Return to the road in 2021 was mixed bag for nationally touring Farmington bands
D'DAT, Signal 99 adapt to challenges as they face changed musical landscape
- Jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson will make his national TV debut on New Year's Eve on PBS.
- Anderson will appear in the musical special "United in Song" from Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
- Signal 99 plans to release some new material and do an extensive tour of Oklahoma and Texas in the spring.
FARMINGTON — Even though his band returned to the stage nearly midway through 2021 after a 13-month hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was an uneven year for San Juan County jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson, one filled with advances and setbacks in almost equal measure.
But Anderson acknowledged his year will end on a professional high note this weekend when he makes his first national television appearance.
Anderson will be one of the featured performers when PBS airs the musical special "United in Song: Celebrating the American Dream" on New Year's Eve.
The program features a variety of musical artists performing alongside the American Pops Orchestra, conducted by Luke Frazier.
The show is hosted by three-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera and features a lineup that includes such artists as Judy Collins and Sandi Patty, both of whom are multiple Grammy winners; pop singer David Archuleta; Tony winners Lea Salonga and Paulo Szot; and Midori Goto, a renowned violinist and the United Nations' Messenger of Peace.
Anderson said he was asked to serve as a last-minute replacement for a previously booked artist who had to drop out just days before the special was scheduled to be recorded at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in early November. He received an Instagram message from Frazier, asking if he could fly to Philadelphia the next day and be ready for rehearsal and a performance in the two days after that.
"It was crazy because all the days (around that period) were packed with stuff for the band," Anderson said, referring to D'DAT, his jazz quartet that tours nationally. "It just so happened that the timing was right, and I had a three-day gap that was open."
The experience was memorable, Anderson said, noting that the program, which was produced by Nouveau Productions, had a $1 million budget and was first class in every way. When he arrived at Independence Hall for his day of rehearsal, he said he was surrounded by professional makeup artists and hair stylists, wardrobe people, massage therapists, shoe shiners and even runners who were eager to bring him whatever he wanted to eat or drink.
"I didn't really take advantage of much," Anderson said, though he did add sheepishly, "I did take advantage of the food."
In his Instagram message to Anderson, Frazier, the conductor for the American Pops Orchestra, explained that he had been aware of Anderson's work for a long time and had been intending to reach out to him to see if they could work together. The program provided the perfect opportunity for them to do that.
Anderson wound up performing two songs for the program. The first tune was a rendition of "Groove Warrior," a D'DAT original upon which Anderson was accompanied by two members of the orchestra. The full orchestra joined him on the second song, a cover of George Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."
Despite working with new people, Anderson said he nailed both tunes on the first take.
"The film crew was very happy about that," he said.
Things went so well, in fact, that Frazier approached Anderson later and expressed his interest in collaborating in the future.
"He said, 'We should work together again — there's so much more we could do,'" Anderson said.
Anderson explained that he recently received a $40,000 Jazz Road Creative Residencies grant through the South Arts organization that will be used to fund a D'DAT tour of federal Bureau of Land Management sites throughout the West in 2022. Anderson said the two are now discussing how the American Pops Orchestra can join D'DAT for some of those dates.
"It was amazing how open to collaboration he was," Anderson said.
"United in Song" will air at 8:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve night on PBS. It also can be viewed at www.PBS.org and via the PBS video app on smartphones and smart TV devices.
No mixed signals from crowds
DDAT isn't the only Farmington-based band that went back on the road in 2021 to try to recapture the momentum it had generated before COVID-19 hit. The metal group Signal 99, led by Chuck Haven, began performing live shows again in July after sitting out the previous 16 months.
As he anticipated, Haven said he discovered a changed musical landscape when Signal 99 began performing again, especially in the number of live music venues that had survived the shutdown. But he was delighted at the reception his band received from fans eager to experience music in a live, rather than virtual, format again.
"Booking shows was actually quite easy for me to get done," Haven said, in spite of the closure of so many clubs and concert halls. "And the turnout we did see was quite good."
Haven said music fans seem more enthusiastic than ever, but he has noticed they also seem more respectful than they were before the pandemic, seemingly focusing more on the lyrics. He also said the amount of revenue Signal 99 is generating through merchandise sales and music streaming platforms has increased significantly.
"I am making more in my merchandise now than I was pre-pandemic," he said. " … We've done really quite well all the places we've played."
But it hasn't been all smooth sailing. Haven said the biggest issue he has experienced has been his decision to part ways with the other members of his band when they declined to get vaccinated.
Haven said there was no room for compromise on the issue as far as he was concerned, explaining that most promoters and venues are requiring that all performers be fully vaccinated these days.
That has led him to use a revolving corps of temporary musicians over the past several months as he pieces together another permanent band. Haven said he was pleasantly surprised at the number of quality players available, explaining that many of them were members of bands that have not resumed activity since the pandemic began and were looking for work.
Haven said the group booked several shows from July through October, but three of them wound up being cancelled because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Signal 99 has performed in Phoenix, Denver and Gallup, and had shows called off in Tucson and Albuquerque.
Haven said one of those cancellations was especially upsetting. The show was called off after the promoter, a longtime ally of the band, got sick with COVID-19 and had his wife die from it.
There are reminders of the virus' presence everywhere you look, Haven said.
"It is heartbreaking," he said. "Pre-COVID, we could all go out and listen to music and enjoy it and have fun. You can still do that now, but at the expense of what?"
When Haven looks out in the audience, he used to see hundreds or thousands of faces, people he looked forward to connecting with after the show at his band's merchandise table. Now those same faces are mostly obscured by facemasks, and he knows that many of those fans have lost people they love to the virus and may still be grieving.
"It's hard to see that happening out there when you're trying to play," he said.
But after sitting out the first 16 months of the pandemic, Haven isn't interested in returning to the sidelines to wait out the rest of it. What has become clear to him over the last six months is how important music is to the emotional well-being of so many people – himself included.
"A lot of people listen to music to cope with things," Haven said. "I feel obligated to go back out and help people begin the healing process. I had been going through a phase where I was becoming more political, but I've taken a step back from that now because I realize a lot of people are traumatized (by what has happened during the pandemic)."
Haven said he decided not to book any shows in December or January because of the increase in the number of COVID cases in San Juan County. But he has a three-date tour of Arizona booked in early February and is waiting to hear if Southwest by Southwest, the giant music and media conference traditionally held in the middle of March each year in Austin, will return this year.
If so, Signal 99 will be there, and Haven plans to tack on a lengthy tour that includes stops in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Amarillo, Dallas and San Antonio. He also hopes to release a slew of new singles he already has recorded.
He looks forward to the day when Signal 99 can play in front of 15,000 fans again as it has at multiday festivals in Mexico City and California.
But for now, he's satisfied with performing at smaller venues and getting back into the routine of performing on a semiregular basis, which, for him, involves keeping his supply of guitar strings restocked, making sure none of his guitar cables are shorting out and even re-evaluating what kind of gear he wants to use onstage and how he wants it to sound. That's not something he's been doing for most of the pandemic, he said.
"I'm finding out my style has changed, as well," he said.
Cancellations, but no idleness
Anderson's bandmates in D'DAT did not join him in Philadelphia for the PBS program, but they have been alongside him for much of the rest of 2021. The group resumed live performances in May and has played close to 25 shows over that time, including concerts in California and a tour of big sky country that included stops in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Utah, Washington and Idaho.
D'DAT recorded a new album last summer, "Born in an Odd Time," and hopes to release the disc in the late spring of 2022. The band also has been working on another touring project, "The Spirit Coalescent," a traveling show that features music, dance, poetry and visual art, that will make its debut in late January in Farmington.
Anderson said D'DAT was able to accomplish only about 40% of what it originally had planned in 2021 by the time all its cancellations and postponements were figured in. But that doesn't mean the band didn't keep themselves occupied, as Anderson and company spent plenty of time rehearsing for their recording sessions and refining "The Spirit Coalescent."
"It never seemed like we didn't have anything to do or we were never busy," he said.
D'DAT was fortunate in that it was able to generate other revenue through its aggressive pursuit of licensing its music to film producers and streaming platforms. Anderson estimated the band's income dipped only about 20% in 2021, even though it was on the road for only half the year.
But he is ready to show off what D'DAT has been up to since the pandemic began in March 2020.
"We've had a good two-year run of just creating new projects and creating new things," he said. "Our attitude is, 'Let's perfect them and perform them now.'"
Like Signal 99's Haven, Anderson said he noticed that when his group did perform live this year, there was an increased intensity to the experience.
"You could tell everyone had a sense of urgency. They couldn't wait to do it," he said, adding that he felt that atmosphere even though D'DAT often performed to houses that were limited to 50% capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"It felt very meaningful," he said, explaining that in some instances, he was approached by audience members who greeted him after a show with tears in their eyes. "They were so happy there was this sense of normalcy to them. A lot of them were people who didn't really have any love for the arts, but they said they felt like they needed to go to a show after COVID."
A significant number of those folks found out through that experience that they did, in fact, have an appreciation for the arts. Reaching people in that way gave Anderson a lot of satisfaction.
"It was cool and different," he said. "We had a ton of feedback like that."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.