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This must be the place: Cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it

Songs From The Road Band on March 14 in Asheville. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) Songs From The Road Band on March 14 in Asheville. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

It was odd and surreal feeling to be watching live music this past weekend. As you probably read on the opposite page in this newspaper, I was on assignment for the #SaveOurStages initiative and how it being (or not being) passed in Congress will greatly affect the music industry moving forward. 

That aside, I found myself constantly looking around at the absurdity of the scene unfolding before my eyes. No, there wasn’t some huge crowd of folks. And yes, stringent measures were adhered to in order to ensure the safety of the handful of people in attendance. 

And yet, I couldn’t help but constantly think about this “new normal” we currently find ourselves in, and what that will mean for the one thing that I’m most passionate about in my life and career: live music. 

While seated at my table for two at The Grey Eagle, I scanned the room at the half-dozen other tables with masked people sitting quietly and happily enjoying this extremely rare occasion to see a performer onstage and not through a computer screen or from an online archive. 

And I began to wonder what our musical landscape would look like if places around Western North Carolina like The Grey Eagle (The Orange Peel or The White Horse, for example), these independent bastions of art and sound, were to disappear as a result of financial struggles faced in the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic. 

Where else would up-and-coming local musicians be granted an opportunity to get their start, to actually perform and hone their skills in front of people? Where would artists and bands from other parts of the country (or the world) be able to find footing in cities and towns they’ve never played before? Where would you be able to host fundraisers for a slew of local and regional causes that include that all-important factor in getting bodies through the door, which is live music? 

The answer is nowhere else. Independent music venues are the bedrock of the music industry. It’s where it all begins for artists. And, most importantly, these beloved venues are usually the cultural beehive of a community, where the creative identity of a certain place is radiated outward from these locations around the corner or across town. 

Personally, I’ve always championed the independent music venue. I realize their worth as a priceless asset to a community and its arts scene, this pillar of a town whose influence is a true ripple effect into the rest of the local economy. 

They’ve always been the setting where I’d fall head over heels in love with my new favorite band on some random night. Or where I’d do a backstage interview with a rising act, knowing damn well this person or group will someday be headlining arenas, and yet how lucky are we to see them early in their career in such an intimate setting, eh?

Following The Grey Eagle show, I spent most of the drive back to Waynesville marveling at the mere fact that was my first live show since March 14. Over four months without being in the presence of live music. For some, that may not seem like a big deal. But, for someone like myself, that is pretty much an eternity (more so a personal hell) to go that long without a show. 

March 14. Songs From The Road Band at the Wicked Weed Funkatorium in the South Slope district of Asheville. Even at that point, most of us in the Western North Carolina music scene knew that show would probably be the last gig in the city for the foreseeable future. 

There was an uneasy sense in the Funkatorium of what our livelihoods and daily existence would look like once the last song was played and we all headed into the eventual shelter-in-place and economic shutdown of our communities. But, even in that mindset, those watching SFTRB soaked into the singular and universal healing power that is live music. The instruments and voices onstage hummed as we let our minds drift into a headspace of love and compassion.

Skip ahead some four months and here we stand, seemingly with more questions than answers compared to where we were in the spring. The Grey Eagle show was a small toe dip into a larger pool of unknown factors and situations that will continue to reveal themselves as we try and responsibly navigate what live music can be, and will look like, pushing ahead. 

So, for now, don’t lose sight of your favorite local venue or local band. Every penny donated or spent on merchandise keeps not only these entities stable, it also keeps the fire burning within to create and promote art and music in your backyard for all to see, hear and embrace.

Beyond that? Well, the outlook for a (possible) full recovery of the live music scene looks to be somewhere in mid-2021 (or 2022 by some estimates). In essence, nobody really knows. But, I remain optimistic. The urge to perform and the need to witness it will forever be part of our DNA as human beings.

If anything, this “whole thing” has emphasized why we have such a hunger for live music. It feeds and nurtures us in times when the world seems dark and bleak. It also holds us up in times of happiness and pure joy — it’s the glue that connects all of our cosmic, melodic souls.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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