Swedish Blues Scene In The Midst Of The COVID-19 Outbreak By Brian Kramer.
Photos by Lotta Lindström
Saturday, March 21st 2020, I head out for my weekly Blues Jam in Stockholm, just celebrating our 23rd year. The train station is completely empty, and I am the only passenger to board from Hedemora to Stockholm. Central Station is also noticeably bare for this bustling major hub in Sweden.
As of this morning, there are a little more than 600 reported who have the COVID-19 virus in Stockholm, not as intense as other parts of the world; Italy, Spain, the US… The message is for “social distancing”, however, there is no direct order or panic to shut down clubs and venues here. At least not the modest-sized ones.
The local blues scene here is still churning along and I have not had my weekly shows cancelled as of yet. Club Engelen is asking for folks to take personal responsibility; stay home if feeling sick, wash hands etc. So, there are a good half dozen venues with Blues Jams and shows still providing the opportunity for musicians to perform and a small public to gather.
I personally feel this is okay, as long as we all are socially responsible. We need the music and there is a great appreciation for this as well as keeping the fear in check. For this day during my Blues Jam, we have arranged something unique and special though. In consideration for many of the folks at home who are stuck there, and don’t want to risk being out in public gatherings, we have for the first time ever arranged to Live Stream my Blues Jam direct to Facebook. The entire four-hour session, from start to finish will unfold over the internet uninterrupted, improvised, every unexpected twist and turn. I have also made the interactive consideration to leave many of the grooves within the songs with open-solo spaces, specifically for musicians stuck at home to Jam along.
I have prepared for this session to allow people who join in live, to feel a bit more secure by swapping out microphones for additional singers as well as puff screens covering the extra mics. I also have a handy 100ml pump bottle of hand sanitizer on stage for those who wish to partake (I did announce that a shot of tequila at the bar cost 10 bucks, but a shot of sanitizer from me cost 15, depending on your needs). The Houseband is in good spirits and we assume it will be a challenging day, but we are always ready for anything. A small crowd starts to steadily filter in as well as a handful of jammers. It’s a beautiful March day with the warmth of the sun basking everything and we are about to go live.
All of the venues and restaurants everywhere are taking a huge hit through all of this madness. Many struggling businesses have been devastated. Engelen is a popular music venue that is celebrating their 50 years in business, and we are fortunate to be able to perform there every week. Under normal circumstances, the room is packed throughout the day, which is quite fantastic for a Blues event on a Saturday afternoon anywhere in the world. Now with 20 to 30 people scattered standing and seated through the room at a healthy distance, I am reminded of the old days in New York when this was the more normal reality for any Blues Jam.
We have some brave jammers showing up now and I start to navigate and usher them on to the scene, remembering to switch out microphones and offer hand sanitizer, also refraining from the habitual and spontaneous handshaking or hugging. This is such a surreal experience and admittedly it’s a bit stressful just keeping tabs on all this. However, spirits are high, songs are flowing, and jammers are in motion, and the public is loving it all as well as a very healthy real-time response coming in from the Live Stream on Facebook. Messages from around the world; South Africa, Spain, Greece, America, Norway, UK, France. Musicians reporting that they are enjoying jamming along with us at home.
A few bassists show up, a few singers, harp players, a keyboardist, guitarists, it’s a good healthy jam. Unfortunately, no drummers, so our brilliant Markku has to really earn his keep today, but I do break it down halfway through for some old school Delta for a few songs of relief with just myself on guitar, keyboards and harp accompaniment.
Engelen is a good-sized space for an intimate scene and holds 250 people in the main room with another 100 or so in the joining room where they have TV monitors set up so folks can still view the on-stage activities as they eat and socialize. I believe Engelen is just happy or satisfied that they can continue to do some business and have regulars feel welcome, rather than creating a sense of disappointment amid this time of worldwide shutdown where everybody is feeling vulnerable. Also, the phenomena of incredible ceaseless streams on the internet of artists on every level posting or live streaming performances in the comfortable state of their home surrounding are just remarkable!
Not just out of the sense of boredom to do something because mainly all performing artists have been forced to cancel every tour and event, where more than 50+ people gather, but out of the genuine heartfelt gesture to lift people up throughout the world during a time when fear and instability are the most contagious. I have also put a few candid songs up and plan to do some more. Bringing this live stream of our International Blues Jam to the people that can’t attend somehow feels good.
More than three hours in, and the jam is a success and even with the added stresses, it feels so good to play for a small, appreciative crowd. A favourite local singer, Anna enters the room toward the end of the session and I immediately command her to the stage to take us home. During a rollicking final number of Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Anna looks to me to take a solo and for some reason, I spontaneously reach down and grab the plastic pump bottle of hand sanitizer and start to wiggle it all over the neck of my vintage 1959 Gibson ES225 attempting a slide guitar solo with it, which actually worked better than I thought thank goodness.
One person brilliantly commented that I turned “hand sanitizer into Blues hand satan-izer”. Yes, these are indeed strange and unusual times. Lets all hope for healthier ones soon and get back to some genuine Blues business with the usual, more manageable Blues worries.
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