Posted on July 15, 2021 at 5:55 am
Four hundred and seventy-four days.
I did a show in Los Angeles on March 9, 2020, and I didn’t perform in front of a live audience again for four hundred and seventy-four days.
I was in Toronto in the middle of May, doing pre-production work on the movie of 13, when Jennifer Ashley Tepper at 54 Below sent an email asking if I would be among the first acts to reopen their venue once New York State allowed them to have live audiences again. I hesitated. Did I have the vocal chops to get through a whole concert anymore? Would anyone come out to a live show? And how would it feel to perform at a different venue after my residency at SubCulture? For six years, I had the most ideal artistic home, and now that it has closed – a victim of both COVID and the impossible economics of New York real estate – I have to figure out what I want to do and what’s even possible.
But I didn’t want to overthink an opportunity to make music with people I love, and so I said yes. I hadn’t done a show at 54 Below since November of 2013, but it seemed like the right place to dip my toe back in the water; I knew it would be a supportive crowd, and I liked the symbolism of re-emerging right in middle of the Theatre District just as the city was starting to come back to life. We picked June 26 and I took a deep breath.
Coincidentally, Craft Recordings had chosen the date of June 25 for the release of a limited-edition vinyl pressing of my new album Coming From Inside The House (A Virtual SubCulture Concert), so it seemed natural to treat this concert as a record-release event. (You can buy your copy here!)
To my surprise and relief, the show sold out within hours of being announced. We added a second show on July 12th. That too sold out within hours. Now I just had to figure out what the show was actually going to be.
After fifteen months, I knew I couldn’t just pick up where I left off. Too much had changed, too much had been lost. I don’t want to just go back to normal. Nothing about the last four hundred seventy-four days was normal, and if we didn’t learn anything from it, if it didn’t change us in any way, then it was just a sad, relentless waste. So who am I now? How does an audience hear my music now, after all we’ve been through?
What I’ve missed most has been the interaction with other musicians, the ability to respond instantaneously to the way someone plays a phrase, bends a note, breathes. And so that was the focus of my set: how can we all make music together? I asked four of my favorite musicians to join me, players who I knew could follow me on whatever crazy musical journey I decided to take. Gary and Randy have been playing with me for over twenty-five years, and there isn’t much that we haven’t been through musically or otherwise. And Jamie started playing my shows when he was 14 years old and has so fully integrated my work into his vocabulary and vice versa that playing with him is practically telepathic at this point. Lisette came into our circle just two years ago but has already transformed the way we all play together with her powerful groove and her genius for new textures.
I also knew that I needed to bring my family on stage with me. We’ve been with each other through virtually every one of those four hundred and seventy-four days, and it was so important for me to acknowledge them, not just as the reason I write music but as a deep and intrinsic part of that music. When I wrote “Sanctuary,” I thought it was about a place; during the past year and a half, I realized my sanctuary is these three amazing people.
I didn’t write much new material during the pandemic lockdown – a couple of production numbers for the 13 movie, pieces for some other projects I’m working on, but really only one standalone song. Of course I had to take this opportunity to premiere it, but I knew it would require some explanation.
The fact that someone could be an asymptomatic carrier of a disease was largely unknown in the early 20th century, and so the spread of typhoid through the homes of several well-to-do families between 1900 and 1907 was a mystery to investigators until they realized the one thing all of the houses had in common: a cook named Mary Mallon. Mallon refused to believe she was the cause of the outbreaks even though tests revealed massive amounts of typhoid bacteria in her system. Newspapers called her “Typhoid Mary,” and she was quarantined on an island in the East River for three years. When she promised she would no longer work as a cook, she was finally released, but the only work she could find was kitchen work, so she gave a false name and went back to work cooking at a hospital for women. When a massive typhoid outbreak occurred at the hospital, Mallon was arrested again and sent back to the island in the East River, where she remained for more than two decades until her death.
Sitting in our apartment during the early months of the lockdown, with sirens screaming past and the weird, deeply unsettling politicization of mask-wearing, my thoughts turned to the story of Typhoid Mary, and her inability to imagine that she could make anyone sick while she herself felt perfectly healthy. (It is believed that Mallon was born with typhoid because her mother was infected with it during pregnancy.) I was inspired to write a song, and I thought it would be interesting to write a classic “murder ballad” (like “Tom Dooley” or “Frankie and Johnny”), but with the twist that the murderer doesn’t know she did it.
I finished the song in June 2020, and it was more than a year before I had a chance to perform it.
But of course the evening was not all about loss or disease. We have to celebrate our survival, our will to push through, our unimaginable good fortune to be able to come together again. Creativity, spontaneity, harmony, courage, resilience – we carry all these things with us from the first downbeat until the final fermata. In the midst of so much confusion, all we control is how we react and how we recover. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to drop anchor after 474 days of drifting. I don’t know where we go from here, but I know what a privilege it is to share the journey with you all.
Hope from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
See Yourself from The Connector (2020)
Long Long Road from Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes (2005)
Sanctuary from Coming From Inside The House (2020)
with Georgia Stitt, Molly Cate Brown & Susannah Brown
King of the World from Songs for a New World (1995)
Mary Mallon world premiere (2020)
I Love Betsy from Honeymoon In Vegas (2014)
Wait ‘Til You See What’s Next from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
Melinda from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
All Things In Time from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
JRB: piano, vocals
Georgia Stitt, Molly Cate Brown & Susannah Brown: vocals on “Sanctuary”
Jamie Eblen: drums
Randy Landau: electric and upright basses
Lisette Santiago: percussion
Gary Sieger: electric and acoustic guitars
Photos, as always, by Erika Kapin.