Posted on December 18, 2020 at 4:24 pm
The night that New York City went into lockdown, March 16, was to have been the 58th concert in my monthly residency at SubCulture, a series that has given me so much joy and fostered so much creativity and collaboration over the past five years that I can scarcely imagine my artistic life without it. Since 2014, my band, my family, my fans, and a vast cross-section of the Broadway and music communities in New York City had converged on that spot on Bleecker Street once a month to help me make something magical happen. And yet, by order of the state of New York, not only was that concert cancelled, but as far as any of us knew, we might never get to play at SubCulture again.
I spent the first month of the quarantine in something of a daze, wrestling with suddenly serious questions about my career, anxiety about my financial condition, and overwhelmed by the sheer terror of COViD and how it was affecting the city that I called home. In the midst of my own concerns, it was also clear to me that everyone who worked at SubCulture – sound engineers, technicians, bartenders, security guards – was facing a long stretch of unemployment with no sign of relief. Being concerned about them gave some focus to my general panic, and I knew at last what I was called to do. I talked to Marc Kaplan, the owner and presiding spirit of SubCulture, and suggested we do a benefit concert for the employees; the band and I would film and record everything in our own homes, my record producer Jeffrey Lesser would help me mix it, my genius director friend Jodi Binstock would edit the footage together, and I’d ask some friends to sing a song or two. This conversation was on April 10th. We arbitrarily decided we would broadcast this concert over the Internet on a Monday night just two weeks later.
The first person I called to sing was Shoshana Bean. Shoshana did my very first concert at SubCulture in August 2014, and she had been part of five more performances at the club over the years; I consider her the residency’s guardian angel. We are as simpatico as two musicians can be – where Shoshana breathes, I breathe; when I stretch, she stretches; when one of us flies, the other is the ballast. I asked if she would sing “The Hardest Hill,” a song I had written specifically for her and which I had always hoped she would record.
And then, nervously, I sent a text to Ariana Grande and asked her if she would consider singing something. (It’s funny posting that hyperlink like anyone doesn’t know who she is; it’s like, “Oh, if you like basketball, I bet you’d like Michael Jordan.”) I’ve known Ari since she was an astonishingly talented 14-year-old, and have spent these last thirteen years watching her rise to global superstardom with some combination of pride and awe. We’ve gotten to make music together a couple of times in these years, and whenever it happens, I am struck over and over by how comfortable our collaboration is and how relentlessly hard she works to get things exactly right. My text said, “Do you know my song ‘Still Hurting’?” And her response was, “Am I a person?” Ari was in.
And so began a feverish two weeks of singing, playing, recording, mixing, and editing, all of us learning how to turn our apartments into television studios and soundstages, moving lamps, hiding laundry, shooing the dogs out of the shot, getting our kids to hold the iPhone while we played, sweating through takes because the air conditioning was too loud, getting yelled at by neighbors for playing the drums all afternoon, frantically re-recording when we had to change one song’s key after everyone had already finished, apologizing to our wives and husbands and children for being lost in GarageBand and ProTools and Final Cut sessions, culminating in the broadcast on April 27th. Hundreds of thousands of people watched our concert that night, and many more have watched since then, and in addition to raising a considerable sum to help the people who’ve helped us so much over the years, we got to create something very special. The Virtual SubCulture concert is a very personal piece, not just for me but for everyone who played in it. We all had something at stake, and you can see it and hear it.
While I still don’t know if we’ll ever get to perform at SubCulture again, I can’t help but think that this concert is in many ways a perfect summation of the entire residency: this group of brilliantly talented people – my family, really – that have been part of my life for so long, making music that is full of joy, fear, anger, sorrow, wonder, and most importantly, love.
You can watch the concert here, and right now you can download or stream the album, freshly remixed and mastered for your listening delight. There are six tracks from the concert itself, and then a special bonus world premiere recording.
Sanctuary (2019) [you can read about this song here]
Melinda from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
SHOSHANA: The Hardest Hill from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
I Love Betsy from Honeymoon In Vegas (2014)
ARIANA: Still Hurting from The Last Five Years (2002)
All Things In Time from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
Nothing’s Bigger Than Kong originally written for King Kong (2016)
Jason Robert Brown: piano, keyboards, vocals
Shoshana Bean, Ariana Grande: guest vocals
Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf: cello
Jamie Eblen: drums, percussion
Randy Landau: upright and electric bass
Todd Reynolds: violin, viola
Gary Sieger: electric and acoustic guitar
Molly Cate Brown, Susannah Brown & Georgia Stitt: choir on “Sanctuary”
Executive Producers: Marc Kaplan & Jason Robert Brown
Music Producers: Jeffrey Lesser & Jason Robert Brown