In Petaluma, musicians play on for neighbors to lift spirits during coronavirus shutdown
Chris Newton has lived in his east Petaluma home for eight years, but he didn't really know his neighbors apart from the occasional driveway hello.
On Sunday, Newton, 27, changed that.
With the permission of everyone on the block, many of whom were already outside basking in the afternoon sun - one of the things you still can do under the coronavirus shutdown - Newton grabbed his guitar, an amplifier and microphone and staged a nearly three-hour impromptu concert on his front lawn.
His hope was to lift his neighbors' spirits while the county, state and much of the nation exist under a stay-at-home order to slow the coronavirus pandemic, which has left people confined in or near their home for over a week.
In a viral video that captured some of the performance, Newton's neighbors gathered on lawn chairs and sipped cold beverages as he played covers of artists including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Beatles.
“I've never felt so much closer to my neighbors - and yet we were way more than six feet apart from each other,” said Newton, a music teacher at Miwok Valley Language Academy and La Tercera Elementary School. “It's a really good feeling to be sharing (my music) with people in such crazy times.”
Since some of the first videos capturing Italians singing on balconies or the trumpeter who played “Imagine” by John Lennon, musicians across the globe have turned their homes into a stage, providing a sense of comfort and solidarity by playing for their neighbors.
In Sonoma County, similar scenes are happening on driveways and front lawns as local artists attempt to build community spirit in difficult times.
In a tract of homes near the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus, members of Los Gu'achis, a local band inspired by southwestern Native American tribes, gathered on a driveway around noon Sunday and got down for over an hour.
Barbara Arhon, a retired teacher who founded the group, said the idea started last week when she opened her garage to practice the violin and a few neighbors stopped and listened.
That piqued the interest of two bandmates, accordionist Steve Della Maggiora and guitarist Chris Samson. Since most of their upcoming gigs have been canceled due to bans on public gatherings, Los Gu'achis have found a way to stay sharp, playing for neighbors nearly every day this week.
“It's for us, really. We're not getting tips or money. We're not promoting anything,” Arhon said. “We just thought it would be a fun thing to keep us busy and active and give a little joy to the neighborhood.”
The band members are all seniors, like most of their fan base. Two years ago, the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce honored the group with an award commemorating their connection with Petaluma's senior community.
That segment of our population, however, are also seen as the most susceptible to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, resulting in even stronger guidance from health officials about staying at home as much as possible.
Arhon said that leaves live music as a healthy and safe outlet to maintain community bonds - within the limits required by social distancing measures.
“If the sun is out and its not too cold, we could do this everyday,” Arhon said. “Its great practice for us. People seem to enjoy, and it's good feeling good for a few minutes a day.”
Newton hasn't committed to playing an encore in his neighborhood, at least not yet.
His main focus over the past week has been finding ways to earn income with Petaluma schools closed through May 1. He's shifted his music lessons online using the web platform Zoom, and has pitched his songwriting skills, offering personalized R&B numbers for an unspecified donation.
He has recorded three songs so far and has a few more in the works. One beneficiary paid him $500, a gesture that moved him to tears.
The aim is to raise awareness about the economic insecurity faced by local artists and others in “nonessential” professions that are struggling to make ends meet. They, in turn, could use a little help from their neighbors, Newton said.
“Artists and musicians are essential in another way,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or email@example.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.
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