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The long road back to reconnecting with arts and our culture

Fred SanFilipo

For most of 2020, I’ve been working from a second-floor room at my house in Charlotte. Typing, doing phone interviews, waiting for a neighbor to finish mowing his lawn so I can record something for broadcast. October came and went quietly. For the first time ever, no trick-or-treaters showed up at our door on Halloween. 

October also marked my first anniversary of working full-time at WXXI. And doing the math on my fingers, I see that I have actually spent more days working from this room, rather than at my desk at 280 State St. -- because of the coronavirus pandemic, of course. 

Before COVID-19, I would be out four or five nights a week -- sometimes at shows, sometimes at restaurants, sometimes at a friend’s home for dinner. I’d be at The Little Café or Abilene Bar & Lounge, watching the door as much as I was watching the band. Maybe friends I hadn’t seen in weeks or months would show up, and we’d talk about music, current events, or strange things that had happened. Musicians would sidle up and slip me a copy of their latest CD. I eavesdropped on other people’s conversations. I felt connected to the scene. 

Now, I’m uncomfortably out of touch. Since March, I’ve seen only four shows. Two of them were in backyards. Most of my human contact now is by phone. I find Zoom conversations frustrating. I watch virtual concerts on the internet and wait for the applause that follows the song. It never comes. 

This is no way to be an entertainment reporter. But first responders, doctors and nurses, and grocery store workers don’t have the luxury of doing their jobs safely sitting in front of a computer. So I stay out of the way, in a room with books and CDs and vinyl albums and a horse skull that I found in the woods 30 years ago. I’m here out of concern for my health, and out of respect for 320,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 so far. Scientists tell us that that number will likely hit half a million by February. 

By that measurement alone, I have nothing to complain about. But I can feel COVID-19 closing in. More people I know are getting infected by the virus. Friends in that social circle that I was a part of four or five nights a week. 

I listen to music at home, and still feel unconnected, uncomfortably out of touch. Friends used to tell me about music I needed to hear, shows I needed to attend. And this year, we’ve needed it -- not simply as a way to get away, but also as a way to help us think about the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. Unemployment and poverty are reaching levels we haven’t seen in America since the Great Depression. And we have a president who in his final days is attempting to destroy our democracy. 

I hear new music from pop, hip-hop and R&B challenging what we’ve seen on our streets this year. Citizens targeted by tear gas canisters fired by the police hired to protect those very citizens and their right to voice their concerns about what we’ve become. The separation of families at our southern border, children taken from their parents, whose only crime was to flee for their lives. 

This is a year that needed big ideas. The arts have always been the vehicle for that.

Nationally, I heard big ideas on Maria Schneider Orchestra’s album “Data Lords,” inspired by the collision of the natural organic world and our data-fueled, chaotic and intrusive digital society. Schneider earned a master's degree from Eastman School of Music, and now dominates the landscape of contemporary big-band jazz. 

Bluegrass was not the first music that came to mind when I thought of protest until I heard the Tyler Childers album “Long Violent History.” Eight instrumental pieces followed by the astounding title track, on which Childers challenges the racial entitlement of white supremacists. He recites our country’s long, violent history of lynching and aligns it with contemporary horrors of police officers storming into an apartment and mistakenly shooting a Black woman who had been asleep in her bed. Childers calls for “justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me.” He challenges his fellow white citizens, “If we wouldn't stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?” 

I also recently spent a few hours reviewing the local arts stories reported on this year by WXXI and CITY magazine.

Credit Wicked Cool Records
The Empty Hearts recorded their second album in Rochester.

The Empty Hearts -- a straight-ahead rock collaboration among Blondie drummer Clem Burke, The Cars’ guitarist Elliot Easton, The Romantics’ lead singer Wally Palmar and Rochester bassist Andy Babiuk, formerly of The Chesterfield Kings -- recorded their second album in Rochester. The single “The World’s Gone Insane” is self-explanatory. The Empty Hearts even recruited a substitute drummer to contribute to one of the tracks. Ringo Starr. 

Lyra Pramuk, an Eastman School of Music graduate now living in Germany, released “Fountain,” a fascinating album of machine-manipulated vocalizations in which African rhythms, electricity, Gregorian chants and poetry meet. Joywave released a new album, “Possession,” only to have its U.S. and European tour dates canceled because of the pandemic. 

There were no big concerts at the outdoor amphitheaters. The Auditorium Theatre has been silent for more than a year. It’s hard to remember that there actually was a sliver of normalcy to start the year, with The Little Theatre hosting Hubby Jenkins (who used to play with the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Abilene Bar & Lounge hosting Eric Andersen, who used to hang with Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Before his show at Abilene, Andersen was telling me about his song “Rain Falls Down on Amsterdam,” which starts with the Nazis and warns, “The Fourth Reich’s coming, baby.”

“It’s about the rise in fascism, which I predicted, like, 30 years ago,” Andersen said. “A lot of times you’re like soothsayers.”

With the arrival of COVID-19, those soothsayers stopped showing up around here.

Yet local musicians such as The Fox Sisters, Woody Dodge, Harmonica Lewinski and Greg Townsend refused to be silenced, releasing upbeat, life-enhancing albums. The music didn’t necessarily address the troubles of 2020 as much as it prevailed against it. 

Garth Fagan’s 50th year of dance in the Rochester area did not get a proper celebration. Nor did The Dady Brothers, who were at the heart of our local scene for so many years, whose induction into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame was postponed, until next April. Maybe. 

Credit Jason Milton/WXXI
Danielle Ponder.

Danielle Ponder & the Tomorrow People reminded us of the inequities of the law with the song “Poor Man’s Pain,” a song that caught the attention of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series and a true story of a Black man who stole $9, was locked away, and forgotten.

In June, the music industry paused for “Black Out Tuesday,” triggered in response to the shocking video of the killing of George Floyd, and the violence perpetrated on Black citizens. Black Out Tuesday was a day to step back and recognize the contributions of Black artists. 

A giant mural of civil rights leader John Lewis emerged on the side of a building on State Street. Andy Warhol has taken up residency in the Memorial Art Gallery. The George Eastman Museum’s recent renovations included a 48-feet-long, 14-feet-high image of the Taj Mahal -- one of the Eastman Kodak Co.’s iconic Colorama photos that once graced New York City’s Grand Central Station, now situated in the Eastman Museum parking lot.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra went virtual. Likewise, so many festivals simply didn’t happen, unless they went virtual. The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival and a handful of the film festivals turned to the internet. With its stages silent, Geva Theatre Center amplified the voices of Black playwrights with “Recognition Radio: An Audio Play Festival Celebrating Black Voices.”

We lost 94-year-old Robert Marx, whose dark, haunting, surrealist sculptures are in major museums around the country. 

Photojournalist Matt Herron, a Rochester native who was known for chronicling the civil rights movement, died in the crash of a glider he was piloting in northern California, where he lived. 

Jack Garner, the longtime film critic of the Democrat and Chronicle and Gannett Newspapers, died in July at 75. He was more than a film critic. He was a film fan. 

John Cole, a longtime bluesman here, died in May. So did Darick Campbell, one of the three brothers who propelled the Campbell Brothers’ sacred-steel gospel to unexpected secular celebrity at jazz festivals around the world. 

Jerry Englerth, who passed away at age 84, was a longtime management guy at Kodak and Xerox. But he's most remembered for two minutes and 28 seconds of interstellar space romance, “Sputnik (Satellite Girl),” a rockabilly hit that came on the heels of the Soviet Union igniting the space race with the launch of the Sputnik satellite.

And we couldn’t escape the year without one more untimely death, when a couple of weeks ago, liver cancer took Miche Fambro, an inventive guitarist and stylish crooner in our local scene.

These times have only amplified the pain we can never escape.

Credit YouTube
A screenshot from the Angels in the Rafters video on YouTube.

Local rocker and whiskey maker Tommy Brunett and Rochester native Elvio Fernandes, who plays in Chris Daughtry’s rock band, teamed up to create a moving song and video tribute to the front-line workers who have been trying to lead us through this disastrous year. Here’s what I wrote of “Angels in the Rafters,” that song and video: 

Who are the Angels in the Rafters? Think of the images you've seen, of thousands of people lying in bed. They have a fever. Perhaps they are hallucinating. They are connected to a respirator. All they can do is look up at the ceiling. And they see someone bending over them. Checking on them. A nurse. A doctor. The angels in the rafters.

After being hired by WXXI, I was issued business cards that identified me as“Arts and Life Editor.” Stuck here in my second-floor home office, I haven’t had a chance to hand out many of them. Arts and Life is broad territory. It covers everything that means to be human.

What I enjoy about Rochester is the easy access to excellent culture. Will that be taken from us by the draining, overwhelming reality of the coronavirus pandemic? A New York Times story this summer suggested that many communities will find it difficult to rebound from the lost economy of 2020. It placed Rochester at the top of that list.

Moving forward means recognizing the moment we are in, so that we can move on. Moving away from 2020 -- leaving behind disease and racism and an economy that isn’t designed to serve its citizens -- and reclaiming our culture. 

There was a time when I was reviewing 50 or 60 concerts a year. Rock, country, rap, jazz, underground weirdos, even a few classical shows. I wasn’t really qualified to pass judgment on some of it. Some years ago, a friend who read one of my reviews said, “I couldn’t tell if you liked the show or not.” 

And yes, that’s sometimes how it is. I’m just happy to be there.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.