On a near-perfect July night, Asamu Johnson & The Associates of the Blues and the Benzing-Graves Collective regaled a happy crowd for a rare display of live music outside Grand Rapids’ Studio Park.
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Downtown Grand Rapids oozed soul Thursday night as the rare sounds of live music reverberated through Studio Park, alleyways and the surrounding neighborhood.
The second installment of the piazza’s weekly “Listening Lawn” series hosted by Listening Room featured back-to-back performances that spanned generations of blues, R&B, funk and Americana.
Most important, the return of music amid a year dominated by COVID-19 served as a healing moment, said Grand Rapids singer Hannah Rose Graves of opening act the Benzing-Graves Collective (a rebranding of Hannah Rose & Friends).
“One breath in, one breath out,” she sang. “Don’t let the fear consume you. … And if you need me, I’m here.”
At one point, the sun broke through cloud coverage to create a stunning scene that even gave her goosebumps after the set amid near-perfect late July weather.
“This is an opportunity for us to rise from the ashes,” Graves said while reflecting after the concert.
“Everything crashed, everything broke, and we all have to start from square one. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, and to rise above that in the most positive and uplifting and safe way for everybody.”
Beyond a sense of togetherness, the band pushed the audience to relax and break away from being stir crazy while testing out new music written during quarantine. The band performed most of its new material during the set, though guitarist-vocalist Austin Benzing noticed some fans’ hesitance to dance like normal.
“It’s hard to boogie down when everyone doesn’t want to get close to each other,” Benzing said. “Definitely makes for some interesting boogieing.”
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS: “Listening Lawn,” Grand Rapids (7/30/20)
But as Asamu Johnson & the Associates of Blues took the stage, the audience couldn’t resist. The band’s passionate play between soul, funk and blues had members of the socially distanced crowd out of their lawn chairs and onto the grass.
Led by the ever-so-charismatic frontman Asamu Johnson, the Associates of the Blues — which recently released a new studio album, “Blues You Can Use” — bounced around from song to song and from soloist to soloist. The piazza was filled with wailing saxophone breaks by special guest John Gist and snazzy bridges held down by Daddy Mack on keyboard.
Late in the show, Johnson passed the mic to guitarist and vocalist CC Woods, who stunned the audience with his rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Pausing right before the song’s iconic final vocal riff, listeners were on pins and needles before rounding things out with a standing ovation.
Throughout the concert, fans in the crowd of about 80 kept to their own designated pods, dancing and singing safely away from one another, and wearing masks when moving about. Meanwhile, many residents of the Studio Park apartment complex enjoyed the show from their balconies.
While it felt different from the last time he went to a concert in 2019, concertgoer Darrion Freedman said he’s glad music is back.
“It’s a different field,” Freedman said. “It’s a different vibe. It’s something to get used to, but this is the new norm now.”
Beside him, Avery Freedman, a health care worker, acknowledged that the Listening Room handled safety precautions exceptionally well, and didn’t take away from the concert experience. If live music follows examples like this, she said, there’s still hope for performers and audiences alike.
“As long as everybody follows this, then this can be the new norm,” Avery said. “But if we don’t follow it, we can go back to nothing. So you either follow it, or you get nothing.”
The “Listening Lawn” series continues Aug. 6 with Grand Rapids bluegrass artist Mark Lavengood, followed by Olivia Dear (aka Olivia Millerschin) on Aug. 13 and Lady Ace Boogie with special guest Lokella on Aug. 20. Get tickets, $35 each, online here; tickets must be purchased in blocks of four to ensure social distancing.
PHOTO GALLERY: Listening Lawn at Studio Park
Asamu Johnson & The Associates of the Blues, Hannah Rose & Friends
Photos by Anna Sink