‘If you’ve ever seen Titanic,” Jay Bragg said, “where the ship is sinking and the band plays on, that’s how I felt.”
The former Portlander (he performed as J Biddy, and as Jason Basiner in This Way) was playing an acoustic solo set on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee, a couple Fridays back, when President Trump first addressed the country about the threat of COVID-19.
“People were packing up, ‘check please,’ gathering up their families and they were heading out to impending doom,” he said. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What if they close Broadway?’ and it freaked me out. … If they do, I’m screwed.”
The next night, a Saturday, he had the full band going at Alan Jackson’s bar – a five-piece, with drums, electric guitar, bass, and fiddle – and it didn’t really feel right.
“It was absolutely packed. It was a later gig, more younger folks out, and no one seemed to be caring at all about the dangers that we’re hearing about from the experts and I did not feel good about that,” Bragg said. “I didn’t go out into the crowd at all. I normally shake people’s hands and pass around the tip jar – that’s how we make a living – but I did not do that Saturday night.”
By Sunday, the mayor had closed Broadway down indefinitely. And so Jay Bragg, a guy who played 285 shows in 2019, hasn’t played a gig since.
That same Saturday, Andi Fawcett was playing with her current band, Hollis Hollow, at Champions, in Biddeford. “I literally was thinking about how that may be the last time for a while and it lit me up inside,” she said. “Every song. Every note.”
When you play 200 gigs a year, that doesn’t necessarily happen every time out.
“Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down with the crazy summer schedule,” Fawcett said, “and you’re gigging 25-30 times a month. You feel like it’s a job. But right now? I’m grateful for the last gig I had.”
Toby McAllister made it all the way to Sunday, playing a final gig at Funky Bow, in Lyman. He’s been working the bars around Maine full time for about a decade since he came off the road with Sparks the Rescue, a pop-punk band that got some label attention and still has 40,000-plus monthly listeners on Spotify.
Now, he’s totally out of work, after playing those last couple of shows where he did his best not to get within 6 feet of anyone.
McAllister is asthmatic and knew well the risk he was taking. He didn’t mind, especially, when the two gigs on the 17th, a gig on the 19th, and a gig on the 20th all canceled. It was the right move, but “it’s been super weird and a little depressing,” he admitted.
“I usually spend my days at home with my dog, cleaning and cooking. So that part is the same. But when the sun goes down each day, I’m reminded that there’s no gig to go play,” he said. “It sucks not only to lose the entirety of my income in the snap of a finger, but also to lose out on the social aspect of everything this job entails … psychologically, it’s definitely taking a toll.”
Losing those St. Patty’s Day gigs stung for a lot of working musicians. McAllister had two gigs that day. Lee Sykes had three. “And two of them were good money,” he said. “And then I lost all three of them.”
Sykes has been a full-time musician, averaging about 150 gigs a year, for about 30 years. “It’s worked out pretty well,” he said. “I’ve had my lean times and my not so lean times. I was actually doing pretty good through February because I’d picked one up I’d lost three years before. Then the next thing I knew everyone who worked there lost their job.”
Sykes has some money squirreled away, and he knows those gigs are waiting for him when things get back to normal, but he said he kind of got “a self-esteem inoculation from doing it.
“When I don’t do it, I miss it. And I miss seeing people,” he said. “But one thing that really helps is going on Facebook and playing for people. I just recorded a couple songs on the Kindle Fire and it’s nice to see people appreciate them. … When I play in front of an audience, I don’t get nervous at all, but when I’m staring into the screen and I can see every stupid expression on my face, I get pretty nervous.”
He said a friend came over and showed him how to set up a virtual tip jar, but, “I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I just want people to like the recordings I put up. That seems to help.”
Like Sykes, McAllister said “It was more nerve-wracking than playing in a crowded bar, honestly,” when he did his first live broadcast on Facebook, last Saturday night.
“But after the first hour, I calmed down and enjoyed the hell out of it,” he said. “The chat room was just as much fun as the ‘gig.’ It almost felt like people were being social. … And I didn’t think about the pandemic for two whole hours, which was maybe the best part.”
Of course, it’s not the same.
“I talk to my musician friends and we’re all chomping at the bit to get back out there,” Fawcett said. “Luckily, we have the internet to do some live songs and such, but that’s nothing like the feel of a live performance with a crowd.”
Nor can you really replicate the intimacy of playing with your band: “Having that energy together is what it’s all about,” she said. “I miss it so much.”
Bragg is sanguine about the whole situation.
“I do miss the performing,” he said, “but I’m more than happy to shelve that day-to-day routine for something that I consider far more important.” He just sent a record off to be mastered this week, full of what he calls “spiritual honky-tonk.”
“Now I get to focus all of my energies on the best way to release this music to the public,” he said, “and you’ve got people’s attention in a way that you haven’t had ever before. That’s an opportunity, and I’m grateful for that. It’s just a shift in focus, a change in gear.”
But let’s hope everyone gets a chance to put it back in drive again soon.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].