During a live-streamed concert at Blue Rodeo’s Woodshed Studio in Toronto, the band’s Jim Cuddy performed a cover of Rhinestone Cowboy, accompanied by his two musician sons (Sam Polley and Devin Cuddy) and Blue Rodeo guitarist Colin Cripps. When Cuddy sang the line about “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know,” more than 8,000 people were logged onto his Facebook account, some of them posting messages while most just watched – perhaps by themselves, but, in another sense, “lost together,” as a Blue Rodeo song goes.
The Thursday afternoon concert was the launch event of Canada Performs, a series presented by the National Arts Centre and Facebook Canada in the face of the mass cancellations and postponements of arts events and the closings of performing-arts venues because of the COVID-19 health crisis. Adhering to social-distancing protocols and the serious discouragement of public gatherings, the four musicians stayed apart from each other while they performed to an online audience only.
The concert was just one of many such streaming events popping up. On March 13, after his concert was cancelled at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dan Mangan and his band filmed themselves playing at the empty venue to nobody. The five-song set was later streamed onYouTube. On Friday, the Polaris Prize-winning musician Jeremy Dutcher live-streamed a stripped-down solo performance on his Facebook page. Also on Friday, on his website Neil Young posted a short acoustic set filmed the day before by his wife, actress Daryl Hannah.
Denied access to in-the-flesh audiences, musicians are finding alternate ways to connect. The performances will help the artists sell their music and merchandise, though, in the case of the wealthy Young, the reasons behind his unplugged “Fireside Sessions” presentations are more altruistic. “I hope you’re doing well,” a plaid-shirted Young said to the camera at one point during a solo-acoustic presentation of Sugar Mountain outdoors and Vampire Blues and Razor Love and others indoors. “I hope everything’s okay in your house and I hope you have a place to be, where you’re with your loved ones.”
Young, an environmentalist, joked that his performance was sponsored by “water,” saying "We hope you can get a lot of it, wherever you need it.”
As for the Canada Performs series, aimed at supporting touring professional musicians, dancers, comedians and theatre artists, Facebook Canada has put up $100,000. Applicants are encouraged to apply for $1,000 grants from the relief package for performances that will happen through the end of March and perhaps beyond. After its announcement of the program this week, the NAC received more than 1,400 applications in 24 hours.
Friday also saw the announcement of Urgnt , a live-streamed crowd-funded concert series that has Toronto musicians performing in some of the city’s favourite venues. The initiative, created by Mark Marczyk of the rambunctious Lemon Bucket Orkestra, kicked off with an intimate set of gospel and blues at the Great Hall by the star Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman on Friday evening.
The quality of the streamed presentations are bound to vary, with taped events having the advantage of post-performance editing. While the live Cuddy event for Canada Performs went off without a hitch, Dutcher’s stream was plagued by sound glitches.
Streaming live on Facebook or other interactive platforms allows for a dialogue with fans. Dutcher took song requests, saying yes to some (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Take My Hand for a While) while turning down others.
The live shows typically are archived for fans to watch at their leisure. Viewership of the Cuddy concert has climbed to more than 460,000 as of Friday, counting replays.
There are some 50 shows in Canada Performs’ pipeline, including presentations by Erin Costelo and Winnipeg’s Tom Prince, both scheduled for March 22, at 2 p.m.
Future live-streams in the Urgnt series are expected by Digging Roots, Moscow Apartment, Skratch Bastid, Allison Au Quartet, the Gryphon Trio and Lemon Bucket Orkestra, at venues including Lula Lounge, the Dakota Tavern, the Wheat Sheaf, Communist’s Daughter and Koerner Hall.
Interestingly, some artists, with unexpected time on their hands because of suspended tours, would rather use the opportunity to relax. “Feeling all this pressure to live-stream,” the songstress Sarah Slean said on social media. “Is it wrong that I want to read and bake and hide?”
Nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s probably an online audience eager to see it.
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