EXPRESS SESSIONS: Area Musicians Remain Optimistic About Life And Playing After COVID

Gene Casey and Nancy Atlas performing virtually.

The mood was light last Thursday, February 25, when a handful of musicians joined the Express News Group for a panel discussion on the music industry during the pandemic, and looking to the future as the virus recedes.

But while the panel members were jovial, the subject was somber as they recalled a year lost to COVID-19 and the challenges they faced both professionally and personally, unable to ply their trade, and, on a deeper level, having little outlet for their inherent creativity, the lifeblood that they said drives their very existence.

At the same time, the musicians — plus the manager of one of the region’s most popular venues for live music in the summer — remained optimistic about the future, certain that live music would be heard on the East End, and in the country as whole, again this summer as the world heals from the effects of the virus.

The Express Sessions panel discussion, “Musicians in Lockdown: Keeping the Music Alive,” was held via Zoom and featured: Judy Carmichael, a Grammy-nominated pianist, vocalist, composer, author and NPR radio host; Gene Casey, the band leader for Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks; Inda Eaton, a singer, songwriter and musician; Dan Koontz, a musician and composer who plays with a number of local bands; Nancy Atlas, singer, songwriter and leader of The Nancy Atlas Project; and Nick Kraus, the managing partner of the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett.

The discussion was moderated by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.

The musicians noted that they were mostly sidelined throughout the past year during the shutdown and subsequent prohibition of live entertainment at most venues. Mr. Casey said he managed to line up about 15 gigs — a drop in the bucket compared to the 120 he usually plays in a year — and Ms. Atlas produced her “Friday Night Hustle” series at the end of the year, in which she performed live with no audience and then distributed the performances virtually. But for the most part, they were silent, as was the stage at the Talkhouse.

Ms. Atlas said the Hustle series was born out of desperation, an interior need to use her craft to fight back her demons.

“It was one of those jump-off-the-bridge … ‘Crouching Tiger, [Hidden Dragon’], at the end of the movie, she jumps off the bridge — sorry if I ruined it for anybody — into the clouds,” she said. “That was what the Hustle was. I was really in self-preservation stage.

“It always looks really pretty with a bow on it, but underneath it, this has been an incredibly trying and difficult year as a professional musician.”

Adding that she has worked every summer since she was 12 years old, not being able to work this past summer hit her hard.

“I was deeply depressed by September,” she admitted, “and concerned. I kind of saw the door closing … and so I sprung into action out of necessity, not even knowing what I was really doing. I’m tickled pink that it all worked.

“I do want to say, the most challenging thing,” she added, “… has been watching the world go through this pandemic, go through these challenges in society, and knowing that we have the elixir to heal it, which is live music.”

Aside from the emotional toll the pandemic took on the performers, the obvious financial ramifications were intense as well, the panel members said.

Ms. Carmichael, who said she typically books performances a year or two in advance — and doesn’t have any scheduled for this summer — is looking at a total of two years of not performing because of the pandemic. A successful musician, she said she has had to rely on unemployment insurance, some early grants and even a forbearance on her mortgage.

“How I’ve survived is,” she said, “for the first time in my life, I’ve gotten unemployment. No one cares — nobody gives us unemployment. I immediately applied for grants, I got some grants. They all ran out of money within a week. I was very fortunate. …

“God bless my M&T Bank, because I have a forbearance, and so I haven’t been paying my mortgage. And that’s how I’ve survived. If I’d had to be paying my mortgage through this, I thought about selling my house. That’s how bad this is.

“And I’m successful,” she added. “That’s the point. I’m one of the successful ones, and I’m just grateful I’ve been able to squeak by.”

While everyone struggled, Mr. Casey said that he tried to look for the silver lining, and perhaps he identified one: With all the social and political turmoil in the country last year, the pandemic allowed people to stay out of the fray.

“2020 was a strange year, not just for COVID but with our whole society,” he said. “Part of me missed contact with people; part of me was, like, ‘Boy, I don’t want to be in the middle of that.’ It was a rough time just to be around people politically and socially, and as well as the COVID. It was a mixed blessing, I think. I don’t know.”

Mr. Kraus noted that the Talkhouse was open for business seven days per week from the spring through the fall, outdoors, but with no live music — the venue’s forte — suffered from poor attendance.

“What brings people to the Talkhouse, as anybody that’s been there will tell you, is, first of all, the live music, and then it’s being with each other and being around people and being sweaty on the dance floor,” he said. “And then when you have a situation where you’re not allowed to have live music, and you’re not allowed to even stand up, and you have to eat something, which the Talkhouse is not known for — it’s a bad combination.”

Looking forward to this spring and summer, Mr. Kraus said that while the Talkhouse’s owners are optimistic, there’s still too much up in the air to formulate a definite plan for its operation, noting that they are “looking at every scenario possible” to have a successful season.

“I feel good,” he said. “People are getting the shot, numbers are going down. If it follows the same path as 100 years ago — I’m not a scientist, but so far, it looks like it’s been doing that — after you had the great [influenza] pandemic 100 years ago, the next thing you had was the Roaring Twenties.”

He added, “I’m just trying to, like many others, hang in there and think they’ll all come roaring back.”

The musicians on the panel, while admittedly nervous about the future, said they were hopeful for an eventual return to normal as well, albeit slowly, perhaps.

Ms. Eaton said she remained “scared” following a year of not performing, wondering how the landscape will have changed even when the pandemic recedes.

“Nick was talking about the Roaring Twenties,” she said. “I do believe we’re going to the Roaring Twenties. I don’t think this summer is the Roaring Twenties. I think we’re still going to walk on eggshells this summer. I don’t quite think we’re in the Roaring Twenties. I think we’re still in a nebulous period, and that’s scary.”

Mr. Casey, while saying he was “raring to go,” noted that there’s also a reluctance on his part to go full throttle again, given the experiences of the past year.

“I want to do it,” he said, “but I don’t want the grind. I’m not going to kill myself doing it. I accept that things have changed. It’s like a world war. You just can’t deny it. It happened.”

Mr. Koontz, a self-described “side man” who was lucky to play a lot with different bands, said he also feels less motivated to begin playing again at the same level as prior to the pandemic.

“I think when gigs start to happen again, I can’t imagine that I’ll fall back into the same thing of just saying, ‘Sure,’ and hope that the muscle comes back,” he said.

Ms. Atlas, however, predicted a very busy summer for the musicians — although she qualified that perhaps not for all musicians. But for the pros on the panel, who have achieved a certain level of success, the demand will be there.

“I’m going to roll the dice on the fact that nobody is me, and nobody is Judy Carmichael but Judy Carmichael, and nobody is Gene Casey but Gene Casey, and nobody is Inda Eaton but Inda Eaton, and nobody is Dan Koontz but Dan Koontz,” she said. “I don’t think all musicians are going to be busy, but I think we’re going to be busy. We’re going to be as busy as we want to be.”