For 15 years, Lansing-based musician Dan Laird has been playing music with his friend Mark Collins. Originally a part of a four-piece band and operating as a duo on the side, in 2013, Laid and Collins decided to commit to performing together once the band went its own way.
Now, the two operate as The Swift Brothers, an acoustic duo whose shows bring an array of banjo, ukulele, guitar and harmonica to live performances.
“We’ve kind of advanced to the point where we play a lot of festivals now — which is why in the summertime, especially right when COVID hit — was the worst time for it to happen,” Laird said. “That’s when all the festivals and things were really ramping up, and we lost all of them this year.”
With national guidelines restricting public gatherings and a need for distancing to remain safe, live music could not exist in the same capacity as it had before. Shows that had been booked for months saw pushed-back dates and cancellations and the need to get creative grew stronger than ever.
“Our whole 2020 calendar from Feb. on, if you looked at our website, basically would list a gig and then all the festivals and places trying to hold on as long as they could because we thought ‘Well maybe it’s just a couple more weeks and it’ll all be over’,” Laird said. “And then it would go from gig posted to gig canceled to not even listed on the website anymore, and that was this entire schedule all the way from March until now.”
Like other musicians, Laird said they put out a virtual tip jar offering viewers a way to use money-sharing services like Venmo or PayPal to support local artists, but there’s only so many times you can do that when tips are an artist’s main source of income.
Laird said the two have been fortunate in the sense that they don’t rely on music as a full-time job, though many other musicians were left with a desperation to get creative.
To keep their name out there and give back to their community, the two hosted a Lansing Gift Card Day Giveaway on their website, entering patrons who bought takeout or gift cards from participating venues into the giveaway.
Moving forward as things slowly begin to open up, Laird said there is a hesitation to get out there and perform again.
“It’s complicated. it’s so hard and complicated right now to want to get back out there and feel like you’re doing the right thing,” Laird said.
Aug. 22, Sarah Wallace, an East Lansing based vocal performer, organized Quantum Harmonies, an eclectic music show presented by the Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art. Alongside Wallace, the show featured a variety of other professional artists including pianist Liudmila Bondar, violinist Dilek Engin-Stolarchuk, trumpet player Jordan Lopez, scratch artist Matthew McCoy and poets Ruelaine Stokes and Jeremy Hurt.
Originally scheduled for May, Wallace said she had been planning the show under the name Eta Aquariids — an homage to a meteor showering occurring in May — to symbolize the idea of the performers as stars. As the show got pushed back, she changed the name to Quantum Harmonies to keep the celestial theme with a reminder that this was all about the music.
The rescheduling meant more than just a new date — the event had to be moved outside to a new location, promotional materials had to be changed and one performer decided she was not yet comfortable performing during COVID-19.
“It became more about we really need to inspire people right now, we need to lift them up,” Wallace said. “People have been quarantined, people have been depressed, people are afraid. So, it kind of changed in that regard and we gathered the content to really focus on let’s make this a joyful event.”
With a need to follow social distancing guidelines, 72 people watched the show from its outdoor venue with masks and distancing enforced. One of the biggest learning curves, Wallace said, was figuring out how to use Zoom to practice music.
“There’s latency, there’s a delay, there’s so many things that happen. It would distort the sound for music. And we were trying to collaborate, our group was trying collaborate online, so that we could play together even though we weren’t together and that was really, that was hard,” Wallace said. “… I think it’s a real testimony for all of the musicians to stick together through not being able to work actually in person together. And we only had two group rehearsals and to pull this whole event off, we were rehearsing on our own so we had to rehearse on our own very well.”
Anonymous Phone Call, a band born out of Grand Rapids with a prominence in East Lansing decided to use the time of quarantine to prep for producing their album.
Lead singer Chaeston Cain, guitarist Jack Emaus, drummer Ben DeWitt and bassist Matt Burdick met in high school and started playing music together. Eventually, they decided to put a name to the project and Cain and Burdick moved to East Lansing to attend Michigan State University.
“It’s been weird, we haven’t actually really like practiced, practiced since quarantine, but we were in the process of recording an album, that just came out,” Burdick said. “We thought like once quarantine hit, once everything started happening, we thought we can’t play shows, but this might finally give us time to finish the album. Then we realized that it wouldn’t even be possible for the four of us to be in a room together for a while.”
The band’s album "Limbo" was released Aug. 14 after they took time off to remodel the band’s home studio and to build a space to make the album possible. Burdick said the whole process has been really cathartic to set feelings he can’t put into words to music and get the same emotional release.
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Though the traditional model of playing shows may not be possible, Burdick said the band has been in contact with “Stream Forest” in Grand Rapids who hosts weekly or monthly live streams of bands from a multi-camera set up in his basement.
“Mostly we just really miss shows. It’s fun doing live streams, but it’s not the same. I just really miss that live human interaction that comes with playing live shows and getting that energy from the crowd,” Burdick said.
For some musicians, some time off has provided a new opportunity to take extra practice time to work on their craft. Shaun David, an East Lansing-based performer playing for a metal band — Room 101 — said they took quite a bit of time off to write and are now in the process of recording a new record.
“We’re trying to find other ways besides shows and meeting people to perform music. So, we’re doing the new CD and shooting a music video right now, but we’re pretty much at a loss right now. We don’t know what to do or what even to plan for,” David said. “…I know a lot of other bands have been writing and recording and practicing and I’m sure a lot of people have even started learning instruments, so I’m really trying to look at everything as a positive… I’m hoping that it helps the music scene. I know that it sounds weird, but we need to take advantage of it.”
This article is part of our Welcome Week print edition. Read the full issue here.
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