2020 was still music to the ears (and eyes)

Photo provided by Scott Saalman
Scott Saalman in his WWOZ T-shirt. He discovered the New Orleans jazz and heritage station online while working from home last year.

Guest Columnist

Usually at this time I recount the many concerts Brynne and I attended the year before. Our arts and leisure budget is mostly consumed by live music.

The year started promisingly enough. We celebrated Mardi Gras early with the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, a tour de force of top Crescent City players. The lively percussionists and tuba, tenor sax, trumpet and trombone practitioners created a raucous, sweaty, party atmosphere during a bone-chilling Bloomington winter night. Rebirth was meant to be the kickstart for a year of anticipated concerts, including The Rolling Stones, but the pandemic proved you can’t always get what you want, causing us to seek alternative musical fixes.

A favorite internet discovery during my work-from-home isolationism was WWOZ 90.7 FM (www.wwoz.org), an around-the-clock, New Orleans jazz and heritage station based in the French Quarter. Its mission “is to be the worldwide voice, archive and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.” Almost daily, Hurricane Katrina survivor and coronavirus warrior WWOZ steals my heart, stirs my soul, and satiates my ears with an auditory gumbo of traditional jazz, Dixieland, soul, funk, old-time country and bluegrass, R&B, gospel, Latin, Brazilian, Cuban, Cajun and Zydeco music. I donated refunded concert ticket monies to their 40th anniversary listener support drive, earning my stripes as an official “Guardian of the Groove.”

Brynne and I jumped geography to Cuba via one of my favorite music documentaries, “The Buena Vista Social Club.” The latest CD by NYC jazz musician Jamie Fox, “I Wish,” found a permanent home in my Corolla’s CD player, helping me chill out while driving through our pandemic hellscape.

We livestreamed a couple of concerts but never really warmed to the concept, not until, that is, David Broza & Friends’ 25th Anniversary “Not Exactly Christmas Show” was beamed from City Winery in NYC to the comfort of our fireplaced living room via cutting-edge livestreaming platform Mandolin. The charismatic Broza and his diverse cast of international phenoms proved to be the perfect not exactly Christmas present. A week later, we were drawn to Broza’s music documentary, “East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem,” which features both Israeli and Palestinian musicians recording together to promote peace through the universal language of music. What I really like about Israeli-born Broza, a humanitarian with an accordion-stretch smile, is how he sustains a unique aura of intensity and integrity through music and social action. His messages of hope and compassion strike the conscience like sheet lightning with mercy. I love his 2020 instrumental album, “en Casa Limon,” a 12-track love song to the Spanish guitar.

I learned about Broza from my former college professor Matthew Graham, who is the current Indiana poet laureate. Long ago, his poems were discovered by Broza and put to song. They’ve been buddies ever since. It was nice to hear Broza talk fondly about Graham between songs during the Not Exactly Christmas Show.

I first read Graham’s latest poetry collection, “The Geography of Home,” in 2020, on the beaches of the Outer Banks during the August weekend of my daughter’s barrier island wedding. It’s the first poetry I’ve read while wearing a face mask. Graham’s writing has achieved elevation with each new collection. His printed stanzas are music to the eye. Buy a Graham book or visit www.indianahumanities.org to see the impressive online work he curated last July, highlighting themes of protest and pandemic with other Hoosier poets.

I actually did attend a live show during the pandemic: Will Read and Sing For Food (WRASFF), a Harry Chapin-inspired benefit show that I began hosting in 2011 which mixes humor essays and live music. To date, we’ve raised about $165,000 for dozens of charities in southern Indiana. Rafaela Schaick, Marc Steczyk, Debbie Schuetter, Kyle Lueken, Abbie Rumbach and I performed for 200 live-show-starved, safely-spaced audience members at the 1,500-seat, fully-covered Lincoln Amphitheatre on a chilly September night. We raised money for the Amp, which took a financial hit due to COVID-19. Graham joined us on stage too, a rare occasion in 2020 for our poet laureate to read in person to an audience (most of his first-year laureate duties have been virtual). It was a big thrill to join forces and raise money for a worthy cause again.

I would be remiss in these 2020 music chronicles if I didn’t mention the Sheet’z Cor-o-na Cure Video phenomenon, starring aforementioned Schuetter. To cope during the pandemic, she has posted a different cover song each day for 290 days (at the time of this writing), this while going through a gauntlet of treatments in her now one-year battle with breast cancer. She delivers a daily dose of inspiration, humor and song for an impressive amount of old and new fans. When Hoosier rocker John Mellencamp heard about Debbie’s efforts, he sent her an autographed Takamine six string. To celebrate her 100th song, the City of Jasper declared it to be “Debbie Schuetter Day.” A bit later, she singlehandedly raised, through a T-shirt fundraiser, $8,000 for Jasper’s beloved Astra Theatre, its stage silenced by COVID-19.

Granted, we didn’t get to see The Rolling Stones (maybe their next tour, say, the 2030 Last Stone Standing Tour with Keith Richards) or our beloved John Prine (sadly, there can be no next time), but we still left 2020 feeling somewhat musically enriched. All for now. There’s a new Harry Chapin documentary to watch.

Email scottsaalman@gmail.com to order his new column collection, “What Are You Going To Write About When I’m Gone?” ($15).

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com