As performances returned this year, venues and musicians held on to what they’d learned during lockdown
During his very first show before a live audience, John Paul Pitts experienced an almost paralyzing anxiety. “I remember my knees were shaking so hard, I thought I was going to fall over,” Pitts recalls.
That was back in 2004. Soon, Pitts was regularly singing in front of audiences in a Lake Worth dance studio that hosted mini concerts on weekends. In between shows, he’d use the WiFi at coffee shops to burn CDs that he’d hand out to random strangers.
All of that obscurity didn’t last long. By 2009, his band, Surfer Blood, had become the new darling of alt rock. They performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and toured with The Pixies. They became one of the biggest acts to come out of Palm Beach County, maybe ever.
That success would last for a decade full of nonstop songwriting, recording, and touring. And then, like nearly everybody else in the world, Surfer Blood had nothing to do. “Last year, all of a sudden, we slowed down,” Pitts says of 2020. “It’s the first time we haven’t spent a year touring since 2010.”
Back home in Palm Beach County, Surfer Blood tried what a lot of musicians did during the lockdown: doing livestream videos instead of concerts. But they also took on something huge. The tiny music studio they’ve operated in Boynton Beach for 10 years, Shade Tree Studio, moved to a much larger space, opening up to other musicians as well—and so now, one of Palm Beach County’s most widely known musical acts is helping the next generation follow in their tracks.
Surfer Blood’s pandemic experience is not unique; musicians and musical venues across Palm Beach County endured similar trials over the past year-plus. Bands that were on their way up found themselves on pause, and venues typically booked every night suddenly had a giant hole in their schedules. The fallout required innovation and change from bands and venues alike, and many of these new protocols are likely to affect local live music for the foreseeable future.
TO CLOSE THE DOORS OR CHANGE TUNE? THAT IS THE QUESTION.
Early last year, the Palm Beach Symphony had just come off a record-breaking season, with nearly $1 million raised at its gala alone. David McClymont, the symphony’s CEO, expected a repeat the following season. “We were riding a huge tidal wave of momentum,” McClymont says.
When the pandemic struck and it became clear that lockdown was here for the long haul, McClymont says the symphony had to consider shutting down for the entire season.
Instead, they chose to innovate, and like all local music venues and artists in Palm Beach County, those innovations not only saved them but also spelled out a new and very different future for music performance.
At the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, CEO and president Marjorie Waldo says she kept saying a word she hated. “I don’t like to use the word ‘pivot,’” she says, “but we pivoted so many times in those 14 months.”
That started in March 2020, streaming as many live shows as she could from the empty 194-seat venue. Rather than hire a service to stream shows, the Arts Garage staff bought equipment and taught themselves how. “We just didn’t stop producing,” Waldo says.
In September 2020, the Arts Garage pivoted again to “hybrid shows,” filling the venue to 50 percent capacity and streaming the performance online too. When all restrictions were lifted earlier this year, Waldo went back to filling the venue completely—and a calendar of back-to-back performances for the first time in more than a year.
Those live shows will continue to be accompanied by livestreams, something the venue never previously did. But lockdown taught them that a band’s fans around the world will pay a nominal fee, say $10, to log in online and watch a show from Delray Beach. It’s not only a new source of revenue, but it also gives the Arts Garage a way to put its performances in front of entirely new audiences.
Waldo recalls bursting into tears upon witnessing a live show in the Arts Garage again. “There’s this magic that happens during the performance,” she says. “The performers interact with the energy of the audience, the audience interacts with the energy of the performers, and we’re whisked away from our anxieties and our worries from our lives. To still be standing at the end of the pandemic, it’s magical. It makes me feel really grateful.”
The Palm Beach Symphony’s innovative streak began in April 2020 as a collaboration with the Palm Beach Opera, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Ballet Palm Beach, and the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County. The orchestra joined singers via video conference to produce a recording of Barry Manilow’s One Voice, with a ballerina dancing along from her living room.
McClymont says the success of it proved that the organization could prevail, and the symphony resolved to complete the entire season digitally. For some shows, they allowed 100 socially distanced audience members to fill a Kravis Center hall that typically holds more than 2,100.
The symphony also committed to paying performers a stipend to create educational videos for students. The organization’s normal fundraisers had to move online; instead of the annual Holly Jolly Symphony Fête, for example, it hosted a series of six TV concerts, some of which ran in prime time.
For a show in January, McClymont recalls having viewers tune in from 20 states and multiple countries. People joined the chat window from as far away as Colombia. “Reflecting back on it, we had an incredible year,” McClymont says. “Sometimes you have to walk out on the plank, and we really did.”
LOCKDOWN DAYS DIDN’T GO TO WASTE
Tabitha Meeks remembers performing a show on St. Patrick’s Day in 2020 and ending it by thanking the audience for coming out in a pandemic. She laughed, the audience laughed, and now, looking back on it, she cringes. “We had no idea at that moment how serious it was going to become,” Meeks says.
At the time, her band, Mona Lisa Tribe, was on a decidedly upward trajectory. They’d formed in 2017 as a female-fronted folk band full of guitar, mandolin, tambourine, and harmonious gospel-inspired lyrics. When the pandemic hit, they’d been planning a move to Nashville, but when they got there, live music was shutting down.
Instead of gigging full-time, Meeks and the band switched to recording, laying down five original songs in the summer of 2020. “We definitely didn’t let it go to waste,” Meeks says of their time in lockdown. “We released them as singles throughout the summer and ended up getting more than 60,000 plays, which ended up being awesome for us.”
They recorded five more songs in November, and now with live shows back on the table, Mona Lisa Tribe is on a hometown tour in Florida to perform their new songs live—a tour that began with a show at the Arts Garage in May. At that show, Meeks says, “I saw faces of people who constantly came to our shows in South Florida and supported us, and they came back after a year to support us again. To see people, after COVID and everything, it was special.”
Similarly, many Palm Beach County bands that had previously made a living almost exclusively from live shows found themselves recording for the first time ever or even livestreaming—a business model nobody knew existed.
Back in the height of the pandemic, Sierra Fitzhugh, who’s responsible for the melodic bluesy guitar and lead vocals behind Sierra Lane, found herself replacing her regular gigs with livestream performances. On a whim, she put her Venmo account on the videos, and she was glad to see money begin appearing in her account. The most she got was $45, but she says it helped her through those darkest moments. “It connected me to the outside world when nobody could go outside,” she recalls. “It kind of kept me sane [while] being stuck inside.”
At 19 years old, Fitzhugh was at the very start of her musical career when the pandemic struck. She returned to live shows in May, quickly booking four to five shows a week, and she says she sees something new in the crowds these days—a renewed energy and passion for live music. “A lot of people are more grateful for live music now, because it’s like a you-don’t-know-what-you-have-until-it’s-gone kind of thing,” she says.
As for Pitts, while his day job is still vocals and guitar for Surfer Blood, he says the lockdown showed him how much he enjoyed recording music for others. “I’ve always been very hands-on with the technical stuff, so this is right up my alley,” he says. In the past year, Shade Tree Studio recorded LPs for up-and-coming bands like American Sigh and Soul Particles.
For his band, though, livestreaming performances just couldn’t replace touring. “It’s just not the same playing for a camera on a tripod,” Pitts says. As things returned to normal for live music, Pitts says the band began planning a tour in California, and even though he still gets that nervous energy before a show, he was looking forward to the return of live performances. “There’s nothing like playing for an audience and getting that energy back from a crowd.”
Bonus: Music Videos
Floating Vibes, Surfer Blood, part of NoonChorus online concert, August 2020:
Treehouse Session (various songs), Surfer Blood, September 2020:
Dessert Island, Surfer Blood, Carefree Theatre studio session, December 2020:
Mona Lisa Tribe
Cover of Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Mona Lisa Tribe (Izzy Linder, Caroline Schrope, Erin DaCruz, Tabitha Meeks), April 2020:
Cover of I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor, Sierra Lane and The Crazy Bunch, April 2020:
Cover of August by Flipturn, Sierra Lane, August 2020:
Someone Else, Sierra Lane, July 2021:
Palm Beach Symphony