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Live music is back. Lisa Giuseppina Iesse checks in to see how it’s going

Gathering Sparks.

We are bringing in the light

We are singing through the longest night

When Eve Goldberg and Jane Lewis of Gathering Sparks sung these lyrics for their album All That’s Real, released in September 2019, they could not have known the weight that their words might carry in the months and years to follow.

Since the start of the pandemic, live music has been extremely important for people and communities across the globe. As COVID-19 wore on, artists played on, many giving free live concerts from their driveways, front yards, garages, balconies and even rooftops.

Here in Canada however, the long cold winter months can make playing outdoors in the beautiful northern regions of Turtle Island quite difficult.

For many music lovers, being able to engage with live music became a rare opportunity. And Many musicians eagerly awaited a space and time to play for live audiences again.

Not everyone agreed on how and when this should happen. But despite the uncertainties, many are returning.

I checked in with some artists and fans to see how it’s been going.

Surreal return

“It is a bit surreal… for both performers and audiences,” said Chris McKhool of Sultans of String, who spoke to me while the band was completing a US tour that was originally supposed to take place in March of 2020.

His bandmate Kevin Laliberté described returning to touring as a “weird combination of being excited to be back at it but feeling a bit out of shape in the day-to-day mechanics of being on the road, the driving, loading in, setting up … At end of the day, we are exhausted, but happy to have been able to play for humans again!”

Shari Ulrich called the return to touring “new and tiring territory” but emphasized that she is so glad to be back playing for a live audience.

When it comes to the fans, there is a combination of yearning to connect with live music, but also an anxiety and tension, said Eve Goldberg.

 “There are two things happening at the same time,” said Eve, who played some smaller live gigs this spring with Gathering Sparks, followed by some larger gigs in May.

“One: people are yearning for in-person events where they can see other people and share in some kind of experience together. Two: people are nervous to be in spaces with other people.”

Nonetheless, Eve said, the duo was “bowled over by people’s deep, deep appreciation” at seeing them live again.

“The feedback afterwards was extremely powerful and heartfelt,” she said. “I don’t know that I have ever experienced that amount of outpouring at the end of a concert. Person after person came up to tell us how much it meant to them to be at the concert, some of them sharing very personal stories… I have said this in a few different places, but I think one of the biggest learnings of the pandemic for me has been to never take the experience of making music in a room with people for granted ever again. It was a such a gift for us to be able to be together— masks and distance and all— to share in that connection. It’s not without its risks, and we’re trying to proceed carefully, but wow, did it ever feel good.”

Many audience members told Lynne Hanson that her show was the first they’d seen in two years.

Lynne also described a “huge appreciation for the return of live music,” saying “I will never take the privilege of playing shows for real live people for granted ever again and [I’m] grateful for the opportunity to be performing!!!”

Some music lovers who were attending their first live concert since the start of the pandemic told me how seeing live music is a completely different experience from listening to recordings.

“It’s actually the interaction of the artist with the people and how they react, besides that… how they adapt or modify, or just change everything while they’re recording something,” said Ricardo, who drove from Hamilton to Toronto for the Latin music festival UNIDOS.

“So live music is really about the connection between the artist and the people. It’s a completely different energy. You are seeing the artist.”

Artemiz, who was working at the festival, said, “Crowds are eating it up.”

Indeed, at the UNIDOS festival and other live shows I have attended recently, it was rare to see audience members take out their cell phones or other devices.

Venues’ COVID policies in Canada and abroad, vary quite a bit, but that hasn’t impacted audience numbers as much as one might think, Eve told me.

The impact of public health mandates

“We went into the gigs expecting a smaller audience, and we were fine with that,” she said. “Some folks that we got in touch with told us that they just aren’t ready to venture into public spaces yet, and I totally understand that. So overall, I was surprised at the number of people who did come out, and in one case, the promoter was also happily surprised at the walk-up crowd.”

A number of venues have continued to request proof of vaccine, even after the lifting of vaccine passport mandates.

Many musicians and audience members have expressed their support for this move, but at the same time, some also worry if this might become an increasing point of tension.

“I appreciate any measures that make it more feasible for us to return to live performances as safely as possible,” one artist told me. “We need our venues and presenters to be able to survive too!”

Venues in Canada and abroad vary a great deal in their mask policies.

Until quite recently, most venues in Canada either recommended masks or required them.

But some of the musicians I spoke to said that wasn’t the case in many regions of the US and the UK, where few or no audience members wore masks, even with capacity restrictions lifted.

Checking out the scene in person

Some performers understandably found this a bit unnerving at times.

In order to avoid COVID and the risk of cancelling more tours, some of the musicians I spoke with explained that they avoid what, unfortunately, is also a much-loved aspect of performing: meeting audience members afterwards.

With all the talk of live music, I felt inspired to hear some live music!

UNIDOS

I began by heading to UNIDOS, an outdoor music festival on Richmond Street that features local and international Latin artists. The festival takes place a few times per year from late spring to early fall.

I arrive at the festival just in time to be swept off my feet by SWA – Salseros With Attitude, who took the stage midway through the music festivities.

In fast quickening beats, the music began. Moving endlessly, layers of sound stirred up and spilled like a magic potion into the air. Bell clave rhythms joined with the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean rhythms of the bongos, timbales,and conga drums. As the rich piano played around them, the bright, lively brass sections heated up and exchanged rhythms with the vocalists.

After the performance, I headed to the stage and spoke with Albany Caldera, SWA’s talented lead vocalist

Albany explained that during the lockdown period, the band was focussed on personal projects along with making videos and singles. Now that they are back performing It’s been busy for them…. a crazy, good kind of busy, because for such a long period so many limitations were placed on what the band could do.

Mostly what they have been missing is that personal interaction with the audience members, Albany said, alongside fellow musicians during the performances.

“The difference is the interaction with the people, the fact that we can both be part of it, for them to engage with us and us with them,” she said.

The Rex

 After SWA completed their set, I walked just around the corner to catch a performance of the Hannah Barstow Quartet. As I entered the Rex, I could feel the radiating vibrations of the music in the room, from the soles of my feet to my fingertips. In the jazz club, each audience member’s gaze was transfixed upon the musicians performing onstage.

The brooding sweetness of Hannah’s vocals interplayed with the piano, meshed with the deep, rich sounds of the cello, and the rustling, shuffling sounds of the drum, which contrasted with the bright, warm sounds of the saxophone. The affect was haunting.

Later, I would have the chance to connect with the talented Hannah Barstow, who shared her enthusiasm for being able to return to performing live for audiences again.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the general merriment in the air,” she said. “The return to live music has been wonderful. There’s a sense among musicians and audiences that we can’t take live music for granted anymore, and we’re all very happy to be back.”

I asked Hannah to share a link to one of her songs, which you can find here:

She performed it that evening at the Rex, and it still takes my breath away when I hear it now.

After the Hannah Barstow Quartet jazz performance, I rejoined the audience at the UNIDOS festival. There I found that everyone had abandoned the picnic tables near the concession stands to dance and sing in the open spaces closer to the performance area.

Music producer Medylandia jumped onstage to perform with more musicians at the festival, followed by Brray who performed songs from their new album, Err Bambini.

The crowd was ecstatic, dancing and also singing together with the performers. I found my body moving almost unconsciously to the eclectic fusion of rhythms and beats weaved in layers that expand up into the stratosphere. I have absolutely no dancing skills but moving with the music immerses me in its sound.

Tompson Highway at the Horseshoe Tavern

The next evening, I headed to the release party for Tompson Highway’s new album, Cree Country, held at The Horseshoe Tavern.

To hear the live performance of the songs from this ground-breaking album is a world changing experience.

Vocalist Patricia Cano’s rich, booming vocals carry a beautiful endless stream of melody that floods the room, that enters into every pour of your body and carries you away to a place you forgot existed.

Each song from the Cree Country album is different from the next, and each song within itself embodies complex, layered textures of bass and rhythm guitar, fiddle, and drums that orbit Patricia’s luminous, unstoppable vocals.

Cree Country is an album inspired by the country music Tompson fell in love with during his youth. The songs of this album are sung in Cree, which is Tomppson’s first language. The roots of the Cree Country album originate from Tompson’s childhood experiences growing up on the Barren Lands First Nation in a village called Brochet in Northern Manitoba bordering Saskatchewan and Nunavut. Tompson explains to the audience that there was no electricity and no record players but they had a transistor radio.

Even back in those days, they could only get frequencies at night, the later the better, and the higher up in the tree that you hung that radio the better the reception. The only frequency you had was a radio tower. The most powerful radio tower in North America is the one in Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee. As children, we grew up with the sounds of Nashville.”

Tompson spoke of the love for musicians Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Ernest Tubb, saying, “all these magnificent musicians, and we fell in love with this music so badly. It’s been in our roots ever since. It’s in my heart.  That’s where these songs come from: Nashville, Tennessee via northern Manitoba.”

To find out how to access the recorded version of the songs from the Cree Country album, visit Tompson Highway’s website: https://tomsonhighway.com/.

When I listen to the recorded versions of the songs, I feel myself travelling back through time and space to Tennessee via Brochet.

Favourite artists are like old friends

At the show, people exchanged smiles, talked and laughed with friends or acquaintances, and with people they may never have met before but would like to see again someday. Inside the venue that evening, there was a line-up of fans waiting to speak with Tompson Highway.

I had the great honour of doing so.

He explained that there is a multidimensional viscerality, and an immediate interaction that is possible when performing live music, which is quite different from music that is not performed live and in-person.

Randy, with whom I shared the standing space close by the stage, is a huge fan of Thompson’s.

Also a member of the Cree community, Randy came to show his support and admiration for the legendary musician, author, and playwright.

Eager to hear live music since the beginning of the pandemic, Randy had really missed hearing him perform live,

“Like an old friend, [you] feel like [you] haven’t seen each other for long time, but there is a warmth and gentleness to it … a ‘Welcome back. Don’t worry about anything that has gone on since then. Let’s just move forward together because I’ve missed you,’” he said. “Live music is the purest form of seeing the people that you aspire to be as musicians. It’s amazing. Live music is such a tradition. You can tune in to YouTube any day to watch a live concert, but there is nothing as fulfilling as the energy that gets passed when you’re live. An energy… even between audience members … that physical piece about being here was really sorely missed. [We have] tried to recreate that in some forms. [We’re] still trying to do that, but it’s not the same.”

That in person connection, so characteristic of live music, has become all the more critical in a time when it is not easy to access. Before the pandemic, I regularly attended live music performances at smaller venues, but I must say, I have never seen audience members so engaged and so responsive to the live performances onstage.

As was so eloquently articulated by Tompson Highway, in the words and music that radiated from the Cree Country album performance, music is alive, even in the darkest night.

Not only does music carry the power to touch people across vast geographic distances and languages, but music fosters the power of people to render deep connections despite barriers.

When I attended the live shows recently in Toronto, what I noticed is that audience members, masked and unmasked, seem to share the space like the love they share for the music. Why can’t more public places be like this? What a world of difference it would make.

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