Jun. 20—WATERTOWN — Twenty-one years later, Madonna's words still ring true: "Music makes the people come together."
The lifeblood of any musician is playing live and interacting with the gathered crowd, feeding off of the energy and matching it with their own, making for a shared musical moment for all involved. The same is true for local musicians of the north country, gathering fan bases and playing their hearts out at various shows and festivals along the way, until the local music scene effectively died last spring.
The "day the music died" for local musicians, as well as fans of their live shows, can be pinpointed as the day a PAUSE order was issued on March 20, 2020, amid the growing novel coronavirus pandemic. The order closed all non-essential businesses, shuttering the places musicians would frequent right before what is generally considered a busy time for them: summer. COVID-19 continued to keep the local live music scene in a chokehold for over a year as musicians tried to stay active and adapt to a life where live music venues, from bars to festivals, had gone radio silent.
In the face of the pandemic, some north country musicians turned to online platforms to stream their content and continued pushing their music out into the world, while others focused on writing, recording and growing their fan bases — all planning for an eventual return to the stage.
Now, in 2021, with most state restrictions lifted following the announcement that New York hit the 70% mark for vaccinated residents, musicians are taking the stage once more like they never missed a beat.
Playing with his fellow band mates of The NorthmeN is so important to guitarist and lead vocalist Jeremy L.H. Lawlor that when he broke his wrist last year and ended up in a cast, he decided the show must go on and sawed the cast off to be able to perform.
The NorthmeN were formed in a Watertown garage in 2015. Six years later, they're practicing in a different garage, and with two different members since they began. The band is now made up of original members Jeremy L. H. Lawlor and Brendan "The Kydd" Laverty, and newcomers Sam J. Widrick and Jake Desarmo, who also make up the local two-man band Desorder. The two were added to the roster last month, replacing Matthew Gregory and Alix Beitz, who decided to part ways with the band in favor of more dependable ways of making money to support their families.
"We were starting to really gain momentum, and then just got flatlined," Mr. Widrick said of Desorder. "We're still a working band, we've got a few shows this year, hoping to get back out there, but also very much looking forward to touring with these guys (The NorthmeN)."
As their notoriety has grown, live shows remain the most important thing to The NorthmeN, which obviously were halted due to the shutdown. Mr. Lawlor previously stated that the lack of live shows took away the focal point of the band's passion.
"We love recording music and doing all that, but we like being on stage," Mr. Lawlor said. "It definitely is hard when you don't get to do your favorite thing in the world."
The last show the band played was New Year's Eve, into the first day of 2020. They haven't played since and have subsequently missed out on about 15 local shows due to COVID.
While the band couldn't play its schedule of live shows, which last summer included festivals and a tour with another act, Hed PE, of Huntington Beach, Calif., now rescheduled for the end of August, the band did what it could to recreate an ability to play live. Watertown First, an organization dedicated to strengthening the local economy, reached out to the band about performing at last year's virtual block party, which replaced the city's in-person event. On the night of July 24, 2020, the band's video aired and kicked off the event. The band also went live on Facebook multiple times through the pandemic to stay engaged with its fan base.
In the downtime of the pandemic, Mr. Lawlor made a studio space in his home and the band has turned his garage into its new practice space. With the lending of equipment from the new members of The NorthmeN, Mr. Lawlor said the band "went from having a raw acoustic, everybody just plugs in and makes noise, to everything being miked up for practice, which is pretty neat — we've never had that before."
The NorthmeN have a new music video that hasn't been released yet, but is expected to be released within the next month. Those wishing to be alerted when the video drops can follow the band on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/N0rthmen for updates.
By day, the local rock stars do a little bit of everything from bartending to contracting, but hope that one day their music will be what pays the bills.
"We really felt like we were doing so good and that nothing was going to stop us, but if anything's gonna stop an up-and-coming band it's a global pandemic," Mr. Laverty said. "To see that a year after we're still here and about to do something we've never done is exciting. To go on tour with a national touring band, it's almost like we didn't lose any ground."
Due to COVID, local cover band Doc Yukon's schedule last summer — which was to be its most successful yet — had been completely decimated, with a total of around 45 gigs lost altogether.
The band, based in LaFargeville, consists of Mark E. Getman, Jr., Brian Beyer, Andrew Willis and Andy Wendt, and has been together for about four years. They mostly play at bars and wedding venues, but have started writing their own original music as well.
Almost everything was canceled, so the band only played a couple private events when the conditions were able to be met, Mr. Getman, Jr. said. Usually, especially in the summer, it's at least one gig every weekend for Doc Yukon, if not two or three.
In the downtime without shows, the band had some time to record, make a couple videos and rehearse, as well as come up with some original song ideas.
"We did get some opportunities that we wouldn't normally have," Mr. Getman, Jr. said. "A lot of times rehearsing and adding new stuff or writing originals, there's not enough hours in the day or enough days in the week to get it all done, so that was one silver lining of not having any gigs."
Though they found ways to pass the time while they couldn't play live, Mr. Getman, Jr. said it was still a rough time. With music being a huge part of his life, the weekend therapy to help deal with the stressors of the previous week, it was hard when everything was halted. He said he poured himself into other side projects to give himself something to keep busy.
Now, things are looking good, albeit a bit different to how they were pre-pandemic. A lot of what the band is involved in right now is weddings, ones rescheduled from last year as well as new ones, and a few bar shows, like O'Brien's in Clayton, but Doc Yukon is also scheduled to play at the Thousand Islands Winery on June 26 and the French Festival in Cape Vincent next month.
Having played a couple gigs so far this year since starting back up weeks ago, the band's Saturdays are all spoken for up until November.
"We were a little nervous going back out and playing, like, 'Are we gonna be terrible?'" Mr. Getman, Jr. said. "We're still us, but we definitely have a little bit of a different approach to things now. I think we're a little more eager to take risks in terms of playing different material, putting together some of our own stuff. Early on we talked about wanting to come out of this stronger, growing and developing, so we've got a few directions that we hope we can expand in moving forward."
During its downtime, the band also has been working on an online store for merchandise and making its website, https://www.docyukon.com/, a bit more presentable so people can easily check dates and locations for the band's upcoming gigs.
Aside from missing the feeling of playing live for a crowd, another challenge to bands amid the pandemic was the financial toll of revenue lost from those live performances. In Doc Yukon's situation, all four members have established day jobs, but it's still something that was felt, Mr. Getman, Jr. said.
"You can't deny that amount of money that usually you're accustomed to having, but thankfully, all of our day jobs remained consistent," he said. "We were lucky."
Not being able to play during the shutdown, Bob H. Dietterick said it was a frustrating experience and he was upset by it, feeling like his rights had been taken away. A member of various bands since the 1960s, the retired corrections officer decided to become a solo act in 2005 and has since gained a following as a "one-man band" — and it's been his full-time gig ever since.
Mr. Dietterick has said he loves and lives for performing and has played at American Legion events, parties, correctional facility functions and everything in between.
Last summer, Mr. Dietterick would have been playing four or five nights a week had it not been for COVID restrictions. Instead, he only played about four times the whole summer and hardly at all through the winter.
Though he and his wife can get by fine without the added money from playing shows, Mr. Dietterick said the loss of those shows still cost him quite a bit, but the money wasn't the issue. Missing out on playing, his passion, was what was so demoralizing during the shutdown.
Mr. Dietterick began playing again in late March every Friday and Saturday at a place on Black Lake where the owner had permission to let him play there so long as he was 12 feet away from the customers.
"There was no dancing allowed," he said. "They've got me supplying the entertainment for both those days and it's been like that ever since. Now another place has got me playing every Thursday."
Having also been hired for a lot of parties, Mr. Dietterick said the music scene is coming back for him and he is between three to four performances a week, which is about where he wants to be. Not sure he wants to be doing more than that, the 68-year-old said it's not the playing that bothers him — he loves that part — it's carrying his equipment.
Glad that things seem to be getting back to normal, Mr. Dietterick said he never wants to go through a lockdown period again.
"I like watching people have a good time and people appreciating me; that's what I love about it," he said of playing for crowds. "And I love the music, I love what I produce, because I'm playing all the instruments. I have a studio and I'm recording the drums, the bass guitar, all the harmony vocals are done by me. I feel a sense of accomplishment for what I've done."
Originally from Houston, Texas, hip-hop artist Fyne Print Williams was stationed at Fort Drum in 2004, and now resides in Watertown. When he isn't making music, he works in landscaping.
Mr. Williams is in recovery and was able to do music-related work in spite of the pandemic, such as working with the Alliance for Better Communities and doing anti-violence shows, which align with what he represents. Because he chooses shows that have meaning to him, he didn't miss out on too many during shutdowns, only about three overall.
In his downtime, he has kept his focus on social media and branding, getting his merchandise — T-shirts and hoodies and the like — rolling on https://www.givetaller.com/.
Give TALLER stands for time, attention, love, loyalty, effort, and respect. Mr. Williams was also chosen to be highlighted by HarmoNNY Performing Arts Community as their Artist Spotlight for the month of June.
"I focused on that type of thing because it's mainly online, there doesn't have to be any interaction and you don't need a mask or anything," he said. "Just basically keeping the connection going and being able to be supported by people without having to be in crowds and put your health at risk."
Followed by people across the United States, Mr. Williams' social media presence has continued to grow, though he is currently focused on reaching the local community.
As far as upcoming events go, he said the calls have started coming back in. Earlier in the year, he performed at a benefit for a friend whose father passed away as well as an online event. Anything he signs on for this year will be a continuation of getting back in front of crowds and seeing if the butterflies are still going, he said.
"I'm looking forward to not just the shows, but the artists, being able to sit down and either jam or just brainstorm and talk about music and plan other shows," Mr. Williams said. "Just keep that community going so people can go out and continue being creative and keep the morale high. I'm looking forward to that vibe again, being around a bunch of artists who are following their dreams, trying to do what's on their heart."
He noted that he would like to see appreciation be shown toward up-and-coming artists who are excited about hitting the stage.
Currently working on an album, performing live will be his way of testing out the material before the album release, seeing the crowd's reaction, which he said is the beauty of being able to do shows — getting a live reaction on how people feel about his art.
"I'm just going to continue what I started and doing what I can in the community," Mr. Williams said. "I don't know exactly everything I'm going to get involved in, but I know this year things are off to a good start and I'm just going to continue doing what I can to make everything within my reach better, keep the positivity going."