Performers Find Unexpected Side Effect of Pandemic: Attentive Audiences

Intimacy and reverence endure at socially distanced shows

The audience at Sagebrush on Sept. 26. (Photo by John Anderson)

Last Tuesday evening, Jonathan Horstmann surveyed the canopy on the University of Texas campus under which he’d been booked to perform at a wellness event. There stood 30 folding chairs distanced roughly 10-feet apart, each surrounded by a forcefield of blue tape corralling each attendee in their area.

“It felt like a dystopian future, very Black Mirror, but in a cool way,” says the singer and multi-instrumentalist behind the synth group Urban Heat. “Maybe it’s forced, like we’re forcing live music to return, but the way people are experimenting with slowly bringing it back, I’m here for it.”

“The word ‘reverence’ comes to mind. I think we’re all a little bit more reverent. Then again, I’m playing for my life right now, so who knows if I’m just playing better shows.” – Ben Ballinger

Horstmann’s Tuesday show combined sequenced ambient material with samples of speeches on his favorite topic: nonviolence. He’s performed in bands for over a decade, but never before played a gig with a floor plan like UT’s.

“People were super receptive to it and I think that’s because when you’re sitting in a chair, far away from anyone else, there’s an intimacy where it seems like it’s just you and the performer,” he reasons. “I cried at the end of my performance when I was thanking people for being there, because this is a really difficult time if you’re only creative outlet is your music and you enjoy that energy exchange.”

As socially distanced concerts begin taking place around Austin, artists experience stage time in a new paradigm. Compared to the old standard, the atmosphere’s inherently less kinetic, but musicians are playing to attendees that are, in many cases, more attentive and appreciative.

“The audiences are ecstatic to feel a kick drum punching them in the chest and hear a guitar solo, and hear my gorgeous voice over a P.A.,” cracks Jonathan Terrell. “And they’re throwing tips in the virtual tip bucket.”

“My music can be pretty angry and, I fear, alienating, and there’s all these normal looking people who are totally ready for some angry music right now. They like the energy: ‘Yeah, I am pissed off.’” – Ghostwriter

The swaggering country singer says he’s turned down the majority of recent show offers out of regard for the safety of his bandmates and the people who come see him play, some of whom are two-steppers who’ve had to adapt to dancing with one partner all night. Nonetheless, he’s played sold-out gigs at sprawling South Austin honky-tonk Sagebrush and Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in the last two weeks.

“It’s all about energy right now,” he reports. “We only got one rehearsal in before our first show back, so we weren’t as sharp and tight and tough as when we were doing Billy Bob’s dates in February, but people were so stoked to see it. If you were to make a mistake, they’d be like like, ‘Yes, a mistake, we love it!’

“They’re really in your corner.”

The singer/guitarist believes Austin audiences have taken music for granted because it’s been shoved down their throats for years.

“You couldn’t go to a coffee shop without there being a band playing their second show trying to work shit out, but if you take that away, people are like, ‘Oh, I miss this part’ and, ‘Oh, this band’s playing? Fuck yeah!’”

“I cried at the end of my performance when I was thanking people for being there, because this is a really difficult time if you’re only creative outlet is your music and you enjoy that energy exchange.” – Jonathan Horstmann

Ghostwriter, a one-man-band otherwise known as Steve Schechter, played a weekly residency throughout September at the Far Out Lounge.

“At the Far Out, their built-in crowd of people who generally live around there are really receptive and so fuckin’ happy to see music right now,” says the singer/percussionist/guitarist whose music encompasses punk, lo-fi garage, blues, and folk. “My music can be pretty angry and, I fear, alienating, and there’s all these normal looking people who are totally ready for some angry music right now. They like the energy: ‘Yeah, I am pissed off.’”

R&B singer-songwriter Torre Blake, speaking to Faster Than Sound columnist Rachel Rascoe, also commented on audiences at Far Out Lounge’s outdoor music space: “It felt very respectful. People were enjoying each other’s company in small groups, but they were also more attentive to the actual art going on, because they weren’t out there to party.”

Songwriter Ben Ballinger, who put on seven shows over the last month, echoes the sentiment of audiences paying closer attention to performers at coronavirus-era concerts.

“I told someone recently that playing outside at the Sagebrush has been like playing at a larger, spaced-out Cactus Cafe,” he says, referring to the vaunted UT listening room. “The word ‘reverence’ comes to mind. I think we’re all a little bit more reverent. Then again, I’m playing for my life right now, so who knows if I’m just playing better shows.”

Asked to clarify what he means by “playing for his life,” Ballinger considers the specifics:

“For a million reasons, mostly psychologically – purpose, meaningfulness, interactions, selfish-validation, etcetera. Having people listen is gold. It’s truly gold.”

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