Winnipeg musician Romi Mayes, explaining her role as a producer for Calgary-based Curbside Concerts, has an analogy for bringing music to your sidewalk during a pandemic. “It’s basically like Skip the Dishes for music. You go on the website, you choose the artist, and then we come equipped. You set the time and date you want it and we just set up, literally, curbside,” Mayes says from her home.
But while there’s been controversy over the amount of money Skip the Dishes takes, Curbside artists like Red Hot Hayseeds, Heather Blush, Mike McDonald, 100 Mile House and Greg Cockerill, who play concerts from Ontario to Vancouver Island, keep the lion’s share of their fees for their half-hour sets (which increase to 45 minutes in warmer weather).
Since Calgary music staple Matt Masters founded Curbside Concerts in April last year, over 550 concerts have been enjoyed by music fans across Canada during a time musicians and their patrons were struggling to deal with pandemic-related restrictions on live music.
“It’s all about safety, so as long as we are curbside, on the boulevard, yard, or driveway even, far away from the audience and the audience is all following the safety code,” says Mayes. “At first we thought that the code restrictions would really impede what we were doing, but then we realized it was needed more than ever.”
In fact, Manitoba has some of the most severe restrictions in the country, but during these, Curbside thrived, even over the cold weather of the Christmas season. “We treated it like a serenade, so the host family or household would sit outside their doorway or on their steps on their own property, depending on how cold the weather was, and we would entertain them. It was something to give to people who couldn’t get together with family, who couldn’t see family. A lot of people were giving these to people in other provinces as a gift to warm their Christmas up.”
And with many people unable to go out and enjoy an intimate dinner for Valentine’s Day, a romantic serenade at home is an option for some.
“The nice part, too, is you can have a couple of guests in their cars. They can come to the property and sit in their cars and watch the show, or the neighbours can sit at their respective properties and enjoy the show. Because it’s amplified people have been enjoying it in the immediate area as well.”
And yet, the noise bylaw fun-police have steered clear. “The fact is you’d have to be a really big grinch not to enjoy good music. And it’s not like you have a full band cranked at 11 p.m. All noise restriction hours, bylaws and parking are totally followed, and really, all our artists are very talented. If you’re two neighbours down and you don’t like it, just shut your door, and if you do like it, enjoy the tunes.”
It seems ironic that live music is thriving during a pandemic when it is too often ignored in better times. Mayes, who herself has played over 40 shows for Curbside, is stoic. “I think it’s like anything: you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. And live music has been important for everyone to socialize, to feel good. Nobody realizes how important live music was, exactly, until we couldn’t go see it.”
One memory of the past year really drives that point home, a surprise 60th birthday party for a big fan of hers with Mayes playing on the back deck. “The woman was wonderful. She had pylons set up for physical distancing (and) she had separate drinks in each cooler for everybody. He came around the corner, and everyone said, ‘Surprise!’ and I started singing Happy Birthday, and he just fell to his knees and started crying.”
Mayes, who once showed up to play a concert for just a man and his dog, believes Curbside’s staying power will move far beyond the pandemic.
“Really, a lot of these people are people who wouldn’t have made it to a music venue at 10 p.m. at night. They’re outside the city, they’re more elderly, they have children, they have dogs, and they get to experience the music (via Curbside) with them.”
To book a Valentine’s Day Curbside Concert, go to https://www.curbsideconcerts.ca/
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.