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Who’s zooming whom? Creativity among Nevada County artists in the pandemic era

Tom Durkin
Staff Writer
The Achilles Wheel Quartrio social distanced for their live online performance at the Wild Eye Pub May 21. Band members, from left, are Shelby Snow, Jonny “Mojo” Flores, Mark McCartney and Paul Kamm. With their backs to the camera, from left are tech volunteer Lucky Mulligan and Wild Eye proprietor Beth Moore.
Submitted photo by John Taber

While most people are preoccupied with the negative impact the pandemic is having on their lives, some local “creatives” (artists, musicians, writers, actors, etc.) are finding gold in these here chills.

Deprived of live, local venues, many creatives, especially musicians, are broadcasting live online worldwide. Facebook Live is a free, popular platform.

For teachers, coaches and mentors who need almost real-time, two-way video interactions, Zoom Meetings is the video-conferencing service of choice. PC Magazine has rated it at the top of the heap with two other equivalent programs, but what makes Zoom so popular with the starving-artist crowd is that it’s free for basic users.

There’s an inherent problem with video conferencing, however. It’s called latency, or lack of synchronicity. Not everybody’s internet connection operates at the same speed. It’s a minor annoyance in a meeting, but latency makes it impossible for musicians to rehearse or perform together online in real time.

Musicians must either come together physically to perform live or go solo, as Peter R. Wilson is doing from his home studio.

Wilson World Wednesdays

For Wilson, it’s all about “getting my yaya’s out, and my gizmos and gadgets plugged in.”

Needing to maintain his “spiritual practice” of music, he’s been broadcasting from his home via Facebook Live every Wednesday evening. His Wilson World Wednesday show starts at 6 p.m. and goes till his battery runs out.

His virtual tip jar and archive of past shows is at peterwilsonworld.com. He’s mostly using the tip money to pay for the equipment he bought to be able to livestream.

“It’s a huge learning curve,” he said of teaching himself how to broadcast from his home. “It’s amazing how many knobs there are and buttons to push.”

He has figured out how to mix his microphone and amplifier into a single feed into his iPhone for high-quality sound.

Unable to achieve the video quality he wanted, Wilson has chosen to brand his videos with a low-resolution, black-and-white filter that is reminiscent of the early days of television. “It’s a rip-off from an old MTV video,” he explained.

Even before the shutdown, Wilson was involved in the shift to livestream video. His friend Galen Fraser is part of a team in Spain that has created the international Stay at Home Online Music Festival series of concerts on Instagram.

Wilson reported he performed live in the second worldwide, virtual concert staged by the Stay at Home Festival. Later this summer, he will teach students online for Fraser’s father at Alasdair Fraser’s Sierra Fiddle Camp which is usually held on the San Juan Ridge.

The Write Stuff

Not all creatives want to deal with the technology. They just want to use it.

Sands Hall is one of those people. She knows how to use Zoom. As for Facebook Live. “I wouldn’t know how to do it,” she admitted.

Perhaps best known as a writer (three books and one play), Hall is also a professor and writing coach, a staff member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, an actor and director, and a singer/songwriter with a guitar.

Normally this time of year, Hall would have been back East celebrating the graduation of her students at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, She has been a visiting assistant professor of creative writing for the last 12 years.

It is particularly poignant for her that the pandemic has shut down her last year teaching at the college. “I’m missing my own retirement party,” she said. This is just one of several events she had booked back East.

She will, however, still deliver a graduation speech to the class of 2020 via Zoom.

Hall recently used Zoom to rescue a conversation she was supposed to have with writer Christine Hemp in a bookstore in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The bookstore hosted the event online with Hemp in Ft. Townsend, Washington, and Hall in Nevada City. About 100 people from all over the country checked in for the conversation. “We had one person watching from South America,” Hall said.

The multitalented Hall is also preparing a solo performance at the Wild Eye Pub in Grass Valley May 31. It will be one of the pub’s last closed-set shows.

“I’m very excited about this gig,” she said, though she’s sad she can’t play with her friends Randy McKean and Maggie McKaig.

They had attempted to rehearse online with Zoom, where they promptly discovered the latency problem. “We couldn’t stop laughing,” Hall recalled.

Live music on life support

Although it’s only been open a few years, the Wild Eye Pub has already become legend for creatively keeping live music alive during the pandemic.

Although the restaurant and bar were closed except for curbside takeout and delivery, Beth Moore and her husband David Kuczora, owners of the Wild Eye, have hosted as many as five live livestreamed acts a week in the closed restaurant.

In the last week, the bar has been open to patrons who could watch the livestream on the bar’s large TV monitor. This Friday, Moore plans to celebrate her birthday by opening restaurant for the first time in months with the local band Main Street Revival.

A singer and creative artist in her own right, Moore will be debuting her new restaurant floor. It is made entirely from torn scraps of paper grocery bags collected during the pandemic. Reusable shopping bags are banned for the duration of the pandemic, and that resulted in a glut of used paper bags.

Moore said the pub has only been making 10% to 20% of normal revenue for this time of year, but then she disclosed something quite remarkable: many of the entertainers have made more money from their virtual shows than they would get from a regular gig. One performer made five times his normal take from a club gig, she said. Furthermore, many musicians are so taken with Moore’s generosity that they give her a cut of their take. “I leave it up to them,” she smiled.

“I give them all the money from the cover charge,” said Moore, who also serves the performers free dinners. The virtual tip money seems to be coming from family, friends and fans online who are too away to attend, she explained.

Facebook Live allows online viewers to comment on what they’re seeing. In between songs, Moore reads the comments to the performers who can then talk back to the commenters, often people they know and love.

“Sometimes, it’s a great big family reunion,” she laughed.

Moore has plans to upgrade the pub’s livestream capabilities, including replacing her old iPhone 6 with a webcam mounted on the stage’s light bar.

Moore has no plans to stop livestreaming once the pub is fully open. She believes it can only get better with a live audience. Part of her upgrade scheme is to mount a large-screen monitor so that the performers and in-house audience can see the online comments.

While the restaurant patrons will be required to pay a cover charge, Moore intends to keep the livestream free. “People are not going to pay to see a band they don’t know, but if they like what they see, they might be inclined to support the artists,” she reasoned.

“I will never put up a paywall.”


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Tom Durkin is a staff writer for The Union.

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