Danielle Ponder and her band -- Avis Reese, Derek Bennett, Levi Bennet and Jonathan Sheffer -- are on the stage at The Little Theater. In front of them are 280 seats, virtually all of them empty.
This is not the gig from hell. This is the COVID-19 reality.
The screens at The Little’s five theaters have been dark for much of this year. But now on this October evening, the elegantly restored downtown Rochester venue, which is operated by WXXI, is being put to use at this time when we need it most. The Little, playing host to one of the city’s musical treasures, Danielle Ponder & the Tomorrow People. Bearing witness to the event are five cameras from WXXI television and their black-clad operators. And a half-dozen guests scattered around the venue, social distancing at its best. Hey, is that Scott Regan, host of the weekday-morning show “Open Tunings” on WRUR-FM (88.5)? YES IT IS! This really must be a big deal.
It is the first taping of “HomeStage at The Little.” It's the logical evolution of the 27 episodes aired so far of “HomeStage,” a video series created by WXXI in which local musicians have been asked to submit a video of one song performed at home. Or some other socially distanced environment, such as Womba Africa on the bank of the Erie Canal. You can find these videos on the WXXI website. Some of the videos have been technologically strong, some have been rough, some clever, some intimate: Seeing a dog dozing on a couch in the background while the heavy metal band Sulaco screams through a song sums up nicely this summer of arts in quarantine.
The opening episode of “HomeStage at The Little,” with Danielle Ponder & the Tomorrow People, and Ponder’s “soul revolution,” airs 8:30 p.m. Friday on WXXI-TV, and is repeated at 11:30 p.m. Saturday. Three more shows have been taped. Herb Smith & the Freedom Trio airs Nov. 13-14, featuring the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player’s take on jazz and a kitchen drawer of music genres. Moses Rockwell, Brendon Caroselli and Gary Lamaar have put together a rap and hip-hop collective for Nov. 20-21. And the indie-rock psychedelia of Maybird is Nov. 27-28.
Where does “HomeStage,” and “HomeStage at The Little,” go from there? Somewhere, we hope. Because COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, and Rochester’s musicians need somewhere where they can be heard. Your laptop, or that 50-inch smart screen in the living room, is one answer for the pandemic era.
In the conversations I’ve had with national music promoters over the past few months, not one -- not one -- has suggested there will be a “return to normal” in the concert industry anytime soon. The forecast in the coming months for the coronavirus pandemic, so poorly handled by the Trump administration, looks bleak. And concert tours involve many working parts. Windows of opportunity vary state by state, week by week. How does a band book a nationwide tour when New York state looks OK now, Florida does not, and who knows what the COVID-19 situation will be three months from now?
In January, venues such as Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center and Darien Lake Performing Arts Center will begin trying to book nonexistent tours. The same for the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, despite the unlikely possibility that any Norwegian jazz band will journey to a country that Europeans view as a cesspool of COVID-19.
It’s not going to happen, say the promoters and the epidemiologists. Even a cautious rollout will offer no relief. As John Parkhurst, chief operating officer of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League confirms, big indoor venues such as the Auditorium Theatre cannot survive on 25% capacity.
So to survive, the arts creates its own windows of opportunity.
Alongside the songs, “HomeStage at the Little” features short interview segments. Danielle Ponder talked for more than 20 minutes, although only a fraction of that conversation will appear in her half-hour episode. But listen to the entire interview, and Ponder paints a picture of the role of music in times such as these.
“To me, soul music is more than a genre, it’s music that you feel deep down in your soul,” she says. “And it’s soul music with a message as well, whether that song is about showing up for others through being an advocate for justice, or whether that song is about showing up for yourself, and giving yourself some self-love.”
Ponder cites as inspirations Aretha Franklin, Susan Tedeschi, and especially Nina Simone.
“She encapsulates so much I value as an artist,” Ponder says. “Not only her vocal talent and her talent as a musician, but also her activism as a Black musician living in America.”
Ponder calls her music “soul revolution.” The late spoken-word performer Gil Scott-Heron once said “the revolution will not be televised.” But these are different times.
“I love soul revolution,” Ponder says, “because I think that to have music that can transform systems, or music that can transform folks’ lives, is a powerful thing.”
She can bring the soul revolution to the stage, and to the streets as well.
“Being a Black musician, not only are we in the middle of a pandemic, but we are also in the middle of one of the largest civil rights movements in history,” Ponder says. “So I’ve been involved a lot in the Black Lives Matter movement, working with activists in the community, speaking to elected officials. I have done some performing, actually, at some of the rallies, and that’s been a great outlet, to still have a sense of community.”
This is the year that the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter came to the streets. Ponder speaks of the “harrowing” experience of police brutality, and Black people being killed by the police.
“The fact that we are able to hold both of these traumatic experiences, and not erupt in rage, is magical that we can do that,” she says. “I guess it’s some Black Girl Magic, some Black Boy Magic, that I still go to work on Monday.
“Black liberation is something that has always been important to me, Black freedom has always been important to me."
Ponder draws a parallel between her music and her work in the Monroe County public defender’s office.
“Music and activism, and being a public defender, is all about the art of storytelling,” she says. And she speaks of the “trauma” that musicians suffer when they cannot tell these stories.
“I think what people don’t realize with musicians is that it is not only something you do because you’re paying the bills or it’s just a side hobby, but it’s therapeutic,” Ponder says. “Performing in front of an audience is therapeutic. Yes, I can play my guitar at home. But there is nothing like the energy exchange you get from 200 people, or 50 people, who are in an audience. So it’s been a rough emotional time, not to have that outlet.”
Yet, Ponder says, there is an opportunity to be seized here.
“I think there is an opportunity right now for musicians to up their virtual game. I think people are on Instagram more than they have ever been, I think they have been on Facebook more than they have ever been. I remember when this first started, in March or April, I was doing a series on my Instagram with artists across the world, and really trying to hone in on my virtual skills, because I knew that’s where the world was. Everyone was on their phones, there was nowhere else for us to go.”
And yet, Ponder says, she grants herself the time -- that “self-love” -- to simply sit on her couch at home, play guitar and eat Oreo cookies.
“Because,” she says, “this is difficult.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.