Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent relaxing of occupancy restrictions for North Carolina performing arts venues means live music is back on at indoor stages for the first time in over a year.
But during that span, the hurdles of sticking together, staying active and keeping conversations going about their music have proved challenging for local bands. To combat the hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and to sustain momentum surrounding their music, Asheville-based groups Gold Rose, Krave Amiko and Chilltonic have taken different paths, each befitting their distinct situations.
Like many area bands in 2020, Gold Rose was primed for its biggest year yet. Frontman Kevin Fuller says the alt-country trio was opening for national acts that toured through Asheville and was ready to play more prestigious venues — beginning with multidate treks to North Carolina’s Triangle area and Charleston, S.C. — under the strength of its debut album, Dust. All was going according to plan for the group through the Feb. 23 record release show at The Mothlight.
“Two weeks later it was, ‘All of your gigs are canceled indefinitely, probably for the rest of the year,’” Fuller says. “It was the worst time in the history of humanity to release an album — literally. Leave it up to me to pull something off like that.”
In need of a break after the taxing run-up to the long-in-the-works album release and Mothlight gig, Fuller used the forced hiatus to “take a deep breath” and think about what Gold Rose would do once the pandemic ended. Though he missed performing and felt an odd sense of ennui with a brand-new LP out that wasn’t getting much exposure, he wasn’t tempted by the sudden rise in livestreaming among musicians around the world.
Then, two months later, his friend Anya Hinkle invited him to her house for a “song swap” livestream under the direction of her videographer partner, Gen Kogure. The well-lit, multicamera approach — a significant upgrade over many peers’ smartphone or laptop setups — convinced Fuller to give it a try.
“It was such a long period of time — I hadn’t played any music at all that it was such a good thing for me,” Fuller says. “I was like, ‘Damn! Even when I sing my songs to nobody or the internet, it still feels good.’ So that’s when I decided to start doing them on my own.”
Fuller’s Friday night livestreams allowed him to share Dust’s songs on a regular basis and attracted a steady following from loyal and new fans alike, who also shelled out generous digital tips in lieu of ticket fees. A decent number of people who discovered him through the livestreams were at Fleetwood’s on April 17 when Gold Rose played its first show in nearly 14 months — a sold-out performance, no less, which Fuller, Jackson Dulaney (pedal steel guitar) and C Scott Shaw (drums) will look to build on as the year progresses.
Local entrepreneurs who’ve started businesses during the pandemic have earned their share of quizzical looks and questioning comments from the public, many of whom view such moves as overly risky. As the members of Krave Amiko have discovered, launching a band in these unusual times elicits comparable reactions, though the artistic freedoms afforded by the pandemic could see the electronic rock quartet thriving long after many of their brick-and-mortar counterparts have closed.
Primary songwriter Robby Walsh and fellow vocalist Stef Barcelona recruited guitarist Nestor Teran just before the pandemic, recorded the group’s debut album, Before the Words, and released it on May 5. A few months later, they added bassist Joseph Allawos, an opportunity that the newest member doubts would have arisen in non-COVID times, since the then-trio would have been on the road to support the new record.
“What [not touring] ended up actually giving us was an opportunity to kind of figure out — with the four band members — what the sound of the band was going to be like without having to expose people to bad versions of that,” Walsh says.
Allawos believes that the extensive woodshedding — conducted outdoors on warm winter days and into spring — made Krave Amiko “a better, cohesive band.” The extra time also afforded Walsh the opportunity to build up the ensemble’s online profile via SoundCloud, Bandcamp and Instagram, despite a reticence for such promotion.
“Social media is this weird, three-faced monster where you don’t want to care about it, but you need it, and then it doesn’t always suit your needs,” Walsh says. “It’s a mistress that you just can’t kick, unfortunately.”
The bandmates identify getting played on 103.3 FM as a turning point in reaching a wider audience, but Walsh also covertly shared the tunes during a few socially distanced, backyard parties. He feels that “the best measure of new music that nobody’s heard of is if you put it on in a crowd and nobody asks you to turn it off,” and by those standards, Before the Words was a rousing success.
The lack of gigs has also resulted in prolific songwriting from Walsh. Allawos is serious when he says his bandmate “can write a song a day,” a dedication that’s already yielded a second album (currently being mixed at Echo Mountain Recording and slated for a late August release), plus half of a third album.
In a time when traditional stages were difficult to come by, Chilltonic circumvented norms and brought music directly to the people.
The rock trio of Teso McDonald (guitar/vocals), Michael Dunham (bass/vocals) and Dempsey Jones (drums/vocals) had slowly been building momentum since forming in 2016 and was landing more shows when the pandemic nixed those opportunities. But as summer approached, McDonald’s metalworker friend Eric Velleca proposed a solution: convert a flatbed truck into a mobile stage — complete with a PA system plugged into a generator, and chairs and equipment strapped and bolted down — and drive Chilltonic around town for impromptu performances.
“The other guys were wary at first. They were like, ‘You want to do what?’” McDonald says. “Eventually, they came around and were superexcited to have that opportunity.”
Thus was born The Bandwagon, an experiment that was met with a handful of complaints from the occasional person uninterested in a surprise mini-set, but overall largely positive responses — and a spike in Instagram followers — from a public thirsty for live music. Among Chilltonic’s accomplishments was playing the inaugural show at Rabbit Rabbit, an opportunity that arose when co-owner Mike Rangel saw The Bandwagon outside the venue’s gates, which were then opened for the truck to ease its way in and entertain guests who’d gathered for the soft opening. Such moments provided the talented trio with merited attention that had been hard to come by pre-pandemic.
“When nobody was doing anything, it didn’t matter who you were. It balanced things a lot,” McDonald says. “Today, it’s not about skill as much as your numbers on the internet or tickets you can sell. It’s difficult, but it’s beautiful to experience people appreciating music — it brings people together.”
Though such performances were understandably sparse over the winter, and McDonald fears that the city’s currently tabled noise ordinance could spell the end for The Bandwagon, he and his bandmates — which, following Jones’ recent move to Florida, now include Logan Jayne on drums — are actively building on the connections forged during the pandemic.
“It gave us a lot of time to focus on what we wanted people to hear, and center our sounds, voices and tones,” McDonald says. “We’re constantly redefining our sound, but we’re in a constructive phase so we can be ready for the summer.”