing a lot of new stuff at home, which is good,” added Howell. “It’s just lucky this crisis didn’t hit at the beginning of summer.”
Taylor Knox, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, is another busy musician who plays solo at places like Hooked Up and with his bands at High Stakes and Beach Barrels. He also gives music lessons at his house and the homes of his students. Knox is married to Kelly and has a baby, Leighton.
One of the things he was looking forward to was an EP release by his band, The Taylor Knox Project at The Loft, a new venue in Fenwick Island. EP stands for Extended Play and is basically half an album with five songs. “Originally it was called Arrival but by the time we’re able to perform again it may be a full album and will need a new title!” said Knox.
“This situation has had an enormous impact on us and I’m nervous,” Knox continued. “But I’m ecstatic to be stuck in the house with my baby, in my happy place. I’m now doing face-time lessons and developing on-line teaching modules which is different. For a while, I helped a friend building custom closets but now that we can’t go into customers’ homes, we can’t do that anymore. Kelly is a nurse who has taken time off to become a nurse practitioner. Obviously her clinical classes are cancelled and she has two years to go. We’ll see what the new normal brings … Last night I applied for unemployment.”
The recently passed Federal Relief Package makes self-employed people, including musicians and song-writers, who are unable to work because of COVID-19 eligible for a tax credit equal to up to 10 days this year of lost self-employment income.
Sky Philip Brady has made his living as a versatile entertainer, singer and DJ in Sussex County for decades. Whether performing for weddings, banquets, casino excursion groups or nursing homes, he knows just the right songs to sing or play.
“I’m 66 years old and haven’t applied for social security,” he said. “I’m hoping to wait until I’m 70 so I get the whole amount…and I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m used to squirreling my money aside for bad times, and I’m OK for a couple more months, but I have applied for unemployment. The process is confusing. I got two emails and one didn’t say if I was accepted or not and I think the other one said no. Maybe it’s because I haven’t filed my 2019 taxes yet…”
Brady is not a woe-is-me person. His main concern is for the many old people in the approximately 20 nursing homes and senior centers where he entertains regularly.
“They love the time I spend with them. Often it’s me and them singing along together. I was upset, picturing them worrying in their rooms, without visitors, and I wondered what I could do to help.”
Brady decided to use his spare time to make a 24-track CD of all their favorite songs. It is aptly called “When You’re Smiling”.
“I called each of the nursing homes and told them the time I would drop off the CDs. Then the next day I got a call from the director of State Street Assisted Living Center in Dover asking if I could do an outside performance! The building is U-shaped and she told me all the residents would be sitting by their window and able to watch. I got my gear together and they got me an extension cord and I was ready to go. At the last minute, I decided to put my phone on a rocking chair and do a Facebook Live show. It was beautiful and it wasn’t just the residents with tears in their eyes.”
Brady’s performance went viral. It had over 3,000 views, 500 comments and ended up featured on 47 WMDT’s Live Appearance.
“I’m overwhelmed and humbled,” he said. “Spiritually, I think I’m meant to make seniors happy.”
Facebook Live has also been useful for Lower Case Blues’ Banaszak, B.J. Muntz (bassist) and Paul Weik (drummer). The band is known for its original bluesy/funk music and intricate improvisations of Blues standards.
“Since the closure of all our venues until at least May 15, we have been writing and rehearsing a lot,” said Banaszak. “We want to use our time productively and creatively so we have fresh material to play when things open back up. Also we’ve been looking for ways to expand our presence on social media.”
In the first week that gigs were cancelled, the band took advantage of down time and had three new songs ready to go. Coincidentally, Banaszak was approached by Scooter Studios in Georgetown to do a live streaming concert from their recording studio using You Tube. Many fans watched and delighted in the opportunity to hear their band playing with a really great sound system.
Soon after Banaszak got a call from Pete Borsari, owner of The Pond in downtown Rehoboth. The Pond is known to be that comfortable place where the best of musicians come to listen to others as well as to perform. Needless to say, it is also often packed with the best of crowds.
“Pete’s idea was to live-stream local entertainment, using Facebook Live, from our normal place on the stage but, of course, with no audience. At the same time the kitchen would provide its carry-out food service. We wouldn’t get paid by Pete but we could have a virtual tip jar using PayPal or Venmo,” said Banaszak.
The first live-stream event worked so well for Lower Case, their fans, and The Pond that the band now appears, for the time being, every Friday from 6 until 8 PM. Everyone is invited to watch on their phones or computers by tuning into the Lower Case Blues Facebook page. It has become a fun, interactive session with their sound technician, Nick Green, sharing comments from Facebook and taking viewers’ requests.
Even better, Borsari has scheduled other musicians to play on different days. Keri Anthony, for example, is playing with another amazing singer, Jodi Lynn Cohee on Sunday evenings at 5:30 p.m. Together they are known as Share the Road. These two will rock the house from the comfort of Happy Hour in your own home.
“We are so grateful to Pete,” said Anthony.
The musicians mentioned in this articles are true professionals. They planned ahead and can make it for a while. But music is not a lucrative career choice, at the best of times.
“All of us are doing the best we can,” said Banaszak. “The gig at The Pond is a novelty for now, and I’m glad other venues are starting to do the same thing, but who knows how many fans will tune in and use the tip jar a month from now? Musicians need the summer badly or it will be really hard to recover.”
Let’s hope summer starts on time both for musicians and those of us who miss the joy they bring to their audiences every time they play.