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Claremont gets creative during crisis

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Alongside the crushing loss of life and jarring changes the coronavirus pandemic has wrought, are bright lights of encouragement and joy.

Millions of quarantined people are rediscovering their gardens, learning to cook, cut hair and play instruments. And more still are undertaking previously unthinkable home improvement projects.

That spirit of invention has also manifested in the creative community. Home-brewed creative output has exploded almost overnight, livestreamed to the world.

Everyone from the Rolling Stones to local bar bands has jumped into the digital fray. Comedians are performing their new material, late-night hosts are broadcasting from home, and YouTube is chockablock with Covid-19 related creative video.

Top to bottom, the pandemic is changing the way creative people make and deliver their art.

Jon Crawford, a musician who owns a private recording studio in Claremont and is a broadcast audio mixer and stage manager for a Burbank television production company, was at first nonplussed about being locked down. Studio engineers are by nature solitary types. But after a couple weeks, unease set in.

“And rather than just obsessing on the news and social media all day, I thought, we’re all at home, let’s all be creative,” Mr. Crawford said.

So, along with his longtime friend and video editor Rob Perez, he put out the call through Facebook for musicians to collaborate virtually on a recording of REM’s 1987 hit, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

“It was truly an art project,” Mr. Crawford said. “That was our intent. You shoot the arrow and then you paint the bullseye around it.”

He recorded a basic drum track as a guide and emailed it to potential collaborators. The response from 24 singers and musicians was both overwhelming and exhilarating. Vocal, guitar, bass, drum and percussion parts came back, but also banjo, violin and even whistling.

“It just took off from there,” Mr. Crawford said. Assembling the audio parts took him about 50 hours over several weeks. Mr. Perez’s painstaking video editing work was happening simultaneously.

The finished product was uploaded to YouTube May 14. It had exceeded 9,000 hits as of press time. Even REM bassist Mike Mills re-Tweeted the video on his own Twitter feed with the comment, “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

You can listen to the track and see the video at https://youtu.be/FsFmUpd9tsE.

The pandemic has also changed things for Claremont-based painter Jacqueline Knell. She normally paints at local workshops with a model or reference photos. Quarantining at home has temporarily eliminated that option.

“I had to be a little bit more creative in terms of making a choice of what I was going to do,” Ms. Knell said. “Being sheltered was really a clue as to what I was going to paint, which is my shelter.”

The resultant work, which she says is unlike anything she’s done before, as well as that of some of her artist friends, can be viewed at her blog, www.jacquelineknell.com/blog.

Musician and songwriter Rick Shea would normally be preparing to release a new record and booking summer US and overseas dates to promote it. Instead, the Covina-based artist, who’s performed to thousands all over the world over a 40-plus year career, is playing for his wife Susie and their dog, Katie.

Like many other musicians, he begun livestreaming regular Facebook Live concerts from his home on March 21.

“I got a good response, and it just kind of continued since then,” said Mr. Shea. Last week he logged his ninth Facebook show. “They’re going really good, too. There are a lot of people that are just kind of tuning in. I’m really happy with it.”

Covid’s impact on the entertainment industry hasn’t been confined to performers and visual artists. Production designers have also seen their work dry up overnight as music tours, television shows, and other events have been canceled or postponed indefinitely.

Tribe, Inc., co-owned by Bruce and Shelley Rodgers, has for more than 20 years been among a handful of truly elite entertainment design firms in the world.

The Venice, California and Salem, Connecticut based company has designed the last 14 Super Bowl halftime shows, the previous 10 consecutive Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, and the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Democratic National Conventions, among scores of other high profile music tours and events.

Though they and their production peers and colleagues have been hard hit, the married couple say it’s been heartening to see many people in their industry step up and try and become part of the solution.

“It’s pretty cool how all these out of work companies and crews can figure out how to adapt and support what was going on and what was needed, whether it was drive through testing centers and using the rock ‘n’ roll equipment and staging to help keep them afloat” or other ways, Ms. Rodgers said.

It’s clear the old model of loading in sets, lighting, sound and scenic elements over a period of days or even weeks for larger events will for the time being be a thing of the past.

“Now we’re thinking about faster deployable type elements, a more rock ‘n’ roll approach, where you’ll build rolling stages for let’s say a Madonna tour, where you know that they have to be able to load in at 7 o’clock in the morning and put on a show at 7 o’clock that night,” Mr. Rodgers said.

Tribe is still able to work on the upcoming 2020 Democratic convention, scheduled for August 15 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Past conventions have been high design affairs, with massive crowds and state of the art entertainment technology. What it will look like this year is still being developed.

“We’re approaching everything in a new way and hoping the design helps bring people together.” Mr. Rodgers said.

Tribe’s work can be seen at www.tribedesign.net.

The virtual medium is clearly an energizing new avenue for some, but for live performers, nothing can match the push and pull of a live audience. “There’s a big element missing of having a live audience in front of you,” Mr. Shea said.

And while artists of all strata are learning to adapt, the major players in live music are also busy devising a plan amidst the uncertain future.

“I think that a lot of the [behemoth concert promoter] Live Nations and different people in our industry who are really trying to put together plans of how to do music events again with social distancing until there’s a vaccine,” Ms. Rodgers said. “People are trying to come up with all sorts of ideas, like concerts that are drive-in style where you’re in your car. So there are ideas that people are really working on right now for people to still have music and try to get back to something.”

With so many artists utilizing, and even embracing the new virtual platforms, it’s dizzying to think it’s been just over two months since the country began sheltering in place. It makes one wonder what new entertainment innovations are yet to be discovered.

“I think it’s a perfect example of survival and creative minds,” Mr. Crawford said. “We’ve been forced into this, so I think it’s really cool that people are making the best of it. Not to say that this virus is a blessing in any way, but I think it’s cool to see how people get creative and we keep working our craft.”

Ms. Knell echoed his comments: “I think that you’re forced to do something, bad or good, one or the other, you have to go with it. I think the new parameters create new problems but also new solutions.”

It’s clear there’s a sea change ahead for most everyone in the creative arts. But first we must all weather this virus.

“It is something scary to behold,” Mr. Rodgers said. “And yet I think we’re going to figure it out. Eventually we’re going to get a vaccine and slowly, and some states not so slowly, it’s going to be figured out. But man, I think for the next time being we’re in a pretty scary world.”

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