The first few days of working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak were a little hectic, to say the least. I needed some time to think about how to pivot our digital coverage on saratogaliving.com to better meet the needs of Saratogians (and our greater national audience), and because I was completely scared to death myself, I wasn’t thinking straight. And then, after a staff meeting, everything fell into place: We were going to report, as well we could, about the outbreak, how people in the community have been stepping up to help their fellow citizens and other stories along those lines.
As a career pop culture writer, I also needed to figure out new ways to tell those types of stories. And it only took me a few hours to realize that many ideas were right under my nose (literally). As I bent my neck down to scroll through my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feed—more of a comforting act now than an anxiety-inducing one—I saw countless national and local musicians, whose tours had been halted indefinitely and lives had been upended, making beautiful music via social media platforms to soothe those who’d been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (all of us, really). It was really beautiful and comforting listening to them. Here are 10 wonderful musicians, many with local or Saratoga ties, who have been working overtime, selflessly doing what they do best to keep us sane in these hardest of times.
Josh Ritter (Exclusive)
For those of you unfamiliar with Josh Ritter’s work, he’s basically a wordier cross between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, who’s literally had other bands name themselves after his albums (see: Animal Years). He’s that influential. And when he decided to record his latest album with Americana super-couple, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, it was impossible for him not to knock it out of the park. Last year’s Fever Breaks is a high-water mark, to say the least—and Ritter was set to bring many of the songs from it to Saratoga’s Bethesda Episcopal Church on March 12, but the gig was cancelled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (The show’s since been rescheduled for September 24 at Universal Preservation Hall.) Find Ritter’s full performance above, from the venue’s Caffè Lena Late Night Sessions, a series that it has been doing for almost a year now, in which the staff move all of the tables out after a show and bring in a film crew to shoot live versions of a song of the artist’s choosing. (Obviously, this taping took place before what would’ve been the show at Bethesda.) The song Ritter chose to perform? A brand-new one called “Our Father’s War.”
I don’t think there’s a single singer-songwriter that I’ve listened to more in the past 10 years than Paul Simon, whether it be his masterpiece solo records (see: Paul Simon, Graceland) or his tight-harmony-ed gems as part of Simon & Garfunkel in the ’60s. Simon’s best compositions—like “America” or “The Boxer” or “The Sound of Silence” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “Most Peculiar Man” or “Mother and Child Reunion” and on and on ad infinitum—evoke a realness, a warmth that the processed songs of today just can’t come close to. That’s why we turned to him after 9/11. That’s why we need him even more now. He performed a tune on Facebook the other day, and it was just what the doctor ordered.
— Yo-Yo Ma (@YoYo_Ma) March 19, 2020
The cellist was one of the first musicians, pop or classical, to start recording himself playing pieces meant specifically to calm or soothe during the outbreak—and the videos, rightly, went viral, one after the other one. I caught Yo-Yo Ma at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) a few times during my childhood (I was a cellist), and I was only a single degree away from him, too: My cello teacher, Ann Alton, who taught at Skidmore College for many years, had had the lesson after his at Juilliard and knew him well. Above, hear him play one my favorite solo-cello compositions, “The Swan,” by Saint-Saëns.
I don’t think I’ve met Saratoga’s most famous party band frontman, Garland Nelson, more than a handful of times in person, but I had the opportunity to write a feature about him for Saratoga Living, which I believe to be some of my best work at the magazine. I particularly loved using Nelson’s words to explain how he’d come upon his band name, Soul Session: “God breathed into man the breath of life, and he became a living soul,” he says, paraphrasing the passage from Genesis. The other half, “session,” is less a synonym for what a musician does in a recording studio than it is about providing therapy to the audience. “This was literally downloaded into me,” says Nelson. “It wasn’t a matter of us to you; it was more like us being in a circle, and everyone in it having just as much importance as the person who was leading the discussion.” Check him out doing his thing on Facebook (I’m sure there will be more “sessions” to come; in fact, he’ll be doing one later today at Caffè Lena. Stream it live here.).
At this point, my colleagues are all sort of sick of me talking up The Figgs all the time, but shhh! don’t tell them: I’m never going to stop. For me, The Figgs are the quintessential Saratoga rock band, one that I followed them around town as a kid as they blew the roof off Caffè Lena, The Parting Glass, Putnam Den (now Place) and pretty much anywhere else in town you could play live notes at and not get yelled at by the neighbors. I spent more than a year writing a tome about their breakthrough album, Low-Fi At Society High, because I think their music is woefully under-appreciated and needs to be rediscovered by this community at large. Or, rather, they’re basically the ’90s version of Big Star: As soon as you discover their music, you want to go running around telling everyone about how awesome they are. The Figgs’ co-frontman, Mike Gent, did a Facebook live show the other night (he’s got another one coming up soon; I’m sure there’ll be more). My guess is co-frontman Pete Donnelly will be on the fun, too. In the meantime, listen to single “Grab Your Pack” from their latest record, Shady Grove, above.
You may have caught Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Fred Hersch last year at Caffè Lena, when he played a two-night stand, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (he’s the first openly gay, HIV-positive jazz player). Hersch has been using his “social distancing” time wisely—but, by no means, has he distanced himself from his piano. Hersch will be performing a string of virtual concerts on Facebook live, all of which appear to be falling on Sundays at 1pm.
Ben Gibbard (lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie)
A few years ago, my wife and I caught Gibbard and his band, Death Cab for Cutie, at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown. We’d seen the band perform previously at Osheaga Festival up north in Montréal and had just been blown away. (You might also know his side-project, the Postal Service, which featured, indirectly, in the movie Garden State, vis-a-vis a breathy cover of “Such Great Heights” by Iron & Wine.) He’s a prolific songwriter, who really is one of the best of the modern crop. You can catch him doing daily streams on YouTube or Facebook. Need more convincing? Listen to the love song above, but be sure to have a stiff drink nearby—or, if you’re a teetotaler, a shoulder to cry on.
Matthew Caws (lead singer of Nada Surf)
If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember Nada Surf’s lone hit song, “Popular,” which features lead singer Matthew Caws literally reading out of a dated book on dating advice and then singing a simple chorus over raging guitars. The band really started hitting its stride in the early aughts, first with Let Go and then, The Weight Is A Gift, must-listens for any indie rock fan. Before their latest tour was postponed, they were supporting their brand-new album, Never Not Together. Above, hear Caws play my personal favorite track from the new album, a poignant number called “Mathilda.”
Sean Kelly (lead singer of The Samples)
If you grew up in Upstate New York and The Samples weren’t part of your childhood soundtrack, well, then, I’m not sure what to tell you. What I can tell you is this: lead singer Sean Kelly has been performing solo shows all over the country lately, more so, I feel, than ever before—and two of those shows in the last two years have taken place at Saratoga’s Caffè Lena (I was in attendance at both). Kelly’s got a knack for writing Neil Young-esque earworms that get inside your head and never leave. He’s been playing live streaming shows on his personal Facebook page for months now—long before the COVID-19 outbreak even hit in the US. He’ll have to accept your friend request for you to hear his virtual shows, but he’s a super kind dude, so my guess is he’ll let you in. Take a gander at one of my favorite Kelly numbers above.
Third Man Records (i.e. Jack White’s Nashville Label)
Maybe you’re a fan of The White Stripes. Or The Raconteurs. Or The Dead Weather. Or just the solo stuff. There are many ways to enjoy Jack White’s music. Another one is via his Nashville record label, Third Man Records, which has produced lo-fi recordings of everyone from Neil Young to Elvis Presley (obviously, the King’s still dead; it was a reissue). In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Third Man launched a “public access” stream on YouTube, which has featured full, live-streamed concerts from local Nashville bands and artists. The first show kicked off on March 15 and featured Nashville-based pedal-steel guitarist Luke Schneider, with a follow-up performance March 20 by Nashville band Teddy and the Rough Riders. Who’s next? Keep an eye on the stream above.