The Jubilee Choir, via a video link, accompanies Janaesound on Juneteenth at the State Theatre in Portland. (Courtesy Janay Woodruff)
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The Juneteenth celebration at the State Theatre was many things: a showcase of Black musicians, a technological marvel, a damn good time, a logistical puzzle, a rousing success, and a hell of a lot of pressure for Janay Woodruff.

Woodruff performs as Janaesound and managed to curate and organize the June 19 event over the course of 10 days, from pitch to completion. 

Whew. 

Those who tuned into the State Theatre Facebook livestream, where Rustic Overtones, Ghost of Paul Revere, and Murcielago had performed on the past two weekends, were greeted with something much more ambitious than those Conclave events.

Where the previous bands basically just played a set, start to finish, with a few camera angles, Juneteenth featured an array of four different acts (and collaborators), musically and visually varied, over the course of roughly an hour.

In between, there were solicitations for donations to Indigo Arts (helping Black youth in Maine connect with other Black artists) and Black Owned Maine (an effort to showcase and market Black-owned businesses), with visuals grabbed from Portland’s recent Black Lives Matter protests. Bangor Savings Bank and Coffee By Design even put up $3500 in matching funds for donations.

Abdul Ali delivers a spoken-word performance on Juneteenth at the State Theatre. (Courtesy State Theatre)

It was as much variety show as Juneteenth celebration, though, with an array of talents and genres, and it spoke to bigger issues in multiple ways: Not only to the Black experience in Maine but also to how we’re going to experience live music in the pandemic era. 

Woodruff performed first but wasn’t in the room for any of the other performers. “In order to keep everyone safe, the only folks allowed in the room were the performers,” she said Saturday, “with two persons on stage each.”

Playing to a big empty room is weird. Murcielago even playfully taped up photos of their fans in front of them when they played. But this was a slate of performances fueled by the energy of the moment, playing Juneteenth as a Black person in Maine after weeks of protests and demonstrations that have gripped the nation. No one seemed to miss the energy of the crowd. 

Janaesound led, accompanied at first only by electric guitarist Nevin Brown, but then by the remote Jubilee Choir, a grid of six singers on an LED screen behind her. The difficulty of pulling that particular feat off is a story in itself. That it looked easy and sounded impassioned was, despite layers of video and physical distance, impressive. 

At the opposite end of the technical spectrum was Abdul Ali’s spoken-word piece that followed. Standing on the front of the stage, unaccompanied, he was a solitary and powerful force addressing the injustice of the American justice system head-on:

“Two and a half million are locked up in this country … it’s illegal to breathe wrong if you don’t have the money … I call it the land of shame … a land of pain.” People who used to hit up the Free Street Taverna for the Poetry Slam will hear echos of the early 2000s. 

Rodney Mashia on guitar with vocalist Kaia Mac during the the Juneteenth livestream at the State Theatre in Portland. (Courtesy State Theatre)

As the show’s closer, Kaia Mac joined sweet-voiced singer-songwriter Rodney Mashia for something even more direct, a sub-two-minute newly written song that described the experience of watching George Floyd die in detail, in the most explicit terms:

“With your knee on my neck/ No, I never forged that check/ I know it’s cuz the color of my skin/ I can’t breath so how could I ever win?”

But not every performance was a particular reflection on the here and now. B. Aull mostly just kicked out the jams and had fun with R&B crooners and playful rap that called to mind everything from Jamiroquai to Kid ’N Play. This kind of participatory, put-your-hands-in-the-air hip-hop maybe suffered most from the relatively sterile environment, from a pure audience perspective, as it was most likely to remind you what you were missing. 

Watching a laptop computer with headphones and hearing a fun couplet like, “I came with a certain style/ I came here to flirt and smile” just isn’t the same. But the emotional effect of watching B. Aull finish his set with a raised fist and a reiteration that Black Lives Matter was no less powerful for the medium. 

“Being Black right now in this time is encompassing of so many feelings and emotions and thoughts,” Woodruff said of the difficulty of selecting artists and material as a curator for a show like this. “As artists we try to connect, with the viewers, with people who listen. I just asked everyone to sing from the heart and give their offering, whatever they wanted to use their voice for was all welcome and perfect.”

Perfect is, of course, an unfair standard for live performances. But it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. They were even able to work with a company called Edovo to stream the performance into some 150 incarceration facilities, allowing little old Maine’s Juneteenth celebration to be a boon for people all over the country, with whom the performers stood in solidarity. 

It is a win for Woodruff, something to begin to make up for the loss she felt when the corona-lockdown took away a show she was set to perform, where her uncle, incarcerated for the past 25 years, was set to see her live for the first time.

That will still happen, but “My heart breaks for those still in chains,” she said, “and restoring the human experiences that are stripped away from our incarcerated people” –well, that’s something an artist can provide from a distance. 

We will have to find new ways, again and again, to acquire these human connections, through music and otherwise. The human experience demands it, regardless of the barriers erected by the pandemic, white supremacy, or whatever might seek to prevent us from our pursuit of happiness. 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.