As Jesse Malin prepares for one last livestreamed show on April 2, Rock & Roll Globe goes behind-the-scenes with him to watch how he’s pulled off the pandemic’s most ambitious concert series
It was all going so well until the firemen showed up.
That’s what I was thinking last October as I stood on the sidewalk outside of Bowery Electric, the famed music venue in New York City’s bohemian East Village neighborhood, as I watched firetrucks pull up to the curb, sirens wailing. A dozen fireman streamed into the venue, where alarms were blaring.
Bowery Electric is co-owned by acclaimed singer-songwriter Jesse Malin, who had invited me to come and watch him do his livestream show, “The Fine Art of Self-Distancing” (TFAOSD), which he began doing after the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to cancel his remaining European tour dates for 2020.
During a year when regular concerts are banished, being invited to witness one of Malin’s shows in person feels like winning the musical lottery. In line with New York City’s pandemic restrictions, only ten people can be present for each show (all socially distanced, with masks on). That means that besides Malin and his band, there can only be a small crew to run the sound, cameras, and IT needs for the livestream, plus one or two lucky journalists such as myself.
After several months without seeing live music, it’s an incredibly emotional experience to be in the same room with a full band. When the livestream kicks off, I find myself almost overwhelmed as they start playing. Watching streams online cannot compare with the sheer exhilaration that comes with feeling live music pulsing through your whole body.
So it is dismaying when a fog machine sets off the fire alarms a couple of songs into the set. As I head outside, Malin and his band and crew opt to remain. Though they quit playing, the livestream continues – with a cameraman following the firemen checking out the club before finally giving the all-clear. Cinema verité in the COVID age.
After the firemen leave, Malin sends word that we can come back to our places on the balcony overlooking the stage, where he and the band have already begun the next song. Fortunately, the rest of the show goes off without a hitch.
But in truth, things still seem strongly surreal, because this is nothing like a regular show. Walking into a near-empty club is jarring, as is the fact that the houselights stay on the entire time so the crew can do their jobs more easily.
Another difference: the sudden and unsettling silence between songs. Malin does a good job of filling this space with witty banter, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there’s no energy coming from a clapping, cheering crowd. He frequently mentions that he can feel that there are people watching from around the world in that moment – and he’s correct: there is definitely the sense that there is an unseen audience out there.
A few weeks later, I was invited to attend another show. This time, Malin suggests I stand in the club’s sound booth (which is unmanned because the sound man is running a second console from the back of the venue, so he can control the sound for both the venue and the livestream).
It’s an amazing offer, because it means I’ll be only 15 feet away from the stage, making me the only person besides the cameraman who gets to be so close. The only drawback is that the area is a veritable obstacle course of expensive cameras, lighting equipment, cables and wires. Clumsy by nature, I gingerly make my way toward the sound booth – and bang into a towering lighting apparatus, almost knocking it over. “Oh, that was all set up specifically,” Malin says as he heads toward the stage. He says it amiably, yet I still feel mortified as the cameraman puts things back in place.
I manage to ease myself into the sound booth without causing further problems. Once there, though, I realize it’s an incredibly tight space – just barely big enough for me to stand without touching the sound board or the wires running out of it. I must be very careful not to accidentally bump into anything and wreck the sound in the middle of the show.
VIDEO: Jesse Malin performs “Winter” at Bowery Electric, December 2020
Suddenly, Malin comes back. “One more thing – and this is important,” he says. “You cannot leave that spot until the show’s over. You can’t get out of there without being seen on-camera and disrupting the show. So, no bathroom breaks.” He walks away. Knowing his shows often last two hours, I find myself fervently wishing I hadn’t downed a large bottle of water before coming here. Well…too late now.
As the show starts, it’s an astonishing thing to watch from this vantage point – though I also feel very exposed. Being so near the band, I know they must notice my reactions, so I dance as much as the cramped space allows, determined to demonstrate my enthusiasm even though I feel extremely self-conscious. The last time I saw Malin perform, it was at a large venue here in New York, so I feel immense pressure to be a good surrogate audience member.
Through the next few months, I am lucky enough to attend more of Malin’s shows. He gets in the habit of greeting me by exclaiming, “Go get in your spot!” – and I squeeze myself into the sound booth, with gratitude. I know I’m immensely privileged to witness incredible live music on a semi-regular basis, especially during a time when most people aren’t attending any shows at all.
But now comes the end. On April 2, Malin’s final show will be streamed from Bowery Electric, as usual – but for the first time, thanks to restrictions easing, 50 audience members will sit at socially distanced tables inside the venue. It will be Malin’s first performance in front of a crowd in more than a year.
But first, there is one last audience-free show, streamed from his apartment on March 18. This brings “The Fine Art of Self-Distancing” full-circle: when the pandemic began, Malin did the first few shows alone in his living room, running the stream though his phone. Beyond musical performances, these shows were also news briefings to the rest of the world as he talked candidly about how frightening it was to be in New York as the city contended with the terrifying first COVID surge in America.
Things are considerably better one year later. For this show, Malin’s bandmate, Derek Cruz, joins him on guitar and keyboard. The confined space means that only the cameraman can be working in the same room with them, with the sound man and IT supervisor set up elsewhere in the apartment.
I am extremely honored to be the only other person there, but I know I must try to make myself inconspicuous. This isn’t easy, as I am sitting on a couch only ten feet away from Malin as he performs, but I do my best to seem as small and silent as possible.
As Malin begins playing, there is a particular poignancy that hasn’t been present in previous shows. It seems like everyone here is hyper aware that this is the last of this type of show, so it is special. This is especially true as Malin plays the final song, the achingly gorgeous but wistful ballad “Aftermath.” I blink back tears as he sings the chorus, which seems to perfectly sum up what we’ve all endured this past year, while also expressing hope for what comes next:
Down a long, hard road
Such a long, hard road
To hold on
And move on…
I know it’s selfish of me to wish that this won’t end. But later, looking at fans’ comments online, I realize that I’m not alone in this sorrow. There seem to be many people who, for various reasons, cannot attend concerts even in normal times, so these livestreams have been particularly meaningful to them. I hope that Malin will realize this, and continue to do occasional online shows even after this pandemic is done.
After the show, Malin and the others relax and talk excitedly about the upcoming concerts in front of actual in-person audiences. Their elation and relief at this prospect is palpable, and I am so happy for them. I’ve watched them work unbelievably hard to deliver high-quality shows week after week, even during incredibly grim times. They’ve brought so much joy to so many people. Now it’s their turn to feel appreciated – by a room full of adoring audience members, not just a lucky rock critic like me.
When I leave Malin’s apartment and emerge onto the darkened East Village streets, I know I’m walking away from one of the most beautiful and bittersweet experiences I’ll ever have as a music journalist (or as a human being, for that matter).
As I head down Avenue A, the haunting final line of “Aftermath” echoes in my mind: “So hold on…hold on…’til it’s gone.”
Jesse Malin’s latest single, “The Way We Used to Roll,” was released on March 26. His next (and final) livestream show will run on April 2 – tickets are available here.