Will there be live music concerts in the ‘new normal’?
Debra and Jason Hicks, founders of the Joan Zen Band, like many professional musicians across the nation are not immune from the catastrophic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The Bitterroot Star asked Debra Hicks to share with us the impacts of this epidemic and the measures invoked to counter it on her business.
Hicks and her husband Jason met in 1997 in California where they were playing in a band together and were married in 1998. The two moved to the Bitterroot in 2002 and stayed briefly with Jason’s mother, who had recently relocated to Stevensville.
They soon purchased a travel trailer and spent several months at Kirby Erickson’s place near Hamilton. Erickson and Debra’s uncle Rob Kunkle were good friends, and both were well known and well appreciated musicians in the Bitterroot throughout the 1980s. The two of them played a lot at Haigh’s Bar (remember that happening spot, now supplanted by the Spice of Life?).
“We just felt like we had come home,” said Hicks about the move to Montana. “We’ve been here now for 18 to 19 years and from the git-go we felt like we were where we were supposed to be.”
Pretty soon she and Jason decided to start up a band and the first to step up and join them was another old time, all-time favorite Bitterroot musician Donald Maus. Deb had been given some names of people to talk to when she got to Montana including musicians like Don Maus, David Horgan, Chuck Florence and Eli Nuno. Maus was the first person they called, and he jumped on the offer. Hicks said they began rehearsing with him. By March 2003, they were playing their first gig.
Then Jason was sitting around talking to Tim Bozick, owner of the Bitterroot Brewery, and Bozick said he had heard that they were musicians and he invited them to play at the brewery.
“Jason said, if you do that it’s going to be a scene, it’ll be a party,” said Hicks. “He let us do it, and it was pretty much a scene. And it was a really fun scene.”
They also started adding other musicians to the band pretty quickly. The next to join were David Horgan and Chuck Florence.
They also started down the road of supporting local non-profits, something that was going to become one of the defining characteristics of the group over the coming years. Their first was a gig in support of the Bitterroot Youth Homes, soon followed by one for S.A.F.E.
Hicks said getting involved with the non-profit scene was kind of by choice.
“I wanted to dive into what the community was working on together and what was important to Montanans and to the type of people I knew liked my music.” She said one thing she liked about Montana was that you could have a civil conversation with the right or the left or the middle or the extremes and find some kind of common ground because “most people live here because they love the environment, they love how beautiful it is and, in whatever way, they feel like they are protecting it from whatever side they are on.”
Hicks said that Montanans are a special kind of people because they live in a special kind of place. She said the current coronavirus situation is a good example.
“Here in Montana we are so much better off already just by being here,” said Hicks. “So it’s really hard to complain because there is so much real suffering going on where people don’t have the luxury, the privilege to isolate or shelter-in-place.”
Hicks said as for the coronavirus impact on musicians, it pretty much just stopped things almost overnight. She said her band cancelled its first gig due to the epidemic before any orders to that effect were announced. She said they heard about the disease and some of what was to come from a woman who worked at a local laboratory and they decided right away to cancel their gig at the Union Club in Missoula.
Hicks said the band members were not just concerned about themselves, but they were very concerned about the public and all those people pressed shoulder to shoulder in a closed room.
“We didn’t want anyone to get sick,” she said. So they backed out of the gig, but the owner went ahead with another band. She said she did notice that it was the last one that was held and future shows on the schedule were cancelled due to the epidemic.
“We were just a little bit ahead of the curve,” said Hicks.
Montana’s not the only place that musicians are suffering, she said, it’s happening all across the country.
“The one good thing about Montana is that people take care of each other here and there is access to farmer’s market food, your local Lifeline organics and Homestead Organics. You can keep your money local as much as possible and eat pretty well. So I think the people in our band are doing better than most.
“So I really can’t complain, but I do really miss playing. That’s where I have the most fun is playing live,” she said.
She said even when things start opening back up its going to be difficult. If people are not feeling comfortable with a crowd they are not going to attend. She said their band does a lot of weddings and so far nobody has actually cancelled but they are postponing them. She said some scheduled for September were already postponed to the end of the year and some into next year.
Montana may have it better than most states, but it doesn’t mean anything if all the other states around you are struggling. She said with some states still sheltering and others opening up, the messages are still very contradictory.
“I don’t know about you but one day it seems to me like this must be a bunch of hype, but the next day you see body bags piling up outside hospitals in New York and Florida nursing homes,” said Hicks.
She said in comparison Montana would probably recover pretty quickly. She said maybe Montanans are lucky in a way by being the third poorest state in the union.
“People here are used to living from paycheck to paycheck. They are used to seasonal work where it is cut off in the winter. Most of us have been hurt by some of this, but nothing like the people in these big cities,” she said.
Hicks said that she and Jason were very lucky personally. She said that her family was always willing to help her out when she decided to stick with music for a career and took on the life of a struggling artist. Without being asked, she said, her father was always there watching and wanting to help out when help was needed. When he recently passed away she inherited a little money and she and Jason have bought a piece of property that they now own and live on in their airstream trailer. They have to haul water. It’s bare bones.
“But we are choosing to live this way,” said Hicks. She called it “the Montana way.” She said she and Jason were enjoying putting some sweat equity into building their home and she was actually feeling pretty lucky.
Hicks said that the band was still doing things. They just participated in a live-streaming event on Facebook called Sequesterfest, networking several musicians across the country. Virtual tip cups are put up on the website to accept donations to the artists being featured. She said it was very different performing without a live audience, though.
“There are a lot of people doing it,” she said, “It’s a different way to connect. I think we have to just imagine how we might emerge from all this. I don’t think live concerts are going to be happening for a while.” She said the alternative of playing live to a small group of people in a restricted seating coffee-shop style venue may not be economically viable for most bands.
Hicks said her band played regularly at a venue that is always completely packed.
“How will they deal with this?” she wondered. Will they put police tape around certain tables to create the proper distancing? How do you keep distancing requirements among dancers dancing? With security enforcement? How will people react to that? Can the owner make money to pay the band with the reduced capacity that is being required?
“I don’t know if we will even have a job,” said Hicks. “You know you think at times that everything can come to a stop and what would it be like. But now it’s happened.” She said that going digital and doing virtual performances may be the only option, but it can’t match the magic that transpires between a musician and the audience in a live performance.
“You just can’t do that over a screen” she said.
On the other hand, she recognizes that it may not be an option, for a while at least.
“I think we need to do what we can,” she said. “We need to offer things virtually, but people also need to recognize that it is a valuable service. It’s like that saying, ‘earth without art is just eh’.
She noted that some museums were offering virtual tours on-line. “I think people should be flexible to change. But music for me is that live exchange between the audience and the musician so that’s going to be hard to replace through a screen.”
Hicks said that when she left California she was very sad over the loss of her mother and wasn’t grieving very well.
“I needed a place where I could just sort of heal and meet people where a handshake still meant something,” said Hicks. She said the Bitterroot was just that place. She said she couldn’t see doing the same sort of corporate model of business that they were doing in California. But at the same time, she wanted to bring some real professionalism to what she was doing here. She said she always wanted to do her own songs, but she was also comfortable doing cover songs to raise money for charities and nonprofits.
“It doesn’t matter whose song it is. If it gets people out on the dance floor and they feel good at the end of the night and feel better than when they went in, they left with something, then I felt like I was doing my job. I am a job oriented musician and I feel like music should lift people up, to make people happier, but also to make people aspire to be better. Isn’t that what art makes us do? Whether it’s painting or music or dance, it’s to bring out our altruistic characteristics so that we can kind of rise up and be almost mythical creatures to ourselves. That’s what art is. It’s just an expression of the soul.”
She said her husband Jason talks about music as though it’s an essential thing, a necessary sustenance or substance, like air or water or spirituality.
“Music is one of those things. You must have it to live,” said Hicks.
“The only reason to do music in the Bitterroot is to give something of yourself,” she said. That’s why she sought out the good causes like Bitterroot Youth Homes and S.A.F.E. To partner with them was like the perfect blend. “This is what I want to do with my voice and it’s something I have to offer,” she said. “The Bitterrooters were hungry for music,” she said, “but they are also very caring as a community and the neighbors all come out for each other.”
“It is part of my philosophy,” she said. “First we named the band Joan Zen because if we had named it the Hicks we would have been expected to play bluegrass music instead of the funk and soul and reggae we do. But the music itself had for me to be tied to the philosophy of trying to better oneself and help the people around you like a good Bodhisattva, like a good Buddha would do, you just try to do your part to try to help others. So, Joan Zen was sort of an aspiration and became sort of my name. A lot of people don’t even know that my name is not Joan. But anyway, it’s all tied together.”
“I could have done a million things in life,” said Hicks. “Jason was studying physics and I was working on a master’s degree at San Diego State teaching public speaking. We could have gone into the corporate track. But I would rather just struggle as a musician and when I die, no matter when it is, at least I will have thought to myself, well that was a life worth living. It was interesting. I never had a dull moment and I got to do what I love most with my favorite person, Jason. So I’m pretty blessed. The fact that the community has been so affectionate and so supportive of us I think is a real testament to how music affects us, and I have been really fortunate.
“I think we’ve just got to stay hopeful and help one another and just be open to whatever changes are going to come and support however things develop for the best of everyone and try not to just melt down into total utter chaos.”