COVID shutdowns have had a negative trickle-down effect for many over this last year. Local musicians know that better than most. When bars and restaurants closed, it wasn’t just physical bread and butter that was lost. Bands lost gigs at some of their most regular venues.
But even through the many cancellations, some musicians found bright spots in outdoor performances, creating not just an outlet for their own musical passions, but gifting their listeners who desperately craved the release that sometimes only music can bring.
Since starting their acoustic duo in 2008, Ricky and Harv – Ricky Koons and Harvey Young – have continually added gigs to their annual schedule. Before COVID hit, they were performing more than 200 a year. In March, that came to a screeching halt until the summer, when most of the places they played were outside.
“The people really responded to it,” Young said. “It was a good thing. We’re certainly going to seek out (outside venues) this year again.”
In fact, with more and more venues getting creative and forming outdoor seating areas, Young said, “We’re finding that there’s more work almost every night of the week.”
The Ann Kerstetter Band also found an unexpected boost in the many outside venue opportunities that kept popping up throughout the Valley. Though they lost gigs during the first couple months of the shutdown, singer Ann Kerstetter said, “The fact that the weather stayed nice as long as it did – our last gig was the end of November – it made up the difference.”
She said she is thankful to those venues who were willing to get creative and even arrange for outdoor heaters to expand the season even further for live music.
Kerstetter said she canceled some gigs on her own, feeling responsible not just for her own health but for the health of her listeners. She remains hopeful that the new vaccine will change things soon and is cautiously optimistic that they can begin performing again in February. She is also booked for the summer.
Tom Inch, lead singer of Jesse, a band that has been around the area for nearly 48 years, said 2020 was extremely difficult. They lost all of their indoor gigs for the year, and were left with just a few outdoor performances. He is grateful for the venues who made those possible, as they drew large crowds.
“People came out in droves,” he said, “because they had a place to go finally.”
In a normal year, Jesse would perform about 30 to 35 shows. Inch said they only had about five or six.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “You can’t do what you love doing. You stay busy playing and practicing, but that’s not anything like playing to a live crowd.”
He said the restrictions are not at all suitable to the rock-n-roll music that Jesse plays.
“You can’t play behind plexiglass,” he said. “It’s not the same. You got to have people out there – the more energy you put into it, the more they put out.”
The Lucky Afternoon Band took an especially hard hit this year, losing 74 shows since March. When the shutdowns first hit, original member Dave Stamm said they were scheduled every week for spring club shows, and several times a week during summer and fall carnivals, fairs and festivals. When the restrictions came, he said they felt like they went from “60 miles per hour to 0.”
“It was quite the adjustment playing and entertaining for so many people to just practicing in the home studio with other family members in the band,” Stamm said. “Playing at home doesn’t nearly replace the excitement of full dance floors and people’s smiles and interactions at outside shows.”
They will lose even more gigs as the COVID pandemic rages on through the winter and early spring. Stamm said their first scheduled outside show is in May, when he is hoping “the pandemic will be under control with several vaccines.”
In the meantime, they are taking the extra time to reflect on what they do.
“I believe through this pandemic, we’ll learn to love and appreciate each show even more,” he said, adding, “We have missed making memories with each other, with our crowds and friends, and in addition, meeting new people. Personally, I feel like a piece of my heart and passion has been put on hold.”
In the few shows they have been able to do at some outdoor venues, Stamm said the big crowds helped to fill some of the void, but with social distancing and mask restrictions, he said, “it wasn’t quite the same.”
For Gabe Stillman, the COVID shutdowns have had a refining effect.
Since starting his band in 2015, he said they played nearly every weekend, and the two years before the shutdown were especially busy. At first, he said it was nice to slow down, but then reality hit and the grieving began.
“It’s been a challenge not being able to express myself in the way that’s most comfortable for me,” Stillman said. “I think that the shutdown has given me time to refocus on the reasons why I love playing music and why I need to play music in a live setting.
“Moving forward into the new year,” he added, “I will never again take any opportunity to play for people for granted, and I’m certainly going to play like my life depends on it at every gig – because I know now that it does.”
Kerstetter said she has sung less this year than any year she’s been singing. She too, is greatly missing it. While they did some performances online, she said it’s not ideal. After all, she’s not just a singer – she’s an entertainer.
“I crave an audience,” she said, and as she looks to the new year, “I can’t resolve the pandemic is going to go away, but I am hopeful in the vaccination and that people will start to realize that we have to work together so we an do all the things we want to do.”
In 2021, Inch said, “We’re hoping that a lot of venues will find ways to have outside entertainment, and keep things going throughout the year.”
In the meantime, he and other band members have been doing their best to stay in touch with fans via social media. Inch said he calls them “family” because of the way they so faithfully come out to see and support them.
Young also remains positive as he looks ahead.
“I can’t believe that this year would be any worse than last year,” he said. “None of us had any clue as to how long this was going to last.”
Looking back, he said they wouldn’t do anything differently next year. It’s all about staying in contact with the venues, keeping their name out there, and “Working as much as we can,” he said, “and just riding it out until it changes.”
But giving up for this 78-year-old isn’t even an option that he’s willing to consider.
“There will be no quitting from us,” he said resolutely.