In Christmases past, our December calendars were decorated with the dates of school Christmas concerts and community choir cantatas. This year, there will be considerably less live music heralding the good news. But many of us felt this void long before Advent. In a normal year, according to Stats Canada, 81 percent of Canadians would have attended a live music event in the past 12 months. Chances are there are cancelation notices from TicketMaster or Eventbrite buried in your own inbox.
Yet some artists won’t let a pandemic put a damper on the electricity of live performance. Christian Courier spoke to two Canadian singer-songwriters who have persisted with performing live throughout this past year – Edmonton vocalist and soul musician Ann Vriend and Abbotsford, B.C. country band Tim & the Glory Boys’ lead singer Tim Neufeld.
Big city street beats
Vriend had planned on spending 2020 touring Europe and hitting Canadian music festivals with the release of her new album Hurt People Hurt People (listen online). But instead, she spent her summer gardening and performing from her front porch to much smaller audiences in her inner-city Edmonton neighbourhood. Rain or shine, Vriend offered live music on 26 consecutive Sunday afternoons with the last concert falling on Thanksgiving weekend.
(Photo credits: Maurice Fritz)
“It’s like secular church,” comments Antoinette, an especially loyal audience member. Her husband was diagnosed with dementia last year, and attending the outdoor shows was a rare opportunity for the couple to do something they both enjoyed within a COVID-safe community environment.
“Antoinette was there every week dancing next to their car,” recalls Vriend, “while her husband sat in the passenger seat, grinning.”
After spending nearly two decades performing in traditional concert settings, Vriend couldn’t help but revel in the diversity of her street-side audience. “By the end, people who drove a BMW were sitting next to a person who drove a shopping cart, listening to a former drug dealer, or a professional touring musician, or a man playing a borrowed guitar who recently had been living under a bridge – and at the concerts everyone was the same; everyone was simply enjoying music together. . . it broke a lot of barriers and stereotypes without a single word needing to be said about it.”
Vriend’s music is never far from her politics and she speaks about the injustice of colonialism, capitalism and addiction with the same fire that powers her soaring vocals.
“People always get so pitied here, like they have nothing to offer,” explains Vriend. But the shows were a true communal effort, with neighbours pitching in to set up chairs, cut the grass and clean up garbage. Some even offered safely-served food and refreshments. Vriend, who is the daughter of CC columnist Bob Bruinsma, says she’s constantly learning from her neighbours and that they have a lot to teach the rest of us about resilience in hard times.
Small town hoedowns
While Vriend was wrapping up her summer porch concerts, another Canadian singer-songwriter and his band were making their way through small northern Alberta towns. Tim and the Glory Boys, fronted by Tim Neufeld, former lead singer of Christian rock band Starfield, had decided to weather the pandemic with a tour fit for small communities and even smaller crowds.
“Are you excited to be risking your life for live music tonight?” jokes Neufeld from behind a plexiglass disk attached to a mic stand. No more than 45 scattered country music fans make up his Sunday evening audience on November 15 at the Terrace Christian Reformed Church in northern B.C.
“We’ve come to really enjoy the smaller crowds,” says Neufeld after the show. He describes these micro concerts as a way to give back to fans who have become friends over the years. It’s actually the band’s third trip to Terrace, and some of the young adults in the audience including Cole Nutma and Chad MacDonald have been fans since their teen years.
Touring small towns is a tough sell for most musicians at the best of times, but Neufeld reframes that question for his audience just before the intermission. “If all this is for us to be famous, or to sell you our stuff, or to travel around for a living – it’s fun, but I’m not sure it’s worth it, in these times especially.”
Fans know where Neufeld is going with these comments. The band dedicates time in each show to make a heartfelt appeal for audience members to sign up and sponsor orphaned children in East Africa.
“It’s good to give; it’s good for your mental health to give,” reminds Neufeld as he dons a mask and begins handing out sanitized sponsorship packages.
After the show, he explains a bit more. “We have pretty good numbers on what percentage of the crowd would sponsor and it’s through the roof right now; people are being more generous during COVID . . . If I have a legacy I hope it’s that tens of thousands of kids are sponsored, not that I have gold records or number ones. That stuff’s fun, but it’s not really important.”
Music as therapy
“I hope tonight is a therapy for you,” remarks Neufeld between songs. It’s not a typical stage call out, but eight months into the pandemic, it received muffled cheers and masked smiles.
Back in Edmonton, Vriend shares similar sentiments about the role live music plays during these anxious times. “I do believe music is one of the most incredible, mysterious and wonderful gifts we as humans have been given,” she says.
For both Vriend and Neufeld, this has been a year for creative problem solving and adapting to change. As Edmonton temperatures have dipped below zero, Vriend is avoiding the frostbite risks of outdoor piano playing in favour of a capella Christmas carolling and serenading virtual office parties.
“Winter is gonna be hard – we might as well face it,” confesses Vriend. Yet she holds on to hope and joy. “I’ve got four singers who wanna sing together outside and a bunch of people who want to hear us and sing along. As long as those things are true, I’m a fairly happy and fulfilled person.”
For Neufeld this season of change includes a first-time record deal with Sony Music Canada. After decades of writing worship music, he’s experimenting with writing the occasional love song that falls more squarely in the country genre.
Neufeld contemplates these song writing experiments within a greater context of change and uncertainty. Just four days after the Terrace show, B.C. announced a 14-day suspension on all in-person gatherings, effectively bringing a halt to Neufeld’s Small Town Hoedown Tour, which had 12 concert dates still remaining. That means more postponement or cancellation notices landing in inboxes. But, this time, we’ve been here before. We’ll grieve, get creative and find new ways to keep on singing this Christmas season.