Something strange and unexpected happened a few weeks ago for broadcaster, journalist and sometimes performer Steve Houk. Hosting the annual Cancer Can Rock benefit at 868 Vineyards in Hillsboro, Virginia, Houk watched a crowd that was hugging and shaking hands. Nobody was wearing masks. It almost felt normal.
“It felt different, but fabulous,” Houk shared with me as he reflected on a year of conversations he has hosted on his weekly Living On Music program that streams every Monday night on Facebook.
If it seemed strange getting used to the reopening as it slowly unfolds, one could understand. Houk had been covering the DC music scene for Washington Life. When live concerts essentially vanished, he started a new broadcast program for Zebra Press’ Z-TV named after his website, Living On Music. With most of us sequestered in our houses the past year, Houk began talking with musicians in the greater Washington, DC/Northern Virginia/Maryland area and commiserating about their experiences surviving a lockdown. The first episode aired in April 2020 with Scott Kurt and has clocked in with over sixty shows.
“When I started this show as the pandemic hit, I was doing it for both me and the musicians, so we would both have some form of engagement and some involvement with each other,” Houk reflected. “Little did I know that the experience would not only be one of the greatest in my almost 38 years in television, but that it would also be something that these musicians truly enjoyed and reveled in and were so appreciative of, despite the continued virtual nature of it. The feedback has been incredible, and I hope it goes on forever.”
Houk found a common theme emerged naturally as the conversations went to how everybody was doing. While some who were invited admitted they felt too overwhelmed to come on, most who did discovered they were all in the same boat. Their profession and way of life had been taken away. For guests like Siobhan O’Brien, unable to go on the road to promote a new album, she found herself performing on the show in front of a lake in Madison County, Virginia. The singer said she was re-energized when she finished her appearance and that it was a chance to remember the good stuff that the pandemic took away.
“2020 taught me how to pivot,” country music artist Sam Grow said. “Since I was 16 all I ever did was play music for a living. When you get to a place where it’s taken away from you, I spent a couple of weeks just trying to ingest that. I thought about how blessed I was to do a job I loved for so long and then to have it be taken away from you was not an easy pill to swallow.”
Despite assurances from his label that they would help him ride the year out, Grow realized after forty-five days there was no way he couldn’t make music for people. After some research when he learned that outdoor events of ten people or less were permissible, Grow pitched his manager on the idea of playing in people’s backyards. Initially dismissive when Grow said he would drive his own truck to people’s houses, his manager said he’d agree if the singer could prove him wrong.
When Grow posted the idea on Facebook, within 4 hours he had secured 33 shows in 17 states. He ended up playing 87 shows across the country, driving 110,000 miles and as he told Houk, having the time of his life.
For some, COVID cut close to home. When DC area soul/pop artist Eric Scott called Houk about his planned appearance, the singer had some news. He’d have to delay it. His father had just contracted COVID. Two weeks later he passed away. Veteran folk singer and singer-songwriter pioneer Tom Rush revealed on Living On Music that he had contracted COVID after playing a few dates in Florida. Rush, calling in from his home in Rockport, Massachusetts where he hosts his weekly Rockport Sundays program, then told Houk he received a call from his local hospital warning he was at risk of cardiac event and needed to come in right away. Rush was having a glass of wine over dinner and went in the next morning to have a pacemaker put in.
Like Grow, Rush adapted to circumstances by playing outdoor events and private concerts. He also launched a Patreon program with different rewards levels. On Living On Music, he brought up the question everyone is still pondering. Once the pandemic subsides, will the venues still be there when the bands are ready to play again?
Just outside Washington, D.C, the Birchmere has been an institution for more than five decades. Houk spoke with the venue’s owner Gary Oelze and Michael Jaworek as well as author Steve Moore about the history of the renowned music hall. In the early days of the pandemic, the venue set-up a crowdfunding campaign to help their employees. When the venue came back last summer, it was at 20% capacity. Now their calendar is full again with plenty of rescheduled shows that stretch into 2022. But like many small businesses, now the venue finds itself in the odd position of trying to find enough employees to meet its staffing needs.
Over the past few weeks the reopening has accelerated. Bands are planning tours. Calendars are beginning to fill with new dates. Houk has signed on to another venture as a zone producer for the emerging Live Tube platform. In a post-pandemic world, Houk hopes the Living On Music program will still play a vital role in showcasing the greater DC area’s robust music scene. As country artist Scott Kurt comes back July 26, it will be full circle for the show as Kurt was its first guest. Houk, who has won three Emmys throughout his career, can laugh at the early days of the show when guest Patty Reese dropped her phone and appeared backwards. Another guest Julia Kasdorf had to do the whole show herself when Houk lost his connection. These days the show has a consistent professional production feel that is aided by editor Laney Delaney, a recent Lehigh University graduate.
As Houk reflects on the enormity of what the last year has meant, his show continues to celebrate the resiliency of the musical community. He recently celebrated the return of Classical Movements, the concert tour company for the world’s orchestras and choirs that was the first to present live, in person, classical music concerts in The Secret Garden of its office, The Rectory on Princess Street in Old Town Alexandria. They created their own Choir of Hope & Harmony as well as the Hope & Harmony Ensemble made up of professional musicians from 14 major orchestras. A year ago they were trying to figure out how to keep their aspect of live music and supporting musicians afloat. After they started doing outdoor concerts last year, the response was so overwhelming that by this summer, they will have held over 80 concerts and featured over 200 artists.
The clock has clearly turned. Houk himself is back performing singing with Jess Robinson as part of the Houk-Robinson Duo in clubs in Northern Virginia. He also plays around the area with his partner Suzanne Tsacoumis in their duo The Greek and The Freak which was formed to help them play music during the pandemic.
As we come out of the last year and Houk asks his guests how they are doing, with every day it will be an easier question to ask.
Congratulations to Lauren Jenkins, the Nashville based singer songwriter and filmmaker who just released a new EP Miles On Me, Part 1. The title track is full of hook-laden ruminations on love and its regrets that ascends into that magical moment that all songwriters long for. When Jenkins drops a killer line right before the chorus. “You’re just another set of scars I didn’t need,” you kind of shake your head realizing how much she nailed it.
Jenkins is like many musicians who survived the pandemic virtually and is ready to play before people. “I could write a manual on how to do a livestream,” she quipped to SiriusXM host Jim Rotolo when she dropped in on the program Live From E Street Nation. “Miles On Me” was written during the pandemic when Jenkins found herself with so much alone time she found herself staring at the ceiling writing songs. Jenkins’ plight reflected the collective angst of many of her fellow musicians when she said, “If I don’t get back on the road soon again I’m going to lose it.”
The title track features singer David Ramirez and Jenkins has made an accompanying video featuring panoramic shots of the American west like a mini movie as the lyrics run by. “Miles On Me” follows a previous music and film series viewable on her website. While Jenkins hints at second and third parts to follow-up to the “Miles On Me” storyline, in the short-term she’ll begin performing live again next month. “For everyone who has been vaccinated, thank you. You’re keeping musicians sane.”