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KENNEBUNK, Maine — Singer and guitar player Travis Cote stood huddled against the wall Wednesday night at Ryan’s Corner House Irish Pub, trying to keep a healthy social distance from the patrons he was entertaining. Cote had hoped to play on the patio, but thunder showers drove him indoors.
The tiny pub was at its COVID-19 capacity — the state mandate that caps how many patrons can safely be in establishments right now. Tourists sat at either end of the short bar, separated by three empty stools. The carefully spread out tables were full of people drinking, eating and singing along, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I like to think my microphone works like a mask,” Cote said.
Cote knows it doesn’t but he’s still willing to take the chance. He’s not alone. As coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifted, Maine music makers are facing the same dilemma: To play or not to play. Some are ready to pounce on the limited paying opportunities. Others are still too wary of the pandemic and its possibly fatal consequences.
“The regulars are coming out and making up for lost time,” Cote said, during a break. “The bar has had to turn people away a few nights, but not many.”
Cote said Wednesday was his ninth live gig since resuming in June.
Cote is technically one half of a duo called The Barmen but because the pub can’t fill to pre-COVID-19 levels, there’s no budget for the second musician. The two of them primarily play Celtic music and it was a hard blow when Gov. Janet Mills shut restaurants and bars down on March 16 — the day before St. Patrick’s Day.
“It was a real gut punch,” Cote said. “Not going to lie. I spent the first month on the couch, watching too much TV.”
But then, like many suddenly unemployed musicians, he started playing streaming concerts online. Cote said he played 11 consecutive Saturday nights at home in front of a camera but it just wasn’t the same. For one thing, he didn’t get paid. That’s part of what makes him willing to take his chances back in the pubs now. Also, nothing feels as good as playing for live humans.
“I love my dogs but they’re a terrible crowd,” Cote said.
Another Maine musician who immediately turned to online shows during the pandemic was Jud Caswell of Brunswick. As of this week, Caswell has made more than 80 separate online videos of himself playing songs.
“Starting on March 30, I decided to do five a week,” Caswell said. “Basically every weekday.”
All have been accompanied by links of how viewers can donate money for his efforts. Caswell said some money came in but his monthly income has taken a hit.
“It’s a big drop off,” he said. “It’s not like having a full schedule of live gigs.”
Caswell also owns a small recording studio and he’s been forced to cancel or reschedule all his booked work there, too.
Now, he’s finally starting to play in-person shows again, including an upcoming outdoor concert to benefit Bath’s Chocolate Church Arts Center at a private home in Woolwich on July 25. Caswell has also restarted his weekly summer show at The Seagull Shop in Bristol. It’s the venue where he recorded a live show that recently topped a folk music chart.
“They set up some picnic tables outdoors and got me going, weather permitting,” Caswell said. “I started this week.”
He said it felt great to play in front of people again after a long layoff but it’s not quite the same as before the pandemic. Part of what makes him a performing musician is the desire to connect with people.
“It’s awkward,” Caswell said. “It’s hard to see friends and not run up and give them a hug. I have to stay 10 feet away — for their safety. It’s weird.”
Toby McAllister of The Jameson Four and Sparks to the Rescue has asthma and his wife is pregnant. Both facts are making him more cautious.
“I haven’t played a real show in a bar yet,” McAllister said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
He’s still streaming shows online, branching out into theme nights like emo and outlaw country. McAllister has even taken on the technical challenge of streaming a three-piece rock band.
He is still soliciting donations for the online performances but it’s a fraction of what he would have made without the virus interfering with his bookings. Part of the reason is that his viewership is down as the state begins to open up and with the arrival of summer weather.
“For the first month-and-a-half, the tips were good but that tapered off,” he said. “Honestly, I feel a little bit left behind.”
Aside from his regular club gigs, every wedding the The Jameson Four had booked this year was put off until 2021.
“Summer is our payday,” McAllister said. “I know I’m not alone but it sucks out there.”
With all of Maine’s summer festivals and fall fairs canceled — and with most major music venues still shuttered — paying Maine gigs are set to remain rare for the time being. Musicians will have to keep weighing the risks against the benefits.
“This whole process has just been: Put one foot in front of the next — I’m just trying to take the right next step,” Caswell said.
Cote said he remains optimistic but cautious at the same time.
“There’s something in the back of my mind that thinks some new science may come out and get us all shut down again,” he said. “Then, there’s the hopeful side that says there will be a vaccine and it will all be over by fall.”