WESTBROOK, Maine — Holding a red guitar, Don Pride looked over at his bass player, Steve Footer. Pride gave Footer a nod and the two slid into a mellow jazz number while diners at the Frog & Turtle Gastro Pub tucked into their suppers.
Both musicians, like the rest of the staff, wore masks. Neither man sang. They couldn’t. That would be illegal under current state coronavirus restrictions.
At that moment, Pride and Footer were likely the only two musicians playing live, onstage, anywhere in Maine.
With nearly every music venue shuttered for the winter due to state COVID-19 restrictions, the Frog & Turtle is one of the last two Maine nightspots still managing to offer a regular slate of live bands. The other is Cadenza in Freeport. It’s not easy. Both are delicately maneuvering their way through Maine Center for Disease Control guidelines, staying just this side of legal. Owners say they’re not motivated by money but by a calling.
It’s their mission to keep live music alive.
James Tranchmontagne is chef and owner of the Frog & Turtle. Inventive comfort food is his main thing but music is something he also takes seriously.
“Because if you live in a world, like this, where the government can erase arts and culture with the stroke of a pen, that’s a scary reality,” Tranchmontagne said. “You have to make sure art and music is supported. In the darkest of times, that’s where some of the best music, art and literature comes from.”
Over the summer, venues and bands had a wide berth of legal music options, so long as it stayed outside. Those months have passed and it’s now too cold for outdoor performances.
Current Maine CDC guidelines for seated, indoor venues state: “Performances at indoor establishments with food and drink service may not include singing or the playing of brass or woodwind instruments.”
To stay compliant with the law, Tranchmontagne told his bands to play only instrumental music, on strings and percussion.
“I give a lot of credit to the musicians playing for us,” he said. “They’re working so hard to rearrange all their songs. They’re making it work.”
From left (clockwise): Don Pride guitar at the Frog & Turtle Gastro Pub in Westbrook on Thursday night Jan. 14, 2020; Steve Footer (left) and Don pride lay down mellow instrumental jazz standards while diners nosh their suppers at the Frog & Turtle Gastro Pub in Westbrook; Don Pride sideman Steve Footer plays bass guitar at the Frog & Turtle Gastro Pub in Westbrook. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The pub is hosting music on Thursday and Friday nights from 6 to 8 p.m. Tommy O’Connell’s band, The Juke Joint Devils, have a monthly gig at the pub. It’s the only gig the band has left and O’Connell said he feels lucky to have it. He said he knows other musicians who are selling their things to make ends meet.
Still, other musicians, not in his band, have told O’Connell he shouldn’t be playing live at all, that it’s not safe.
“But If I’m being safe about it, the venue is being safe about it and the audience is being safe about it — then I should be able to do it,” he said.
To that end, Tranchmontage gives Westbrook city health officials credit for helping the Frog & Turtle stay in compliance with state guidelines.
“No restaurant wants to end up in a negative news story,” he said. “It would be as bad as passing on a food-bourne illness.”
Alan Mooney runs Cadenza, a live music venue on Depot Street in Freeport. Seating is cabaret style, with round tables and a dance floor. Instead of limiting his performers to instrumental music to comply with state regulations, Mooney stopped serving food and drinks. Patrons can bring their own food and soft drinks — but not alcohol. That would violate his liquor license.
Tables are widely spaced, dancing is prohibited and the band plays a good 20 feet from the front row.
“People are here for the music. They don’t care about getting a drink,” he said. “It hasn’t changed the number of people coming for the live performances.”
Without any cash coming in at his bar, Mooney is relying solely on money from ticket buyers. Fortunately, he also owns the building.
“I like to say we have a cooperative landlord,” he said.
Even without a landlord, Mooney still has a mortgage to pay and building upkeep to contend with. Cadenza remains open but it isn’t breaking even. That’s why plans are in the works to expand Cadenza’s live streaming capabilities and to look for support through online arts subscription service Patreon. There, Mooney plans to offer extra music content to subscribers.
Mooney said he’s willing to go with the current setup for another year or two, if that’s what it takes.
“There’s no deadline. Our commitment to music is a solid one,” he said. “I really like what we’re doing — and I’m pretty optimistic.”
Mooney said he loves music and wants to support mostly out-of-work musicians. The risk of staying open is worth it to him.
“We enforce mask wearing and we have very small gatherings, mostly only 10 or 15 people, we provide disinfectant, we clean high-touch surfaces,” he said. “Visiting Cadenza is much safer than going to Walmart.”
Mooney said he hasn’t had any trouble finding performers willing to play and be part of the Patreon project. His Friday and Saturday night-only schedule is full through June.
Internationally-renowned jazz clarinetist Brad Terry of Bath had only four gigs in 2020 — two of them were at Cadenza. Terry has two more booked for early 2021.
He said he’s grateful for the work, which supplements his social security. He said he feels safe at the venue.
“I’ll be 84 soon,” he said. “Gigs are what make life possible. They’re what keeps me going. If I didn’t have them to look forward to, I’d disappear.”