A Tale of Two Concerts

This entry of The Out There Side blog series celebrates live music in the post-vac world, vis-a-vis two recent outdoor shows in New York City: The Socially Distant Orchestra at West 104th Community Garden, and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic at Central Park’s SummerStage. Brains or booty: take your pick!

Adam Grannick (left) plays with the Socially Distant Orchestra at the 104th St Garden; Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton wails under a moonlit sky (and his own hoodie) at SummerStage.

t’s just so great to hear live music again!” exclaimed a middle-aged woman as she greeted Adam Grannick after the first in-person performance by The Socially Distant Orchestra. “It’s great to have a live audience!” Grannick replied. “Thank you for coming.”

The Socially Distant Orchestra (SDO) made its live debut on the Summer Solstice, June 21, after two dozen performances — and more than ¾ million YouTube hits — as an online conglomerate rendering classical tunes.

“The orchestra group grew out of a Facebook post in March 2020, in the first days of the lockdown,” Grannick explains. “I casually asked my contacts on Facebook if anyone would be interested in playing a short passage from Beethoven’s Symphony №9, and many people responded, tagging more of their friends … and it snowballed from there!”

Over 15 quarantined months, the global SDO recorded a dazzling series of 23 short videos, mixed by Grannick, a filmmaker and violinist. “We all recorded our parts separately, and by the time we wrapped up last week, we had played 2 hours and 18 minutes of music,” he says. “The videos have been viewed 783,000 times.”

Grannick calls the SDO a labor of love: “The purpose was to give musicians an opportunity to play music they wanted to play, to have something to rehearse for, and to have fun together during the pandemic. It was definitely a collaborative effort, since so many people became dedicated to growing the group, getting creative with their videos, and playing more challenging and fun repertoire.” Two dozen local SDO members gathered for the NYC garden performance. “It was such a joy to finally have all these people in the same place,” Grannick says. “Most of us had never met before!”

Sidewalk flower beds burst to life in spring and summer.

“Don’t dance too much!” quipped the woman at a SummerStage entry point, six days later on June 27, as she scanned my phone-screen ticket to see George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. My concert buddies and I had seen Clinton and P-Funk several times — we know how explosive they are — but never under such celebratory circumstances.

This was our first major concert since the pandemic started. While purchasing tickets online we were required to attest to being well and vaccinated against Covid-19 and to bring proof (though none was asked for at the venue).

New York City is operating under an honor system regarding vaccines, masking and gathering, with a sense of cautious exuberance. As an early hotspot in the spring of 2020, the city took Covid very seriously and put on a tight lid during the lockdown. NYC now has an infection rate of less than 1 percent and a vaccination rate of 57 percent. (Yet the ominous Delta variant accounts for roughly a quarter of NYC’s current case rate; as a friend said, “We’ll be sorry if Delta comes back to bite us in the ass.”)

Under new CDC and state guidelines, the city and its venues are reopening like sidewalk flowers on steroids. Exhibit A is that final frontier of togetherness: live music!

The Venues

The Summer Solstice backdrops the Make Music New York show at West 104th St. Community Garden.

he West 104th St. Community Garden comprises two city lots — one mainly for plants, one more for people — with just enough room for several dozen listeners (sitting distanced) who showed up to hear the Socially Distant Orchestra. Like many community gardens, this one’s been developed and preserved by a grassroots group, which lobbied to make it a NYC Park in 1998; it periodically hosts gatherings. As part of the citywide Make Music New York festival, the SDO show also featured the SoHarmoniums women’s choir and the jazz combo Ethan Mann Trio.

“The reaction of the garden crowd was incredible,” Grannick recalls. “I had no idea it would be that well attended. I think our happiness at playing together was infectious. It felt natural to play for a live audience again, and with these people who I had gotten to know over the past 15 months.”

SummerStage in Central Park kicks off its 2021 concert series with relatively modest crowds.

In past years the SummerStage arena on the East Side of Central Park has packed in spectators for outdoor shows — from James Brown to Lyle Lovett to Arcade Fire — in space large enough to hold thousands but small enough for everyone to have a view. For the George Clinton & P-Funk shows (one a matinee and the other in the evening) the venue sold just enough tickets ($75–125 apiece) to fill some 300 seats.

Of course most people didn’t sit — shifting down front to dance — but the low numbers meant that you didn’t have the usual rib-crushing mob scene. (A sign of kinder, gentler concerts in the post-Covid world?) “We don’t take cash,” said a vendor at one of the drink-and-snack stations — also uncrowded — pointing to an iPad payment device. Fans milled about with a sense of glee, maskless faces beaming: We’re at a concert! Onstage a young singer shouted: “We survived Covid, yo?!” and held out his mic to a roar.

The Bands

Local members of the Socially Distant Orchestra were conducted by Nena Kunnatee (front left) at their 104th Street debut (photo courtesy Adam Grannick).

hile the Socially Distant Orchestra was represented by a couple dozen musicians at its garden performance, the online ensemble included more than 350 participants from ten countries, from Mexico to Ireland, Tanzania to France, Venezuela to Greece. “The musicians mostly recruited themselves and each other,” Grannick says. “If we had a sign-up for a piece and a few spots were empty, I’d ask if anyone knew someone interested in playing, and there were always people who did.” For each piece, sheet music was sent around: “People signed up for parts, got the music, and recorded their parts — individually on their phones, while listening to a reference metronome track.”

Despite the patchwork, the SDO videos have a polished feel, resulting from “hours and hours of editing,” Grannick says. “It’s not always about fixing wrong notes. Most of the time, I just had to tweak the tuning of the instrument a few cents flat or sharp, because the musicians weren’t able to make the micro-adjustments to our tuning that we’d normally be able to do in a live setting. Six brass players sitting next to each other can play in harmony much more easily than those same six players recording parts separately.”

Grannick says the repertoire evolved over the course of the pandemic. “I chose the first few pieces because they thematically fit with what we were going through. Soon, though, the musicians started nominating things they wanted to play and we collectively voted on pieces.” The SDO drew on work from contemporary to classical: “We played Berlioz’s Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath for Halloween, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture as part of a ‘get out the vote’ effort, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with makeshift cannons) to honor the essential workers,” Grannick says. “Our encore was a 14-piano and 109-person-orchestra Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin.”

George Clinton (third from right) presides while Parliament-Funkadelic features an evolving array of singers, percussionists, horns and guitars (photo by Ken Spielman).

Parliament-Funkadelic is arguably the hottest live funk band on the planet. Imagine Sly & the Family Stone the absolute height of their powers — add about a dozen extra players; we counted at least 25 musicians drifting in and out — plus a few hundred more decibels of D&B. They were backdropped in Central Park by a summer sunset and the banner “One Nation Under a Groove.”

Soon to be 80, George Clinton presided over the funk with the leisureliness of an octogenarian and the glee of a little boy, delivering lines and dancing and then perching on a stool to watch the band wail. Clinton and P-Funk (a conglomerate of two earlier bands, Parliament and Funkadelic) have an enduring legacy of recorded hits — mostly dating to the ’70s — but nowadays they’re all about live jam.

“Behold that we are not of your world,” Clinton proclaimed as he and the band kicked into their 1973 tune “Cosmic Slop” and drove it skyward for 15 minutes. The freeform jams floated above grooves ranging from “Maggot Brain” to “Give Up the Funk” to “Atomic Dog” … and by the time they burst into their 1975 anthem — “Get Off Your Ass and Jam!” — we stepped in line and stopped taking notes.

The Future

As an online performance group, the Socially Distant Orchestra has more or less run its course. “I hope we stay in touch, and we are all looking forward to more — perhaps more rehearsed — performances together, either in smaller or larger groups,” Grannick says. “But it’s a very good sign that some musicians had to bow out of our garden performance because they had started to get work in person again. I hope we’ve become obsolete.”

That last statement would not likely slip from the mouths of George Clinton or Parliament-Funkadelic. The group’s One Nation Under a Groove Tour resumes September 1 in New Orleans and is scheduled to continue through May of 2022.

View from behind the stage of Dead & Company at Madison Square Garden.

As for me and my group of concert buddies, the next big show on the horizon returns us to the band we saw right before Covid hit: Dead & Company, with former members of The Grateful Dead and John Mayer on guitar (sitting in for Jerry Garcia). That last gig — at a cram-packed Madison Square Garden in late 2019 — was one of the best live shows ever. The next show will be at Citi Field in Queens. (A kinder, gentler venue?) The crowds are thinner, the audience is humbled, but the spirit lives on.

Jack Crager is a writer and editor based in New York City (jackcrager.com).