What a difference a year makes!
As 2020 wound down, many outdoor performance venues had welcomed back live-music fans, but indoor spaces remained closed as owners waited for capacity restrictions to lift. Now, with COVID-19 vaccines available, concerts are occurring across Western North Carolina at close to pre-pandemic numbers.
Xpress spoke with three local artists about their plans for winter, as well as their experiences returning to the stage and the various ways the past year and a half has changed their approaches to creating and sharing their work.
When the pandemic hit and tour dates were canceled, Asheville-based indie rock power trio The Get Right Band not only lost a significant amount of revenue but also a way of life.
“One of the big things I miss about touring is the fun of it and visiting friends and family along the way,” says guitarist/vocalist Silas Durocher. “[My bandmates and I] see each other now almost exclusively for work, whereas it used to be we’d go on tour for two weeks, and there was a decent amount of hanging out and hiking and walking around New York City. I miss all that, but it is a grind, for sure.”
Durocher, Jesse Gentry (bass) and JC Mears (drums) stayed sharp and maintained ties with their fans through livestream performances, which Durocher says provided distinct, encouraging feedback through each concert’s online comment section. Still, they craved true live performance and eventually played indoor shows last winter at The Grey Eagle and The Orange Peel. Both venues’ management teams put thorough COVID precautions in place to make the musicians and masked audience alike feel safe, but since then, every gig The Get Right Band has played has been outdoors.
“We’ve had such nice weather, and it’s just really fun to be outside all the time,” Durocher says. “It kind of makes you think, ‘Why were we ever inside? In this beautiful weather, why were we doing these dingy dive venues?’ — which, don’t get me wrong, can be super fun.”
On Nov. 5 at the Salvage Station, the group came together for its last outdoor performance for the season. During the winter, the trio plans for no more than one indoor concert per month at venues within a two-hour radius of Asheville.
“Even though we’re gigging a lot right now, we’re not really touring far because of COVID,” Durocher says. “It just feels weird with the waves of it going up and down. And you’ve got to plan this stuff four, five months in advance, so even if it’s an outdoor show, it just feels tough to be a thousand miles from home. And then if things get worse or someone gets sick, you’ve got to cancel shows.”
Meanwhile, singer/songwriter Mike Martinez plans to perform on a regular basis — within reason. He feels comfortable knowing that the venues where he’ll play require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. But he’s currently uninterested in being onstage in large rooms.
“It’s harder to maintain a safe environment,” he says. “So far, the biggest show that I’ve played had like 900 people at it. And I was like, ‘This is too much.’”
With his band Natural Born Leaders on indefinite hiatus, Martinez and several bandmates from that group joined with Rob McConnell of fellow local ensemble Papadosio to form Beekeepers. Martinez describes their music as heavier than his previous work but still tapping into a blend of hip-hop and soul as well as other influences. In tandem with this renewed artistic creativity while home from the road, Martinez says he realized the toll that touring had taken on his mental health and stopped drinking alcohol as a result. The decision, he notes, has given him a newfound clarity onstage and an increased appreciation for his craft.
“I’m trying to play it more reasonably — play shows that are going to benefit me, the band and the community, and taking that more into account rather than just playing shows just to play shows for whoever and for however much,” Martinez says. “It’s a privilege to perform, but it’s also a privilege to go to shows. If I’m going to lay my soul down on the table, I don’t want to play to people who … are just there to get [messed] up.”
With touring at pre-pandemic levels not yet practical for many musicians who’d previously relied on such means to get by, and with the unemployment assistance that helped sustain numerous artists in the pandemic’s first year no longer available, some local creatives have turned to other sources of income to pay the bills. Martinez is working a variety of jobs, including as an announcer for Blue Ridge Public Radio, and both The Get Right Band and singer/songwriter Eleanor Underhill have played a fair number of weddings, including some receptions delayed by the pandemic. In doing so, they’ve also discovered some benefits to a less nomadic lifestyle.
“As a lot of people have in every job, once they stop, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been pushing it so hard for so long. I’m exhausted,’” Underhill says. “It’s really hard to find the time to go deep on something creative when you’re constantly out there performing and doing the extrovert thing. It’s nice to actually have some time to go in and get more intimate with musicians and create something really cool.”
Indeed, Underhill is hard at work on three albums, including a new solo record that builds on the synthesizer-heavy experimentation of her previous releases, Navigate the Madness and Land of the Living.
“I like to think that I’m getting better as a producer and as a musician and continuing to follow the bliss, wherever that goes,” Underhill says. “And some of that is more electronic, and it tends to be trending in that direction, but I’ll still have the banjo.”
The traditional string instrument is arguably what she’s best known for via Underhill Rose, her revered country/soul group with Molly Rose Reed. The duo are in the process of sharing recent songs with one another and plan on releasing a new record in 2022. But first, Underhill will put out a full-length covers album — a reflection of the work that she features prominently in her Eleanor Underhill & Friends band and via her Patreon, where she also shares visual art.
The pandemic has likewise proved fruitful for Durocher, who’s been able to stave off writer’s block despite rampant societal woes from the past year and a half.
“I’ve got a million projects between me and my bandmates,” he says. “We’ve got a long list of things we want to do, and we’ve never gotten to the point where we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the end of the list? What do we do now?’ We’re always like, ‘Damn! I wish we had some more time.’”
After The Get Right Band released its fifth album, Itchy Soul, in late May 2020, the trio quickly started working on the next project. The 2022 release will be a concept album, something Durocher has wanted to do since he was 12 years old.
“It’s very layered, and the scale of it is much more ambitious than anything we’ve done before,” he says. “There’s no way we would’ve had time for it with our normal touring schedule, so that’s a silver lining.”
In addition to putting out some unreleased Natural Born Leaders material over the winter, including multiple live albums, Martinez reveals that Beekeepers just finished mixing its debut EP and will be releasing the collection’s tracks as singles with accompanying videos. The group plans to keep working together — “I’ve never written as many songs as we did in such a short period of time,” Martinez says — and he’ll also stay busy with various solo and side projects.
“Everybody’s home for the first time in years, so I think I collaborated with more artists over the past year and a half than I have in the past five years,” he says. “You always see people, and you’re like, ‘We should write a song together someday or something!’ and it never happens. But we actually did it.”