If you want to tally how many days it’s been since San Francisco began its pandemic lockdown — you could just count the number of virtual concerts by musicians Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco. Two-hundred and fifty this coming Sunday.
When San Francisco and other Bay Area counties issued shelter-at-home orders on March sixteenth, Axelrod and Ventresco, alarmed by the cancellation of all their gigs, hit the “live” button on Facebook one night and began streaming a live show. People tuned in, and seemed to thankful for the music.
“It was surprisingly favorable,” Axelrod said, “which is why we said ‘oh my gosh,’ we’re going to do this every day.”
Starting the day after the shut down, the pair began streaming a nightly show 8pm sharp from the kitchen of their North Beach apartment. You could call their music “pop,” only it’s the kind of popular music that had its day between 1890-1930. And yet it seems to dovetail nicely with modern broadcast medium.
“It kind of blows my mind that we can do this,” Axelrod said. “Because of the people who watch and tip us — I never thought this would work.”
Each night, the musicians slide into their kitchen chairs, cycling through guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, banjos — even a jug. Axelrod handles most of the singing in a voice that sounds like it’s emanating from a Depression-era radio, while Ventresco’s fingers fly about the frets of his guitar with the abandon of virtuosity.
They lean into the phone’s small screen to read comments — which often call out items in the kitchen.
“People comment about the green pot,” Axelrod laughed gesturing to the large green vessel sitting on the front burner. “They compliment the stove — we have a stylish stove.”
This Sunday will mark 250 straight concerts by the pair — a staggering feat for any stage, let alone a kitchen venue. And with thousands of songs under their belt, they rarely repeat a tune.
“Craig collects records,” Axelrod said, “and he knows every song on every side of every record.”
The shift to a virtual stage has torn down any geographic boundaries, suddenly exposing their music to anyone with a wifi connection and a screen. They’ve formed kinships with fans and fellow musicians across the nation, and even beyond.
“There’s a guy from Siberia who listens regularly,” Ventresco said, “there are people in Japan who listen regularly.”
Judging from the comments which frequently thank them for the musical gift, the music has brought solace to viewers stuck in their homes. For some who return night after night, there is a familiarity, as if old friends were all gathering in a kitchen to gather around a communal radio.
“It does begin to feel like people are in the room with us.” Axelrod said.
The loss of club gigs, cafe shows and special events has hit musicians particularly hard. While some have found scant work playing at outdoor venues, many have struggled to get by. Axelrod said the tips they make from the online performances are getting them through the hard times.
“We’re doing ok,” she said. “We’re not getting rich, but we’re getting by.”
The only sort-of hiccup to the continual shows came when Axelrod had to travel north to Fort Bragg, working temporarily for the Census Bureau. But even in exile, she and Ventresco continued the shows — each appearing one at a time on screen in the streaming.
She laughs at the arrival of the arrival of an obvious question; how long can they continue? Her response, as long as people are listening.
“Somedays I’m so tired I don’t feel like it,” she said, “but I always feel better having engaged in music.”