Live, from the driveway: Local bands turn to playing private gigs during the pandemic
Promoter KC Turner likes to introduce the Poor Man’s Whiskey trio these days by saying, “From the sold-out night at the Fillmore in San Francisco to your driveway,” just before they kick off another house concert.
What a difference a year makes. Around 1,200 people came out to see the homegrown Sonoma County bluegrass band’s “Farewell for Now” show in San Francisco near the end of 2019. At the time, co-founder Josh Brough wanted to take a break from touring and spend more time with family.
Now, you can book the band to play for family and friends in your backyard.
“Before, if we were to go play for 10 people in some empty room, you’d think it was a bust,” said Poor Man’s Whiskey co-founder Jason Beard. “But now you’re like, ‘Oh 10 people, this is great.’ It’s exciting.”
If there’s a silver lining in these dark pandemic times that brought the concert industry to a standstill for more than a year, it’s that bands are still finding ways to be heard. Picking up where he left off last fall, Turner has confirmed 90 shows this spring for his “In Your Driveway (or Backyard) Concert Series.” In addition to Poor Man’s Whiskey, Turner is staging the Mother Hips duo of Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono (playing Bay Area backyards tomorrow), Citizen Cope, David Lowery (of bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker), John Doe (of X), Glenn Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket) and Steve Poltz (who cowrote that super-catchy Jewel song “You Were Meant for Me” way back in the day), among others.
Each show includes a 75-minute set, although Poor Man’s Whiskey has a hard time keeping it under 90 minutes. A maximum of 20 people are allowed in the audience. And prices range from $1,000 to $5,000 to book the show, depending on the artist.
“The client is buying the show and I’m bringing it to them like DoorDash” said Turner, who also books music at HopMonk Tavern venues in Novato and Sonoma. “When people are on the fence about it, saying, ‘I don’t know if I can afford it’ and this and that, I tell them, ‘John Doe will never play your backyard again. This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’”
Last month, Poor Man’s Whiskey — with Beard on acoustic guitar, Brough on banjo and vocals and Skyler Stover on standup bass — packed in six shows in a weekend, starting with a Friday-night gig in Forestville, then playing San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco on Saturday and Pacifica and Point Richmond on Sunday.
For a quickie road-trip tour, it’s about as DIY as it gets. Turner brings battery-powered amps and lights. A woman who booked them in her yard in San Jose made the band sandwiches for the road. In Point Richmond, the host loaded up all their gear on a four-wheeler and carried it to a wooden stage up in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. A house on a hillside in Pacifica was terraced down to a stage that looked like “a mini-Greek Theater,” Beard said. As part of Turner’s concert series last fall, they played to “a bunch of old hippies on a pot farm in Timbuktu,” Beard remembered.
“It’s interesting to see all the different types of people and places and homes; they all really want to see live music again,” he said. “People are really missing the music. You get people in tears, they’re so happy just to see live music again.”
As COVID-19 restrictions continue to loosen, Beard and Turner are looking forward to transcending the neighborhood circuit and playing larger venues this summer. Yesterday, state officials began allowing outdoor music concerts again at various capacities depending on infection rates in each county. Turner already has booked The Mother Hips in July at HopMonk in Novato and Chuck Prophet in August at Twin Oaks Tavern in Penngrove. With Brough taking a break from more extended touring, Beard is looking forward to taking the spinoff Whiskey Family Band on the road soon, possibly as early as June if the Hog Farm Hideaway music festival takes place as scheduled at Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville. He’s also slated to play the Four Peaks Festival in Bend, Oregon, in August.
“I’m super excited to start playing music for people again.
“The driveway shows even made it worse,” Beard said, “because you start to get used to not playing and then you go play and you’re all jacked up on all that adrenaline after a show. It’s the same adrenaline I feel playing these 10-person shows that I felt after playing the Fillmore.”