Live! From the couch: Musicians extend their creativity to perform in a time of pandemic

Joel Ferber plays from home with his dog Winnie by his side.

In our strange new reality, working at home has become not just an option but a mandate for many. That is particularly challenging in some professions. 

Consider the plight of professional musicians. Their bread and butter is performing before a live audience. They feed off of that connection, playing as fans applaud, sing along, and get up and dance. That probably won’t be happening again for months. There’s also the matter of rehearsing and keeping their musical skills sharp. 

We revisited some of the area’s top Jewish musicians profiled previously in the Jewish Light to see how they are maintaining their craft while self-quarantining. The good news is they are all continuing to make music. 

As bassist Ben Wheeler said: “I’m going to play every day no matter what, in some capacity. Music is such a part of who I am.”


A duet on the living room couch

In addition to being one of the region’s top bluegrass players on mandolin and banjo, Joel Ferber has a full-time job. He is director of advocacy for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Working at home has meant full days. And, for the first week or so, he didn’t play a note. The bands he plays with – Missouri Breaks and As the Crow Flies – are on pandemic hiatus.

“I was gearing up for upcoming gigs, and then everything shut down, and then I just sort of lost steam musically for about five or six days,” Ferber said. “I was also dealing with my day job and adjusting to working remotely at home. Then, I started working on some songs with my wife. I got out my guitar and, two weekends ago, we posted three songs on Facebook and people loved it.”

The posted songs were a welcome respite for Ferber’s friends, so Ferber and his wife, Nelie NcNeal, decided to do mini concerts from a spot on their living room couch.

“It’s just been really fun and really nice,” Ferber said. “We try to work it up a little bit and not just turn on the phone and the camera. We figure out a game plan first. Like we might have a little a cappella part in the song.”

Sheltering in place has made music a welcome refuge and diversion for Ferber.

“It’s just been coping with the changes and taking walks once a day,” he said. “But music has been a good thing, to keep playing songs.”

Having a regular job means Ferber doesn’t have the financial stresses of a full-time musician with no scheduled performances. Unfortunately, his son is in that very position. Joey Ferber is a noted local guitarist who has played with the hip-hop band Looprat and with the Tonina Quartet.

“My son is a really serious musician, and he’s totally out of work with no gigs,” Ferber said. “He had a little tour set up with gigs in New Orleans and Austin (Texas) and Dallas, and those were canceled. He writes songs, but it’s a struggle. So he’s gardening and making the best of it.”

You can listen to Joel Ferber and Nelie McNeal performing Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” on their living room couch, here.


Streaming from south St. Louis

Before St. Louisans began sheltering at home, local blues pianist Ethan Leinwand had a busy spring schedule mapped out. That came to an abrupt halt when the pandemic hit. But Leinwand has continued to perform, via Facebook Live concerts Saturday evenings. 

The first show featured Leinwand and guitarist Nick Pence, who perform blues music from the 1920s and 1930s as the Bottlesnakes. The concert was broadcast from Leinwand’s living room in south St. Louis. Conveniently, Pence is Leinwand’s upstairs tenant.

The second concert featured Leinwand and his partner Valerie Kirchhoff, two members of the local blues and jazz band Miss Jubilee. They also form the core of yet a third classic blues band, the St. Louis Steady Grinders. Having his key collaborators living in the same building has made rehearsing less complicated. That’s important for the intricate syncopation required for the up-tempo genre known as barrelhouse blues.

So far, Leinwand’s Facebook Live events have each drawn more than 200 online viewers as well as 10,000-plus views of the recorded performance. Audience members demonstrate their applause by clicking on tiny flying hearts and thumbs-up icons floating on the screen. They also fill a virtual tip jar, not insignificant for full-time musicians who have no other regular source of income.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a streaming concert,” said Leinwand, 37. “It’s not my favorite way to perform. And it’s not my favorite way to ask for money for performing. But I’m grateful to even have the opportunity and have people who want to support. And then when I watched the replay I thought, ‘This is a chance for our community to get together, listen and enjoy it, and connect with each other again, too.’ Then I started to get a little more comfortable with the idea. 

“In that moment, I’m in performance mode. And as soon as the song starts, I forget where I am and that I’m in the quiet space of my apartment.”

Leinwand said it helps to have a streaming concert planned and scheduled so he can mentally prepare to perform, just as if he were on stage at a venue.

“I have to be in game mode,” he said. “You start thinking about other things, and then you wake up and realize, ‘All right, I’m going to play today.’ ”

One of the goals of a musician is to bring people together, he said. Streaming video is just a different way of accomplishing that. 

“In a way, the people in the audience may appreciate it even more now, just because they’re looking for some type of escape, some kind of distraction,” he said.

The April 4 Miss Jubilee Facebook Live performance featuring Ethan Leinwand on blues piano is here.


Pandemic is no hullabaloo

“There are no upcoming tour dates,” reads the stark announcement on the Brothers Lazaroff website. That is a message you don’t usually see. 

The brothers had been on a roll with a successful ninth annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo that capped off 2019, and a series of concerts around town. Their band’s eclectic mix of roots, blues, rock and jazz has attracted many local fans.

When the pandemic hit in full force in March, David and Jeff Lazaroff suddenly found themselves shut down. That came with a new sense of priorities, David Lazaroff said.

“It’s funny to consider some of the things we used to think about, like in the winter, will it snow and how will that affect the turnout,” said Lazaroff, 41. “And now, as we’re kind of settled in to the reality, Jeff and I have both started to separately work on songs. Writing just kind of happens. It’s more like all of a sudden, the guitar wants me to pick it up. And you start to put together some chords and then, you know, some lyrics come.

“Jeff and I really haven’t done anything together because we’re both kind of fully doing the physical distancing. I think the first week of the quarantine, it was more about keeping the panic and anxiety in check, and neither one of us was really feeling the music much.

“I think when Bob Dylan put out his 17-minute song ‘Murder Most Foul,’ that was really inspiring for us. That came out (March 26), and Dylan name-checked one of the very first songs my brother and I did together, ‘Blue Sky’ by Dickey Betts from the Allman Brothers. Both of us were inspired by that, and we started to write some tunes about the situation. We have about six, and we’ve been writing on FaceTime and on the phone. We just started emailing the lyrics and the chords, and we’re finishing each other’s tunes.”

The brothers are not taking any chances. Rehearsing and songwriting in person doesn’t work. Fortunately, they are familiar with the concept of working remotely. When David was living in Austin 10 years ago, he and Jeff were still playing and composing together. 

For their new compositions, the next step is to record some tracks. The game plan is to set up a couple of microphones a safe distance apart in the driveway outside their basement studio and record them live, acoustically.

With no gigs, playing and singing offer some sense of solace for a musician, even during a dark time. That’s why the Lazaroffs have continued to play and hone their skills.

“We still take guitar lessons once a week with our teacher, but virtually now,” Lazaroff said. “And I’ve been doing some work with an amazing Jewish guitar player, Ian Lubar, from the band Mount Thelonious. He’s been doing an Instagram ‘quarantine lick of the day.’ I love his playing, and I asked him if we could do a Zoom lesson once a week. We’ve done a few of those, and that’s been cool.”

You can subscribe to the Brothers Lazaroff YouTube channel here.


The bass master

In a band, the guy who keeps the groove going is the bass player. The Lustrelights’ bass master is University City-based Ben Wheeler. He’s one of the best in town, adept at both electric and stand-up bass. The Lustrelights had lots of gigs planned for spring and summer weddings. The group was a nominee for best wedding band in the St. Louis Jewish Light’s Best of Simchas Readers Poll, which came out in December.

“It’s a cover band, it just became my thing, and it’s really fun,” said Wheeler, 41. “I get to play cover songs and rock out and play people’s weddings and be with my friends, and we were booked all summer long. And that disappeared.”

So did Wheeler’s performances at the Darkroom and the Kranzberg Arts Foundation in midtown. He’s also a member of the music department faculty at Webster University, and lessons with his students have continued, albeit online instead of in person. Performing in front of an audience, however, is what many musicians crave.

Wheeler has improvised to play occasionally outside his house, including on a stroll under a Metrolink viaduct in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. The environment was grungy, but the acoustics were excellent. The venue didn’t have comfy seats or any other amenities, and there’s the awkward issue of social distancing. Wheeler found a creative way to share the performance anyway, via Instagram.

“It’s just me, under the bridge, keeping the performance aspect of my craft going through social media content,” he said.

Technology comes in handy for a musician in other ways, too, such as rehearsing. Being in the same room with other musicians isn’t an option, so Wheeler uses a gizmo known as a looper pedal to record a track, play it back and play live with it.

“I can layer parts like (mimicking a bass guitar) ‘boom, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,’ and also just loop it over and over, and then I can add another part to it and test out sounds,” he said. “When we come out of this, I think I might have more material.”

While it’s great to use creative solutions to come up with new songs, no one really knows how long social distancing will be here and what it will mean for musicians like Wheeler.

“I’m trying to be optimistic, but I’m also reading this is going to last for a while,” he said. “I just thought of something positive, that I’m going to start a band with my kids. That would be fun. Music is never going to be something that goes away. It’s not that I do it because I’m just a performer. I do it because I have to play music.”  

This is Ben Wheeler experimenting at home with an electronic drum track. The Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s “Live From the Archives” offers replays of past performances; a February performance of the jazz sextet Mosaic (featuring Ben Wheeler on bass) is here. You can watch Ben’s solo performance of “Solid Ghost” under a Metrolink viaduct here.