We needed our musical heroes more than ever in 2020. Unfortunately, at a time when we needed them most, they were forced to keep their distance. Some of these superheroes, however, tied on their capes, turned on their webcams, and kept the content coming when they knew we needed it.
Like the never-ending Marvel cinematic universe, we were overrun with a continuously growing cast of quarantine superheroes this year. That’s why we’ve broken the list up into several different divisions organized by genre/style/or even physical entity. With all of that in mind, here are the Live For Live Music staff picks for Quarantine Most Valuable Players (MVPs) of 2020.
Coming in red hot out of the all-star jam division is none other than Big Red himself, Trey Anastasio. After being tasked with canceling one of the highest-profile tours of the summer with Phish, spirits were at an all-time low. But out of the flames that turned the music scene into ashes came a spark of creativity, as the band launched the Dinner and a Movie series.
However, at the beginning of the pandemic, almost every large-market jam band was showing a free archival concert every week—even the Grateful Dead, who haven’t played a show in 25 years. Trey and Phish’s unique spark of creativity came just weeks into the Dinner and a Movie series when they announced the release of Sigma Oasis, the band’s 15th studio album and first in four years.
But even before the release of Sigma Oasis, Trey began to separate himself from the pack with his quaran-tivities. On March 17th, he shared “Lost In The Pack” to his Instagram page. A new composition by Trey, Tom Marshall, and Scott Herman, this would kick off a series that produced 18 new songs in four months. These songs would then be recorded and compiled into Lonely Trip, Trey’s first solo album since 2105’s Paper Wheels.
All of these achievements notwithstanding, they only set the stage for the guitarist’s biggest undertaking of the year: The Beacon Jams. For eight weeks, Ernest Joseph Anastasio III performed sans audience each Friday night at The Beacon Theatre in New York from October 9th—November 27th. These two months of shows streamed over Twitch saw a rotating cast of musicians which included Phish drummer Jonathon Fishman, members of Trey Anastasio Band, the newly-formed Rescue Squad Strings, Jeff Tanski, and more than 150 songs performed, including a particularly famous one that was made up on the spot.
But the true root of what made The Beacon Jams so special wasn’t the number of songs or the special guests or even watching Trey boyishly try to pronounce your witty Twitch name as it ran by. For the first time in many months, the members of the Phish community had something to look forward to on Friday night. After over half a year of each day blending into the next, we finally had something to do on the weekend—and that was more fulfilling than any of the jams.
Even as I tried to finish this list up before the end of the year, Trey made me go back and add a new entry for December, his surprise, mostly-acoustic duo EP with Page McConnell recorded at The Barn. A hero’s work is never finished.
Trey Anastasio – The Beacon Jams – “You Enjoy Myself”
[Video: Trey Anastasio]
While Andy Frasco has long served as the jester of the jam scene, it was during quarantine that he truly emerged as the hero this community needed. The good deeds of this capeless, shoeless—and sometimes pantsless—hero came subtly at first with a series of lighthearted videos. The saga began back on March 22nd when Frasco enlisted artists from across the jam spectrum to participate in the “I’m So Excited” quarantine challenge. This humorous feat of performance and filmmaking asked fellow musicians to record footage of themselves singing along to the Pointer Sisters with varying degrees of clothes on. From there, Frasco issued more musical challenges, parodied Gal Gadot‘s “Imagine” video that had somehow made quarantine even worse, and did so much more just to keep us all happy if only for a moment.
Soon enough, one of Frasco’s challenges—this one to Whitney Houston‘s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody“—spawned a new idea. Rather than having all these artists come together just to make one short video, why not get the fans involved and make it an entire event? Thus, Andy Frasco’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody Dance Party was born. Each week found Frasco taking over the turntable to provide delightfully danceable beats while fans from across the globe tuned in to get a spot on the stream as countless smiles ensued.
And that’s not even the only successful web show Frasco spawned during 2020. He also regularly hosted his World Saving Sh*tshow, an adapted version of his long-running World Saving Podcast that brought fans—and musician guests calling in via Facetime—into Frasco’s living room on a weekly basis for assorted revelry, outlandish pageantry, off-color humor, and general frivolity. Thank you for your service, Frasco.
Andy Frasco’s World Saving Sh*tshow – Episode 22 (Season 1 Finale)
[Video: Andy Frasco]
When quarantine struck Holly Bowling, she was in the midst of a tour with her band Ghost Light alongside Greensky Bluegrass. A notable solo musician in her own right, Bowling rolled with the punches and launched her own livestream series from home. The Live at Home series was simply that—Bowling at her grand piano in her living room performing her brilliant translations of classics from Phish, the Grateful Dead, and even Radiohead to solo piano.
Following months of Live at Home streams,—which eventually pivoted to Alone Together—as well as appearances during 11E1even Group‘s Live From Out There virtual series, however, Bowling got cabin fever like the rest of us. It was time to get the show on the road, literally, which she did with the Wilderness Sessions.
Related: Holly Bowling Finds A Change Of Scenery With The ‘Wilderness Sessions’ [Interview]
Launched in September, the Wilderness Sessions saw Bowling pack up her van with her piano, her dog, and her husband Jeffrey Bowling and hit the road. Along the way, the quarantine crew stopped at breathtaking landscapes across the country where Bowling recorded new instrumental sets as she took inspiration from the nature surrounding her. From California to Maine and back again, Bowling breathed new life into her music while taking fans on a much-needed vacation out of their living rooms.
Holly Bowling – The Wilderness Sessions – Salt Flats, UT
[Video: Holly Bowling]
While 2020 was a major letdown for all musicians, there’s nobody who got hurt as bad as Goose from a momentum perspective. At the beginning of the year, the Connecticut then-quartet was on a meteoric rise to stardom following a breakthrough summer in 2019. As the band wrapped up a cross-country tour supporting Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, it appeared that Goose was finally ready to take flight on their own and graduate to solo gigs at larger clubs.
Then, the pandemic hit and all that momentum came to a screeching halt. But what did Goose do? They adapted. With appearances at 11E1even Group’s Live From Out There virtual festivals, they remained a constant in the minds of the listening public. Then came Bingo Tour. While at times the phrase “get involved” became nauseating to hear again and again leading up to the virtual tour, it was actually somewhat endearing at heart. The band was urging its dedicated, ever-growing flock of fans to stay connected with them through the year, which came to a climax with a Goosemas livestream on the roof at Rockefeller Center.
Related: Goose 2020 In Review: Goosemas VII Caps Career Year From A New York City Rooftop
All in all, this year saw Goose debut new material, redefine the capabilities of virtual concerts, and even add a new member in percussionist Jeffrey Arevalo. There is no slowing Goose down.
Goosemas – Rockefeller Center – Full Show
Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires
It wasn’t just jam bands that kept fans engaged through this year, as displayed by alt-country power couple Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. Though Isbell’s release of Reunions alongside the 400 Unit—of which Shires is a member—wasn’t celebrated with the nationwide tour the husband-and-wife team was looking forward to, the two still delivered regular performances through the I So Lounging series.
Recorded from their Nashville home with friend/pianist Peter Levin, Isbell and Shires churned out I So Lounging episodes at a breakneck pace. While Isbell is one of the most talented songwriters of this century, his catalog of music only stretches so far—even with the inclusion of Shires’ solo material. So, the trio opened up the floor to covers of all kinds, and even a special guest or two including Aerosmith rhythm guitarist Bradley Whitford who just so happens to be their next-door neighbor.
But the most endearing part of I So Lounging wasn’t the music or the covers or the guests. It was the way that Isbell and Shires opened their home to viewers and gave them a snapshot of their domestic bliss. In an average 40-minute episode of I So Lounging, they would probably play four songs that would last three to five minutes apiece. The other 20 or so minutes were filled with delightful banter that could go in a variety of directions from the ensuing hell-storm going on in the world outside to the minute details of Isbell and Shires’ home life with their five-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose.
What the I So Lounging streams did, more important than providing us with music, was providing us with companionship. To the people who lived alone or were isolated from those they loved, Isbell and Shires were as close as many of us could get to reuniting with old friends and just having a conversation.
Amanda Shires ft. Jason Isbell – “The Problem” – Live From The Barn
[Video: Amanda Shires]
In his over 25 years in show business, it seemed like Todd Snider was always on the road. Through decades of touring with a variety of projects—like his jam band phase with Hard Working Americans or when he explored garage rock—he has fostered an intimate relationship with his audiences. We knew when he got divorced, we knew when he got on pain pills, and we knew when he kicked them. But how is it possible to translate that personal relationship through a camera in an empty studio?
Whatever the answer was, Snider set about finding it in 2020 with the launch of the What It Is series. The format may not have been the folk troubadour’s preferred medium, but it is what it is. Beginning on March 29th, every Sunday morning Snider would take to the airwaves from his Purple Building Studio in East Nashville to deliver his patented blend of folk music intertwined with yarns that could have been spun from a 21st-century Mark Twain novel.
After nearly seven months of What It Is, however, it was time for a change of scenery. Though Snider is vocally not a religious man, for the final three months of 2020—12 weeks to be exact—he held his own services every Sunday at The First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder. Similar to his What It Is streams, each week saw Snider go live from the same Purple Building Studio by his lonesome. Only this time around, he moved chronologically through his discography beginning with his 1994 debut, Songs For The Daily Planet.
Along the way, he took detours with notable covers and even a tribute to one of his heroes—Jerry Jeff Walker—to whom he devoted an entire two-hour livestream. The First Agnostic Chuch series wrapped up on December 27th with Hard Working Americans’ sophomore album, Rest In Chaos. Through nearly nine months of livestreams, Snider—much like Isbell and Shires—was able to tap into that nature of familiarity that has made folk music a national pastime. Every Sunday morning, his fans rose to greet their local preacher and hear the stories that have been passed down through the community and become our shared heritage.
Todd Snider’s Rest In Chaos Celebration
[Video: Purple Building Live]
Live From Out There
As we all watched in horror as our summer plans went up in smoke, the team over at 11E1even Group was already getting to work. Within a week of the shutdown of all major events that began on March 12th, the management company had announced Live From Out There, the first in a groundbreaking series of virtual music festivals. Every weekend fans welcomed an all-star lineup of bands into their homes including Goose, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Twiddle, Aqueous, Holly Bowling, SunSquabi, Kitchen Dwellers, Magic Beans, and many more.
Over the course of two phases which amounted to nine weeks, the 11E1even team delivered hundreds of hours of new musical content to the safety of fans’ own homes. But the program went beyond the music, as it also attempted to foster a sense of community. This happened through tribute sets like those to Bill Withers, John Prine, and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Over Labor Day weekend, Live From Out There aired a special virtual edition of Summer Camp Music Festival which looked back on the event that was set to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020. Organizers of the series even included special guest chefs—some of which were also musicians—to help throw some added spice into viewer’s lives. While there may have been no veggie burritos or Shakedown Street, the team at 11E1even Group provided the closest many fans got to a music festival in 2020.
While virtual festivals scratched the itch for a couple of months, many fans were longing to see full concerts from their favorite bands rather than just an hour slot. This is where 11Eleven Group once again come to the rescue with the advent of virtual tours. Beginning with Goose’s highly-innovative Bingo Tour, 11E1even Group sent fans on the road with their favorite bands—once again from the safety of their couches.
With Goose’s Bingo Tour, fans were able to watch eight sets over ten nights from the ever-rising Connecticut jam outfit. In the spirit of connectivity with the audience, the band also distributed bingo cards to fans and urged them to “get involved.” Then, during the broadcasts, “Coach” Jon Lombardi dictated the evening’s songs, jam lengths, or even group challenges (like push-ups or taking a lap around the secluded studio) via the use of numbered bingo cards. Fans playing along at home were able to win a variety of prizes if the right balls were pulled. Bingo Tour also saw the debut of the band’s newest member, percussionist Jeffrey Arevalo.
But Goose weren’t the only ones to go on a digital tour. Following the conclusion of Bingo Tour in June, Twiddle went on a virtual tour of their own with Roots Tour 2020. This three-week run of shows saw Twiddle celebrate 15 years together with nine sets from locations formative to their career including Castleton University where they formed in 2005. This marked an innovation in virtual touring as Twiddle actually did travel from gig to gig, while audiences all stayed put.
The list of creative approaches to “touring” experiences in the summer of COVID-19 didn’t end there. SunSquabi did their own virtual Top Down tour. Marcus King had the Four of a Kind series. Billy Strings launched Streaming Strings. Greensky Bluegrass mounted The Leap Year Sessions. Other bands get even more creative with the “virtual touring” concept. Rising CT jam-rock quartet Eggy, for example, played regular livestream shows from their home early on in the lockdown, but eventually developed the ambitious Choose Your Own Eggventure concept as a creative approach to delivering engaging, serial live content to their fans.
“Comes Alive” Virtual Festivals
At the risk of tooting our own horn, Live For Live Music‘s Comes Alive virtual festival series was extremely successful in bringing together artists and fans alike for shared musical experiences during quarantine, all of which raised significant funds for different important, timely causes. Following the cancellation of the annual, in-person Brooklyn Comes Alive—which was due to take place in mid-March—Quarantine Comes Alive got the ball rolling, uniting more than sixty artists for a 15-hour livestream marathon that raised more than $170,000 for COVID-19 relief funds and participating artists. Just a month later came Justice Comes Alive, which put a spotlight on artists of color and their stories and raised more than $55,000 for racial equality and social justice causes. When the election came around, HeadCount got on board for the third virtual Comes Alive event, Democracy Comes Alive, which raised tens of thousands of dollars for voter participation efforts and engaged thousands of voters with HeadCount’s voter registration tools.
Finally, when the Georgia Senate race produced a pair of runoff elections, Georgia Comes Alive brought together an enormous lineup of presenting everything from bluegrass to singer-songwriters, neo-soul to indie rock, funk, R&B, electronic, and more. Highlights include The Lame Ducks, a one-off supergroup project featuring Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), Jeff Chimenti (Dead & Company), and Jay Lane (Wolf Bros, Primus); collaborative sets including Phil Lesh & Friends and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills with BIG Something; long-running musical institutions like Blind Boys of Alabama and Preservation Hall Jazz Band; dance music sets by Diplo and Big Gigantic; and a range of hit-making artists, Grammy winners, and cult favorites from across the musical spectrum including Dave Matthews, Foo Fighters, Big Freedia, Nathaniel Rateliff, Ben Folds, The Revivalists, Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones), Tank and the Bangas, Musiq Soulchild, Amos Lee, Bobby Rush, Warren Haynes, Portugal. The Man, Grouplove and Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers). Georgia Comes Alive wound up raising more than $160,000—and counting—for local grassroots organizations CivicGeorgia and Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.
Georgia Comes Alive – Full Stream
If there’s one positive thing that came out of 2020, it was that it forced people from across the live music industry to get creative. The old ways of doing things were no longer possible, so the people who built a career on creativity had to once again think outside the box.
After the drive-in concert phenomenon reached American shores in early fall, the latest innovation in sanitary concerts came when South Farms in Morris, CT teamed up with Premiere Concerts/Manic Presents to present some of the country’s first-ever, socially-distanced pod concerts. Equipped with an expanse of land on the farm that has been in the Paletsky family for generations, organizers blocked off 250 8×8 squares from which attendees could safely watch the shows.
The format at South Farms proved highly successful as the venue mounted dozens of concerts from August through November. In addition to sold-out concerts from Goose, Twiddle, Warren Haynes, moe., and many more, the venue also hosted stand-up comedy from the likes of Nikki Glaser, Mike Birbiglia, John Mulaney, and more.
However, like in nearly every other facet of 2020, reality soon came crashing down. In October, the owners of South Farms were hit with a cease-and-desist order from the Morris Planning and Zoning Commission in response to local complaints of loud noise, bright lights, and—worst of all—cursing from comedians.
While Commissioner Dave Wiig acknowledged the influx of money and jobs to the normally-sleepy town, he cited the technical issue that South Farms was never actually zoned for concerts. For years, South Farms has functioned as a wedding venue which, from time to time, had live bands. When Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont expanded zoning rights to bars and restaurants to serve food and drinks outside, Premiere Concerts/Manic Presents jumped at the bureaucratic leniency to begin holding concerts at South Farms. According to Wiig, since South Farms was never zoned as a concert venue, it does not fall under the expanded protections laid out by the governor.
South Farms was able to finish out its fall concert season, but the cease-and-desist order will go into effect on February 1st, 2021, the day Governor Lamont’s executive order expires. Luckily, most concert-goers probably won’t want to go to an outdoor show in Connecticut in February.
Warren Haynes & Danny Louis – “Beautifully Broken” (360 VR) – South Farms
[Video: The VR Sessions]
For more 2020 L4LM Staff Picks, check out the Best Psychedelia Albums of 2020