A Year Of Live From Home
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
This week’s Live From Home is Number 50 and it’s also the one-year anniversary of my first livestream so I started thinking about how much I’ve learned over the past year, and wrote the piece below (what’s it called - a blog? Or is that too 2005? Is this an essay? Is this what a Substack is?). It’s long, so the TL;DR is basically “This has been life-changingly good for me, and I’m thankful to everyone who has come to a show over the past year. If you haven’t been in a while, why not come back to celebrate number 50 with us? And, if you haven’t been to a show yet, why not start with this week’s celebration?”
When everything shut down last March, I was in Stratford, Ontario, working with an amazing cast and creative team in preparations for the world premiere of Here’s What It Takes, the musical I wrote with playwright Daniel MacIvor. It had taken us seven years to get to that point, and just as we could taste it - that opening night as the lights begin to come up on the first number in the show - everything was shut down. Obviously not just us. I think when the NBA shut down a few days prior, we all kind of realized that 2020 was going to be a mess for everyone. I scrolled ceaselessly through social media. I wrote a song called “Isolation” and I put it on YouTube. Then, Craig Northey and Kevin Fox, the other two thirds of The Steven Page Trio, filmed themselves playing along with it and we stitched the three parts together and put that on YouTube as well. It became the way many of us made music for the next year-plus, as the song says, “Together but in isolation.”
The Stratford Festival sent me home to Manlius, NY, while we waited for the all-clear. We figured at this point that it was going to be at least two or three weeks before we were back at work, and if I had to quarantine for fourteen days when I got back to Stratford, then so be it. It would be better than being stuck up there and not being able to cross the border to get home, so best to try to beat any border closures now, right? We figured our opening night would likely end up getting delayed by a few weeks, but the work would continue and we would adapt.
At home, wrongly assuming I’d be heading back up to Canada shortly, I went down to my basement studio and recorded a Studio Version of “Isolation” and put it on the streaming services. The world yawned. I was happy to have this unexpected time at home, when I’d had it in my mind that I was going to be away for much of the coming months, with the Here’s What It Takes rehearsals butting right up against the beginning of a summer-long tour schedule. I watched every musician in the world doing livestreams on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and I hesitated. So much competition out there in a field that’s not even supposed to competitive right now! Everyone is playing music online because everyone is stuck at home and panicking and no one knows how this thing works! Would anyone watch a livestream of mine when they can watch Major Artist X? Would I even be any good at it? And will people now expect that all music will always be free and have no real value? So I decided not to do any livestreams at the time. The idea of singing into the void of a camera without a visible audience gave me anxiety, although I know people have been doing exactly that on television and radio for decades. It just seemed scary and scary wasn’t what I needed at the moment. Besides, I had the Musical to get back to shortly anyway. And then they cancelled the season at Stratford (maybe one day they will mount the show again, but at this point I have no idea).
I saw that my friend Dan Mangan had been doing actual paid livestreamed shows through his ticketing company, Side Door (designed to set up house concerts but they quickly and admirably pivoted - sorry for the 2020 buzzword - to online shows), and I was intrigued so I watched one. He did the shows on Zoom, which was quickly becoming the default platform for everything from board meetings to birthday parties, and I could finally see a situation I where could imagine myself doing one of these livestream concerts after all. Dan and his team helped me set up the show and it sold out quickly (1000 is the maximum number of attendees on Zoom’s meeting platform. I guess I could have switched over to their webinar format, or re-streamed to YouTube but that would have defeated my reason for choosing Zoom: the ability to see the audience). I was shocked at how many people were willing to shell out $8 to see me fumble through an hour-and-a-half of songs and stories, but it’s so incredibly hard to know how big an internet audience can actually be. Will thousands show up? Tens? Five? Even now, fifty shows on, I’m not entirely sure what the potential is, and I’m also unsure of when or if people might just stop showing up altogether.
That first show was wild - I knew very little about how to do any of the stuff required, like how to run a Zoom meeting, how to make the audio mix sound good, where to look, how to talk to the audience when they’re all in separate places, and on and on. And then the Zoombombers appeared. Remember them? Back in the early days of COVID-19, before many of us knew how to lock down a meeting, there was a booming trade of Zoom links floating around the internet. Folks from all over the world would join in often-random Zoom meetings just so they could post graphic porn in their window or hurl cut-and-paste streams of racist, homophobic and anti-semitic epithets in the chat. With the rest of us already on edge from lockdown, uncertainty, lost work, the upcoming election and the racial reckoning that 2020 brought, this was unsettling and upsetting and made me want to not bother with any more of these shows. However, the feedback I got from audience members was so positive and, once I brushed aside the shock of the vandals, I realized how much I loved the experience too, so I decided it was time to schedule another show the following Saturday. A fan who was in the audience that day reached out to me and Christine, who runs the Zoom and supervises the chat from upstairs, and offered to help with upcoming shows. It turns out that he works for a big company and deals with their Zoom stuff as a big part of his day job. He brought a colleague, and between them were able to show us how to kick the bad guys out of the meetings, how to make sure they don’t join in the first place, and how to improve the audio and video. They’ve been with us as co-hosts ever since (thanks Case and Dean, as well as old friends Marc and Liam).
One thing I started to realize very quickly in doing these Live From Home shows is that when you’re on tour, you can get away with a very similar set list from night to night. In fact, the nature of touring almost requires it; live, in-person concerts are often a way for people to congregate around songs that they all have memories about, even though those memories are individual and unique to each person, the fact that those memories of a song exist at all is often the reason that people want to come to your show. In other words, you kind of owe them the hits. They were hits for a reason, after all! However, when the core of your audience is the same for most shows, I feel like you owe them nearly the opposite of the “hits.” So, I started digging deeper into my catalog, learning songs I hadn’t sung in years, or ones I’d not played on guitar since the day I wrote it, which could have been over twenty years ago. I started taking requests, and people were asking for some deep cuts let me tell you. But it didn’t stop me from trying them. I made mistakes. I made a LOT of mistakes. Still do. But, I’ve learned to let them go. Especially over these fifty Live From Home shows, I’ve been able to feel comfortable enough in my own skin, in my own basement, to fumble through songs, hit a clam or five on the guitar, or even make colossal show-stopping train-of-thought-obliterating blunders and learn to laugh and keep going. God, I wish my twenty-five-year-old self could have learned that twenty-five years ago. The mistakes, and how you deal with them, are a part of the experience. The audience knows how hard I work on these things and they know that part of me is disappointed for screwing up a lyric or stumbling through a piano part, but that’s also part of what makes it fun. I can actually feel them rooting for me.
That’s a truly strange part of these shows that I’ve only really been able to articulate to myself over the past few days, the fact that I can feel people rooting for me over Zoom. One of the biggest and most obvious differences between a Zoom show and an in-person show is that in person, the audience can sense your fear, your freedom, your passion, your rage, whatever you’re transmitting from the stage. And onstage, you can feel the audience’s mood too - you can sense their interest or their boredom, whether they’re with you for the ride or whether you need to win them over first. You can feel whether they’re about to laugh at the right beat in a story, or how they respond to a lyric change or a belted high note. On Zoom, all of that is muted, and requires a keen eye both on the audience’s window and on the chat. Somehow, over the course of these fifty shows, I’ve been able to bash away at my guitar or keyboard, with the Zoom meeting in my peripheral vision, and somehow be able to sense people’s reaction. Maybe I can sense their animation or lack thereof, maybe it’s the speed at which the chat seems to be filling, or maybe it’s a new sixth sense that I’ve developed in lockdown.
This is not to say I’ve become fully psychic, nor is it to say that I’ve perfected my craft. It was not very long ago that it took me over five minutes to realize I was doing a show with no sound. Even more ludicrous? Everybody stayed. These technical challenges have only served to make me more focused on learning new skills in order to make the shows better and better, and so I can try to one-up myself if I can. Over the course of a year I’ve figured out how to route the audio from my computer into Zoom (took me some time), I’ve learned how to use Premiere Pro for video, OBS for running the show, and Stream Deck to trigger all my guest videos and opening sequences. Old dog, meet new tricks. Sure, there are definitely times when I feel like a one-man show, playing the cymbals between my knees, but I know I’m not alone. Christine is upstairs making sure everything is working, and occasionally running downstairs to stick her head in the door to tell me when everything is not working. My great friend, hell, everyone’s great friend, Craig Northey, started sending me texts during the show, often with words of encouragement, but mostly with jokes and his responses to what’s happening onscreen. This is a decades-old tradition that dates back to Craig’s track-by-track analyses of each BNL album that he’d send us upon their release, and it’s one that I treasure. Very quickly, Texts From Craig became a weekly segment in Live From Home shows, along with a theme song written and performed by Craig (with some live additions from yours truly), which then grew to a Texts From Craig video made by audience member Allan Fogul.
Since then, we’ve had video appearances from the Steven Page Trio - Craig and Kevin would pop in (initially very low-tech, swung into frame on my iPad, but now overlaid onto my screen like I’m some kind of hot-shot Twitch streamer or something) and I’ve been able to sing with them from afar, since doing it in realtime is still impossible without lag and feedback. Speaking of feedback, who will ever forget what is now referred to as The Great Unmuting? In Live From Home II, last May, at the end of “The Chorus Girl,” I decided it would be great to have everyone sing together. All one thousand people, so I asked Christine to unmute everyone. This howling blast of auditory Hell almost knocked me to the ground, and in its great hilarity, confirmed that real time musical collaboration over Zoom was not quite a thing yet.
On New Year’s Eve, I was presented with a gift - a video of the Chorus Girl with dozens of audience members singing the “la la la”s, their faces all in their familiar Zoom boxes, but this time, their voices clear as a bell. As I sang and played along withe song, I began to blubber and sob. Overwhelmed by the generosity, but also by the equal feelings of intimacy and distance - kind of Live From Home in a bottle - I did my best to finish the song. I’ve since been able to get through it just fine, just so you know. Actually, we’re planning on doing a follow up to “The Chorus Girl” and this time I’m in on it. Inspired by everyone’s simultaneous exclamations of “Land ho!” In the chat, I’ve decided to try making a video with all of us singing and playing “A New Shore.” If you’re interested, head over here for more info.
Having in-person guests has been understandably impossible, although I was lucky to have my eldest son, Isaac, join me for a couple of weeks in June last year, as he was on his was back to Canada after completing his Master’s degree in Ohio. I’ve not been able to see him or my parents or any of my other kids in person since then, but I have been able to have Isaac along with my other kids, Ben and Jonah, join in via video. And then, of course, we’ve had many visits from Attic Steve, my slightly more disheveled doppelgänger who lives in a room identical to my studio, except it’s in my attic. We have a tense but cordial relationship. I could probably lighten up on him a bit.
For me, there is almost no greater joy as a performer than to have an in-joke that the audience can own with you. Live From Home has become a series of those, as there are so many regulars that we now have a lot of shared experiences, and Saturdays have become an opportunity to catch up with each other, to check in, to mark a week that may otherwise have seemed amorphous in this work-from-home world hat we’ve been thrust into. Together, we’ve built a community. That’s what I’m most proud of, and that’s what I will take away with me when all of this is over (and when I say over, I mostly mean the pandemic. I have a feeling these livestreams will be around for a long time regardless).
Together, we took what is essentially a guy standing in his basement yelling and made into something much more beautiful and much more fun. We made it into something to look forward to every week: a blend of the unexpected and the familiar. A group of regulars from all over the world who have grown into real, live friends with each other but are also incredibly welcoming to newcomers. I can’t wait to see all of these folks when I’m finally on the road again, but I know it won’t be the same when that happens. In these shows, folks have let me and everyone else into their living rooms, their kitchens, their backyards, their hospital rooms, their cars, they’ve taken us along to work and to the beach. They’ve stayed up past midnight or woken up before dawn to be with us, depending on their time zones. They’ve shared with us their loss, their grief, their illnesses, their COVID diagnoses, their vaccinations, all without shame. We’ve been able to come together to wrestle with our despair, our Seasonal Affective Disorder, our depression, our frustration and our fear. Together we celebrated my 50th birthday, the US election results, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve and now a year of Live From Home shows together. I’ve played over 200 different songs, and even written some specifically for the shows, including “Xylorimba” and “Zoom” for the alphabetically-themed shows when I realized I was missing songs that started with X and Z. I’ve played every album I’ve ever made, from 1992’s Gordon to 2018’s Discipline: Heal Thyself Part II, and just about every b-side and rarity out there as well.
I couldn’t have done any of this without my wife, Christine. It was she who changed a dingy, low-ceilinged basement room into a cozy space where I actually enjoy going to work. From building the rad studio desk and the equipment rack to the shelving to the sound absorption panels, she did it all. I make the music and the mess. She designs all the Live From Home artwork and all of the current merch, and she’s kept it all fresh. It was her idea to start a Patreon, which terrified me at first, but has turned into a really worthwhile place - it’s where I post all the archived Live From Home videos, but it’s also where demos and rarities show up, along with exclusive merch and a monthly Q&A session on Zoom. She’s also responsible for the Discord server, which is adjacent to Patreon and Live From Home, but separate, and free to join. We have over 800 members now, and they hang out and chat there during the shows and also during the rest of the week. They have game nights and watch movies together.
This community we’ve built, sure, it makes me wistful sometimes - and why not? The shows mean a lot to me. I look forward to seeing everyone every Saturday at 5, and I find myself hoping that I’m not making anyone feel like they HAVE to be there. At the same time, I’ll notice if you’re not, ok? Sometimes I look at the screen while I’m singing and notice that a familiar face isn’t there anymore and I wonder if I did something wrong, or if someone else pissed them off or if they got sick of hearing “Brian Wilson” every week, and I hope they’re okay. But more than anything, I’m grateful to everyone for making this year something truly special. I often say that rather than being a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty person, I tend to be an I-didn’t-get-a-glass person. In other words, I’m not usually one to look for silver linings, never mind actually finding them. But over these last twelve months I did and I’m full of gratitude for the silver linings we’ve found together.