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Musical Couples Keep Creative Fires Burning

May 5, 2020

Gigs had already started evaporating like drizzle on a hot summer sidewalk when Governor Gavin Newsom announced the shelter-in-place order taking effect on March 19. While many musicians scrambled to find new avenues for reaching audiences, Foxtails Brigade was well-prepared for life under lockdown. Pre-pandemic, the Oakland band often performed and recorded as a quartet, but Foxtails Brigade is essentially the duo of acoustic guitarist and lead vocalist Laura Weinbach and violinist, electric guitarist, and vocalist Anton Patzner. Over the past dozen years or so the married couple has recorded several albums of arrestingly beautiful original songs, while also putting their melancholic stamp on American Songbook standards, French chanson, and Gypsy swing.

They’d started streaming performances last year, taking advantage of Facebook Live, a service the social media leviathan launched in April 2016, and although their online shows had waned by the early months of 2020, Foxtails Brigade marched smartly into the coronavirus breach. The duo’s Monday evening series, which they call Parlour Shift, has produced a steady flow of income with viewers filling their virtual tip jar. The performances also provide a powerful link to fans who offer enthusiastic praise and “shout out” requests throughout the broadcasts via the running comments on the right side of the page.

“When shelter in place became a thing a lot of artists started livestreaming and we decided to get back on that wagon,” says Weinbach. “With so many other musicians performing online it was an incentive to up our game with our production. We had a little knowledge already. We started getting the visual element together a little better, like getting a fricking ring light [photo/video lighting device].”

“Laura is a great decorator and she created this set,” Patzner adds. “The day we went into shelter in place I ordered that ring light and it really upped the picture quality.”

Many musical couples in captivity are experiencing a double financial whammy from loss of concert income, but having a performance partner has turned into a boon during shelter in place. For Oakland vocalist/guitarist Carmen Getit and pianist Steve Lucky, mainstays on the Bay Area music scene for some two decades, lockdown has turned into a respite from the usual grind of nightly shows.

“We have more time to rehearse and work on arrangements of new songs that people have requested,” says Getit. “We’re figuring out arrangements for the two of us that we used to do with our six-piece band. That side has been really good.”

Their Saturday night performances, which they livestream via their Facebook band page for Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums featuring Miss Carmen Getit, have turned into a proving ground for new material. “We’re pretty determined to do all different material for each show,” Lucky says. “So far that’s eight hours without repeating ourselves. We have a pretty big book, but we’ve been in a kind of a rut. Well, not anymore.”

Working out new material has also been a focus for string player Bruce Kaplan and vocalist/guitarist Claudia Russell, the Point Richmond couple who describe their music as “wildly eclectic folk.” Amped up for a spring tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of their first album’s release with plum bookings like McCabe’s in Santa Monica, they watched despondently as gigs started cancelling even before the advent of the shelter-in-place order. “The first response was depression,” Kaplan says. “Now what do we do? Let’s learn a new cover song every day and livestream it. The idea was mostly to keep us musically engaged. Without creativity in our life we’re kind of lost.”

Russell was reluctant at first, and a little daunted by the abbreviated process of working out an arrangement. “I’m a little perfectionist, and I’ve grappled with stage fright, which came back in a big way,” she says. Their SIP songbook came to include newly topical songs like the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and Fantastic Negrito’s “Nobody Makes Money,” as well as disaster diversions like a medley of “Dream A Little Dream of Me” with “Heart and Soul” and Don Henry’s “Singing Like a Byrd.” As difficult as it was getting a handle on Bacharach and David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” picking up the craft of livestreaming has presented a whole different set of hurdles.

“You’ve got to learn how to make the video look decent, and then there’s set pressure. Our room doesn’t look good!” Kaplan says. “Where do we put the iPhone? Which is an amazing device for livestreaming. Where do you set up the mic? All of the sudden musicians are video engineers dealing with all these technical considerations. And then how do you monetize it. We did a 20th-anniversary show that brought in almost $800, and we donated some to Bay Area causes. We weren’t trying to monetize a song a day, but we did decide to have a tip jar.”

Not every musical couple has sought an online performance outlet. Cellist, vocalist, and composer Theresa Wong and composer Ellen Fullman, who creates music for her singular and self-invented Long String Instrument (LSI), have been hunkered down in their West Berkeley home. They mostly perform independently, but the Australian label Room 40 is releasing on vinyl their collaboration Harbors. The album documents a 40-minute suite conceived during their residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, inspired by the foghorn, animal sounds, and the wind. Since a series of high-profile East Coast performances in the summer and fall were cancelled or postponed, they’ve been working on their own projects, with Wong experimenting with incremental changes in microphone position around her cello and Fullman making needed repairs to her LSI.

“This is our normal life,” says Wong, indicating that life in lockdown hasn’t radically changed their home rituals. “We’re always talking shop. We try to give each other space, but after a session I’ll be excited to share things with her. In that respect I don’t feel it’s much different.

I think one of the things that drew us together was this shared interest and love for building things. Since I studied design in my college days building things in a woodshop and machine shop was something I used to do a lot of. It’s something that I’ve moved away from, but it’s always there. Lately I’ve been thinking of how to build my own version of a cello. I have that inclination to work with my hands and Ellen is really setting an example that’s a way forward for me.”

The nature of some instruments makes duo collaborations particularly tricky. Drummer Lorca Hart and percussionist Ami Molinelli first met playing together in a Brazilian music project led by flutist Rebecca Kleinmann, but as a San Francisco couple raising a 9-year-old son, Leo, they haven’t shared the same stage for many years. Even at home “we tend to divide up the practice rooms,” says Hart, who just released his second album, Colors of Jazz.

“One thing we do more together now is listen to music with Leo,” Molinelli adds. “I think on that end he’s more interested in what we do. He had just started guitar when shelter in place started and he picks it up every day. It’s a break from the computer, and it’s amazing to see him go from not playing an instrument at all to having his hands on it every day.”

Hart has lost most of his concert gigs and transitioned to online lessons with a handful of students. Molinelli was already a full-time educator. She’s teaching music through the San Francisco Unified School District, which started offering music lessons online last month. And she launched her own nonprofit shortly before SIP, Music Is First, an organization designed to “empower early education teachers, educators, and parents through simple actionable music activities.”

“At first we freaked out launching as everything started shutting down, but then we exploded with work,” Molinelli says. “We got an emergency grant and put free content up. And we’re working with Jessica Felix and the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, offering music classes for all the districts up there. For gigs, all our camps are getting cancelled this summer, but on the education front it’s been busy.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.