Ralston Bowles and Michael Crittenden kicked off St. Cecilia Music Center’s virtual folk-and-blues series on Thursday. Local Spins was there to capture the unusual vibe in an empty auditorium.
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There was something surreal and a bit eerie about sitting in a completely empty Royce Auditorium in downtown Grand Rapids while musicians performed an evening concert on stage.
The milieu exuded a sound-check quality – which is frankly the only time I’ve been inside the 650-seat hall without any fans, while musicians tinkered with their instruments and tested out their vocals on stage.
On Thursday night, revered West Michigan singer-songwriters Ralston Bowles and Michael Crittenden kicked off St. Cecilia Music Center’s new live-stream folk-and-blues series sans audience, except for a few masked and socially distanced videographers, venue personnel and yours truly.
This is live music in the pandemic era.
Without amplification, there was a melancholy, forlorn quality to the songs unfurled for an hour by these veteran indie-folk performers. (The musicians were mic’ed up only for the cameras on stage which broadcast the performance to folks viewing on Facebook at home.)
That even extended to the upbeat Troll for Trout classic, “Getting’ Out of Town,” that Crittenden chose to launch the evening, followed by Bowles’ ever-delectable “Velvet Elvis.”
Still, the personalities and congeniality of this seasoned duo quickly rose to the forefront. And let’s face it, live music of any sort on a bona fide stage after a long COVID shutdown was a welcome sight and sound.
Perhaps most disconcerting – if I can use that term – was the lack of any applause following each song, whether it was Bowles’ “Draper” or Crittenden’s equally touching “Porch.” The awkward silence almost induced me into clapping at times, despite St. Cecilia artistic director Cathy Holbrook’s pre-concert entreaty to stay silent between tunes.
A SATISFYING AT-HOME EXPERIENCE WITH VIRTUAL APPLAUSE
Of course, for those watching at home on their computers or smartphones, the scene on stage seemed homey and cozy, almost like having these musicians performing in their living rooms.
It was all produced in uber-professional fashion by Marshall Yoder’s Captus Creative video team and hosted by Holbrook, who has lined up more than a dozen additional live-stream concerts between now and the end of April.
And while the performers couldn’t hear their reactions, viewers posted more than 70 approving comments online during the one-hour broadcast that ended appropriately and powerfully with Bowles’ poignant “Fragile,” a true anthem for our troubled times.
“Thanks for the great music” was reflective of the Facebook commentary; the online performance attracted more than 1,800 views by late Thursday night.
Audience or no audience, both artists insisted in a pre-show interview that there’s something exceptional and special about performing on stage in a historic, acoustically pleasing venue after many months without a genuine concert experience.
Crittenden, who even debuted a new song on Thursday, said he played his last in-person concert more than a year ago – a very long time for a musician so familiar to West Michigan audiences. So this represented a much-welcomed, satisfying opportunity to reconnect with fans.
ABSENCE OF MUSIC MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER … FOR MUSIC
The same goes for one of the only spectators on hand Thursday night.
To be truthful, I had only intended to stick around for part of the St. Cecilia show, having seen both of these artists countless times over the years.
But I found myself mesmerized by the heartfelt, live music unfolding before me on stage, the first such performance I’d experienced since the final Listening Lawn show hosted outdoors by Grand Rapids’ Listening Room in late October.
I can report: Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.
We need live music like we need blood flowing through our veins, or at least, I do.
And after 10 months of a mostly silent music scene, fans can be thankful that they can at least get a taste of that scene in virtual fashion.
See who else is playing the St. Cecilia live-stream series online here.
PHOTO GALLERY: Michael Crittenden & Ralston Bowles at St. Cecilia Music Center
Photos by Anna Sink
ST. CECILIA CONCERT VIDEO: Michael Crittenden and Ralston Bowles
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