Music not for the masses

I have begun performing in front of living people again.

One audience consisted of ten or so peers at a birthday party in Phoenicia’s Parish Field – an impromptu set, everyone at least six feet away. Another audience was about ten or so preschoolers at nearby Woodland Playhouse summer camp – kids aged two to five, and their two masked counselors, also distanced, and outside in a field alongside Route 28 and the Esopus, a stone’s throw from Phoenicia Diner.

Today a friend told me she’s set up an amphitheater of sorts in her back yard, and she’s putting the word out that if musicians, storytellers, etc., are interested in producing or attending small events, come on by. Word-of-mouth only. Homemade sit-upons provided.

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“Can’t go to the movies or shows,” she said. “So let’s make our own.”

As I’d hoped, people are finding ways to gather and enjoy each other’s company and, as humans have done for millennia, make their own entertainment as they once made their own food and shelter. Performances are commencing in front of small groups with no amplification other than the resonance provided by the mountains and trees, lighting courtesy of the sun, with shade as needed from lush foliage.

At the Parish Field, as the day waned, I took requests, and played a couple of my originals. Cakes were brought from Brio’s, and folks sat either in the cool grass or in what my wife calls “soccer-mom chairs.” I felt raw and edgy, a not uncommon state of affairs, but as with so many times before, the songs pulled me through, emboldened and energized me. The fragmented, pained conversations about the 45th president, the pandemic, etc., petered out, ceased, and everyone quieted and focused collectively on song and stories. Some sang along.

After I finished Dylan’s exuberant, deliciously weird “Highway 61,” the youngest friend there said, “I never heard that song.” So now, when she hears it in coming years, she’ll recall it as played by me on a late afternoon in early July 2020, the Year of the Pandemic. In an array of bad memories, this will be a good one.

At Woodland Playhouse (after extensive Covid protocol for me), the children and I first spent some socially-distanced time discussing snakes and various critters in the surrounding woods. Finally, a singalong morphed into a preschooler disco, with all spontaneously jumping up, busting out dance moves, running and laughing in the late morning, as happy as any kids I’ve ever seen in my many years of playing music for children and their caregivers.

“They’re just so glad to be outside,” one counselor said. I could see her eyes grinning above her mask.

I’d played the Gamble & Huff-penned 1972 O’Jays hit “Love Train” for them the day before, and as always happens when I play that song for kids they remembered it and demanded I play it again, so that they could make a crazy train of themselves and scream with glee as they encircled the enclosed area.

After each of these gigs, I loaded my battered Martin acoustic into the back of a car in which face masks dangle from the rear-view mirror, hand sanitizer sits between the front seats, and discarded latex gloves litter the floorboards.

I had forgotten they were there.

 
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.