Like everyone else, my idea of “fun” shifted radically over the past year. The bar was lowered, to the point where an engaging multi-hour Netflix binge-watch was an A+ night. “Law and Order: SVU” gained new anticipatory relevance. I fretted about whether “SNL” would be a rerun and looked forward to it if it wasn’t.
For years, my wife and I have had a pretty steady diet of outside entertainment — concerts, theater, standup comedy, movies and more. I’ve written about that stuff for more than 40 years. Of course all that jerked to a halt last year.
But last month we got our second Moderna shots and were, quietly, over the moon, feeling safe, safe-ish or harboring the illusion of safety. (It varies.) And when Gov. Baker allowed for indoor entertainment with venues operating at 50 percent capacity for standup comedy and live music (but without singing or horns), we waded into the waters.
We’ve all watched music or comedy online, but what’s missed is the social engagement and the connectivity between a performer and audience, the feedback loop, getting caught up in a communal wave.
So we ventured out on three recent nights: comic Steve Sweeney at Laugh Boston!, dub/reggae band Naya Rockers at the Beehive and acid blues band Bees Deluxe at City Winery.
Would the performers have their sea legs?
Yes, pretty much.
Mostly, but still a bit shaky.
Would we find a semblance of normalcy in this new world?
Yes, but the pleasure of being out in a crowd seeing performance was mitigated by the necessity of the setting, the six-foot distancing. You don’t get the camaraderie of close proximity, the joy of strangers interacting. I thought of the old Dave Mason album “Alone Together.”
We’ve all watched music or comedy online, but what’s missed is the social engagement and the connectivity between a performer and audience, the feedback loop, getting caught up in a communal wave.Jim Sullivan
On April 23 at Laugh Boston!, about 90 people gathered in a 300-capacity club where rejiggered capacity is 150. Fans clustered – in a socially distantly manner – around the front, with a yawning emptiness behind them.
“I’m so happy to be out of the house. Clap your hands if this is your first time out of the house,” said host Corey Manning. The people clapped.
Steve Sweeney began his set by (intentionally) mumbling through a mask, but later said, ““It’s nice to see human beings without the mask, it really is.” The best part of the pandemic for him was keeping him from performing on cruise ships – “the worst job in America. You see people for a week who tell you you suck.”
The audience laughed and if the laughter didn’t fill the room, well, it couldn’t. But we were trying.
Was it awkward?
“No,” Sweeney said, “it was great. I’m working my way back into it. People are glad to get out and glad to laugh. Some people are scared, some people are paranoid. I’m not saying ‘Be reckless,’ but Jesus, I think this was a release for people and it was for me. I’m a recovering addict – nearly 29 years – and isolation is the worst thing for me.”
The cozy Beehive restaurant in the South End is not necessarily a space where you come to hear music, but music can be a key component of the late-night experience -- heard as background, foreground or somewhere in between. The Beehive recently started having live music on weekends, and as one of the servers, Jeff Gunnip, told me they were all very happy to have it back: “A little bit of our soul has been missing.”
On April 24, Naya Rockers, helmed by drummer Nathan Sabanayagam, played two 40-minutes sets. Despite the plexiglass partitions and mandatory distancing, there was already a buzz among the dinner crowd. When Sabanayagam and his three mates eased into this slinky, instrumental dub and reggae, it created a sinuous groove and a warm, bonding vibe. Music as therapy with songs by Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Culture and Chronixx, among others.
“We connected with people,” Sabanayagam said later. “People were coming up saying ‘You had so much energy.’ It’s the idea of musicians communicating on stage, like birds all flying together.”
And yet, Sabanayagam says,“Since March 13  nothing has been the same. It doesn’t feel normal at all. I’ve had to learn how to overcome the anxiety, the mask wearing, the interaction with people being in a restaurant and not always following the rules. This can send you into a spiral, if you let it.”
Bees Deluxe, which stirs blues, jazz and rock into their grooving gumbo, was more ready for this world. Three members of the band sing, but they can easily play those songs without vocals; and a number of songs they cover and write are also instrumental. In fact, the quartet just wrote and recorded an all-instrumental album, "Speechless.” They stir “It was done partly in celebration and/or mockery of the masking of musicians here in Massachusetts,” said guitarist Conrad Warre.
At City Winery May 1, they played songs intended as instrumentals like Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and Jeff Beck’s “Brush with the Blues” and those not, like the James Gang’s “Funk #49” and the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” One woman sang the lyrics from the Buckinghams’ 1967 hit, “Mercy Mercy Mercy” softly in her seat. Bees Deluxe’s own “Imaginary Conversation Between Bjork & Buddy Guy” was tremendous with synthist Carol Band’s spacey washes of sound punctuated by Warre’s stinging notes.
“We lean heavily into being an improvisational band at all times so it’s a no-brainer for Bees Deluxe,” said Warre. He said the band’s style and repertoire is so varied they’re comfortable playing dance parties or sit-down gigs like this one.
“I felt they were listening and caring about what we were doing,” Warre reflected the next day. “Playing instrumentals is a lot of fun and we get to play tunes we didn’t otherwise or wouldn’t have time to play. And the audience is especially appreciative because they’ve been in jail, too.”
Now, all of us – performers and potential audiences – are out on parole. Let’s behave wisely and we’ll get more.