As we all turn the corner and say goodbye to 2020 (and start with the “2020 won” jokes) looking back at the year that was brings to mind the well-worn phrase “the show must go on.”
Like many people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, entertainers found themselves — me included — suddenly out of work and with very few prospects.
The mantra became “adapt and survive” and we did just that, embracing technology and becoming creative with performances (like outdoor front-porch concerts) and livestreaming shows.
In a year with very few live performances, there were two that stood out to me.
The first was by local band Word of Mouth during its performance at the Fox Theater in November for the venue’s "Live Stream Vaccine: The Entertainment Cure" concert series that was livestreamed on the 23ABC app.
Toward the end of the show, Azure Pacheco, the 8-year-old daughter of band guitarist Ricardo Pacheco, jumped on stage and started dancing with singer Therese Muller. It was an adorable, impromptu, genuine moment that inspired some real joy and beaming smiles from both Muller and the young Pacheco. It was an effervescent reminder to me of the communal effect of music. It also gave me hope that when it comes to enjoying live rock music, "the kids are alright."
The second memory was a reminder of the power of performance and the importance of music’s fearless voice. It was during Gadfly’s set at the “Do Good In Your Hood” event held on Dec. 5 in the open parking lot at 19th and G streets just behind The Hen’s Roost.
I was there to play drums for singer Crimson Skye, the night’s closing act. The local rock power trio Gadfly was set to perform before us. While I was bringing my drums closer to the performance area, I noticed something that looked like a burnt silver car windshield visor. I assumed it was probably garbage that someone left behind.
Gadfly performed with bravado and daring, and singer/bassist Dominic Demay is a bold, dramatic figure onstage. Toward the end of the band's set, Demay brought out that round silver visor and set it on the ground. He then lit a red “Make America Great Again” hat on fire and let it burn on it as Demay and his equally capable and mesmerizing bandmates, guitarist Brian Lee and drummer Isaac Hedgemon, played with renewed, impassioned vigor.
Seated in foldout chairs, the socially distanced audience emitted both cheers and boos but remained entranced at the sight of the hat burning almost all the way down as the band played on.
“Given everything that was going on at the time, it seemed like a good time to do something that was fueled politically with my own opinions,” Demay said.
“I could never light something on fire if we were playing at Sandrini’s or Riley’s, but the fact that we were doing a show outside (because of COVID-19) was a special opportunity to do something bigger, especially in a time where everything felt so limited.”
Working from home expanded the way we define “local” because when you’re mostly dealing with others online, it doesn’t matter if they’re next door or in the next state.
There were some killer releases from Bako-to-Portland transplants like the funky, psychedelic tripper “My Universe” by Lucid Child, aka Jonah Gallon; the menacing, 1980s-synth-saturated self-titled debut by the vaguely Dune-esque monikered Baron Minker, aka Dane Forst; and the bluesy, rustic-folk stomp of “Fringe” by Glitterfox.
Local music labels popped up with a purpose like Revolution Vintage led by the husband-and-wife duo Sammy and Beth Kay, who had quite the year creating boutique, DIY vinyl releases and merchandise for artists around the country. Sammy Kay’s 2020 album “civil/WAR” was a standout release from the East Coast native.
Patrick Spurlock’s Phantom Stranger Records put out The 08 Orchestra's “Ruiner 2.0,” a rerecording of the band’s 2017 debut EP with cover art showing Gov. Gavin Newsom with a face mask over his eyes. Spurlock, who moved to the Central Coast with his family in the fall, left behind a huge vacancy for an up-and-coming promoter to fill with his exit.
Lastly, Killer Kern Records, another boutique vinyl record label, rereleased If It Kills You’s 2018 album “Infinite Hum” on colored vinyl as well as the three indie-rock projects fronted by the label’s owner, Dylan Geurtsen. Those include Niner Niner’s long-in-the-making debut album “Destructo,” a 7-inch single of The Binges’ 2019 songs “Bunny”/“Be You For Halloween” and Squatcho’s outstanding “Out of Place,” released after the band’s 15-year hiatus and recorded in three different states.
Some other stellar local indie rock releases include ALL YOURS’ brilliant debut, Hate Drugs’ provocative and dreamy “Ponderosa” EP — especially the lovely track “Night II (Divine Providence)” — and “Someday (Robin Guthrie Version)” by Fawns of Love which saw their 2019 song reimagined by the Cocteau Twins’ architect Guthrie.
NineFingers, the nom de guerre of my 2019 artist of the year, David Tetz, bookended 2020 with two excellent releases: “Broken Hearts and False Starts” and “LOOP,” the former produced by another Bako-to-Portland artist, Elle Archer, and the latter produced by Kyle Appleton. Both are honest and harrowing reports from the heart of trauma and loss. They’re not just a catharsis, they’re a cleansing. Highly recommended.
The Swingin’ Nixons' “Way of the Bottle” EP was a great sounding release (produced by Josh Burns) that had some inspired playing and songwriting. Austyn Williams, who performs as Austyn., highlighted her impressive ability for wordplay and mood with the hypnotic debut EP “Disillusioned." Preston Nash wittily asked us to stay “666 Feet Away” from him with his single of the same name featuring the memorable lyric: “I got something to say, read my lips / oh wait, you can’t, I’m wearing a mask.”
Lokust Luciano released his unapologetic and irreverent “Playing With Myself” and Jonathan “Afta” Hunter’s “No Hard Feelings” served as the rapper’s statement of purpose. Even my own band Mento Buru released a Christmas EP titled “East Bakersfield Christmas.”
Other bands and albums I covered in columns this year were Mind, Body & Soul's “Love Is”; The Popular Losers’ “Vibe Chaserzz”; and singles “My Friend” by The Stardogs, the conveniently titled “The Plague” by The Lebecs, and “Summer Heat” by the Small Town Sinners.
A lot of us also turned to local podcasts to entertain us during our downtime. Some notable ones were "Contrast Uncut," hosted and created by Zylo Hefferan; "Bakersfield Sounds" and its offshoot, "The Listening Party"; "Not Your Final Girl"; and the "Sofa King Podcast," which I believe really hit its stride this year. It’s not for the faint of heart, but is informative and entertaining.
We lost five beloved entertainers: saxophonist and local music scene veteran Scott Thompsett, 64; rapper and coach Casey Walker, 46; Andres “DJ Andy” Montero, 43; drummer and former Guitar Center manager Aaron Lehman, 53; and guitarist and singer Richard Brandon “RB” Contreras, 49.
I can only assume that the hiatus on mass gigging will last through 2021 until the coast is clear, so I imagine we will be seeing more new music and livestreaming shows on the horizon. It feels like 2020 wasn’t just a year of great instability and challenges but one that was put on pause, waiting to resume once we’re finally able to catch our collective breaths again — safely.