Beat goes on for coastal musicians

05/06/2020

Just because the live performances have stopped doesn’t mean the music has gone away. West Marin musicians are being resourceful while they can’t perform for an audience by creating home studios, playing virtual shows and collaborating in new ways.

For many artists, spring is a popular time to release music and set out on tour. Full-time musicians, who often face financial instability, have been hit especially hard, as have their venues. Artists are asking the difficult question of whether to delay their release or move forward without a tour.

Under the cloud of uncertainty, musicians are starting projects they’ve always thought about, and they are spending more time practicing, alone or with partners. 

“Something about the situation we find ourselves in has spurred a lot of creative action,” said Jeff Manson, a Bolinas musician. “There’s that famous Orson Welles quote, ‘The absence of limitations is the enemy of art,’ and I think there is something to that.”

Mr. Manson, who works as the program director for KWMR, launched a weekly Friday night variety show, Quarantine Dreams, which has served as a basis for musicians to collaborate. He said he has always wanted to do a variety show, and now felt like the perfect time. The two-hour broadcast features strange sounds, unreleased music and artists from a wide range of genres and backgrounds.

Katie Eberle, who spins as DJ Barbarella, has created a makeshift home recording studio so she can contribute, along with a number of other local musicians. She set up her vintage turntables and mixer in the guest room of her cottage in Marshall. 

Quarantine Dreams shows that KWMR is a community resource, but not in the typical sense of the word, Ms. Eberle said. “It’s a precious and unusual community resource, a place where we can all tune in and listen to the creative id of West Marin.”

In a project borne out of Quarantine Dreams, musicians have been sending each other unfinished tracks and returning riffs or melodies to add. Sharing music is common in West Marin, as musicians often play in multiple bands. They also borrow each other’s equipment, so the shelter-in-place order served as a roulette for who would end up with what gear during the shutdown.

Danny Vitali ended up with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which he’s been using to record the sounds of sheep on the Point Reyes Station mesa. He invites limitations set by hardware because they set parameters of what can be done. 

Mr. Vitali works as a vegetable gardener, so his day job hasn’t been disrupted. But his plans to tour and perform at summer festivals are canceled, and the release of his solo album, “Fronds,” is in flux. He planned to mount a campaign in advance of the release, complete with records, CDs and a tour, but now is a difficult time for that. On the other hand, he said, people sheltering at home have plenty of time to digest an album of experimental sound.

Andrew Brennan, who plays in the West Marin Grateful Dead Appreciation Society with Jeff and Danny, also has an upcoming album release with his band, The Farallons. The long and sprawling album, called “Plant Life,” was made over the course of five years. 

“It’s one that can benefit from people being at home and really cozying up to it,” Mr. Brennan said.

Since the band doesn’t play live these days, they are going ahead and releasing the album on May 29. Instead of a party at the Gospel Flat Farm Stand, KWMR will host a listening party on the air.

When the pandemic hit, Mr. Manson was just getting ready to record a new solo album, his first with a full band. He has a bunch of written and demoed songs and was preparing to teach them to friends. Now, he’s deciding whether to delay that process or shift to a more independent approach.

Mr. Brennan’s wife, Bolinas songwriter Kelly McFarling, was ready to lead a tour this summer in Southern California and release her fourth studio album, but she’s holding the project for now.

In the meantime, she released “Emma’s Party,” a loose track she wrote with San Francisco musician Avi Vinocur. The song was written the morning after a party, when they were feeling unproductive and discussing the greatness of their friends. 

Ms. McFarling sings the party roster over a banjo and guitar, “Marcus was there and Brendan was there and Anna was there and Pat was there and Chris was there and Tracey was there and Casey was drunk and Kirch was there and whoever Emma’s new roommate is.”

The track now serves as a time capsule to when people were allowed parties. It’s also an ode to her friends, and she released it as a way of saying that she misses them.

Ms. McFarling said she is fortunate to have a partner who also plays music. She and Mr. Brennan have been jamming together with no expectations. She welcomes the focus on music for its own sake, free from the logistics that normally surround it. But the downside to having a musician partner is that both people rely on unpredictable income.

Michael Pinkham, a drummer in Bolinas, makes all of his income from music. Usually he accrues debt during winter and crawls out in the summer by playing in a circus, at weddings and for private events. He also teaches drum lessons. With lessons and gigs canceled, his credit card is maxed out.

“I should be panicking right now, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. During the extra time at home, he’s been reconnecting musically with his partner and spending time with his kids.

Mike Duke, the head of Rancho Nicasio’s house band, can’t wait to play piano and sing for an audience again. The only musical activity he’s participated in is a compilation video with 24 musicians from his record label, each singing a piece from the 1854 song, “Hard Times.”

“Many days you have lingered around my cabin door,” Mr. Duke belts from the Nicasio lawn, “Hard times, hard times, come again no more.”

At the Papermill Creek Saloon, all five of the bartenders have been laid off, and bar manager Jared Litwin set up a live stream so that regular artists can still play for online tips in an empty bar. That has allowed Danny Morrison, who performs as Danny Montana, to do his regular happy hour shows at Papermill on the second and fourth Fridays of the month. Of course, his gigs at Nick’s Cove and the Coast Café are not happening, but he’s having fun playing virtually, although it takes some getting used to.

“It’s really weird playing in front of the cell phone, where you don’t get a reaction one way or another,” he said. “You can’t tell if something is working or if it is falling flat.”

Though the live streams are keeping people connected, there is still a sense of detachment, said Courtney Toriumi, who helps manage the bar.

“As much as our artists and patrons appreciate the gesture, it’s lacking the human interaction, camaraderie and personal connections with the artists, as well as the feeling of togetherness,” she said. 

Mr. Litwin was originally planning to have a weekend-long bash when Papermill re-opened, complete with a pun name like “Papermill-palooza.” Now he’s wondering if that will be possible, and he is planning for limited-capacity shows and installing hand sanitizer around the bar.

While the future of live performances is unknown, one thing is certain: musicians can’t wait to get their shows back on stage. “The first few for a while are going to be pretty inspired,” Mr. Brennan said. “I think people are going to be chomping at the bit to hear some jamming.”