THE PAST YEAR and a half has been a time of unprecedented hardship for the live-music industry, with venues — from the nation’s biggest stadiums to the tiniest DIY nooks — forced to shutter due to the threat of Covid19, and musicians, venue staff, and roadcrew members left out of work. Despite these challenges, many local scenes have found ways to evolve and thrive. In Washington, D.C., the long-running go-go heroes Rare Essence found a new audience around the world by turning to livestreams; in New Orleans, electro-pop visionary Dawn Richard tapped into her family history to develop her sound and imagine a brighter future; and Austin, a city that calls itself the live-music capital of the world, wrestled with what happens when the music stops. In this package, which also includes looks at the rich history of Chicago’s hip-hop scene over the past decade and the arduous journey of one of Nashville’s top clubs over the past year, we highlight some of the most exciting places to be a music fan in the U.S. — in good times and bad. While the pandemic may not be over, concerts are returning to America, and we couldn’t be happier to welcome them back.
WHEN WASHINGTON, D.C., put a stop to live performances in March 2020, it was a gut punch to RARE ESSENCE. Before the pandemic, the beloved go-go band had played live shows every week for 45 years. Those shows were more than just a means of financial security for the band: With go-go music receiving little radio airplay, concerts are key to the survival of the music itself.
“There are generations of people who’ve grown up on this music,” says guitarist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, one of Rare Essence’s founding members. “I get [fans] saying, ‘I want to give a shout-out to my son. It’s his 21st birthday, and he wanted to come see y’all, because I’ve been coming to see y’all all these years.’ That’s how the music is passed around.”
The funky, percussive sound of go-go was pioneered here in the 1970s by acts including the late Chuck Brown, and moved closer to the mainstream thanks to Rare Essence, Backyard Band, Experience Unlimited, and others in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Go-go shows emphasize live calland-response with the crowd, and bands rarely take breaks between songs; marathon performances that have people on their feet for hours are common. It’s a uniquely dynamic sound, but it’s struggled in recent years as D.C.’s rapid gentrification has pushed many venues out of the city.
When Rare Essence were forced to turn to online livestreams, they found an unexpected silver lining: Performing via Facebook Live and StageIt, they were able to take go-go to a global audience than ever before. Normally, Johnson says, “the only time [most people] get to hear the music is if they happen to be in the neighborhood.” Now, he adds, livestreaming means they’re “able to connect with audiences in other cities.”
A similar story has unfolded in the District’s jazz scene. BLUES ALLEY, one of the last remaining full-time jazz clubs in D.C., pivoted to hosting its shows online once lockdown began. “I had this vision that we could expand our listening audience to a million people globally,” says Harry Schnipper, owner of Blues Alley.
Just about every jazz titan to walk the earth since
1965 has touched Blues Alley’s stage, including Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ahmad Jamal. With no end to the pandemic in sight, Schnipper moved the club’s equipment from its Georgetown location to the National Press Club, livestreaming weekly jazz performances and preshow interviews for more than a year. As of press time, the venue planned to reopen in September following the lifting of capacity restrictions. “We’re rebuilding the Blues Alley brand,” says Schnipper. “Every business that’s been closed for a year has to think about building their business from scratch.”
The lift on restrictions is a relief for local venue operators like Schnipper, but it also raises new hurdles. How does a venue flip the switch from being completely closed for more than a year to becoming fully operational in weeks? It’s a question that I.M.P., D.C.’s largest independent concert promoter, spent much of this year grappling with.
“Whenever in society have 3,000 venues, or twice that many, said, ‘On your mark, get set, go: Open’?” asks
Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P. and a board member of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). “The answer is never.”
I.M.P.’s local venues, which include the famed 9:30 CLUB, THE ANTHEM, and MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION, had to furlough most staff once Covid restrictions took effect; the promoter established a 501(c)(3) called the I.M.P. Family Fund to give a financial lifeline to the hourly workers affected by the cuts. In the meantime, Schaefer and other NIVA representatives lobbied Congress to provide relief to independent venues, and last December, Congress passed the Shuttered
Venue Operators Grant as part of a coronavirus relief package.
Yet delays in implementing grants were widespread. Seven months after Congress passed the grant, I.M.P.’s venues received more than $25 million. “[Venues] need that money to be able to rehire their staff,” says Schaefer. “And they need that money so they can put deposits with the bands.”
Better funding for local musicians is critical to the D.C. music scene’s future, says musician and artist Janel Leppin, who’s worked with bands like Priests and Beauty Pill. While in lockdown, she has managed to weather the storm by offering music lessons online and selling original fine-weaving designs made from her old clothes. Leppin says that the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ grants are “an important source of funding for people to stay, despite housing prices going up, but it is not enough.... We will need more grants and broader funding for musicians to stay in the D.C. area. Housing has gotten so expensive it has pushed artists into Maryland and Virginia.”
Skyrocketing rent prices have taken their toll on the District’s DIY music scene, shrinking the number of house venues and experimental-arts spaces that were once crucial to the city. Leppin says more funding is of particular importance for venues that cater to D.C.’s experimental community, such as DIY space RHIZOME DC, located in a house in the Takoma neighborhood. Leppin hopes the demand for these far-out sounds will come back in full swing once pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“Experimental music is kind of an open-borders system,” she adds. “It’s not very cliquey, and it’s continued that way for years. Anyone is welcome, and that’s the part of D.C. music I remember. I’ll be looking forward to seeing that kind of community continue.”